I was surprised to see that D. W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation (1914) begins with a peek at Thaddeus Stevens, one of my American heroes. He is called “Stoneman” in the film, and is something of a villain, until he is redeemed at the end by revealing his deep hypocrisy about race, to wit, when it comes down to it, he would never allow his daughter (played by Lillian Gish) marry a mulatto.
It’s interesting to note the difference that 100 years makes: in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Stevens is a hero, a foresighted champion of racial equality and justice. Was Speilberg purposely making his Stevens look similar to Griffith’s Stoneman? And yes, it is true, Stevens wore an outrageous wig, having lost all of his hair during an illness when he was young.
I knew that Birth of a Nation was racist propaganda for the Southern view of Reconstruction, but still, I was not prepared for just how vicious it is. As one reviewer said, watching the film is “a torment,” similar to watching Nazi propaganda films, including the justly famous Triumph of the Will. The southerners are gallant Christians, defending their women like chivalric knights of old, and everyone, north and south, despises the negroes. The film is, despite itself, amazingly realistic at times, using African-Americans for bit roles and background extras, while white actors in blackface take the major “negro roles”: realistic in its depiction of the culture of slavery and Jim Crow, and I don’t mean in a favorable way. As Roger Ebert points out in his excellent review, this is only so because Griffith was so totally convinced of the rightness of his views – the gentle South, happy slaves, etc. – that it would never have occurred to him that his imagery implied their contradiction.
The print that I watched on Netflix includes a brief interview between Walter Huston and Griffith, both decked out in formal evening wear, in which Huston lobs softball questions to Griffith:
“Was the Klan necessary at that time?”
“Yes, Walter, it was necessary, at that time.”
There you have it. The freeing of the slaves, untutored and unready for civilization, unleashed upon the traumatized South a tyranny, egged on by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers who manipulated the negroes to their ends. The Klan had to step in to restore civilization. Thus, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow began. In Griffith’s mythology, even Stevens sees the wisdom of it, returning to a policy that Griffith is convinced Lincoln would have favored.
There is a lot of high-toned stuff in this film too: several anti-war pleas, including an image of Christ at the end, and a denunciation of artistic censorship. Yes, if only the war had been averted. Perhaps the South would still be carrying on with its slaves! And yes, censorship is bad, The film was instantly immensely controversial, and the NAACP in some cities did call for censorship of the most racially offensive scenes. I say, let it all hang out. The NAACP has had the last laugh on D.W.
Did I say that the film is fantastic? It is. It is gripping, a wonder of cinema so great, I found it hard to believe it was from 1914 it seems so contemporary in many respects. The battle scenes are stunning; the acting, though melodramatic, is nevertheless powerful. Gish gushes beautifully. It is one of the most innovative and influential films ever made, and the reasons why are obvious if you watch any other film from 1914. Some scenes:
The very first sequence. With the introduction of black slavery, the seeds of disunion were sown. Only the Civil War produced a truly united nation. True enough, but somehow it seems here that it is the fault of the Africans! As Melville put it in Benito Cereno:
“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;
“You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”
“The Negro.” There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.
It’s all the curse of the negro…
The first part of the film is about the run-up to the Civil War and the actual conflict. The real story is Part II, Reconstruction. Stoneman/Stevens has a mulatto mistress, his housekeeper, an historical fact. She manipulates him (lust seems to be a big motivation) to take a hard and brutal policy position towards the defeated South, hoping to revenge her people. Stoneman’s right-hand man, another mulatto, is going to be made puppet governor of South Carolina in order to better implement the destruction of the Old South.
A black Union soldier chases a white woman who, fearing for her honor, leaps to her death from a precipice. The Klan organizes to capture the man, otherwise protected by Stoneman’s puppet. They give him a “trial.”
The scene of the KKK dumping his body at the governor’s office is, I think, supposed to be taken as a brilliant example of justice delivered, but in one of those inadvertent truth-telling images, it is a brutal image of the Klan’s racial tyranny.
To finish off the local white gentry, the savage negroes are let loose to pillage and rapine in the town. The Klan rides in, just like the cavalry, to save the day. Of course, the actual events were more like the reverse, i.e., sustained campaigns of racial cleansing by organized whites to rid entire regions of black farmers who owned land.
The blacks are vicious and terrifying, without regard to sex, of the victim or the perpetrator. Here is Lillian Gish being threatened by a former servant.
One of the local gentry kills a black man in an altercation while he was being arrested for harboring Klan members. He manages to escape with the assistance of his loyal former house-slaves, and flees with his daughter and some friends to a remote cabin where he wants to wait for things to call down. The cabin is inhabited by two white former Union soldiers. Racial solidarity prevails. It would take a few more years for the word “Aryan” to fall into disrepute.
In a climactic scene, the father grabs the hair of his daughter, preparing to shoot her, rather than have her be captured alive and be despoiled by the black troops attacking his cabin hideout.
All’s well that ends well. Hero and heroine reunited at last.
Order is restored, and the next time there is an election, the Klan is on hand to make sure that the Negroes vote properly. Yet another image that surely was not intended to seem as it now does to us.
In the news today:
An argument over the teachings of the philosopher Immanuel Kant between two men standing in line for beer at an outdoor festival in southern Russia ended when one man shot the other in the head with gun loaded with rubber bullets, the state RIA news agency reported on Monday, citing the police. Though the wound was not critical, the attacker faces up to a decade in prison if convicted on assault charges.
BTW, the images of the bandit are from the final sequence (or the first, in some releases) of The Great Train Robbery (1904), a seminal work in the history of film. It’s pretty darn good, and you can watch it on Youtube.
From the first part of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1919). It’s an Indiana Jones kind of tale.
I find it incredible that I can watch moving figures captured almost 100 years ago.
Is not each one us a society’s child? Society made Eddie a killer, and then crucified him for it.
You Only Live Once (1937) is the second film by Fritz Lang after he came to America, and a pretty bleak job it is. Yes, I’d call it early noir, but it is also drenched with religious imagery. Henry Fonda plays Eddie Taylor (E. T. – that’s important in the film) and Sylvia Sydney looks gorgeous playing his faithful, too faithful, wife, Jo. He’s a good guy who’s gone wrong, and paid for it. Now, he wants to go straight, Jo waited for him during his three-year stretch in the joint, but society won’t give an ex-con a break. They’re doomed, and you know it.
Jo’s friend is a good-hearted lawyer who gets Eddie a job as a trucker when he’s freed, and he also carries a torch for Jo. In the film, he seems to be a direct mouthpiece for Lang’s views, sometimes lambasting the authorities for their brutishness and prejudice. He hopes for the best for Jo, when she and Eddie tie the knot on his release.
Eddie is a romantic, and of course that will screw him up good, but first he and she have a delightful honeymoon at a cozy motel, which has a lovely garden.
The lovebirds are watched over by two frogs who don’t appear to be mating themselves. At one point in the story, when Jo believes Eddie is on his way to the chair for a crime he did not commit, she sends him a message – “I still remember the frogs.” Only Fritz!
Those impassive guardians of the night watch as Eddie picks her up, kisses her, and mounts the steps to Calvary…oops, I mean their bedroom. It’s a foreshadowing of the final sequence when he carries Jo through the woods, both of them riddled with bullets, to their final rest. Pietas come to mind, as well as the finale of Farewell to Arms.
Eddie is late on a truck run because he makes a detour to take Jo to look at a house, a real fixer-up-er, that he and Jo can live in now that they are married. Naturally, his boss is not understanding, and he humiliates him with insults when he begs for another chance, telling the boss that his friends tempt him with easy money from safe bank heists, but he wants no more of that. No dice – the boss fires him, after forcing him to wait while he has trivial phone conversations with his wife about social arrangements. “Straight society sucks,” is the message. Eddie delivers a knock-out blow to the boss’ chin and says, “And I wanted to go straight!…”
That scene is the set-up for one of the most outrageous plots twists I can remember, at least of those that work! Eddie appears to have caved in, returned to the life of crime because society just won’t give him a break. Once a con, always a con… He’s arrested for a deadly bank job in which six men died from poison gas used to incapacitate the armored car guards. His hat, with his initials, was found on the scene, and was used to identify him since the robber wore a full gas mask. He is sent up, and sentenced to die.
Jo believes in him, and she carries a heavy load because she urged Eddie to turn himself in, believing he would get off with a fair trial. We figure she is just taken in by Eddie’s lies because she loves him: so taken by love, that she agrees to smuggle in a gun to him. The plot is foiled by a crude metal detector, but the good Father takes the blame to get Jo off the hook. He takes her aside and chides her: that arch looks like it’s ready to crush them with its institutional weight.
We too are taken in, but by Lang’s audacious plot twist that makes us complicit in society’s unfair pre-judgement. Until it’s too late, we believe Eddie did it. By then, Eddie, caged like an animal for slaughter, has lost all ability to judge the odds, let alone right and wrong.
With the aid of a friendly con, he makes a daring escape, using the fog and the all-too-bourgeois prison doctor as a shield.
Eddie reunites with Jo, who, this time, won’t urge him to turn himself in, not when she learns he shot Father Dolan on the way out. She figures she’s as guilty as he is because it was she who urged him to surrender in the first place, when he wasn’t guilty! They run for it, like those Gun Crazy kids, like Bonnie and Clyde, and even, maybe, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.
They have a brief rest, before journey’s end. Idyllic…
Eddie knows they’re doomed. How could it be otherwise? He’s serene, and she loves him. They’ll go together.
They hit a roadblock, take some heavy fire from Tommy guns, and crash. Eddie stumbles into the woods, carrying Jo in his arms. The trooper lines up his gun with the two in his sights… Is it just me, or is that not the cross I see there, completed by Eddie? He is the sacrificial lamb for our social sins.
Jo, dying, tells him she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
He knows what he must do. He must kiss her dead lips, and then he will be free.
He sees the gates to freedom opening before him, and he hears the voice of Father Dolan repeating what he said during the breakout, when Eddie shot him – “You’re free! The gates are open!”
The title of this post is a reference, of course, to Society’s Child, a hit song from 1965 written by Janis Ian when she was fourteen (!!) and performed live on TV when she was sixteen. It’s the story of a white girl in love with a black boy, forced to break off with him because of her parents’ disapproval and peer pressure. She knows it’s all wrong but what can she do? She’s just society’s child.
A beautiful post-summer day in NYC, and I went for a walk during lunch. Of course, I spent time in the cemetery of Trinity Church, where they’ve taken to putting up small informative signs for tourists, including one in front of the gravestone shown above. It says Charlotte Temple on it, which is the name of a novel that was wildly popular in late 18th century America, but there is some doubt as to why it’s there. (Reminds me of a recent article about the pseudo-grave of Nick Beef, next to Lee Harvey Oswald’s final place of rest.)
A NYTimes article from several years ago says that a researcher got the church to lift the slab to see what’s under it, but there is no burial vault, however, that doesn’t mean that no one is buried there. The little sign says that the inscription may have been carved by a bored stoneworker during construction work on the church. I like that explanation – the artistically inclined skilled artisan class, and all that.
Further on my walk, I encountered a very odd place for NYC: the sign in the window says as much – “It’s free. We know that’s hard to believe in NYC!” The place is a nice modern storefront called Charlotte’s Place, and it has tables, computers, books, and spaces for sitting, talking, meeting, and other sociable activities. It is completely free, and is maintained as a resource for the community, by Trinity Church it seems. An anonymous grave which might house no one and a free space for anyone, all from Charlotte.
In an interview a few years after the destruction of the WTC, Phillip Roth was quoted on the “kitchification” of the event and its victims. I have commented before on what I feel is a rather ghoulish or morbid preoccupation with this horrible event, so I have not much to say other than that I found the store depressing and faintly nauseating, and, as that phrase I hate goes, “It is what it is…” Seems appropriate for once.
Meanwhile, nearby, the slow, laborious work on Calatrava’s Faberge egg of a transit hub continues… As the article correctly remarks:
It is important to note how the projects within the World Trade Center are unique in the sense that they were, and continue to be, fueled by emotions associated with the 9/11 attacks.
First there was the novel, Nightmare Alley, now available in a new printing from the NYRB. Then the film, with Helen Walker playing Lilith Ritter, the female psychiatrist with ice water in her veins. She sucks the life out of Stanton Carlisle, played by Tyrone Power, and throws away his deflated husk of a body. He descends back into the muck from which he came and finishes as a geek, biting the heads off chickens for a living. It’s a faithful adaptation of the book.
Then there was Lilith, the uptight dominatrix psychiatrist of the TV sitcom Cheers, played by Bebe Neuwirth. She has to be channelling Helen Walker!
After that, came the comic book adaptation of Nightmare Alley by Spain Rodriguez, published by Fantagraphics.
Lilith has Bebe’s dark hair…
… and is up-front about her needs… The toe nail painting is a nice noir reference to Scarlett Street, by Fritz Lang.