At University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts, Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, took on the monumental task of rephrasing D.W. Griffith's landmark propaganda film, "The Birth of a Nation." He calls his multimedia presentation, "Re-Birth of a Nation," and showed it at the center March 19.
This show opened in 2003 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, and during the last five years it has seen heavy play on the international circuit, shown everywhere from the walls of the Acropolis to the largest screens in Europe. Spooky is often known as the self-appointed pioneer of illbient, a musical genre incorporating elements of hip-hop, electronic, jazz and classical.
The score to "Re-Birth of a Nation" fits neatly into the illbient box. Starting with a tripped-out blues-harmonica jam, Spooky added blankets of synth, a lattice work of plucked violin strings, soothing oboes and a hip-hop backbeat.
While the DJ stands as a heavy-vested veteran in the composition of music for film, this didn't seem to help the overall value of his presentation. The soundtrack played like any professional-quality trip-hop fusion, proving uninteresting when separated from the visual component. Spooky fumbled on the beat matching a few times, a very noticeable mistake that sounds similar to resetting a drum track mid-song. You would expect such a mistake from a novice, not a world-renowned DJ.
"I mix the video live, so each show is different," Spooky explained after the show. "Tonight I mixed heavily on the love story and on body language."
The video portion of "Re-Birth of a Nation" is a frantic medley of clips from the original film, presented on three screens. Snippets of ominous text are woven throughout the presentation, staying close to the original narrative. Many of the text snippets were repeated, representing Spooky's belief that "history is never linear, it incorporates patterns."
The film's themes ring with a striking relevance in today's world -- tyranny, oppression, racial tension and war, seeded in emotion. Spooky's presentation aimed to outline the tools used in works of propaganda and was moderately successful in making its point. The DJ outlines portions of the film that use close-ups to evoke an emotional response, drawing a white shape around characters during zoomed-in moments.
"D.W. Griffith was the first person to use the close-up to convey emotion," says Spooky, providing depth to the film's worth as a study in propaganda.
Spooky's performance reminds us of the circular patterns in history, Spook himself warning that "one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist." While the conceptual side of "Re-Birth of a Nation" was more than present, the overall experience was disjointed. Though Spooky's idea is fitting for an academic institution, its execution was reminiscent of YouTube.