Tag Archives: Cinema

Class Notes: “Birth of a Nation”

2 Jul

So I know it’s summer. It’s grogeous out, I’m in one of the busiest cities in the world. But, ya know what I miss?

NOT being in school.

It’s summer, and I’m still in class.

Thankfully, first semester of summer class have passed (and I will never forgive the computer science professor who gave me a “B+” off of a 89.9, curse you!). The second slew of classes have just started, and you, dear reader, will benefit from it. Without having to attend the lectures nor write the papers, I will discuss my Film and Society class. A Sociology class, but one that speaks to two of my loves: social constructs and film history. Let the paper writing commence!

It's the stuff of nightmares.

Our first film was none other than the very beautifully shot, loathsome piece of historical bullshit, “Birth of a Nation.” Part imagined history, part love story, 110% racist. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.

Thank the Lord they don’t. Talk about the most awkward 3 hours and then some I had to sit through for a movie. Any movie, let alone a silent film, which for those who haven’t sat through “The Cheat”, “Broken Blossoms”, “The Sheik”, etc., are some of the most racist films in history. And they were wildly popular (with “Birth of a Nation” becoming the highest grossing silent film).  Cinema techniques pioneered by the talented Mr. Griffth can not even begin to make up for the blatant charicatures and offensive stereotypes of the black characters in the “story.” I place the quotation marks on “story” because it is a thinly veiled argument for the superiority of the white man who, according to the “story”, is the only one who can restore polite society and order to this country. Excuse me, while I grab the bucket-this film should make everyone sick to their stomachs.

As a modern movie-goer, it was difficult to see how this movie was so popular across the country. Partially because of the controversy and boycotts surrounding it, curious movie patrons ended checking it out, but crowds were said to have enjoyed it. People whooped and hollered at the arrival of the Klan in the nick of time to save the white family from certain death. Meanwhile, I’m horrified at one point during the climax of the battle, a father prepares to murder his daughter next to her fiance in order to “protect” her from the incoming battalion of black men. Um…

A painful still from "Birth of a Nation."

Yet that’s not even the worst of it. Incredibly, all “leading” black actors (maids, mulattoes, and traitors) are actually white actors and actresses in blackface. There’s an affair hinted between a crooked politician and his mulatto maid (who gets off when he “talks powerfully”). She manipulates him into making “bad decisions” like appointing another mulatto to be his apprentice for the senate. Basically, the writer said that mixed race individuals were not to be trusted. Who is this asshole and how the hell did he get to screen this trash at the White House? Oh, being best friends with Woodrow Wilson helps, I guess.

Even West Point lent a helping hand by providing the correct Civil War strategies and the artillery. This is unfortunately one of the only historical accuracies in the entire film. However, D.W. Griffith succeeded in not only creating film history, but for a long time rewriting American history. Historical scholars had to remount assessments on the Reconstruction Period in order to check the information the movie portrayed as a “true account” of the time.

Now, while I hated, detested, and loathed every minute of this film, I do not think every negative of it should be burned or that it should be banned. It’s the first time in film many editing techniques are used, but aside from that, I do not believe we should erase a portion of our country’s tumultuous times from the early twentieth century. It was horrible, it pitted people against their neighbors and spurned a thousand debates. However, burning Mein Kampf or destroying this film does not benefit society. We learn from the mistakes of our past. By depriving generations of the hard learned lessons of the outcomes of apartheid, holocaust, segregation, and genocide we do nothing but allow those cursed doors to be reopened by the ignorant.

I do not believe that “Birth of a Nation” should not be viewed in any setting that is not an academic. It is not entertainment; that appeal should have died the day it was released. But it should remain a lesson, a testament not only to the cruelties of man, but also to the manipulative abilities that historical writers can wield. Outside of an academic setting, the ideas can not be discussed and the hurt emotions from the audience would be neglected. It is a painful lesson to watch, told from viewpoint of the men who benefited from the Jim Crow laws. Unapologetic, the film is both a masterpiece and curse to cinema history. The world’s first blockbuster is also one of the worst lies ever told about the human race. Good and bad are delineated by the color of one’s skin, and the attempt to equalize the groups leads to death and war. Never have I ever sat through so much torture in a film, for it was not the blood and guts of a horror film but the damages done by regular people to each other. You tear up not from the “redemption” from the coming of the Klan but from the injustice done to the portrayal of the so-called villains. Little lies in this movie are strung together to form a horrific portrait of a America that did and did not exist.

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Movie Review:”Network” at the Museum of Fine Arts

5 Jun

Peter Finch in his Oscar-winning role as deranged journalist Howard Beale in "Network"

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell,

‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’

I can’t even begin to tell you how eerily these words resonated with modern times; you already know. For some mysterious reason, the film “Network” taps into every fear and suspicious we have about our agenda-driven media, the companies running the country into the ground, and the increased callousness of our fellow mankind.

And then exploits the hell out of it.

Exploitation is the driving evil of this film. A poorly performing news network decides to can its anchor after 25 years. The anchor, reacts appropriately to losing his job: he announces on his last week of broadcast that he will be committing suicide by next week, while on the air. The media blitzkrieg that follows forces the hands of the network to fire him on the spot. But the increased viewership of the show lures the corporation that owns the news network to give him back his job. The increased scrutiny and the madness that surrounds the anchor forces him to a nervous breakdown and one of the greatest rants of cinema history. Viewership skyrockets, and a young programmer for the station gets involved in order to turn the news hour to the media circus that viewers want (complete with a psychic). The network profits off the poor anchor’s demise, firing or rehiring him at any turn of ratings.

You'll never see the news the same way again.

Madness is a great way to describe this movie. Incredibly well written, well acted, and well shot, “Network” earns every Oscar it won back in1977. I would describe it as a cynical satire, as the network seems to have no human decency to what it decides to air. At one point, a weekly series is proposed to cover the violence of terrorists committing acts to further their cause. The network asks them to film it as propaganda for their cause. “Must-see TV” is a mantra to many of the characters you come to fear the most. In a robotic way, they seek for whatever will gain viewership the fastest. The network is just the mechanical extension to satisfy their bloodlust for ratings. At one point in the movie, the programmer has sex with one of her bosses, only to explain to him her proposal of ideas for a new hit show. Extreme, yes, but that’s what may happen when networking is the only thing on people’s minds.

I say the movie is cynical because there is no redemption for this sort of evil. Destroying others is its business, and it does not seem to be coming to an end anytime soon. Sweeps is coming up in November after all.

I highly recommend this movie. As a movie fan, its filled with great actors (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden to name a few), great dialog, and beautifully shot in a dingy pre-Giuliani New York. Those who remember the era would laugh at the old fashions, but its the old technologies that makes this a great period piece. Not much digital in the newsrooms back then, and the older news hounds remember the start of TV news.

The other part of this review, is the experience at the MFA. Yet, another “art” cinema that shows the best in international and independant cinema, as well as classics. The theater is a large room with comfy chairs and is set so every seat is a good seat. Like the Harvard Film Archive, this is an academic theater with no food allowed. The purpose of the theater is to watch the movie with rapt attention. But, the MFA gave its audience something most theaters don’t have access to: an archive of old trailers on original film stock. It was a bit of fun to see the original trailers for movies of that era like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Way We Were.” It was definitely worth the visit.

Well, I guess that’s its for me. As Howard Beale said “I just ran out of bullshit.”

For more information on “Network,” check out the imdb.com page.

For more information on MFA screenings, check out their site.