An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
With Kino Classic’s recent and stunning Blu-ray release of Birth of a Nation, we witness this film’s everlasting power to entertain even as it appalls. However far this country has or — more to the point — hasn’t progressed in eliminating its racial divides, most U.S. citizens (excepting white supremacists and other nutcases) would find the racism in Birth of a Nation repellent. In 1915, however, a little more than fifty years after the Civil War, audiences flocked to see the picture, not as an icon of controversy but as the latest entertainment phenomenon. In his critical biography of Griffith, Richard Schickel surmises that, as the film opened across the country, the majority of Americans, apart from the NAACP and a few liberal journalists, were so enraptured by its energy and spectacle that they missed the racism.1 Or perhaps worse, like Griffith, they just didn’t see what the fuss was about when protests broke out in cities like Boston and Philadelphia.
The film’s energy and spectacle are still there, but Griffith begins Birth with what he always did best, intimate domestic scenes delicately and naturally acted. Throughout the first half, we find ourselves caring about the Camerons, a close-knit family living on what appears to be a modest plantation in antebellum South Carolina, for which Griffith provides no spectacular Gone With the Wind sound stage vistas nor epic, hoop-skirted barbecues. Here in this small-scaled arena of feeling — as when a war-weary Ben Cameron returns to the homestead and two pairs of female arms reach out to pull him inside — is where Griffith’s sincerity as an artist lies and where we find the best reason to still watch Birth of a Nation.
Inexcusably, though, the filmmaker had decided to adapt the novel (then play) The Clansman (1905), by Thomas Dixon, whose work seems to have encapsulated the South’s peculiarly psychotic reaction to losing the Civil War and all that entailed, most specifically, the reality of its newly freed slaves. Taking his source seriously, Griffith’s depictions of blacks and the sanctified emergence of the Klan appear today as not only shocking but ludicrous.
For their Blu-ray edition, Kino has unearthed a furtherance of the Walter Huston/Griffith fireside chat that had introduced the 1930 reissue of the film. The newly discovered bit had been intended to front the second half of the film after intermission, and it’s blessedly brief. Huston opens by asking Griffith, “Were conditions in the South after the war really as bad as you picture them?” To which the director responds by having Huston read a section from a book by Woodrow Wilson2 that justifies the formation of the Klu Klux Klan as a defense against a ploy of the North to put “the white South under the heel of the black South.” When Huston stops reading, Griffith says, with an awkward inversion of words, “Rather true it sounds, doesn’t it?” Whether out of awed deference or simple embarrassment, Huston is silent, and the segment ends.
Wilson’s point seems to be that the newly freed blacks were unprepared to handle competently the political, legislative power that the Carpetbaggers, with devious intent, had handed them, but, although Griffith stages a minstrel show version of a majority-ruled black state assembly, the main thrust of the film’s argument against Reconstruction is sexual not political. When in one scene we see a painted sign promising “Forty acres and a mule,” it might as well read, “Forty acres, a mule . . . and a white woman.”
In this history written with lightning,3 a freed slave’s very first impulse is to marry a white woman. The considerable excitement Griffith builds in the second half of Birth is fueled by what, after a first viewing, we might remember as the attempted rape of two white women — Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) and Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish). Flora, the younger of the two Cameron daughters, leaps to her death rather than submit to the attentions of the roving black militiaman Gus (Walter Lang), while Elsie faints dead away when her father’s mulatto henchman, Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), expresses his entitlement to her favors.
Actually, the women are responding to marriage proposals, not bodice-ripping violence. When he tells the nubile Flora of his connubial plans, Gus comes off more as mentally challenged than threatening, yet, in spite of his dedicated pursuit of the girl through the pine barrens, there’s no positive indication that Gus intends rape. Although Schickel proposes Lynch may be driven less by lust than by love for Elsie, the man does chase the girl around the room a bit, an aggression that seems to signify physical desire. Essentially, though, Elsie passes out at the mere thought of marriage to a black man. In a flurry of confusion and possible embarrassment, Lynch binds and gags the unconscious woman, but without a clearly defined intention to ravage her at the moment; he has only ordered a “forced marriage.”
Conniving mulattos figure big in the Dixon/Griffith depiction of Reconstruction, these poor souls having been fated as evildoers, I’m guessing, by their being themselves products of the dreaded evils of miscegenation. When Stoneman’s mulatto housemaid, Lydia (Mary Alden), is rude with one of the congressman’s colleagues, he responds with shock and hauteur at her attitude. Left alone, Lydia sinks to the floor, tears at her clothes, and writhes in demented frustration at her lowly station, then erotically caresses her breasts at the thought of possibly seducing her boss. It’s by far the silliest scene in the film and wretchedly performed by Ms. Alden, who of course is no more African American than her director.
Thus, here and elsewhere Griffith adds layers of ridiculousness upon the astringent racism that underpins the entire picture (racism being absurdist in itself). By watching black children run terrified from white kids pretending to be ghosts under bed sheets, the Little Colonel gets the idea for the KKK’s hooded regalia — a eureka moment so laughable that it nearly renders itself harmless — until, that is, we see the Klan’s first action item. Hunting down the hapless Gus, they summarily execute him, tossing his corpse like dead meat onto Silas Lynch’s front porch.
In the film the act is meant to serve as dire warning to the rising tide of uppity blacks, but, given the nature of Gus’s untried crime — which is, at the most, harassing a white girl who hysterically thought suicide her only escape from unwanted attention — it could stand as a harbinger to Emmett Till’s atrocious punishment for supposedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. For the rest of his life, Griffith never understood the storm of controversy surrounding Birth. “Why, I like negroes!” he reportedly said. Part of the drive to make his next film, Intolerance (1916), arose from his own hurt feelings — a conviction that both he and Birth of Nation had been victims of intolerance. Yet, however dismal Griffith’s denial plays in retrospect, his picture is an astonishing accomplishment. If it were merely a coarse delivery system for racist propaganda — it was allegedly used as a recruiting tool for the KKK — we wouldn’t be watching it now, nearly ninety years after its release, on Blu-ray disc. In the face of that which makes it repugnant, what confounds us today is the enduring, fluid power of Griffith’s filmmaking; Birth of a Nation is a masterwork of pacing — there are virtually no longueurs. But even more so, we are driven to acknowledge within it Griffith’s humanity, which weaves in and out of an inhumane polemic. Griffith’s paradox is an American paradox and one we’re surely not free of. Everyone in this country should see this film at least once.
Watching Griffith’s 1920 film, newly issued on Blu-ray by Kino Classics, we have a much easier time than we had with Birth. Yet it too has a squirm factor in its stubborn retention of some uncomfortable turn-of-the-century bumpkin humor. When Griffith chose to adapt Lottie Blair Parker’s 1898 play, colleagues and troupe members like Lillian Gish wondered if he’d lost all good judgment taking on this hopelessly out-of-date melodrama. After World War I, as America headed for the Jazz Age, tastes and mores had irrevocably changed; how would a film of Way Down East, which sentimentalized a vanishing rural provincialism, play to movie audiences that increasingly demanded urban sophistications onscreen?
But catering to public taste was a foreign concept to Griffith. After all, when he began to make films in the medium’s infancy, it was he who created the public’s taste, and, by 1920, at the height of his powers, ensconced in his newly purchased Mamaroneck film studio/estate, his patrician confidence was not yet on the wane. After Way Down East, there would still be good films from Griffith, even one or two possibly great ones, but the coming decade would teach him harsh lessons, and ultimately his career would grind to a halt in the early years of the talkies.
As in Birth, Griffith responded to those aspects of Parker’s play that brought out the best in his filmmaking, realizing the play’s barebones potential by an extravagant opening up of its theatrical strictures. Utilizing his Mamaroneck grounds to the fullest, the director shot much of the film in the open air, and, as emphasized by Schickel, the interaction of the actors with the locations — and to specific weather conditions — propels the melodramatic material into unforeseen, and quite profound, dramatic dimensions.
The film is also a key moment in Lillian Gish’s career, containing what is perhaps her most powerful surviving performance. In its extant condition, Way Down East still clocks in at nearly 2½ hours, and its leisurely pace allows Gish space to create a fully dimensional character. Anna Moore begins the film as a painfully naïve teenage country girl who is fatally charmed by urban sophisticate Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). Luring Anna into a fake marriage scheme, he then leaves her holding the baby that results from a phony honeymoons tryst. In her late twenties at the time, Gish manages to project an awkward young girl who seems impossibly innocent of sex, but the details of the actress’ nuanced performance add up.
When, on her honeymoon night, Anna appears to Sanderson in a gauzy nightgown, he goes to embrace her, and here, even in a medium shot, Gish reveals the girl’s extreme vulnerability at being exposed to the man’s sexual intentions. She can’t look at him square in the face, and you can almost feel her shudder when Sanderson touches her bare back. At the same time, Anna in her trembling, virginal state is so trusting of Sanderson that even he appears to be having second thoughts.
Their newborn child doesn’t survive Anna’s descent into dire poverty, but when the grieving young mother becomes nestled in the paradisiacal bosom of the Bartlett farm, her trials, of course, are far from over. Throughout them, though, Anna resists defeat, growing stronger, until — at the climatic dinner table scene that precedes the blizzard — she’s able to stand her ground against Sanderson. Griffith photographs Gish in close-up as she delivers a heroic broadside of righteous anger into her destroyer’s face, and in the fierceness of that moment, Anna sloughs off any remainder of her simplistic girlhood and reveals herself as a woman of complex feeling.
Kino Lober seems dedicated to a program of upgrading their silent titles when restorations appear or if HD transfers exist. Thus far, Buster Keaton has been the biggest beneficiary of this process, but Griffith is gaining HD ground.4 As for other Griffith films worthy of a Blu-ray release, one can only hope a high-def restoration of Intolerance (1916) is in the works somewhere, and that Kino might revisit a vastly undervalued film by Griffith, Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924), which the company last issued back in the days of VHS.
Pasolini, we can never forget, was not only an intellectual but a Marxist intellectual, who nearly always committed a polemic to a film. Medea is no exception. After all, Pasolini is the only filmmaker I know of who has inserted an “essential bibliography” into the opening titles of a feature, this being his final film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1976). If not for some extra reading, at least at the level of the liner notes accompanying the DVD, one might think Salò was merely a horrifically joyless tale about sadistic Italian fascists tormenting a group of teenagers during World War II, instead of its pointing to sociopolitical concerns of the filmmaker far more current to the consumer culture of the mid-seventies.
Pasolini also favors the concept of ritual. Salò‘s systematic torture and degradation of its victims become a series of rites that structure the film. In Teorema (1968), Terence Stamp, playing a pansexual angel who frees (or destroys) members of an upper middle-class family by revealing to them their repressed sexual identities, appears to each solemnly, mystically, as if he were a divine being engaging each in some sort of annunciation ceremony.
Medea begins with a ritual, a bloody human sacrifice, in which a drugged youth is cut open, his body dismembered and burned to ashes; these are taken and scattered on fields of grain to ensure a good harvest. In this primitive, agrarian society, Medea (Maria Callas) is head priestess, who guards, along with her brother (Sergio Tramonti) their religion’s totemic treasure, the Golden Fleece.
Medea’s destroyer, Jason (Guiseppe Gentile), travels from another world — a complex, civilized, self-reflective society of philosophy and power struggles — to snatch the fleece for his own political gain. Aiding and abetting the Greek’s crime, Medea loses her powers as priestess/witch by yielding to her sexual attraction to Jason, whom she accompanies back to Greece along with the stolen fleece. After ten years of marriage and three children born, Jason tires of Medea and seeks a younger wife, the daughter of the king of Corinth — a marriage that will also advance him politically. Tragedy results, of course, from Jason’s abandonment of Medea, but the murders that end the film have the same ritualistic feel as the one that began it.
The entire film has a hushed, slow pace to it, as if this retelling of the Medea myth were a ceremonial service itself, in which we partake of a consciousness-raising ritual that is nonetheless backed by an intellectual, philosophical stance. Facing such an experience, one might seek a mediator, in this case BFI’s essayist John David Rhodes, whose notes at least get us on track of Pasolini’s subtext, which Rhodes tells us has something to do with modernity, symbolized by Jason’s society and actions, displacing the mysteries of the timeless natural world represented by Medea’s society.
But then, if you walk into the film without Rhodes’ help and remain ignorant of the film’s subtext, you’ll still have Maria Callas, who allows her director’s picture to sing even if she doesn’t. Regardless of your feelings about Pasolini’s didacticism, Callas alone is reason enough to see Medea. In her only appearance in a feature film, Callas, not surprisingly considering her powers as a singing actress, is wholly believable as the disenfranchised priestess who recovers her magical powers in time to wreak primitive vengeance on “civilized” Jason, played by the non-actor, Olympic sports celebrity Gentile. Indeed, a possible flaw in the film might be this unanswered question: what exactly does Medea see in this rather blank stud muffin?
Skillfully, Pasolini and his cinematographer cause the middle-aged Callas to initially appear far younger when she first encounters Jason, but we never forget that we’re watching the superstar diva, who brings the considerable weight of her matured personality to bear on the role. As photographed, she’s not conventionally, glamorously beautiful but instead edgily, intensely beautiful in the way that her singing is not conventionally beautiful either but delivers profound artistic truths. It seems unlikely the Callas/Medea we see in the film would throw her entire cultural identity to the winds for the sake of this boytoy.
After their first night of lovemaking, Pasolini has Callas cruise Gentile’s bare muscular legs, as if, by appraising this chunk of man-flesh, she finds it worth the price of what she’s given up. In order to escape her land and people — and to provide credibility of the sincerity of her break with them — she doesn’t hesitate to kill her brother and hack his body into pieces, which she then scatters along her escape route. (It’s an effective tie-in with the film’s initial sacrifice, though, and a vivid reminder of Medea’s propensity for violence.)
Yet, near the end, when she coolly but deceptively agrees to Jason’s newly hatched nuptial plans, he mouths his regrets but, as he leaves, smiles and blows Medea an air kiss, as if he were saying, “we had some good times, baby, but now it’s time to move on!” The gesture only adds fuel to Medea’s wrath, but it also slyly undercuts the mythic weight of the legendary couple’s history together. In the course of the film, Pasolini throws more than one such curve at us, but the supremely confident Callas never blinks at any of her director’s tonal dissonances, nor did he want her to, I’m sure. Callas’s performance has a classic, fictive cohesion to it that clashes meaningfully with the deliberate artificialities, or narrative disjoints, that Pasolini uses to take oblique potshots at the aspects of modern life that he hated, like globalization. It’s a canny strategy for such an elusive film, which also manages to celebrate the filmmaker’s concept of “natural sacredness” by being quite beautiful visually, an aspect well served by BFI’s crisp and film-like Blu-ray transfer.
Shot for $17,000 in Oxnard and Ventura in Southern California from a script by Glodell, Bellflower is framed as a spunky, somewhat satiric buddy picture, but nestles within it a horrific, conflagratory vision of a busted girl/boy romance. In the making-of feature on the discs, the young, thirtyish Glodell forthrightly discloses his script as being begun while he was in the emotional turmoil following a breakup, and after experiencing his film’s inner blast of testosterone-fueled grief and anger, you believe him.
Oscilloscope’s packaging of their duo-disc (DVD+Blu-ray) release of Bellflower proclaims it a “critique of Generation Y,” but the denizens of the film’s story seem more a subculture of that generation — born in the late seventies to early eighties? — which we think of as video-game obsessed, not given to binging on drugs and alcohol, and dedicated to recycling and going green. These dudes, however, are more like throwbacks to ’60s-era collegiate hedonists; throughout the film nary an Xbox is visible, substance abuse is a constant, and you can forget about any of them wanting to make the world a better place. And they lack a certain gallantry toward women.
So then, do have a critique here of, say, the dangers of not heeding the advice of 1st Corinthians, chapter 13? That is, when becoming a man, to no longer think and do as a child, but to “put away childish things”? Subsisting, with no visible means of support, in one of the sketchier neighborhoods of Greater Los Angeles, the two close-knit buds, Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Alden (Tyler Dawson), who seem well on their way to 30 years old, have dreams of building a “muscle car” in the fashion of the souped-up Ford Falcon driven by Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979) and Road Warrior (1981). In the meantime, their waking hours are spent devising a homemade flamethrower; occasionally they’ll look at each other and invoke the spirit of Lord Humungous, the hockey-masked, muscle-bound warlord of Road Warrior — a film released when these guys were probably two or three years old.
In its test run, their jerry-rigged flamethrower is eminently successful, but shouldn’t these guys have gotten over burning and blowing things up before they graduated from high school? Here the filmmakers position their characters in an arrested development that leaves them unprepared for the emotional holocaust that lies in wait for one of them, who turns out to be the softer-hearted of the two, Woodrow. One drunken night at a bar, he meets cute (live cricket-eating contest) with Millie (Jessie Wiseman), who emerges from her trash-talking, honky-tonk environs to become his dark angel.
Not by design I’m sure, Bellflower makes a baby boomer like me feel every bit as old as I actually am — the retro-grunge bar where Woodrow meets Millie is full of drunken young people determined to address each other as “dude” as often as possible, a practice that greatly annoys me. Indeed, much of the film is like eavesdropping on a small group of twenty-something party animals as they talk and spill their youthful inebriated vulnerability all over each other as easily as one of them might knock a half-empty bottle of Budweiser into another’s lap.
The terrifyingly young actors — all of them virtual unknowns — perform Glodell’s script with such pitch-perfect authenticity that the picture becomes a strangely intimate experience, especially when things turn violent. But while the reckless, run-amok behavior can be stoned, misogynist, or just plain uncategorizably ugly, nothing in its visualization feels like a judgment. In the end, I would characterize the film as less a critique than a look-see at an emotional landscape the filmmakers inhabit, or once inhabited. The aforementioned making-of documentary reveals a highly successful indie project made by the skin of the filmmakers’ teeth, and of a spirit of camaraderie shared by cast, crew, and director. We learn that the filmmakers made the flamethrower and the muscle car (dubbed Medusa) by themselves, just as the film’s characters do — and with a very similar adolescent glee — blurring, it seems, the line between craft, art, and lifestyle..
While the UK’s Masters of Cinema’s label released, late last year, a splendid two-disc Blu- ray edition of Touch of Evil, here in the U.S., Universal — the studio that snatched the film from Welles’s hands before its premiere and essentially, by trying to make it “understandable” via a re-edit, nearly ruined it for all posterity — rereleases this month (January 2012) the same old DVD version it brought out in 2008, the only addition being an inclusion of a “digital copy.”
But what we can’t expect anymore from American studios we can at least hope from smaller cineaste concerns in the UK like Masters of Cinema, whose Touch of Evil set contains no less than five variants of the film — a generous offering that reflects the remarkably complex, checkered history of Welles’s mishandled masterpiece. Famously, Universal — while the director was out of the country — recut his initial edit, in which, by intercutting, he’d dynamically unfolded the separate, divided experiences of its two leads, the Mexican official Vargas (Charleton Heston) and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh), as Vargas rips the lid off the pot of corruption stirred by border-town police chief Hank Quinlan (Welles). In order to create a more linear “single” narrative out of the divergent activities of Vargas and Susie, studio officials had the intercuts unraveled.
Additional scenes, not directed by Welles, were also shot to further clarify the story. All this messing about greatly upset the director, who, upon returning from a shoot in Mexico, saw that the changes only muddied the plot and wrote a 58-page memo detailing the changes he felt were needed to salvage the new cut. The studio followed some of the suggestions but not all, resulting in a 111-minute preview version later cut down to 96 minutes for theatrical release; both of these cuts appear on Masters of Cinema’s edition.
Also included, of course, is the 1998 reconstructed version, which Walter Murch and Bob O’Neil accomplished by following the dictates of the 1958 memo. Most memorably, the reconstruction restores the purity of Welles’ tour-de-force opening shot, over which the theatrical cut had placed titles, credits, and Henry Mancini’s bumptious jazz. Welles’s original intention was to have the camera, sans credits and underscore, follow the booby-trapped convertible while we hear the ambient sounds it encounters, emanating from apartments, storefronts, traffic on the street, etc., and this has been marvelously brought back to life. No one can be sure, though, that the reconstruction actually fulfills Welles’s intentions throughout, which, as he articulated here and there in scattered interviews over the years, had mostly to do with the delicate, time-consuming business of editing. If re-editing a Welles film, even when following his notes, is not quite like orchestrating an unfinished, albeit sketched-out symphony by Gustav Mahler, it comes close.
More mystery revolves around what aspect ratio the director preferred; it was simply never stated by Welles, although some believe that, since by 1957-58 theaters were expected to present in the wide-screen format, the film must have been shot on 35mm with masking to that ratio in mind. By offering the reconstructed and theatrical cuts in both 1.37:1 and 1.85:1, Masters of Cinema hedges its bets and heads off a surge of Internet complaints from fanboy cineastes. The longer preview version is presented solely in 1.85:1.
I prefer the reconstructed cut in 1.85:1. Much of the film has its characters in angry collision with each other, and as they butt heads — argue, accuse, assault, or murder each other — the wide screen packs them in closer to us, heightening the visual, mannerist punch of those scenes. Just like Susie or Vargas, we’re getting too close for comfort to Uncle Joe’s toupee and weird eyeliner, or Quinlan’s cigar, or Pete Menzies’s (Joseph Calleia) sweaty obsequiousness, and Welles’s blocking becomes something like a cinematic invasion of our personal space.
But we can get nearer to nuance, too. A pivotal scene — when Vargas catches Quinlan planting evidence and calls him on it — reveals more than just how good Welles’s makeup job is; it shows how effectively the big man could dial down his actorly voice and presence to let the camera take advantage of small gestures.
After Vargas, along with the camera, moves in close to Quinlan, and spits out his accusation — in flawless, clenched-teeth Heston delivery — “you framed that boy!” Welles has Quinlan react quietly (in contrast to Heston’s “loud,” emphatic delivery) with a game face, which nonetheless discloses fear like a torn window shade leaks light. “I know how you feel,” Quinlan says to Vargas, rapidly but sotto voce, “you people are touchy.” Quinlan’s racism remains defiant, of course, but it’s a shaky rejoinder, and Welles projects his character’s sudden desperation with the most delicate, economical means.
How Welles positions his actors (and photographs them, often with a goodly amount of contrast) has much to do with the distinctiveness of his film, but whether or not the 1.85:1 enhances effects he wanted is probably already a matter of fierce debate and one that I’ll gingerly step away from now, as Vargas does from Quinlan’s bloated corpse. On its discs, Masters of Cinema reprises the documentary features found on Universal’s edition: Bringing Evil to Life and Evil Lost and Found, in which cast members Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh appear, among others. Leigh and Heston are also included in the several commentary tracks culled from previous Universal releases. A 56-page booklet furthers the scholarship, however, with articles by Truffaut and Welles, and several excerpts from interviews of the director. In one of them, Welles emphatically counters an interpretation of the Quinlan character made in an article by André Bazin — also included in the booklet — in which Bazin proposes that Welles plays Hank Quinlan for sympathy. Welles states unequivocally that he despises Quinlan and his Machiavellian attitude toward the law, just as he has no sympathy for his character Harry Lime (in The Third Man, 1939) and his misdeeds, either.
- Schickel, Richard. D. W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996. [↩]
- The book is most likely Wilson’s History of the American People (1918). [↩]
- Woodrow Wilson’s alleged critical assessment of the film: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Wilson later attempted to disavow this statement, but with little success. [↩]
- Kino’s 2008 DVD of Way Down East reviewed here: https://www.brightlightsfilm.com/63/63griffith.php [↩]