DJ Spooky

DJ Spooky says D.W. Griffith influenced the "realm of the imagination" in African-American film. (Tamar Levine photo / May 15, 2012)

DJ Spooky lectures and screens Rebirth of a Nation

$15-$20, 7 p.m., May 17. Mark Twain House, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford, (860) 247-0998,


D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation occupies a particularly peculiar role in the history of American cinema: It's unabashedly racist and hateful, which makes it taboo to openly appreciate from a moral perspective, but its technical merits and contextual significance mean that cinema aficionados will repeatedly go to bat for it anyway. Initially known as The Clansman, Griffith's 1915 film was the original Civil War epic; a story of two families, with one representing the North and the other the South. Along the way, the film featured especially farcical and negative portrayals of blacks, and venerated the Ku Klux Klan to the point that it incited a mass revival of the organization after interest in the KKK had cooled in the late 1800s.

But the importance of Birth's innovative compositions and narrative techniques can't be denied. Even for a silent movie — hardly the best medium for nuanced storytelling — Birth's acting has an especially expressive and real-feeling quality to it. The movie was a national sensation at the time of its release, and Griffith's influence on filmmaking to come has been immense, even if the average young director would think twice about name-dropping him. (The Directors Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award was originally known as the D.W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award, but you can probably guess why they changed it.) YouTube comments are usually a haven for stupidity, but under a trailer for Birth, a response from DavidLeeMcMullen summarized the complex feelings that come from being an admirer of this movie. "I do not agree with the racism, but this is perfect filmmaking. D.W. Griffith transformed movies into a respectable art form, mainly due to this movie and Intolerance," he wrote, referencing Griffith's 1916 follow-up to Birth. "This is a great epic movie. You all need to get over a movie made almost a century ago."

Frankly, no one's going to get over Birth anytime soon, especially as the film presents so many implications and issues that are still being unraveled. In 2004, New York's progressive-minded Lincoln Center Festival commissioned hip-hop producer/multimedia artist DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul D. Miller) to remix Griffith's masterpiece. After its first showing, Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation continues to tour as a live experience, which explains its screening at Mark Twain House on Thursday. (It was released on DVD in 2008.) "Basically, the film remix idea came from a couple of impulses, a wish and a whimsical view of history rolled up into a sense of outrage and disgust with the Bush election," Miller says in an e-mail interview. "One of the things that really struck me was how so much voter disenfranchisement was in effect during the Bush situation, and the Supreme Court ruling that decided the Presidency [was] based on the fact that Bush's father had appointed several of the Justices. I was stunned at how obvious the manipulation of the public was, and the fact that it seemed like the people who bore the brunt of the situation were African-American. I looked for resonances in history and remembered Birth of a Nation's election scenes."

To modify this film that, in his words, "created a kind of limbo in identity" for blacks, Miller takes tenets and tools from DJ culture and applies them to Birth. He adds his own narrative to the film, using an authoritative and informed voice to question, contextualize and draw new parallels within the movie. He also creates a "live soundtrack" by using parts of Birth's original score (which used Richard Wagner's music) and instrumentals by artists such as the Kronos Quartet. Visually, Miller incorporates a new title screen, overlaid drawings, borders, colorful filters, new closeups and other tricks to spice up the experience. There's absolutely no confusing Rebirth with the original.

Miller is a devout believer in the power of remixing ("We are now in the era of the unfinished work," he says in an especially quotable quote), making Rebirth a logical extension of what he's been doing with music for years. For an idea of where he's coming from, Miller cites the influence of the Dada movement, the international design collective Fluxus, French writer Jean Cocteau, Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and the lovably eccentric Americans John Cage and William S. Burroughs. "I don't really have any favorite philosophers, but I do think that I could say that electronic music mirrors the complexity of 'information landscapes.' It's just that, like [Argentinian writer Jorge Luis] Borges, you carry the terrain in your mind," he says. "When you look at artists like Nam June Paik and Andy Warhol, you can easily see how this kind of thing would change the way people think about visual images. I wanted to try that out in Rebirth of a Nation."

As an enthusiast of context and recontextualization, it's easy to picture the breathlessly intellectual Miller writing a fat book on The Birth of a Nation's impact. He mentions "the 'minstrel' robots in Transformers or the 'black' voices of characters in films like Men in Black or Star Wars" as evidence of how Birth's cultural touch resonates today. "The film has almost 100 years of history and debate, but the rare thing you never hear about is how much Griffith was able to influence the realm of the imagination in African-American film directors as a response to Birth of a Nation. Oscar Micheaux made Within Our Gates in 1920 as a response, but the core DNA still eerily echoes in Tyler Perry's multiple personalities and [the] shifting landscape of personae as much as it does the political process of envisioning a leader like President Obama. It's proto-postmodern," Miller says. "I hope that you find that new and revelatory, but it really is just the same old thing — what Amiri Baraka called 'the changing same.'"

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