The picture of Reconstruction presented in the second half of
The Birth Of A Nation is entirely bogus, but since it represents the views
of respected historians of the time we need to see it as expressing the
environmental racism of 1915.  That it did express racism, however, is
beyond doubt.  Radical Reconstruction sought to fully enfranchise
Southern blacks and bring them into full political and social equality
with whites.  Its ideals were decent, and ones that almost everyone
today would heartily endorse, but it was undoubtedly unrealistic in the
context of Southern society just after the end of the Civil War.  And
it wasn't only Southerners who were horrified at the notion of treating
blacks as free and equal citizens.  To many, the idea was both
ludicrous and repugnant.

Unwilling to oppose the idea of liberty and equality for all people,
opponents of Radical Reconstruction created a myth about it — that it
was a cynical ploy by unscrupulous Northern whites to maneuver
ignorant blacks into political power and then use that power themselves
to control and plunder the South.  Historians, out of a similar
prejudice against blacks, confirmed the myth as fact.

The myth, and the bogus historiography that seemed to confirm it, tried
to disguise an opposition to equality for blacks, but the disguise
comes apart in
The Birth Of A Nation, where attempts by blacks to
interact on terms of social equality with whites are presented as
outrages almost on a level with political and judicial corruption. 
Henry Walthall's Little Colonel grows steely-eyed when black soldiers
assert their right to walk on the sidewalk in front of his house, when
Silas Lynch offers to shake his hand — his look in those moments is
not so different from the chilling one he gives in reaction to the
death of his sister at the hands of a crazed black would-be rapist. 
Earlier, that same sister had reacted with a look of repugnance when
Stoneman's daughter publicly conversed, on perfectly innocent and civil
terms, with the mulatto Lynch.

In such attitudes we see the ugliest side of casual environmental
racism — the nastiness it could provoke when its assumptions were
challenged by “uppity” blacks . . . that is, blacks who presumed to be
entitled to the common respect and dignity accorded to whites.

Indeed, the pathological racism of
The Birth Of A Nation can be seen
as a kind of justification for this nastiness, by showing where such
presumption by blacks will inevitably lead — to sexual assaults by
black males on white females, to miscegenation.

This connection is established in the very first scenes of the second
half of the film.  In the wake of Lincoln's death and Stoneman's rise
to greater power, Stoneman's maid has now become his social equal,
dressing like a lady and insisting on being treated as one by
Stoneman's associates, though she remains an infantile schemer. 
Stoneman states his intention of elevating his protege, the mulatto
Lynch, to full equality with whites — but we are shown what the
consequences of this will be, which Stoneman can't see yet.  Lynch
stares lustfully at Stoneman's daughter, foreshadowing his future
pursuit and attempted rape of her.  That's what “equality” means to him.

The association of political and social equality for blacks with sexual
designs by black males on white women is carried through the scenes in
South Carolina which follow.  We see blacks displaying signs which read
“Equal Rights/Equal Politics/Equal Marriage.”  The
drumbeats are clear — the progression apparently inevitable.  In the
black-dominated state legislature, the
ignorant, buffoonish black members react with indifference to the
government business being conducted, until a bill allowing
miscegenation is passed, whereupon they direct sexual leers at the
white women in the galleries and then break out in riotous celebration.

A title informs us that this picture of a black legislature was based
on historical photographs, but David Shepard, in his excellent short
documentary on the making of the film, included in the Kino DVD
edition, reveals that it was not — it was based on political cartoons
of the time.  Once again, when Griffith wants to inject an element of
psycho-sexual paranoia into his film he adopts a different standard of
historical accuracy than he applies elsewhere.

Black political power is shown as having no legitimate ambitions.  It
exists only to enrich or enable the white and/or mulatto manipulators
of the black vote, and to sanction sexual relations between the races. 
Even “marriage” is a euphemism here, since blacks are shown as having
no conception of the institution — it just represents a license to
copulate, with or without the woman's consent.

The rise and mobilization of the Klan is presented as a response to the
political and judicial corruption of Southern society by the wicked
carpetbaggers and their ignorant black minions, but its primary
dramatic function is to avenge Gus's attempted rape of the Little
— by murdering him extralegally — and to save the other white female
principals from attempted rape.  Everything, in the end, boils down to
protecting white females from sexual outrages by black males.

In the finale, as former Union and Confederate soldiers and
their women huddle in a remote cabin assaulted by crazed blacks, we
are told that they have united, not in defense of shared American
values, shared ideals of justice and freedom, but “in defense of their
common Aryan birthright”, granted by the “purity” of their Aryan blood,
which is really what is threatened here.  The women face the
possibility of rape by the animalistic blacks and the men prepare to
kill them rather than allow that possibility to come to pass.  The
“nation” whose birth this film celebrates has almost nothing to do with
the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution — everything to do
with Aryan purity and superiority.  It's racist to the core.

The white sheets of the Klansmen in
The Birth Of A Nation do not
cover idealists riding to right political and judicial wrongs, despite
a blizzard of intertitles which tell us otherwise.  They cover the
beleaguered psyches of 20th-Century males riding to restore their own
insecure manhood.


The environmental, or broad cultural racism in the first half of
Birth Of A Nation
finds expression in two ways.  The first is the
general depiction of blacks under slavery as well-treated and happy. 
It can be argued that some blacks under slavery were well-treated,
insofar as anyone held in involuntary servitude can be said to be
well-treated, and that some blacks under slavery were happy, insofar
as anyone held in involuntary servitude can be said to be happy.  But
presenting such blacks as the
only representatives of slavery in a film
with the epic scope of
Birth Of A Nation
cannot be seen as merely
an act of dramatic selection.  All the characters in the film are
emblematic of broader social realities, and the view of slavery
presented here, as part of the “gracious” Southern social order that
will be swept away by the Civil War, has an ideological dimension —
the ideology is based on a lie.  Whether or not slavery was a
“necessary evil” or a crime against humanity or on balance a benign
institution, it did not even remotely resemble the portrait of it
offered up in
Birth Of A Nation

The second expression of environmental racism is more complex.  It lies
in Griffith's decision to have all blacks who are presented as
individuals in the film played by whites in blackface.  In this he was
conventional theatrical practice.  We know, from his testimony in a
censorship hearing for the film, that he considered the issue before
deciding on the blackface solution, but he probably wouldn't have been
terribly self-conscious about it, so common was the practice.  But its
very commonness raises interesting issues.

On one level, the blackface caricature of an African-American by a
white actor carries its own critique within it.  There is no theatrical
deception involved — the glaringly obvious make-up reveals that the
convention is a convention, and one of the things expressed in the
convention is that whites have appropriated the image of the black,
that whites will control the image of the black.  The image must be,
therefore, on the blackened face of it, constructed.  The convention
announces that whites feel empowered to construct, to control, the
image of the black, but also admits that the image is inauthentic.  It
leaves open the possibility that blacks might construct other images of
themselves, if they had the power to do so — and that they might not
participate willingly in these particular constructions of their
images.  There are more questioned raised than answered by the
convention of blackface, at least on an unconscious level.

The pathological, psycho-sexual racism of
Birth Of A Nation

doesn't emerge until about 16 minutes into the film, with the first
appearance of Austin Stoneman's sluttish maid.  Previously, Stoneman
has been
established as a grotesque figure, with a club foot and an ill-fitting
wig.  Suspicions about him have been aroused by revealing that he
spends a lot of time in his library, where his family never visits. 
He's never shown in his own home — his sons even march off to war from
that home when he is not present.  This is Victorian code for the fact
that Stoneman is a creep — at the very least a deeply problematic
figure.  Devotion to the
home was an essential element of male rectitude in Victorian fiction.

With the appearance of Stoneman's maid we learn the dark secret he is
hiding — an illicit sexual relationship with his maid, a mulatto
woman.  Stoneman is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the great anti-slavery
statesman Thaddeus Stevens.  Stevens' radical views on Reconstruction
can be, and have been, criticized as over-zealous and impractical, but
Griffith is suggesting that his polity was the direct result of sexual
perversion, the impulse towards unbridled sexual lust in general and
miscegenation in particular.  The mere fact that his slovenly maid is a
mulatto, the product of miscegenation, sets up the association of black
enfranchisement, even black aspirations towards dignity, with an
undiscriminating, animalistic sexuality.  The maid is offended when a
visitor to Stevens'
library treats her dismissively, as a mere servant — after he leaves
she flings herself to the floor and writhes in anguish, her shoulders
immodestly bared, her hands playing over her breasts.  Her behavior is
not just indecorous — it's positively bestial.

There is no evidence that Thaddeus Stevens ever had an affair with a
mulatto maid, or that he engaged in sexual misconduct of any kind. 
What we
have here is pure, and very bizarre, fantasy, which can only be
explained by the pathological association of black enfranchisement and
equality with the destructive unleashing of the libido.  A title card
announces that we have witnessed in the scenes described above “the
weakness” — Stoneman's lust for
a black woman — “that blighted a nation”.  The entire Civil War and
the complex moral and economic forces that led to it, the entire
abolitionist cause, is reduced to sexual “perversion” in the form of

Meanwhile, down South, the Civil War has broken out and almost
immediately the Cameron home is threatened by Negroes gone wild. 
“Renegade” black soldiers, in Union uniforms, attack the town where the
Camerons live, and the Cameron home itself.  Griffith concentrates
dramatically on the threat to the two Cameron sisters, hiding out in
their basement.  Any viewer of the time would have recognized the
sexual component of the threat.  The girls are clearly in danger of
being raped by the maniacs assaulting their home.

There were, in fact, no bands of renegade black soldiers running wild
the South.  A title tells us, misleadingly, that the first black troops
were enlisted in South Carolina, which is true — but none of them
ever behaved the way these blacks troops do, which is what the title
implies.  A title also tells us that the blacks have been incited to
their behavior by an irresponsible white commander.  Griffith often
uses this device in the film to show he's not blaming blacks for their
behavior — only the white trash who spur them on.  But this muddles
what's really being said between the lines.  The bad whites in these
cases have failed to
exercise proper patrician supervision of and control over their black
charges, they have misdirected and unleashed the animalistic tendencies
of the blacks.  The important point being driven home — and it's
driven home throughout the film — is that this potential for
animalistic behavior by blacks is always there and always needs to be
controlled.  This is the white man's burden — his first duty in
protecting the home and its women.

A detachment of white Confederate soldiers rescues the Cameron girls
and their home — white actors in blackface help put out the fire in
the house and embrace these soldiers in gratitude.  But in the course
of the film, the white deliverers
won't always get there on time . . . indeed, their failure to do so
on one crucial occasion will lead directly to the dramatic climax of
the film.

The first half of
Birth Of A Nation
ends with the assassination
of Lincoln, dramatically and quite accurately recreated onscreen.  This
assassination has become a tragic, iconic component of America's
national myth, and in the film it is greeted by sorrow on both sides of
the Mason-Dixon line — with one exception.  Stoneman's mistress exults
as she strokes Stoneman's arm lasciviously and tells him he's now the
most powerful man in the country.  Her villainy and inhumanity could
not be
asserted more forcefully — a more direct connection could not be drawn
between the “history” we're about to watch unfold and the sexual
“perversion” of miscegenation.  To this woman, and perhaps to Stoneman,
Lincoln's death only removes the greatest obstacle to the sexual union
of the black and white races.

It's really impossible to fully appreciate Griffith's artistry in this
film without recognizing how skillfully he inflects his national epic
with psycho-sexual themes, appealing to patriotism, nostalgia for a
more gracious age, reverence for the home, in order to set all these
things against the perceived horror of the pollution of the Aryan race
by admixture with inferior blood.

The environmental racism of
Birth Of A Nation
is not egregious by
the standards of its day.  It wouldn't even have been egregious by the
standards of 1939, the year of
Gone With the Wind, which simply used
cleverer and more sophisticated means to distract us from thinking too
seriously about the horrors and the enduring moral stain of slavery. 
And in the first half of
Birth Of A Nation
, the more disturbing
pathological racist element is almost overwhelmed by the lyric beauty
of the film in its celebration of family and home and gallantry and
innocent courtly love.

But we will see that the pathological element has been carefully
interwoven into the fabric of the film's first half precisely in order
to set up its emotional ascendancy in the second half — and there is
no question that this strategy was deliberate. 
Birth Of A Nation

prides itself on historical accuracy — with some justification.  The
film is historically responsible and convincing in visual terms, and in
many of its recreations of actual events.  The only times it departs
conspicuously from historical accuracy, the only times it unashamedly
distorts and
falsifies the historical record, are in those passages where it seeks
to promote its psycho-sexual racist agenda.  That agenda will come to
dominate the second half of the film, but it was painstakingly and
strikingly foreshadowed in the first half.


There are two kinds, or degrees, of racism in The Birth Of A Nation.  The first might be described as environmental racism, reflecting the conventional racism of the dominant culture of early 20th-Century America.  This centered on the idea that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, unfitted for social or political equality, and best treated with a kind of benign paternalism.

In 1915 one might hold such views almost unconsciously, so imbedded were they in the thinking of the time, and one might find “scientific” explanations for the inferiority of blacks even in the pages of authoritative reference works like the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Other viewpoints were available, however — other public voices which insisted that blacks were fully the equals of whites and deserved to participate fully in American democracy and American society.  The attitude of the dominant culture did not go unchallenged, and so involved a measure of choice, of moral responsibility.  Moreover, the dominant culture benefited psychologically and financially from maintaining blacks as a permanent underclass and source of cheap labor, so its view of their inherent inferiority incorporated an element of self-serving denial.

In short, there was very little about environmental racism which could be considered morally neutral or benign, even though it could be entertained by people who were in other respects decent and good-hearted.

The second kind of racism in The Birth Of A Nation has a darker undertone.  While it derives from the assumptions of environmental racism it moves into a frankly pathological realm.  It held that blacks were not just intellectually inferior but animalistic, distinctly subhuman, and would, if ungoverned by strict regimentation on the part of whites,
revert to bestial behavior, especially with regard to sexuality, and particularly with regard to sexual aggression by black males against white females.

The social history of race relations in America provided almost no evidence to support this view — quite the contrary.  Historically speaking, sexual aggression and sexual abuse between the races resided almost exclusively in the sexual predation of white males directed against black females within the Southern plantation system.  This was the unspoken scandal of ante-bellum society in the South, as Mary Chestnut confessed ruefully in the original unexpurgated version of her famous diary.

The fictive threat to white womanhood from black males had origins within the psyches of white males — under threat in 1915 from social causes inherent in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing America.  Males increasingly worked for and at the pleasure of other men far more powerful than themselves, and women had access to incomes from office and factory work independent of male domestic partners.

The male insecurity that resulted was augmented by cultural insecurity as waves of immigrants began to change the face of America, importing “foreign” mores, customs, values and even languages that competed with those of the dominant culture.

In this atmosphere, the casual environmental racism of the dominant white culture took a more intense and programmatic form — it mutated into a defiant celebration of the “Aryan race”, an aggressive insistence on its superiority, and an essentially pathological fear of its dilution, or even overthrow, by lesser races, especially the animalistic “Negro” race.

The great success of Thomas Dixon’s potboiler fiction, which openly promoted this new, more self-conscious and aggressive racism, testifies to its wide cultural appeal at the beginning of the 20th Century.  In his skewed and irresponsibly manipulated version of the historical facts of Reconstruction, Dixon was presenting a prophecy of what might happen to white culture if “lesser” races ever again got the upper hand.  He was quite clear about this.  His introduction to The Clansman, the novel on which The Birth Of A Nation was partly based and under which title it was originally released, described Reconstruction as one of the most important episodes, not in the history of America, but in the history of the Aryan race.

Thinking of the history of America as the history of the triumph of the Aryan race was appealing to many in early 20th-Century America — it bolstered the manhood of white males threatened by new female power and new cultural influences.  It was psychologically seductive.

One of the men it seduced was D. W. Griffith.  It was an ironic tragedy, since Griffith was himself, by all accounts, a benign sort of racist in his dealings with individual blacks, and also a man deeply sympathetic, in his way and within his limitations, to the emerging
position of the “modern woman”.  One can only conclude that the seduction took place on some level beneath the conscious — as it must have, surely, to some degree, for American society as a whole.

I’m not sure the process can ever be wholly understood, but from a distance it can at least be described, and I think there’s some value in that.  In future posts I’ll offer some examples of how the two kinds of racism described above play out in The Birth Of A Nation.


The 20th-Century notion of “absolute music” tended to
capture the imaginations of composers who wanted to be
thought “modern”.  They generally abandoned the emotional, descriptive
narrative ambitions of 19th-Century program music in favor of a more
severe system of abstraction.  This marked the end of concert music as
a popular art form but not the end of program music, which went on its
merry way in movies, where it continued to enthrall a large public.

Of course, people didn't pay as much conscious
attention to this music as they used to in the concert hall, but they
could have, with profit.  To prove this assertion all you have to do is
listen to the many classic film scores now available on CD — the
original tracks recorded for the films or later re-recordings of the
scores.  Many of them are magnificent pieces of music in their own
right.  It helps to have the “program” in mind, a memory of the films
this music supported, but it's not absolutely necessary with the very
best scores — like those of Bernard Herrmann, for example.

Hermann didn't specialize in creating memorable
melodies but he was a master
at using the colors of an orchestra to evoke mood and he had a great
and subtle understanding of the dramatic uses of rhythm.  All of his
Hitchcock scores are brilliant, even the less famous of them like the
score he did for
The Wrong Man.  Edgy, dark, minimalist, jazz-inflected, it
perfectly mirrors the bleak and jagged realism of Hitchcock's 50s-era
New York
City, its dehumanizing institutions and its spiritual
chaos.  But it has a lyrical core,
too, that echoes the protagonist's yearning for deliverance.

It's not absolute music, to be sure — but it's
absolutely wonderful.


As the art critic Dave Hickey has observed, Norman
Rockwell was inspired by the idea of American citizenship, and he often
portrayed the places and occasions in American life which brought
Americans together in that peculiar comradeship unique to functioning

In our polarized age, when the gap between rich and
poor grows positively surreal, when urban environments no longer
function as genuine melting pots, when suburban residential patterns
emphasize the isolation of income-brackets, Rockwell's visions of
community take on a nostalgic glow — but in his own time Rockwell was
celebrating something real, something in the now.

I'm particularly fond of Rockwell's paintings of
people on trains — a now uncommon mode of travel in which people from
different backgrounds met as equals, in an environment that allowed for
interaction.  There was space and time for interaction — as there
isn't, for example, on an airplane, which has no common space, where
moving about is difficult and hardly encouraged.

In the painting at the head of this post, democracy rules — a gang of
skiers sets the excited tone of the passenger car . . . the quieter
fellow submits, observes, is perhaps intrigued.  He's temporarily out
of sync, but not out of place.

The “Saturday Evening Post” cover below is one of my
favorite images of WWII.  A soldier on leave tries to make time with
his girl, while a kid looks on jealously.  The soldier, the homefront
and the future intersect momentarily on a crowded train in the middle
of a dreadful war, and we see everything that's at stake in the

Below, a kid on a train journey by himself is watched
over by a sophisticated professional who's seen it all but still finds
it possible to be amused and touched by the rite of passage he's witnessing,
as the kid tries earnestly to make his way in an adult arena.  The
dining car waiter has a job to do — but so does the kid, and he's
working at it.

of every background meet
today as citizens, as equals, only at the polls on
election days, or at casinos — there are fewer and fewer everyday
environments and occasions where one can feel the genuine community of
citizenship, and that's partly why one finds such warm fellow-feeling
at polling places and in casinos.  Rockwell was right to be
about such places and occasions, and nostalgia is not a sufficient
response to his images of them.  They should inspire us to recover
what's been lost.


When Ernst Lubitsch, in his American movies, looked
back on the Europe he left
behind to pursue a career in Hollywood, he looked back at its glamor
sophistication, inflected it with a wry nostalgia, turned it into a
dreamscape.  But he kept his emotional distance from it, precisely
because it was a dream, and he knew it — a world he was never really a
part of, though as a man of the theater and the cabaret stage and
cinema, he got close enough to observe it.

And then came The Shop Around the Corner,
the end of his career, when he dropped his mask of sophisticated
reserve and looked back at the Europe he actually came from as the son
of a Berlin shopkeeper.  The deep humanity and emotion of the film
revealed that his dreamy evocations of high-class European culture were
simply a displaced nostalgia for his youth, and when he engaged that
nostalgia directly, a sort of miracle occurred.  Lubitsch opened his
heart for perhaps the first time ever in his work.

Lubitsch had always been amused by the flim-flam at
center of aristocratic charm, and was attracted to characters who
penetrated the
aristocrat's world by imitating the aristocrat's special form of social
theater — much as he had used the theater itself in real life to gain
status and wealth, and with them access to privileged circles.  That
was why he retained a shrewd if affectionate cynicism towards the
people in his movies, a sense that everything they did was part of a
game.  But in
Shop Around the Corner
his cynicism mutated into a kind of love —
still clear-eyed about human foibles but with a new sense that affairs
of the heart amounted to something more than delirious and delicious

There has never been a more heartfelt celebration of
petit-bourgeois life than The Shop Around the Corner, not least
because it's so nuanced.  The financial terror involved in losing or
looking for a job, the deceptions of merchandising, the humiliations of
employment, are all engaged squarely — but so are the satisfactions of
running a business, the creativity and sensitivity of salesmanship, the
comradeship of workers engaged in a collective enterprise.

If you've ever known a family-run shop first hand,
or even just worked as a temporary hire during the holidays at a
department store, you will recognize in this movie the magical sense in
which any retail business is a theatrical presentation, with its own
version of the enchantment of being
backstage and then stepping out in front of the audience, its own
version of the
excitement involved in seeing the whole production come together (or
not) in
times of stress.

For Lubitsch in this film, the tension between
theatrical presentation and reality is still a central concern — with
the shop and with the romance that develops between Jimmy Stewart and
Margaret Sullavan.  But stage and backstage, appearance and reality,
come together here as they
don't in any of Lubitsch's earlier films.  The workers in the luggage
shop become a real family, not just an amusing parody of one.  The
lovers' pretenses are exposed, and instead of just laughing them off
with a sublime, wistful nonchalance,
as he always had before, Lubitsch discovers a depth of connection beneath
the ruses and fantasies
— a love
that can survive the exposure.

It's all so much more moving than the explicit
sentimentality of
It's A Wonderful Life,
that other great
movie starring Jimmy Stewart — because it involves sentiment without
illusion, or rather, sentiment that appreciates illusion but sees an
enduring beauty revealed in it, something that transcends
improvisation, something internalized.  There's no Old Man Potter
in this film
threaten the happiness of the young couple and no guardian angel to
restore it — the threat comes from within themselves . . . as does the
leap of faith that saves them.

Ernst Lubitsch's long journey as an artist began above
his father's clothing store in Berlin and reached its pinnacle in a
fake luggage shop built on an MGM sound stage in Culver City,
California.  Even that surreal paradox doesn't convey just what a
complex and profound journey it was — but all of it is summed up and
brought to a magnificent fulfillment in
The Shop Around the Corner.


I picked up
The Married Virgin just to check out Valentino in one of his pre-star roles and I was pleasantly surprised
by the film — it's a light but very skillful piece of entertainment.

The DVD looks great, despite the fact that this version was cobbled together from a few different prints. Missing title
cards were judiciously recreated for the restoration.

DVD liner notes say that this was the director's first film, but that's
hard to credit, since the storytelling is so assured, brisk and
energetic. There are some delightful bits of plastic invention, among
them a fine shot of Valentino and the heroine swimming in the ocean,
framed from above, so you can't tell how far out to sea they are, until
a wave suddenly rises beneath them and sweeps them towards shore . . .
and an equally satisfying sequence with the Valentino character and his
stepmother-in-law/lover (yes, it's that kind of melodrama) driving
wildly along a hillside road.

brisk pace of the film is fortunate, since little in the narrative
bears serious reflection. (“Why,” you keep asking yourself, “did
McMillan keep that gun, instead of dropping it down a well?” The answer
is as old as filmmaking itself — “Because then there would have been
no story.”)

is an absolute hoot to watch. Even though he's playing the
sophisticated and cunning Count Roberto, he looks more like a kid
playing dress-up — a little wet behind the ears, but all the more
adorable for that. And wide-eyed as he is, he cuts a sensational figure
in his well-tailored wardrobe . . . in a male-model sort of way. But he
has a dancer's capacity for absolute stillness, and a dancer's
knowledge of how to use this to draw attention to himself.

then there are a few moments when his sexuality becomes lethal — as in
his first close-up, when he kisses Mrs. McMillan's hand. There's an
assurance in the act, and a hint of delicious legato, which promise
much. He has at all times a distinctive way of touching women, placing
his hand just so, holding it still, as though it couldn't be anywhere
else, and never will be. Finally, there is a startling shot of him as
he's interrupted in the process of trying to rape his virgin bride. He
has an almost bestial look — as though drugged senseless by lust.

film, tied up in court for a couple of years by unpaid crew members,
was released after
Four Horsemen Of the Apocalypse and must have been
terribly frustrating to Valentino's new fans. He plays a cad, and the
heroine, forced to marry him to keep her father from prison, resists
his advances with epic fortitude — thus eventually saving herself for
her distinctly charmless leading man. But what advances they are! One
simply cannot sympathize with a heroine who is immune to them — and in
that utterly amoral but undeniable fact lies the inevitability of
Valentino's stardom.


Robin Wood’s thoughtful and penetrating analysis of The Birds in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited is ultimately
to me, because I don’t think Wood gets at the thematic heart of the
film, although he does acutely perceive its nature, it’s basic aesthetic
strategy, which is one it shares with all of Hitchcock’s great films —
and I think
The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s great films.

The characteristic strategy of The Birds is to lure
the viewer into largely unconscious emotional reactions to images and
situations and then to shift the perceptual ground slightly (or
shockingly, as the case may be) in such a way that the viewer is
compelled to become conflicted about those reactions, consciously or

The goal with Hitchcock is always to heighten moral
and/or spiritual awareness but his methods never involve pronouncements
of any kind, and thus rarely involve symbols than can be reduced to a
precise intellectual meaning.  He is only interested in the psychic
which he can tap, appeal to and uncover within the experience of the
viewer as he or she watches the film.

All great artists work this way of course, but if you
think that Hitchcock is just an entertainer, a supplier of sensation
for its own sake, a clever if eccentric practitioner of genre, you will
miss (at least on a conscious level) the full depth of his art.

So when Wood says that the birds in The Birds don’t
symbolize anything specific he is quite correct.  But what the birds
do, and when they do it — their function as psychic agents in a
narrative about characters we are alternately drawn to and suspicious
— are crucial issues.

The film opens with a man in a pet shop trying,
unsuccessfully, to buy a pair of lovebirds as a gift for his young
sister.  In the shop he meets a woman who’s attracted to him, later
buys the pair of lovebirds and drives them up to the remote fishing
village where the man’s sister lives, and leaves them for her.  The
film ends with the young sister carrying the birds on an escape through
an apocalyptic landscape — devastated by a lethal revolt . . . of

What’s going on here?  The lovebirds are not symbolic
per se in the artistic scheme of the film — they’re an image that
means different things to different characters at different stages of
the narrative.  What’s crucial, it seems to me, is that the lovebirds
are a couple and that they live in a cage.  They incarnate a paradox —
are they trapped, or are
they safe?  They’re both, obviously — but which condition is most
important?  That’s the question the film poses, and answers, after a

The woman in the pet shop is an irresponsible heiress
— a bird in a gilded cage, as Wood observes, but alone.  When she runs into a man who
wants lovebirds in a cage, she develops what seems to be an irrational
attraction to him.  The imagery is very ambiguous here, but suggestive.  Is she looking
for company in her cage, a man who’ll share her prison with her? 

It turns out that the man is the son of a woman who
lost her husband, his father, and is thoroughly traumatized by the
loss.  She clings to her son, interferes with his desire to find a
partner of his own — places an intolerable burden on him to become the
head of the family, father to his sister.  The mother’s grasping is not
Oedipal, exactly — it’s more a terror of being alone, of being
incomplete.  The family’s loss of its father/husband has created a
vacuum in which neurosis breeds.

So the lovebirds, to the man, are an image of the
wholeness he can’t supply — a magical substitution which might allow
him to seek his own wholeness in a new relationship.

The lovebirds may not mean exactly the same thing to
the man and the woman in the pet shop but they crystallize each
deepest needs and desires.  How could they not fall in love in the
presence of such an image?

But the image won’t stay put — won’t stabilize itself
for either of them.  Other birds, uncaged birds, gather above them
menacingly.  The man catches the woman delivering the lovebirds to his
sister, is
touched, intrigued, drawn to her, as she obviously is to him.  At that
moment a seagull attacks the woman, for no apparent reason.

Later, the woman reveals to the man that her mother
deserted her when she was child.  At that moment a flock of birds
suddenly attacks the children at the sister’s birthday party.  It’s as
though the creatures have emerged demonically from the woman’s ravaged

The bird attacks grow more numerous, more lethal, more
surreal.  They attack the man and the  sister and the mother in their
own home, where the woman is visiting.  There seems to be no defense,
no hiding place.  But a new family is forming, as the man and the woman
fall deeper and deeper in love, as the sister comes to rely on the
woman emotionally, as the mother slowly softens towards her.

The birds pause in their attack.  The family decides
to make a run for it.  The sister insists on carrying the lovebirds in
their cage.  As they drive away though fields of menacing, roosting,
temporarily placid birds, the mother takes the woman in her arms, in a
mother’s embrace.

The lovebirds in their cage have become a talisman of
salvation — an image of the confinement of commitment, the cage of
family and love, but also of immunity from outright destruction.  It’s
like the bait and switch Hitchcock engineered in Shadow Of A Doubt,
where the “oppressive” and suffocating prison of the family, as we see
it at the beginning of the film, is revealed as the only refuge against
forces darker than anyone in that family could ever have imagined.

Only the lovebirds in their cage are free,
provisionally at least. Outside the cage is simply irrational,
meaningless horror.  This is not exactly a conservative or romantic
endorsement of committed love and family.  Happiness is not really at
stake here, much less moral rectitude or an all-encompassing psychic fulfillment — only
survival.  So why is that mother’s embrace at the end of the film so
powerful, so profound, so moving?  Because it’s something, set against

The newly constructed family drives off jammed into a
small sports car, caged.  They incarnate a paradox — are they trapped,
or are they safe?  Both,
obviously — but which condition is most important?  It’s clear enough
which way the film leans on this issue, but Hitchcock isn’t making any
promises.  He insisted that “The End” not appear at the film’s close —
partly as a gimmick (“The birds are still out there!”), partly to keep
the psychic and moral tension alive in the audience . . . but also
partly, no doubt, because he knew subconsciously that he would return
to the female protagonist of this film again, would explore her
existential jeopardy in greater depth, which he did
in Marnie, using the
same actress, playing a very similar lost soul in search of a mother’s

The hidden, poisoned springs of many Hitchcock films run through the
pathology of dysfunctional parents, shattered, perverted families,
wrecked marriages — and the provisional redemption these films offer
often involves new families reconstructed on the ruins of old
ones.  Hitchcock’s view of the family, all families, was ambiguous
— and his passionate defense of the family as a bastion against
terror, against meaninglessness, was inflected by this ambiguity. 
Even so, his view was inaccessible to many critics, like Wood, who
were, for personal and political reasons, deeply suspicious of the
family as a social phenomenon — an attitude that became fashionable,
almost a matter of faith, among 20th-Century intellectuals.  Wood
wanted to analyze
The Birds
as a vision merely of conflict between order and disorder, missing the
fact that, for Hitchcock, this conflict was centrally bound up with the
idea of family.

Hitchcock was canny.  He knew that society cannot face its deepest
concerns, its deepest fears, directly.  He knew that those fears
had to be displaced in art, given an indirect expression — blamed, as
it were, on the birds.


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema might be the most ravishing of all the Victorian academic painters.  His luminous photo-authoritative images of the ancient world are sensually and historically seductive — they seem to lay antiquity before us as it might have appeared in real life were we to be magically transported back into it.

In truth his visions are romantic, concentrating as they do on sunny Mediterranean light, color, luxury and spectacle — but they convince the eye.  His preoccupation with the illusion of spatial depth draws us imaginatively into the scenes he conjures up, gives us a visceral sense of participation in them.

The tradition of the Biblical epic in cinema pursued Alma-Tadema’s aims by other means but rarely achieved them with such magnificent authority.  The chariot race in Wyler’s Ben-Hur perhaps comes closest to involving us in a vision of the ancient world that possesses a comparable enchantment and illusion of truth.

Wyler, and second-unit director Yakima Canutt, who actually supervised most of the filming of the chariot race, used the tracking shot in spectacular ways to draw us into the cinematic universe of the sequence.  A camera moving through real spaces, photographing real people driving real chariots was a powerful tool, but in a way its very power highlights the effects Alma-Tadema was able to achieve with just paint and canvas.

He was fine painter, as well as a fine storyteller — the study below gives a good idea of his purely painterly gifts, scarcely inferior to Degas’, for example:

The 20th-Century art establishment became suspicious of the meticulous “finish” the academic painters gave their works, but the über-photographic illusion they were after, and the narrative ambitions it served, remain potent and charming.


If you search a bit on the web you can find collections of hand-colored vintage postcards of performers from the Casino de Paris.  These ladies were the forerunners of the Vegas
showgirl by a line of direct transmission — the legendary topless revues in Vegas were staged by artists who’d worked at places like the Casino de Paris.

Donn Arden, for example, who created Jubilee! more than twenty years ago, once worked for the Cafe Lido in Paris, home of the famous Bluebell girls and one
of the classic French topless revues.  Jubilee! is the last of the traditional showgirl revues still surviving on the Vegas Strip.


If I hadn't fallen in love with Mary Pickford watching
Amarilly Of Clothesline Alley, watching My Best Girl
would have done the trick just as well.

is one of the best romantic comedies ever made and perhaps the
sweetest, with the possible exception of Griffith's
True Heart Susie.
It's also a transitional film, I think — preserving some of the
bucolic innocence of
Susie while pointing the way to the screwball
drawing-room comedies of the Thirties.

plot is conventional and silly, about on a level with
Pretty Woman in
that regard — a young working-class woman with a job in a department
store gets involved with the wealthy son of the store's owner, who's
working there incognito to get to know the business he will inherit.
The film itself, however, is anything but a trifle. When films this
simple are this great, there's extraordinary art at work — a comment I
would also make about Murnau's
Sunrise, which My Best Girl
resembles in some crucial ways. Both are simple love stories about
simple, utterly ordinary people, done without a trace of condescension
and with moments of poetry which are profound.

beginning to realize that Pickford's range as an actor was awesome.
There's a core star persona that migrates from film to film, bits of
business and attitude that reference the expectations audiences brought
to her films, but the characterizations are unusually diverse for a
star, especially a silent film star. Gish always played Gish in silent
films, though the complexity of Gish was endless — Chaplin always
played Chaplin, though the inventiveness of Chaplin was inexhaustible.
But Amarilly is not
My Best Girl's Maggie — you have a sense of meeting someone
wholly different in their respective stories. (And Unity Blake, in
Stella Maris, inhabits
a different universe from either of them.)

this is the result of Pickford's uncanny ability to suggest an inner
life — to create reactions to conventional situations which are
quirky, distinctive. This has nothing to do with the roles as written,
because the roles are somewhat generic, but with Pickford's absolute
commitment to the moment, to the cinematic present. It's one of the
reasons you can't take your eyes off her.

Rogers is a charming looking fellow, a competent actor and a very
skilled light comedian, but he doesn't convey a lot of gravity when
he's onscreen by himself. Yet when Pickford looks at him with an
expression that says, “This guy might amount to something,” you believe
it without question. So many great performances by actors on film are
created in the faces of the actors playing opposite them — Hepburn, for
example, wonderful as she is, reaches a whole new level in her work
with Spencer Tracy . . . he just very quietly gives her her scenes, and
makes us love her in a way we very rarely do when he's not around.

does the same for Rogers here — and for the film as a whole, really.
This same film, shot for shot, with another actor as the female lead,
would be next to nothing. But
My Best Girl utterly transcends its
apparent limits.

is not to say that the filmmaking isn't superb — and such a treat to
experience in the DVD . . . a stunning transfer of a stunning print.
Director Sam Taylor knew exactly what he was doing. There are wondrous
tracking shots in the film, always associated with key moments in the
romantic relationship between Maggie and Joe — starting with the
thrilling shots from the moving truck where Maggie waits for Joe to
catch up with her, racing after her on foot. Plastic metaphor doesn't
get any more eloquent.

there is the sudden, almost jarring pull back from the crate where
Maggie and Joe are having lunch, which becomes not just a cute reveal
but an evocation of breathlessness. It releases an emotion already
created by Pickford's performance — the physical jolt of pleasure,
surprise and fear she conveys when he accidentally puts his arm around
her, the anticipation and hopefulness in her darting eyes when he opens
her birthday present. Both moments made me cry, simply because they
were so heartfelt, yet so subtle — almost thrown away.

there are the fine, lyrical follow-shots as the two sweethearts walk
through the city in the rain, in the first flush of romance, dodging
cars and people, echoing a similar device in
Sunrise where the bond
between two people is reinforced by their common path through an
indifferent urban landscape. In some ways, the simplicity of the shots
My Best Girl, the fact that they don't draw metaphorical attention
to themselves, makes them more powerful.

illustrate the brilliance of the choices Pickford makes as an actor in
My Best Girl would be to recapitulate most of her scenes in the film.
One that stood out for me was the moment when Maggie first meets Joe's
fiancée. She doesn't look at Joe, with hurt and outrage — the obvious
way to play it. She stares at the fiancée — sizing her up, calculating
the difference between them, looking into the fiancée's eyes for the
truth about what's really happening. It's heartbreaking, and a perfect
moment of perfectly observed human behavior.

heartbreaking, too, to think that this was Pickford's last silent film.
You get a feeling from
My Best Girl that there was some possibility
of a synthesis between the silent sensibility, Pickford's belief in
simple goodness, and a more modern style. In the final confrontation
with Joe and his father in Maggie's kitchen, Pickford seems to be
addressing this very issue — pretending to be a flapper, a hot mama,
almost pulling it off . . . but with a bitterness that seems to say,
“Is this what you really want from me?”

American movies, and American culture, lost more than we may yet realize when that synthesis didn't happen.

DRACULA (1931)

I saw the 1931 version of Dracula so many times as a kid, and listened so
often to a tape of its soundtrack I made off the TV, that at a certain
point I couldn’t see or hear it anymore. Even watching it today I
sometimes find myself speaking the lines before they’re delivered, with
the exact (and always eccentric) vocal inflections of the actors.

I stopped watching it in my late teens, a bit embarrassed by its
clunkiness and lack of sophistication — so it was something of a
revelation to see it again recently in the restored version now out on
DVD and find myself wondrously entertained.

It is a truly demented film, in a way none of the other classic Universal horror films are — and the dementia must be credited largely to Tod Browning, because it echoes the perversity of so many of his silents.

Everyone in the film looks drugged — moves like a sleepwalker or someone in a
woozy erotic reverie. The slow pace can perhaps be attributed in part
to the recent transition to sound — to the need for actors to avoid
stepping on each other’s lines and to the silent-era habit of lingering
on movement for character or narrative exposition that could now be
supplied by the dialogue. But a bigger part I think is a stylistic
choice by Browning — his way of creating an otherworldy and yet
insistently sensual mood.

It’s not quite campy, as James Whale’s style can be — there’s no real wit
to it, no winking at the audience to let them in on the joke. We simply
seem to be watching a film in some unfamiliar Kabuki-like performance
tradition, which demands from its performers a greater degree of
deliberation and a slower pace than we’re used to. The effect is
unsettling but adds to the uncanny atmosphere.

The restored version gives one a chance to appreciate how beautifully the
film is shot — with exquisite lighting and infrequent camera moves
that are nevertheless always effective, either in enlivening an
otherwise static interior scene or in giving the spectator a sense of
being drawn in to a forbidden precinct. The film is so much more
stylish visually than most of Browning’s work that I guess one must
credit the speculation that cameraman Karl Freund was a kind of
co-director on the film — or at least that Browning gave him total
license in creating the look of it.

It has many lapses of continuity, a few of which are really jarring — evidence,
as has been suggested, that someone took the shears to Browning’s
original cut. But when the film slows down in the second half, with its
maddening repetition of expository material in the dialogue, you find
yourself wishing for the shears yourself. The script is simply very
clumsy, and I’m convinced the cutting was done to eliminate unnecessary
dialogue rather than to address any directorial lapses by Browning, who
after all was charged with shooting the script approved by the studio.

The film is never scary, exactly — but it’s creepy, spooky, strange, in
its own unique way. It has a dreamlike quality that allows its
subversive themes to gain sway over the spectator’s unconscious
experience of the film.


The original cut of Psycho
which Alfred Hitchcock delivered to Paramount ran just under nine
hours.  Hitchcock lobbied hard to have the film released at this
length, in a special day-long presentation with two intermissions, but
violent reactions from audience members who saw test screenings of
the nine-hour version (including, reportedly, at least two
unpublicized suicides) convinced the director to cut the film
drastically and release it at a normal length.

All prints of
the original cut were thought to have been destroyed — until early
this year when one somehow turned up in the basement of a house under
demolition in St. Louis.  The house had once belonged to a man
who owned a small chain of movie theaters in the Midwest, and apparently at least one
print had made it to one of those theaters, presumably for test

Robert Harris, who has restored several classic films, including Hitchcock's Vertigo, and will be restoring the uncut Psycho,
is one of the few people who's watched the new footage in its
entirety.  Harris reports that the famous shower scene runs to
forty-five minutes in Hitchcock's original cut and personally made him
sick to his stomach.  “It's film history,” says Harris, “and needs
to be preserved, but I can't say I'm happy that this new version has
survived.  The world would be a better place without it.”

negative and original sound elements for the new footage do not survive, so the
reconstruction will be uneven.  Universal, which now controls the film, plans to release the
Psycho in a three-disc special edition late in 2008.