Classic film as art installation—it could start a trend

Rebirth of a Nation

on June 26, 2009 by Matthew Nestel

Taking the house party out of the house isn’t exactly virgin territory. Movies (some of the XXX variety) are often projected on white sheets at parties with dance tracks spun over them. But few would dare loop beats over a politically incorrect (albeit groundbreaking) film like Birth of a Nation. Artist and musician Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid took the dive. In his re-mastering Miller places D.W. Griffith’s three-hour Civil War epic in his crosshairs. The effort works to infiltrate the movie-watching experience. And while handprints and scratches to the original are quite distinct, there’s not too much tampering to scramble its message. A large coterie of head bobbers and those unfamiliar with the heavy-laden silent film will get a cursory look replete with a moody score and a superfluous voiceover to counterbalance the incendiary overtones.

To understand Rebirth it’s pivotal to conjure D.W. Griffith’s original for context. Based on Thomas Dixon’s injurious tome, The Clansman, Birth represented the Southern landscape in many ways—though the film’s literal Southern landscape, especially the lithograph inspired battle sequences, were shot in the San Fernando Valley. Supremacist in nature, the work is a technical triumph. Griffith seamlessly installed multiple advanced editing techniques into the storytelling: dramatic close-ups butt heads with suspenseful cross-cutting. The three-hour tour (that’s 12 reels!) is quite a lot to get through in one sitting and therefore is in no way immune to Miller’s ruthless edit.

Complex themes abound in Birth of a Nation : The Civil War pits kin against kin, rampant racism, reverse-racism, slander and mockery through minstrel means, heavy distortion of the truth all cooked-up on-screen to shape and stir a scarred population, North or South. No doubt this is why Miller decided to dust off the oldie and play the role of DJ-as-director. Much in the way Miles Davis deconstructed the status quo jazz scene with his legendary Birth of Cool album, Miller is also going for a shake-up. A jolt that pushes some buttons. Not only does he replace Griffith’s signatured borders with his own initials, he rebrands the film with a new score and minimally tampers with the evidence by using freeze frames and animation to play on moments. Characters become holograms pulled out of the scene in almost 3-D fashion, their counterparts blurred in the background. At other times, the material is left alone, untouched.

The film is risqué. Booting “Dixie” in favor of a harmonica with a booming beat we see black slaves entertain their white masters with a jig—this is just an example of the film’s radical rewiring. The filmmakers opt for handholding and its most unsettling and intrusive effects involve narrator Richard Davis. He may be pleasant and eloquent but there is no need for commentary when the super titles already do the legwork. It’s disturbing that the filmmakers feel the need to speak to the audience with scripted additives. Is it to ensure the director’s message is spelled out? What’s offered is a set of rhetorical questions that teeter on hyperbole and overkill. This does sincere harm to the modern version; it discounts the overall value behind the project and undermines the film’s initial empowering role to inspire the audience to think for themselves.

Despite its verbose flaws, the work is a succinct sampling of performance-art-meets-multimedia. When the film is left to its own devices and giddied-up by the scratching and booming base there’s genuine verve jumping off the screen.

D.W. Griffith in a smoking room responds rhetorically when asked if the film he just made is true and he counters, “What is truth?” Paul D. Miller intends to try and answer that through this face-planting exercise that flips and twists the original (at times the chronology of the film is dramatically exploited) to make issue of how not much has changed. That media coverage is all about winning the hearts and minds, and that the power of the role of the filmmaker (or musician or TV creator or Web producer or otherwise) can never be taken lightly.

Rebirth of a Nation tries to counteract what some could say was an appalling show, glorifying the ignorance of a sect of bitter people humiliated by the reconstruction post-Civil War. Maybe whites were persecuted after the inglorious stain on this country’s record. Maybe the Ku Klux Clan had, for a fragment of a second, some rationale to organize. But Miller justly reassembles the film, demystifying its red-hued screens and grounding the fantastic depiction of white southerners as heroes to sea level. Griffith’s original film wows with advanced tricks but is a wounded stag that deserves to be put out of its misery. Somebody had to tell it and thankfully it was an auteur with the semblance and skill to do so without causing the original any further hemorrhage. The DJ’s improvisational playing on cinema has staying power and could seed a new genre.

Distributor: Starz Media
Director/Screenwriter: Paul D. Miller A.K.A. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid
Producer: John W. Hyde and Paul D. Miller
Genre: Art Installation
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 100 min
Release date: June 22 NY

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