2014 Blind Spot series: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

My contribution to Ryan McNeil's 2014 blindspot series blogathon, where I watch a film each month that I have never seen before.

Directed by D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation is a key film of the silent era. The first big-budget blockbuster, the first epic.

Set before, during, and after the American Civil War 1861-1865. Was, and still is, highly controversial with its portrayal of African-American men (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force. There were widespread African-American protests against the racist elements. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film. Griffith's indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year.

The Birth of a Nation was the longest and most profitable film then produced, and secured both the future of feature-length films and the reception of film as a serious medium.
Of significance for its groundbreaking filmmaking techniques, and has been quoted as “the birth of an art”. According to 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, director DW Griffith was more interested in the possibilities of the film medium, than the blatantly racist play by Thomas Dixon, which the film is based on.
Griffith utilized close-ups, panoramic long shots, panning camera shots, parallel storylines, cross cutting, night photography, color tinting for dramatic purposes, building up the plot to an exciting climax, dramatizing history alongside fiction, and a battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands. In fact cross-cutting and close-up he had already experimented with in short films from 1909-1911.
Also features the first original music written specifically for a film. ”The Perfect Song" is regarded as the first marketed "theme song" from a film.
These innovative film techniques, while not all of his creation, make it one of the most influential films in the film industry. The impact was far greater in 1915, because these techniques are commonplace today. In fact so common, that I hardly noticed the groundbreaking camera work.

So what did I think? Lasting over three hours it tested my patience. Truth be told the story wasn’t of great interest to me. Mainly was a film I felt I ought to finally see due to its reputation. The recreation of the battle field scenes is quite impressive and looks like historical footage. However I would argue those scenes are overpraised and only makes sense with the title cards telling us what’s going on.
The assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre is probably the most memorable scene, which I feel works without title cards. Even though the second half is very racist, as cohesive storytelling I feel it’s more straightforward and easier to follow than the first half.

Roger Ebert wrote in his insightful review, “all serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it.” He also notes, “But it is possible to separate the content from the craft?” Ebert continues that "The Birth of a Nation is worth considering, if only for the inescapable fact that it did more than any other work of art to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America. (The contemporary works that made the most useful statements against racism were “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and "Huckleberry Finn.")
Unfortunately the film is also credited with the revival of the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan, which was all but extinct when the movie appeared.

Birth of a Nation is a film that is difficult to love due to its controversial subject matter, yet among the most influential in film history.

Thanks for reading. Have you seen  The Birth of a Nation or other D.W. Griffith films? Is it possible to admire the filmmaking despite the racism?

Favorite songs by Prince (tracks 20-11)

11 Anna Stesia (From 1988’s Lovesexy)
(Love this, both musically and lyrically masterful. Would be in the top 10 if the ending had been as strong as the first 80% of the track. Interesting title, which could be interpreted as the drug anaesthesia. Perhaps that love is like a drug addiction)

12  When You Were Mine (From 1980’s Dirty Mind)
(A classic and it wasn’t even a single. He kind of sounds like Lenny Kravitz on this one)

13 Computer Blue (also listen here) (From 1984’s Purple Rain soundtrack)
(I love the shift in tempo half way through the track. The song was composed by Prince, with credit to his father, John L. Nelson for the guitar solo. As with most of the disc, I feel it works best as part of the full album, rather than a stand-alone track)

14  Paisley Park (or listen here) (From 1985’s Around the World in a Day)
(Very catchy. The song has a psychedelic feel, similar to some of The Beatles' later work with echoed guitar and finger cymbals. The lyrics describe a Utopian place that you can feel in your heart, despite the chaos of the world around you)

15 I Would Die 4 U (From 1984’s Purple Rain soundtrack)
(Very 80s, and a great chorus. Too repetitive to be in my top 10, but I still love it, and works well on the album. The lyrics are quite fascinating, he sings of everything he is not: "'I'm not a woman, I'm not a man, I am something that you'll never understand")

16 Sometimes It Snows in April (From 1986’s Parade - Music From The Motion Picture Under The Cherry Moon)
(A haunting ballad. Thanks to Steven at Surrender To The Void for the recommendation)

17 Controversy (or listen here) (From 1981’s Controversy)
(First time I heard this I thought he was singing “got-your-p*ssy” which in fact was “con-tro-ver-sy” He was quite daring in his lyrics during that time, so wouldn’t have put it past him!)

18 Trust (From 1989’s Batman soundtrack)
(A guilty pleasure of mine, which plays during the Jokers street parade in Tim Burton’s Batman movie)

19 The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (From 1987’s Sign O’ The Times)
(Took me a few listens to get into the song, there’s a lot going on musically, without even listening to the lyrics. I prefer it to the title track Sign O’ The Times which is mainly interesting for the lyrics ”A skinny man died of a big disease with a little name”, which was a reference to aids)

20 Diamonds and Pearls (From 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls)
(Probably among his most recognizable tracks from the 90s)

I just discovered that on November 1, Chris Rock is to Host Saturday Night Live with Prince as musical guest. 

Be sure to stop by next time for tracks 1-10 as I continue the countdown to #1! Which are your favorites from these Prince albums? As always, comments are welcome. 

Favorite songs by Prince (tracks 30-21)

21  Do Me Baby (or listen here) (From 1981’s Controversy)
(The song has grown on me with repeats plays. Which is better, the long album version or shorter single version? The live or studio edit? I haven’t decided)

22  Uptown (or listen here) (From 1980’s Dirty Mind)
(You just want to get up and dance to this)

23  Mountains (From 1986’s Parade - Music From The Motion Picture Under The Cherry Moon)
(I can listen to Mountains on repeat. Interestingly, Under The Cherry Moon was the first role in a movie for a young Kristin Scott Thomas. A movie I haven’t seen)

24  Pop Life (or listen here) (From 1985’s Around the World in a Day)
(Just all around great dance pop)

25  Head (From 1980’s Dirty Mind)  
(A daring, controversial song, even today)

26 When We’re Dancing Close and Slow (From 1979’s Prince)
(A slow ballad, which can stir the emotions. Too bad I couldn’t locate the full song)

27  17 Days (From 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides)
(The quality of B-sides during the Purple Rain era is very high. 17 Days appeared on the flipside of his most successful single "When Doves Cry" (1984)

28  Money Don't Matter 2 Night (From 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls)
(Just immediately draws me in. I like to think it's about valuing the free things in life such as the soul, although the lyrics could also be about reckless spending)

29  Cream (From 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls)
(With a killer opening, the track really needed a flashy music video. Which it delivers)

30  I Wanna Be Your Lover (single version) (From 1979’s Prince)
(Was his first hit, gaining heavy radio airplay and chart success)

Be sure to stop by next time for tracks 20-11 as I continue the countdown to #1! Which are your favorites from these Prince albums? As always, comments are welcome.

Horror mini-reviews

Soon it will be Halloween, so it's time to watch horror. I watched a few of these earlier in the year. Have been saving the reviews for October. Lets get to it!

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Arthouse horror from Jim Jarmusch. Has a refreshing approach to the vampire story, and I like that it wasn’t about killing, which these types of horror films so often are.
Touches on themes such as vampires in love for centuries, being dependent on blood controls your life like a drug, and that the vampire lifestyle doesn’t have to be harmful to others. How you can learn a lot and have a ton of experience from staying alive for so long. In her suitcase is the huge book Infinite Jest, and she reads Les Anglais au pôle Nord by Jules Verne. Asks, what would you do, if you lived forever? Also about how a famous figure from the past (John Hurt character) could influence the present. The ice lolly scene was a fun idea. To my knowledge the wooden bullet was never used?
Does have an atmospheric soundtrack, which gives it its own mood. Funnel of Love was my favorite.
I liked how full of ideas it was, and it did seem unique. But I had problems with the storytelling and slow pacing. In many scenes they talk rather than do. They just sit or stand around. Speaking about the past, not letting us see what happened.
Hardly anything happens, I would call it a situation, rather than a story. I found it dull. A pity, because there was huge potential in those script ideas. I think the story is better suited for a book, because I sense it’s more about an inner struggle than an outer experience.
Jim Jarmusch interview about the film in March issue of Sight & Sound magazine was actually more fascinating than the movie. Could have been a classic, and somehow didn’t quite get there.
Rating 6.5/10

28 Days Later (2002)
Rewatch. I liked it more on second viewing. The opening 15-20 minutes of 28 Days later (in London) are what you remember. The rest of the movie is pretty good too. The "fast zombie" thing was something new. About what happens when society crumbles.
The soundtrack is quite haunting, especially In The House, In A Heartbeat by John Murphy
Rating 7.5/10

Beetlejuice (1988) 
Over the top horror comedy, directed by Tim Burton. I would say it’s suitable for the younger audience, despite the 15 age certificate. The film has a fine Danny Elfman score, and I like the original idea of ghosts learning the ropes. The sets and sfx are imaginative, yet isn’t really funny. There are contrived moments, on 2-3 occasions a character needs to know something and another character happens to be there to give the information. The finale is confusing, how are the couple cured from the séance? I guess when dealing with a fantasy world, there’s a certain creative freedom, anything is possible, so you just have to go with it as an audience.
Rating 6/10

It (1990)
Rewatch. Stephen King mini-series. Not as good as I remember. We see the characters both as adults and children. The first half when they are children I still think is the best part. The adults are hard to take seriously during the reunion in second half, and it drags a bit, maybe the acting is just poor. Pennywise (the clown played by Tim Curry) scared me as a kid, now he doesn’t. He gives a good performance. However the scares are quite lazy with repetitive confrontations with the clown.
Rating 7/10

Last House On The Left (1972)
Wes Craven’s first feature. Still scary despite made in early 70s. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was probably an influence. The dentist dream is terrifying. Only issue I have is the soundtrack doesn’t feel right for a horror film. Better than expected, Wes Craven made a great little movie on a limited budget.
Rating 8/10

The Innkeepers (2011)
I wasn’t scared by it at all, but it has atmosphere, likeable characters, and I wanted to see it through to find out about the mystery. Kind of a contemporary The Shining, as it’s set in a hotel. I'm surprised that it has such a low score on IMDb, as it really is quite good.
Rating 7/10

Irreversible (2002)
I’m including it as horror, because of the disturbing nature of the film.
Told in a somewhat confusing, yet involving non-chronological order. The violence is quite extreme at times.
Why Monica Bellucci wanted to star in that transgressive rape scene is unfathomable, I guess someone had to play that role. You won’t be in a hurry to go in the subway after watching. An ugly, yet unforgettable film.
Rating 8/10

Battle Royale (2000)
Debatable whether it can be labeled horror, you could call it a hybrid of drama, action, thriller and horror. I can appreciate that it’s an original idea(a precursor to Hunger Games) but in terms of personal preference I just don’t like to watch all that killing. Pretty gruesome to have your head chopped off, and then use the head as a grenade to kill again.
Favorite quote: Teacher: “Now you can’t even get angry when a student stabs you!”
Rating 7/10

Have you seen any of these films? Agree or disagree? Which horror will you be watching this month?

Favorite songs by Prince (tracks 40-31)

31 She’s Always in My Hair (From 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides)
(Arguably among Prince’s best B-sides from the 80s. Released as the B-side to Raspberry Beret.  The track has proven it’s endurance in that Prince still plays SAIMH live)

32 Erotic City (or listen here) (From 1990 maxi single, extended dance mix)
(Incredibly funky, and incredibly dirty. Released as the B-side to the Purple Rain era single "Let's Go Crazy")

33 I Wish U Heaven (From 1988’s Lovesexy)
(Love the keyboard. The video is pretty bonkers, I wonder who he wishes goes to heaven. Perhaps everyone?)

34 Strange Relationship (From 1986’s Dream Factory)
(Strange relation ship ship ship….I prefer the instrumentation on Dream Factory alternative version which is different to the 1987 Sign o' the Times version)

35 Soft and Wet (From 1978’s For You)
(Such a fun, groovy sound. The song which got him noticed)

36 Why Do You Want To Treat Me so Bad? (From 1979’s Prince)
(I love the chorus)

37 Automatic (From 1982’s 1999)
(Probably goes on slightly too long. Even so, the beat is incredibly catchy)

38 Gold (From 1995’s The Gold Experience)
(The lyrics are a tad cliché, I love the instrumentation)

39 In This Bed I Scream by Prince (From 1996’s Emancipation)
(I sense this is the song on Emancipation’s disc 1 Prince put the most effort into, and could have been a single. The section where he sings and then the guitar answers back was a fun idea)

40 Compassion (From 2010’s 20ten)
(I didn’t expect a lot from an album that was given away for free with a newspaper. Compassion is possibly my favorite Prince song of this decade so far)

Be sure to stop by next time for tracks 30-21 as I continue the countdown! Which are your favorites from these Prince albums? As always, comments are welcome.

Favorite songs by Prince (tracks 50-41)

Here are tracks 50-41. Several of the below are lesser known songs, and if you're wondering about the hits, those will feature as I move forward in the top 50. To be clear, I'm only including officially released tracks. The unreleased bootlegs are for a separate list

41 Lets Pretend We’re Married (From 1982’s 1999)
(Danceable song. Only reason it isn't higher up is the somewhat average chorus: "Ooh-we-sha-sha-coo-coo-yeah" )

42 Power Fantastic (From 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides)
(B-side that won me over, simple and powerful. Could listen to this one all day)

43 Lady Cab Driver (From 1982’s 1999) 
(Takes you on a journey, it's also quite sexually explicit. Not for kids)

44 The Holy River (From 1996’s Emancipation) 
(He was getting into spirituality at this point in his career, and it showed in his music. Prince would probably claim he always was spritual)

45 The Most Beautiful Girl In The World (From 1995’s The Gold Experience) 
( I'm not crazy about his vocal here, but it has grown on me, and a track that I feel deserves to be represented in the top 50)

46 Sexuality (From 1981's Controversy)
(Thanks to Steven from Surrender to the Void for the recommendation!)

47 Somewhere Here On Earth (From 2007’s Planet Earth) 
(A slow burner. If you like jazz)

48 Kiss (From 1986's Parade: Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon)
(One of Prince's signature tunes so needs to be here)

49 Fixurlifeup (From 2014’s PlectrumElectrum) 
(All I can say is, YOU NEED TO FIX YOUR LIFE UP!!! )

50 God (From 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides) 
(Amazing vocal performance. The B-side to Purple Rain single)

Be sure to stop by next time for tracks 40-31 as I continue the countdown! Which are your favorite lesser known Prince songs? As always, comments are welcome. I talked about the albums here

Viewing recap September

Boyhood (2014)
I was captivated from beginning to end, despite a running time of three hours. Even though I wasn't a kid in the same era that the characters are, it's still my favorite film of 2014 so far. The story could easily have felt uneven because the filmmakers and actors filmed this over so many years, but it somehow all fits together into a cohesive whole, and that to me is a sign of good directing and editing.
Before Sunrise is still my favorite by the director. I'd rank Boyhood somewhere among Linklater's top 10 films, maybe even top 5. Time will tell if his latest holds up to rewatching.
Rating 8.5/10

Come and See (1985)
Blindspot for September. Full review
Rating 9/10

Night Moves (2013)
The performances are spot on, feels realistic for the most part, and raises important questions about responsibility of actions. The weakness for me is a running time of 112 minutes. The filmmakers could easily have told the same story in 90 min (or less). Still, I'd probably rank Night Moves second behind only Wendy and Lucy, with Meek's Cutoff and Old Joy 3rd and 4th.
Rating 7/10

Blue Ruin (2013)
Like Blue is the Warmest Color, there is blue in almost every scene. The narrative is a simple one of revenge. What makes the story stand out is the main character is not a trained killer. He's a bum, actually, without the physical or technical skills to go on a revenge mission. A fairly realistic, ok thriller, done on a smallish budget, with mostly unknown actors.
Rating 7/10

Tom at the Farm (2013)
Held my interest despite the implausible situation that he would stick around so long at the farm. Most would just have got the hell out of there!
Rating 7/10

Troubled Water (2008)
Underrated Norwegian/Danish drama, which deserves a bigger audience. Directed by Erik Poppe, About secrets and forgiveness. Very good performances by the lead actors. A powerful film that still lingers in my mind a week later.
Rating 8/10

Bottle Rocket (1996)
A fun and entertaining debut feature by Wes Anderson. Maybe I'm wrong, of all his films, this one feels the most realistic. As with the directors other films, he is a wizard at putting music together with scenes, in this case Anthony running back to the motel with the song Alone Again Or by Love.
Favorite quote:
Grace: “When are you coming home?” Anthony: “Grace, I can’t come home, I’m an adult”
Rating 8/10

The Navigator (1924) 
Not quite reaching the heights of Buster Keaton’s best comedies. Still a pretty funny and sweet movie aboard a ship lost at sea. He has a female passenger with him, and it’s about their survival. The ghost was a highlight, and the underwater scenes are technically impressive for 1924. The ending is too far-fetched.
Rating 6.5/10

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Great performances by Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, and their tussle at sea creates a lot of tension.
Rating 8/10

Sylvia (2003)
I was under the impression Sylvia Plath was a bigger author than her husband Ted Hughes, that is not the case in the film.
Plath’s famous work The Bell Jar isn’t mentioned until 80 minutes into the movie. Wasn’t aware her poem collection Ariel is one of the most celebrated and widely read books of poetry of the 20th century.
The film feels a bit simplistic and one-note, I’m sure there was more to the Ted Hughes-Sylvia Plath marriage than simply Sylvia’s jealously.
Rating 6/10

Arthur (1981)
A quotable, heart-warming romantic comedy. I’ll probably have nightmares about Dudley Moore’s drunken laugh.
Favorite quote: "Tonight is New Year’s Eve, the third time this week"
Rating 7/10

Clue (1985)
Based on the board game Cludeo(Clue in north America). you could describe the movie as a dialogue-driven whodunit with comedy elements. A clever mystery that kept me guessing, yet I didn’t really care about who lived or died, and was only mildly interested in who the guilty party was. For me, the multiple ending approach was just too confusing. A few familiar faces make up the ensemble cast such as Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry and Lesley Ann Warren.  
Rating 6/10

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
First part of the Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. (2003's Oldboy is the second part of trilogy)
The director has a real talent, beautiful angles, lighting and tracking shots. The kidnapping story is good, the scenes by the lake are especially vivid in my memory.
Rating 8/10

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)
Part three of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. My least favorite of the three films. Again, as with the director’s other work, every frame is handled so well visually. The opening credits especially stood out. However the chronology is messy and jumps around quite a lot so that it was tough to follow what’s going on at times.
Not as memorable as the first two installments in the trilogy. What stayed with me was the fat female rapist in prison, and the main character’s red eye shadow. There’s also a dream sequence set in a snowy environment where a man has the body of a dog which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Shares quite a few similarities in terms of structure with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), and didn’t feel as groundbreaking as the previous two installments.
Rating 6/10

The American (2010)
Slow-building assassin thriller starring George Clooney. The cinematography is well-done, especially after dark with its yellowish nighttime light, and the mist drifting across the Italian village. You would expect this from director/photographer Anton Corbijn. Clooney’s character is very vague and we know little about his past, he plays the paranoid, evasive womanizer quite well. Unfortunately his character doesn’t come across as an interesting person, so all the concealment feels like a gimmick to keep the film moving.
While decent enough, I wouldn’t call the film a game changer, as it’s merely content to imitate other assassin thrillers such as Day of the Jackal. The only surprise was the ending. I love the poster, but it doesn’t sell the film well, since there are only a couple of action scenes.
Rating 6/10

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
Having noticed praise for the film in the blogosphere, and seeing was nominated for 6 Oscars, I was expecting an above average movie. The filmmakers do a fine job of recreating the time it was set, and I can appreciate the events it depicts are historically important. Yet I could summon little enthusiasm for the history lesson, which I found quite dry and emotionless. I find it overrated.
Rating 5/10

Michael Clayton (2007)
Same reaction as Good Night and Good Luck, I just didn’t like any of the characters, who to me are cold. The storytelling was quite confusing. Bothers me when Brits (in this case both Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton) put on fake American accents. There’s suspense in the last third, but that and James Newton Howard’s score are the only things I enjoyed.
Rating 6/10

How was your month? Have you watched any of the above films? Agree or disagree? As always, comments are welcome


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