Winter 2010

The Contradictions of D.W. Griffith

Is it possible to get past the controversy of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to see his pioneering contributions to the language of movies? On DVD, the answer may be yes.


(Credit: Bison Archives.)

Despite the immensity of his place in cinema history, D.W. Griffith continues to evade a popular consensus. Or, rather, the consensus remains split along the same lines that bedeviled Griffith's career in his glory days. Eighty years after he completed his last feature film, The Struggle (1931), and more than a hundred after he directed his first one-reeler, The Adventures of Dollie (1908), his historic importance is as rock solid as that of Bach or Shakespeare. No one questions his standing in creating motion pictures as an art and as an industry, his innovative genius in devising and exploiting the grammar of film, or his titanic vision for a new mode of storytelling, more grand and ambitious than anything before.

Where the consensus falters is with the work itself, and what audiences in a new century are to make of it: Does Griffith speak to us, or is he a relic to be respected but not necessarily embraced? It is easy today to enthrall a young audience with a cannily edited clip show of great moments from Griffith's films or with a collection of his early Biograph shorts, which, in some respects, have aged more agreeably than his features. The best of them have a particular grace that allows us to connect to a vanished sensibility through Griffith's unmistakable gift for pictorial enchantment and his acumen in getting at the truths that trigger melodrama. But what kind of legacy is it that requires constant apologies as, for example, Orson Welles' comments in a television introduction to Intolerance, included on the Kino DVD, in which he assures us that the film may be old-fashioned but is also as fresh as tomorrow, and may be a failure, but is also an everlasting success?

How much ambiguity can a reputation withstand? Is it possible to screen the key Griffith films in theaters without inviting discomfort or giggling? Most Americans born in the last third of the 20th century have seen his work only in film studies classes if at all. For students, critics, and filmmakers, Griffith may afford the bliss, in James Agee's words, of witnessing "the beginning of melody" or "the first eloquence of language," but audiences seek pleasure in music and words, not insights into their obstetrics. If Griffith ranks highest in the cinema pantheon, he is not much heeded.

Maybe it's too soon. This is not meant to be facetious. Dickens, the supreme storyteller of the 19th century, was dismissed as a faded, sentimental entertainer until a couple of critics resuscitated his reputation on the eve of World War II. Griffith died in 1948, a 19th century romantic adrift in an industry he virtually invented but which he no longer understood. He was often dismissed as a lingering embarrassment: the hard-drinking, self-important, remnant of another time, living out the years of neglect in hotel lobbies - a candidate for a statue, possibly, but not an offer to direct a film. In the end, there wasn't even a statue, except in his home state of Kentucky. For a filmmaker who dreamed blockbuster dreams, the salvation of Griffith's eminence may reside in the smaller confines of DVDs, where we can rediscover him in private. (All fllms mentioned here are available on Kino DVDs.)

Born in 1875 to the shabby aristocracy and borderline poverty of a Kentucky farm, Griffith was raised with the Southern myth of the Lost Cause, including heroic stories of his alcoholic father, who died of a Civil War wound when Griffith was 7. Working at menial jobs before embarking on the life of an itinerant actor and writer, he applied as a writer to Thomas Edison and acted for him in 1907, leaving a year later for Biograph in New York's Union Square. It was there he found his calling. The man who never challenged received wisdom regarding Reconstruction, questioned everything concerning film. He instinctively realized that telling a story with a camera was nothing like photographing a stage play. The camera had to be able to move, tilt, pan; by cutting together pieces of film, he could depict corresponding actions and move into shots to emphasize details.

Griffith didn't create all the techniques of cinema - close-ups, tracking, dissolves, cross-cutting - any more than Shakespeare invented English, rhyme, and dramaturgy. He simply used them more intelligently and to a greater effect than anyone else.

Turning out some 450 one-reelers, Griffith began to envision a cinema that could recreate history, instruct the common man, and electrify audiences who, more than anything else, wanted to be entertained. Griffith learned to use symbols, animals, and special effects to convey psychology, as in The Avenging Conscious (1914), his harrowing adaption of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart; he dramatized social ills, including corrupt stock manipulators in A Corner in Wheat (1909, with its often imitated death-in-the-grain-elevator climax), and urban crime in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912).

His other talents were less easy to quantify: He had a painter's eye, and even now it is difficult to explain why some of his most basic compositions - the long view of a residential street, the angle at which an alleyway is framed - are so effective. The panning of streets in the Bronx, filmed on location for The Struggle, may have seemed old-hat in a day when directors such as William A. Wellman were making studio sets crackle with action, but today Griffith's verisimilitude alone is stunning.

The racism of The Birth of a Nation was as risible at the time of its initial release, in 1915, as it is today; it generated urban riots and was refused exhibition in eight states. Protests and legal challenges stalked every subsequent attempt to rerelease the film well into the 1930s. Time has not softened the film characterized by the NAACP in 1915 as "the meanest vilification of the Negro race." But neither have the visceral excitement, patches of sheer beauty, and historical urgency that dazzled the original audiences diminished either. For one example, consider the film's most frequently anthologized shot: the forward charge (as the camera tracks backward) of Confederate troops attacking a Union battlement, ending as actor Henry B. Walthall plants the flag in a cannon's barrel. Thousands of war films have followed, and yet that moment endures as incomparable: the excitement of sheer movement after a succession of static frames, the euphoria of action, the surprising and satisfactory finish. In a moment like that, we forget ourselves and soar on the filmmaker's energy. Still, The Birth of a Nation is a bitter pill, especially when vaunted as a foundational work. Most of the outrage it occasions focuses on the second half, where free blacks are depicted as morons and sexual predators, a threat to white womanhood, manliness, and power.

But the opening scenes are no less offensive. They portray happy slaves as grotesques (the mammy is played by a fat, ugly white man in burnt cork), while the leading abolitionist, constantly straightening out his ill-fitting wig, is the sexually twisted dupe of a mulatto woman whose ambition incarnates the villainy of miscegenation. In contrast, the fi lm's Southern family leads an idyllic existence. Few more alarming phrases exist in the American lexicon than the one Griffith pins on its patriarch: He is "a kindly master," his human property a kennel of dancing pets.

And yet, a contrary shot of a slave in shackles cannot fail to suggest Griffith's recognition of slavery's infamy. Lincoln is depicted as a saintly figure and a friend to the South (his assassination is one of the film's most powerful historical tableaux) and Jefferson Davis isn't mentioned at all. The contradictions do not end there. In the restored prologue to the DVD of Abraham Lincoln (1930, the first of Griffith's two sound films), he illustrates the utter inhumanity of the slave ships, taking us into the holds, deploring the indifference to life among slave traders, and stressing the need for a knight to cleanse America of its bloody stain.

Similarly, the gross sentimentality that undermined Intolerance (1916) or Way Down East (1920) was already archaic at the moment Griffith employed it to, paradoxically, set modernism on its ear, lighting the way to a medium that altered and dominated the era's entire cultural landscape. For all his dramatic contrivances and hearts-and-flowers sentiments, these remain passionate critiques of war, prejudice, industrial supremacy, small-town pieties, social arbiters, hypocrites, ideologues, bigots, and bullies.

African Queen
The Birth of a Nation (Credit: AMPAS)

way down east
Way Down East(Credit: AMPAS)

Intolerance is one of the cinema's ultimate experiences. It has everything except audible words: suspense, injustice, violence, romance, sex, dancing, goodness and evil, historical tableaux, comic relief, satire, music (it requires a score as intricate as the fi lm's contrapuntal structure), and, at the last, a gathering frenzy of tension and mounting horror. Of the four intertwined stories, only the modern one, involving labor strikes, forced prostitution, predatory capitalism, infidelity, murder, and a (literally) last-second reprieve from the hangman's rope, ends well. Intolerance is a harsh, unforgiving portrait of humanity: the jump-cut from the Mountain Girl's death throes to her reclining corpse is held for an astonishing, iris-opening 28 seconds. If the modern story ends in a fantasy of happy coincidences, Griffith may be saying that fantasy is all we can hope for.

The influence of Intolerance is easily noted. The forced separation of parent and child would be reshaped in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid; the fugue-like parallels between Bible stories and modern times would be imitated by Cecil B. DeMille in The Ten Commandments and Michael Curtiz in Noah's Ark; the "uplifters" would return to expel the underclass in John Ford's Stagecoach, and so forth. But the truly modern elements became unmistakable when New Wave filmmakers adapted Griffith's techniques that had disappeared in the interim. For example, the screen packed with movement in foreground and background, as in Jacques Tati's Playtime, and the jump-cuts Jean-Luc Godard revived in Breathless. When Welles spoke of techniques as modern as tomorrow, consider the editing of the incredible murder sequence in Intolerance. In a span of two minutes, I count at least 50 cuts, most of them less than a second in duration. Yet the scrambling of images is more than coherent; it's spellbinding.

The proper way to see Intolerance is on a mammoth screen, accompanied by a live orchestra, a Radio City Music Hall-type event. But that is neither forthcoming nor, in most locations, possible. My experience with theatrical screenings in the '60s and '80s is that the audiences responded at first with derisive chuckling at the overwritten intertitles, the image of Lillian Gish rocking the cradle, and the Victorian pontification. Then, before the three-hour mark, they began to lose interest in proportion to the increasing complexity of the telling. With DVD, the viewer is in charge: The whole thing can be absorbed in sections, or at least with breathers - passages repeated, historical issues (thought to be general knowledge in 1916) looked up, parallels properly grasped. Viewers who conquer Intolerance will then want to see it on the big screen, and perhaps it will come to pass. In the interim, there is the larger issue of creating a definitive, restored edition. There are at least four versions in circulation, and while the Kino print is the longest and most widely available, it is by no means pristine - unlike some of Griffith's later masterworks, notably Way Down East and Broken Blossoms (1919, a brutal yet poetic study in domestic abuse, racial divides, miscegenation, and courage), each an embodiment of those contradictions that make Griffith a fascinatingly elusive artist.

Griffith's world is probably the most comprehensive legacy of America, Americana, and history achieved by a single filmmaker. Perhaps the best place to begin is with his hugely successful Way Down East, a perverse choice for a film in 1920, at which time Charlotte Blair Parker's play had toured the continent for two decades, including three stops on Broadway, inching toward and beyond the point of parody. It involved an innocent maid, a city slicker villain, rube relief, and a never-darken-my-door exile into a raging snowstorm. From such material, Griffith devised an exhaustively cinematic work that stares melodrama in the face and finds pain and outrage beneath its generic salve. If the scene in which Gish's Anna holds her dead baby through a long, devastating vigil shocked audiences out of their complacency, the evisceration of aristocratic pretensions and the sexual double standard, including Anna's eager complicity in her downfall, speak to us without need of a translator. Yet it would be a mistake to favor modern concerns and dismiss the anthropological energy of Way Down East as social criticism: The cult of virginity, ruined women, and "nameless" babies is as much a part of our history as slavery, and while Parker's play long ago faded into antiquity, Griffith's film endures as testimony to a socially condoned intolerance that is never entirely vanquished. The legendary final reel, with Anna adrift on an ice floe, saved in the nick of time, is great filmmaking, great melodrama, and a great metaphor for the cruel indifference of nature to society's petty mores.

In her memoir, Gish recalled arguing with Griffith about her last scene, after Richard Barthelmess' character has brought her to the safety of his cabin. Griffith insisted she make up her face to look pretty. Gish was distraught: she had literally risked her life (and, indeed, permanently lost some of the mobility in the hand that she trailed in the icy water), and now, in the final clinch, he wanted her lips painted, cheeks colored, and hair brushed. Ever the realist, Griffith knew that the same audience that would thrill to a real ice floe had had enough suspense and now wanted to see Anna restored to life - as many film lovers wish to see Griffith's entire oeuvre restored, renewed, rescreened, and re-experienced.

DVD Classics

A look at the careers of historically significant directors or genres through new DVD releases.

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