Spooky, but what does it all mean?

Perhaps it was because I’d been up since 6am. Perhaps it was the fact that my friend Derek and I mistook north for south, then east for west, in trying to get to our destination in TriBeCa, and walked almost two miles (me in heels) as a result. Perhaps it was because our dreamt-of glass of wine before the show turned out to be a fruity Cabernet in the foodhall of the Winter Garden – part of the World Financial Centre – instead of an Italian varietal in an interesting bar. Whatever the reason, I was unimpressed with DJ Spooky’s live re-mix of a seminal 1915 racist propaganda film called Birth of a Nation, which was a special event at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival.

DJ Spooky introduced his work as an attempt to subvert the white-supremacist ideology of the film’s Civil War-era plot. In the film, the central protagonists’ white faces express various types of fear as black men, given the vote, run riot and use their newfound political influence for evil rather than good, wreaking havoc on the status quo, only to be put back in their respective place by saviours wearing white uniforms with matching hoods, ie the Ku Klux Klan. If only we could all just get along …

It was certainly an eye-opener for me to see the film. Unfortunately by the end of the l o n g evening I remained unconvinced that cutting and splicing segments of the film, repeating and looping them accompanied to a live soundtrack of beats, achieved anything close to what DJ Spooky was aiming for. He did not interrupt or subvert the plot of the film: the whites still reign supreme at its end. He could have used the footage and cut it to shreds and rearranged it to offer a much more dramatically compelling counter-narrative, so that the images no longer depended on the plot. And the point of the soundtrack being live was lost on me … as was the function of the music generally.

As Derek said to me on our way back to Brooklyn, “I learned more about the human condition from watching Grindhouse than I did from that.”

The TriBeCa festival is also hosting the premiere of yet another limp Drew Barrymore romantic comedy, and an outdoor screening of none other than Jaws 3. Sadly this seems to encapsulate the triumph of hot air and hyperbole over substance that seems to be on offer this year.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Virginia – thanx for your comments. Actually it wasn’t really meant to “subvert” the film, it’s a remix after all – just show some of the resonances with the way things are these days. The voting scenes in the film could easily have been 2000 or 2004’s elections, and the editing techniques of using the Pioneer DVJ’s that let you play the film like a record are meant for a live situation. The edited version will be out in a bit, but hey… thanx for coming to the show.

    in peace,
    Paul aka Dj Spooky

  2. you know i thought about some of the same questions you raised the day or two afterwards as well. not so much the “so what factor,” but the question of how such a film functions without more explicit framing. it places a lot of trust on the audience, really, assuming we already have a honed analysis of racism that will be our lens for making sense of the evening/event. i never saw the original film, so seeing it remixed served an incredible purpose for me, in that i got to witness its work in some of the ways i think dj spooky intended. for others in the audience who never saw it, yet brought some of that politicized framework with us, it was a unique experience to be introduced to something in a very different context than its original creators intended. that alone is pretty radical work and is a subversion in and of itself, in my mind. yet i also must admit that there were several moments when i wasn’t sure what was going on or didn’t have the historical context to situate certain quotes or absorb fully the variations in the splicing of quotes that were being re-written at some moments.

    my biggest critique from a dis/ability perspective was that i couldn’t keep up with reading the quotes – they were flashing too fast and giving me a headache, and since i hadn’t previously seen the film, these were important for me to follow what was going on. also, it was pretty darn long and pretty darn loud, which was distracting for me.

    also, your reponse raises an age-old yet nonetheless important question about art, performance, and other cultural work that engages in the acts of re-presentation. is it enough to take something fucked, change the author, and re-peat it? sometimes, a change in author/voice is enough, but often not. so was there enough change between the original and the re-presentation of birth of a nation that spooky offered? what meaning was produced in the moments during and between? was it an act of mimicry, to call on my favorite boifren homi k. bhabha himself? i do believe there was meaning produced between and against the various re-presentations, warranting the title, “Rebirth…” if you ask me…but can i necessarily articulate the meaning spooky intends? perhaps not…him saying any more than at the beginning may have seemed like knocking people over the head, not trusting people or letting us off the hook from doing the work of intuiting or making the meaning ourselves. i will say that being there, being present, and taking it in was and felt like work, the good kind.

    i would have liked it more, though, i think if he had spliced in some of his own voice, not the whole time, but in spurts here and there, some re-mixing of his own voice in a sort of poetic or musical way in and through the peice. i think that can render more explicit some of the commentary not always clear, as well as address the re-traumatization and violence of experiencing such a racist text in a public space still very much marked by and overlapping with that history…

    my favorite part of the whole thing, and the part that had the most meaning for me, was close to the end – somewhere in the last 15 minutes or so, i think – where there were multiple scenes being rapidly packed one atop the other. they were sudden, and i had seen them enough times to place them in the larger narrative, but too quick for me to locate them in relationship to each other simultaneously. the power of the music in this moment (and it was only a minute) and of the multiple screens at once is what felt to me most like some meaning was being produced. i felt like much of the rest of the two or three hours felt too linear; it was often quite slow and the linearity of the text remained very much in place. this is another way i think dj spooky could have used these incredibly rich and dynamic, intersecting forms to produce more meaning, by offering a less linear narrative and mixing it up in a bit messier and less follow-able way…

    that said, i thought the experience was worth it. incredible form. and pretty startling.

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