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March 20, 2006 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Birth of Damnation

Films as we know them, would be different if it wasn’t for a little 3-hour racist film made all the way back in 1915. Made by American director DW Griffiths, Birth of a Nation manages to glorify the pre-Civil War South as an ideal society where whites and blacks were in their right places. The film follows the ‘disastrous’ aftermath of the Civil War where blacks ran rampant and threatened to rape the innocent white-folk. The movie shows that America needed the glorious rise of the Ku Klux Klan to put the upstart blacks in their place. Yep, it’d be safe to say, African-Americans didn’t really empathise with the film. The Klan did – and it is reputedly still used as a recruiting tool (I wouldn’t know).

Birth of a Nation would probably have passed into obscurity as a shockingly racist film that only shocking racists watch if it wasn’t for the film’s technical brilliance. Before Birth of a Nation, films were composed like big theatre productions – with single shots lasting entire scenes, and with the camera not moving. Birth of a Nation basically invented most modern film editing techniques including invisible editing (you don’t notice the cut), and cross-editing (telling two stories at once – for instance, the blacks about to rape a woman crosscut with the Klan frantically riding to save her) etc. The film’s legacy remains today with the fact we have cut-up editing when we watch most things on TV or the movies. In fact, Birth of a Nation is also pretty much responsible for making Hollywood the world’s superpower in filmmaking (well, World War One did help by taking Europe away). American President Woodrow Wilson, after setting up a private cinema in the White House to watch the film, infamously said Birth of a Nation is “like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all terribly true.”

Popular music as we know it would be different if it wasn’t for a hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-womanising blues player from the 1930s. Robert Johnson is one of popular music’s mythic figures – despite the fact he was a man who died before he was thirty (reputedly poisoned by a jealous husband), and only recorded 29 songs. He is the man who had mediocre talent, then went down to the crossroads of Highway 61 where he sold his soul to the devil, and came back as the legendary guitarist he came to be known as. His music was highly influential on the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton – in fact, popular music would be nothing if it wasn’t ripped off the blues that people like Robert Johnson (i.e. poor black men) played.

The more astute reader will be starting to notice a trend. The foundation of films is based on exploiting African Americans. The foundation of music is based on… exploiting African Americans. What do you get when you mix them together, along with a highly influential DJ? Rebirth of a Nation.

I talk to Paul D Miller (AKA DJ Spooky) on his cellphone. Not surprisingly, the man is a multi-tasker. When I initially get his answer machine, his message tells people not to leave a message because he’s always busy. When I finally interview him, he is editing a piece and conducting another interview at the same time. He is an intense and highly intellectual man – he has degrees in French literature and philosophy, and has a habit of hanging up on people who aren’t prepared (that meant having to read Deleuze and post-structuralist theory). The interview however, was strangely (and thankfully) laidback.

Miller is heavily influenced by Dadaist theory and Deleuze’s recontextualisation theory. These two are ostensibly linked; it’s all about taking things out of their usual context and allowing us to confront how we see them. Miller has written before that “we need to think of music as information, not simply as rhythms, but as codes for aesthetic translation between blurred categories that have slowly become more and more obsolete”. Through DJing, Miller reckons he can break down traditional notions of how we define art. To him music is an event (this is again continuing Deleuze and Guattari’s theories), and we need to make people aware that this is an event so we can understand its information in our own context. Miller has been exploring that concept throughout his artistic career – and it is something for which DJing has been particularly useful. DJing is similar to film editing in that each text is broken down into single samples. Miller tells me that “the whole idea for me right now is to apply DJ technique to cinema. It’s not about looking at an old film and watching the film played but changing and transforming the film from the ground up.”

Birth of a Nation is not to be dismissed because it was simply made in 1915 by a racist (depending on who you talk to) Southerner. Miller wants to confront the racism he believes is repeating itself. “The Birth of a Nation project, you gotta remember the South was considered a defeated nation at the end of the civil war, but guess what? They’re back stronger than ever with this current administration and other stuff.” Miller is highly critical of George W. Bush – opposition to Bush isn’t particularly new, but he does note some interesting developments. “Take an example of the last two elections in the US, with what they call the red state/blue state issue. It broke down to exactly what it was like during the Civil War. The red states were all the Southern states and the blue states were all the Northern and coastal states. So it’s kinda eerie how it’s all come back full circle.” The treatment of African-Americans in the aftermath of last year’s Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing Iraq War (where a large proportion of the soldiers are African-Americans) are further proof, in the eyes of Bush’s dissenters, of racist treatment.

Miller hopes to link his Rebirth of a Nation to the racism of the current American administration. “The United States keeps saying, why don’t we forget the past? All this bad stuff happened a long time ago, we’re here and now everything’s great. That’s the problem – my nickname for us is the United States of Amnesia – so because of that, what I’m trying to figure out is how to get film becoming a DJ story-telling device. The whole vibe of the remix is to kind of get people to remember there’s always different versions of how something could have turned out.” Miller wants us to confront the film – this racism is still around, and cannot be ignored as simply being of its time.

Griffith’s film and legacy can never be ignored. Part of this is due to the film’s lingering technical resonance. “Griffith is a really unique anomaly. At one level or another, his whole level of filmmaking was embraced by the political establishment. You gotta remember Birth of a Nation was the first film to be played at the White House. It was heavily supported by President Wilson, and they all thought it was going to be this wild scenario. That’s a shame because on a lot of levels he invented a ridiculous amount of cinematic techniques when he made the film. The problem is the film is tied up with racial paranoia, complete disinformation about how race was set up in the South. In fact, there’s almost no black people in the freakin’ film, well not none, there’s a couple, it’s mostly white in black face”.

Isn’t it perhaps a contradiction to use someone like Robert Johnson, who’s such a mythic African-American figure alongside Griffith’s film? “I tend to think there’s always room for more shock. You think this is wild, and then I’ll pull something else out of the hat – being a New Yorker I live two blocks from Ground Zero. It takes a lot to shock me.” Miller is someone who holds out hope, though it may be quite difficult in the States at the moment. “At the same time, it’s like you want to at least have some kind of vision of a progressive world. I really tend to think right now it’s hard to be idealistic in the United States in any way, shape or form.”

With Rebirth of a Nation, Miller is attempting to allow us to confront history. He uses the famous Santayana quote as a basis for the show. “Those who don’t learn from the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them”. Judging from Miller’s output, he’s certainly not going to let us try and forget. Even this show will not be allowed to get “stale”. “I remix the film every night, and literally every night is different. One night you might see a series of scenes and the characters doing one thing and the next night in a different city I’ll be doing a whole different take on it. That’s the point – when you apply DJ technique to the whole thing it becomes like a deck of cards where you just pick any sequence and try to make it work.” In addition to creating this show, Miller has collaborated with Slayer and Public Enemy for his latest album, Drums of Death (which you can apparently get off iTunes). Public Enemy are also calling their next solo album Rebirth of a Nation. Furthermore, Miller has recently written a book called Rhythm Science, which looks at DJ technique and modern art. This guy is crazy-busy. Maybe I should leave him alone and let him do just one interview.


About the Author ()

Brannavan Gnanalingam has come a long way from being born in the teeming metropolis of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He may be known as feature writer for Salient, but is also the only man in history to have simultaneously donated both his kidneys. He is also an amateur rapper going under the moniker Brantank and hopes to win a Grammy.

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