Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: American Civil War

The Fugitive (1910)

No, this is not a movie about a man on the run seeking a one-armed assassin. Instead, it is another of D.W. Griffith’s pre-“Birth of a Nation” explorations of the Civil War. This time, we start with not one, but two tearful farewells, as a Confederate (Edward Dillon, also in “What Shall We Do with Our Old” and “In the Border States”) and a Union soldier (Edwin August, who appears in “The House with Closed Shutters” and “The Eternal Mother”) depart for the front in one of many examples of parallelism the movie provides. In a typical coincidence, they both get separated from their units and the Yankee kills the Reb, only to find himself on the run when his fallen foe’s enemies find the body. Stretching that coincidence even further, now the survivor seeks shelter in his enemy’s home from his victim’s mother (Kate Bruce, also seen in “The Red Man’s View” and “The Unchanging Sea”)! She nearly turns him in, but “thinks of another mother, awaiting her son’s return and does the decent thing. Dorothy West (who starred in last night’s “The House with Closed Shutters”) is the fiancé who loses her beau, and her while exuberance worked on the battlefield, it seems out of place in a bereaved lover.

 Fugitive

This movie was shot on a limited number of sets in New Jersey in the winter, and that may have limited the use of outdoor setups. There are some nice panoramas, I assume of the Hudson River area, but the porches of the two homes appear to simply be the same set shot from the opposite angle. The editing is less taut than we saw in “The House” or than would be the case in other Griffith shorts. Overall, it seems that the story suffers from a rather conventional approach, and there isn’t much here to pull it out of its banality. One historical footnote is that the original story was written about the fighting in Ireland, and that the writer himself died in 1916 during the Rising there, fighting for the Green side against the Orange.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Kate Bruce, Edward Dillon, Edwin August, Dorothy West

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

House with the Closed Shutters (1910)

House_with_Closed_Shutters

In some respects, this Civil War melodrama is a bit more of what modern viewers, familiar with D.W. Griffith mostly through “The Birth of a Nation,” will expect, than “In the Border States.” Its protagonists are loyal Southerners, the question of honor plays a central role, and the war itself is shown as implicitly justified, if a tragic necessity. There even is a white man in blackface portraying an African American servant, although his performance is not so explicitly racist as the “mulatto” or the role of “Gus” in “Birth.” It begins with a fairly lengthy tearful farewell sequence – a consistent way of introducing characters in these movies. Here, we get a heroic young son of the South (Henry B. Walthall, of “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Consicence”) and his sister (Dorothy West, who was in “A Burglar’s Mistake” and “The Unchanging Sea”). The sister has two suitors, also going to war, portrayed by Charles West (star of “In the Border States” and “The Last Drop of Water”) and Joseph Graybill (who also appeared in “The Last Drop of Water” and “The Lonedale Operator”). General Robert E. Lee himself chooses Henry to be his courier with “an important dispatch,” but he panics at his first sight of death, and flees back to his mother. His sister, unable to bear the stain on family honor, puts on his uniform and dashes off to battle in his name. Of course, she is killed, trying to retrieve the Confederate flag she sewed with her own hands. Now the family has a deep, dark secret to hide. Their mother (Grace Henderson, who was in “A Corner in Wheat” and “The Usurer”) shutters the house and turns away the suitors, claiming that the sister’s grief is too great to be born, and the son begins a dreary life of hiding. Sometime near the turn of the century, he is at last found out, and he too, drops dead of horror and shame.

 House with Closed Shutters

The action scenes in this short film are nearly equal to the much-praised battles in “The Birth of a Nation,” although of course they are on a smaller scale, and there are some good chase scenes during the courier sequences. I think Ms. West acquits herself well as a woman warrior, with all the overblown enthusiasm and devil-may-care courage Walthall himself shows in the better-known movie. The final sequence has a Poe-like resignation to fate and horror, and at least in this case there is justification for the claustrophobically small, square set of the single room wherein the brother lives out his years of cowardly existence. Billy Bitzer’s camera is largely stationary, but in the outdoor shots he manages some creative compositions. It is really the editing that makes the story work, and at this point in his career, Griffith had worked out how to signal simultaneous action through quick edits between scenes, and to build tension by showing as much as was needed for as long as was needed. I didn’t find the story to be as moving as “In the Border States,” but it is certainly a good example of what Griffith could do effectively in the short format.

House with Closed Shutters2

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Henry B. Walthall, Dorothy West, Charles West, Grace Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Frank Evans, Gladys Egan

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

In the Border States (1910)

In the Border States

For my money, D.W. Griffith was always better at directing shorts than he was at working in the feature-length. One only has to compare this homely and touching Civil War story to the bloated and un-subtle “Birth of a Nation” for proof. Shot in Griffith’s second year working as a director at Biograph, it has all the humanity and innovation which his best work shows, even if it is at bottom a melodrama. A young father (Charles West, whose work I’ve discussed in “Enoch Arden” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) in a state on the border marches off to fight for the Union, leaving his family in peril as the war comes dangerously close. A band of disheveled Rebels “forages” near to the house, and is chased by Union soldiers. One of their number (Henry B. Walthall, who would later star in “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Conscience”), staggers, desperate, into the family’s land just as the youngest daughter (Gladys Egan, who played the title role in “The Adventures of Dollie” and also appears in “His Trust Fulfilled”) goes out to fetch a pail of water from the well. The man begs for help, and she lets him drink and hide in the well, but refuses him a kiss in thanks. Later, the tables are turned when the father is being hunted, wounded, by this very same band of Confederates, and seeks shelter in his own home. The soldier is about to kill him when the little girl intervenes. He can’t kill the father of the child who saves him, and he convinces, or orders, the others to depart in peace (he’s the only one with Corporal’s stripes, so I guess he’s in charge). The girl and the soldier shake hands and salute one another, and she takes credit for driving the soldiers off single-handed.

 In the Border States1

For 1910, this is quite a sophisticated drama. Much of the movie is shot outside, which prevents the claustrophobia of having too many “square” compositions, as was often the case in studio productions. Billy Bitzer provides good camerawork, including a nice shot of the New Jersery Palisades that passes well for any vista in middle-southern America. Part of the pursuit of the Union soldier is shown as a night shot, by torchlight, apparently achieved by under-exposing the film, but it looks better than a lot of the “night” shots of the time. But the real key to the story is its editing. Griffith deftly cross-cuts between pursuers and pursued in both sequences to heighten tension. For the second sequence, there are two rooms in the house that each character must pass through to reach the ultimate hiding place, and Griffith keeps us aware of the situation in each as the danger develops. Each time we cut back to the wounded soldier, something in the former area has brought peril closer. Walthall’s performance is good, but Egan’s is the best in the movie. I also noticed that it was very easy to read Egan’s lips as she mouths the words “my father” to Walthall in the climactic moment. This was probably intentional, since silent filmmakers encouraged actors to enunciate lines for lip-readers, in lieu of a soundtrack.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Gladys Egan, Henry B. Walthall, Charles West, Frank Evans, Dell Henderson, Henry Lehrman, Owen Moore, Mack Sennett

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part IV

The Rise of the Second KKK

Ku_Klux_Klan_members_march_down_Pennsylvania_Avenue_in_Washington,_D.C._in_1928

One thing that is often mentioned, but rarely examined, in discussion of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” is the coincidence that it was released in the same year that an enterprising Southerner, William Joseph Simmons, re-established the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. While it got off to a shaky start, this “second Klan” (often referred to by historians as “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s”), rose to become a powerful political lobby, able to muster thousands of hooded marchers for a demonstration in Washington, DC, in 1928. It is estimated that as many as five million Americans joined during the decade, although most of them were fairly short-term members. I would really like to see a proper historical study documenting the links between the new Klan and the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” but for now this essay (derived from secondary sources) will have to do.

The original Ku Klux Klan had been a resistance organization for white Southerners during the period of Reconstruction. It consisted of loosely allied vigilante bands, who used terror against Northerners, Radical Republicans, freed African Americans and their Southern allies to re-establish an order of white supremacy and the control of traditional elites in the South. It was ultimately suppressed by order of the Federal Government, and this led to its abandonment by its most powerful supporters, who sought more above-ground, legal means to accomplish the same ends. Southern Democrats turned to two different means to accomplish this: the popularization of the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the South and the establishment of “Jim Crow” laws that were designed to keep African Americans in a position of separation and subjugation vis-à-vis whites. Since it was pretended that Jim Crow was based on “separate but equal” (it wasn’t), these laws had some success spreading to non-Confederate areas and even began to be introduced by Woodrow Wilson at the Federal Government level by the time of the early teens.

Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

Meanwhile, the “Lost Cause” had been successful in changing the narrative about the war. It wasn’t about slavery, but about a noble, if anachronistic, “way of life” that the South maintained while the North progressed into capitalism and industrialization. The South had only wanted to preserve its honorable and decent lifestyle when it was forced to secede. This is the narrative that Thomas Dixon’s book and play The Clansman repeated, and it was read and accepted widely by white people all over the country. Another believer was Simmons, who had been a failure at most of what he had put his hand to in life: medical student, minister, soldier, yet he had retained a sense of destiny in himself. Simmons was also a member of several fraternal organizations, and when he decided in 1915 to “revive” the KKK, this was the model he chose, as opposed to a secret terror group.

Nowadays, men who join fraternal societies like the Masons or the Oddfellows are increasingly rare and rather marginal figures. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these kinds of groups were dominant. Men associated, outside of their homes, with other men for professional and social reasons, usually under the auspices of an “Order” of some kind with ritual trappings, sometimes with costumes and secret signals. It’s been estimated that at the high point there were some 2000 separate lodge organizations in the USA, with a membership that may have extended to 40% of the population. In addition to networking and social activities, lodges organized charitable work and provided religious and secular educational events. While fraternal organizations were declining by the beginning of World War One, this tradition was still far stronger than it is today.

All which gives the Second Klan a rather different flavor than the First, and I think has led some historians to mis-read its nature. Writers at the time and soon afterward often confused the two Klans, and assumed that the membership of Simmons’s organization was poor, uneducated, Southern, and rural. Examination of membership rosters and other information challenged this idea, beginning in the 1960s. It turned out that many members were middle class, urban, and educated. The largest numerical membership was in Indiana and the highest per capita was in Oregon – definitely not the South. A new school of “Klan revisionists” arose who started taking this into account and doing regional studies of unlikely Klan strongholds like Buffalo, New York, El Paso, Texas, and Salt Lake City. They found that Klan concerns often lined up with Progressive issues like temperance and educational reform.

Ku_Klux_Klan_Virgina_1922_Parade

I personally think the revisionists wound up going a little too far in starting to see the Second Klan as “nice” people. They started to argue that white supremacy was only one of several interests of the organization, and that most of its methods were above-ground and legal. Well, it depends where you look. Nancy MacLean (who is sometimes called a “re-revisionsist”) studied the KKK in Georgia and found that they were engaged in lynching and terror operations after all. They just did it with the collusion of powerful middle class lawyers and judges and police officials who conveniently looked the other way. Illegal actions like cross burnings on other people’s property, public tarring and feathering, or vandalism were consistently a part of its activities even outside the South. At the high point of the Klan’s power, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, a law explicitly written to limit the number of “non-white” (including Southern and Eastern European) entrants into the country. This was a triumph for their racist position on immigration. And that “educational reform” the KKK was so good about supporting usually meant closing down Catholic schools, because Catholicism was an enemy of “democracy” as the Klan defined it.

But, getting back to Simmons and 1915: he had gathered a few friends to his new organization, but he waited until December to announce its formation in local papers. Specifically, he waited until “The Birth of a Nation” was scheduled to premiere in Atlanta theaters. According to several historians, the Klan consistently timed its recruitment drives to coincide with screenings of the movie. Nancy MacLean found that the KKK had a hard time getting up to speed in Athens, Georgia, until “a much-touted return engagement” of the movie in 1921. The Klan and its successor organizations continued using it as a recruiting device, right up to the video revolution of the 80s and 90s, according to Dick Lehr and Thomas Martinez. It may still be used, for all I know. Apart from that, Simmons adopted much of the imagery of the movie, without worrying over whether it was historically accurate. The original Klan had not used the burning cross as a symbol, that was an invention of Dixon in The Clansman, based on his idea of Scottish clans burning St. Andrews’ crosses. D.W. Griffith was the one who invented the symbol of a burning Latin cross, which remains a powerful symbol of hatred today.

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

I’m sure this was an unintended consequence, so far as D.W. Griffith was concerned. So far as I know, neither he nor Thomas Dixon condoned the new Klan or its use of their art to foster hate. I’m not trying to present a simple argument of causality here, either: blaming D.W. Griffith for lynchings in the South in the 1920s is equivalent to blaming violent video games for school shootings, and I don’t mean to go that route. What I do think is that modern film fans, critics, and historians have to make an effort to get the easy stuff right. A movie that propagandizes for the KKK is not a “neutral” work of art that can be removed from its place in history. It was wildly popular for some of the same reasons that the Second Klan was popular. That isn’t pretty, but it is our past, and the more “important” we judge “The Birth of a Nation” to be in film history, the more we need to confront what that importance says about all the movies that followed it. Film historians and classic film fans often tend to romanticize their subject matter, but it’s bound up in all the same problems we see in society as a whole. That’s what looking at the past through the lens of its visual representation means to me.

I don’t usually give sources for my posts, but since this was one of the most heavily researched ones I’ve done, here are the references:

Greer, John Michael. Inside a Magical Lodge: Group Ritual in the Western Tradition. St Paul: Llewellyn, 1998.

Horowitz, David A, ed. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Kirschenbaum, Robert. “Klan and Commonwealth: The Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky, 1921-1928.” Master’s thesis, University of Kentucky, 2005.

Lay, Shawn. Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York. New York and London: NYU Press, 1995.

_____, ed. The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Lehr, Dick. The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.

MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Martinez, Thomas & John Gunther. Brotherhood of Murder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Moore, Leonard. Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1991.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part III

Personal_Journey_with_Martin_Scorsese_Through_American_Movies

Before I get into the main part of my discussion for this post, I want to talk about a newer movie I watched recently, called “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies.” This was a documentary Scorcese produced with the British Film Institute in the late 1990s. He mostly focuses on the movies he grew up with, so the period of the 1940s ad 50s is strongly represented, but not that many Century Films show up. He does talk a bit about the early years of cinema, however, and he does something very interesting when he does. Like a lot of twentieth century film historians, he waxes poetic about the significance and importance of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and he uses a number of clips from the movie to demonstrate its technical achievements. However, he says nothing about its controversial content. That’s fairly standard, but I had to watch the segment twice or three times to realize just how far he (or the BFI editor) had gone to “whitewash” the film. Not only are there no close-ups of Klansmen in sheets, nor do we see the lustful “Gus” chasing Mae Marsh off a cliff, but there are no images shown which give any insight into the racial content of the movie at all! No white men in blackface, no celebrations of harmonious slavery, nothing. We do get a glimpse of the Reconstruction-era Congress, with black men sitting at the Representatives desks, but it doesn’t hold long enough for us to see them drinking, taking off their shoes, eating fried chicken, etc. A person would come out of this documentary thinking that “The Birth of a Nation” was just another version of “Lincoln,” in that the longest sequence is the John Wilkes Booth assassination at the Ford theater. This is just one more example of how the racist nature of the movie is downplayed (or in this case suppressed) in order to play up the narrative of its originality and importance to film history, a narrative I find increasingly dubious, the more research I do.

 Birth of a Nation book

All that’s by way of a digression, what I really wanted to talk about this month is D.W. Griffith the man, who he was and how he came to make “The Birth of a Nation.” I recently read and reviewed the book The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. I was a bit disappointed because it wasn’t really a work of film history, more of a dual biography and journalistic account of the clash between Griffith and Monroe Trotter, an African American journalist in Boston. But, in that sense, I learned a lot about Griffith, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. D.W. Griffith was born in Kentucky, a slave state which never joined the Confederacy, whose citizens were divided among Pro-Union and Pro-Confederate sympathizers. His father was Jacob “roaring Jake” Griffith, a somewhat intemperate adventurer who volunteered for the South at a somewhat advanced age (he had been a forty-niner, searching for gold in the California Gold Rush). He became a colonel and was retired with honors. After the war, he was given to drinking late into the night and regaling listeners with tales of his exploits, liberally mixing fact with fiction. Apparently these drunken rants were basically the first “theater” his son experienced, and young David Wark Griffith drank it all in as a way of connecting with his otherwise distant father.

 Seal_of_Kentucky_(Confederate_shadow_government)

Let’s step back a bit more and talk about Kentucky. It was a strategically vital state in the war. Lincoln went so far as to say that if Kentucky was lost, the war would be also. But it was a state where slavery was a big part of the economy and way of life. Kentucky was formally neutral at the outbreak of the war, but eventually requested Union protection, after bloody battles and Confederate guerilla activities had begun to threaten stability. White pro-Union Kentuckians presumably hoped that their loyalty to the Union would mean that they would be permitted to retain their lifestyle, and they felt betrayed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As the military situation shifted toward Union supremacy, Kentucky sympathies shifted toward the Confederacy, but at that point Union troops controlled most of the state. The military commander ordered reprisals of four men shot for every Union soldier killed by guerilla action. Men like Jake Griffith came home defeated, more or less able to tell their neighbors, “I told you so” as the Reconstruction took place throughout the South. A branch of the KKK opened in Kentucky to join in solidarity with the movement against Reconstruction, even though Kentucky was never formally a Reconstruction state, never having been in the Confederacy. In fact, Kentuckians had it comparably good in this period, the military occupation was lifted and their congress was able to reinstate the citizenship of former Confederate soldiers. But, a sense of bitterness remained and grew.

Confederate_Reunion_Parade_Richmond

So far as I know, Jake Griffith never joined the original Klan, and David quite probably lived his whole life without meeting anyone who had been involved in it. He was born in 1875, one year after the disbandment of the movement, and the stories he heard about the Reconstruction period in Kentucky were distorted by his father’s emotions, sympathies, and propensity for exaggeration. The story of the “lost cause” spread among the old South and began to find acceptance in the North as well. The dominant myth that the nation came to use for reconciliation was that the Civil War had been a great tragedy for the whole nation, and what both North and South had in common was their white heritage, whether with or without slavery. The legacy of emancipation became less important than preserving white supremacy in the reunified nation.

Back to young D.W. Griffith. His father died while he was ten years old, making it impossible for the boyhood adulation to be checked by adolescent conflicts. After his death, the family entered a period of difficulty, and had to move from its rural homestead to the “big city” of Louisville, where Griffith stood out as a country bumpkin. He had all the usual problems adjusting to the pace of life there, but no doubt also associated it all with the multiculturalism and liberalism of modern society, as against the pastoral dream of his childhood. Meanwhile, he also discovered the theater, and finally knew what he wanted to do with his life. By his mid-teens, he started working in theaters, taking any job he could get, all the while trying to start a career either as a writer or an actor.

 GriffithDW

He never found great success at either, although he made a living, sometimes precariously, working for touring shows as an extra or a stage hand, moving about the country freely and never settling for long in one place. He was over thirty when he finally signed to Biograph Studios as an actor, finally starting him on the path that would lead to his greatest successes. According to Billy Bitzer, his future cameraman, Griffith was a terrible actor, given to waving his arms around dramatically and hamming in every scene. Bitzer could not believe that such a performer had much potential as an director, but in fact Griffith had an excellent eye and ability to get what he wanted – so long as he didn’t have to do it himself. He picked talented actors and gave them the right amount of direction. He would leave the confident, experienced actors alone, giving them just simple directions as the camera rolled, while he would rehearse and give attention to those who needed the guidance.

 Billy_Bitzer_D_W_Griffith_1920

The story of Griffith’s film work has been told many times, and I don’t want to extend this post unnecessarily, but all the elements giving rise to “The Birth of a Nation” were in place before he even started. He believed in his father’s distorted Kentucky-centric view of the Civil War. He had been raised in a culture that celebrated white supremacy, and nothing in his adult experience had challenged this. He had an epic vision of recent history before his birth, and he honed the talents and skills to create a vision he could share with others of his time and place. He was a skillful showman, and had learned from his father how to hold an audience and how to exaggerate, something he did in nearly every interview and press release he ever gave. And Griffith was connected to the dominant cultural perceptions of his time – “The Birth of a Nation” was a powerful experience for so many because Griffith, and his white audiences, really did believe what he had to say about Reconstruction and the KKK.

For the earlier posts in this essay series, see links below:

In Part One, I discussed the racist content of “Birth of a Nation.”

In Part Two, I talked about its technical accomplishments.

His Trust (1911)

His Trust

This early melodrama is a good example of why modern audiences can have a hard time with Griffith, and with early film in general. It has many of the same problems for us as “Birth of a Nation” does, although it is much shorter and refrains, at least, from glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. The subtitle alone: “The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant” is enough to set our teeth on edge, although “Negro” was not considered an insulting term at the time, nor even a few generations ago. “Servant” here is, of course, a euphemism for “slave,” as the movie is set in the South during the Civil War, a period that lived in the memory of the older and the myths of the younger generations at the time (it was as distant to them as the Kennedy assassination is to us today). The “servant” is played by a white man (Wilfred Lucas, also in “The Girl and Her Trust” and later “Modern Times” with Chaplin) in black face, another practice that is no longer acceptable. I would encourage viewers, not to ignore their sense of discomfort with this movie, but to regard it as evidence of an important shift in American history. One African American commentator on film I heard observed that stories like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were popular among black audiences of the time, because, in spite of the stereotypes, they at least suggested the possibility of noble action on the part of black people, and this movie falls into that category as well. Today, the stereotypes are no longer acceptable, and I’d say that’s a good thing, but this phase in history remains significant in understanding race in America.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dell Henderson, Claire McDowell, Linda Arvidson, Mack Sennett, Charles West, Grace Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here. (Along with the sequel, “His Trust Fulfilled”)

Generations of 1914

Multi-Generation_Family 1914

Some historians like to take a “generational” approach to discussing social history. People who grow up together will see the world shaped in the same ways; they will take certain things for granted (because they already were around when they were born) and others will take some getting used to. One of the best uses of a generational approach I know of is Detlev Peukert’s analysis of German generations in his study, The Weimar Republic.

One of the neat things about looking at centenary history is that the numbers line up so well with what we know about today. I was born in 1970: I have memories of childhood in the 70s, tweens and teens in the 80s, and young adulthood in the 90s. If I had been born 100 years earlier, all those same decades would apply, we’d just be talking about the 1890s, rather than the 1990s.

Let’s take an example. When I was born, “the sixties” was already a done deal, but it was still pretty recent. I learned about it from my parents, teachers, and as I grew up, from the older “mentors” I found in my social sub-culture. I still considered hippies and Vietnam, Kennedy and Johnson to be pretty recent things (I admit, I’ve always had a bent for history, so maybe some people from my generation would disagree). When I talk to young people today, though, I realize that it’s a dark misty past, occupied by grandparents and other “old people,” if at all. If I’d been born in 1870, “the sixties” would be the decade of the American Civil War. To my generation, that war would be part of the context in which we grew up, but we’d have known people who experienced it firsthand. Assuming we’re Americans, the wounds would still have been open at the time, and the question of how to negotiate a country without slavery would be something people struggled with all our lives. For people born in 1890 or later, we’d get that “dark past” already. Sure, they would know that their grandparents had fought or lost loved ones, but that was a long time ago, right? Slavery would be pretty much unthinkable, although Jim Crow would be so entrenched it might seem eternal – the only way things could be in the South.

To bring this back to a film history perspective, let’s think about how the generations might experience films. For people born before 1870, film might seem like an oddity or an irrelevancy, except maybe for a few who saw it as a wonder and were fascinated, but still unsure how it all worked. For “my” generation (the 1870’ers), it would be something that hit as we grew to adulthood. I might have seen my first film in my late twenties, or a bit into my thirties, and it would be part of my sense of coming-of-age, or the progress that my generation had seen and participated in. For the pen-millennials (to coin a phrase), movies were always there, and the way they were made in 1897 was pathetically boring. Only the newest films seem like “real” movies, and they take film grammar and technique for granted.

Obviously, I’m suggesting a kind of parallel with technological advances of recent years, and just as obviously, the comparison only goes so far. A lot of people, of any age, never went to the movies, or only rarely. Your knowledge of film didn’t have much effect on your ability to get ahead in school, get a job, or keep in touch with your friends, among other things. Still, it’s interesting to think of people who long ago passed away of old age as being like us, or younger than us, and how they saw a world that was changing faster than they had ever expected.