Saturday, November 05, 2005:

DJ Spooky, Robert Johnson, Bird / Diz

Robert Johnson -- Phonograph Blues
Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker -- Mohawk (Complete Take)
I went to see DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation last night at the Center for Performing Arts at UF, after hearing just a very little bit about it. Miller spoke beforehand to a small group of people, talking mostly about cutup culture and the promise of digital media, and I left the talk with high hopes for the show.

Rebirth of a Nation is a remix of Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's virulently racist 1915 silent film, in which white women are routinely threatened by white men in blackface, and the Klan (yes, that Klan) ride to the rescue. A group of black men (again, white men in blackface) rig elections for their own benefit, making the film a bit like the news from November 2000 in some parallel universe (one in which random white men are required to wear blackface). After the release of The Clansmen, which Birth of a Nation was based on, and the release of the film itself, which was immensely popular, Klan membership in the South soared.

I understand that the film is widely seen as influential, even though Griffith took credit for various film techniques he didn't originate. Critics tend to give it a free pass, wave it through with caveats--"Birth of a Nation, influential but racist, innovative, blah blah blah."

What I don't understand is that the film is terrible, and not just thematically. When it's not busy with fist fights or battle scenes--which is most of the time--it's dreadfully dull. It has all the pacing of a 200-page menu; it's more fun than a sharp stick in the eye but not as much fun as a kick in the crotch. It's like the rich salacious uncle no one wants to offend because they're hoping for an inheritance. And it's towering, unignorable: the proverbial sow's ear, three hours of film ripe for a remix.

Just before the show started, Miller walked to the center stage to repeat some of his points from the talk: Birth of a Nation was the first film shown at the White House; Woodrow Wilson was a big fan; "Grand Wizard" is a Klan rank so Theodore's title would mean something different in the South Bronx than it would in Kentucky; Miller wanted the lights up so they could see he's not a member of the Klan.

He chose a triptych form for Rebirth, with the right and left screens showing the same thing (I guess for the benefit of either side of the house) and the center screen typically showing something different. Sometimes all three screens would synch to the same image, for instance in the Klan parade. Miller remixed the film onstage on his Macs to music that he composed himself. That was a good choice. The music was what you'd expect: layered, moody, dubby, bits of turntablism, various samples (in this case, Robert Johnson's "Phonograph Blues"). But the rest of it fell flat.

I wanted to like the film, but what was done with it was all surface without depth: scenes laid half-transparent over others; images sliced down the middle and mirrored; characters with boxes or ovals around them, moving as they did; circuitry drawn over the scenes; images gone cloudy and washed out; the very occasional freeze frame or reversal of action. After one scene with characters with boxes and ovals around them you might see another with circuitry overlaid; after that it might be a bit of cloudiness with some mirror imagery; then it might be boxes and mirrors followed by circuits and clouds. It was all about technology, style, flash, but in ways that failed to dazzle after the second time onscreen. More critically, it failed to engage the text of the original.

It did not challenge the film, or subvert it, or amplify it; what it did for the most part was doodle on it. The result was something that, at 75 minutes long, was somehow only slightly less dull than the original, but without any apparent meaning. That's an approach that's perfectly fine in mix sessions and mashups but in this case--in film, where the original has such a legacy--the lack of meaning is a serious failing.

The audience expects more of a response than random bits of circuitry and clouds; and Miller seems to have, also: he talks on his site about "imploding" the original film, new stories rising from the ashes. If there were new stories in it, I'm not sure what they were, beyond an onanistic celebration of technology. I think Rebirth is a provocative but failed experiment in response to an equally provocative and more grievously failed original.

In spite of my disappointment with the film, I'm looking forward to the soundtrack.

Miller's written a bit about the remix, and included excerpts from the soundtrack. He's a thoughtful man in general, as poking around his site shows. (See for instance errata.)

[]: King of the Delta Blues Singers, vol 2
[]: Bird & Diz

(Bird and Diz are here because of Spooky's fondness for them, which is apparent in some of his music, was apparent in his pre-show talk, and which was not at all apparent in the embarrassing gifts presented to him afterwards. The story is probably less interesting than the summary of it.)


I feel I've unleashed a beast. More positive writeups next time.

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a thoughtful review, tuwa: thanks.

My pleasure, sir.

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