Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

Jealosy belongs to all where the woman belongs to none

I want to say something about Les Enfants Du Paradis first cos I feel I should, but sometimes you just can’t pluck anything particular about films out. Save to say it was very good. And today's title is not merely a wonderful line, it sums the film up perfectly.

The interesting thing about LEDP was that my feelings were “right”. Fiction distorts reality, often to the point where we’re rooting for the Man with no Name (never mind the killing), or Butch and Sundance (they rob and kill, but hey, they’re nice people!), or Ilsa to run off with Rick instead of staying with her nice husband. In real life, we’d have completely opposite emotions.

The charm of LedP was that the thief really was despicable; you loved and hated Garance in equal measure; the actor who delighted in amusing the audience at the expense of his authors actually was amusing. Perhaps this was just me, but I was rooting for Baptiste and his wife. How often does that happen?

Thankfully, I felt nothing of the sort while watching Birth of a Nation yesterday, which aims to place you on entirely the wrong side.

If you know more about Psycho than the shower scene, chances are you’ll know two things about Birth of a Nation. Firstly, it’s a landmark piece of cinema. It makes us pretentious movie snobs go misty eyed. It practically invented modern screen language – close up, tracking shots, intercutting several simultaneous action sequences. Early film was virtually theatre on screen – yet by this 1915 film, though based on a play, films actually started looking like films. And the second thing? Well…

This three hour epic is split into two halves. The first half is yer default American Civil War story – friendly families in North and South having their fair share of dead sons and hardships. You’ve seen it all before – it’s default Gone with the Wind stuff, with Southern women selling their jewellery and moping at home. Where it gets interesting is the second half, in which our heroic Colonel founds the great Ku Klux Klan and saves his hometown from “the anarchy of black rule”

Feeling queasy yet? At times, it’s almost laughable – but it’s hard to have much sympathy for a film where a bill allowing intermarriage between black and white is presented with doomful music. Let’s put it this way – it’s rated 15, and I can tell you that ain’t for the blood or raunchy bits…

The line “don’t scrape to me. You are the equal of any man here” as Stoneman announces equality between the races should be a powerful and beautiful moment.

Usually, whether it’s actually a good film falls beside the wayside as people quote the budget, ogle the nice-cinematic-history-in-a-cabinet and discuss possibly the most hotly debated issue in cinema: nope, not the contents of that briefcase Was DW Griffith horribly racist, or was he just adapting a racist play?

Two title cards explain that the film, while distasteful, is merely showing opinions of the day “and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today”. Which is fair enough…after all, Spielburg wasn’t pounced on as anti-semetic after Schindler’s List. The problem is, Spielburg didn’t present the Jews as leery, scary people who chase innocent people about for no other reason that they’re eeeeeevil.

The major problem is the other title cards. I saved some for you:

  • “In agony of soul over the degredation and ruin of his people” (i.e. he had to let a black guy share his pavement…)
  • “See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side.” (a terrifying threat mwahahahaha!)
  • “for her who had learned the stern lesson of honor, we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death” (that’s not offensive, it’s just amusing)
  • and my favourite, “the former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright.”

If DW Griffith wasn’t racist, then whoever was writing his title cards sure was. Even if they claim it’s merely “to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue”.

So far, I’ve just done what everyone else does when discussing this film, and quite frankly it annoys me no end: "It’s a cinematic masterpiece, but, er, helooo? The only nice black people in the whole of the south are two house servants who stay loyal to their former white masters?!"

What about as a film, instead of a historical document?

Silent movies have an advantage over talkies – they’re silent. That means you can’t rely on the sound effects, speech or even the music to tell you what’s going on. You can’t knit (as does my mother), or play on a laptop (my sister), or flick through a book (that’s dad) – you have to watch, or you loose the thread. This makes them totally engrossing, because you physically can’t take your eyes off the screen.

The sheer scope is pretty exciting too. When you see hundreds of horsemen charge down the road in a pre-CGI world, you know you’re really seeing it.

Lillian Gish (probably one of the silent stars you’ve actually heard of) is angelic. She’s lovely to watch (excellent for silent movies) and her acting is spot on – exaggerated enough that it works without sound, yet still seeming naturalistic. And the music is great. An orchestral medly of old faves (auld lang sine and God Save the Queen?!), recognisable classics and Civil War hits (Dixie!)

The film is stuffed with “historical facsimilies” – reconstructions of Civil War events such as the death of Lincoln and signing of the peace treaty. In addition, characters such as Lincoln himself or Stoneman, the radical leader, are uncannily similar to heir real life appearance.

You can’t doubt the power of some scenes. The last ten minutes are great – a desperate last stand in a cabin and our heroine being trapped in an overrun town intercut with the triumphant ride to the rescue by hundreds of Ku Klux Klan horseman, to a (admittedly pretty limp) rendition of Ride of the Valkyries. Absolutely fantastic, excepting for…well, y’know…

For although I complained people will not shut up talking about the racism question…and we can’t deny that these views did exist post-war, and in 1915 when the film was made, and sadly continue to exist…at times it makes for very uncomfortable watching. All the lead black characters are played by, wait for it, white people wearing blackface (because the characters come into contact with white actresses...) Which really adds insult to injury.

Overall analysis – this is a “great” film, which means that in actuality, it’s nowhere near as fantastic as people will have you believe. Yet it’s also not as dull as I’ve been accusing it of for years – I recommend it. To certain people. To highbrow movie-types who gush about Hitchcock’s influence on film noir or pretentious movie-buffs in-training, who just wanted to watch it so she could say she has J. Serious film fans, I mean. Don’t suggest it as an alternative to going to see Pirates 3 when entertaining a bunch of 14 year olds. And be warned – the racist side is offensive and disturbing. Come prepared with a sense of humour, because I figure a good laugh is the best remedy.

(PS - watching it made me wonder. Should we stop the ridiculous movement of judging films by their time, not their actual merits? If nowadays a film with overblown music, stilted acting and cardboard sets was made, it'd be smashed by critics as being stagy. But if it's from the 50s, that's still ok. Why should we enjoy modern films to a higher standard than older films? Surely what one enjoys is what one enjoys, period. Off the top of my head - Some Like it Hot, Casablanca, The Third Man have not aged. They do not creak - but lots of old films (and this point would be more effective if I could actually think of some) are actually very boring, just as many modern films are very boring. But old films get away with it "because things were different then".

Somebody back me up. Surely that's hypocritical. It's like defending unfunny comedy.)


Rob said...

To start off with, I apologise for the length of this and the poor writing.

You're quite right. When judging films, one should be entirely impartial. However, context is a very large part of film, as a whole. Which is one of the major reasons many people get into film, because it gives the perspective of the time it was made.

Look at the original Scarface. It begins with a title card which reads' " This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: 'What are you going to do about it?' The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?"

You're never going to see that in front of a gangster film nowadays. To be fair, the film stands alone as a great movie but this really gives it cultural context.

Some may argue that films that stay relevant are truly better and this is correct if judging a film as an individual piece, but putting it in context of both film history and cultural importance, the opposite can just as easily be true.

The technical impact of a film can cause its flaws to be overlooked too. I'm sure many would find things to complain about in The Jazz Singer but I don't think you'll find a single film buff who'll put it down for importance to film as a whole, and this alone will cause it to be held in higher esteem than a "better" film that didn't cause such a revolution.

The other, lesser, influence is nostalgia. A movie may have dated terribly and be terribly hammy, but if it was one hell of a movie "back in the day", flaws can easily be ignored.

Final point, I read Robert Rodriguez's autobiography "Rebel Without a Crew" about the production of his first film, El Mariachi. It was filled with him saying how great it was, how other people came up and told him how great it was and how everyone was shocked that it was made for $7000. After reading the book, I went out and saw the movie and quite frankly, if you weren't aware of its tiny, tiny budget, it would look pretty damn bad. Which is exactly why a mediocre blockbuster will always recieve more scorn than a mediocre indie flick. Hooray for compromise!

So, you're right. Films should be judged on their individual merits but putting a film in context is perhaps the way it was meant to be seen

Ninquelosse said...

Oooh interesting examples. Thanks for that, I enjoyed reading it.

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