Kentucky Derby photos, replete with characters, wit, and color, color, color.
Archives for May 8, 2006
An informal catalogue of cardinal critical sins, with fresh and glaring illustrations from some of today’s Most Favored Critics, seems to be underway this month. Just yesterday Terry tagged James Wood for devoting a mere ten percent of his prime NYTBR real estate to the new Flaubert biography he was purportedly reviewing there. Commandment the first: You shall not overlook the book under review.
This is transparently the recipe for a John Banville novel–the infinite nuances, the atomized perceptions–and the biggest boner a critic can commit is the insistence that all writers should do what he does. It’s embarrassing.
Thus, Commandment the second: You shall not critique a tulip by wishing it a rose, especially if you grow roses. (Sorry, tulips on the brain these days–they are everywhere, and god bless ’em.) Marcus considers Roth’s book on its own aesthetic terms here.
Virtually nobody watches D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation anymore, even though it was one of the half-dozen most influential films in the history of the medium. Much of the lingua franca of cinematic storytelling was invented by Griffith, and The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was the laboratory in which he brought his ideas to fruition. It was also one of the most racist movies ever made, a shameless glorification of the role played by the Ku Klux Klan in the reconstruction of the postbellum Old South.
Or so, at any rate, we’re told. Never having seen The Birth of a Nation, I only “knew” it was racist because that was what I’d always heard and read. So when Turner Classic Movies aired the film last week as part of a month-long series called Race and Hollywood: Black Images on Film, I decided it was time to see for myself.
In case you’re wondering–or worrying–this isn’t going to be a revaluation of The Birth of a Nation. Somewhat to my surprise, it turned out to be every bit as appalling as everyone says, a near-encyclopedic compendium of racial stereotypes of the grossest, most offensive sort. Small wonder that TCM prefaced and followed it with an on-camera discussion by Robert Osborne and Donald Bogle, the author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. (I’m a bit surprised that the network didn’t run on-screen disclaimers during the film itself.)
None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective–it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.
Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film–not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it–is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it’s silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).
As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently–and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience. I’m with A.E. Housman:
A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. (America is the source of much irritation of this kind, to be sure.) I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provoked in us. One of those symptoms was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.” The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.
This famous passage is from Housman’s 1933 lecture The Name and Nature of Poetry, and even after making due allowance for the personal prejudices of the practicing artist, it pretty well sums up my view of things. Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That’s why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring–and thank God for that.
UPDATE: Mr. Parabasis has cleverly turned the sixth paragraph of this posting into a meme. Care to play, OGIC?
While we’re on the subject of how blacks were portrayed by the American mass media at the turn of the century, allow me to direct your attention to Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922 (Archeophone, two CDs), an anthology containing fifty-four of the earliest commercial sound recordings made by black performers and public figures.
You can order Lost Sounds here, and you can also listen for free to streaming-audio samples of every track included on the set, including speeches recorded by Booker T. Washington in 1908 and by Jack Johnson in 1910. If, like me, you’re interested in early spoken-word recordings, I guarantee that you’ll find these particular snippets fascinating in the extreme.
I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Carl Van Vechten, the photographer-boulevardier-enthusiast whose portraits of famous people were recently exhibited at an Upper East Side bookshop. Since then I’ve had occasion to re-read an out-of-print biography of Van Vechten, and I confess to being envious of what you might call his achievements in the field of propinquity. Among many, many other things, he attended both the Armory Show in New York and the Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring, at which he shared a box with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who subsequently became his lifelong friends, joining a troupe that also included Ronald Firbank, George Gershwin, Zora Neale Hurston, H.L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, and Bessie Smith.
Van Vechten was born in 1880, died in 1964, and in between was intensely curious about everything to do with the arts. I had forgotten when I wrote my previous posting, for instance, that he was not merely a dance critic but the very first American dance critic, and that he lived long enough to see and admire both Anna Pavlova and New York City Ballet. Van Vechten preserved his curiosity well into his old age: among the subjects of his later photographs were Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, over whose music he “swooned,” writing with special admiration of “those long Rossini-like monotonous crescendos that stretch out endlessly like the moon of my delight in the orient.” (I’d bet money that this is the album he had in mind.) He even set down his opinion of Elvis Presley for posterity:
I heard him with amazement and I am convinced that his appeal is purely (or impurely) sexual. And as he does not appeal to me on that basis, I have discarded him forever, unless he comes around with his hand-organ to sing at my door.
“To me,” Van Vechten wrote, “discovery is nine-tenths of the interest in life.” Not a bad motto for someone in my line of work.
“Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (courtesy of such stuff)
“The spot was charming, and Lily was not insensible to the charm, or to the fact that her presence enhanced it; but she was not accustomed to taste the joys of solitude except in company, and the combination of a handsome girl and a romantic scene struck her as too good to be wasted. No one, however, appeared to profit by the opportunity; and after a half hour of fruitless waiting she rose and wandered on. She felt a stealing sense of fatigue as she walked; the sparkle had died out of her, and the taste of life was stale on her lips.”
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Having been tagged, I hasten to fulfill my obligation:
I am writing this in longhand.
I want Steve Yzerman to put off retiring.
I wish I were ice-skating NOW.
I hate drivers on cell phones.
I love northern Michigan (Michigancentrically, “up north”).
I miss the Clinch Park bears.
I fear speaking in front of an audience.
I hear a train, distantly.
I wonder what will happen on House next week. (In the first-season reruns on USA; do not send spoliers and nobody will get hurt.)
I regret not taking up ice-skating sooner.
I am not a credible liar.
I dance with Baryshnikov in my daydreams.
I sing at full volume when alone in the car or the kitchen.
I cry after double-overtime sudden-death playoff games that end badly.
I am not always conscious of how old I’ve gotten.
I make with my hands ice cream! Most recently, oatmeal ice cream (no raisins for me, thanks).
I write in longhand when practical, which is seldom.
I confuse being nice with giving undue encouragement sometimes. (Don’t worry, I don’t mean you. You I like.)
I need strong coffee every morning, iced during summer.
I should return my moldering Netflix discs and stop ordering movies that are good for me.
I start innumerable blog posts I never finish.
I finish basic skating lessons in two weeks and start looking for hockey lessons.
I tag Mr. Quiet Bubble and Ms. Bookish Gardener.