In Rebirth of a Nation, DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid (Paul D. Miller) remixes DW Griffth’s classic propaganda film, Birth of a Nation. Against an electronic soundtrack and using a Mac laptop and two monitors, Miller re-edits Griffith’s film in real time, projecting these images on three screens triptych. In typical DJ fashion, Miller loops back, emphasizing some of Griffith’s more volatile compositions through juxtaposition so that a shot of Lillian Gish’s “innocent” white womanhood is contrasted with threatening images of domineering black men (mostly white actors in blackface). Miller’s remix condenses Griffith’s 3-hour epic considerably but generally follows the narrative order of the 1915 film, culminating with shots, now presented ironically of course, of the Klan riding to the rescue of southern culture from the African Americans who have placed it in disarray.
In an NPR interview, Miller refers to the ongoing war in Iraq, which he describes as “the most televised war in history,” adding that more televised access does not provide clarity about what’s happening in the war. Miller making a case that his remastering of Griffith’s film might produce a greater awareness of media’s potential for manipulation and propaganda, states that “I want people to be uncertain about their entire media environment.” But I’m not sure that remixing Birth of a Nation produces that kind of awareness, especially given the film’s remoteness in US cultural consciousness. While many film history courses may show Griffith’s film (as Miller asserted in an interview on Album 88), I felt as if many of the images were so clearly manipulative on a surface level that the montage didn’t do enough to reinterpret them. I also found that while I found the ambient and electronic music engrossing in places, that I also often disengaged from the music, focusing only on the images on three screens. In this sense, my experience of this media event might be read as a compliment: Miller’s arrangement of images required a high level of concentration. But like the Boston Globe reviewer, I found myself wondering what might have happened if Miller had decided to “dig in the crates and spin a wide range of music rather than just his own electronic composition.” But unlike the Boston Globe critic, I’m not threatened by an artist like Miller using “academic verbiage” to convey what he’s trying to accomplish.
Miller also manipulates many of the film’s images visually, adding grids and geometric shapes to focus our attention on certain characters or on the power dynamics of a specific shot. In the NPR interview, Miller notes his interest in “social circuitry,” commenting on the DJ’s ability to quickly read a crowd and the individual dynamics within it. This issue of social circuitry seems connected to DJ Spooky’s emphasis on the “democratizing” aspects of digital technologies, the fact that anyone can potentially remix and remaster films such as Birth of a Nation (in the NPR interview, he refers to hackers who edited Jar Jar Binks out of the fouth installment of the Star Wars films), but I find that notion of democratization somewhat unsatisfying, especially given some ongoing questions about technological access.
Despite these reservations, I found Rebirth of a Nation to be a challenging experience in the best possible sense. I liked the experimentation and the use of the principles of DJing to remix a prior film, but given Miller’s invocation of the principles of a cinematic counter-narrative, a term that has a relatively long history, I’m not sure that Rebirth does anything new with the formula of remixing and montage other than to feed Griffith’s film into the machine and give it an electronic flavor.