Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

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Richard M Roberts
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Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Postby Richard M Roberts » Wed Jan 07, 2015 5:17 am

One of my Christmas presents that I have been enjoying mightily is Seymour Stern’s book D. W. Griffith’s 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION, edited by Ira H. Gallen:


http://www.amazon.com/Griffiths-100th-A ... mour+stern


This book has been out since last April and I think it’s a crime how little attention it has received. Seymour Stern has been dead since 1979, and sadly, his name is much forgotten or deliberately disremembered by those in the Film History Community who did not like him when he was alive. That Stern was a cranky, opinionated human is pretty much undisputed, even by his friends, but he was also unquestionably THE expert on D. W. Griffith who spent his life researching and arguing the man.

Unfortunately, the lifetime spent researching and arguing Griffith didn’t amount to that much actual published material, part one of a large article on TBOAN that appeared in FILM CULTURE magazine in 1965 was never followed up by a Part Two, and Stern’s magnum opus, GRIFFITH, MASTER OF CINEMA was announced in 1939 and never seen after. Stern was one of those perfectionists who can’t seem to get anything finished, but his papers and collections, housed at the Ottawa Museum in Ottawa Canada (most likely because there was not an American Archive Stern would trust or who would want them at the time of his death) contain massive chunks of Sterns words and materials that have not seen the light of day since. Here’s to New York Film Collector and Historian Ira H. Gallen who apparently has been as obsessed with Stern as Stern was with Griffith for much of his own lifetime, and has undertaken with the blessings and help of Stern’s family to make sense of the voluminous papers, and promises more editions of Sterns words and further Griffith history in the coming future.

Yet this first book is definitely the best place to start when it comes to Stern’s obsessions, THE BIRTH OF A NATION (and it is THE Birth of a Nation, Stern spends a chapter chastising those who have decided to shorten the title to BIRTH OF A NATION, giving us one of William K. Everson funniest quotes in the process: “ If people persist in calling it BIRTH OF A NATION, I think I’ll have to start calling the other Civil War film GONE WITH WIND”) indeed seemed to be the rocket launch for Stern’s life direction and the 660 pages herein document what he uncovered and the opinions thereof.

Now realize, Stern grew up in Larchmont, New York, was able to watch Griffith shoot ORPHANS OF THE STORM at and around his Lake Mamaroneck studios, then managed to get a job as an extra in Griffith’s AMERICA (1924). Stern worked with varying levels of failure in the Hollywood Film Industry of the 1930’s, he interviewed Griffith extensively in the 1940’s, Griffith even called up TBOAN’s Assistant Director Elmer Clifton and had him drive Stern around Hollywood and Los Angeles showing him where TBOAN was shot. Stern interviewed as many of the still living participants as he could find, had access to Griffith’s own papers when they were still in Griffith’s hands, no other historian had this sort of access to original materials.

However Stern was also a liberal that found himself burned by both the right and the left, and had a truly jaundiced eye when it comes to politics, capitalism, communism, and every other “ism”, and it shows in the wonderfully cynical (which does not mean that they are necessarily wrong) opinions thrown in among the historical facts, it’s as if H. L. Menken decided to become a film historian. Stern had a good idea of how the Hollywood System really worked, and he also is from the old-school film historian mindset of “all Hollywood films are crap and vulgar. The only true film artists are Griffith, Dreyer, Flaherty,Eisenstein, Welles, yada-yada-yada”. It’s like reading Lewis Jacobs and Paul Rotha again, no big surprise as both historians were friends of Stern’s. It is both nostalgic to hear that sort of film-speak again and a reminder of how far Film History has come (or has it, who was that Scottish idiot who did the STORY OF FILM Doc or whatever the hell it was called just a little while back?), and the once-again drove home realization of how much East Coast Pretentions and snobbery in the Film History Community held back so much good stuff from being appreciated for so long. There is opinion here designed and determined to offend all in some way or another, which is why it is such a fun if sometimes exasperating ride and read.

Stern also makes no attempt to defend Griffith’s racism, he admits it outright and makes no real apologies, essentially saying that if Griffith should be tarred and banned for being so, then we might as well go ahead and ban all art from the first half of the Twentieth Century and back, and in a current era where the humorless, clueless, and hypersensitive are beginning to voice the thought that it’s not such a bad idea, a voice as loud and clear as Stern’s is a good one to hear. To bury the past is to deny and forget it, we need to remember just how racist we were, it helps us to realize just how racist we still are. George Santayana folks.

And yeah, in Stern’s eyes Griffith invented everything, and will fight you to the death if you say nay, but indeed, we do have to remember that Stern is writing from the day before so many films came to light, and so much information has been unearthed, we can forgive him now if Griffith did not indeed invent the close-up, or the iris, or any of the Cinematic tricks he got or took credit for from time to time. Griffith showed a hell of a lot of future Directors how to use them.

Stern also well traces the aftermath and reaction to TBOAN (I always called this the “Afterbirth of a Nation”) from the political and historical side, as well as what actually happened to the film in its various reissues and the hands it moved or fell into. Because most of this work was done before the mid-70’s, Stern begins the interesting tale of how the film got into the hands of Paul Killiam and Raymond Rohauer, first in an odd-bedfellows partnership (along with Jay Ward of all folk), that quickly dissolved into litigation and other chicanery, but sadly, Stern did not document, or live to document, the exciting second-half of that story, which included Rohauer sending Federal Marshalls into the Library of Congress to crime-tape off the shelves that actually held the camera negative to TBOAN and the legal battle and court-case that led to one of three Killiam wins against Rohauer firmly establishing that man’s nonsense and criminal bullying tactics in his attempts to control films he really did not own or were public domain in the first place (In fact, in LOC’s files there is one filled thick with copies of incredible legal letters sent between Rohauer’s and Killiam’s attorneys that would make a wonderful book in themselves).

Seymour Stern’s book is an important one about an important film, like it or not, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in D. W. Griffith. It is sad that Stern’s name has become obscure in the anals (yes, I spelled it right) of Film History, but it is the lesson to all Film Historians, it’s the films that matter folks, yet to we aged grey-hairs who remember the name either with fondness, fear or dislike, seeing these words in print is like a Beach Boys Fan getting the CD of the SMILE album in the mail, it’s about bloody time.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

Jim Roots
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Re: Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Postby Jim Roots » Wed Jan 07, 2015 8:08 am

Sounds good, but there is no "Ottawa museum in Ottawa". Are you referring to the National Archives of Canada, which is located in Ottawa? Is this maybe something DJ Turner of the Archives was involved with?

Jim
When you're surrounded by vultures, playing dead is not a good strategy.

Richard M Roberts
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Re: Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Postby Richard M Roberts » Wed Jan 07, 2015 9:10 am

Jim Roots wrote:Sounds good, but there is no "Ottawa museum in Ottawa". Are you referring to the National Archives of Canada, which is located in Ottawa? Is this maybe something DJ Turner of the Archives was involved with?

Jim



Took that directly from the Acknowledgements Page before the Table of Contents, that's what Gallen calls it, and lists http://www.LACListens.ca as the website, but then he lists the 395 Wellington Ave address for the National Archives, so whatever the hell it's called, that's what it is, get over it. I know D.J. well. but I have never asked him about Stern, though he certainly could have known him when he was alive. Sadly, the number of folk who knew Stern well are rather dwindling these days. I was thinking of asking Eileen Bowser about him next time I run into her.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

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Re: Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Postby Gary Johnson » Wed Jan 07, 2015 9:53 am

Mr. Stern's life sounds more interesting than most films he researched - a cranky, opinionated Liberal during the time of Communist witch hunts? It sound like a recipe for a disastrous existence back in the day.

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Re: Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Postby Rob Farr » Wed Jan 07, 2015 2:39 pm

To the extent that Stern is remembered at all, it is probably colored by Richard Schickel's characterization of him as "Griffith's half-mad acolyte" in "D.W. Griffith: An American Life".
Rob Farr
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Richard M Roberts
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Re: Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Postby Richard M Roberts » Wed Jan 07, 2015 5:06 pm

Rob Farr wrote:To the extent that Stern is remembered at all, it is probably colored by Richard Schickel's characterization of him as "Griffith's half-mad acolyte" in "D.W. Griffith: An American Life".



And Richard Schickel's Griffith book is badly coloured from it's being written by Richard Schickel.



RICHARD M ROBERTS

Jim Roots
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Re: Review: 100th ANNIVERSARY THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Postby Jim Roots » Thu Jan 08, 2015 8:30 am

Richard M Roberts wrote:
Jim Roots wrote:Sounds good, but there is no "Ottawa museum in Ottawa". Are you referring to the National Archives of Canada, which is located in Ottawa? Is this maybe something DJ Turner of the Archives was involved with?

Jim



Took that directly from the Acknowledgements Page before the Table of Contents, that's what Gallen calls it, and lists http://www.LACListens.ca as the website, but then he lists the 395 Wellington Ave address for the National Archives, so whatever the hell it's called, that's what it is, get over it. I know D.J. well. but I have never asked him about Stern, though he certainly could have known him when he was alive. Sadly, the number of folk who knew Stern well are rather dwindling these days. I was thinking of asking Eileen Bowser about him next time I run into her.


RICHARD M ROBERTS


Yup, that's the address of the National Archives and National Library (two in one building) up here. I drive past it twice a day.

Jim
When you're surrounded by vultures, playing dead is not a good strategy.


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