Blog Directory CineVerse

Pre-code carnality

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On April 16, CineVerse will return to its new monthly series, Pushing Boundaries--Films That Challenged the Censors and Created Controversial but Important Works of Cinematic Art. Part 2 will focus on pre-code Hollywood, a time when filmmakers could showcase sex and violence in spades. We'll spotlight a great example of this with “Baby Face” (1933; 71 minutes), directed by Alfred E. Green; Plus: We'll have time to explore “Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship,” a pre-code Hollywood documentary (68 minutes).

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Lost in your own mind, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Barton Fink...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

If you're searching for a head scratcher of a movie, few are as perplexing and ambiguous as the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink." Yet, collectively, our CineVerse group was able to piece together the broken shards of one writer's sanity and come up with a few theories and insights that better explain this deep, dark, enriching picture.

HOW IS THIS FILM DIFFERENT PERHAPS FROM WHAT YOU EXPECTED?
·       It’s not easy to categorize: it contains elements from many genres, including comedy, horror, film noir, drama, buddy picture, and mystery.
·       It’s quite ambiguous and unresolved, particularly the ending, which is not clear cut. It’s possible that much of what we see in the second half of the picture is imagined, surreal and/or represented in Fink’s mind.
·       The film is very postmodern, in that it “renders the past with an impressionist technique, not a precise accuracy,” according to author Keith Booker. This is evidenced by how evocative the film is of movies from the 1930s and 1940s in its look, style and satirical elements.
·       There is no typical romance, lovemaking scene, epiphany, character or plot resolution, or clear-cut moral or message to be enjoyed here; this is a complex movie with sophisticated themes and an unreliable protagonist leading the way—unreliable in the sense that we cannot be sure that what we think he’s seeing and experiencing is real.
·       It’s quite self-referential in that it’s a story written by two brothers who, while suffering writer’s block while writing the story to their film Miller’s Crossing, create a story about a playwright suffering writer’s block while writing a screenplay for a wrestling picture.
·       The movie features caricatures and allusions to real-life figures like playwright Clifford Odets (Fink), William Faulkner (Mayhew) and Louis B. Mayer (the studio head).

WHAT THEMES ARE EXPLORED IN BARTON FINK?
·       High art vs. low art: Bart fashions himself as a highbrow intellectual writer who has to compromise and diminish his ideals to write for mass entertainment (a wrestling movie).
·       The rise of fascism: Roger Ebert posited that the film is emblematic of the rise of Nazism. “They paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the ‘common man’ but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer’s mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster.” Consider how Charlie says “Heil Hitler,” and how the two gumshoes have German names.
·       Slavery: there are songs and lyrics used in the film (“Old Black Joe”) that suggest that writers like Fink and Mayhew are enslaved by the film studios.
·       Sharp contrasts: consider the difference between the polished palaces of Hollywood and Fink’s hotel room, the low art of the wrestling movie vs. the high art of Fink’s stage plays, Broadway vs. Hollywood, the obvious differences between Fink and Charlie, the tempestuous waves of the water compared to the blazing hot fires of the hotel, how Charlie says he wants to create a theater for the common man yet doesn’t listen to the common man next door to him (Charlie), etc.
·       The torturous life of the mind.
·       Isolation and alienation.

THE HOTEL HAS BEEN ANALYZED AS SYMBOLIC OF SEVERAL DIFFERENT THINGS. WHAT THEORIES CAN YOU SUGGEST?
·       It could represent Fink’s deteriorating state of mind, as exemplified by the peeling wallpaper, strange noises, odd happenings (e.g., murder, mosquitoes), and massive fire.
·       It could stand for Charlie’s state of mind and physical and mental condition: the yellowish/greenish colors and oozing wallpaper glue could represent Charlie’s postulating earache, and the peeling wallpaper his descent into madness/serial killing.
·       It could be a symbol of hell: consider how the elevator and the clerk “rise from the depths,” the repeat of the number 6, the inferno at the end (and how, possibly, Fink made a deal with the devil earlier in the form of the studio boss).

HERE IS MY THEORY ON HOW TO UNDERSTAND “BARTON FINK”
·       It’s possible that much of the movie is purely imagined in Fink’s mind. Consider the evidence: would he actually see the first words of his screenplay printed in the Bible? Would the hotel only be occupied by two visitors? And would the hotel spontaneously combust into flames when Charlie walks down the hall? These images are implausible, which should cause you to question the authenticity of what you’re viewing and, therefore, deduce that many of the events Barton experiences are imagined.
·       Perhaps this is the story of a successful Broadway playwright who has “signed a deal with the devil” (studio boss Lipnick) to be a contract screenwriter in Hollywood and sold his soul (meaning his creative integrity and artistic freedom) in exchange for the chance to be wealthy, famous and respected.
·       Perhaps in reality Fink actually did meet Lipnick, Mayhew, Audrey and even a “common man” shlub like Charlie, and assume that Fink truly is staying in a dumpy hotel.
·       But imagine that writer’s block, creative frustration and loneliness/isolation have mentally unhinged Fink. He begins to envision fantastic scenarios involving the aforementioned people he has met in Hollywood, and these characters take on different roles in his imagination.
·       Thus, what if Audrey represents a source of inspiration and/or an angel on his shoulder, while Charlie is an opposite, self-destructive force—a devil on his shoulder who kills his source of inspiration. Lipnick serves as the Satan from whom Fink cannot escape his own personal hell and indentured servitude as a contract writer. And the two detectives collectively symbolize Fink’s conscience, which has caught up with Fink after he has allowed Charlie to kill his muse (Audrey) and after Fink has stolen/borrowed her ideas (Audrey’s severed head in the box), just as Fink has stolen/borrowed from The Bible.
·       In this reading of the film, “wrestling” is a euphemism for sex and intimacy, something Fink has no experience with and the reason why he is suffering from a creative block when assigned to this project. His intimacy with Audrey (assuming it happened in reality) unblocks him, allowing him to write the screenplay, even though that script is not what Lipnick (or the public) wants.
·       Just as Fink doesn’t want the wrestling plot to be crude and common (possibly contrary and hypocritical to his wish to write about “the common man”), he also doesn’t want his intimacy to be purely physical, crude and mundane.
·       Ultimately, my interpretation is that this film illustrates the challenge of being a writer, artist or creative person—that these people are often taken advantage of, overlooked, underappreciated, and treated like a commodity, especially in Hollywood. Among the challenges of being creative is finding a muse or source of inspiration (fresh, original, good ideas), fighting writer’s block, and coping with loneliness, isolation and alienation. Faced with these challenges, some artists crumble and/or go a little crazy while others find a way to deliver what can be their best work in crunch time. Yet, ironically, though they may be proud of their finished product, it can actually be derivative of their earlier works or those of another artist (expressing the idea that it’s incredibly hard and painful to have an original thought) and, even worse, it may not be marketable to and appreciated by the masses.

HOW DO YOU INTERPRET THE ENDING OF THE MOVIE?
·       The strange image of the girl on the beach perfectly mirroring the one in the picture frame could be a statement that life imitates art, as opposed to art imitating life, for Barton Fink.
·       The bathing beauty image is a piece of “mass produced low art, probably hanging in every room at the Hotel Earle. Barton’s increasing obsession runs at a parallel with his attempts to lower his own art for the Wallace Beery audience. The ocean is a white noise---representing the sound of writer’s block,” suggested writer Stuart W. Bedford.
·       Perhaps Fink has been driven insane by the realization that he cannot achieve his own dreams and ideals and that he has betrayed his talent for low-brow art.

OTHER FILMS OR WORKS OF ART THIS MOVIE REMINDS YOU OF?
·       North by Northwest and other Hitchcock movies
·       Films by Roman Polanski, including Repulsion, The Tenant  and Cul-de-Sac
·       The Shining
·       Day of the Locust
·       Sullivan’s Travels
·       The Godfather (and the horse head in the bed scene)

OTHER MOVIES BY THE COEN BROTHERS
·       Blood Simple
·       Raising Arizona
·       Miller’s Crossing
·       Fargo
·       The Big Lebowski
·       O Brother Where Art Thou
·       No Country for Old Men

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Think Fink

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Few minds in film are as imaginative and visionary as the Coen brothers. Witness their warped brilliance on April 9 at CineVerse by attending “Barton Fink” (1991; 116 minutes), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, chosen by Joe Valente.

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Sexual politics in CinemaScope

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" reveals interesting truths about the gender dynamics and sexual politics of the 1950s (as well as the 1850s, when the story is set), putting a charming, pseudo-chivalrous sheen on rugged chauvinism. But even if the sexism rubs you the wrong way, you can't beat the acrobatic dancing and slick choreography on display in this oft-overlooked musical. Here's what CineVerse concluded about this picture:

HOW IS THIS FILM DIFFERENT FROM OTHER HOLLYWOOD MUSICALS?
·       It’s songs and story are not based on a previously staged Broadway musical;
o   Its tale is adapted from the ancient Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women, which was made into a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet. The legend tells of the growing city of Rome, which experienced a lack of childbearing females; the Romans invited the neighboring Sabine citizens to a feast and kidnapped their women while the men were distracted, leading to a war. The Sabine women grew to love and bear children for their captors.
o   Unlike other film musicals that cribbed Broadway standards, its songs were originals scored purposely for this film, written by lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul. 
o   Also, its songs seem to serve the story as opposed to being incidental “break out into song” numbers whose lyrics have little or nothing to do with the plot (think of some of the songs in “Singin’ in the Rain” or “An American in Paris”).
·       It was shot in the new, extreme widescreen format of CinemaScope, giving it a 2.55:1 aspect ratio instead of the standard 1.78:1 widescreen standard of the day. The result is an extremely vast frame capable of showcasing up to 7 different pairs of brides and brothers and their action and dancing sequences.
·       The choreography was particularly kinetic, acrobatic and inspired, especially the bard raising scene where men are jumping, tumbling and performing death-defying stunts while elevated high in the air—as many as 10 dancers at one time. Also, consider how intricate and impressive these dance numbers are despite the fact that they are underscoring boring activities like raising a barn or sawing wood.
·       The film, disappointingly, was not given much of a budget.
o   Hence, it was not shot outdoors or on location in the woods. Instead, it was filmed on soundstages. In spite of the fact that the story occurs throughout all four seasons of the year, the filmmakers couldn’t afford to shoot that long to capture all four seasons.
o   Also, instead of being shot in the gold standard of rich Technicolor, a cheaper single-strip Anscocolor process was employed, which helps explain why the colors aren’t as deep, rich and vibrant today as they could be.

THIS MOVIE ARGUABLY CONTAINS A HEFTY AMOUNT OF SEXIST, PRURIENT AND CONTROVERSIAL CONTENT AND SUBTEXTS, POSSIBLY MORESO FOR 2014 AUDIENCES THAN 1950S AUDIENCES. CAN YOU CITE EXAMPLES?
·       In an effort to be sexually satisfied like their newly married brother, the other 6 brothers kidnap the women, muffle their screams, and prepare to possibly kill off the families who come to retrieve their daughters.
·       All of the daughters claim responsibility for the new baby, which suggests that they’ve been sexually promiscuous with their captors.
·       The brothers listen in as their sibling tries to convince Milly into having sex.
·       Later, the bed breaks, making the brothers think that it’s hot, rough sex that has caused it.
·       It’s suggested that the brothers are sexually pent up; to relieve the tension, they saw wood, which is a euphemism for masturbation.
·       It’s symbolic that their screams in the buggy set off the snow avalanche, which is suggestive of a sexual eruption of sorts in which the brothers are aroused by their suffering/struggling as captives.
·       There’s also a line in one song that sings: “A man can’t sleep…when he sleeps with sheep,” which is innocent enough on the surface, but carries a subtext of bestiality and animal sodomy.
·       It’s ludicrous by today’s standards and mores that it’s perfectly acceptable and understandable audiences to think that kidnapped women, forced to marry, have sex and bear children, would find their captors charming and fall in love with them, although the Stockholm syndrome is a real phenomenon.

DOES “SEVEN BRIDES” REMIND YOU OF ANY OTHER FILMS OR WORKS OF LITERATURE?
·       Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
·       Beauty and the Beast

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY STANLEY DONEN
·       Singin’ in the Rain (co-directed by Gene Kelly)
·       On the Town

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Fast-stepping siblings

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's been a while since CineVerse has featured a musical. To correct that oversight, book your plans to join our film discussion group on April 2 for a 60th anniversary celebration of  "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954; 102 minutes), directed by Stanley Donen, chosen by Len Gornik.

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On "Seconds" thought...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Frankenheimer's "Seconds" appears to be quite the prescient picture for the mid-1960s, forecasting our youth-obsessed culture, the dangers of corporatization and blind trust in technology. Here's a summary of what was discussed during our group meeting about this movie:

WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING, UNIQUE AND DIFFERENT ABOUT SECONDS?
·       It’s overwhelmingly dark and pessimistic, even for the Cold War era, with a conclusion that is especially downbeat. There is no tacked on happy ending here.
·       The visuals are creative, memorable and unsettling. particularly the distorted shots achieved by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, who uses fish eye lenses, distorted and wide angles, giant close-ups of blank, soulless faces, POV shots, tracking shots following heads and feet, jump cuts and other techniques to achieve a disturbing visual tapestry.
·       This is a film that attempts to expose the myths and lies behind the pursuit of the American dream and the search for physical perfectionism—at a time when advertising and popular culture emphasized physical beauty, materialism and sex appeal.

THIS FILM WAS A BOX OFFICE FAILURE IN 1966. WHY DO YOU BELIEVE AUDIENCES REJECTED IT?
·       It casts Rock Hudson against type—viewers were used to seeing him in romantic comedies
·       The film mixes several different genres into one: science fiction, horror, psychological thriller, noir, cautionary tale, and fantasy. Perhaps this ambitious mixing was ahead of its time and too off-putting to viewers in the mid-1960s.
·       The distorted, haunting imagery, bleak message and dark tone may have been too overwhelming and depressing for contemporary moviegoers.
·       The filmmakers chose to shoot in black and white vs. color, at a time when black and white was decidedly less popular.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PRIMARY THEMES UNDERSCORED IN “SECONDS”?
·       Distortion—as exemplified through the skewed visuals and warped shots.
·       Disillusionment—what we think will make us happy and fulfilled may be a lie. Is true happiness and self-fulfillment possible? Or do we always crave more?
·       Be careful what you wish for—if you think your life is bad, it could always be worse.
·       Resurrection and rebirth—ironically, in this resurrection, the body is perfected but the soul remains dead.
·       Distrust of technology—technology should be in our control, but this film argues the opposite.
·       The fallacy of the American dream.
·       Frankenheimer had said, in interviews, about this film: “When we talk about life, my philosophy is that you have to live your life the way it is. You can change it, but you can’t change who you are or what you’ve done before. And you have to live with that. I think that point was very well brought out in Seconds—that’s what the film is all about.”
·       In a Criterion Collection essay, writer David Sterritt wrote the following: “(Frankenhimer) told an interviewer that he wanted to adapt David Ely’s eponymous 1963 novel because ‘all of today’s literature and films about escapism are just rubbish, [since] you cannot and should not ever try to escape from what you are.’ Seconds was his outcry ‘against ‘the Dream,’ the belief that all you need to do in life is to be financially successful. He saw the film as ‘a matter-of-fact yet horrifying portrait of big business that will do anything for anybody, provided you are willing to pay for it. It expressed his contempt for ‘all this nonsense in society that we must be forever young, this accent on youth in advertising and thinking.’

OTHER WORKS OF FILM, TV AND LITERATURE THAT REMIND YOU OF “SECONDS”
·       Frankenstein
·       Invasion of the Body Snatchers
·       Faust
·       The Picture of Dorian Gray
·       The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
·       The Twilight Zone
·       Hollow Triumph
·       Eyes Without a Face
·       The Stepford Wives
·       The Face of Another
·       Shock Corridor
·       Carnival of Souls
·       Don’t Look Now
·       Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR JOHN FRANKENHEIMER
·       The Birdman of Alcatraz
·       The Manchurian Candidate
·       Seven Days in May

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Seconds to none

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Prepare for a sojourn into sci-fi and suspense in the sixties. On March 26, CineVerse will slate "Seconds” (1966; 106 minutes), directed by John Frankenheimer, chosen by Brian Hansen.

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Controversy, thy name is Griffith

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"The Birth of a Nation" is not an easy film to watch in 2014 or any other year. But our film group took up the challenge of exploring this firebrand of a feature film to try to see what makes it tick--and the answer is clearly a very outdated, misguided and bigoted ideology that makes modern audiences cringe. Yet, despite its deplorably offensive content, "Birth" deserves to be recognized as a landmark motion picture achievement on many technical levels. Here's what CineVerse concluded post discussion:

IN WHAT WAYS WAS “BIRTH OF A NATION” INNOVATIVE AND PIONEERING?
·       It was the longest and most expensive movie ever made up to its time: most films were simple two- to three-reelers that lasted under 15 minutes. Thus, Birth of a Nation marked the dawn of the modern feature length film, signaling the end of the nickelodeon era.
·       It perfected the art of crosscutting and parallel action/editing in a sequence (e.g., the siege of the log cabin and the KKK’s coming to the rescue of its inhabitants), creating emotionally stirring montages of image and sound that increases suspense
·       Its moving camera techniques were revelatory and breathtaking to viewers: the film uses tracking shots, dolly shots and pans to create a kinetic energy of movement and action.
·       The film uses many close ups, a Griffith hallmark, to elicit an emotional reaction in viewers.
·       It employed multiple camera and used shots taken from many different angles.
·       It introduced night photography with the use of magnesium flares
·       It employed title cards that were more elaborate than those commonly used in this period
·       It extensively showcased natural outdoor settings and landscapes in its backgrounds instead of sets and soundstages
·       It used color tinting in many scenes for psychological or dramatic emphasis
·       It was one of the first to have an original score composed for an orchestra
·       The film also relies on panoramic long shots, fade-outs, iris effects, lap dissolves, high-angle shots, subtitles (different from title cards), and masked shots (in which part of the frame is blacked out to emphasize one or more objects)
·       The movie is impressive in its elaborately staged battle sequences, use of hundreds of extras and authentic costuming.
·       It was the first film to feature an intermission, advanced ticket sales, souvenir programs, costumed usherettes, modulated lighting, and special trains that would transport people from small mid-western, southern states to cities (soon theatres sprung up everywhere)
·       Additionally, this film established the director as the chief dominant power and visionary on a film, giving testament to the auteur theory.

IN WHAT WAYS IS “BIRTH OF A NATION” DAMAGING, IRRESPONSIBLE AND CONTROVERSIAL?
·       It’s clearly biased in its agenda and viewpoint, without showing the viewpoint of the freed slaves or non-carpetbagging Northerners
·       It demonstrated the dangerous power of film as ideological propaganda
·       It revived the KKK in the South, which had been practically defunct prior to the film. In fact, the movie is still used today to help recruit new Klan members, according to Tim Dirks.
·       It promoted many African-American stereotypes that later films used, including the black buck, the mammy, the faithful servant, the black brute, etc.
·       It casts white actors in blackface to play African Americans and biracial characters and relegates real African American actors to the background with no major parts.
·       It uses some speech title cards in stereotypical slang vernacular attributed to African Americans.
·       Griffith capitalizes on the murky details of the Reconstruction era (much of the history of this period is gathered from oral histories, biased historians, and eyewitness testimonies) by blending fiction with fact: consider the scene where the black politicians louse about in the state legislature, take off their shoes and ogle white women.
·       The film adopts a documentary-like realism in its approach by creating compositions based on antique photos and paintings and uses title cards that say “Historical Facsimiles,” which lead the viewer to believe that what they’re seeing actually happened in reality, when often it did not. Consider again the House of Representatives scene, in which the African American politicians behave shamefully. This is prefaced by a “Historical Facsimile” titled “Riot in the Master’s Hall. The Negro Party in control of the State House of Representatives.” This is stated as being based on a photo, but it has been debunked as being staged based on lampooning newspaper cartoons.
  
HOW DOES GRIFFITH USE FILM TECHNIQUES TO DISTINGUISH HIS GOOD AND RIGTHEOUS CHARACTERS VS. HIS EVIL CHARACTERS?
·       White characters get the benefit of warmer and brighter lighting, lighter makeup, and use of white tones and symbols in the overall misc-en-scene.
·       The KKK is lionized through sweeping camera movement, tinted colors meant to express passion, honor and bravery, and stirring music.
·       Griffith uses parallel editing and crosscutting between two sets of characters and scenes happening simultaneously to his ideological advantage: think about how he cuts between a good/hero character and then a bad/villain character. The pattern and rhythm of this juxtaposition of images sets the two sets of characters as diametrically opposite. Viewers are conditioned to root for the good guys (loyal Southerners, Klansmen) and abhor the bad guys (freed slaves, carpetbaggers, scalawags).
·       Notice how white players are typically placed in the foreground to emphasize their importance and black characters are often situated in the background, demonstrating a hierarchy of power and significance.

WHAT THEMES ARE ESPOUSED IN “BIRTH OF A NATION”?
·       Reconstruction and its aim of racial integration did not work, causing more harm than good.
·       The true golden age was the antebellum (pre-war) South, when blacks knew their place, prosperous, genteel families were able to maintain peace and order, and a time of chivalry, respect and proper social hierarchy was still in effect.
·       Relations between the races can be harmonious, provided that blacks don’t aspire to power or push true social equality.
·       African Americans given too much power and autonomy turn into sex-crazed beasts, violent savages and buffoons.
·       The worst villains of all are biracial peoples, who stand as an example of what happens when you combine Caucasian intelligence with inhuman ‘Negro’ qualities; in this way, Birth of a Nation is a cautionary tale that especially preaches against miscegeny.

WHAT’S THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TITLE?
·       Many would think “Birth of a Nation” would be a more appropriate title for a film depicting the Revolutionary War, but Griffith wanted to suggest that the end of Reconstruction in the South was the true beginning of our modern nation. Writer Donato Totaro wrote: “For Griffith…the “nation” that he gives birth to is not the forward looking, industrial nation that won, but a nation where the white south and white north would be united together under the banner of white Christian Anglo-Saxon brotherhood. For Griffith the real nation was shaped by the counter-revolution of the white-south against the freed African-Americans and the white carpetbaggers.”

WHY SHOULD OR SHOULDN’T THIS FILM CONTINUE TO BE VIEWED AND DISCUSSED TODAY?
·       This is an important artifact of film history that is arguably the most influential picture of all time: it may be ugly, inaccurate and reprehensible, but it is a milestone motion picture, warts and all.
·       It’s important that we never forget our past, including the way Hollywood made movies and promoted bigoted viewpoints and practices long ago. If we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we may be doomed to repeat it.
·       However, this film serves as a testament to the seductive power of cinema and its capacity to stir emotions, change opinions and rally people to evil causes.
·       It espouses a racist viewpoint that could influence impressionable viewers, and many people who see it for the first time today may mistakenly think it is historically accurate (especially the Reconstruction scenes, which are fictional).
·       It still has the power to offend and anger African Americans and whites alike, cause schisms and controversy, and evoke protests. For these and other reasons, some believe it should never be shown in public again.

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Writing film history with racism

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On March 19, CineVerse will launch a new new series slated to run for the next few months: Pushing Boundaries--Films That Challenged the Censors and Created Controversial but Important Works of Cinematic Art. Part 1: Rewriting film rules with racism: “Birth of a Nation” (1915; note: we will only screen portions of the 188-minute film), directed by D.W. Griffith.

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