Writing a blog is not necessarily writing a daily essay, though at times one may get it right the first time. While I take care to correct spelling and grammatical errors, my purpose here is to present raw, streaming thought process, unfiltered and unselfcensored. To that end, although when confronted with a factual error, I will correct it, I do not respond to allegations or accusations of faulty reasoning. If you disagree, I invite you to say so! I will never remove a comment because I disagree with it--only if it violates AOL's rules of conduct (post nothing pornographic, racist or anti-Semitic). I write from a primarily emotional place, not a rational place, although I hope that reason does intrude upon my consciousness. I trust to my upbringing and education to make it so.
This weekend I saw three silent films rented from Netflix. In the order of viewing they were: Salome, Lot in Sodom and The Birth of a Nation.
Salome (1923) was loosely adapted from Oscar Wilde's play and starred Alla Nazimova, Russian stage actress who studied with Constantin Stanislavski and was famously lesbian. The production did more for my understanding of the play than any other performance I've seen. It is about the awakening female sexuality, the attraction, the consummation, the inevitable aftermath of self-loathing which leads to death and more death. This was the female psyche as Wilde saw it, at its symbolic fundament. There was a reason why female sexuality is utterly harnessed by the mores of Western Civilization, and this is Wilde's explanation. As Ann Coulter has aptly put it elsewhere, "Women are so vicious."
Lot in Sodom is very interesting historically as the first queer movie. It is self-consciously arty. The Sodomites are presented as beautiful youths cavorting through a temple (elsewhere, temple prostitution has been proffered as the reason for biblical prohibitions on homosexuality, which I do not have time to discuss here). The first fifteen minutes of this 30 minute film is devoted to male beauty. The end focuses on the destruction of Sodom in a rain of fire and brimstone: the inevitable end of unfettered sexual freedom.
I had not seen the entirety of The Birth of a Nation before this weekend. My Introduction to American Film class was supposed to screen itwhen I was in college at PLU, but the print melted in the projector and Dr. Becvar was so distraught that he canceled class. I have now seen the whole film, thanks to Netflix, and only one word can encapsulate the experience:
The film is the most overtly racist propaganda I have ever seen, thrillingly presented with the highest artful vision, next to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.
The film proves beyond a doubt that the cinema can project beauty, grace, artfulness, symmetry and synchronicity in the service of a higher good, which humanizes and ennobles, but it can use those same artful principles in the service of evil.
For those who haven't seen The Birth of a Nation, the second half of the film deals with the response of southern white gentlemen to the horrors of the reconstruction, and suspected efforts to turn their society upside down to have blacks in control of whites through gerrymandered elections and the horrors of interracial marriage. The whites respond by creating a secret society to battle the forces of darkness, the Ku Klux Klan, based (loosely) on Scotish freedom fighters.
Without doubt, The Birth of a Nation created the language of the cinema: the moving camera, cross cuts, fade-in, fade-out, split screen, panning shots, long shots, close-ups, editing that intercut three simultaneous stories leading to a thrilling climax, the Ride of the KKK, set to music, appropriately enough, by Wagner.
So, while I'm glad I finally saw The Birth of a Nation for its historical significance, I cannot recommend the experience for anyone else. One of the things I remember Dr. Becvar talking about with reference to D.W. Griffith was his tendency toward sentimentality, a charge frequently leveled at Steven Spielberg throughout his career as well. That Griffith succumbed to Thomas Dixon's version of American history bespeaks the kind of naivete that comes from an idealized and sheltered world view. His racism was, for its day, a kind of paternalistic attitude of superiority. He couldn't be said to hate blacks, on the contrary, he felt parental toward them. Griffith was quoted as saying that he loved blacks just like he loved children. Interesting that Andrew Card has also said the same thing about George W. Bush. That the president considers America as a nation of children needing a father/leader to provide for us (and teach us discipline and right from wrong, of course). It was as distasteful in Griffith's day as it is today.