D W Griffith Plus More Than Any Day Deserves

D W GriffithEight years ago, Evo Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. He seems to have done a pretty decent job. He, of course, is largely dismissed as a socialist here in the United States. But then, so is the conservative created, free-market healthcare system we now call Obamacare. Morales, like pretty much all reasonable people, believes in a mixed-economy. You know what a mixed-economy is, don’t you? It’s the economy that the United States has always had! Wake up conservatives! Evo! Evo! Evo!

On this day in 1552 or 1554 (It was a very long labor!) Walter Raleigh was born. What, exactly was he anyway? I guess you could say that, very much like today, Raleigh was famous for being famous. It is interesting that he was put to death for political reasons. But I am mostly interested in him because of his relationship to Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe had written the poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” It is a very sweet poem that I’ve set to music. The poem was very popular, but the older Raleigh apparently thought it was childish and so wrote a response poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” It’s a good poem, but it is very clear why were remember Marlowe today as a great poet of that period and we remember Raleigh for throwing his coat over a mud puddle for Queen Elizabeth—a story I feel is almost certainly apocryphal.

It’s a good day for Elizabethans! Francis Bacon was born on this day in 1561. (Short labor.) He is known today as the man who helped Christopher Marlowe who actually wrote all those plays people ignorantly attribute to “The Immortal Bard of Stratford on Avon.” Woody Allen explains all this in his short story, “But Soft… Real Soft.” Read the whole thing; it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. If you want to know about Bacon, click his name above. Basically, he was a brilliant philosopher and scientist who was not beheaded, even though he only lived as long as Raleigh. Here’s Allen with some history about Bacon that I’ll bet you didn’t know:

We all realize Shakespeare (Marlowe) borrowed his plots from the ancients (moderns); however, when the time came to return the plots to the ancients he had used them up and was forced to flee the country under the assumed name of William Bard (hence the term “immortal bard”) in an effort to avoid debtor’s prison (hence the term “debtor’s prison”). Here Sir Francis Bacon enters into the picture.

Bacon was an innovator of the times who was working on advanced concepts of refrigeration. Legend has it he died attempting to refrigerate a chicken. Apparently the chicken pushed first. In an effort to conceal Marlowe from Shakespeare, should they prove to be the same person, Bacon had adopted the fictitious name Alexander Pope, who in reality was Pope Alexander, head of the Roman Catholic Church and currently in exile owing to the invasion of Italy by the Bards, last of the nomadic hordes (the Bards give us the term “immortal bard”), and years before had galloped off to London, where Raleigh awaited death in the tower.

The great Sam Cooke was born 1931. I don’t think I really need to say anything about his work. He was a great songwriter and an unforgettable singer. His death is still a mystery. I tend to think that it was as simple as some people tried to rob him, it got out of hand and they killed him. We will never know, but his murder not only deprived him of his life, it deprived the rest of us of unknown amounts of great music. Here is the only video I could easily find of Cooke actually performing live. It is a really good version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Cooke later wrote the great response song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Other birthdays: the great French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592); the great fetes galantes painter Nicolas Lancret (1690); the great Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788); Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849); Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin (1869); blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson (1897); the great Russian physicist Lev Landau (1908); four great actors: Piper Laurie (82), Bill Bixby (1934), Seymour Cassel (79), and the best of the bunch, John Hurt (74); crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh (77); singer and songwriter Steve Perry (65); the great filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (61); actor Linda Blair (55); and actor Diane Lane (49).

The day, however, belongs to the most important filmmaker ever, D W Griffith, who was born on this day in 1875. Oh, how I hate talking about him. How I wish he had never made The Birth of a Nation, so that I don’t always have to talk about racism. So forget it. He seems to have been a decent man with some real confusion on matters racial and historical.

But in terms of art, Nation was revolutionary. In many ways, his next major film Intolerance was equally so. It is interesting to watch the early films—including Griffith’s—as they slowly evolve until Nation, which is shockingly modern. Quite suddenly, Griffith offers the world the full pallet of cinematic syntax. And then in Intolerance breaks altogether new ground in terms of its editing.

To start with, Intolerance takes place during four points in time spread out over thousands of years. But this is all intercut—the story is not told linearly. Then on top of that—on the microscale—we see parallel editing exactly as we see it today. Here is a very short (26 second) example. We see three different locations: the jail cell, the scaffolding, and the line cutters behind the wall on the scaffolding. Griffith cuts between them to provide the sense that they are all happening at the same time. They still teach this stuff to kids in film school, 98 years later!

Happy birthday D W Griffith!

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