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?