Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Nerdist Way

Last week, the 4th quarter issue of College News went to print. This is a huge deal for me for a couple of reasons. It’s the second issue I’ve created from top to bottom since taking on the role of editor earlier this year, which is notable in and of itself. Specifically, though, there is one interview that I’m rather proud of conducting and writing. That interview is the cover story. The interview with The Nerdist himself...Chris Hardwick. Geeks and nerds can probably appreciate the excitement I had when I found out that I’d landed the interview, but the excitement I had stretched far beyond the fact that I was interviewing Chris. It was attaining a goal. It was proving myself and proudly proclaiming my geeky ways. It was a milestone for me.

Let’s jump back a year, shall we? In April 2010, I ventured to Chicago to start a new life. I’d graduated from college in December and knew I needed to leave my hometown. There was simply no way that I’d be able to make a career without leaving. So, having a few articles under my belt, I moved in with my brother into his studio apartment to begin an internship with College News and a part-time job at Macy’s. Macy’s was a miserable experience, but I kept telling myself that it was temporary, and that I would come across a better opportunity doing what I went to college to do. So, for three days a week, for less than $20 a day, I interned at the office, attempting to tune out very, very, very off-color jokes and write news summaries.

The only way I kept my sanity during those several months was by listening to podcasts and music. The two podcasts I most heavily relied on were The Pop My Culture Podcast (featured in the 3rd quarter issue of CN!) and The Nerdist Podcast. I saw the people who were interviewed for the website and the magazine and couldn’t help but think how appropriate and fantastic it would be to have Chris on the cover of the magazine. Of course, being a lowly intern who didn’t even get to pitch stories for the magazine, I dreamt of getting to interview and talk to people like Chris, but assumed I would never get the opportunity...at least not at CN.

I left the internship in September 2010. My situation didn't improve. I made very little at Macy's and was earning nothing for my freelancing, though I was promised otherwise. I hated to do it, but I decided to quit freelancing. One day after I quit freelancing, I was offered a position with CN’s parent company. It didn’t involve writing or editing, except when the editor was on vacation and I was used as back up. Then, my luck changed again. The editor decided to move and the position was open. I took a chance and submitted my name to be considered. They didn’t even interview anyone else. It was a series of events that would’ve astonished even Eve Harrington.

I was determined to make the magazine and the site my won and see it to its fullest potential. My thoughts immediately turned back to Chris, but I wasn’t certain that a relatively small magazine would be able to land him. It took a lot of digging, but I found the contact info for the folks over at G4 and submitted my request. I was astonished to hear that they were interested in getting Chris on the cover.

It took a lot of work on my part, following up with publicists and nailing down a time that I could actually speak with Chris. The phones were against me, as my office line died just when he called, and my body was against me, as I fought a nausea-inducing migraine all day, but it finally happened. On September 1 of this year, I had the chance to interview Chris Hardwick on the phone -- exactly one year after leaving my internship. Talk about a milestone.

Chris was great. He was funny, friendly and seemed genuinely interested in my questions. Somehow I managed to mask my giddiness. I resisted the urge to tell him that I’d dreamt of interviewing him for more than a year, that I was certain that we would be friends...if, you know, I lived in California and was somehow lucky enough to run around in the same circles as he does. I kept my geeky giggles to a minimum and, though I’m biased, I think the end result was great.

For me, the interview with Chris was a major validation. It validated my talent as a writer and interviewer. It validated my pursuit of this career. It proved that I was, in fact, very well-equipped to handle this job, even though many thought otherwise.

Chris, Matt and Jonah will be appearing in Chicago in April for a live version of the podcast. I’ve already bought my ticket, and have made it my mission to meet Chris face-to-face, give him a hug, and get him to sign a copy of the magazine -- the magazine I created with his help. Will he remember me if I mention who I am? Probably not. After all, I’m sure he does phone interviews very often. But it’s very important for me to meet him face-to-face and let him know that that little interview was a very big deal for me.

You can read the online version of the interview here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A break from "good" movies: Cinematic Titanic in Elgin

Cinematic Titanic’s return to Illinois was particularly special for me.

Two years ago, the Titans came to Chicago to perform at the Lakeshore Theater -- an event that sparked a Cinematic Titanic Forum Family Reunion of sorts. What started as a show where I expected to see perhaps two of my fellow forum members, quickly turned into a full-blown forum family meet up. And it was incredible. For someone who was on the periphery most of her life, it meant a great deal to be accepted by such a wonderful, loving, caring group of people. But to meet them in person?! That was an opportunity I never thought I would have.

That weekend marked an incredible high for me. All of us who participated reflected on that meet up in one way or another after the fact, and that meet up has led to many more meet ups, none of which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.

Until this past weekend.

Not only was I able to meet up with tweeps, Facebook friends and fellow MSTies (namely BeautifulMind, watchout4snakes, devtony, Ron McAdams, mummifiedstalin, and angellio), but I was also able to attend a live CT show with my boyfriend, Matthew. The fact that I was able to share this experience with him meant a lot to me. As silly as it may sound, MST3K is responsible for us finding each other. On a whim, Matthew found and decided to friend me on Facebook after seeing that I was a fan of the show. I decided to accept his friend request (also on a whim) and the rest is history.

So it was very important for me to not only be able to see the show with him, but also to have him meet my friends in person. They have all played an enormous part in my life, especially in helping me come out of my shell and become the person that I am now, so it was important to me that they meet each other. It was also important for me to have Matthew meet the man responsible for making sure I got a forum account in the first place, RAD aka Ron DeGroot, the wonderful hubby of Mary Jo.

I couldn’t have asked for a more fun or incredible experience.

It was Sir RAD who dubbed me the Official Little Sister of the forum, and ever since, he (along with sooo many others) has looked out for me. I was thrilled to see him, and as soon as I introduced Matthew, RAD immediately turned into my big brother, inquiring about how long we’d been together, how we met, everything. He was excited to see us happy, and commented on how far I’d come -- that it was difficult for him now to think of me being so unhappy prior to finding the forum, my forum family and Matthew. He said he could tell I was in good hands.

There were many, many hugs exchanged, and of course two fantastically bad movies, and chance to chat with the Titans (did I mention that Trace recognized me? Because Trace recognized me...and commented about how I’d changed my hair). There was also a frenzied sprint across the highway, and many interesting cab drivers that Matthew and I met along the way. But the fact that I got to share all of that with Matthew, my tweeps and Sir RAD remains the most memorable part of it all.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

we...are...dead...men: "Greed"

“Greed” (1924)

The Holy Grail of lost film, the original cut of Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” -- a film adaptation of the Frank Norris novel “McTeague” -- clocked in at 9.5 hours. Until recently, the only version that survived was the two-hour version which hardly did justice to Stroheim’s vision. Thanks to the 1999 restored version by TCM, -- which used previously undiscovered stills to fill in the gaps caused by the uninformed film-cutter -- we now have a four-hour version which gives us a greater understanding of what Stroheim was attempting to achieve. It’s difficult to judge the four-hour version solely on directorial skill, as half of it consists of still photographs, but with these photographs, we can begin to piece together the version Stroheim wished to achieve, the version which had been declared “wonderful” and “brilliant” by the few who saw it in its original 9.5-hour state.

Be warned, spoilers ABOUND in the text below.
Gibson Gowland as McTeague
McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is a simple man who works as a miner, without any ambitions to become something greater. He is a gentle man with a fondness for birds, but any perceived or real slight made at his expense causes him to become enraged and frighteningly destructive.

He is pushed by his mother to become a dentist, and leaves the mines behind to become the apprentice of Painless Potter. Mother McTeague dies before she can see her son set up his own successful business, but within just a few years, Mac has established himself as a reputable dentist. Mac’s close friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt) introduces Macto Trina (ZaSu Pitts), Marcus’ cousin and the object of his affection. When Trina visits Mac to have a broken tooth fixed, Mac falls in love with her, succumbing to her fragrance and beauty, daring to kiss her while she is unconscious in his chair.
Mac kisses Trina while she is unconscious
Mac, consumed with guilt, tells Marcus of his love for Trina, which Marcus take poorly. Eventually, he allows Mac to pursue her, perhaps hoping that Trina will only return Marcus’ affection. Macis hesitant, saying he doesn’t want anything to come between them, but Marcus insists, giving Mac the chance to court Trina.

Trina is at first hesitant and unsure how she feels about Mac. She decides that she is in love with him and on the night of their engagement, it is discovered that Trina has won a lottery of $5,000 after buying a ticket from Maria, the spooky wife of the junk collector Zerkow. The news of their new-found wealth and engagement causes Marcus’ blood to boil, and his resentment towards Mac intensifies.
Marcus' resentment grows
The McTeagues’ marriage is doomed from the start. A funeral procession takes place as the two exchange their vows, the meal is treated as more important than the ceremony itself, and Trina is afraid to even go to her husband to consummate their status as husband and wife.
Trina cowers in fear...
...before collapsing on the bed.
Soon after they are married, Trina does her best to raise McTeague up in the ranks of society, yet she quickly becomes a stingy miser. She refuses to spend money except when necessary, pinching every last penny and hoarding money with Mac’s knowledge. Their relationship becomes tense and strained, with Mac firmly under Trina’s thumb. Trina quickly becomes aged and sullen and she refuses to send money to her own mother, keeping her $5,000 safely locked away in the bank.
Trina wrings her hands and keeps her money close.
One day, Marcus shows up unannounced at the McTeagues’ home to say his goodbyes. The McTeagues are ecstatic about this new and all seems well until an inspector is tipped off to the fact that Macnever went to dental college. He receives a letter, saying that his license to practice dentistry has been revoked and slowly the McTeagues sink deeper and deeper into poverty, while Marcus, comfortable in his new life, is pleased with the destruction he has caused.

Soon the McTeagues are slumming it, as Trina refuses to touch any of the $5,000 she has saved. Machas difficulty finding and keeping work and Trina continues to hide money from him. Eventually, Mac snaps. Fueled by whisky, he threatens and dominates Trina, much to her perverse enjoyment. He quickly becomes dependent on alcohol, and when Maria and Zerkow’s shack become available, Trina demands that they move into it.

Eventually, Mac steals the money that Trina has hidden around the shack, without her knowledge, and leaves under he pretense that he is going to go fishing and sell his beloved canaries for extra cash. Trina is excited at the the thought of having more money around the house, but once she realizes what Mac has done, her desperation drives her out into the cold where she suffers severe frostbite.
Frostbit and slumming it.
Two of her fingers are removed (an event foreshadowed by Mac’s constant threat to bite them off), causing her to give up her work of carving pieces for Uncle Oelbermann’s shop. She finds work at a school as a cleaning lady and is given room and board in return. She promptly withdraws all of her $5,000 which she disturbingly empties onto her mattress and sleeps on naked.

Mac surprises her one night, begging her for money and a bed. Trina will have nothing to do with him and turns him away, vowing that she will never forgive him for stealing her money.
Trina caught off-guard by Mac's night visit.
On Christmas, Mac returns to find Trina scrubbing the floors in the empty school building. His anger is so great that he ends up killing Trina while two police officers look on on the street outside. Mac leaves town and seeks a new life.

Trina is murdered off screen.
The horrifying result.
He meets up with a miner and ventures into Death Valley as word of Trina’s murder begins to spread. Mac is now a wanted man and as soon as Marcus learns of the murder, he makes it his duty to bring him back, dead or alive.
Marcus sets out across Death Valley.
Mac, sensing that someone is after him, takes off on his own across the desert, with only a horse by his side. Marcus is able to track him across the desert and sneaks up on him while he sleeps. Marcus handcuffs him, determined to bring him back with him. A fight breaks out between the two and Mac overpowers Marcus, bludgeoning him to death with the butt of his gun.
Marcus catches Mac off-guard...
...but loses the battle.
Mac attempts to collect his belongings when he realizes that he is handcuffed to Marcus without a key. His horse is dead, his water supply is gone, and he is stuck in the middle of Death Valley with no way to escape. Mac’s determination to live suddenly turns to somber acceptance of his state.

Mac's realization.
He grabs his birdcage, pulling his beloved canary out to set it free, but it perishes upon release, dying on top of Mac’s satchel. Alone and doomed, Mac sits, just inches away from his riches, in the middle of nowhere as the camera fades out.
Mac's fate.
(You can watch the powerful final three minutes of “Greed” below.)

Erich von Stroheim was notorious for being the man you love to hate. That hate extended beyond the public when Metro-Goldwyn joined forces with Louis B. Mayer in 1924. The studio was flabbergasted when Stroheim presented them with his 9.5-hour masterpiece. After much chiding, Stroheim eventually had the film cut down to four hours, intended to be presented in two parts with an intermission/meal provided in between. Unsatisfied, the studio slashed the film further, turning it into the “cadaver” which Stroheim believed it to be.

Understandably, Stroheim held a grudge against the studio to the ends of his days. He infamously quipped that the man who cut his film had nothing on his mind but a hat. And, considering the end product, it is difficult to disagree with that statement. Apparently, the cutter had never read “McTeague” and so subplot upon subplot ended up on the cutting room floor. Maria and Zukor’s story, including their search for “a set of gold dishes that never existed” and Maria’s brutal murder at Zukor’s hands, went unseen for more than half a century.
Trina discovers Maria's murder
Similarly, the love story between Mr. Grannis and Miss Baker, who loved each other from afar for years without even exchanging as much as a word between them, was lost. Their story is a lovely, sentimental contrast from the gritty, grotesque narrative that Trina and McTeague create for themselves. Yet, for years, audiences were unaware of this storyline.
Mr. Grannis and Miss Baker
The film was considered to be a masterpiece by many critics in its two-hour state, so what can be said of the reconstructed version? Simply, that it brings Stroheim’s masterwork to a new level.

The Maître
Erich von Stroheim
Even in an abbreviated form, it is impossible to deny Stroheim’s talent as a filmmaker and a director.

Stroheim wanted to bring gritty, unnerving, ugly realism to the screen -- a fete which he, without question, absolutely accomplished. From the slum which poverty-stricken Mac and Trina inhabit, to the vast landscape of Death Valley (filmed on location), to Mac and Marcus’ fatal battle, the audience is able to become engrossed in and involved with the story without having to suspend disbelief.

With this realism, Stroheim also provides brilliant on-screen metaphors to drive his point and the story home further. When Trina and Mac discover that Mac can no longer practice dentistry, their shock and dismay is felt at the exact moment that Mac’s beloved canaries are attacked by the cat attempting to breach their cage.

Another brilliant trick involves Stroheim using Mac and Trina’s wedding portrait as a reflection of the state of their marriage. As the two become more and more estranged, their wedding portrait is slowly torn in two, until it is torn completely in half when Mac comes begging to Trina.

There are also several recurring transitional scenes, involving hands hovering over piles of glimmering gold. The insertion of these scenes is reminiscent of Griffith's use of Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle in "Intolerance" (which Stroheim had a bit part in).

Stroheim’s greatest strength is his effective use of close-ups and uniquely framed shots. Just as film noir directors in the ‘40s would use strange film angels to unsettle audiences, so to does Stroheim. His well-composed shots offer the audience a unique perspective of the situation, while still unsettling and unnerving them. Even the supplemental still photographs used in the reconstructed version are very well composed and add much to the film on their own.

Stroheim’s use of hand-tinting in specific scenes and elements within a scene is also very effective. Trina’s gold teeth, Mac’s golden dentist tooth, and (in the lost footage) Mr. Grannis and Miss Baker’s fully-colored pond scene all shine brilliantly in contrast to the rest of the film. And the bloody coins that sit just inches away from MacTeague in the final moments of the film are a brilliant embodiment of what greed breeds.

Of course, the work of ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, and Jean Hersholt cannot be ignored or overstated. Each of their contributions add so much to their respective characters and the film as a whole. Pitts is brilliantly transformed from a rather shy, beautiful young woman into a haunted, stingy, vindictive miser. Her face becomes sullen and aged, and her hair seems to envelope her. Once her money is stolen and her hair is let down, she is reduced to a wild, primitive woman, happy to sleep naked atop her fortune.

Hersholt’s pleasant face is contorted into a sour, hateful expression as his desire for revenge grows greater and greater. His savagery and intensity displayed in the Death Valley sequence must not go unnoticed, especially considering the fact that he gave so much for the performance (he was hospitalized after he lost 28 pounds while shooting on location). He too becomes a primitive creature, hellbent on only achieving one thing -- capturing Mac.

Gowland’s transformation of Mac from the simple, gentle man into a vengeful, greedy beast is, perhaps, most impressive. To turn a man who was too shy to even kiss a woman into one who would kill that same woman with his bare hands is an enormous task, and one which Gowland successfully performs. And although Mac is reduced to a savage beast at the end, he retains a bit of humanity, a fact which is beautifully demonstrated by his gentle handling of his canary and his desire to set it free. His realization of his fate is subtle, but powerful.

We may lament the loss of the original cut of “Greed,” but with the TCM reconstructed version we are given a glimpse at what was. Even in its abbreviated form, “Greed” remains a powerful, influential work.

Speaking of Hollywood, Erich von Stroheim once said, "If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film 50 years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you ‘maître.’ They do not forget. In Hollywood—in Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture. If you didn't have one in production within the last three months, you're forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this." “Greed” may not have been his last picture, but it certainly is an outstanding film -- a work that has earned Stroheim the title of maître, even if only subsequent generations have had the ability to recognize him as one.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

DVD spotlight: Kino 2-Disc Edition of Buster Keaton's "Battling Butler" and "Go West"

I've used this blog previously to emphatically advocate the efforts of companies like TCM and Kino International who go to great lengths to restore early and silent films. I recently got the chance to review Kino's latest release -- a 2-disc edition of Buster Keaton's "Go West" and "Battling Butler" -- and this was the review I posted originally on CollegeNews.com. The screencaps included beautifully illustrate the time and effort Kino puts into its releases.

It wasn’t until just before his death in 1966 that Buster Keaton began to receive the attention and respect he deserved as the genius of silent film that he was. Unlike some of his contemporaries, time has been kind to Keaton and his work. Most of his films have survived the nitrate-fueled fires that plagued early film, allowing them to be appreciated by audiences he himself didn’t live to see.
Courtesy of Kino International
People who claim to not be fans of silent film have, more often than not, experienced silent film at its worst. Because many films of the silent era have fallen into the public domain, anyone with a print can burn it to a DVD or upload it to YouTube. Although this can make a film more accessible, it can also do a major disservice to a film. If a silent film is released by a company simply looking to make a buck, their intentions will show in the end product. The picture will be grainy, muddy and scratched; the music will be a random piece tossed in simply because it’s in the public domain and, worst of all, the film will probably not be projected at the correct speed. This can result in pictures moving far too quickly or far too slowly. If a film suffers from all of these ailments, the result will be something that few people could stand to watch. If, however, a silent film is restored correctly, given an original composition to accompany it and played at the right speed, a silent film can be just as effective and beautiful as a present day film.

Such is the case with Kino Classics’ upcoming release, the “Ultimate 2-Disc Edition” set of Buster Keaton’s “Go West” and “Battling Butler.”

The time and effort put into Kino’s releases is immediately evident on screen. Using 35 mm nitrate copies of the films stored by the Library of Congress, Kino has remastered the films in HD, giving them a crispness and clarity that cannot be equaled. To demonstrate my point, here are three stills from the exact same scene in three versions of “Go West.”
This screencap is from the public domain version which is easily accessible on YouTube (and is missing the first few minutes of the film).
This is a screencap from an earlier Kino release of “Go West.”
And this is the restored, ultimate version of “Go West.” The difference in clarity, brightness and quality between the three is obvious.

Kino has dubbed itself the source for Buster Keaton and this release supports that claim. Featuring two of Keaton’s lesser-known films, “Go West” and “Battling Butler,” the set also boasts rare extras, including: an hour-long audio track featuring Keaton discussing a script proposal for the TV show “Wagon Train,” a Hal Roach short entitled “Go West,” a screenplay for a remake of “Battling Butler” written by Keaton and galleries of production stills. The script proposal itself is fascinating, if only because the listener hears Keaton go through his creative thought process in real time, bouncing ideas off of another writer.

Other versions of “Go West” and “Battling Butler” are available, but to settle for a lesser version would be doing yourself, and Buster, a disservice.

The set is available on standard DVD and Blu-ray and will be released on September 27, but you can pre-order it now at a discounted price. It is a definite must-have for Keaton and silent film fans alike.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A plea for the art: "The Birth of a Nation"

"The Birth of a Nation" (1915)
There is no question about the influence director D.W. Griffith has had on the art of filmmaking. He invented techniques that we take for granted today. And what he did not invent himself, he certainly perfected. Unfortunately, his genius was tarnished by the racist tones of “The Birth of a Nation.” I won’t address the issue of racism in “Birth of a Nation,” simply because individuals who are far more intelligent and articulate than I have already addressed it and they have addressed it better than I could. Instead, my task with this blog is to look past the blackface and examine the film for the incredible feats it does achieve, in terms of cinematography, acting, and design.

It is difficult now to experience “The Birth of a Nation” as audiences experienced it when it premiered in 1915. Prior to its release, most films (including Griffith’s) were about 20 minutes long. “Birth” shattered that standard by clocking in at just over three hours. It was the first American epic film and the epic scope, scale, and feel of the film survive to this day. The story of the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South has not lost its effectiveness or its emotion.
The intertitle which appears at the beginning of the film
D.W. Griffith & Bill Bitzer
If Griffith is the father of modern filmmaking, then Bitzer is certainly the father of modern cinematography. Bitzer had been paired with Griffith since Griffith’s directorial debut and eventually became Griffith’s regular cinematographer. Together, the two captured the Civil War in a way that, until that point, only Mathew Brady’s photographs had done. The blood of the battlefield, the affect of war on home life, the difficulty of returning to normal life after war -- all were captured with an amazing degree of accuracy and realism that hit the audience in a way it had not anticipated.
This early equivalent of a crane shot illustrates the scale of the battle scenes
The battle scenes are thrilling and haunting. Thanks to Griffith’s direction and Bitzer’s photography (as it was referred to at the time), the audience finds themselves in the middle of the battles, not merely spectators. Indeed, we ride into battle with the regiment, an effect which seems commonplace now, but which all directors ultimately owe to Griffith and Bitzer. What’s more, the effect is just as thrilling now as it was during its premiere in 1915. The same technique is used later in the film as the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of the Camerons and the technique is no less effective or powerful.
A powerful shot from the battle sequence
The KKK ride to the rescue of the Camerons
Just as Bitzer and Griffith prove that they are capable of capturing large-scale action, they prove that they are more than capable of capturing the more subtle interactions between actors. When the Stoneman boys and the Cameron boys enlist to find for their respective sides, the families who were once close have suddenly become mortal enemies. This becomes painfully clear as a Stoneman and Cameron perish just inches from each other on the battlefield.
Stoneman and Cameron die side by side
Perhaps the most moving scene of the film is the homecoming scene, in which the “Little Colonel” returns home after serving for years in the war. Henry B. Walthall plays the Little Colonel, Ben Cameron, with heartbreaking realism, while the effervescent Mae Marsh plays his little sister who loves him dearly. The two are closer than any of the other family members and the excitement of seeing one another after so many years is more than either can stand.

But as the Little Colonel returns home, he is confronted with the life he left behind and the life he must lead now that the war is over. The scene is beautiful and haunting at the same time as the siblings’ joy is so quickly replaced with discomfort and uncertainty. You can watch the scene below.

Of course, Griffith and Bitzer could not have achieved such a powerful film without an incredible cast.

The Players
A commonly emphasized theme in Griffith’s films is innocence and none is more innocent, especially in “Birth,” than Mae Marsh. As the lovable Flora Cameron, Marsh beautifully embodies childhood innocence as it is forcefully faced with the dangers and evils of the world. Her energy bubbles over into every facet of her performance. Even when the Cameron household is raided and Flora, her sister and her mother seek refuge in the cellar, Marsh reminds us of how much of a child Flora really is with her nervous excitement and giggles.

She’s fearless and optimistic, a stark contrast to her sister who often seems simply catatonic. And when her brother returns from the war, she is the first to to run out and greet him. Marsh’s performance is beautiful, as she runs around trying to make herself presentable to her hero -- her big brother.

Flora (Mae Marsh) puts on her finest for the return of her brother

A sweet moment from the homecoming scene between brother and sister
The homecoming scene’s brilliance is due, in part, to Griffith and Bitzer, but it is largely due to Marsh’s performance and the performance of the Little Colonel himself, Henry B. Walthall. Ben is first the optimistic, eager young man who is ready to fight for the Confederacy, perhaps without fully understanding what would be expected of him. After a few years on the frontline, however, his spark begins to die down. By the time he returns home, he is a jaded man, having experienced death and loss firsthand. The eyes which once sparkled with life and joy become haunted upon returning home, and the pain he feels eventually turns to rage.
Ben (Henry B. Walthall) and his haunted stare
Ben's pain turns to rage as Flora dies in his arms
The intensity that Walthall exhibits in the battle sequences and the KKK ride sequences is incredible. All of his energy is invested in those scenes and that ferocity is paired with the heart-pounding cinematography of Billy Bitzer, causing even the modern audience to slide to the edge of their seats as their hearts race.
Ben charges
For Ben Cameron, few can ignite the love for life that once dwelled within him, among them are, of course, little Flora and his love, Elsie Stoneman, played by the wonderful Lillian Gish.

Gish’s career spanned more than 70 years, a feat which is nearly unfathomable. Not only was she present when the movies moved from nickelodeons to respectable theaters, she was also present for the introduction of sound, color, television and VHS tapes and VCRs. Of course, it’s not Gish’s longevity that we remember her for. Above all else, we remember her beauty and her dedication to her craft -- both of which are demonstrated in “Birth of a Nation.”

Joe Franklin described Ms. Gish as ethereal, and I think that is the perfect word to describe her. Her beauty and talent are almost not of this world and this is used to great effect in “Birth.” As Elsie, daughter of Congressman Stoneman, she has an angelic quality. Ben idolizes Elsie before he even meets her, and when he regains consciousness in the hospital Elsie is his own personal Florence Nightingale, heightening her angelic qualities.
The angelic Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish)
Griffith and Gish were not content to simply leave Elsie as this out-of-reach creature, however, and Gish shows her range during the second half of the film. She swiftly falls from the highs of love with Ben, to the depths of despair when she realizes that he is a member of the Klan. And the terror and hysteria she displays when she is trapped within Silas Lynch’s home brings this ethereal being down to Earth in a frightening way.
Elsie realizes she is trapped in the Lynch house
It’s difficult to watch “The Birth of a Nation” objectively, but if a viewer can do it, it can be an incredible movie-viewing experience. The genius present in the film cannot be denied, even if its faults tend to overshadow it.