Film — 19 November 2015

by
Rick Segreda

THE BIRTH OF A NATION, Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthal, 1915

THE BIRTH OF A NATION, Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthal, 1915

With the new advances in technology, will cinema as we know it survive? This is not the first time this question has been asked; it is as old as cinema itself, going back one hundred years. In fact, it was exactly one century ago that D.W. Griffith premiered “The Birth of a Nation,” the first feature film, and one that completely revolutionized the medium.

Indeed, some of Griffith’s innovations were resisted at the time, especially the close-up. Apart from Georges Méliès’ one-reel fantasies, much of cinema at the beginning of the 20th century was little more than literal recordings of stage plays, with the camera about the same distance from the actors as the audience in the mezzanine section of a theater.

When Griffith introduced the use of the close-up, producers protested — that argued that they were paying for the audience to see the entire actor, not just his face. The enormous success of “The Birth of a Nation,” however, eliminated all doubt with respect to Griffith’s innovative mise-en-scene.

This three-hour feature not only introduced the dramatic use of facial close-ups, however, but of tense hands gripping as a means of communicating the emotional state of his characters. His contrast, too, between intimate close-ups and medium-distance shots with long-take vistas would also have a profound influence on the Russian directors, such as Sergei Eisenstein, in their development of dialectical montage as a didactic technique.

However, despite its monumental historic importance, there have been no centennial celebrations of “The Birth of a Nation” for one particularly notorious reason: It’s racism. Griffith was born into poverty in post-Civil War Kentucky, and like many poor southerners, blamed the victorious northern states of the U.S. for their lot in life, and regarded the pre-Civil War, slave-owning south with false nostalgia as a golden age.

With “The Birth of a Nation,” in its vilification of newly freed African-Americans as sexual predators, and its glorification of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Griffith also expressed all the resentments of his culture, which resonated with the reactionary sentiments of much of the United States in general. It also led to a renewal of the KKK, with a corresponding renewed violence towards African-Americans.

However, this also provoked a counter-reaction from African-Americans, who not only took to rioting on a few occasions over the film, but even blocked its showing in certain cities. Thus, “The Birth of a Nation” was also the first dramatic example of the new medium’s ability to impact its society.

Meanwhile, as the years followed, film language continued to evolve in the next decade. However, just when cinema had produced some of its most exquisite masterpieces, such as “Battleship Potemkin” by Eisenstein in 1925, and “Sunrise,” by F.W. Murnau in 1928, 1927 with “The Jazz Singer,” sound was introduced, and at first, it was nothing less than traumatic for lovers of the newly described “seventh art.”

Suddenly, it seemed all the pioneering creativity of the last fifteen years had gone out the window. For the first three years of sound, much of cinema had returned to literal and un-creative recordings of stage plays, with a static camera located at a middle-distance from the actors.

Not that the audience cared, of course, because the introduction of sound allowed not only dialogue, but song, with musicals as the most popular genre. But film’s most intellectual aficionados were heartbroken.

Gradually, however, as technology improved, the visual panache of the the 1920s returned, only now enhanced, rather than diminished, by the new addition of sound. But then color was introduced, and once again there were complaints that a chromatic spectacle detracted from the nature of the art. Then the same complaint was introduced with the arrival of the wide screen, and later, 3-D.

It seemed thus, for aesthetic theoreticians, that this new art form of art was always dying. However, in the 1950s, in France, Andre Bazin, revolutionized how film is analyzed by his acceptance of technological innovations in cinema as part of its nature.

For Bazin, a phenomenologist, the very essence of cinema was to duplicate reality as precisely as possible. He compared it to the pharaohs of Egypt, who did everything possible to preserve their bodies and their lives in death.

Thus, for Bazin, new advances not at all obstruct creativity in cinema. Rather, he argued, it provided directors more creative freedom. His fellow critics at the time, such as François Truffaut, confirmed this observation by noting the new masterpieces that were possible with widescreen and color, such as “Lola Montez” by Max Ophuls.

Now with the age of the Internet and GGI, there are new transformations, such as interactive cinema in which the spectator can participate in the drama. Some might complain that this will destroy cinema as we know it, but we have heard the same prediction before. However, like the phoenix, cinema always revives. Happy anniversary, cinema!

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