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The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Fiery Cross of the Ku Klux Klan!
Director: D.W. Griffith

Two families, abolitionist Northerners the Stonemans and Southern landowners the Camerons, intertwine. When Confederate colonel Ben Cameron is captured in battle, nurse Elsie Stoneman petitions for his pardon. In Reconstruction-era South Carolina, Cameron founds the Ku Klux Klan, battling Elsie's congressman father and his African-American protégé, Silas Lynch.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Bad Influence

This film marked a disastrous turn in American society. No, I’m not talking about the overtly racist content. Any nitwit can see that and adjust, though I suspect that my grandchildren will decry with equal vehemence the content of the films I now casually accept. The disaster that “Birth” brought was far more pernicious, subtle and limiting than something that can be recognised and changed by men of good will.

This was the birth of film as illustrated books using a slightly expanded vocabulary of the theatre. Film could have been a new medium when it was born. It could have been transformational in the way we see the world and reason about it and ourselves. But the birth of film was as a retard, a small adjustment to plays. Griffith was from the theatre and successfully found a theatrical formula that worked sort of: a simple play augmented by a context of huge action, here both the Civil War and “facimilies” of history: things that couldn’t be created on the stage. Griffith’s formula was only an imperfect solution, but such was the potential of film that it became not only an enormously popular film, but also a pattern which still dominates today. We still think of films as expanded plays and demand the same things of them.

Some filmmakers (Greenaway comes to mind) have been creating films that live up to the potential of the medium, both reinventing film and fighting the pattern. What a disaster. How much better off we would have been if Griffith had failed to invent his narrative mulatto!

Posted in 2003

Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 4: Has some interesting elements.


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