100 years ago today, D.W. Griffith showed his racist epic film “Birth of a Nation” at a private White House screening for President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson called it “history written with lightning,” and said lightning strike sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which in its late teens and early twenties form became a gigantic nationwide organization of conservative white men marching and organizing against not only African-Americans but all sorts of perceived threats ranging from women with short hair and the theory of evolution to Jews and socialism. When it declined in the late 20s, it wasn’t because of federal oppression or a rejection of the KKK’s ideas. Rather, it was because of widespread corruption in the organization’s leadership, including the the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan’s trial for the brutal rape and murder of a teacher named Madge Oberholtzer on a train.
I was first exposed to Birth of a Nation as a college student. While I did watch it for a class my senior year, it was my sophomore year that I actually first saw it. I worked for the AV department in college and this was long enough ago that films in class were being shown reel to reel (the switch to VHS capability in classrooms was taking place while I was in college). One quarter I had the job of running the previews of the 100-level intro to film course for the professor. Saw a bunch of weird stuff–Un Chien Andalou, The Gold Rush, and Notorious are three I distinctly remember. But none shocked me like Birth of a Nation, as I had never heard of the thing. I never forgot the shock of what I was seeing.
And if you haven’t seen Birth of a Nation, it really is must viewing, both in spite of and because of its racism. As a film, it’s great. As social commentary, it’s repulsive.
It is my birthday. I am now 41 with the personality of an 80 year old and the back of a 60 year old (as the snow has reminded me). Speaking of old things, my birthday present to the rest of you is A Corner in Wheat, the D.W. Griffith film from 1909. It has everything you want in a political film from the time. Horrible poverty. Grotesque wealth. Bread riots. And capitalists being killed in grain elevators. One of the best movies representing the Gilded Age.
I had my students watch it out of class for my film course that meets tonight. I also had them read Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. In class, we are watching Modern Times. That’s right, it is early 20th century labor week.
This spring, I am teaching Recent American History in Film. I have taught this before as a summer course, but those courses are unusual beasts without a lot of relevance for a traditional 15 week course. I don’t need suggestions on films, though I will put them up for you when I finish the syllabus. I do need some structural advice. This is a course that meets once a week for 2 1/2 hours. There are 30 students. Because I will be showing a film on a particular era or theme each week in class, I am going to require an unusual amount of out of class work from them (they are taking this because they think it will be easy. It will not.) Fine. But I also want them to watch another film outside of class each week, which they would have to write about before class starts on our course software website, and which would inform the week’s session. The problem is figuring out the access. We have an OK film collection in our library, but will students go in there to watch the films? And if they do, it’s all going to be the night before, so that won’t work. So then you have forcing them to subscribe to a streaming service. That’s fine, certainly. But which one? Neflix, Fandor, and the Warner archive all have their strong points, but none have the kind of library one would rely on for class. I can’t require Netflix discs I don’t think because it would overwhelm the system when I had 30 copies of Sullivan’s Travels coming all at once. I can’t realistically assign more than 1 service. I’m actually leaning toward Warner given the overwhelming number of older and American films, but that would still leave real weaknesses.
So what would you do in this situation? Surely some of you have taught film courses of various kinds, others have ideas too no doubt.
Traveling back to the U.S. today, so I won’t be able to respond much but I look forward to hearing your advice.
I recently rewatched The Grapes of Wrath and then reread the book. They are both great pieces of art. Back in my social realist days of art in the late 90s and early 00s, I found the slightly more optmistic end of the movie irritating, but really the scene with Rose-a-Sharon suckling the old man was over the top and there really wasn’t much reason for the book to go on after Tom Joad leaves. And the mild sense of hope at the end of the film really is a more palatable ending. The flood offers nothing but more despair. The adaptation really is perfect as well. I know Steinbeck loved it. The superfluous characters are eliminated, even though it’s obvious in the film that there’s no way Ma Joad would have gone that long between children.
Anyway, what do you think happens to Tom Joad? Let’s assume he doesn’t killed like Casey. And let’s assume he survives the war. If Tom Joad is alive after 1945, what is his future? Am I the only who sees him becoming a conservative like most of his fellow ex-sharecropper migrants and voting for Goldwater in 64? Steinbeck makes a compelling case for Joad the populist man of the left. But of course Steinbeck’s landscape of the California fields is incredibly whitened, eliminating the Filipinos and Mexicans who had long history of work in the fields. That wasn’t entirely inaccurate given the deportations of Mexicans from California in the depression once white people needed low-paid work. But can Joad’s populism bypass the racist attitudes he grew up in and the racist attitudes of California? I guess I am skeptical given what we know about post-war California and the rise of conservatism. Maybe Joad returns from the war, gets a job in the defense factories like so many of his family members and comrades from Oklahoma, and those racial attitudes take over. Now Tom Joad didn’t buy into the religion at the heart of this, but then he’s a young man in the late 30s when the story takes place. Steady work and prosperity will do a lot to make someone forget the hard bad times that make them do crazy things.
I mean, sure, it’d be nice to think about Tom Joad as the vanguard of a left-populist movement. But that didn’t happen, nor did it come close to happening. So if we are playing the odds, I think we have to say that Joad votes Goldwater.
If you are not a football person however, let me sugges an alternative entertainment to ring in the new year. How about The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu? I watched this recently and found it utterly fascinating. It consists of nothing but Romanian state footage of the quarter-century Ceausescu regime. No talking heads, no commentary, no interviews. Just state footage. At three hours, it seemed daunting and too long on the face of it. And I suppose it is a bit long, just like every Romanian film it seems. But it really comes together because this regime constantly filmed itself. It includes both sound and silent footage, scenes of Ceausescu hunting some of the last big game in Europe, visits to factories, visits to food markets where Ceausescu showed his ardor for squeezing loaves of bread, state visits, official speeches, and many other varieties of how the state wanted to show itself to the world and to itself.
I had no idea that Ceausescu publicly rebuked the Soviet Union over the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Because of that, he became the eastern bloc darling of the West for awhile. So Richard Nixon shows up. And Jimmy Carter. Most fascinating was Ceausescu’s visit to North Korea. The film really lingers on this, with those incredibly elaborate North Korean parades to honor their visitor. Plus how many times have you seen Kim Il-Sung on film? After Ceausescu returned to Romania, he tried to recreate the cult of personality around Kim for himself. He was truly smitten with North Korea. This certainly did not help him in the end. When one brave communist functionary dares question his consolidation of power at a party congress, you see him hooted down. I feared for what happened to the man. Of course, the film ends just before his assassination after the 1989 revolution, although it does not show his body, which I remember seeing on CNN when I was a kid. The last footage is the only non-state footage in the film, which is him facing questions from his captors and refusing to answer him.
To some extent, it probably helps to know a bit about the man and his years of rule, which I really didn’t. So there are a few issues in which I was a touch lost. But that’s easy enough to research. It is streaming on Netflix and I highly recommend it.
Why would I put up footage of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which was a world’s fair held in San Francisco, celebrating both the rebirth of the city after the earthquake and the opening of the Panama Canal the year before? The real question is why wouldn’t I? Plus it features a rarity here at LGM–footage of living horses.
It’s not really one of Scorsese’s very best films because it is a good bit too long, but it is right there with Hugo as his best of the 21st century. Of course these days he’s too busy chronicling the heroes of his generation with lame documentaries, but when Scorsese tries, he’s still one of the greatest living directors.
In any case, I’d be hard pressed to give a reason why capitalism is a moral disaster than what is portrayed in this film.
Ickes groused about having been forced at a movie theatre to sit through a film clip featuring “a most disgusting exhibition put on by a low-class comedian as NRA propaganda” before the main show began. (The unnamed comedian was Jimmy Durante.)
“It would hardly appeal to the lowest order of human intelligence,” Ickes recorded in his diary, “and I am wondering if this sort of thing is being put on extensively. If it is, it will do the NRA more harm than good.” Frances Perkins, overhearing Ickes complain, volunteered that she had heard that “movie audiences in New York City were booing NRA propaganda.”