7. True Heart Susie

trueheartsusie
June 1, 1919
Paramount Artcraft
Directed by D.W. Griffith

If Broken Blossoms
is Griffith’s unsuccessful study of masculinity, True Heart Susie is a much more successful study of femininity. The previously passive Lilian Gish is now an active force, and the entire drama of the film is contained in the movements of her face. Griffith has by now retreated entirely from the world of politics and trains his eye only on the face of the folk. The “true heart” of the title refers to inner beauty (which the rural folk have), which is opposed to the “net of paint, powder and suggestive clothes”, (what the new women in cities have). There is a tension in this celebration of natural rural beauty by the bourgeois silver medium. We know the entire time that the beauty of the image is the result of artiface. We’re told this literally by the intertitles, but we continue to gaze at Gish’s face, and we believe that our heroine’s inner beauty and outer beauty are linked. They move together, more or less in unison.

She is a clever girl who is attracted to a dull boy. They flirt with each other. They walk together down the leafy road, tiny figures in the distance, dwarfed by the natural world around them. The dull boy can’t afford the college education he is totally unworthy of. Susie decides to sell her beloved cow Daisy to pay for his education (I presume the cow is the equivalent of the entire tuition). She speaks about her idea with her female guardian, who admits that because the money is Susie’s inheritance, she can do nothing to stop the obviously foolish decision.

The transaction is anonymous. The boy has no idea. He’s so stupid, he needs everything spelled out for him explicitly. Because as it turns out, all of the true ones, the rural ones, are easily outwitted. The urban people, with their superficial and untrue beauty, easily manipulate the boy. He falls in love with a woman, Bettina, who makes evil and false facial expressions only. But can we trust what we see? Can we trust the truth that lies in the beauty of Susie’s expressed face, or in the supposed “beauty” of Bettina’s?

It was 1919. The war had ended, but the anti-German Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were still law, put in place against the threat of Labor, which was more dangerous than any Kaiser. The state turned its massive anti-German espionage arm toward anti-Bolshevik espionage. Because the message was everywhere. Russia did it. Russia made it work. They pulled off the revolution. A victory was possible—it was right around the corner. Marxists, Leninists, Anarchists haunted every city.

In February, workers in Seattle held a General Strike. It lasted five days.

In April, mail bombs were delivered to John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, postmaster general Albert S. Burleson, and many others.

May Day celebrations were spectacular.

In the summer, there were riots in Charleston, DC, Chicago.

In September, the Boston Police went on strike, and there was a second bombing attack, this one on Wall Street and deadlier than the last.

In October, there was the Black Sox Scandal (not to my knowledge a communist or anarchist plot, but who knows? The winning team was, after all, the Cincinnati “Reds”).

The state countered with the Palmer Raids of November 7, second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. All of these events are worth researching further. The war was over, but it was a scary year. To many people, it did appear that there were two separate Americas. Wartime xenophobia easily demobilized into simple anti-immigrant sentiment, and the chaos and terror in American cities were blamed squarely on the immigrant population.

Bettina, the evil wife and representative of urban chaos, stays out all night partying, and is locked out and caught in a storm. She gets pneumonia and dies (we must remember that the daring lifestyles of the new women, the flappers and others, were all performed in a time before antibiotics). Does she deserve to die? Probably. Susie has no hand in the punishment, even doing her best to help the poor libertine and cover for her. Susie doesn’t need to do anything, really, but this is no mere shrinking passivity. This is a determined allowing of reality. She surrenders to fate, and her actions are always deeply open and beautifully right. Her outer beauty, which likewise only performs the subtlest of facial actions, does indeed mirror her inner beauty, which is a profound stillness. The seeming futility of selling the cow can only be seen as a religious act. Not a perfect woman, or a perfect human, but a perfect soul.

In fact, of our first seven films, the 1910’s film canon, True Heart Susie is the second feminine movie (after Les Vampires), and I believe it is the best. It is, I suggest with trepidation, the best film yet made. But still limited. Cinema so far cannot combine the small-world family drama with the large-world political drama without going insane. The cinema of the 1910’s is our prehistory, which now comes to an end. The next entry will find us in a new decade and a new country. The modern world of steel and glass, relentlessly bright, fast, and crowded, will be increasingly hard to ignore.

Bibliography

The Griffith Project, Volume 10: Films Produced in 1919-1946. British Film Institute, 2006.

6. Broken Blossoms

May 13, 1919
United Artists
Directed by D.W. Griffith

Looking at the cover, the poster, the entry in an encyclopedia of film, you might get the idea that the main character of Broken Blossoms is Lilian Gish’s character Lucy, the mistreated daughter of boxer Battlin’ Burrows. But this movie is not really about her. It’s about the two men, Burrows and Cheng. Where Lucy is only passive, they are both active forces, two opposing images of masculinity that collide over her image.

Burrows, with extreme emotional and physical cruelty, pushes Lucy to the limit of depraved suffering. Cheng restrains his will and observes her purity, but fails to protect her from the violent man who eventually kills her. Cheng’s revenge and suicide follow. Even his nonviolence is perverted into Western tragedy, and everyone loses. Actually, It is striking how the good guys lose in all three of our Griffith movies so far. (Additionally, his most significant short, A Corner in Wheat, which is one of the great revolutionary films and should be seen by everyone, is yet another example where the good guys lose.)

Now as for Cheng, the yellow man, played by Richard Barthelmess. Now I’ve played yellowface, in a 1998 high school production of Anything Goes. I was a preening white boy looking for laughs, always my principal means of attention. I was given the six-line part of the Chinaman, and I got myself a laugh on every line. I stole the scene. It’s an experience I can no longer imagine ever doing again.

And that was admittedly a comedy, where this movie is entirely tragic. The tragic hero Cheng is completely bereft of any tragic depth. Who is this guy? Only an orientalist stereotype. This orientalist image of the Chink is necessary merely to soothe the fears of white people. Racism has pushed Griffith into stripping any sexual power from Cheng. His love is based entirely on an idea, and a superficial one at that, represented by a number of totems. While in China he was buried in books, and his sentimental feelings toward Lucy are represented by a series of totems he looks at or holds. Even the name Cheng is not a distinct Chinese surname, but a Pinyin representation of three different Chinese names. It’s like they’re not even trying here. At least Burrows is a real character, who I could imagine really existing. The extreme close-up, maybe the greatest shot in the film, could never be done with Cheng.

What is the meaning of this use of deliberate racist type? Shall we look to history? In Europe, Allies reached the original border of Germany, and the German military demanded a surrender. Eventually, the armistice.

The Chinese history of this period is much less known in the United States. Empress Dowager Cixi, whose Qing dynasty had ruled since 1644, and who had been suppressing reform movements all over, died in 1908, finalizing the long process of decline. Revolutionary groups were either emboldened or created out of the triad culture. Their leaders, such as Sun Yat-Sen, traveled abroad and secured foreign Capital for their efforts. In October 1911, an accidental explosion tipped off the authorities to the presence of some in Wuchang. The revolutionary groups, along with the infiltrated army, were forced to act, and they seized the city.

More uprisings followed in Hunan, Shanxi and Shaanxi, Jiangxi, Yunnan. By November, the Qing government in Beijing was forced to try declaring constitutional monarchy, but the uprisings continued. Shanghai and Nanking were taken, and the latter was declared the revolutionary capital. In December they met with the Qing representatives in Shanghai for a settlement. Abdication was agreed upon, the provisional government would remain in Nanking, but the anti-revolutionary army commander Yuan Shikai would be made president. The deal went down in March 1912, and Yuan was inaugurated in, you guessed it, Beijing.

Reeling from this setback, revolutionary leaders Sun Yat-sen, Huang Xing, and Song Jiaoren formed a political party, the Guomindang, and set up their Beijing headquarters in May. They ran a smashing political campaign and won the December 1912 election. Yuan responded by assassinating Song, bribing and threatening Guomindang members, and ignoring the parliament generally. The Second Revolution was launched in July 1913, but was an utter failure. Nanjing was lost, and Huang and Sun fled to Japan.

When Germany declared a two-front war in 1914, they were distracted from their lonely Pacific possessions, and Japan besieged and won their colony of Qingdao. They issued a list of Twenty-One Demands to Yuan, who knew he could not withstand the Japanese attack, and gave in to all of them, using the opportunity to set himself up as the colonial ruler. Yuan declared himself Emperor of China in 1915, but the various regions of his imperial realm immediately declared independence. He abdicated the empire the following year, and Yuan’s Beiyang army split into two factions: a loyal one under Duan Qirui and a less loyal one under Feng Guozhang. China was reduced to a set of feudal states battling each other for hegemony. Sun Yat-sen returned to China in 1917 and set up his own government in the southern city of Guangzhou.

China, ruled by the Beiyang Government, joined the Allies in the War in August 1917, hoping to gain back the German colony in Qingdao. Two months later came the October Revolution, and Chinese revolutionaries learned Leninism.

After the armistice, Chinese diplomats at the Paris Peace Conference were unable to secure Qingdao and other northern territorial claims from Japan, and Japan’s delegation even won a right of racial equality with Europe. China had been horribly sold out by the European Allies. After a horrifying war and a sickening betrayal, any trust Chinese revolutionaries may have had in the liberal bourgeois West was shattered beyond saving.

On May 4th, 1919, a week before this film’s premiere, 3,000 students demonstrated in Beijing against the Beiyang Government’s acquiescence to the terms of the Western Powers. General strikes followed. In June, workers in Shanghai joined the general strike. Their strike was a success. The province was not restored, but they were able to force the removal of pro-Japanese government officials. A solidarity was growing, and Communism was now a real presence in China.

It is worth noting how far removed these actions are from our life almost one hundred years later. When Communists want to fight back, they call a general strike. The general strike is the greatest weapon that we have. It is the people’s atom bomb. In the United States, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 ensures that such an action cannot happen here, though general strikes were used in France in 1968, and their future possibility should always be kept in mind.

Anyway, none of this is anywhere visible in the frames of this film. Griffith’s abandonment of any and all politics and retreat into pure personal emotion is still so clearly deep in a nauseous ideology, that it simply looks like an embarrassing act of cowardice, despite the many shots and scenes of great beauty. Now let’s hurry quickly on to our next entry.

Bibliography

  • Ben Brodsky & the real dawn of Hong Kong Cinema” Frank Bren and Law Kar. ChinaDaily Hong Kong Edition. 2010-03-13
  • Ebert, Roger. “Great Movies: Broken Blossoms” http://www.rogerebert.com, 2000.
  • The Griffith Project, Volume 9: Films Produced in 1916-1918. British Film Institute, 2005.

5. Intolerance

September 5, 1916
Triangle
directed by D.W. Griffith

Two entire societies, in distinct epochs, shown side by side. One in an American town 1916 AD, the other in Babylon 539 BC, the year the great city fell to Persia. The characters have generic names, like “the Dear One” and “the Mountain Girl.” Ancient scene and modern scene follow each other, and the editing accelerates as the movie progresses, until it is as if we experience them simultaneously. As the various plots develop, the motivations of these generic individuals shrink from us, leaving only the impression that they must obey a common logic, a horrible logic of accumulation and annihilation.

For 1916 so far was nothing but horror. In Europe, after two winters of stalemate, both sides exploded again in new offensives: Verdun, the Somme, and Brusilov. Intolerance traces this still unnameable, unaccountable horror back through history to ancient Babylon. Both stories, ancient and modern, are fractured again with two additional stories – the story of Christ, enemy of intolerance, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris 1572, the ultimate act of intolerance. But what is intolerance?

Tolerance is the Enlightenment idea that people of different religions should not kill each other. Tolerance condemns the violence between people of differing religions whose cultures are otherwise similar, and thus does not cover violence against a colonized, deported, or exterminated people. Intolerance is the great crime to liberal bourgeois society, because it utterly negates the right of the individual, but can only come into existence through the acknowledgment of the individual. The victim of intolerance is always seen as a full person, but his individual ideas that are so dangerous as to the invalidate the person’s right to existence.

In the modern story, what is not tolerated is the right of the worker to a fair wage and his enjoyment of social gathering. Our modern story is unambiguously progressive, depicting the class struggle between mill workers and Capital. David Wark Griffith remained a staunch Democrat in 1916 and basically made a propaganda film for his party in that year’s presidential election. The Democrats were the party of the South. They were resolutely anti-industrial, patriarchal, anti-black, anti-woman.

But this election would not be as easy for the Democrats. 1916 had many more women voters than 1912. Against Woodrow Wilson’s re-election bid, the Republicans put up Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who had spent the last six years outside the campaign world and appealed to Conservative and Progressive Republicans alike. The election was close, being finally decided by California, where suffrage had been won. Woodrow Wilson won a second term.

The activist women of Intolerance, who are fighting for inclusion in the public sphere of bourgeois society, are as much the villain of the modern story as the head capitalist himself. Women have allied with Capital, whose ugly representation, the mill boss, sees the fun the workers have with alcohol – their genuine social experience, their dancing – and joins in the temperance movement. Intolerance of youth itself. The class struggle climaxes in the brutal suppression of the striking workers and the individual calamities that follow from the disobedience. A mother has her baby taken from her. An innocent man is condemned to death for a murder he didn’t commit.

This story starts as the dominant narrative, forcing all three other plots into a supporting role, but as the movie develops, the modern story becomes too intricate to merit attention to each detail, and the stately Babylon story takes the greater role. There is not nearly as much plot in Babylon. There is only splendor and opulence. The Babylonian Courtyard is the greatest set the cinema has yet seen, dwarfing even the ancient Semitic film sets of Carthage in Cabiria. At the center of this enormous city on the Euphrates, the citizens swarm about, buying food, dancing, and worshiping Ishtar, the Babylonian Venus. This scene makes so much more sense than anything in the modern story, because in 2014, this is our true home. The modern world has become Babylon, and we sit behind our walls, indulging in pleasure and increase, waiting our doom. The Courtyard is the very center of imperial capital.

Intolerance was very popular upon its release in 1916, which was a very good year for progressives, but as 1917 began American Capital found that despite all it had spent in the Battle of the Somme, not to mention the entire generation killed or completely fucked up, the Allies had only won back 50 square miles of France. For the capital to be recouped, a total Allied victory was necessary. America would have to join the war. The causus belli of a Germany/Mexico alliance was easily established, the American public began to turn against the Germans, and war fever set in. The pacifist and the progressive cause were both lost. The movies turned to anti-german propaganda.

The film, reflecting its progressive socialist impulse, failed to reproduce the capital required to produce it. Griffith had pushed his idea of film as far as he could, and created an artistic masterpiece for the Progressive Democratic party, even securing the Presidential election. The war however, severed the Progressives in the United States as it had severed the socialists in Europe. Griffith eventually cut Intolerance into two separate films, abandoning the film’s crucial formal logic. The ruins of the enormous set remained at the lot, decaying over the next four years, until the set had sustained enough decay to be affordably dismantled.

The fortunes of the left were much different in the East. Everything in Russia was much worse. More casualties. More disaster. More famine. A more authoritarian government with a secret police. Tsar Nicholas assumed commander-in-chief role to rally his army, leaving Rasputin and the Tsarina in charge. In February the workers at Putilov in Petrograd went on strike, and in the next few days were joined by other workers, women, and teachers. They continued to protest and amass. There were few soldiers available to contain the riot, and those who were summoned for that task soon defected to the protest. The tsar was forced to abdicate and handed the crown to his brother, who declined. The government had fallen, and two competing bodies sprung up in its place.

The Petrograd Soviet was formed representing the workers, soldiers, and teachers, and wrestled partial control from the Provisional Government. Russia experienced eight months of liberal democracy, but the war continued on, along with famine and countless other sufferings. Moreover, the peasant population already lived in communes and had little understanding or respect for bourgeois civic institutions. The Bolshevik party agitated for full Soviet control of the state, and in October carried out a coup d’etat. Having won in the name of the Soviets, they consolidated power into one-party rule. They made peace with Germany, who ordered harsh terms of land and grain. Before 1918 was over, Germany lost the war, and the Allies could now support the White Army in its civil war against the Red Army.

Intolerance was smuggled into Petrograd in the midst of this civil war, and Lenin, upon seeing it, declared cinema the great modern revolutionary art. The Soviets studied Intolerance and began to develop its logic into one of their own. Griffith’s influence now towers above cinema on both sides of the world and is beyond any ideology or system of economic relations.

Bibliography

  • Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. Straight Arrow Books, 1975.
  • Drew, William M. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Its Genesis and Vision. McFarland, 1986.
  • The Griffith Project, Volume 9: Films Produced in 1916-1918. British Film Institute, 2005.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Polity, 1962.
  • Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Second Edition. Frankfurt, 1844.

 

4. Les Vampires

Image

4. Les Vampires
November 13, 1915
Gaumont
Directed by Louis Feuillade

1914. War. Everyone wanted it. The German Empire, the French Republic, the British Empire, the Russian Empire. They all had grievances, and after one hundred years of relative peace, it was time to air them. Maybe some individuals would even have a chance to escape their lives of decadence and be heroes. Plus, everything happened so fast these days, it would be surely be over in a few months. And maybe it could have been. Germany found a strategic moment and made a big push. They took Luxembourg, devastated Belgium and eastern France, were on the verge of encircling Paris, when the tides changed in September at the Battle of the Marne. The French Army and British Expeditionary Force, allied together in the field, found a gap between two divisions and fatally wounded the attack. The two sides extended their battle lines up to the sea, and met at Ypres. Poison gas. No success. The stalemate set in. By the Second battle of Ypres in May 1915, the Germans had lost all chance of winning the war. They could keep trying, of course, perhaps even force the French to give in if they could make them suffer enough. The Germans had better planes, and it was French territory that was being destroyed.

The French film industry, to say nothing of the rest of the country, was fucked. The cinema market in France was already small compared to America. Now with an economy mobilized for war, film production plummeted. By the time it got going again, the Americans had pushed forward so far in their technical development that the ability or urge to compete was gone.

Feuillade was one of the few able to stay in the game. Episodes of Les Vampires appeared irregularly starting in November 1915, as half-hour acts in larger shows that included live theater and variety entertainment. They were produced cheaply and spontaneously, often with only vague directions prepared.

We start with Philipe Guérande, the investigative reporter chasing the elusive Vampires. Where Fantômas, despite the clever beard, was always present to claim credit for his crimes, Paris’s sufferings are no longer caused by a single person. Evil is decentralized. The Vampires are merely a loose connection of criminals whose membership changes constantly and whose head, the Grand Vampire, is always either unknown or uncertain. The players switch sides, good and evil, and new villains appear out of nowhere, such that the plot details become inconsequential. Instead, what we see is a modern society that is porous with evil possibilities, where dreadful things are right around the corner, and anyone could turn out to be a victim, villain, or hero.

We may never know who the real Grand Vampire is, but the source of the chaos is never in doubt. In Episode 2, La Bague qui tue, we first see a representation of her, played by Guérande’s girlfriend Marfa Koutiloff in a respectable, theatrical setting. Koutiloff wears a black bodysuit with a bat cape, dancing ballet until falling dead on the stage, poisoned by the real Vampires. By the time the real Irma Vep arrives in Episode 3, Le Cryptogramme rouge, we are waiting for her, as if we have seen a prophetic vision, but we are not prepared. Musidora immediately captures our total attention, and it is with her presence in Vampires that Feuillade builds on Guy’s work and fulfills the prophecies of his mistress.

Laura Mulvey first showed us that the visual presence of the female form in cinema acts as an interruption of the narrative. The story cannot proceed if the audience is erotically contemplating the actress. Musidora is so compelling In her all-black suit that the convolutions of the narrative become impossibly meaningless. Musidora shows us every curve and feature of her body while simultaneously representing a pure black gash. A gash in the narrative that is simultaneously a gash in bourgeois society, into the patriarchy of Western Civilization, which is at the moment in a winter campaign where each line of trenches only promises another opportunity to be torn apart by industrial artillery. The black bodysuit, embodiment of the female, the other, the void, the lack, the tear, is everything that Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan uniform with burning cross is not. The KuKluxer is the patriarchy, the phallus itself, the gross corrupt face of society. As a feminist response to Birth of a Nation, a slash through its chest of its imposing body, Vampires is an act of female resistance as powerful as Mary Richardson’s vandalism of the Rokeby Venus the previous year. The old order cannot be defended. The gash has turned into a chasm. Which side are you on?

Bibliography

  • Armes, Roy. French Cinema. Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Butler, Kristine J. “Irma Vep, Vamp in the City”. A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Callahan, Vicki. Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade. Wayne State University Press, 2005.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975.
  • Williams, Alan. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Harvard University Press, 1992.

3. The Birth of a Nation

birth

February 8, 1915
Epoch
directed by D.W. Griffith

Perhaps it is anti-climactic for this story of One Thousand Movies to face the most controversial, the most offensive, the most pernicious movie, the main villain, the Big Boss, at #3. If the first two movies in this story, both from the French Republic, flirted with evil themes, this one fully embodies evil in what amounts to an ideological revolution. But in addition to the ideological revolution, the movie was a formal revolution.

David Wark Griffith’s great genius was to make a such a penetrating analysis of the art of cinema that he analyzed it all the way down to its principal unit: the shot. Before him, film was a collection of scenes, mere photographs of the theater. He shed so much of the theatrical structure that his body of work became, with minor adjustments, the very formula for cinema. The Hollywood narrative that we have all breathed our entire lives, and that informs how we create narratives in our own heads.

But in addition to these two revolutions, there was a third revolution. A revolution that while not technologically novel, changes a medium so thoroughly as to constitute a new medium. For this is the very first movie as we now understand that concept. The first Hollywood feature film. The first propaganda film. The first new media production for the Bourgeoisie, who now have entertainment worth the full two dollars per ticket. There had never been a popular art event like this ever before. Griffith is one of the few artists of modernity that can be compared with Aeschylus of Athens and Homer of Chios.

The twin revolutions of form and media do much to obscure the ideological revolution. This movie is three hours (or as much as you can sit through) of Pure White Evil Ideology, but presented in a way never before dreamed of, so as to render a critical viewer politically dumb. Not entirely successful, because initial showings were in fact bravely protested by the NAACP, YWCA, and other organizations. Supposedly Griffith, as well as star Lillian Gish, couldn’t even see what all the fuss was about. Surely it was just a movie, right? Aren’t Whites and Blacks portrayed both positively and negatively? Their inability to see the utter hatefulness in shot after shot shows us that ideology cannot be identified so easily. Ideology is our constant background screen, a completely blind set of assumptions that we fail to see even when it is explicitly pointed out to us.

Reading about the movie goes a long way to distract one from actually watching it. It helps that this second-most analyzed movie there is, and each source references countless other analyses and accounts. Birth of a Nation has been exhaustively formally analyzed, and each of the 1,610 shots has been numbered. Of all the text I encountered, my favorite is James Baldwin, from The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin begins with the distinction between Plot and Story. Plot is a resolution, a working out. Story, on the other hand, is a revelation. Birth of a Nation delivers an endless labyrinthine plot designed to obscure the Story, which amounts to mass murder. Mass murder, on what grounds? The answer is purity. In its quest for a nation’s moral purity through a policy of racial extermination, this movie becomes the first crucial piece of Fascist propaganda. The race hate is rendered far more explicitly, both visually and emotionally, than either of the most notorious antisemitic films, Jud Süß and Der ewige Jude, and this is America’s Movie. The shame of the race hate is our own.

Endless plot. No story. The cat and dog fighting in shot 54 is Griffith’s initial metaphor for the war, but the pure hostility of the bestial world, animal vs. animal, instantly removes any trace of politics. This is important, because the politics are ugly. The cause of the South was, after all, an attempt to build an American Aryan Patriarchy and stretch it out to the conquered Mexican territory. The Southwest was to be ruled as a pre-capitalist agrarian slave system, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act ensured that they could do that. The Republican Party campaigned on repeal, and they won in 1860. The Confederacy immediately seceded, the Union fought over its military possessions, and a full-scale Civil War ensued.

This war was different from the stories the soldiers had grown up hearing about. They had muskets, but now with metallic cartridges. They had a steam frigate, but now clad in iron, ramming the ships that were blockading the James River. It didn’t lift the blockade, but they did kill a few hundred people and got their point across. Industrial Capitalism was now in the business of mass death (to preserve a pre-capitalist slave society, of course). But the South’s cause was hopeless. They would have needed the Royal Navy to win, which they never received. Slaves were emancipated, free to sell their labor. The Radical Republicans occupied the South and continued the battle to impose Capitalism, along with Civil Rights, and were successful during the two terms of Ulysses Grant. In Grant’s last year, the 1876 election was won by one electoral vote by the Republican Rutherford Hayes, who had lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden. To appease the Democrats in this dubious victory (imagine that), the forces of Reconstruction was removed, and both the Democrats and the Republicans abandoned the class of freed black men, who were disenfranchised and subjected to pogroms.

In 1912 about 15% of the American population participated in a presidential election that was a resounding victory for the Democratic Party. Woodrow Wilson became the first President from the Confederate states since Zachary Taylor. It was fifty years later, the South had finally risen again. Woodrow Wilson instituted a number of progressive policies, railed against the big business trusts, strengthened federal power, but he instituted Segregation in the United States Government. Birth of a Nation’s second half begins with a racist quote from Wilson. This is the sitting United States President, whom Griffith depicts as Philosopher-King. This is an unimaginable level of patriarchal respect, given recent representations of Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

The Civil War itself is presented as heroic and triumphant for a brief 77 shots. Then we skip ahead two and a half years, to the raid on the southern hometown of Piermont. Blackfaced warriors invade and sack the Cameron house, followed by a scene of trench warfare presented gloriously but isn’t nearly as exciting as the raid. The field battle scenes have a strange quality though, because in 1915 there actually was trench warfare killing literally millions of people. The pro/anti-war stance of the film as a whole can be endlessly debated, but this is undeniably a film that depicts current events. This is a view supported by Griffith’s own remarks about his works. This guy was absolutely sure that his movies would be shown in history classes, even to the point of replacing old-fashioned textbooks.

After the first 536 shots of vile race hate, including the incredibly disturbing shot 517 where Flora rubs black ash into her raw cotton dress and smiles, the movie gets really strange. When the North wins the war and the Radical Republicans attempt to institute Capitalism and Civil Rights in the South, we return to the wise old man moderate Abraham Lincoln, who appears to be utterly impotent in any ability to hold the radical elements of his coalition. We know what is going to happen to him at Ford theater, and Griffith draws out the tension. Each title card lasts an eternity. 596 is the killshot, and we see the entire thing, multiple camera angles along the halls and seats of the theater capturing the evidence. Raoul Walsh plays Booth, and while the assumed audience reaction is shock and sadness, there is a palpable swagger to Walsh’s villainy that makes me think more than a few audiences would be tempted to cheer.
The second half is even more frantic and racist, as the occupied South is subjected to Civil Rights until the fed-up veterans form the Ku Klux, stage a thrilling ride of re-conquest, and we watch the first classic movie where the bad guys win. I don’t really want to get into the details. Is there any revolutionary potential to this film? Any way to root for the freed blacks, the Union army, the carpetbaggers? To cheer them during the raid and sigh during their final downfall? Any way to celebrate the destruction of a disgraceful system of oppression and the rout of a defeated ideological enemy? I don’t think so. All of the principal black and mulatto roles are played by white actors, and the blackface ultimately remove any hope of constituting a black subject amid the wreckage. Sure, actual black people were employed in the making of this film, playing slaves and freedmen in wide shots of the streets. Their faces do not always register on the film, their features lost as if punched out black holes in the celluloid. Unable to emote, only to work. This movie is pure fascist propaganda, which preaches an ideology of white purity and domination, under the strong lead of a patriarchal authority. The employment of cinematic violence was the final masterstroke in this pernicious plan. As Siegfried Kracauer noted in a letter to Seymour Stern, Griffith discovered cinema’s innate ability to portray the excitement of CROWDS, TERROR, and VIOLENCE. Violence is one of the central pleasures in the story of cinema, and we cannot reject it so easily. The ideology that provides the background screen to the cinematic violence must always be addressed, as the function of ideology is often to disguise existing violence or render it entirely visible. In this case, the ideology of this hundred year old film is so gross that it can no longer be disguised, and it is important to see all movies have their own ideology, potentially even more revolting than this one, though hidden with a level of sophistication that Griffith was only beginning to make possible.

Bibliography

  • Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work: An Essay. Dial Press, 1976.
  • Ebert, Roger. „Great Movies: Birth of a Nation“ http://www.rogerebert.com, 2003.
  • Eisenstein, Sergei. „Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today“ Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Edited and translated by Jay Leyda. Harcourt, Brace, 1949. Originally published 1944.
  • The Griffith Project: Vol. 8: Films Produced in 1914-1915. Edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai. British Film Institute, 2004.
  • Lang, Robert Birth of a Nation: D.W. Griffith, Director Rutgers Films in Print series,1994.
  • Platt, David „Fanning the Flames of War“ The Daily Worker, 20 December 1939.
  • Stern, Seymour „Griffith I – Birth of a Nation“ Film Culture 36, Spring/Summer 1965.
  • Stokes, Melvyn. D. W. Griffith’s the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time – 2008
  • Taylor, Clyde. „The Re-Birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema“ The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of United States Cinema. Rutgers University Press, 1996.

2. Fantômas

fantomas
May 5, 1913
Gaumont
Directed by Louis Feuillade

Léon Gaumont, a Parisian engineer, began shooting movies the same year as Méliès, but before a year had passed he handed the production duties to his secretary Alice Guy, who is unquestionably cinema’s first female auteur. Having taken two different film introduction classes in college, I must admit I was wholly unexpected to discover Mademoiselle Alice, almost as if she had been purposely hidden from the received history of film. Her movies are instantly captivating and her extant works exhibit some radical developments from Méliès. Some key works:

1. La Fée aux choux is disputedly her earliest extant film. The titular fairy smiles at the camera, pulls a newborn from a cabbage plant, and offers it to the camera. Wire fence spans the entire background. As she picks up the second baby, she cups her ears, aurally searching for tiny brassican cries. She leans in to pick up a third baby, but there is a sudden cut. Then we see her back away without the baby in her arms. It lies motionless, either a doll or dead newborn. Are we witness to one of the first and cruelest victims of the cinema? The two babies up front continue to twitch and mewl. This movie is decisively pagan, inappropriately voyeuristic, and resolutely strange.

2. Le Pêcheur dans le torrent, in the following year of 1897, starts with a fisher on the rocks, water rushing below him. Shirtless boys invade from the top of the frame and force him into the water with a sudden splash. The decisive moment of the water’s spray is lost somewhere between frames, but the immediacy of the action is conveyed well enough. One of the other boys visibly convulses with laughter. The angry man grabs the perpetrator, bends him over, and wails on him. The boy eventually gains his bearing and pushes the man back into the water. The other boys, totally excited, slide into the fray and begin their assault, not just upon the man, but each other. These two films both give us an entire story in a single minute, each developing in an unpredictable and exciting manner.

3. Chirurgie fin de siècle depicts, in one hundred and twenty seconds, the end of the terror and suffering of surgery. The background set features double-doors in the center. Above hangs the sign “Do Not Cry” addressing us directly. The patient, after kicking his legs violently, passes out after breathing the ether, administered by a large cone. The doctor brings out the hacksaw and amputates multiple limbs. New limbs are drawn from a large container and reattached, the man revived in a feat of cinematic biowonder.

4. Her most ambitious project, La Naissance, la vie, et la mort du Christ, was released in parts throughout 1907, the final year of her tenure as Gaumont’s productrix and directrix (she will return to our story later). It’s an half hour of Gospel scenes unlike anything I’ve seen in film, print, or a church. Joseph and Mary search for an inn until they are threatened and run off by a hostile horsed Roman. The manger is a vast wood and brick structure in front of a cave, whose black mouth yawns in a central arch behind the Christ child. One of the magi even picks him up and swings him around in some ritual manner. The third scene is the Christ child asleep, while Joseph, Mary, and the celestial musicians watch, totally unhurried. The most compelling scenes of the movie show Jesus with women. The multitude of les Rameaux are all women, save for a few bare male soldier legs. When Mary Magdalene washes the feet of the Lord, she dominates the scene. Through the expression of her love for Christ, despite the objections of the surrounding men, this becomes not only feminist cinema but the beginning of a spiritual cinema.

The same year that the episodes premiered, she married a coworker and left the job to start her family, handing the post of artistic director to her most promising protégé, Louis Feuillade. Feuillade spent the next several years producing comedy serials such as Bébé Apache, about a five-year old seeking the revenge of her father, and La Vie telle qu’elle est, an unending melodrama of Parisian concerns.

In 1913 he directed Fantômas, a series of five films adapting the ongoing monthly pulp series, which was by this time almost to issue #30. Fantômas the character is an antiheroic gentleman thief who will stop at nothing to build his crime empire, including murdering his own children, and to my knowledge is not stopped either in the books nor the films. The plots hew relatively closely to the books, such that none of the major events that occur are anything but entirely obvious to the audience. The lurid Sadism of the books though, is considerably toned down. Our antihero’s victims are miraculously saved. Perhaps this is the beginning of a long tradition of movies disappointing lovers of the book. It’s certainly the beginning of the tradition that embraces the opportunity of cinema to provide illustrations of successful contemporary novels. One huge advantage over the modern superhero/villain films is that it wastes no time with origin. Fantômas is evil, he cannot be stopped, and it’s off to the first adventure – the robbery at the hotel. Fantômas occupies a princess’s hotel room, makes his position known and talks some game to her, and makes off with some valuables. He cruises through the building while everyone is in such a panic, they are helpless to stop him.

The locations are each set up with one camera position. This is only interrupted by (largely unnecessary) title cards, cues from the outside world, or close-ups of the various clues that the characters are investigating. Each room is a single vision. The close-ups of written documents are clearly not photographs of the same props the actors are looking at, and occupy their own separate space. The interior shots are always beautifully arranged, full of historical detail, arranged in meaningful and pleasing order for one perspective. We have time to explore every object in the frame before the event finishes and a new scene appears.

After thirteen minutes of interiors, the camera moves out the door and onto the Parisian street, Fantômas now pursued by Inspector Juve. Juve is tracking the missing Lord Beltham, who was murdered by Fantômas (with help from Lady Beltham). The mystery is never complicated. Juve is there to save the lives of the innocent, but never to catch the quarry. The ease with which Fantômas resists capture through the simplest devices is the premise for Peter Sellers’s Juve parody Inspector Clouseau. Fantômas’s success at his endeavours largely rests on the horror induced on any person or mass of people that hears or sees it on one of his calling cards.

The first movie was followed by four sequels, although I could never make it even to the end of the third. I wonder what Mademoiselle Guy could have made of the same material. The curves of Lady Beltham’s body hide a set of desires which are never fully explored. She can reach the mysterious central figure of Fantomas in ways that no one else in the movie can. The motives of the male characters are obvious and clear, but the women recede into the background as soon as they have struck us with an action (or more usually, a passion). The fifth and final Fantomas film premiered in May 1914 to a nation whose republic had been paying little attention to the two wars in the Balkan peninsula that removed first the Turk from Middle East hegemony and left two mighty coalitions in its place, whose nations held memories of martial glory in ages past. But before we revisit Europe we must head across the Atlantic to dredge up America’s more recent (though hazier and more dubious) memories of courage and honor.