Sunday, January 22, 2012
The silent film Birth of a Nation (1915) quells discussion. It is such a piece of bluntly racist propaganda; so relentlessly bigoted, particularly in its second hour, that it’s impossible for anyone to discuss the film’s artistic and technical merits in isolation, though many try. They talk about director D.W. Griffith’s ground-breaking editing techniques, which give the film its dramatic potency. They talk about its unprecedented popular appeal. True, true. Even at 180 minutes, Birth of a Nation absolutely flies by.
And then there’s its star, Lillian Gish (above); the supreme queen of pantomime, weaving her tale with minimal intertitles and no histrionics. She’s perfect for Griffith, who relies on old-fashioned prescriptive intertitles to get his point across. He merely sets Gish up, and she goes to work.