DJ Spooky's Rebirth Of A Nation
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DJ Spooky's Rebirth Of A Nation

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A while back I was having a discussion with my 24-year-old daughter about the film ‘Birth of a Nation.’ It was part of a film class she was taking and was writing a paper about the controversy over this film. The released silent film released back in 1915 but the repercussions of this film continue to present times. The director D. W. Griffith broke a lot of ground with this movie. It was the precursor to the Hollywood blockbuster. The film was one of the first feature lengths movies show; up until then most were only a few minutes long. It also ushered in innovative techniques in cinematography and direction that are still studied and used today. The controversy arises with the theme of the movie. Focusing on the aftermath of the American Civil War the main protagonists of the story are the Ku Klux Klan. By modern standards the film is racist. In the American cities that would even allow the movie to open there were riots over it. The point that came up with my daughter and has been discussed by many into the film is the question of the worth of such a film. It was a landmark film from the technical side; it brought in such now-common devices as the close-up and cutting between different storylines. It also demonstrated an attitude that was held by many Americans of the time it depicts. A part of the art of cinema is how it freezes a time and place. As a society, we may have moved on from the feelings held in the movie, and one factor of this film is it reminds us just how far society has moved on. The same may be said for films like those of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. She was a fantastic director who happened to forward the Nazi agenda. It is possible, perhaps vital, in cases like this to separate the technical mastery from the outdated message and keep the film alive for future generations to see and learn.

Many say that it is the responsibly of each generation to take the classics from the past and move them forward in time. In the case of ‘Birth of a Nation,’ this was done uniquely and interestingly. ‘Rebirth of a Nation’ is a retake of the 1915 movie done by Paul D. Miller, best known by his non de voyage, DJ Spooky. He is best known for his innovative work in Hip-Hop and electronic music. Miller is also far from the image that many people may have of a person who makes a living with a turntable. He received a degree from Bowdoin College in French literature and philosophy. He also helped to found the illbient music genre popular in Brooklyn, New York. Miller turned to what he knows best while tackling this project. He wanted to apply some of the same techniques and methods he used in music for the film. In music, he would employ sampling various other works and merged them into something with a novel slant. This was never considered as an application in the visual format of movies. While watching this masterpiece of a film, there is an odd sensation that will certainly come over you. As you look at the images crossing the screen, you are simultaneously in two centuries. There is the odd charm of the silent movie blended with the modern assault on the senses of a Hip-Hop club.

The original showing at the Tribeca Film Festival had three screens presenting contrasting and conflicting images to the audience. This DVD presentation focuses only on the center screen where the actual movie is dissected and reformed. Miller has taken the three-hour long epic and condensed it into just over an hour of reconnected images. He molds the story to his twenty-first-century vantage point. Miller does not forget his origins and music here is as important to the overall work as the imagery. He uses various computer programs and techniques to re-imagine the original score of the film. So many times the term re-imagine comes up in consideration of a movie. Typically it is a code phrase for a rip off; look at some of the remakes of the classic science fiction films that have hit the Cineplex in the last few years. For Miller, he takes the term literally. He takes the past and rethinks every aspect of it. In both, the fields of sight and sound Miller takes the central themes and works them into something uniquely his. This is not just a man who sits in a darkened booth spinning records and digital music. He is a true artist who brought a concept to life. It is also one of the great things about the independent film. It allows for much more experimentation that any major studio would permit. This is how the art form grows. It only fits that this particular film is re-mixed. It was the most innovative film at the start of cinema; now a how a new type of film has been born from it. Miller has proven himself to be a true renaissance man of our age. Where D. W. Griffith made his case that this nation was born from the Civil War Miller takes the many of the same images to show how the nation was reborn from the civil rights movement and the changes that have taken place in our society over the last century. Hopefully, it will inspire others to take a fresh look at the past.

The film opens with a clip of D.W. Griffith is sitting in a comfortable room with another man. Three children are standing to the side watching him. The man asks Griffith if he felt his film was true. Griffith responds that at that time the Klan was needed and it served a purpose. It then fades to a shot of President Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States. He was the son of Confederate sympathizers. In the course of his term in office, he faced a World War in Europe and the struggle to give women the vote. On the international front, he fought to create the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. He had his close friend, Griffith, screen his movie at the White House; the first film to receive this honor. Then showing images of the past and present Miller sets the tone for what is to come. He places ‘Birth of a Nation’ in its historical place without casting overt judgments from his modern vantage point. He will let the re-mix speak for itself. He describes ‘Birth’ as a film about conflict, and that is as alive a topic now as it was then. What follows cannot be accurately described; it has to be experienced to understand it.

This is simply put one of the most imaginative and innovating films that have hit the Indy world in years. It is something that demands to be part of any serious film collection. Starz and Anchor Bay has demonstrated a dedication to the art with the release of this film to DVD. It is presented in Dolby 5.1 audio with an anamorphic 1.78:1 video. One of the highlights of the disc is the commentary track featuring Miller. He deconstructs both the original film and his own. It is intelligent and well thought out. Most important of all this film will make people think and discuss the past in light of the present and our collective future.

Posted 10/21/08                Posted   02/12/2019

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