The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith

Yeah. THAT film. Today marks the centenary of its public debut. The Birth is film history’s version of the elephant in the room in many ways. If you consider yourself a serious film student, you have to watch it at some point, it is unavoidable whether you like it or not, but no one would blame you for being reluctant to do so (and not just because of the considerable time investment). It still raises a stink whenever someone tries to show it, and no wonder. Even Roger Ebert hesitated over it when it came to naming it one of his “great films”, so far lesser lights like myself can probably be excused for doing the same thing.

But it is a film that needs to be recognised for its position within American cinema history, even if you feel like you need to apologise for doing so; it was an attempt to commemorate the Civil War—which had ended not quite 50 years earlier when the film was released—which was a thing still reasonably within living memory at least for older people at the time of the film, and to rather consciously elevate the feature film to some new level of artistic prestige. It would be unfair to deny that Griffith did a more than fair job of that.

Of course, it’s not always easy to appreciate the Birth for its historical importance; it’s one of those films where you need to have some context. And that was pretty much what I got when I last saw it back in 1999, as part of David Stratton’s Continuing Education course in film history… in that class we spent the first four classes looking at the earliest films, one-reelers and even shorter films up to 1914 (if I recall rightly, the third class was given over to a selection of Griffith’s Biograph shorts), and then the fifth one was devoted entirely to the Birth. It was staggering. For probably the first time—and I had seen it a few times before that—I kind of understood what an impact it must’ve had in 1915; imagine being an American filmgoer at that time, used mainly to the shorter films and early features of the period up to 1915, then WHAM here comes three hours of war epic and paranoid racist fantasy. Must’ve felt like a bomb going off in the industry especially.

Of course, that paranoid racist fantasy is the other stumbling block to appreciating the Birth these days. Even more so, I dare say, than the context issue. And even at the time it appalled people—not just the NAACP, too—for being a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, a long-since dead in the water mob when the film came out but whose fortunes were revived by the Birth. Griffith did himself no favours, either, by not really getting why people were upset by it, and the filmed preview he shot for a 1930 reissue in which he claimed the Klan had been a necessary force post-war didn’t help either. Even Thomas Dixon, the racist moonbat whose novel The Clansman and the play derived therefrom were turned into the film’s second half, had enough sense to repudiate the revived Klan in the 1920s when Griffith was delighted to exhibit the thing in Klan-heavy territories.

The Birth is a big film; apart from its three-hour running time, it’s just so determined to be the ultimate example of the sort of thing it is. Griffith had ambitions for this film and made no bones about them, those ambitions are all there on the screen. Indeed, rewatching it tonight and actually looking at the depth of some of the images, the actual amount of space the battle scenes contain within the frame, made me realise just how much is going on in the film at those times (when you can see it through the often unfortunately strong red tint applied to the Kino DVD print in these scenes); Griffith covers a lot of ground quite literally. The whole film is a grand gesture and monument. I think it’s fair to consider it a great film, and certainly the first half of the film—i.e. the character establishing and the actual Civil War action—offers few issues other than a few outbursts of Griffithian sentiment (“the opal gates of death”, anyone?). It’s so nicely played, and Griffith’s performers are eminently charming, and however heavy-handed some of the emotion is, some of it (like Henry B. Walthall’s homecoming after the war) is really quite powerful.

It’s just… the second half.

Being a southerner himself, and therefore from the losing side in the war, Griffith’s sympathies were obviously going to lie that way, and the film’s heroic presentation of the Klan can obviously be seen as a kind of revenge fantasy (“think y’all Yankees can take our niggers away from us? We’ll show YOU! Git off ma lawn now, I got a cross to burn there…”); the fact that most of the black characters in the film are actually whites in blackface of a kind that occasionally makes Al Jolson look understated is just icing on the cake (topped only by the scene near the end where a couple of blacks actually turn out to be whites in black “disguise”). But even in my much less racially sensitive youth when I first saw the film, I still knew there was something weird and nasty going on there. Given how much of part one is based on the detailed historical research—right down to Joe Henabery recreating the rather particular way Lincoln sat in a chair—that the intertitles sometimes cite outright, this bizarre fantasia of the darkies getting out of hand and forcing the eminently superior white man to put on a hood and robe to bring them back into line is just… I don’t know. It’s like the negrophobe Andrew Johnson wasn’t actually the president or something. And part two is as well made as part one—the climactic Klan ride to the rescue is kind of awe-inspiring—it’s a perfectly good piece of filmmaking… if only the content didn’t overshadow whatever other merits it has. And if only it didn’t overshadow the whole first half of the film.

Ultimately that’s the film’s dilemma. Ever since 1915, it’s been the second half of the film that’s really caused the stink. It makes me wonder, had the film never included the Clansman material, had it just been the war drama of the first part, how would it have been received then? How would we receive it now? I mean, there’s dubious bits in the first part, but nothing like the second half. Would the film have got people so worked up back then without the “KKK ra ra ra” stuff? Would we care about it now? Would the film even exist now? Plenty of big hits of that period have fallen by the nitrate wayside over the decades… The converse question, of course: would we care about the racism were the film not as well made as it is? If it were, say, on the order of a bad anti-communist propaganda film a la Ron Ormond, we could probably just dismiss it as an unpleasant curiosity at best, too shoddy to actually get worked up about.

The fact that we still do suggests something about the film we may not like to admit, i.e. that it actually must be a great film if its perniciousness still rouses fervour in us, and that we can’t just dismiss it as easily as we might like. To quote Ebert, “it is a great film that argues for evil”, which is an awfully hard thing to swallow; on rewatching tonight, I feel about as far away from resolving that contradiction as ever. Still, I’m sure it’ll outlast me, and though people may get worked up about things like American Sniper (which seems to be the stink du jour) now, I doubt anyone will really care about that in a hundred years time in the way people still care a hundred years after the Birth‘s first release. Or the way I suspect they will still care about it in 2115…

A Trip to Mars (1918)

Director: Holger-Madsen

Not only did the Danish film industry get to the apocalypse first, they got to Mars ahead of almost everyone too, apparently fuelled mostly by rather hammy arm-waving and other gestures…  Holger-Madsen was apparently one of Denmark’s leading directors in the silent era, though if this film is indicative getting subtlety and underplaying from his actors wasn’t exactly one of his strengths. But I don’t suppose the acting was the selling point back in 1918; people would’ve been rather more engaged by the idea of the expedition to Mars. It’s a curious film like The End of the World, albeit in obviously different ways; it begins somewhat in the spirit of the pulp adventure of the period, as Captain Avanti Planetaros returns home from a long expedition, gets bored, and becomes inspired to go on an even longer expedition to another planet. As you do. Having rounded up a crew to join him on this possibly foolhardy journey, they eventually get there and find Mars is surprisingly like Earth, only markedly more advanced, whereupon the pulp adventure kind of becomes this weird, sentimental Utopian fantasy thing. Obviously the whole message of love and enlightenment business is the sort of thing I imagine most modern viewers would find too cheesy and naive to be acceptable, but it’s not exactly unpalatable and it’s a lot more optimistic and uplifting than The End of the World is (unless you find the fiery destruction of the world a cause for rejoicing, of course), and Madsen presents it in reasonably good style. The film’s inescapable problem, though, is that there’s no real dramatic tension, apart from one scene not long after landing on Mars, and as such it’s not really the most exciting example of its kind. Still, as with last night’s film, let’s give it the due place in film history it’s kind of missed out on over the decades; anyone exploring early SF should obviously hunt this out…

The End of the World (1916)

Director: August Blom

This month, the challenge theme at the ICheckMovies forum is silent cinema, so obviously there’s going to be a batch of that featured here in February (can’t pass it up). However, I’m not entirely finished with the SF/fantasy theme yet, as will be evident from the next few reviews… We start with something of a bang, accordingly. As far as I can tell, this is probably the earliest apocalyptic SF film, revolving around a comet poised to strike the Earth, and though Denmark gave us Lars von Troll’s Melancholia a few years ago, I wonder how many people know it also gave us this thing nearly a century earlier… long before the US could offer the efforts of Bruce Willis to stop the catastrophe, which means yeah, the big glowing space thing does in fact hit. Actually, the film is mostly a bit of a romantic melodrama involving a vel capitalist who owns a mining town, steals the girlfriend of one of the miners to be his wife, and, when news comes of this comet thing, plans to come out on top of things after its arrival. Curious film in some ways, even in 1916 it must’ve seemed a bit… old in its cinematic technique (stiff tableau staging and all that); but the subject matter (which seems to have been inspired by the then-recent fuss over Halley’s Comet in 1910) must’ve been something new at the time (not to mention singularly cheerless, given the conflict still raging in Europe at the time; I know Denmark was neutral in WW1 but even so). And, when the comet does start to hit, it does so with surprising force given the limitations of budget and technology 100 years ago; and though Blom does give us an approximately happy ending (the film’s other nice romantic couple survive, though there’s still strangely little sense that things will be OK somehow), I will admit to being a bit taken aback by his commitment to the carnage. It’s probably a flawed film in various ways from a modern perspective, but let’s give it the honour of its historical position, and thank it for being half the length of Melancholia

Alternative 3 (1977)

Director: Christopher Miles

It’s fascinating how people get taken in by hoaxes, particularly obvious ones, and even more particularly admitted ones. Nearly four decades after the fact, for example, people are still falling for Alternative 3; a Google search demonstrates as much in seconds. Rewatching it tonight myself, I find myself asking a number of questions about the thing, especially this: just how were people expected to receive it in 1977? I mean, I know how they did—either by not sticking around for the credits containing the actors’ names and panicking about it being real, or by reading the credits and berating ITV for perpetrating this irresponsible nightmare vision—but how were they meant to? The film’s own avowed copyright date is “April 1st 1977″, and I suspect it might’ve been more of a dead giveaway had it actually aired on that date… which it didn’t, since Anglia (the studio behind it) couldn’t actually get a slot for it on ITV that day and it actually aired nearly three months later. But would it have seemed more obviously fake or not?

For that matter, why am I even asking how “obvious” the fakery is? Is it only “obvious” because I already know it’s a hoax? Do the people in it only seem like they’re acting because I know they’re actors? If someone just sat me down with it and said “here, watch this” and I’d never heard of A3 before, how would it strike me? Compare it to Propaganda, which I didn’t know was a hoax when I watched it but I still felt there was something weird and wrong about it. Similarly, back in the early 90s I remember a program called The Einstein Code, which revolved around Einstein having developed a sort of “bad luck bomb”, it just got more and more preposterous, I got more and more “what the fuck is this shit”… and then I saw the “April Fools Production” credit at the end and I howled.

And this is why I wonder how people were supposed to respond to Alternative 3. Was it supposed to seem, you know, “wrong” to them in the way Propaganda and The Einstein Code did; were people supposed to look at this bizarre story of human colonies on the Moon and on Mars in the event of some terminal environmental catastrophe here on Earth and think “hang on, this doesn’t sound right” and wonder why some of the people in the film looked oddly like people they might’ve seen in other films of TV shows… cos what makes me ask is, in fact, the framework in which it’s presented, i.e. as an episode in a series called Science Report. Did such a series actually exist? I can’t actually find any reference to it online except in relation to A3; IMDB only lists A3 itself as an individual “TV movie” and has no entry for a series called Science Report that I can find. SO… if this series didn’t exist, were people surprised to see it on TV? If it did, were people surprised to find it had a bunch of reporters and other staff they wouldn’t have seen before? Did A3 seem, you know, “unlike” the other episodes? How “acted” does it really seem to other people? These are things I don’t know, and that’s part of what makes A3 so hard to actually appraise… the other part being, of course, that the story behind the hoax is the story, the hoaxed thing itself is in some ways just a prop…

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Director: Peter Jackson

Now, I have no memories of seeing this in the cinema, probably because I never saw it on the big screen… the end of 2003/start of 2004 when it was in cinemas was, shall we say, a bad time for me personally and healthwise, so, in spite of everything, LotR:RotK was suddenly no longer the priority it had been two years earlier… and not only did I not see it until the DVD came out, it wasn’t until three or four years after the DVD came out that I finally watched the damn thing at last. Let’s face it, that’s not too much of a surprise, cos finding the time and inclination to sit down with a four-hour film doesn’t come easily; even the shorter theatrical version was the longest of the three films, and the extended DVD version was even more of a time investment.

Entirely worth it, of course; indeed, the thing that impressed me most about watching it again tonight—my second viewing, this time from Blu-ray (and I actually watched slightly more of the battle with Shelob this time, I feel oddly proud of myself for that)—is how consistent the whole trilogy is. Each of the films is actually as good as the two others. I did notice, though, that this feels much more like a continuation of the second film than the latter did of the first film, but then again I think I always felt that way about the books as well; Fellowship has always felt like it stood slightly apart from the other two books somehow, and the same is kind of true of the films, hard to explain quite why. What a continuation, though; the Helm’s Deep setpiece in Two Towers really is just a foreshadowing of the havoc here… and I think it bears out my opinion that Jackson’s restructuring of the material paid off well; displacing Shelob from the end of book two to the middle of film three was, I think, a sound choice, and even more so was the complete casting aside of the whole “scouring of the Shire” business… I mean, I remember people complaining at the time that the film had “too many endings”, as if the original book didn’t or something… Yeah, on the whole I think it’s held up pretty well and will continue to do so in years to come.

Silent Running (1972)

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Douglas Trumbull was kind of born into SFX, cos his dad—also credited on this film—was working in that field on films like The Wizard of Oz before little Doug was even born… so, having entered the family trade, he scored a job with Stanley Kubrick on a little film called 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was supposed to take place (in part) in the vicinity of the planet Saturn. However, that got changed to Jupiter when Trumbull couldn’t produce an adequate model of Saturn, but within a few years he’d fixed that problem, and I presume that’s the main reason why he set Silent Running there, cos I can’t see any particular narrative reason for it… Basically, it’s the indeterminate future, life on Earth is apparently great but all the plant life is wiped out (am I the only person wondering where the paper the operator’s manual shown in the film is printed on came from?) and the surviving forests are protected under giant domes being hauled around Saturn by commercial freighters. Until the order is given to destroy the forests and return the freighters to normal service. There’s no particular reason given for why the forests are to be abandoned any more than why they’re orbiting Saturn in the first place, but never mind that; Freeman Lowell, a botanist strangely incapable of realising plants die without sunlight and hiding around the dark side of Saturn is accordingly a bad idea, refuses to accept the order, killing his fellow crew and basically taking over the ship… There’s something weirdly cold about this film despite its obvious attempts to be an emotional experience, and part of that is probably because of the hammer-handed unsubtlety of the environmental theme, and part of it is because, well, Lowell didn’t strike me as a particularly sympathetic character; obviously more caring than the boors he’s stuck with on the Valley Forge but still a kind of unpleasant fanatic. It’s impressive as a showcase for effects and design, but beyond that I didn’t get an awful lot from this one. And the songs sung by Joan Baez are kind of hideously out of place too…

Scanners (1981)

Director: David Cronenberg

According to Wikipedia this was Cronenberg’s biggest commercial hit to this point in his career, returned something like $15m on a $3m budget which was fair business… seems also to have been his most straightforward film so far too (though I can’t judge that as I’ve not seen much of his earlier work, just his first two short features and Fast Company, which is… unrepresentative). One thing that is hard to deny, though, is that the film is, rightly or wrongly, known for that one scene, and that one understandably infamous special effect. What surprised me when I first saw the film a few years ago, though, was, well, how not a horror film it otherwise was until you get to the climactic showdown… if anything, Scanners is really more of a conspiracy thriller with a SF undercurrent, involving telepaths created as a side-effect of a pregnancy drug; ConSec, a company dealing in weapons and security, is using these scanners for its own purposes, and finds itself opposed by a rogue scanner (Michael Ironside) basically out to rule the world with the “scanner underground” he’s creating, leading ConSec to send out their last scanner (Stephen Lack) to stop him. Except Lack’s good guy is more like Ironside’s bad guy than he realises… Ironside is fine as Revok, and I just wish the film had used him a little bit more than it did; Lack is more problematic as Vale, because he is, well, kind of lacking. Apparently he is and was better known as an artist than as an artiste; either way he doesn’t exactly bring much in the way of screen presence, does he… I wouldn’t be as harsh as the IMDB commenter suggesting he should’ve got a Razzie for his work, but equally I’m not sure I side with his defenders saying Vale was supposed to be a flat character; it’s a thin line between flat character and just flat acting and I think Lack lands on the wrong side more often than not. He’s a weak link in a film that was already kind of ordinary, and which I think wouldn’t be particularly remembered if it weren’t kind of overshadowed by the exploding head business that the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to…

Zardoz (1974)

Director: John Boorman

Talking of films that don’t make sense… actually that’s unfair; the reasonably broad outlines of Zardoz are clearer than I expected them to be and the narrative actually does make sense (although it surely does take its sweet bloody time doing so). Some of the individual details, mind you, are a markedly different story… Anyway, I first saw this way back when, possibly the late 80s, early 90s, I can’t actually remember any more; I only recall seeing it on TV, and only watching about half of it cos it was confusing the hell out of me… and let’s face it, it does get off to a fairly baffling beginning, in which the sight of Sean Connery dressed in… whatever the fuck THAT costume was supposed to be wasn’t the most perplexing thing. Still, I knew one day I’d give it some sort of second chance, and one day I actually found it at the library, ripped it for future revisiting, and deemed tonight to be the night I finally did so. Big revelation: Zardoz, whatever else may be said for or against it, is phenomenal to look at, Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is nothing if not consistently jaw-dropping (blessed, obviously, by the choice of locations), and this is an important aspect of the film I would’ve no doubt missed watching it cropped for TV al those years ago. And, as I said, the story actually does come together: after an unspecified apocalypse, humanity divides into “Eternals” who’ve discovered immortality and “Brutals” who haven’t, and over time (which they have plenty of) one of the former breeds a kind of mutant “Brutal” with the ability to bring death to the Eternals and otherwise liven up their rather dull and dry existence. All that is clear enough from the film, if perhaps only by the very end. The precise fine points of exactly how Zed (Connery) goes about doing this aren’t always so clear (particularly the confrontation with the Tabernacle)… Still, on the whole I found this a lot more interesting and successful than I’d expected to, going on my own early experience and the film’s general reputation, so I think we can overlook those murkier patches…

The Raiders of Atlantis (1983)

Director: Ruggero Deodato

So after the kerfuffle surrounding Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato found himself unable to make films for three years for a few years (I presume House on the Edge of the Park, which appeared in the same year as CH, was already in the can before Deodato was barred from going behind a camera again). This was his return to the world… and oh dear, three years away from filmmaking doesn’t appear to have been good for him. Or maybe there wasn’t much that could’ve been done anyway? I don’t know. Basically, as the title may indicate, Atlantis turns out to not only have been real, it’s still real and making its own return to the world, having been “revived” somehow by radiation from a Soviet nuclear submarine that’s gone astray. The story takes place for no discernible reason in 1994, which looks remarkably like 1983; the cast, headed by a couple of apparent career criminals, find a small island town basically laid waste by some gang of Atlantean invaders with new wave hairstyles, three-wheeled choppers, tricked out convertibles, and a disconcerting amount of echo on their voices when you kill them. The whole thing makes astoundingly little sense, from the putative “futuristic” setting to the Atlanteans’ inexplicable need for one of the human party—a historian specialising in pre-Columbian writing—to assist their return to the surface; it’s so mind-bogglingly stupid I’m actually kind of angry at it. Don’t think I need or want to say any more about it.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Director: Peter Jackson

So I mentioned my memories of seeing Fellowship on the big screen in my review of that film, which means I may as well do the same here… Circumstances were markedly different; the first film I saw as a media preview on a very big screen at Hoyts, but the second I saw just after its release on a markedly smaller screen (if I remember rightly, and I possibly don’t, it was at the late lamented Academy Twin in Paddington). And I didn’t like it as much as the first film. Possibly because it was a “lesser” experience, possibly because the CGi and other trickery seemed more noticeable in this film for some reason, and possibly because I went in assuming that, you know, “second part of a trilogy” syndrome would hold true because, you know, it just does. I actually kind of rediscovered the film on DVD, and realised it was better than I’d initially credited it with being. It’s still unavoidably the “middle film”, but it’s also the part of the story where it expands to encompass the wider world, and the war for Middle Earth begins in earnest. Rewatching tonight made me realise Gimli is rather more “light relief” in Two Towers (apart from the “…toss me” bit at Helm’s Deep) than I remembered him being, but it also reminded me that, other than the amazing Helm’s Deep set-piece battle, the film did two genuinely remarkable things; one, the realisation of the Ents (who always struck me as a bit preposterous in the book; Jackson makes them about as convincing as I suppose was possible), and two, the revelatory digital manifestation of Gollum. I remember talk at the time about Gollum being up for a best actor Oscar, cos there is, of course, much more to Andy Serkis’ performance than just him wearing the motion capture suit; obviously his own physicality translated into the CGI rendering, but he got the voice so right too, it was a fine match of physical and virtual… And yeah, I’m sure some still piss and moan about Jackson intercutting the two halves of the book, but I still reckon it works better for the film narrative, even if on tonight’s reviewing I found the attempt at telling the story chronologically didn’t feel like it quite stood up to scrutiny (and as I’ve said before, if I notice something wrong, etc.)… but on the whole, very pleasing to revisit this, a worthy successor to Fellowship.

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