Rebirth of a Nation

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.

6 Comments »

  1. laura Said,

    April 24, 2005 @ 8:43 am

    thanks, Chuck.

    From what you’re saying it sounds a bit like what Bazin wrote about the way montage drains the tension out of dangerous and suspenseful situations when it fractures the event’s organic time & space. It’s been a while since i saw Birth of a Nation (in a first-year film course) but I recollect it as a movie that quite thoroughly condemned itself without any external assistance. Perhaps remixing it in this way might unintentionally make it look like a movie that requires cutting-edge postmodern ways of seeing to explicate its politics.

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 24, 2005 @ 10:26 am

    To be honest, I’m a little suspicious of Bazin’s notion of realism. I think montage can be an effective intellectual tool, but it just seemed unnecessary here–Birth of a Nation, as you note, condemns itself. If anything, I think that Miller needed a *better* concept of montage, not to discard montage altogether.

    In this particular case, I think that part of the problem was the venue. Having such a performance in a symphony hall completely cutrailed the participatory ethos, leaving the audience almost completely passive.

  3. Amardeep Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 2:19 pm

    I think I see what he’s after — by separating the flow of the images from the plot, you draw attention to their iconicity.

    The music works the way I think it worked for you — an abstract, faintly alien context. Its wrongness forces the viewer to focus in on the images such as they are. Some of the time this leads to some interesting revelations, but unfortunately many of the images Miller picks out (a woman climbing a staircase) don’t seem to have any particular charge. They are just footage… not provocative, just a little boring.

    Is the Quicktime version you linked to on his website a shorter version of a longer performance? I was surprised not to see the iconic lynching scene…

  4. Chuck Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 2:28 pm

    I realize my review sounds a little harsh, but you’re right to suggest that by ripping the images out of context, Miller “draw[s] attention to their iconicity.”

    You also read Miller’s use of music rather well (because of your DJ experiences, I was hoping you’d comment, Amardeep), but I felt like the Robert Johnson blues riffs were submerged a little too deeply.

    Yes, I think the Quicktime film is a shorter version of what he’s doing. As in true DJ fashion, each live mix is different. And the live version had three screens (the outer screens usually showed the same image), allowing for a synchronous dialectical montage effect. If I’m not mistaken, he actually played the lynching images down a little, placing more weight on the Klan members riding their horses to the rescue.

  5. Jennifer Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 3:20 pm

    Though I haven’t seen Rebirth of a Nation (just what the website and some reviews have to offer), everyone’s comments have helped me to articulate a hesitation that has been mulling about in my head with regard to Miller’s piece–that it doesn’t seem to be saying much beyond the pure manipulation of images and sampling of sound. Is it really just an aesthetic experience, especially for someone not familiar with Griffith’s film?

  6. Chuck Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 4:07 pm

    That’s where I struggle, too. I think that his sampling can create a montage effect that is pretty powerful, and I think I’d make the case that it isn’t purely aesthetic, although I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps his authorial presence takes it beyond that. I’d add that as Amardeep notes, the “alienness” of the music may also serve to defamiliarize the images. That being said, I’m not sure the counter-narrative adds anything particularly new to the conversation about Griffith’s film.

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