Rebirth of a Nation
Notes for Paul D. Miller’s “Rebirth of a Nation” – remix of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.”
By Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid
Travel. Big picture small frame, so what’s the name of the game? Symbol and synecdoche, sign and signification, all at once, the digital codes become a reflection, a mirror permutation of the nation…. Where to go? What to do to get there?
Sometimes the best way to get an idea across is to simply tell it as a story. It’s been a while since late one autumn afternoon in 1896 Georges Méliès was filming a late afternoon Paris crowd caught in the ebb and flow of the city’s traffic. Méliès was in the process of filming an omnibus as it came out of a tunnel, and his camera jammed. He tried for several moments to get it going again, but with no luck. After a couple of minutes he got it working again, and the camera’s lens caught a hearse going by. It was an accident that went unoticed until he got home. When the film was developed and projected it seemed as if the bus morphed into a funeral hearse and back to its original form again. In the space of what used to be called “actualités” – real contexts reconfigured into stories that the audiences could relate to – a simple opening and closing of a lens had placed the viewer in several places and times simultaneously. In the space of one random error, Méliès created what we know of today as the “cut” – words, images, sounds flowing out the lens projection would deliver, like James Joyce used to say “sounds like a river.” Flow, rupture, and fragmentation – all seamlessly bound to the viewers perspectival architecture of film and sound, all utterly malleable – in the blink of an eye space and time as the pre-industrial culture had known it came to an end.
Whenever you look at an image, there’s a ruthless logic of selection that you have to go through to simply to create a sense of order. The end product on this palimpsest of perception is a composite of all the thoughts and actions you sift through over the last several micro-seconds – a soundbite reflection of a process that’s a new update of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the German proto Expressionist 1920 film “Der Golem,” but this time it’s the imaginary creature is made of the interplay fragments of time, code, and (all puns intended) memory and flesh. The eyes stream data to the brain through something like 2 million fiber bundles of nerves. Consider the exponentional aspects of perception when you multiply this kind of density by the fact that not only does the brain do this all the time, but the millions of bits of information streaming through your mind at any moment have to be coordinated and like the slightest rerouting is, like the hearse and omnibus of Méliès film accident, any shift in the traffic of information can create not only new thoughts, but new ways of thinking. Literally. Non-fiction, check the meta-contradiction… Back in the early portion of the 20th century this kind of emotive fragmentation implied a crisis of representation, and it was filmakers, not Dj’s who were on the cutting edge of how to create a kind of subjective intercutting of narratives and times – there’s even the famous story of how President Woodrow Wilson when he saw the now legendary amount of images and narrative jump cuts that were in turn cut and spliced up in D.W. Griffiths’s film classic “Birth of a Nation” called the style of ultra-montage “like writing history with lightning.” I wonder what he would have said of Grand Master Flash’s 1981 classic “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel?”
Film makers like D.W. Griffith, Dziga Vertov, Oscar Michaux, and Sergei Eisenstein (especially with his theory of “dialectal montage” or “montage of attractions” that created a kind of subjective intercutting of multiple layers of stories within stories) were forging stories for a world just coming out of the throes of World War I. A world which, like ours, was becoming increasingly inter-connected, and filled with stories of distant lands, times and places – a place where cross cutting allowed the presentation not only of parallel actions occurring simultaneously in separate spatial dimensions, but also parallel actions occurring on separate temporal planes – in the case of Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” four stories at once – and helped convey the sense of density that the world was confronting… Griffith was known as “the Man Who Invented Hollywood,” and the words he used to describe his style of composition -“intra-frame narrative” or the “cut-in” the “cross-cut” – staked out a space in America’s linguistic terrain that hasn’t really been explored too much. Griffith’s films were mainly used as propaganda – “Birth of a Nation” was used as a recruitment film for the Ku Klux Klan at least up until the mid 1960’s, and other films like “Intolerance” were commercial failures, and the paradox of his cultural stance versus the technical expertise that he brought to film, is still mirrored in Hollywood to this day.
But if you compare that kind of flux to stuff to Dj mixes, you can see a similar logic at work: it’s all about selection of sound as narrative. I guess that’s travelling by synecdoche. It’s a process of sifting through the narrative rubble of a phenomenon that conceptual artist Adrian Piper liked to call the “indexical present:” “I use the notion of the ‘indexical present’ to describe the way in which I attempt to draw the viewer into a direct relationship with the work, to draw the viewer into a kind of self critical standpoint which encourages reflection on one’s own responses to the work…”
To name, to call, to upload, to download… So I’m sitting here and writing – creating a new time zone out of widely dispersed geographic regions – reflect and reflecting on the same ideas using the net to focus our attention on a world rapidly moving into what I like to call “prosthetic realism.” Sight and sound, sign and signification: the travel at this point becomes mental, and as with Griffith’s hyper dense technically prescient intercuts, it’s all about how you play with the variables that creates the artpiece. If you play, you get something out of the experience. If you don’t, like Griffith – the medium becomes a reinforcement of what’s already there, and or as one critic, Iris Barry said a long time ago of Griffith’s “Intolerance”: “history itself seems to pour like a cataract across the screen…”
Like an acrobat drifting through the topologies of codes, glyphs and signs that make up the fabric of my everyday life, I like to flip things around. With a culture based on stuff like Emergency Broadcast Network hyper edited new briefs, Ninja Tune dance moguls Cold Cut’s “7 Minutes of Madness” remix of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid in Full” to Grandmaster Flash’s “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” to later excursions into geographic, cultural, and temporal dispersion like MP3lit.com – contemporary 21st Century aesthetics needs to focus on how to cope with the immersion we experience on a daily level – a density that Sergei Eisenstein back in 1929 spoke of when he was asked about travel and film:“the hieroglyphic language of the cinema is capable of expressing any concept, any idea of class, any political or tactical slogan, without recourse to the help of suspect dramatic or psychological past” Does this mean that we make our own films as we live them? Travelling without moving. It’s something even Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” wouldn’t have thought possible. But hey, like I always say, “who’s counting?”
– Margo Jefferson, New York Times, July 8, 2005
- Chicago Tribune
- Sunday Star Times – Aukland, NZ
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