Caught on Film
By Andrew Chan
Rebirth of a Nation
Dir. Paul D. Miller (a.k.a DJ Spooky), U.S.
Playing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, June 22—28, 2009
I first encountered DJ Spooky’s multimedia project Rebirth of a Nation four years ago, when I was still a student at the University of North Carolina. Back then this radical revision of D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece was still making its rounds as a live performance, and the idea of it alone was enough to make it an ultra-hip, must-see event. Condensed from three hours to a little under two, the film was sliced up and projected on a triptych of large screens, allowing for a surprising juxtaposition of storylines, and giving off the sense that this monolith in cinema history was being fractured into a form commensurate to its multiple personalities. The DJ stood on the stage in deep concentration, mixing the music live as the towering images flickered above his head. And perhaps more than anything else I saw that night, the vision of DJ Spooky (whose real name is Paul Miller) working away at his turntable in the dim light was an intriguing addition to the Griffith legacy.
Like Miller’s quirky book-length manifesto Rhythm Science, Rebirth is designed as a grand statement on the vitality of DJ culture and the primacy of the sound-recycler as author. But beyond all the visual and sonic manipulations on display was the very presence of this young African American artist, which begged the obvious question: what extraordinary journey have we taken from these blackface caricatures we’re seeing on the screen to this black man on the stage freely expressing himself to a crowd of college students? The son of a former dean at Howard University’s School of Law, Miller studied philosophy and French at Bowdoin, then freelanced at The Village Voice and Artforum before becoming a pioneer in experimental hip hop. His attempt to publicly deconstruct and outwit a famously racist text seemed not only like poetic justice but also a rare personal and historical gesture in the art of turntablism, where the man behind the mixer so often gets lost in an avalanche of decontextualized sources.
Five years after Rebirth premiered as a performance piece, it arrives at the Museum of Modern Art as a film. Where the earlier incarnations were entrancing, particularly for the eeriness of the music and the sense of being improvised on the spot, this new version comes off as superfluous—a feeling compounded by the fact that the original Birth of a Nation, as Miller notes in the film’s voiceover, remains as terrifying and relevant as ever. What’s missing here is the live quality that gave the performances their immediacy, and allowed audiences to put aside the project’s lack of intellectual originality in order to appreciate it as powerful spectacle. With DJ Spooky standing underneath the three screens, Rebirth made a compelling case for the turntablist as a kind of modern-day griot, summoning sounds, images, and stories as if they were memories unfurling out of his head. The Rebirth film, on the other hand, makes cinema look like the comparatively regressive art form, a one-dimensional, reproducible medium that carves in stone a project whose raison d’être was an openness to revision and spontaneity—a belief that “it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Of course, if Miller were a more innovative filmmaker, this would not have been the case. His dream of infiltrating all areas of art and media with DJ aesthetics still seems bold and exciting, at least on paper. But while he would not necessarily have had to employ a Chelsea Girls–like double-projection stunt to replicate the scope of the live show, it certainly doesn’t help that Rebirth has been reduced to a single visual field—one that basically amounts to selected scenes and title cards from The Birth of a Nation encased in a decorative frame, and occasionally inscribed with lines, circles, and triangles that highlight the action. As if to pander to the contemporary audience’s restlessness when it comes to silent films, Miller hacks the multilayered narrative to Cliffs Notes size, and introduces the film with his own overlong voiceover. I was dismayed to find that the narration continues throughout the film. While DJ Spooky fans might expect the same playful, intellectually voracious speaker they found in Rhythm Science, most of his commentary is overly didactic and hand-holding, demonstrating a surprising lack of faith in music and images to speak for themselves. Where the live show allowed the film to play as one delirious, fractured fever dream—effectively stripping it of Griffith’s gift as an entertainer and storyteller—this new Rebirth kills the vibe with unnecessary plot explanations, as if it were assuring unacquainted viewers that they don’t have to go back and revisit the original.
Anachronism is what fuels Rebirth. The sepia images collide with a distinctly contemporary score and current technology, and we begin to meditate on how cinema lives in a constant state of reinvention in our memories and imaginations. But in the film, this kind of disjuncture registers as hollow irony rather than rigorous intellectual and emotional engagement, and the tone becomes reminiscent of Kevin Wilmott’s snarky, preachy faux-documentary C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America (2004), another retooling of archival material. DJ culture has the ability to expand our perception of the world and of art through its free associations, but somehow Miller’s film gets stuck on one approach and one interminably sustained mood.
Its redeeming factor is that, like the live version, it resets the terms of the unending debate on this film. Rebirth of a Nation has its heart in the right place: it not only confronts the skeletons in our national closet but also takes ownership of them. Like Kara Walker's artwork, which appropriates black caricatures from the Antebellum South and gives them a disturbing twist, Rebirth engages with a tradition in which the art of sampling the past amounts to a subversive form of reclamation. Where preceding generations had sought to censor racist images, the current trend is to take possession of them as a way of facing up to the existence of hatred, and then manipulating them to expose their absurdity. It's just a shame the film has been so clumsily constructed that it leaves us apathetic about the conversation it wishes to incite.