Sunday, November 23, 2008

Griffith's ghosts, and Cahier's 100 most beautiful films

Arguably NY Times' DVD critic Dave Kehr's blog is one of the most active online site for film around; it's easily the most lively.

Take the case of his recent article on Kino's release of the second volume of the films of D.W. Griffith, and read the commentary page, which runs to over 160 posts as of this time.

Griffith almost a hundred years later is still the provocateur, still able to raise a good if not always civil or intelligently reasoned (or worse, unoriginal) fracas. All to the good despite the negativity, I say; better by far than if no one cared at all.

Didn't want to add fuel to the fire (or static to the already considerable noise), so I'll just comment on the whole debate here. Been an Asian living in America for five years, and for the past half decade, has not been entirely unaware of the problem of racism in this country. Been called everything from 'spic' to 'nigger' (apparently Filipinos are not a very common sight), and accused of being racist myself (among other less savory things). I get that sidelong glance when walking into a store, or public institution; I've felt that closemouthed tension whenever entering a room full of white people. Racism--or at least its simmering, tightly-plated-over-with-a-thick-layer-of-courtesy equivalent--is something I have to live with all the time.

I can see what an appalling tract Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is; I know something of its history, and the role it played in reviving the Ku Klux Klan. Watching the film, I cringe at the blackfaced stereotypes depicted onscreen, running apelike after Flora Cameron (the ever-sunny Mae Marsh), or wreaking havoc in Congress.

And it's not just the racism; if the racism were hamhanded and obvious (as I have to admit it often is here), it wouldn't be such a thorny issue. It's in how persuasive the film at its best can be. If a black man (or an actor in blackface) running after a woman hoping to have sex with her is too grotesque to take seriously, the subplot about the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) trying to force marriage with Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) is sufficiently and subtly developed to actually make one bristle at the thought of a subhuman brute laying his hands on Gish's lily-white limbs (not to mention make one feel the satisfaction of seeing a do-gooding liberal (Austin Stoneman, played by Ralph Lewis) being confronted with the consequences of his own 'wrongheadedness'). The climax is easily the film's most powerful moment, a thrilling rescue sequence to rival anything done by Kurosawa or Spielberg, and not the least of Griffith's accomplishments is in having you cheer a band of Klansmen riding to the rescue.

All that said and considering what I am, I take what I think's the middle view on Griffith: the man was a social naïf, but he could direct like an angel (or devil, if you like). For every scene with a slouched and gibbering white man in blackface, he's got a scene of exuberant gallantry, like a wounded Confederate, defiantly stuffing a Union cannon with its own flag, or of surpassing tenderness, like a soldier's halting, hesitant homecoming. Griffith in film took sides and dug in like a soldier, and people cheered or condemned him for that--still do to this day. I do think you're probably something of a naïf if you can dismiss his racism as "a product of his times;" if you can manage to totally ignore his filmmaking, though, you're probably also blind (or maybe just not paying attention).

Also found in the commentary pages is a link to Cahiers du Cinema's 100 films pour une cinematheque ideale. It's not a bad effort, for an attempt at something definitive (personally, I prefer a whole score of lists, and refusing to tally them up in any shape or size whatsoever), and probably the most credible outside of Sight and Sound's and Senses of Cinema's.

I've heard minor cavils--no Borzage, no Naruse. To which I'd like to throw in "What, no Guru Dutt, or Raj Kapoor, or Bimal Roy (what, are Donen and Minnelli the only masters of the musical?); no Anthony Mann; no Hou Hsiao Hsien; no animation (unless you consider King Kong, which is arguably stop-motion)? Nicholas Ray represented by a kitschy work (I'd love to see him recognized for In a Lonely Place)?Welles present, but represented by the usual suspect (Citizen Kane--though it's nice to see Touch of Evil included)?"

To be fair, I do appreciate the high ranking of Laughton's Night of the Hunter, which critic David Ehrenstein considers the greatest American film ever made (I don't know if I'd go so far, but I understand where he's coming from, and I do love the picture myself), of M (my favorite Lang), and of City Lights, which I do love to death but have failed to keep in my own top ten , due to overfamiliarity. Maybe I should look at it again.

(But waitaminute--only one Keaton, while Chaplin has five? What's going on here? (Only, I suppose, the rubbing off of strange protuberances and projections in the lists--one reason I dislike tallies is that they usually end up giving us what the mainstream considers top quality; give me heterogeneous lists anytime, where a man's quirks and eccentricities are clearly on display))

But yeah--maybe the most painful omission is any word or mention of a Filipino filmmaker, Brocka or Bernal or Ad. Castillo or either of the two De Leons or Diaz or Red or even O'Hara. Still have a long way to go with the French critics, I suppose. To work, then.



Gloria said...

Re the list: I agree that every list of "best films" always excludes worthy films... They tend to be too "general" (/I also miss a Naruse, or a Norman McLaren, among other things), but those in the list are unarguably rather good films on average, and well, I certainly won't complain about "Night of the Hunter" being there, he, he...

Relating this list, I've come across British complaints (and a bit of their usual "cheese-eater" hate, as well) about the lack of British films in the list: while I think that one or two Powell-Pressburgers, or a McKendrick, in the list would be fine, I don't see why britons should be so outraged at the list...

...I mean, we have Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Chaplin and Charles Laughton, whom I believed to be British... or maybe they were aliens from outer space?

nitesh said...

Even Ghatak seems to be missing from the list and well host of other filmmakers.

Noel Vera said...


The Hitchcock question--well, yep, we can consider his works British, the way I regard Campanadas a medianoche American just because Welles is American (but really, he belongs to the world).

But what about Carol Reed, John Boorman (is he on the list?), uh arguably three Powell-Pressburgers (Black Narcissus, Colonel Blimp, arguably The Red Shoes and if I can sneak one in Peeping Tom).

Is Donen greater than Reed? Well, Singin in the Rain is greater than Oliver! I think. But still...

And what about Michael Winterbottom? Ken Loach? Mike Leigh? Hey, if they included Rosselini at his most neorealist...

Noel Vera said...

And oh yes, how could I ever forget Ghatak.

Gloria said...

Noel... Re campanadas a medianoche, yes, I consider it an American film ;D

Still, I share your pont about films belonging to the world... If I like a film, I really don't care where it was made, or where the director, cast and crew were born.

Noel Vera said...

Gloria: according to someone in the Kehr thread, that Positif list is in response to Sight and Sound's anglophilic one. Guess we know what their agenda was...

To be fair, if I put up a 100 greatest films list, ten, maybe twenty Filipino films would probably make that list.

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