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Monday, August 13, 2007

Pushed to the Limit Films and videos by John Smith

By Fred Camper

The chaotic late 60s left a mixed legacy, but on the positive side is an artistic tradition that questions "the very roots of everything," in the words of John Smith, who's been making films and videos since 1972. He challenges authority with a lighthearted spirit; his intellectually subtle works can be whimsical, even fun. Smith, who's British, was last in Chicago showing his films in 1984 -- and his works have hardly been seen here since. Now he returns with a program of nine films and videos, ranging in length from one minute to 28 minutes, at the Film Center on September 13 as well as two videos at the Onion City Film Festival, Regression on September 14 and The Kiss on September 15.

At its best, Smith's work evokes doubt not only about cultural givens but about all givens. He dismantles songs, iconic forms of architecture, and the urban landscape, investigating two themes. Rejecting structures that suggest fixed power, he celebrates ordinary things: not a tower but the discolorations of its brick wall. At a deeper level, he constructs little narratives but undermines all human structures by breaking up the sequences of images and sounds.

Smith was born in London in 1952 and lives there today. His second year in art school was seminal: his professors then had been expelled from another school where they'd conducted a sit-in in 1968. They put together a multimedia curriculum informed by "anticapitalist impulses," Smith told me. He learned early on, he says, "to question...the fundamentals of meaning -- don't trust representation, don't trust what you're told." Smith counts as key influences his teachers Guy Sherwin and Peter Gidal, and the films of Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Jacques Tati (for "the playfulness of his use of sound and image, explor[ing] ambiguity and alternative meanings").

Smith deconstructs a universal symbol of beauty in the single-take video The Kiss (1999, made in collaboration with Ian Bourn). A particularly beautiful lily seems to grow before our eyes, gradually changing shape; what sounds like breathing on the sound track gives it an almost human presence. Suddenly the sound and movement stop as a glass plate, invisible until now, cracks -- and it seems we've been watching, in Smith's words, "the forced development of a hothouse flower."

The effect is not only iconoclastic in the word's original sense -- image breaking -- but causes the viewer to question the degree of artifice in all "nature" today. The glass shattering converts what had appeared to be a transparent window into a barrier, reminding us of the camera lens, projection apparatus, and video screen. And because the flower and its transformation were so engaging, the shattering shatters our involvement and evokes the way in which every image we see is filtered through an individual's consciousness, a consciousness foregrounded by the video's end. Smith taped The Kiss in real time, placing a cut flower between two plates of glass that he moved slowly together with a clamp; the pressure eventually caused one plate to crack. It was originally shown looped as a gallery installation; as Smith says, there was "much more of a sense of a production line, with one flower after another being crushed."

Regression (1999) is a video version of the 1978 Smith film 7P preceded by a sequence in which Smith talks about the film. Among the problems with the original, we learn, was the fact that a slight jump at each splice tended to distract from the "subtle changes" Smith intended between shots. When he shows the video version, at first one is unsure whether it's the original -- and Smith says that part of his intent was to "tease the audience as to whether the original film did exist." And the video remake turns out to be not much different from the preceding shot of Smith talking to the camera: we just see him singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas." But he shot it singing one verse per day starting on Christmas day, then spliced in each gift in the list from the day on which it was sung, so during each verse he's differently clothed and more or less shaven. Plus Smith doesn't seem to remember the gift for the sixth day, singing "da da da" instead, and the song has 17 verses instead of 12, with more "da da da"s instead of words.

Smith acknowledges the influence of Frampton's 1970 Zorns Lemma, with its street signs organized alphabetically, but Regression pokes fun at this encyclopedic project by picking apart a popular song. Taking the different days literally and creating disjunctive cuts within the verses, Smith reveals a bit of the child's desire to question cultural assumptions: if the singer sings on the different days of Christmas, shouldn't his appearance change?

Smith's 1987 film The Black Tower is perhaps his most entertaining work. In a voice-over he talks about how he was surprised one day by a mysterious black tower he hadn't noticed before. Then he sees it again someplace else. Soon the tower is everywhere -- inside some prison grounds, next to a factory, as if pursuing him. He has a dream that he's imprisoned in it -- and when one of the towers seems to have disappeared he begins to doubt his sanity until a newspaper vendor explains that it had recently been demolished. When he realizes later that the vendor had been talking about the demolition of an apartment tower, Smith is flummoxed, saying, "It seems as though I would have to stay at home from now on." Eating only ice cream, spending his time staring "downward" out of his windows so he won't see any towers, he eventually gets carted off to the nuthouse, where he's "not surprised by the architecture" -- another tower. Months later he's come to understand that "the tower had existed only in my mind," but when he goes to the country to continue his recovery, he encounters another tower.

The tower's dark top, shaped like a small house but windowless, is a bit goofy looking but might also induce paranoia. Adding to its peculiar power is the fact that towers have long been symbols of authority, secular and religious, and that this tower is of unknown origin. But the tower is also a metaphor for human subjectivity. In a way Smith's madness is just an extreme version of what we all do, a way of exploring the borderline between personal vision and hallucination.

The Black Tower also seems concerned with urban change: the tower's appearances and disappearances recall the way that a much loved city can seem defaced by the demolition of familiar buildings and by the construction of new ones, a process over which the individual has little or no control. At one point when the protagonist is troubled by a tower's disappearance, the film cuts back and forth between two versions of the same nondescript landscape; in one version an apartment tower fills the sky and in the other it's missing. Then an image of the building being demolished by explosives makes it clear that Smith has been intercutting "before" and "after" views; later we learn that this is the tower the newspaper vendor was talking about. Here Smith draws a parallel between cinematic effects and changes to the urban landscape, reminding us that the images we see are always the result of human choices.

"Most of my works are made around places I've lived most of my life," Smith says, and in fact The Black Tower was inspired when he first saw the tower itself (yes, there's only one -- he simply filmed it from different angles). Looking out the window of a new apartment he saw the top, painted in nonreflective paint, looking like "a hole cut out of the sky -- and I thought, what the hell is that?" It turns out it was a water tower, disguised by a "house." Near the end of the film, when he finds the tower in the country, he approaches it and says he notices "signs of age and decay." We see a number of closer shots of the bricks, with areas of discoloration, and suddenly this forbidding icon takes its place in the physical world, where everything is impermanent.

The theme of fragmentation and decay is taken up by my favorite work here, the video Lost Sound (2001), made in collaboration with a friend, sound artist Graeme Miller, who suggested to Smith that someone should "make a film that's to do with the sound on audiocassette tape found in the street." Smith replied, "I wish I'd had that idea," so they collaborated on the videotaping and sound recording, though Smith did the editing.

Divided into short sections titled by location, Lost Sound shows discarded audiotapes around London -- strands clinging to a fence, trapped in the crevices of a tree trunk, intertwined with weeds. The sound track combines the voices and songs on the found audiotapes with ambient sounds recorded on location. Visually the audiotapes tell us almost nothing; they must be "decoded" by the equipment that put them on the sound track. But we come to see that the signs, cars, and pedestrians in the videotape pose similar "decoding" problems: what do they mean, where do they come from, who are they? A city that at first seems comprehensible is revealed as a layering of mysteries; we know no more about the passing humans from their images than we do about what's on the crumpled tapes, a point made through contrast when we see tape fluttering forlornly from barbed wire and hear a syrupy song ("Join in the music!").

Smith reinforces his ideas about the importance of context through simple but apt editing. The opening section of Lost Sound begins with the strands of tape in close-up, and only a few shots later do we see the urban setting. Another sequence begins with pedestrians seen from the waist down, then closer -- only their legs and feet. Next is a shot of a tiny piece of tape with pedestrians' shadows passing over it; after that we get a view of the whole street. Each section charts a different relationship between tape and urban scene, taking the viewer on a little unpredictable journey. Finally, as happens so often in Smith's work, the representational structure itself seems to break down. Titles and images are flipped left to right, undermining the readability of words, and men loading boxes onto a truck are seen in a repeated loop, foregrounding the arbitrariness of cinematic time as well as commenting on the repetitiousness of manual labor. Lost in an indecipherable maze whose rules change constantly, we see the city as a network of unpredictably shifting relationships and come to doubt even the sounds encoded in the tape fragments.

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American Movies: Engram Sepals (Melodramas 1994-2000)

Directed by
Lewis Klahr

By Fred Camper

Lewis Klahr begins the description of his new series, "Engram Sepals (Melodramas 1994-2000)," with a quote from the iconic Hollywood director Douglas Sirk: "The word `melodrama' has rather lost its meaning nowadays: people tend to lose the `melos' in it, the music." And though Klahr sets his animated cutouts of characters and rooms to popular songs, there's more than music connecting his work to the 50s melodramas of Sirk and Vincente Minnelli.

Addressing a common theme in melodrama -- the individual's struggle for autonomy in the face of social strictures -- Sirk and Minnelli tend to express confinement in terms of the surrounding decor, which is often overwhelming in its sensual excess. In Sirk's Written on the Wind, the opulent surroundings chosen by the oil family seem to affect the characters' actions, just as in Minnelli's Some Came Running, the symmetrical arrangement of the furniture in Gwen's bedroom seems to dictate her self-repression when she rejects Dave.

It takes the genius of a Sirk or a Minnelli to make the viewer feel that a lamp can influence a living being, but the cutout animator faces a different challenge. Klahr's characters, many appropriated from magazines and comic books, are flat still images on the same visual plane as the objects he uses. Both people and objects move with the same jerky, stop-start rhythm (to achieve the jagged animated movements he favors, Klahr places his cutouts by hand on a table or floor). To give his characters some kind of life, he creates visually seductive stories mysterious enough to engage the viewer.

Klahr's superb visual sense is very much in evidence here, where his seductive environments -- sensuous interiors, suggestive objects -- threaten to overwhelm his people, who are even more passive than the characters in 50s melodramas. Drifting through a pop-culture fever dream of hypnotic music and entranced spaces, a kind of inventory of wonders, a comic book cutout can take on the powers of a magician even as he fails to understand what's happening to him or why. Indeed, while many artists have engaged with mass culture, few have rendered its mix of seduction, imaginative stimulation, and destructive smoothness as elegantly and precisely as Klahr does here.

"Engram Sepals" (which Klahr will present Friday only at Chicago Filmmakers) consists of seven short films, three of which have been exhibited previously in Chicago. Though the parts can be shown on their own, Klahr writes that the whole "traces a trajectory of American intoxication -- both sexually and substance wise -- from the second world war into the 1970's." References in the films to drugs and alcohol and to the intoxicating effects of romance and sex underscore the characters' search for authenticity.

Klahr told me that some viewers have decoded his highly enigmatic narratives on their own, but I couldn't untangle all of the six-minute Engram Sepals (2000) even after he outlined the plot for me. Second in the series, it's about a scientist who cheats on his wife with a mistress who steals some sort of secret formula from him, as a result of which he commits suicide. The film does begin with a corpse lying on the floor and ends with an implied suicide, suggesting the rest is the scientist's memory. And there are two women and a laboratorylike building, but the only evidence I saw of a secret formula was a grid of mysterious numbered buttons -- which Klahr says are just the elevator buttons in the mistress's apartment building. And why one of the women repeatedly brushes her teeth is never clear.

No matter, because the real power of Klahr's figures is their mix of sensuality and insubstantiality, which not only allows the viewer to bring his own experiences to the action but makes Klahr's key point about pop culture. Even though this stylish, provocative film, alone among the seven, is in black and white and uses the high-art music of Morton Feldman rather than pop, it makes the stuff of mass culture thoroughly alluring. The discontinuous overall design, inspired by 40s film noir, creates the sense of an incomprehensible labyrinth, and the depiction of some figures in white line drawings on black, Klahr says, was inspired in part by magazine graphics of the 40s and 50s, "where the whites against blacks are so luminous that they have a kind of eternity in them." The figures' insubstantiality suggests both universality and diminution: these are quite a bit less than flesh-and-blood humans. No character seems in control, and the viewer's difficulty in threading his way through the narrative underscores the characters' loss of autonomy.

Indeed, throughout the series the characters hover between existence as individuals and as gutless media creations. Pony Glass (1997) shows Jimmy Olsen with three Superman figures tattooed on his body -- the individual as repository for received imagery. Suddenly one of the tattoos is covered by a bra Jimmy's wearing, suggesting that the film's environment has feminized him. But this isn't altogether a bad thing: Jimmy's bra is seductive visually, showing the intoxicating power not of alcohol, drugs, love, or sex but of imagery alone.

Born in New York City in 1956, Klahr was raised in Great Neck, an upper-middle-class suburb on Long Island, and "grew up on pop culture," he says. His first major creative effort, at about age ten, was a comic book. That interest may have had a significant effect. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics points out that, unlike cinema, comics of necessity contain significant gaps between panels, forcing the artist to choose what to omit. Likewise Klahr's cutout animation doesn't even approach the illusion of continuous movement or the realistic spaces of a live-action movie:we never get a whole view of the elevator that includes those mysterious buttons. Instead Klahr offers a collagelike ensemble of objects that the viewer connects, almost as if responding to a surrealist painting.

The Hollywood movies Klahr watched on television were another key influence: the intimacy of the home setting, he says, has affected his films -- "the idea of private address." But his biggest influence was Joseph Cornell, whose work he discovered at the 1980 Museum of Modern Art retrospective; Klahr attended five times, overwhelmed by "the emotion, the color, and by everyday things leading to a sense of eternity." Amore recent influence is the technical skill, among other things, of his wife, filmmaker-theater artist Janie Geiser.

One can see how Cornell is a more important influence for Klahr than most other cutout animators. Yet there are crucial differences between Klahr's films and Cornell's boxes and collages. Cornell's enjambment of jarringly disparate forms, such as a wine glass and a map of the solar system, suggests the mind's limitlessness. And Klahr says he was deeply moved by a Cornell box with a birdcage reference when he realized that "the bird had escaped."

There are some Cornell-like astronomy references in the series's first film, Altair (1994) -- but Klahr's characters never escape. The mundane fragment of a liquor bottle floating through Altair is quite unlike Cornell, who tended to avoid mass-manufactured objects. Indeed, Klahr's Muzak-like worlds of prefab interiors and slow, repetitive songs are made up of objects and surfaces at once seductive and alienating, elevating and enervating. Klahr gets the peculiar power of American mass culture exactly right: sensually engaging, it destroys autonomy; brimming with implied gratification, it both allures and sickens.

Considering their surroundings, it's not surprising that Klahr's characters seem so at sea. Elsa Kirk (1999) -- inspired by some 1963 contact sheets of a model apparently named Elsa Kirk -- repeatedly shows Kirk in a curtained doorway as objects and images float by. Though Klahr hints at a crime story -- he includes an empty safe, for example -- the focus is on Kirk standing as if on a theater stage, barely able to move on her own, almost a victim of the images drifting around her. Characters throughout the series are often subjected to the phallic aggressiveness of objects, buildings, and interiors. The richly sensual colors of the intoxicating environments in Pony Glass, Downs Are Feminine (1994), and A Failed Cardigan Maneuver (1999) magnify this effect. In the face of Klahr's collaged onslaught, his characters become curiously passive, even sexually vulnerable -- males are penetrated by other males, for example.

The series is also haunted by references to time: clocks and clock hands occur throughout, and a calendar appears in Elsa Kirk. These combine with the retro objects and decors of various decades, the frozen look of the cutout figures, the stop-start movements, and the halting, ambiguous narratives to suggest the ambivalence inherent in nostalgia: our wish to enter the past is coupled with an awareness of the impossibility of doing so.

One aspect of melodrama that Klahr takes even further than Minnelli or Sirk is the way characters' fates seem determined by the sound track. This is not at all akin to a music video, which subordinates the images to the music; Klahr's characters seem to have some will, but their potential for self-determination is undermined by the way they seem forced to act out the songs. Frank Sinatra's two numbers about broken affairs in A Failed Cardigan Maneuver are matched by fragmented images -- a lone cocktail shaker, an inventory of magazine pictures of women -- that separate characters from one another and from objects, and the many figures in Govinda (1999) seem automatons slowed by the droning sound of the opening song, produced by George Harrison.

This effect is especially striking because Govinda is not only the longest work in the series (at 23 minutes), it's also the only live-action film. Using rephotographed Super-8 movies as well as exploitation and porn videos he filmed directly off the tube, Klahr constructs what he calls "a coming-of-age story for a countercultural person, but not one single character," contrasting this film with those in the series set before the mid-60s. Klahr's 1966 (1984) was filled with longing for that paradigmatic countercultural year, which he was too young to have experienced as an adult. And Govinda, he says, is in part about whether someone who's stepped way outside social norms can ever fully rejoin the mainstream. Early portions of Govinda depict countercultural youth, including 60s or 70s footage of shirtless kids in an alternative high school apparently engaged in drug-induced carousing. The middle section is made up of exploitation films, and the final one shows the 1979 wedding of Klahr's hippieish older brother (who had in fact shocked the family by returning from college with long hair in 1966).

Klahr's choice of material -- porn distanced by being filmed off a TV screen and the weirdly alienated wedding footage, which includes sections freighted with black and purple due to a lab mistake -- creates an almost palpable feeling of loss. None of the characters in Govinda, or indeed any of the films, is free in the way Cornell's imagined bird is. Seeming to bounce around to the stop-start rhythms of Klahr's clocks, his characters resemble spastic marionettes playing out a devolution that acknowledges, as does much of Klahr's work, that the 70s represent an incredible diminution of the aspirations of the 60s. But many different periods of American culture are reflected in his characters' failed quests, their simultaneous entrapment and continued hope, looking for a revelation that never quite comes.

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By Fred Camper


Several years ago, in a lecture, Peter Kubelka advocated that each media-form should utilize its own unique properties, rather than try to imitate other media. In film, one works with its rapid succession of individual, still frames: "Cinema is not movement." Kubelka went on to add that he does not like the idea that diverse media can be seen as expressing themselves similarly, or that works can translate from one medium to another, "so that literature translates into theater, theater translates into cinema, cinema translates into video, and video translates into hamburgers."

In early 1985, "The NYC Experimental Video and Film Festival" advertised itself as "...an organization which seeks to unify video and film art despite establishment taboos.... The festival is in a video format; films must be transferred."


In recent years, there has been frequent animosity between the independent film and video communities. Video artists sometimes feel that filmmakers have no respect for them or their medium; filmmakers are often afraid that video will completely take over, and make it impossible to work in their chosen medium. Certainly it has been a shock for film artists who were working on the technological forefront less than a decade ago, in a medium in which new cameras, film stocks, and processes were constantly being introduced, to now come to see cinema as the nineteenth-century, mechanical and chemical process that it is.

My purpose here is not to attack video, a medium with its own unique properties and potentials, but rather, to address filmmakers and the film community on attitudes such as that of "The NYC Experimental Video and Film Festival," and on the more general question of whether a film can survive the transfer to tape, and whether film should be even viewed on video at all. With filmmakers increasingly tempted by the exhibition possibilities of video distribution and cable TV, some reflections on the differences between the two media, and particularly between film projection and the standard TV monitor that now exists, are in order.

The Box. A film image is generally projected on a screen, and viewed in darkness. This image exists in a kind of virtual space. The distance between the viewer and the screen in a darkened room has none of the tangible measurability of distances in a normally-lit living room. The image hovers before one almost as if an image in the imagination. A TV image emanates from a box, which is itself a piece of furniture which occupies a particular place in the interior architecture of a room. Its inevitable materiality and objectness is in stark contrast to the film image's utter ethereality. (It is interesting to note how in contemporary interior decorating schemes the television has come to replace the fireplace as the focal point of a "family room.") Further, TVs are often viewed with some ambient light, which further places the image in a definite setting. Even when viewed in darkness, the curved rather than rectangular image borders and the convex glass of the screen tend to project the image out into and all about the room, whereas the flat rectangle of the film image can fill a room only via its reflected light, so that the internal structure of the image, if such is at all complex, remains entirely on the screen. To make an "environmental" film, one in which the imagery does its work partly in the way in which the film light illuminates the entire room, filmmakers generally must choose images without much internal structure, such as the pure blacks and whites of Tony Conrad's The Flicker and Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer, or the single line of Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone. The architecture and placement of a TV set, by contrast, encourage one to see the image as blending into, and even occupying, the room. Its small size is surely a factor here too: rapid movements tend to bleed off the edges into the surrounding space. I am convinced that part of the illusionistic power of commercial TV results from the way in which the imagery tends to seize the surround.

The Image. It is well-known that a standard video image lacks the sharpness and definition of even 8mm film. There are other, and in my view even more important, differences as well. In video, the range of darks and lights, the differences between the blackest black possible and the whitest white, is far narrower than in film. As a consequence, there are fewer intermediate shadings possible. Video colors lack the fullness and saturation of pure film colors; they are less intense. I am not speaking so much of the measurable purity of the light as of the fact that video green seems somehow less different from video red than a film green is from a film red. The video image is thus less differentiated in its internal structure than the film image. Similarly, far less of an illusion of depth is possible on video than in film. One has only to see the extreme deep-focus wide angle compositions of an Orson Welles film on TV to appreciate all these differences. In a Welles image, one senses the physical solidity of each object, but one also feels that the space between objects has the same palpable sensuality. A space is created, all pieces of which are in measurable and articulate relationships with each other. In video, this sense of physical space, of a felt distance between foreground and background, is largely lost. It is as if cinema needs its spatial isolation from its surround to permit its imagery to contain articulate distinctions within, while TV's more integrated relation with its surround muddies its images' internal structure. Indeed, it is no accident that a major use of video by artists has been in sculptural and performance installation pieces.

The Light. The most serious difference between the two media is the differences between the two kinds of light. Cinema light is absolute: it is a succession, rapidly-projected, of still images. On a modern projector, one might see each frame projected three or more times, for 1/144th of a second each, with three 1/144th-of-a-second intervals of darkness following. The key word here is absolute. There is no movement in cinema; that illusion is produced in the brain. With film one has a series of utterly separate, complete-in-themselves, elements, the frames, to work with. In video, there is also a succession of separate images, but these are not presented with the independence of the on-and-off flashes of film. Rather, the scanning mechanism gradually traces an image over the screen; the image then disappears and is replaced by another. As a result "frames" are presented not instantaneously but over time. The intervening darkness may seem like less of a break between images, because the images themselves become visible on the screen more gradually than the instantaneous apparition of the cinema image. While this process occurs far too quickly for the eye to differentiate it, it produces a very different quality of light from cinema's, just as, though one cannot see the individual 1/144th-of-a-second or less intervals of darkness in film projection, one can readily see the difference between movie-projector light and the uninterrupted beam of a slide projector. An important result of this difference is that the transition between adjacent frames is less absolute than in film; thus the differences between separate frames, and the strong contrasts between frames at the point of a cut, are elided. Video light is itself continually alive, continually vibrating; each image is constantly, at every moment, changing; new image areas are burned into the screen as the old image decays; there is nothing as stable as a single film grain on the video screen. Indeed, this sense of constant movement places video firmly in the electronic age, as a medium appropriate to a world populated with myriad electronic devices containing vast stores of information in the form of tiny electrical charges, and in which the constant movement of electrons has become the major transmitter of knowledge. Cinema, by contrast, is like a series of images carved in stone. Stan Brakhage has called video light "hypnotic," an insight I prefer to use descriptively rather than pejoratively. The light is hypnotic, in the way its continual tiny changes constantly lure one's attention, one's eye. One might argue that the flicker of cinema is "hypnotic" compared to the unchanging image of a painting or sculpture, and perhaps we are only speaking of degrees here: but film light also does leave the viewer a certain freedom. The tiny intervals of darkness, and the fixed and unchanging nature of each projected frame, may produce powerful illusions but ultimately leave the mind with those tiny spaces, even if only 1/144th of a second long, that it needs to make its own decisions about what it sees. Video, by contrast, is surely the most persuasive medium ever devised, as its commercial and political uses have made apparent, and I believe the reasons for this are to be found in the quality of its light, and in the way in which the light and imagery, emanating from the furniture-box, fill the room with their presence.

Movement. Movement, either of the camera or of the objects depicted therein, is rendered very differently by film and video. In film, the camera's movement through space can have a radical, even vertiginous effect on the viewer. The absoluteness of film representation gives the viewer a sense of seeking a space with fixed, defined coordinates; motion, then, alters the very dimensions of the perceived world. In video, since the light itself is constantly moving, any motion of the subject-matter is merely additional; a quantitative rather than qualitative change, and is not at all like the change from stasis to movement one gets in film, for in video there is no true stasis. This change, this difference, between movement and stillness in film is only one of the many contrasts which form the very basis of film art and which video radically effaces.

The Frame. Perhaps the most fundamental contrast within cinema is that between the flat rectangle of each projected frame and the implied larger world of which that frame is but a part. It is at the borders of the image that the filmmaker makes much of his statement, because there it is revealed what he has selected, and what he has excluded, from the implied larger setting that spread out before his camera's eye. In the darkness of projection these borders stand for absolute differences: for that opposition on which the art of film lives or dies, the distinction between the undifferentiated and unanalyzed chaos of reality as a whole and the filmmaker's selective act of framing. Video reduces the effect of the frame's borders from cinema's firm and absolute edge to that of an indistinct blur, because of the natures of "the box," of its presence in the room, of the light, and of the monitor screen, whose curved shape tends to efface the image's boundary-line. (Of course, on a simpler level the TV screen does not even reproduce all of the film image; much is eliminated by the curved shape. Modern camera viewfinders are inscribed with inner frames in the shape of a TV screen called "TV safe action areas," presumably indicating that the aesthetic of the framing of at least commercial film has also been affected by video.) It is no accident, but rather a testament to the nature of video and video light, that TV is often viewed in a lit room, while film almost never is, even though film projection is fully bright enough to allow this.


If one accepts my description of the differences between film and video it should be immediately apparent that those qualities most important to cinema will simply not translate to video. Cinema, when it functions as art, depends upon the precise articulations made between different frames, and between different areas of light within the frame. Video, by effacing the differences upon which cinema depends, renders the rich complexity of a film masterwork as an inarticulate haze. A film realizes itself in the gaps between frames, and in the contrasts between light and dark, one color and another, foreground and background, movement and stillness, that it mobilizes towards its expressive ends. In video, those gaps are blurred and bridged, producing an ever-vibrating, ever-alive continuum.

The matters discussed herein are not narrow formal issues that should be of concern only to filmmakers and a narrow group of aesthetes. I have tried to show that the form of the medium a communication is presented in is a crucial part of that communication, and a part of its statement as well. Any work makes its statement not merely by its subject matter or "message" but by the relationship it defines, via its form, between itself and its recipient. If Leni Riefenstahl had made Triumph of the Will about a 1936 Democratic Party rally in the U.S. that was supporting the reelection of Roosevelt, it would still be a fascist film, and an evil one as well. One person can declare to another "I love you" by writing a letter, by sending flowers, by telephoning, by visiting, through a series of carefully selected gifts, by deep attentions to the loved one, or by a crude and uninvited seduction attempt, and the "medium" chosen for this communication helps to define the very meaning that the word "love" has in the implicit or explicit underlying "sentence." All of the differences described above are not merely technical issues, but epistemological and ethical ones as well.

The aesthetic and moral implications of the mechanism of cinema have been explored by several generations of filmmakers and film theoreticians, in a rich series of films and writings stretching from Eisenstein to Epstein, Dreyer to Deren, Bresson to Brakhage, Bazin to Baudry. Video is a comparatively new form. While my description of it may be taken negatively by some, I do not wish to condemn a medium that neither I, nor (I suspect) most of us fully understand. Certainly there is work by video artists that is more than promising in its attempts to utilize video's own properties. But it needs to be said that just as many filmmakers mistakenly transfer their work to video, so a lot of video art flounders by trying to imitate film effects in ways that video cannot.

Filmmakers need to take the strongest possible stance in defense of their medium. It is an appalling sign of the utter corruption and anti-art stance present in the academic establishment that many film classes are now taught with the showing of films on video. Film teachers must insist on adequate budgets for film rental and projection. Filmmakers must not dare to hope that some of one's film's qualities will survive the transfer to video. Film viewers must remember to view films, not TV. With schools increasingly exhibiting films on TV, and with new video exhibition possibilities opening up as opposed to a stagnation or even diminution of the number of venues showing independent film, and with supposedly serious "film buffs" increasingly viewing all types of films on cable TV and VCRs, it is all the more urgent to remain true to one's medium. Independent filmmakers are the only group that has pursued the medium's highest possibilities without compromise; to surrender now on this most fundamental of issues would be to literally give up the art.

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Naming, and Defining, Avant-Garde or Experimental Film

By Fred Camper

About naming, no one has ever come up with a satisfying name for the body of work that includes Ballet mécanique, Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, Dog Star Man, The Chelsea Girls, Quick Billy, Serene Velocity, Zorns Lemma, and Journeys from Berlin/1971, to say nothing of all sorts of more recent work by filmmakers such as Su Friedrich, Janie Geiser, Louis Klahr, Brian Frye, and others. I'd like to think the lack of a stable name is a sign of the movement's health. I mean, to take off on Gertrude Stein's famous remark to the effect that a museum can't also be "modern," if you know exactly what avant-garde film is and how to name it, it probably isn't very "avant-garde," right?

When the North American branch of the movement first burst onto public consciousness in the mid-1960s, and naming became a real issue, various filmmakers expressed discontent with the names in use; some had expressed such discontent even earlier. Stan Brakhage said the appellation "avant-garde" was too European. Peter Kubelka said of "experimental" something like, "I made many experiments in the process of making this film. I left them all in my editing room. What you've seen is not an experiment, but a completed work. (Another problem with "experimental": at the MIT Film Society, where I showed "experimental" films from 1965-71, a couple MIT students once showed up thinking they were going to see films of science experiments! But then, we also had to give a refund to two nursing students who were not expecting an auteurist classic when they bought tickets for a program listed as "Bringing Up Baby — Andrew Sarris will speak.") "Underground" was critiqued from various angles, such as also having inappropriate European echoes, and I think Brakhage may have mentioned the fact that he lived 9,000 feet above sea level in a humorous rebuke to the claim that he was an "underground" filmmaker. "Independent" quickly ran into the problem that, in the Hollywood nomenclature of the time, Disney was an "independent" studio, and now too it tends to mean narrative features not produced by a major studio but with budgets of many millions. "New American Cinema" had some currency for a while, but it also included narrative features, and today it can also mean Hollywood. The then-editor of Canyon Cinema News, Emory Menefee, proposed "undependent," in the sense of not being dependent on anything, but that never made it into general use either. Presently I try to use "avant-garde," "experimental," and "a-g" all in the same piece of writing, as a way of naming a category of films while also indicating that naming is still problem.

So then, what characteristics might be said to be held in common among the films I've listed above and other similar works? Obviously there is no hard-and-fast algorithm for deciding what is or is not an avant-garde or experimental film, and there can be lots of "is it or isn't it" debates at the margins. But I think no sensible person would deny the appellation to Christopher Maclaine's The End or Bruce Baillie's Quixote, nor try to apply it to Gone With the Wind or E.T.

To decide the obvious cases, and help clarify what characteristics are shared in such work, I would instead offer a list of qualities, a six-part "test," as it were. Many avant-garde films will fail one or two of these, but I think that a film that most on this list would agree is "avant-garde" or "experimental" will pass most of them.

1. It is created by one person, or occasionally a small group collectively, working on a minuscule budget most often provided out of the filmmaker's own pocket or through small grants, and is made out of personal passion, and in the belief that public success and profit is very unlikely. "Minuscule budget" means something very different from what the phrase might mean in theatrical narrative filmmaking; here it refers to a figure in the hundreds, or thousands, or in rare cases tens of thousands of dollars.

2. It eschews the production-line model by which the various functions of filmmaker are divided among different individuals and groups: the filmmaker is the producer, director, scriptwriter, director of photography, cameraperson, editor, sound recordist, and sound editor, or performs at least half of those functions.

3. It does not try offer a linear story that unfolds in the theatrical space of mainstream narrative. [The hypertrophic counter-example that proves the rule here is Hollis Frampton's Poetic Justice, which does tell a "linear story" — but the viewer receives that story by reading hand-printed script pages that are piled one after another on a table, not by seeing the script's story enacted on screen.]

4. It makes conscious use of the materials of cinema in a way that calls attention to the medium, and does not do so in scenes bracketed by others in a more realistic mode that would isolate the "experimental" scenes as dream or fantasy sequences. [Examples: scratching or painting directly on the film strip; cutting rapidly and unpredictably enough that the editing calls attention to itself; the use of out of focus and "under" or "over" exposure; extremely rapid camera movements that blur the image; distorting lenses; extreme tilts of the camera; placing objects in front of the lens to alter the image; time lapse photography; collaging objects directly onto the film strip; the use of other abstracting devices such as superimpositions or optical effects; printed titles that offer a commentary that's different from simply providing information or advancing the narrative; asynchronous sound; the cutting together of spatially disjunct images in a way that does not serve an obvious narrative or easily reducible symbolic purpose. I can think of at least one filmmaker — Brakhage — who has done all of these.]

5. It has an oppositional relationship to both the stylistic characteristics of mass media and the value systems of mainstream culture. [Thus in a found footage film using footage from instructional films, the original will be reedited to create some form of critique of the style and meaning of the originals.]

6. It doesn't offer a clear, univalent "message." More than mainstream films, it is fraught with conscious ambiguities, encourages multiple interpretations, and marshals paradoxical and contradictory techniques and subject-matter to create a work that requires the active participation of the viewer.

Without ranging through the whole history of the mode, many landmark films seem to me to meet all of the criteria above, from Meshes of the Afternoon to Fireworks to Twice a Man to Mothlight to Wavelength to La Raison Avant La Passion (Reason Over Passion). I don't propose any mechanical method whereby meeting, say, five of the six automatically qualifies a film, but rather suggest that considering these characteristics might be useful in thinking about this body of work.

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Cinema and Theology: The Case of Heaven Over the Marshes

by Andry Bazin

(Translated and edited by Bert Cardullo)


[1] Andr� Bazin�s impact, as theorist and critic, is widely considered to be greater than that of any single director, actor, or producer, despite his early death (at only 40) of leukemia in 1958. He is credited with almost single-handedly establishing the study of film as an accepted intellectual pursuit, as well as with being the spiritual father of the French New Wave. In 1951 Bazin co-founded and became editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cin�ma, the single most influential critical periodical in the history of the cinema. Bazin can also be considered the principal instigator of the equally influential auteur theory: the idea that, since film is an art form, the director of a movie must be perceived as the chief creator of its unique cinematic style. In this review-essay, Bazin reveals that he was also the most religious of film critics and theorists. He is fundamentally holistic in his Catholicism, however, not remotely doctrinal. Spiritual sensitivity and its enablement through cinema are central to Bazin�s view of film as obligated to God, to honor God�s universe by rendering its reality and, by means of its reality, its mystery. Thus Bazin believes that Augusto Genina�s Heaven over the Marshes (1949) is a good Catholic film Precisely because it rejects religious ornament and the supernatural element of traditional hagiographies, in favor of creating a phenomenology of sainthood. Genina, that is, looks at sainthood from the outside, as the ambiguous yet tangible manifestation of a spiritual reality that is absolutely impossible to prove. Hence Heaven over the Marshes confers sainthood on the murdered Maria Goretti not a priori, like most cinematic hagiographies, but only after the fact.


[2] The history of religious themes on the screen sufficiently reveals the temptations one must resist in order to meet simultaneously the requirements of cinematic art and of truly religious experience. Everything that is exterior, ornamental, liturgical, sacramental, hagiographic, and miraculous in the everyday observance, doctrine, and practice of Catholicism does indeed show specific affinities with the cinema considered as a formidable iconography. But these affinities, which have made for the success of countless films, are also the source of the religious insignificance of most of them. Almost everything that is good in this domain was created not by the exploitation of these patent affinities, but rather by working against them: by the psychological and moral deepening of the religious factor as well as by the renunciation of the physical representation of the supernatural and of grace.1 As for �mysteries,� the cinema has been able to evoke only those of Paris and New York. We�re still waiting for it to deal with those of the Middle Ages. To make a long story short, it seems that, although the austereness of the Protestant sensibility is not indispensable to the making of a good Catholic film, it can nevertheless be a real advantage.

[3] All the more so, given the fact that the cinema has always been interested in God. The Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles were the first best-sellers on the screen, and the Passions of Christ were hits in France as well as America.2 At the same time in Italy, the Rome of the first Christians provided filmmakers with subjects that required gigantic crowd scenes, which were later seized upon by Hollywood and are still present today in films like Fabiola (1948; dir. Alessandro Blasetti) and Quo Vadis? (1951; dir. Mervyn LeRoy).3 This immense catechism-in-pictures was concerned above all with the most spectacular aspects of the history of Christianity. These films were simply amplified variations on the Stations of the Cross or on the Mus�e Gr�vin.4

[4] There is also a second category of religious movie, built upon a principle that perhaps represents an advance on Stations-of-the-Cross films. I�m talking here about the priest�s or nun�s story. I have to check this point, but I think we owe the international vulgarization of this type of film to America. The Catholic minority in Hollywood, whose influence is great, found in the cinema a remarkable tool for propaganda. The myth of the �cool� priest who loves sports and jazz easily overshadows the austere reality of the Protestant pastor with a large family. Bing Crosby in a cassock turned out to be irresistible (in Going My Way [1944; dir. Leo McCarey] and The Bells of St. Mary�s {1945; dir. Leo McCarey]). I myself preferred Spencer Tracy in Boys� Town (1938; dir. Norman Taurog) and the ex-gangster priest (Pat O�Brien) in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938; dir. Michael Curtiz): Hollywood decadence! The same trend has not taken hold in France, where we have suppressed the typically Gallic tradition of the ribald monk and the red-nosed priest. Thank God, our cinema has remained relatively free of this new trend, and even if we have had to put up with My Priest Among the Rich (1952; dir. Henri Diamant-Gerger) and The Scandals of Clochemerle (1947; dir. Pierre Chenal), at least we have done so with an embarrassed smile.

[5] The hagiographies make up the third category of religious movie. As the cinema is in itself already a kind of miracle, it was absolutely appropriate to show a rain of roses pouring down ot springs gushing out of arid sands. Several films were made about Saint Th�r�se of Lisieux (a.k.a. Saint Th�r�se of the Child Jesus) and Bernadette of Soubirous5 ; the latest of these films, an American one (The Song of Bernadette), is only a few years old. Here the cinema has exploited above all the popular belief in miracles. This vein is not exhausted, and our children will probably one day see a Golgotha (1935; dir. Julien Duvivier) in 3-D after a color Quo Vadis?. We must note, however, that the hagiography has evolved considerably. Monsieur Vincent (1947; dir. Maruice Cloche) is a saint�s picture without miracles,6 and Rossellini seems not to have emphasized too much the stigmata and the enchantment of the birds in his Flowers of St. Francis (1950).

[6] Heaven Over the Marshes (1949; dir. Augusto Genina), for its part, is about the circumstances that led to the canonization (soon after the completion of this film) of little Maria Goretti, who was murdered at the age of fourteen by the boy whose sexual advances she had resisted. These factors made me fear the worst. Hagiography is already a dangerous exercise in itself, but, granted, there are some saints made to appear on stained-glass windows and others who seem destined for the painted plaster of Saint-Sulpice,7 whatever their standing in paradise might be. And the case of Maria Goretti doesn�t seem to be a priori any more promising than that of Saint Th�r�se of Lisieux. Less even, for her biography is devoid of extraordinary events; hers is the life of a daughter of a poor family of farmhands in the Pontine marshes near Rome at the turn of the century. No visions, no voices, no signs from heaven: her regular attendance at catechism and the fervor of her first Holy Communion are merely the commonplace signals of a rather commonplace piety. Of course, there is her �martyrdom,� but we have to wait until the last fifteen minutes of the film before it occurs, before �something finally happens.�

[7] And even this martyrdom: what is it when you take a close look and judge the psychological motives behind it? A banal sex crime, a trivial news item devoid of dramatic originality: �Young Peasant Stabs Unwilling Girl to Death,� or, �Murdered by a Farmhand Whose Advances She Had Rejected!� And why? There is not a single aspect of the crime that doesn�t have a natural explanation. The resistance of the girl is perhaps nothing but an exaggerated physiological response to the violation of her sense of decency, the reflex action of a frightened little animal. It�s true that she invokes divine will and the threat of hellfire to resist Alessandro. However, it is not necessary to have recourse to the subtleties of psychoanalysis to understand how the imperatives of catechism and the mysticism of first Holy Communion could kindle the imagination of a frightened adolescent. Even if we take for granted that Maria�s Christian upbringing can�t be made to substitute for her real, unconscious motives in determining behavior, that behavior still isn�t convincing, for we sense that she does indeed love Alessandro. So why all this resistance, which can only have tragic consequences? Either it is a psychological reaction that is stronger than the heart�s desire, or it really is the obedience to a moral precept; but isn�t this taking morality to an absurd extreme, since it leads to the downfall of two beings who love each other? Moreover, before she dies, Maria asks Alessandro to forgive her for all the trouble she has caused him, i.e., for driving him to kill her.

[8] It should not be surprising, therefore, that, at least in France, this saint�s life has disappointed the Christians even more than it has the non-believers. The former don�t find in it the requisite religious apologetics and the latter don�t find in it the necessary moral apologetics. All that we have here is the senseless crushing of a poor child�s life�there are no unusual, mitigating circumstances. Maria Goretti is neither Saint Vincent de Paul, not Saint Teresa of Avila, nor even Bernadette Soubirous.8 But it is to Genina�s credit that he made a hagiography that doesn�t prove anything, above all not the sainthood of the saint. Herein lies not only the film�s artistic distinction but also its religious one. Heaven Over the Marshes is a rarity: a good Catholic film.

[9] What was Genina�s starting point? It was not simply to reject all the ornament that comes with the subject matter�the religious symbolism and, it goes without saying, the supernatural element of traditional hagiographies (a film such as Monsieur Vincent also avoids these stumbling blocks). He set out to achieve much more than this: his goal was to create a phenomenology of sainthood. Genina�s mise en sc�ne is a systematic refusal not only to treat sainthood as anything but a fact, an event occurring in the world, but also to consider it from any point of view other than the external one. He looks at sainthood from the outside, as the ambiguous manifestation of a spiritual reality that is absolutely impossible to prove. The apologetic nature of most hagiographies supposes, by contrast, that sainthood is conferred a priori. Whether it be Saint Th�r�se of Lisieux or Saint Vincent de Paul, we are told the life of a saint. Yet, good logic dictates, as does good theology, that a saint becomes a saint only after the fact: when he is canonized; during his lifetime, he is simply Monsieur Vincent. It is only by the authoritative judgment of the Holy See that his biography becomes a hagiography. The question raised in film as in theology is the retroactiveness of eternal salvation, since, obviously, a saint does not exist as a saint in the present: he is simply a being who becomes one and who, moreover, risks eternal damnation until his death. Genina�s bias in favor of realism made him go as far as to prohibit in any of his images the supposition of his protagonist�s �sainthood,� so afraid was he of betraying the spirit of his endeavor. She is not, and she must not be, a saint whose martyrdom we witness, but rather the little peasant girl Maria Goretti, whose life we see her live. The camera lens is not the eye of God, and microphones could not have recorded the voices heard by Joan of Arc.

[10] This is why Heaven Over the Marshes will be disconcerting to viewers who are used to an apologetics that confuses rhetoric with art and sentiment with grace. In a way, Genina plays devil�s advocate by playing servant to the only filmic reality possible. But just as canonization hearings are won against the public prosecutor Satan, Maria Goretti�s sainthood is served in the only valid manner possible by a film that expressly sets out not to demonstrate it. In short, Genina tells us: �This is Maria Goretti, watch her live and die. On the other hand, you know she is a saint. Let those who have eyes to see, read by transparence the evidence of grace in her life, just as you must do at every moment in the events of your own lives.� The signs that God sends to his people are not always supernatural. A serpent in a bush is not the devil, but the devil is till there as well as everywhere else.

[11] Italian film not only has good directors like Genina; it also has excellent cinematographers, among whom Aldo Tonti (a.k.a. G. R. Aldo) is probably one of the best in the world. To be sure, a cinematographer�s art may lie in the direction of self-effacement, and Tonti has given us evidence of this. But it seems that in the last few years, more and more plastic composition has become the rule. This has become a way of integrating into realism a vivid and ornate theatricality, which is no less characteristic not only of Italian film but also of Italian artistic sensibility in general. One could even argue that this synthesis is more radically new than the neorealism of Bicycle Thieves (1948), which has always been present, as we know, in Italian film, even if not to so great an extent. (Opposed to it was the public�s more pronounced taste for spectacles with magnificent sets and mammoth crowds.)

[12] In La Terra Trema (1948), for instance, one sees very well how Luchino Visconti, whose wonderful Ossessione (1942) had initiated the rebirth of Italian realistic cinema, strives to create a necessarily grand synthesis between the most rigorous verisimilitude, on the one hand, and the most plastic composition, on the other�a plasticity that perforce completely transforms the verism. Whereas the taste for spectacular grandeur expressed itself in the past through the fame of the star, the magnitude of the set, or the number of wild animals deployed, it has come today to be totally subordinate to the most modest, down-to-earth subject matter. Visconti�s fishermen are real fishermen, but they have the bearing of tragic princes or operatic leads, and the cinematography confers on their rags the aristocratic dignity of Renaissance brocade.

[13] Using the same cinematographer as Visconti did in La Terra Trema - the amazing Aldo, whom the French studios have let get away9 - Genina has been no less concerned to play the game of realism in Heaven Over the Marshes. His peasants are as authentic as were Georges Rouquier�s in Farrebique (1947). Whereas three quarters of Italian films, even those made in studios with professional actors, are post-synchronized, Genina recorded the sound on the spot, and his peasant really say � what they say. When one considers the enormous difficulty of getting nonprofessional actors to speak as naturally as they behave (see, for example, Farrebique), one can appreciate the additional amount of work that Genina imposed on himself in order to obey the dictates of realism, right down to the least discernible details. If this were a minor work, one could regard these details as superfluous. But they are, in fact, part of a coherent aesthetic whole whose essential elements are laid down in the initial script.

[14] To repeat and sum up, Heaven Over the Marshes is the prototype of the accursed film that is likely to upset both Christians and non-believers alike. In it, sainthood isn�t signified by anything extraordinary, either on the physical or the psychological level. Divine grace doesn�t manifest itself in nature as the product of a tangible causality; at most, it reveals itself through some ambiguous signs that can all be explained in quite natural terms. Psychoanalysis or even her simple decency, heightened by a na�ve piety, could very well account for Maria Goretti�s martyrdom. From this point of view, I would consider Heaven Over the Marshes the first theological film to assert�through the very nature of its characters, story, and events�the total transcendence of grace, which occurs at the expense of apologetics, of Christian propaganda that likes to suppose that sainthood is conferred a priori on saintly lives. Hence the embarrassed reaction in Catholic circles to this otherwise very Catholic film.


(All notes have been provided by the translator/editor, unless otherwise noted.)

This review/essay was first published in French in Cahiers du Cin�ma, no. 2 (May 1951), then reprinted in Vol. 4 (�Une Esth�tique de la r�alit�: le n�or�alisme�) of Bazin�s four-volume Qu�est-ce que le cin�ma? (Paris: �ditions du Cerf: 1958-1962), pp. 60-64. Published here for the first time with the permission of Madame Janine Bazin.

1.Bazin�s note: Except, of course, for films whose supernatural quality is both pervasive and authentically religious, like The Green Pastures (1936; dir. William Keighley and Marc Connelly) and The Road to Heaven (1942; dir. Alf Sj�berg).

2. For example, in America: The Passion Play (1898; Edison Studios), Ben Hur (1907; dir. Sidney Olcott), The Life of Moses (1909; dir. J. Stuart Blackton), and From the Manger to the Cross (1912; dir. Sidney Olcott). In France: Quo Vadis? (1901; dir. Ferdinand Zecca), La Passion (1903; dir. Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nouguet), La Vie du Christ (1906; dir. Alice Guy-Blach�), and Mater Delorosa (1910; dir. Louis Feuillade).

3. For example, in Italy: Quo Vadis? (1913; dir. Enrico Guazzoni) and Fabiola (1917; dir. Enrico Guazzoni). In Hollywood: The Ten Commandments (1923; dir. Cecil B. DeMille), Ben Hur (1926; dir. Fred Niblo), King of Kings (1927, dir. Cecil B. DeMille), and The Sign of the Cross (1932; dir. Cecil B. DeMille). In America subsequent to the publication of Bazin�s essay: Ben Hur (1959; fir. William Wyler), King of Kings (1961; dir. Nicholas Ray), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965; dir. George Stevens), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988; dir. Martin Scorsese).

4.Famous museum of wax figures in Paris�the Parisian equivalent of the waxworks exhibitions of Madame Tussaud (1760-1850) in London.

5. Saint Th�r�se of Lisieux was a French Carmelite nun (1873-1897), born Th�r�se Martin, whose saint�s day is October 3rd; she was canonized in 1925. Films: Therese (1916; dir. Victor Sj�str�m) and Th�r�se Martin (1938; dir. de Canonge); recently: Th�r�se (1986; dir. Alain Cavalier).

Saint Bernadette Soubrious (1844-1879) was a peasant girl who had a vision of the Virgin Mary at what has become the shrine of Lourdes. Films: The Song of Bernadette (1943; dir. Henry King); more recently: Bernadette of Lourdes (Il suffit d�aimer, 1960; dir. Robert Dar�ne) and Bernadette (1988; dir. Jean Delannoy).

6. A film of the life of Saint Vincent de Paul, directed by L�on Carr� from a script by Jean-Bernard Luc and Jean Anouilh (1947). Pierre Fresnay starred and Claude Renoir did the cinematography. Saint Vincent de Paul was a French priest (1580?-1660) who founded charitable orders; his saint�s day is July 19th.

7. Church in Saint-Germain, Paris.

8. See note 5, 2nd paragraph, and see note 6. Saint Teresa of Avila was a Spanish Carmelite nun (1525-1582); her saint�s day is October 12th.

9. Aldo (born Aldo Graziati, 1902-1953) went to France in 1921 to become an actor but trained there as a cameraman instead. In 1947 he returned to Italy with the crew of a French production and stayed to become one of Italy�s most distinguished postwar cinematographers.

*Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 6, No. 2 October 2002

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Buddhism, Christianity, and The Matrix: The Dialectic of Myth-Making in Contemporary Cinema

by James L. Ford, Ph.D.


[1] This essay analyzes the recent film The Matrix from the perspective of modern-day myth-making. After a brief plot summary of the film, I note the well-documented parallels to the Christian messianic narrative of Jesus. I then go on to highlight the often overlooked parallels to the Buddhist existential analysis of the human condition. In particular, I note a remarkable resonance between The Matrix and the fourth century (C.E.) philosophical school of Buddhism known as Yogacara. By highlighting the syncretic or combinative nature of the film’s symbolic narrative, I submit The Matrix as a cinematic example of the dialectical process of myth-making by means of Peter Berger’s theory of socio-cultural construction.

[2] Humans are mythologizing and, as Peter Berger would suggest, "world-building" creatures. We appropriate elements from our past and present to fashion epic narratives and myths for a variety of existential, sociological, and religious ends. Myths are not fixed narrative forms, however. Studies of traditionally oral cultures evidence considerable elasticity in the details of a particular myth.2 And history also demonstrates that myths often evolve as a result of cultural diffusion and contact. Myths are constantly adapted to new cultural contexts and worldly realities. While the invention of writing inspired a more fixed status for some myths, it did not halt the ongoing adaptation and amalgamation of previously disparate mythological themes and concepts.

[3] In this essay, I will examine the recent popular science-fiction film The Matrix, written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, from this perspective of mythological adaptation. While the Christian metaphors throughout the film have been well noted, significant elements of a Buddhist worldview are often overlooked. In particular, the symbolic and existential parallels to a fourth century (C.E.) philosophical school of Buddhism know as "Consciousness-only" (Vij�avada/Yogacara) are indeed striking. In addition to noting such parallels, I will submit The Matrix as a provocative example of modern-day myth-making. Appropriating familiar symbols and motifs into a new epic narrative is clearly not a contemporary phenomenon and I will borrow from Peter Berger’s dialectical theory of "world building" to elucidate this process. The foundation myths of many religions arguably reflect the same dialectical process I will try to illuminate here. Although The Matrix is not likely to become the foundation myth for a new religion, it will perhaps inform the worldviews, if only subtly and temporarily, of thousands of young adults. Indeed, this is the destiny of most myths. But who knows, this may become a classic along the lines of The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars.

[4] To characterize a contemporary film as "myth" is not without problems, not the least of which is qualifying such a genre into an acceptable definition of myth. Here I will adopt a definition offered by Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko. She delineates four criteria of myth with respect to form (narrative of sacred origin), content (cosmogonic in terms of cultural origin or existential condition), function (model for human activity), and context (in the sense that myth provides "the ideological content for a sacred form of behavior").3 I suggest that The Matrix qualifies in all respects as a mythological narrative. It is also important to note that myths are not disembodied texts divorced from time or place. Their language, symbols, and meaning are invariably tied to the context and worldview of origin. Moreover, the functional use of myths may range from a children’s story hour to a mechanism of political legitimization. In other words, myths serve any number of social, religious, ideological, or pedagogical functions. Movies, like any narrative form, can be considered a form of myth if they meet the criteria noted above. Star Wars, The Fisher King, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey represent appropriate examples according to this perspective.


The Matrix: A Plot Summary

[5] For those who have not seen the film, I offer here a very brief summary of the plot. The basic premise is that the world as we know it is not objectively real but a computer simulation (the Matrix) wired into our minds by a species of artificial intelligence—"a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines," we are told. This cyber-species was originally created by human technological know-how, but eventually took over after emerging victorious in a war waged for generations that virtually destroyed the world. It (they?) now breeds humans as an energy resource (sort of like living batteries) and inputs the virtual Matrix to keeps our minds occupied—"And so," we are informed, "they built a prison out of our past, wired it to our brains and turned us into slaves." A small colony of humans has survived independent from the artificial race in a place called Zion, below the surface of the earth. They await a foretold messiah who will conquer the Matrix and restore human control to the world. That is the basic story line revealed through the first third of the movie.

[6] We are introduced to the hero Neo (an anagram for "the One"), a talented computer hacker, as he sits before his computer. The screen blinks a message and Neo (Keanu Reeves) stares blankly—"Do you want to know what the Matrix is, Neo?" This is Neo’s initial revelatory call. He is eventually led to Morpheus (the God of Dreams played by Laurence Fishburne) who is leader of a rebel band and convinced that Neo is "the One," the long expected Messiah who will free humanity from its plight. Morpheus extracts Neo from his enslaved existence. He reveals the deluded nature of the Matrix and trains Neo in how to enter and manipulate the Matrix for his own purposes. "The Matrix is everywhere," Morpheus informs Neo. "It's all around us, here even in this room. … It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." But Morpheus can take Neo only so far; Neo’s identity as a Messiah is a growing one and he must complete his own rite of passage and discover the path for himself. He is not even convinced he is "the One."

[7] Two other key figures are worth noting. One is a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Neo’s closest companion within the rebel group. She also is convinced, because of an oracle once received, that Neo is the One. The second is Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), an angry member of the rebel group who eventually betrays Morpheus and Neo to the cyber enemy. In the fast moving conclusion, Neo rescues Morpheus, battles virtual agents of the cyber enemy, is killed, resurrected, and finally appears to conquer the Matrix. The final outcome is left ambiguous as Neo warns the entity controlling the Matrix: "I know you're real proud of this world you've built, the way it works, all the nice little rules and such, but I've got some bad news. I've decided to make a few changes." In the final scene, Neo ascends to the sky like Superman. We must await the sequel to find out what those changes will look like.

Christian and Buddhist Parallels in The Matrix

[8] The Christian messianic parallels are rather obvious. Neo, like Jesus, is the long-expected Messiah who is ultimately killed only to resurrect as a fully "divine" creature. The final scene even evokes the bodily ascent of Jesus to heaven. Also, Morpheus seems every bit the equivalent of John the Baptist, even to the point of baptizing Neo in a graphic scene in the liquid bowels of the human battery chambers. Trinity might be compared to Mary Magdalene and Cypher clearly parallels Judas. But where is God in all this? And what, we might ask, is the fundamental human problem suggested by this epic narrative?

[9] Phenomenologically, most religious foundation myths suggest a basic existential problem of human existence. Confucian accounts of the idealized Chou dynasty, for example, inform its understanding of the fundamental problem—social disharmony due to the human tendency to neglect ritual and social propriety. For Hindus, it is bondage in the perpetual cycle of samsara, life after life, as illustrated in the Bhagavad-Gita and other mythological narratives. And for Christianity and Judaism, the fundamental problem is alienation from God due to our sinful nature and egoistic tendency toward trying to be like God, symbolized best in the Priestly Genesis creation narrative. The soteriological (relating to salvation) claim of Christianity is that God has offered his own son, the messiah, as a means to overcome that alienation. While The Matrix echoes the messianic motifs of the Christian narrative, the "human problem" is clearly not alienation from God since God is nowhere present in the story—or at least not a personal creator God. Conrad Ostwalt sees this omission of the divine and the rejection of the supernatural as agent for the apocalypse as symptomatic of "the contemporary apocalyptic imagination."4 God will not bring about the apocalypse—something else will. But The Matrix need not be understood only as a "contemporary" adaptation of the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic view; there are other ancient mythological perspectives that also omit the "divine" entirely. It is here, I think, that Buddhism offers an illuminating mythological parallel.

[10] The most fundamental problem according to Buddhism is our ignorance of existential reality. If we could perceive the true nature of reality and the path to enlightenment, condensed in Sakyamuni teaching of the three marks of existence (impermanence, no-self, and suffering) and the Four Noble Truths, then we could overcome our ignorant state and achieve the insight of a Buddha (the “awakened one”). This “problem of the mind” is reflected in the first two verses of the Dhammapada, an early collection of sayings attributed to the historical Buddha:

[11] All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage…. If a man speaks or acts with pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.5

[12] This is further and perhaps best articulated in the fourth century C.E. Mahayana philosophical school known as Yogacara, which resonates strikingly with The Matrix.6 Yogacara, also known as the “Consciousness Only” school (Vij�avada), asserts that the objective world we perceive to be real is ultimately a product of our minds.7 As with the Western Idealist tradition, this is not necessarily an ontological assertion (the objective world does not exist), though many observers have drawn this conclusion.8 Rather, this is more accurately an epistemological insight.9 That is, Western and Buddhist "idealism" emphasizes that every "object" is significantly altered by our perception and understanding; we know it second-hand as idea and we cannot know it before it is so transformed. "What is real?" Morpheus asks as he introduces Neo to the Matrix. "How do you define real? If you're talking about your senses, that you feel, taste, smell, or see, then all you're talking about are electrical signals interpreted by your brain." This quote might just as well appear in the philosophical dialogues of Vasubandhu, a fourth century founder of Yogacara.

[13] While there may be striking similarities between Yogacara and Western Idealist statements concerning the relationship between objective reality and out perception of it, a fundamental difference lies in the soteriological aim of such an insight. Western Idealists strive to discern an � priori, absolute moral sense (Kant) or an "Absolute Mind" (Hegel) through rational analysis. In contrast, Yogacarins emphasize the essential path and process toward to discerning the world free of delusion. This necessarily entails various meditative and visualization practices—hence, the name of the school (“practitioners of yoga”). Meditation techniques were developed to, in a sense, deconstruct one’s conditioned way of seeing the world and help one awaken to the way the world truly is. The manner in which one is able to create and control images in the mind through various visualization practices only serves to reinforce the notion that everyday conscious perceptions, like dreams, are no less "created." The practitioner comes to realize the illusory nature of the self and the external constituents of reality (Dharmas). Ultimately, one transcends subject-object dualism and abides in pure consciousness, an ineffable state of transcendent bliss. This is the soteriological goal of a Yogacara practitioner. According to tradition, as one progresses along this path, one procures powers to manipulate the perceived "objective" world. A Buddha actually attains the power to create his/her own cosmic realm.10 Perhaps this is the destiny of Neo in future episodes. That is to say, since Neo now possesses the power to control and manipulate the matrix, perhaps he will create a new world for beings to experience.

[14] The parallels between The Matrix and this Yogacara Buddhist analysis of the human problem should be apparent by now. In both cases, the issue is one of the mind. In The Matrix, Morpheus informs Neo the he is a slave: "…you (like everyone else) were born into bondage...... kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind." Moreover, humanity’s state of ignorance is largely of its own making in both accounts. In Buddhism, we are karmically conditioned, both individually and collectively, by our past choices and behavior. The life one is born into is determined by one’s karma, and one’s present "worldview" is conditioned by one’s context and volitional choices. According to The Matrix, humanity is controlled by an artificial intelligence it created. Thus, humans bear significant responsibility for their enslaved state.

[15] In The Matrix, the perceived reality is literally "programmed" into our minds. Neo, despite his clear Messianic qualities, seems more like a Buddha or bodhisattva who comes to reveal to humanity its state of ignorance and, presumably, the way out. Perhaps the sequels (two to be shot simultaneously in the fall of 2000) will reveal more about this soteriological path, but the integration of martial arts with its yogic emphasis on discipline and mind control are noteworthy. The very process of Neo’s training is a techno-cyber version of meditation. New software is input yielding a complete transformation of mind just as meditative practices are intended to transform one’s perception and experience of reality.

[16] As with any myth, this narrative is metaphorical and begs some kind of interpretation. How are WE "programmed," it seems to ask? What aspect of OUR reality is artificially constructed and enslaving us within a conceptual prison? Is technology liberating or imprisoning us? Is materialistic capitalism leading to true happiness or unrequited addiction? Do our cherished religious views bring us together or divide us? From a pedagogical perspective, these are fruitful questions for stimulating students to conduct their own interpretation of this modern myth and its relevance to our social reality. In addition to the mesmerizing action scenes, it may well be that this implicit skepticism toward "institutional" control explains the popularity of this film for young adults.

[17] Beyond these parallels to Buddhist and Christian worldviews, it is also important to note how this "myth" diverges from core values of these traditions. For example, in many respects The Matrix is a glorification of violence and patriarchal dominance. The one token female is, on the surface, notably androgynous or even masculine. And the graphic violence merited an "R" rating for the film. One might argue that the killings are not actual but analogous to killing the demons of one’s mind or destroying the symbolic manifestations of hatred, greed and delusion (i.e., Sakyamuni’s encounter with Mara beneath the Bodhi tree on the eve of his enlightenment). But the mesmerizing process of destruction, amplified by the technology of VFX or "bullet time" photography, transcends metaphorical license and clearly cultivates a more literal form of violence. It is here, as with all mythology, that we must pay due attention to the context of this myth and especially its commercial aims. The glorification of violence has clear commercial appeal to one of the primary target audiences of Hollywood producers—young teenage boys. So while on an abstract level, The Matrix indeed evokes many "religious" parallels to Christianity, Buddhism, and other mythological traditions, it also integrates arguably contradictory values of violence and male dominance for commercial (or other) ends. Might we say it reifies some of the "social matrices" it allegedly purports to undermine?

[18] This evident "disconnect" between the "religious" dimension of the sacred, on the one hand, and the "Hollywood" and cultural elements of the film, on the other, speaks directly to the contextual nature the mythologizing process. Myths are not the product of an individual author but a collective representation developed over time. Myths are always produced in "institutional" contexts. Thus, they are the by-product of a dialectical process that often yields internally conflictive elements.

Peter Berger and the Dialectic of Myth-Making

[19] Sociologist Peter Berger asserts that the inherited worldview of any culture or society is a created one.11 Humans do not come into the world with a given relationship to it; we create our purpose and impose our own significance upon the world. This insight into the "constructed" nature of culture is, indeed, a fundamental insight of post-modernism. Berger proposed a three-step process by which we create (and re-create) our own socio-cultural reality. First, there is "externalization" or the initial outpouring of our conceptualizations onto the world. Berger cites language as an example of the first order here. I often use historical social structures based on race or inherited privilege to illustrate this point to my students. In the realm of religion, one might cite the different conceptualizations of the "transcendent" in various contexts such as Yahweh, the Tao, Brahman, or kami.12 The second step involves the "objectivation" of this externalized reality. At this point, the externalized concept becomes objective reality. We experience it as though it has always been there and forget that we actually created it ourselves—e.g., "of course monarchy is the natural form of governance;" "isn’t it obvious this racial class is inferior;" and so on. Finally, there is the "internalization" of this objectified reality. Berger writes that culture (including religion) "is a dialectic phenomenon in that it is a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continually acts back upon its producer."13 As I tell my students, this is the process by which each of us individually and as a society is "socialized" by a certain worldview. Education, ritual, and "family upbringing" all facilitate this internalization.

[20] Significantly, Berger emphasizes that this process is not deterministic. We, as individuals and as a society, are in constant dialogue with our inherited "objectified" reality. And through an ongoing dialectical process, we may "externalize" new conceptualizations that, in turn, are objectified and internalized. The process is ongoing—and myth-making, I contend, is a significant dimension of this dialectical process. Myths often appropriate symbols or metaphors from different, sometimes conflicting, "objectified realities" and transform their meaning. The Biblical account of Noah and the flood borrowed significantly from the Babylonian tale of Utnapishtim within the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the same time, the Biblical authors radically transformed the story by integrating the Hebrew god into the narrative. Similarly, the chronicles and interpretations of Jesus were influenced by the Messianic expectations of the time. But the Messiah that came was not the Messiah expected; thus, the gospel writers and Paul appropriated prophecy from Isaiah and the familiar metaphor of the sacrificial lamb to "externalize" another existential understanding of the Messiah. In this way, epic foundation myths often reflect Berger’s dialectical process. They help transform the "objectified" reality and are vital instruments for "internalizing" a new (if only slightly) worldview.

[21] The Matrix can be seen as a modern, self-conscious example of this myth-making process as well. In an interview with Time magazine, Larry Wachowski stated their mythological intent directly:

[22] We’re interested in mythology, theology and, to a certain extent, higher-level mathematics. All are ways human beings try to answer bigger questions, as well as The Big Question. If you’re going to do epic stories, you should concern yourself with those issues. People might not understand all the allusions in the movie, but they understand the important ideas. We wanted to make people think, engage their minds a bit.14

[23] Mixing metaphors from Christianity, Buddhism, Greek mythology, and even cyber technology, The Matrix as myth may be seen as an analysis of the contemporary existential condition. It appropriates the decidedly Christian messianic mythological framework but imports a form of Buddhist idealism to radically transform the (Christian) existential understanding of the human condition. In this respect, it dialectically produces a new worldview through myth.

[24] It is impossible to know what narratives will become the foundation myths of our culture. But epic films like The Matrix are the modern day equivalent of The Iliad-Odyssey, the epic of Gilgamesh, or various Biblical myths. Indeed, one might well argue that popular epic films like The Matrix and Star Wars carry more influence among young adults than the traditional religious myths of our culture (The Biblical illiteracy of most of my "Christian" undergraduates would certainly attest to this.) It remains to be seen how influential The Matrix will become; the sequels may determine its longevity. At this point, I find it a useful and resonating example of our inherent proclivity toward myth-making and world-building in the cinematic medium. Beyond the abstract and "important ideas" that the Wachowski brothers wanted to tackle, The Matrix also illustrates the culturally imbedded nature of myth with respect to issues of gender, violence, and entertainment.


1 I am grateful to colleagues who have offered helpful suggestions and insights on earlier drafts of this paper. In particular, I would like to thank Charles Kimball, Steven Boyd, and most especially Ulrike Wiethaus.

2 See, for example, Raymond Firth’s "The Plasticity of Myth," Ethnoligica 2 (1960), 181-88.

3 Lauri Honko. "The Problem of Defining Myth" in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 49-51.

4 There are, of course, other perspectives within the Christian tradition. Justo Gonzalez identifies and traces three different theological strands from Christianity’s early period. This "substitutionary" version, which emphasizes inherited sin and necessary expiation/forgiveness, traces to Tertullian, the Synoptic Gospels and Paul. It is clearly most evident within the Protestant tradition. A second strand, tracing from Origin and perhaps the Gospel of John, defines the fundamental human problem more in terms of ignorance (in the sense that we have lost the necessary vision to see God), rather than sin. According to Gonzalez, this perspective is more characteristic of the Eastern church and later liberal theology. See Christian Thought Revisited (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), especially pp. 50-64.

5 See "Armageddon at the Millennial Dawn." The Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 4, No. 1, April 2000.

6 Max Muller, editor and translator. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 10. The Dhammapada, Part I (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1965), 3-4.

7 I do not mean to suggest that the Wachowski brothers intentionally borrowed from the Yogacara philosophical perspective. They have apparently been reluctant to reveal their sources, though they have acknowledged some Buddhist influence. See Time magazine, Vol. 153, No. 15 (April 19, 1999), 75.

8 For a coherent overview of Yogacara thought, see the appropriate chapter in Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge (1989), 77-95.

9 For representative examples of this debate with respect to Yogacara Buddhism, see John Keenan’s The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 169 and 209, and Paul Griffiths’ On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem (La Salle, Ill. : Open Court, 1986), 83.

10 Conrad Ostwalt has interpreted this idealistic dimension as a "contemporary revisiting of Plato’s famous allegory of the cave and of neo-Platonic dualism of real and ideal…" See "Armageddon at the Millennial Dawn." The Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 4, No. 1, April 2000.

11The most famous example here is Amitabha (Japan: Amida), the central Buddha of the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism in East Asia. Amitabha, while a bodhisattva, vowed to create his own Pure Land upon achieving Buddhahood. All who invoke the name of Amitabha with a sincere heart can be reborn in that majestic realm where enlightenment is more easily attained.

12 Clearly, one could interpret the message of Jesus in similar terms though ignorance is not traditionally defined as the fundamental problem. See endnote four.

13 See, for example, The Sacred Canopy (New York, Anchor Books, 1967) and The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (with Thomas Luckmann. New York: Doubleday, 1966).

14 It is perhaps worth noting that Berger claims not to presume that humans "created" God. In fact, he acknowledges that the various conceptualizations of the "sacred" may very well be authentic responses to something truly real in the same way, he notes, that mathematics, though created, clearly corresponds to a given reality. Working this out, however, is an issue for theologians. Interestingly, the Wachowski brothers have acknowledged their interest in higher-level mathematics.

15 The Sacred Canopy, 3.

16 Time. Vol. 153, No. 15 (April 19, 1999), 75.

*The Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 4, No. 2, October 2000

Read More......

The Birth of a Nation as American Myth

By Richard C. Salter


[1] The Birth of a Nation was one of the most important films of all time, both for its technical and aesthetic achievements and for its enduring legacy of racism. This paper uses Bruce Lincoln�s approach to myth as a form of discourse and Robert Bellah�s notion of civil religion to show how Birth might be understood as a mythic component of American civil religion. From this perspective, Birth serves as a paradigmatic story of American origins rooted in ideas of white supremacy. At the end of the article Oscar Micheaux�s work, Within our Gates, is used to briefly demonstrate filmic strategies for countering Birth as myth.


[2] The release of The Birth of a Nation (1915) forever changed the movies. The director, D. W. Griffith, set a new standard for film aesthetic by synthesizing new types of shots and cutting techniques, improving production quality and fidelity to historical sources, integrating music into film more comprehensively, and employing narrative conventions still widely operative in film. Birth�s enormous success proved the financial viability of the new medium throughout the nation. The Birth of a Nation was also an exceptionally controversial film because of its grotesque depictions of blacks (generally played by whites in blackface), its racism, and its valorization of the Ku Klux Klan as savior and midwife of the new nation. To this day there is tension in criticism of Birth over whether to separate evaluations of its aesthetic achievement from its racist depiction of the American epic.1

[3] It is precisely as an American epic, a national heroic myth, that religious studies approaches can help illuminate The Birth of a Nation and its relationship to American self-understanding. In general, however, scholars of religion have not explored how film contributes specifically to constructing a sacred sense of �Americanness,� or what I will refer to here as �civil religion.� Most studies of film and national identity have instead focused on questions of ideology.2

[4] Perhaps more than any other medium of the twentieth century, film has worked to construct civil religion by presenting idiosyncratic images of the nation as reality. A mythological approach to The Birth of a Nation can help us see it as an American myth asserted in an argument over what constitutes American identity. By American myth, I mean it is a strategic discourse (Lincoln 1990) aimed at producing a particular sense of American identity and purpose by presenting as paradigmatically true an idiosyncratic account of America�s origins. From this perspective The Birth of a Nation is not simply a reflection of a racist America, or an exploration of race in America, it is also a strategy for constructing America.

[5] My argument proceeds as follows. After first summarizing Birth�s plot and themes, I use Robert Bellah (1975) to define civil religion. I use Bruce Lincoln�s (1990) definition of myth to show that myths are a source for civil religion because they make claims about the ontologically true nature of particular societies. I then explore Birth and D. W. Griffith�s comments about Birth to show that Griffith, though he often spoke in terms of historical truth, also considered Birth to be true in the mythic sense, and therefore a source for civil religion. In a penultimate section I use Oscar Micheaux�s Within Our Gates (1919) as an example of a counter-myth deployed in response to Birth.

The Birth of a Nation: a summary of plot and themes

[6] On the surface, The Birth of a Nation tells the fate of two families just prior to, during, and after the Civil war. It is important to note that the film actually opens with scenes of the slave trade, predicting future discord in the nation with the first gnostic intertitle: �The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.� Thus, the film�s character development and plot are immediately contextualized by transcendent themes of disorder and order.

[7] The central characters of the story are the Stoneman family of Pennsylvania and the Cameron family of South Carolina. Austin Stoneman is an abolitionist politician and the Camerons are cotton plantation owners. The young lads of both families have become chums at boarding school, and the story opens with the Stoneman boys off to the Cameron�s estate in Piedmont, South Carolina, for a visit with the Camerons� �kith and kin.� In Piedmont, Griffith portrays a prelapsarian order by showing the boys enjoying the Edenic life of the South, complete with visits to the happy cotton fields and the slave quarters, where the slaves do a joyful dance on the occasion of the white folks� visit. While the boys bond, Phil Stoneman is smitten with Margaret Cameron (Ben�s sister) and Ben Cameron is taken with a photo of Elsie Stoneman (Phil�s sister) which he has snatched from Phil. Though news of war soon interrupts the idyll, and the boys are forced to fight for their respected sides, Phil and Ben pledge fidelity to their loves before leaving. The separation by war, reunion, and marriage of Cameron and Stoneman families will serve as a surrogate for the separation and ultimately restored bond of South and North. As Wood argues (1984, 127), the fundamental plot of Birth affirms the belief that �the meaning of American history can be read best, or even exclusively, through domestic themes.�3

[8] Griffith does not glorify war in the Civil War scenes that follow. Instead he shows us the desperation and futility of war with moving intertitles like �War�s peace� to describe body strewn battlefields. Throughout the film Griffith never allows the viewer to forget the common humanity of both (white) sides; by emphasizing that each side performed acts of wartime gallantry and humanity towards comrade and enemy, Griffith shows us that even at their most wretched, North and South can recognize humanity in one another. For example, when Ben Cameron, �the Little Colonel,� leads a final charge against the Union, he pauses to �succor a fallen comrade� and is cheered by the on-looking Unionists. As he finishes his last heroic charge Ben almost dies, but he is saved when the Union commander, who happens to be Phil Stoneman, recognizes him. Ben is sent to the hospital to recover, and there he meets Elsie Stoneman, whose photo he has carried for nearly three years.

[9] Griffith makes Ben a metonym for all Southern men, pushed to the limit of endurance by the circumstances of war, but still honorable and noble. After the war he is slated for execution on false charges, just like the South he represents. When Ben�s mother hears of the charge she saves him with a direct appeal to �the Great Heart,� President Lincoln. Lincoln�s mercy to Ben reflects the President�s gracious attitude toward the South. Lincoln vows that he will deal with them �as if they had never been away,� despite Austin Stoneman�s own desire that �Their leaders must be hanged and their states treated as conquered provinces.�

[10] The tragedy of Lincoln�s assassination marks the rapid descent of the South into death and chaos. Austin Stoneman, megalomaniacal mulatto mistress at his side, becomes �the greatest power in America,� an �uncrowned king,� and uses his power to champion equal rights in all respects for blacks. Griffith makes plain the significance of Austin Stoneman�s call for equal rights in the placards held by blacks at a political rally in the film, which read �Equality: Equal Rights, Equal Politics, Equal Marriage.� These terms foreshadow the trajectory of the rest of the film. The thoughtless good intentions of abolitionists lead to a pollution of the body politic and ultimately to rape of white women and a pollution of white American blood that can only be restored by ritual blood sacrifice and a savior. Griffith continues to remind the viewer of his mythic metanarrative through references in the intertitles to biblical passages which were most likely recognizable to viewers at the time. For example, as Austin Stoneman�s mulatto Lieutenant, Silas Lynch, organizes the black vote, the intertitle reads �Sowing the wind� (Hosea 8:7) to prepare us to �reap the whirlwind� (8:7) in another intertitle prior to the upcoming rape scenes. Significantly, the biblical passage refers to a punishment brought on Israel, the chosen nation, for its illegitimate government (8:4), its idolatry (Hosea 8:4) and most tellingly, for its incapacity to remain pure (8:5).

[11] When Austin Stoneman sends Lynch to organize the black vote the descent down the slippery slope quickens. First �New found freedom turns to rude insolence� in a number of scenes; for example, black soldiers have the temerity to claim as equal a right to the sidewalk as Ben Cameron. The insolence quickly becomes the predicted call to equality in politics. Griffith shows increasing disorder in the Republic with images of unqualified and stupid blacks registering for the franchise. As one disheveled black man says, �Ef I doan� get enuf franchise to fill mah bucket, I doan want it nohow.� Blacks are shown cheating in the election, while the most respectable white citizens are denied the right to vote. It is not surprising that with this sort of voting chaos, Silas Lynch, the mulatto, is elected Lieutenant Governor and the state House of Representatives becomes overwhelmingly black. Shots of the clownish assembly are carefully intertitled to project historical verisimilitude, and show liquor swilling, barefoot, chicken-leg eating representatives cheering wildly and dancing as they pass �a bill providing for the intermarriage of blacks and whites.� Equality as humans has snowballed into equality as citizens, and its predictable d�nouement will now be equal claims to white women�s bodies. Thus, with his new found power the mulatto Lynch�s �love looks high� toward the pale skinned, blond haired Elsie Stoneman, an indication of worse disorder to come.

[12] In his despair Ben Cameron takes a walk in the woods to mull the fate of his nation. There he sees two white children put a sheet over their heads and scare a group of black children by pretending to be ghosts. Ben is inspired to make his own sheeted costume to scare the local intransigent blacks, and thus the Ku Klux Klan is born. In the midst of chaos, they are a spark of hope for the nation, but the millennial battle of good and evil is still ahead.

[13] As the KKK begins to address injustices against whites, one of their own members is killed by Lynch�s band. In the meantime, Flora, the youngest Cameron sister, who has come into sexual maturity in the course of the story, heads to the spring to fetch water. Gus, a �renegade negro� captain spots her, pursues her and declares �I�se a captain now, an� I want to git married.� Chaos has reached its nadir here as status, class, and racial order collapse in one profane moment: the rape of Flora = rape of the South = emasculation of white men = loss of all order.

[14] Flora rejects Gus and flees, but he pursues her undeterred to the edge of a cliff. There, learning the �stern lesson of honor,� she throws herself off. Ben finds Flora and she dies in his arms, but not before he has wiped her blood-stained brow with the Confederate flag she had girding her waist. Ben and the KKK find and lynch Gus (in earlier versions of the film the Klan castrates Gus � reversing the threat of �equal marriage�).4 Then Ben hears the news that his parents, sister Margaret and Phil Stoneman are under attack � in this topsy-turvy world the former masters and the kin of abolitionists are now mercilessly at the hands of former slaves. Ben summons the Klan to restore order, and in a ritual consecration to their mission the Klan raises the �fiery cross of old Scotland� and extinguishes the flames with water that has been commingled with Flora�s bloody Confederate flag. Ben tells the other Klan members, �Brethren, this flag bears the red stain of the life of a Southern woman, a priceless sacrifice on the altar of an outraged civilization.� The imagery is clear, invoking both the Eucharist and the Gettysburg Address. Flora�s body and blood give life to the new nation. Earlier an intertitle told us not to mourn her for �finding sweeter the opal gates of death.� As her blood consecrates the Klan we know why, for as Lincoln told us at Gettysburg:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

To strains of Wagner�s �Flight of the Valkyrie� the newly empowered the Klan rides off to save Piedmont, the Cameron family, and the nation.

[15] Unaware that his own demise is near, Silas Lynch confesses his love to a horrified Elsie. He is furious at her incredulous rejection and turns instead to tempt her: �See, my people fill the streets. With them I will build a black empire, and you as Queen shall sit by my side.� Elsie, another Christ figure alone in the black wilderness, rejects the mulatto tempter and threatens him with a horsewhipping. In the meantime Austin Stoneman arrives. He is delighted to hear that Lynch wants to marry a white lady, but his delight turns to outrage when he finds out that the lady is his own daughter. His outrage is met by the tip of a bayonet as Lynch begins to take Elsie away. But the KKK arrives to save the day before Elsie or Austin Stoneman is hurt. The Klan then rides off to save the Cameron household, which has taken shelter in the small cabin of two Union veterans.

[16] Griffith again takes pains to point out the humanity shared by white North and white South, and in case the viewer misses the symbolism, the intertitle tells us that �The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.� Later versions are less racially explicit with their intertitles: �The former enemies of North and South unite to resist the mad results of the Carpetbaggers� political folly.� Besieged on all sides, it looks as though the Klan won�t arrive in time; father Cameron is even ready to bludgeon poor Margaret to death to spare her the dishonor of being caught by the black troops. But at the last moment the Klan arrives and saves everyone.

[17] The film ends with a victory parade through Piedmont and images of restored order (e.g., Klansmen supervising elections) followed by the marriages of Ben and Elsie and Phil and Margaret. The earliest versions of the film also reportedly showed �Lincoln�s solution:� the deportation of blacks back to Africa. In all versions of the film the North and South are bound together in a new way now � a new nation, a new family, has been born. That this new nation is a chosen nation, a millennial nation, is brought home with an image of reestablished unity, harmony, and peace under Jesus in the final scene. Perhaps even more incredibly, the 1933 version contains a waving flag and a call for the audience to sing together the national anthem (and thus to participate ritually in the new nation). Birth makes no attempt to hide its celebration of American millennial aspirations or its articulation of America�s sacred identity. It is in the latter respect that the film can properly be said to attempt to provide a foundational myth for American civil religion.
Civil Religion and Myth

[18] In 1967 Robert N. Bellah published his landmark article �Civil Religion in America,� where he argued that in addition to specific denominational religions, there also exists in the United States a general religion, rooted in the documents, characters and events of American history that shapes America�s self-understanding. Though many others have written about various formulations of the concept,5 in this article I use the term in Bellah�s (1975, 3) sense of � � that religious dimension, found I think in the life of every people, through which it interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality.� Civil religion provides a transcendent framework for understanding what it means to be an American, thus it not only reflects American self-understanding, but also stands as a guide for what American behavior should be and provides a normative mold for who we become. For example, American civil religion often links American identity with particular constructions of the idea of �freedom;� consequently certain notions of �freedom� become normative for American behavior. Even if American practice does not adhere to American identity as put forth in civil religion (and it seldom does), civil religion continues to provide a basis for identifying and modeling what is distinctively American.

[19] In The Broken Covenant Bellah (1975) uses American myths to explore what is American civil religion. The key structural element of American civil religion that emerges from these myths is an ongoing tension between inclusion and exclusion, expressed religiously as covenant and conversion, expressed politically in republicanism and liberalism, and carried in biblical imagery and themes of chosenness and closeness to God. But although Bellah uses myths to elaborate the structural dimension of American civil religion, he does not systematically explain how myths contribute to civil religion other than as narratives conveying American values. A more nuanced understanding of myth suggests that it is not just the narrative structure of myth that conveys Americanness, but the truth claims implicit in myths that make the mythic dimension of American civil religion so important. In other words, myths not only convey values, they also claim that those values are true at the most fundamental level. This broader sense of myth derives from Mircea Eliade�s (1963, 1) sense of myth as �true story,� where truth is understood not only in terms of facticity, or historical accuracy, but also in terms of ontic reality and, therefore, meaning. That is, myths claim to take us beyond what seems to be the case to show us the truth of existence. As an ontologically true story, a myth claims to be both a model of and model for ultimate reality; myth claims to be paradigmatic.6

[20] Eliade�s approach to religion has been criticized for being tautological, a-historical, and failing to account for the social functions of myth (McCutcheon 1997), but that does not detract from his essential phenomenological insight: myth narrates (what it claims are) realities. That is, myths claim to tell us what is true or real at the ontic level � what is �really real.� Myths tell us about �origins,� describing what reality was before it started to degenerate. What Eliade does not tell us is that all attempts to narrate reality are inherently political.

[21] Bruce Lincoln (1990, 3) recognizes the political nature of myth when he locates it in the realm of discourse, which can be used to reproduce, deconstruct and reconstruct society. For Lincoln, society is a synthetic construct held together primarily by sentiments elicited from discourse. �And like all synthetic entities, a society may either recombine with others to form syntheses larger still, or � a highly significant possibility ignored in most Hegelian and post-Hegelian dialectics � it may be split apart by the persisting tensions between those entities that conjoined in its formation, with the resultant formation of two or more smaller syntheses.� (Lincoln 1990, 11) Therefore, part of the political nature of myths is their ability to elicit sentiments that mobilize people into specific social formations, conserving or reworking the social synthesis, by virtue of claims to paradigmatic truths.

[22] In Bellah�s account, the underlying myths of American civil religion are undifferentiated from American history, but Lincoln (1990, 24) offers us a taxonomy that lets us consider the point at which history and myth diverge. Lincoln�s taxonomy revolves around three questions. First, does a particular narrative make a truth claim? If not, it can be considered �fable.� Second, is the narrative�s truth claim credible to a primary audience? If not, it can be considered �legend.� If so, it can be considered �history.� Third, does the truth claim possess �authority?� By authority, Lincoln means that truth assigned to the narrative is paradigmatic for, or a model for, society. If a narrative is accepted as paradigmatically true (that is, worthy of being a model for the present and future) it can be considered �myth.� In other words, myth is a form of discourse that claims to be and is accepted as paradigmatically true. �Thus, myth is not just a coding device in which important information is conveyed, on the basis of which actors can then constitute society. It is also a discursive act through which actors evoke the sentiments out of which society is actively created.� (Lincoln 1990, 25) Myths, then, not only narrate reality, they can also be used to narrate alternative realities that maintain, deconstruct or reconstruct social groups. The mythic dimension of American civil religion narrates the reality of national social boundaries. It is precisely such a narration of social boundaries that D. W. Griffith attempts in The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation as Myth

[23] The meaning of The Birth of a Nation is clearly overdetermined. At one level, Birth is Griffith�s personal odyssey writ large � an attempt to free himself from an oppressive father and domineering women through castration, lynching and redemptive violence (Rogin 1985). At another level, Birth marks the beginning of a project to make the Southern understanding of the nation (the myth of �the Lost Cause�) an understanding of the nation as a whole. 7 At yet another level, Birth reverses the South�s loss in the Civil War by making the South, in the guise of the KKK, the true midwife and savior of the nation (Scott 1994). Perhaps most obviously, Griffith�s film tells the story of the origins and identity of the United States: though the life of the nation was peaceful in its early years, the presence of blacks has been a persistent source of disharmony. The Civil War and Reconstruction marked the nadir of America�s internecine fighting, but out of that struggle, and by virtue of the blood of honorable sacrifice and redemptive violence, the new nation, a true Union of North and South, is born. In the original version of the film there was a corollary: the black seeds of disunion should be expelled back to Africa so that the nation could now live its millennial destiny.

[24] Following Bruce Lincoln�s taxonomy, two routes for analyzing Birth as myth are to explore the type of truth claims it makes and who accepts those claims. I will bracket who accepts the claims made in Birth because that question has more to do with whether the film was successful as a myth than whether it tries to present itself as myth. Since the film was controversial from the start, and clearly appealed to (and repulsed) different audiences, it is not possible to know for whom it succeeded and why without detailed historical reception studies.8

[25] On the other hand, the truth claims made by the director and by the film remain salient to the question of how the film attempts to work as myth. On the surface Griffith and the other promoters of the film seem to confuse claims for the film�s historical accuracy (historical truth) with claims for its ontological truth and meaningfulness (mythic truth). But Griffith was aware of these ambiguities in the concept of truth. At the least he became aware of the difficulties of defining truth after the controversy that surrounded the film. In a 1930 filmed interview of Griffith, Walter Huston asks him about Birth, �Do you feel as though it were true?� Griffith responds by both asserting and problematizing Birth�s truth: �Yes, I think its true,� he says, �But as Pontius Pilate said, �Truth? What is the truth?�

[26] In this case and others Griffith spoke about the film�s truth in terms of both historical accuracy and in terms of ontological truth and meaningfulness. According to Lillian Gish (1969, 131), the actress who played Elsie Stoneman, Griffith initially told the troupe about his interest in championing historical truth: �I�ve bought a book by Thomas Dixon, called The Clansman. I�m going to use it to tell the truth about the War Between the States. It hasn�t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.� When the film sparked controversy Griffith responded by emphasizing the film�s historical accuracy, offering one critic $10,000 if he could prove that there were historical distortions in the film (cited in Cripps 1963, 354). Even after he was forced to cut parts of the film, Griffith fought censorship of film, �the Laboring Man�s University,� on the grounds that it limited access to truth (Griffith 43).9 Griffith�s intentions to produce an historically accurate account of the emergence of the new nation after the Civil War are further borne out in reports of his attention to detail and research.10 In each of these instances Griffith uses the term �truth� to refer to historical accuracy. But Griffith�s fidelity to detail in production is a vehicle for the other type of truth-claims made by the film, mythic truth claims.11 On a closer view it is clear that Griffith�s larger purpose was to convey a sense of the ultimate meaningfulness of the Civil War in terms of American identity. The medium of film was, in Griffith�s mind, central to that task.

[27] As Griffith himself said (Geduld 1971, 29), �I believe in the motion picture not only as a means of amusement, but as a moral and educational force.� In his 1915 interview with Richard Barry (in Silva 1971, 10) he is even more explicit about the role of film in teaching history: �The time will come, and in less than ten years � when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.� He continues, �There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be present at the making of history. All the work of writing, revising, collating, and reproducing will have been carefully attended to by a corps of recognized experts, and you will have received a vivid and complete expression.� One gets the impression that Griffith understands that historical stories require editing, yet somehow he sublimates consciousness of his own politics into a fantasy of photographic accuracy as historical accuracy and mythic truth.12

[28] We can be sure that Griffith wanted to convey mythic truths because he and the film�s distributors also attempted to frame the film�s accuracy with political and ecclesiastical authority. For example, Birth was framed as historical truth and true national myth through, among other things, repetition of the famous statement President Woodrow Wilson made to Dixon after an initial screening of the film at the White House: �It is like history written with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.� The White House later repudiated that the comment had been made, but only after the story had been widely circulated for three months and Griffith and Dixon had used it for publicity. Since Wilson was not only President, but also former president of Princeton University and a widely respected historian, his comments carried extra weight. Similarly, in the longer versions of the film Griffith includes caveats that he intends no disrespect to any race, then follows those caveats with excerpts from book five of Wilson�s History of the American People that defend the historicity of the racist images. In other words, Griffith mobilizes history in support of myth. That is to say, Griffith presents and defends the historical details of his film as accurate, and in doing so he implicitly defends as accurate his presentation of the ontological truth of the nation (i.e., as white).

[29] The desire of Griffith and the film�s other promoters to convey more than just historical accuracy is also visible in their attempts to frame the film with an aura of moral and religious authority by �obtaining statements from ministers, teachers and other prominent citizens to the effect that they liked The Birth of a Nation and recommended it to others� (Aitken 1965, 61). Dixon (Dixon in Silva, 75) provides a clear example of this strategy when he responds to an editorial in the New York Globe by claiming to have recorded history faithfully in his novel. He warrants his claim by describing how the film was submitted to an ecumenical jury of clergymen who agreed with the praise given the film. Among other things they said:


[The film] united in common sympathy and love all sections of our country.


It teaches our boys the history of our nation in a way that makes them know the priceless inheritance our fathers gave us through the sacrifices of the Civil War and Reconstruction.


It tends to prevent the lowering of the standard of our citizenship by its mixture with Negro blood.

It shows the horror and futility of war as a method of settling civic principles.


It reaffirms Lincoln�s solution of the Negro problem as a possible guide to our future and glorifies his character as the noblest example of American democracy.


It gives Daniel Webster for the first time his place in American history as the inspiring creator of the modern nation we know today.

[30] With this letter Dixon asserts the historicity of the film, but like Griffith he elides his defense of the film�s historical accuracy with a defense of its relationship to the mythological goals of preserving a particular national identity and white bloodline.

[31] Though the story of the Camerons and the Stonemans is fiction, Griffith�s statements and techniques demonstrate that he viewed, and he wanted others to view, The Birth of a Nation as both historically accurate and ontologically true. That is to say, for Griffith and others close to the film, Birth showed how the United States came into being and of what it really consisted. It is in this sense that Birth can be seen as a myth, a form of discourse that makes a paradigmatic claim for truth.

[32] Birth claims that at an ontological level the United States is a white nation, and it explains problems in the United States as resulting from a black presence. It thus attempts to arouse sentiments (through imagery, narrative and music) that will lead to a reconstitution of the national identity as explicitly white. At the minimum, the end of the film shows white supremacy and white familial order as the keys to restoring the nation�s God blessed millennial role. The earlier versions of the film, and Dixon�s comments above, which advocate deportation of blacks to Africa, also show a model for reconstituting the sacred space and character of the nation in its pure state. If we accept Bellah�s (1975, 3) definition of civil religion as �� that religious dimension, found I think in the life of every people, through which it interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality,� then Griffith�s film is clearly a discursive strategy for altering American civil religion and reestablishing it on another basis. Birth reinterprets the meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the light of an ontologically white nation.

Counter-myths in Response to Birth

[33] Many audiences loved Birth. Reviewers tell of audience members cheering wildly when Gus is lynched or when the Klan rides to save Elsie and the Cameron family. Schoolchildren were even taken to view the film as history. But not everyone loved the film. Even before Birth was released in most markets, controversy surrounded it. The protests came from quarters where people disagreed with Griffith�s vision of American identity, and they took two forms: calls for censorship and production of films to counter it.

[34] Calls for censorship were widespread and of mixed success. More interesting from the perspective of how film is used to create civil religion were films that portrayed a different view of black Americans, a different view of what it meant to be American, and thus a different truth of American identity.13

[35] Oscar Micheaux, the most well known and most prolific producer and director of �race films,� released at least two films that directly countered Griffith�s film. 14 Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), for example, directly challenged the moral legitimacy of the KKK. Another of Micheaux�s films, Within Our Gates (1920), challenges The Birth of a Nation even further. For example, in Within Micheaux reverses the black on white rape scenes in Birth with a near rape of a black woman by a white estate owner. Not content to merely reverse the claims of victimization, this scene ends when the white estate owner realizes that he is the father of the black woman, thus blurring the boundaries of race and uniting the two antagonists with a common history and destiny in the end. Within also challenges Griffith�s mobilization of Christian religious symbols by presenting its own parody of an Uncle Tom black preacher. In contrast to the lynching scene in Birth, which depicted the Klan�s lynching of Gus as a limited application of deserved justice, Within shows clearly innocent men, a woman and (though he escapes) a child being lynched by an enthusiastic white crowd. Within also challenges Birth merely by showing a range of black characters, from deceitful crooks to upstanding doctors. Finally, Micheaux explicitly presents a counter-claim to what constitutes American identity in the final soliloquy of Within:

Be proud of our country, Sylvia. We should never forget what our people did in Cuba under Roosevelt�s command. And at Carrizal in Mexico. And later in France, from Bruges to Chateau-Thierry, from Saint-Mihiel to the Alps. We were never immigrants. Be proud of our country always.15

Micheaux claims Americanness through shared sacrifice in the military, and he openly constructs his version of Americanness against immigrants as �other.�

[36] Micheaux�s efforts to present a different truth about black Americans represent a counter-discourse to D. W. Griffith�s vision of American identity rooted in whiteness and his portrayal of blacks as the source of disharmony in the nation. From one perspective, then, it would seem that American cinema at the start of the 1920s was poised for a great debate on the nature of American identity. At the very least, we might have expected that the streams of myth in The Birth of a Nation and Within Our Gates would continue to develop separately in Hollywood and independent black cinema. But no debate over race emerged in the cinema; Hollywood did not continue with Griffith�s myth, considering it far too controversial. As Bogle (1973) has pointed out, Hollywood did not want the controversy that Griffith generated, and it therefore self-censored villainous representations of blacks. Instead it opted for stereotypes, such as Toms, Coons, and Mammies, that were less blatantly racist and that would persist for decades. Official censors were even more restrictive with Micheaux�s films than they had been with Griffith�s, prompting him to turn increasingly to less controversial films. As the 1920s drew to a close and film costs increased with sound pictures, independent black cinema was largely absorbed into the Hollywood production system.


[37] The Birth of a Nation offers us a glimpse into how film works as a form of discourse that can be employed to assert truths about American identity. In this regard film functions like other sources for American civil religion. Birth clearly presents a limited vision of American origins as the paradigmatic truth of American identity. But Charles Long (1974, 212) has written about this tendency in the context of civil religion more broadly: �The religion of the American people centers around the telling and retelling of the mighty deeds of the white conquerors.� He continues, �Indeed this approach to American religion has rendered the religious reality of non-Europeans to a state of invisibility, and thus the invisibility of the non-Europeans in America arises as a fundamental issue of American religious history at this juncture.� American civil religion is not white supremacist by nature; by creed (e.g., the Declaration of Independence) American civil religion is egalitarian and universalist. But if we examine the production of American civil religion we find another story: there are discursive practices which ground some ideas of American identity in myth and exclude others. The Birth of a Nation was among the most influential myths of American identity Hollywood every produced.


Aitken, Roy E., as told to Al P. Nelson. 1965. The Birth of a Nation Story. Middleburg, VA: William W. Denlinger.

Angrosino, Michael. 2002. Civil Religion Redux. Anthropological Quarterly 75 (2): 239-267.

Auster, Albert. 2002. Saving private Ryan and American triumphalism. Journal of Popular Film and Television 30 (2), 98-104.

Bellah, Robert N. 1974. Civil Religion in America. In American Civil Religion, edited by Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones (New York: Harper and Row Publishers). First published in Daedalus (Winter 1967).

Bellah, Robert N. 1975. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. New York: The Seabury Press.

Bellah, Robert N., and Phillip E. Hammond. 1980. Varieties of Civil Religion. San Fransisco, CA: Harper and Row Publishers.

Bogle, Donald. 1973. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: The Viking Press.

Carter, Everett. 1971. Cultural History Written with Lightning: The Significance of The Birth of A Nation. In Focus on The Birth of A Nation, edited by Fred Silva. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. First published in American Quarterly (Fall 1960).

Ciraulo, Dina. 1998. Narrative Style in Oscar Micheaux�s Within Our Gates. Wide Angle 20 (4), 75-91.

Cripps, Thomas. 1963. The Reaction of the Negro to the Motion Picture, �The Birth of a Nation.� The Historian; a journal of history 25, 344-362.

Cripps, Thomas. 1996. The Making of The Birth of a Race: The Emerging Politics of Identity in Silent Movies. In The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of US Cinema, edited by Daniel Bernardi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 38-55.

Cripps, Thomas. 1997. Race Movies as Voices of the Black Bourgeoisie: The Scar of Shame. In Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video, edited by Valerie Smith. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Eliade, Mircea. 1963. Myth and Reality. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Geduld, Harry M. 1971. Focus on D.W. Griffith. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gish, Lillian, with Ann Pinchot. 1969. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Greene, Eric. 1998. Planet of the Apes as American Myth: race politics and popular culture. Forward by Richard Slotkin. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Griffith, D. W. 1971/1916. The rise and fall of free speech in America (selections). In Focus on D.W. Griffith edited by Harry M. Geduld. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Henderson, Robert M. 1972. D. W. Griffith: His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lincoln, Bruce. 1990. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Stuies of Myth, Ritual, and Classificiation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Long, Charles H. 1974. Civil Rights � Civil Religion: Visible and Invisible Religion. In American Civil Religion, edited by Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones. New York: Harper and Row Publishers. 211-221.

Martin, Joel W., and Conrad E. Ostwalt, Jr. 1995. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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Richey, Russell E., and Donald G. Jones, eds. 1974. American Civil Religion. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Rogin, Michael. 1985. �The Sword Became a Flashing Vision�: D. W. Griffith�s The Birth of a Nation. Representations 0, Issue 9, Special Issue: American Culture Between the Civil War and World War I: 150-195.

Sampson, Henry T. 1977. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Scott, Bernard Brandon. 1994. Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

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Taylor, Clyde. 1996. The Re-Birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema. In The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of US Cinema, edited by Daniel Bernardi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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Wood, Gerald. 1984. From The Clansman and Birth of a Nation to Gone with theWind: The Loss of American Innocence. In Recasting: Gone With the Wind in American Culture, edited by Darden Asbury Pyron. Miami, FL: University Presses of Florida. 123-136

Films Cited

The Birth of a Nation. 1933 (1915). Directed by D. W. Griffith. (Epoch). Indianapolis, IN : Kartes Video Communications, 1984.

The Birth of a Nation. 1930 (1915). Directed by D. W. Griffith. (Epoch). US: Video Yesteryear Recording, 1984.

Intolerance: love's struggle through the ages. 1916. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Paul Killiam film classic presentation. Los Angeles, CA : Republic Pictures Home Video, c1991.

The Birth of a Race. 1918.

The Realization of a Negro�s Ambition. 1916.

Within Our Gates. 1919. The African American cinema I [videorecording] : Oscar Micheaux's Within our gates / written, directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux. [Washington, D.C.] : Library of Congress, c1993.

Symbol of the Unconquered. 1920. Produced, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux.

*Vol. 8, No.2, October 2004, The Journal

of Religion and Film

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