Mash-up your prejudices

DJ Spooky remixes The Birth of a Nation
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  February 4, 2008

Rebirth of a Nation by DJ Spooky | 8 pm February 2 | Lewiston Middle School, 75 Central Ave, Lewiston | $10 | 207.786.6135
“I am so frustrated with the American mind right now. Things like Barack Obama’s candidacy or Michel Gondry’s films give me hope, but so much of what the world looks at in America — blind ignorance, and the Bush administration’s breathtaking incompetence — that kind of thing needs to be looked at more closely, and understood by anyone who wants change.”

While you won’t find any of this year’s presidential candidates name-dropping Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of theSpotless Mind), the work of DJ Spooky (Bowdoin graduate Paul D. Miller, a/k/a DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) — particularly his multimedia presentation, Rebirth of a Nation, which Bates College is bringing to Lewiston on February 2 — demonstrates through art the kind of philosophical progress Obama calls for: it asks questions, dispels stereotypes, and respects nuance.

Rebirth of a Nation is a “remix” of D.W. Griffith’s landmark silent film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s hard to imagine a movie with a more challenging reputation. Griffith’s film is both a milestone of American racism and an innovator in early filmmaking. Birth’s unabashed prejudice — blacks (played by white men in blackface) are perceived as monomaniacal sexual predators and Ku Klux Klansmen are presented as the white knights they thought they were (the film was ultimately used as a recruitment tool for the group) — has to be considered in tandem with its formidable technical and structural feats.

We can’t ignore Griffith’s contributions to the language of cinema. The Birth of a Nation popularized crosscutting — now common practice, it’s the technique of editing between parallel plot strands, a way to build tension as two sets of action come to a head — and Griffith also employed then-new practices of lighting and coloring. Spooky calls the film, in all its achievements and outrages, “the DNA of American cinema.”

Spooky’s remix of the film seeks to expose the “fractured landscape” of the American psyche — where, he says, “perception becomes reality, media sets the pace for unreal events, and wars are fought over phantasms” — through Griffith’s exploration of the Civil War, whose warring armies and post-war electoral chaos divided the American public in a way analogous to today’s supposed red state/blue state dichotomy.

Fortunately for his viewing public, Spooky attempts this via a multimedia live DJ set featuring a three-screen collage of Griffith’s imagery juxtaposed with jungle and urban beats, and music recorded by neo-classical pioneers the Kronos Quartet.

Each 75-minute performance is a unique live edit of the film and music. “Every sound in the film was composed to match the concept of how sound has evolved over the last century. Every character has different motifs ... I looked at how to highlight the way the story was unfolding with different styles: classical, hip-hop, electronica,” Spooky says.

By projecting contemporary music onto Griffith’s images, Spooky adds to characters nuances the director never intended. In counterbalancing Griffith’s images of early cinematic beauty and both extreme and incidental racism, the DJ co-opts the director’s message, the same way a DJ reappropriates a pop song by adding a new beat, or by blending it with a song from a different genre.

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