Joyland

New York |

Excerpt: O, Africa!

by Andrew Lewis Conn

edited by Emily Schultz

O' Africa is now available from Hogarth. Listen to Andrew Lewis Conn on this month's Truth & Fiction podcast. 

Had the Grand boys not gone to the pictures on April 1, 1915, instead of becoming filmmakers, they might have entered one of the respectable professions—law, medicine, accounting, manufacturing—and remained lifelong movie lovers instead of taking their chances as young men on an untested and disreputable industry. The clincher wasn’t Chaplin or Keaton, Arbuckle or Langdon. It wasn’t A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery or Caligari that did it. No, the singular work that opened the boys up to the possibilities of the art—that convinced them that moviemaking could be (indeed was) the indisputably great art form of their burgeoning century—was D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

They had read about the picture for months and months, and after their father had received the tickets by post, the boys kept the talismans pinned to their shared bedroom wall. They were alone among their friends in being allowed to see the film at all and sensed how privileged they were to get to go rather than spend another Saturday evening in temple. Though their bar mitzvah was already two years behind them, the twins suspected that this picture might be the vessel that transported them to manhood, that the country wasn’t the only thing waiting to be born.

Just a generation before, entire swaths of family on both sides had been wiped out in the frigid potato fields of Russia and Poland, yet here they were with an anglicized name, living on the perimeter of Ocean Parkway in the Midwood section of Brooklyn in a good-size family house with a Greek-columned porch. Here they were with a father who had traded in his rabbinical beard and heavy black suit for a waxed mustache, a bowler hat, and tweeds. Here was Dr. Julius Grand—a professionally trained pediatrician, good with a violin—who through conspicuous application of New World manners and dress was attempting to hoist the family into the mushrooming century, having himself left behind the flaming cups and leeches and old wives’ tales for antibiotics and vaccinations and X-rays. Here, with their Birth of a Nation tickets tacked to the wall like frogs on a specimen tray, the prospect of an authentic churchgoing experience, a quintessential American day spent dreaming in the dark, imbibing miracles. Here, something more than the promise of pleasure: the unspoken oath movies made of a never-ending present, of the possibility of unencumbered self-invention.

“Don’t do it, Micah!” Izzy pleaded with his brother in the alley behind their temple the afternoon of their bar mitzvah, as Micah carefully unshrouded from a paper napkin like the Passover afikoman a sandwich of ham and mustard on crusty white bread. “Please don’t do it!”

“Why not?” asked the swine eater. “Tastes good.”

“Micah!” Izzy scolded his brother, who had had the audacity to memorize phonetically his portion of the haftarah while Izzy had labored for hours learning Hebrew with a chorus of davening, cigar-stinking cantors.

“All of our relatives are inside.”

“This isn’t Eve and the apple in the Garden of Eden we’re talking about, Izzy. It’s a snack from Paulie’s down the street. The world won’t stop spinning if you take a bite.”

“I won’t do it, Micah! Not today of all days!”

“Okay, Itz.” Tearing from the sandwich hunks of phosphorescent meat, Micah leered at his brother like a demon out of Hieronymus Bosch. “More for me, then.”

“You’re hateful,” Izzy sputtered, shaking his clenched fists, at once appalled by and attracted to Micah’s heroic rejection, the ruthless casting off of assumption and expectation to which Izzy himself was incapable of committing.

They shared a room. They had slept together, dreamed together; for years eaten, bathed, and crapped together. There were oceanic depths of closeness there. Yet Micah—not even one full day into his teens—had the temerity to be not afraid. To be not a good boy. To have the integrity to be bad, the audacity to be against. Micah, who cheated off his brother’s exams. Micah, who abandoned Izzy’s hands to pedagogic ruler smackings and neighborhood beatings. Micah, the effortlessly popular playground wise guy who deigned to allow Izzy to fill his schoolyard shadow. Micah, who had conquered puberty without embarrassment over either vocal cracking or sprouting red carpets of hair. Micah, who had just finished wiping his mouth with the stringy ends of his prayer shawl and had now gone fishing in his pants for his privates.

“Micah, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like?”

“Stop that please.”

“Gotta do it, Itz.” Slapping away at the thing.

“Why?!”

“Because it feels good!”

“It’s our bar mitzvah, Micah! Why do you need to ruin everything?”

“What exactly am I ruining?”

“But what about them!”

“Who?”

“Abraham and Isaac and David and Noah and all those guys in heaven.”

“I hate to break it to you, Itz, but no one’s watching.”

“What about Mom and Dad? Don’t you love them?”

“Course I love Mom and Dad.” Beating it harder now, leaning for support with one hand against the temple’s brick wall. “But that’s got nothing to do with it, Itz. . . . Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven . . . Argh! . . . Now wish your brother mazel tov.”

*

Two years later, a second bar mitzvah. At three hours The Birth of a Nation was the longest movie they’d seen, at two dollars a ticket an extravagant outing; the boys dressed in better than their Sunday best. After it was over, Micah stared straight ahead, remaining stock-still in his seat at Times Square’s Liberty Theatre until the lights came up, the curtain came down, and the present came flooding back to claim him. Izzy, meanwhile, had pulled from his jacket pocket a small spiral notebook and had begun rapidly sketching from memory various shots from the film. He had always been interested in optics—Izzys’ father kept a collection of kaleidoscopes, spectroscopes, prisms, magnifying glasses, and magic lanterns that he’d obsessed over—and he was determined to unearth how the thing was done, how Griffith had pieced together the bricks and columns of this magnificent temple of light.

At home Izzy worked away converting his crude pencil sketches into a series of thumb-governed animated flip books, while Micah mimicked the manners of an antebellum southern gentleman, affecting a light, lilting accent, wandering the hallways in long, languorous strides, taking extravagant puffs from a hollow honeycomb pipe. While one son slept in a southerner’s straw hat, moonily dreaming of plantation days—thinking about the characters’ relationships with one another, imagining entire story arcs and counterlives that preceded and ran in parallel to the main action—the other had taped construction-paper drawings all over the walls of their shared bedroom—sketches that, in the way they recalled the film’s framing, lighting, and shot selection, were as impressive as a symphony played from memory by a musical savant.

Though their father had sent away for the tickets and, with his interest in optics and photochemistry, was himself in thrall to the picture, its power over the boys left him feeling uneasy. Julius Grand’s eyes had been ruined by the time he’d turned twenty from studiously reading all night by candlelight. Yet here in the figure of his son Micah, with his ease and fluency, was an exemplar of the adopted nation’s addiction to speed, surface, and sensation. The usual patrimonial competition was heightened for having as its backdrop a new country with shifting modes that challenged a father’s mastery. Here in Micah was a boy who announced with every American step that he would not do his homework, would not study the Talmud, would not eat his peas or bring a sweater. Here was a boy who Julius Grand feared was destined not to commit to any serious endeavor, not to pursue a sober profession, not to enjoy the satisfactions of living a thoughtful life. Dr. Grand’s hopes, then, rested with Izzy. Only Izzy wasn’t easy and was swayed by his twin’s influence as surely as a girl twirled around a ballroom floor by a nimble dancer.

“Don’t worry about the mess,” their father said, trying to appease the boys’ mother. “It’s good they’re so enthusiastic about something. The pictures are just a fad. They’ll be great men someday.”

“What do you think of my drawings, Dad?” Micah pleaded as Izzy grumbled something about being the rightful creator of the charcoals.

“There’s stuff that didn’t even make it into the movie.”

“Wonderful! Like Mozart once wrote to his father when he was a child,” said Dr. Grand.

‘Komponiert ist schon alles—aber geschrieben noch nicht.Everything is already composed but not yet written down.”

“Except the movies are even better than music,” Micah said. “They’re bigger.”

Attuned to his sons’ sensitivities and eager to truly know his rival even if it meant loosening his grip on his sons, Julius bought the three of them tickets to the next week’s show. And the one after that. And the one after that.

“It’s magic,” Micah explained after their umpteenth viewing, removing a coin from his brother’s ear once they were safely beyond the theater’s spell.

“No it’s not,” Izzy protested from a face drained of color and already too old for its age.

“I think I have some sense of how he did it.”

“Just because you can explain it, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to you,” Micah answered, insouciantly pulling a chain of knotted colored handkerchiefs from his brother’s lapel pocket. “Magic, plain and simple.”

Micah had seen yellowing newspaper photographs of Lincoln and the battle dead and was familiar, too, with Mathew Brady’s work, but this was something else entirely, a frontal assault on the senses too great to be rationalized away. Armies marching over the plains. Georgia in flames. The killing of a king.

The president’s assassination occurred halfway through the picture. As lugubrious, long-limbed Lincoln took his seat in the balcony box of Ford’s Theatre, Izzy began decoding with ruthless detachment the visual techniques Griffith was using to squeeze suspense from a historic fact, the outcome of which was unalterable, as settled-upon as Bible stories.

He’s making us part of it, Izzy thought, nodding along in rapturous agreement with Griffith’s directorial choices, the naturalistic restraint he demanded of his actors, his shot selection, the gathering storm of his editing rhythms. When, on-screen, Lincoln’s bodyguard abandoned his post outside the president’s box to get a better look at the play, a gentleman four or five rows in front of the Grand family let rip a plaintive cry. “Hang him!” shouted another voice from the balcony, and soon the theater was filled with gasping patrons, women in Sunday finery exiting the rows, turning away from the spectacle and quickly moving up the theater aisle, hands covering their eyes. It was unbearable, this living parade of imagery unspooling around them: an insert shot of Booth cocking the pistol, the schoolboy’s chalk-eraser clap of gunpowder, Lincoln slumped forward in his chair, the assassin’s Tarzan swing down the bunting onto the stage, Booth’s mad cry of “Sic semper tyrannis!” the chairscape howling in grief at the sight of the slain president, a bearded, sacrificial figure.

Then intermission. For all the magnificence of the first half of the picture—the porch-breeze poignancy of the Stoneman family drama, the savage authority of the battle scenes, the majestic shock of the president’s assassination—the second half, focusing on Reconstruction, was a circus of unabashed bigotry. There was a lecherous mulatto villain named Lynch. There were scenes of newly elected officials in South Carolina’s state House of Representatives, slobbering Negroes drinking jugs of alcohol and waving chicken legs, propping bare feet up on their desks. There was virginal Mae Marsh, pursued through a forest by a rapacious black soldier, throwing herself from a cliff rather than allow herself to be violated. There was the advent of the Ku Klux Klan, “a veritable empire of the South,” riding to the rescue to redeem the nation. History written with lightning indeed.

“Well, you have to remember, Griffith is a southerner,” said their mother once they’d returned home from the theater that first night and the boys had recalibrated their heartbeats. This was a worthy attempt at cultural contextualization from a woman who could not mask her astonishment each time she opened a can of tinned soup.

“I read that an organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is protesting the film’s opening,” explained Dr. Grand, always instructing, but gently. “The picture may well not play in certain cities.”

“I don’t care,” Micah said as Izzy madly scribbled away in his notepad, teasing apart the rules of cinematic grammar. “That was the greatest picture I’ve ever seen, and today is the best day of my entire life.”

*

Years later, walking through the restaurant of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, the Grand brothers spotted Griffith—a drunk, dissolute figure hunched over an untouched turkey dinner, now a contract director for hire, doing uncredited patch-up jobs on other people’s pictures.

“Should we go talk to him?” Izzy asked.

“What, buy him a drink?” Micah responded. “He looks pretty well stocked in that department.”

“No, it’s just . . . it’s because of him.”

“No it’s not,” said Micah, the great man’s table already receding behind them. “That’d be like congratulating Columbus for discovering America—it was all lying in wait. Besides, have you seen Birth recently? It’s a goddamned abomination. Our greatest picture, and it’s a bunch of bunk.”