Film and TV

DJ Spooky on How Rebirth of a Nation Connects Hip-Hop and Film Editing

“Like an acrobat drifting through the topologies of codes, glyphs and signs that make up the fabric of my everyday life, I like to flip things around,” Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) has written. That's just the start of what's he's done with Rebirth of a Nation, his slash-and-burn remix of The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 silent D.W. Griffith historical epic denounced in modern times as taking a racist point of view, despite its pioneering use of intercutting and montage film techniques. Those methods are similar to sonic techniques making up today's hip-hop sound arsenal, Miller says, adding that “the paradox of his cultural stance versus the technical expertise that he brought to film is still mirrored in Hollywood to this day.” As a way of expressing that inherent contradiction – and in the act of flipping things around – Miller cut and pasted a shortened version of Birth (which originally clocked in at more than three hours) and added his own score, performed by the Kronos Quartet.

In advance of a screening of Rebirth of a Nation tonight at the University of Colorado Boulder’s International Film series, we caught up with Spooky to ask him a few questions about the project.

Westword: What was the genesis of the Rebirth of a Nation project?

Paul Miller: I’ve always felt that it was minimalism and a collision with film editing — that’s exactly where it started. Plus, it was a kind of meditation on the stolen election of George W. Bush and racial politics in the 21st century. The film and remix have now been part of the lineage of remix culture for so long, there's now another film called Birth of a Nation that just got a tremendous amount of attention. This stuff is all cyclical.

In cutting up the D.W. Griffith epic, what did you leave behind visually, and why?

I left traces of all aspects of the main scenes. It was a choice like I would do with DJ-ing — you leave enough familiar material to create a solid link to the original material. The original soundtrack was based on Wagner, and I looked at the idea of how he worked with the concept of "gesamkunstwerk" as a source material. Ideas are what make this whole project work.

How does the score help tell a new – or corrected – story?

The score for the film is based on my collaboration with Kronos Quartet and their ability to absorb almost any style of music. It was a really powerful experience working with them. I don't think that you can correct the film, but the basic premise is that collage is what is going on — editing sound is like editing images. You just have to make it converge with how you think the narrative unfolds. It's got to have cohesion.

What do you hope people of any race will take away from Rebirth?

Basically: Another world is possible.

How did you become interested in silent film – and the genre's African-American presence?

I've always been interested in early silent film. In fact, I'm producing a response project to this scenario as a four-DVD box set with Library of Congress and Kino Lorber called Pioneers of African American Cinema, which explores the origins of film in African American cinema.

Do you have another silent-film project on the horizon?

It's all about exploring the archive. I want to make a strong statement about how DJ culture and cinema soundtracks have come together as a new form of composition.

DJ Spooky will appear in person at a screening of Rebirth of a Nation at 7:30 p.m. tonight, March 9, in Muenzinger Auditorium on the CU Boulder campus. Admission is $8 (or $7 for students); visit the International Film Series online for information.
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd