A young and lovely woman sits near a fire attending to her knitting. An older, avuncular man enters. The woman smiles at him, rises, and moves toward the fire to light his pipe. The scene cuts to an older woman—most likely a spinster—moving through the snow with a heavy inexorability. Dressed fully in black, she is clearly the harbinger of evil news.
Cut back to the room and the girl gazes imploringly at the man. Her face so beautiful and yet tired as the firelight plays upon her features, the framing of the camera leads us to understand that she is worried. Indeed, in its solicitous gaze, the camera asks us to enter into her concern. We seem to be offered the objective view from nowhere and yet we realize that one cannot take a disinterested, objective stance here. The way in which the scene is devised presupposes and reinforces our sympathy with the woman; we are made to suffer for her, to suffer with her. Meanwhile the elderly woman marches on, determined (out of a prurient display of ersatz morality) to tear away the thin fabric of contentment that the young lady has only recently set to rights.
There are no cannonades here, no racing horses, no gunfire, no mortal danger. Indeed D.W. Griffith seems to have been determined in this sequence from the final hour of his 1920 Way Down East to demonstrate that the effects he had created five years earlier in the phenomenal though controversial success of Birth of a Nation were not reliant upon the sensationalist plotline or the macabre pageantry of war. In some ways, this sequence from Way Down East mirrors the famous sequence from the earlier film when the knights of the Ku Klux Klan raced to the rescue of a family beleaguered by black men intent on gaining entry into the family home (while the orchestra, following Griffith’s insistence, blared Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkryes” in all its ostentatious hero worship). In Way Down East, of course, the trajectory is reversed.
The woman in black (Martha) comes not to liberate a besieged family but to destroy their fragile serenity. The home is the scene not of turmoil but of temporary bliss. And yet the tension here mounts beautifully, masterfully articulated through the juxtaposition of shots revealing on the one hand the cold determination of a bitter gossip and on the other the sweet wistfulness of a girl (Anna, played by the truly breathtaking Lillian Gish) seeking forgiveness for a crime committed not by but rather against her. The harsh reality trudging ever closer makes the moment between the girl and her newly found father figure all the more precious, tracing its outline indelibly on the memory of the viewer.
Thus, D.W. Griffith proves what should have been obvious all along: it’s the telling of the story (and not the story itself) that makes for a truly great filmic experience. It’s undeniable that Griffith had a penchant for bloated, sentimental narratives that skirted the boundaries of good taste. Moreover, he seemed determined to strain every passing moment in order to get at its melodramatic essence; he imbued every close-up with the halo of melancholic longing for a foreclosed utopia and framed every large shot with the pathos of a doomed passion—that is, until the end of the film, when the fog of discontentment lifts and the protagonists envision their utopian bliss just at the horizon of possibility (something realized literally at the close of Birth of a Nation when the two young lovers share a vision of the Second Coming).
However, Griffith at his best is so seductive in his narrative gaze that his finest films transcend a mere realization of the script. Rather the script becomes a surface gloss upon something far more profound that sits at the emotional core of Griffith’s filmic vision. In Griffith’s hands, narrative filmic technique itself becomes almost wholly purified of its reliance upon a story so as to produce semic units (giving rise to a film semiology, of sorts) that in themselves produce meaning without the need for a plot to guarantee coherence.
One could walk in on the scene described above (taking place roughly an hour and a half into the film) and not be at all lost. Griffith’s mastery (indeed, his development) of filmic language is so secure that even now—almost a century after his greatest efforts were released—his sequences crackle with the kind of electricity that one encounters all too rarely throughout the history of the medium.
Of course, this is but one scene of many that will strike the viewer upon watching the handful of films by D.W. Griffith collected by Kino in a box set entitled Griffith Masterworks 2. The set includes one true masterpiece (Way Down East), an amazing but not fully successful earlier work (1914’s The Avenging Conscience), a lovely and rare comedy (Sally of the Sawdust, featuring W.C. Fields), and Griffith’s only two sound films: the sorely disappointing Abraham Lincoln, starring Walter Huston as the troubled president, and the remarkably moving 1931 film about the travails of an alcoholic struggling to ensure the happiness of his small family while battling his addictions, The Struggle.
Also included are several extras and an informative 1993 documentary, D.W. Griffith: Father of Film. Not surprisingly, the latter is haunted in its every aspect by the conundrum of Birth of a Nation. Hailed almost universally as the earliest true masterpiece of the cinema, this film continues to ignite controversy for its depiction of the black South and the rendering of the Ku Klux Klan as a courageous band of liberators. Of course, the question that can never be adequately answered is: was the film successful because of its outlandish subject or despite it?
This question need not be so troubling nor need the answer be so elusive. After all, the basic narrative of Birth of a Nation is pure drivel. Eliminate the racist trappings and what remains is the basic adventure story paradigm in all its hokey grandeur. But the story is simply not at issue here. Had Birth of a Nation been a bad film, there would have been no controversy. Perhaps it’s the relative vapidity of a narrative like that of Birth of a Nation or Way Down East, the latter confected from a sloppy sentimental bit of kitsch penned by Lottie Blair Parker, that allowed Griffith the latitude to imbue its unfolding with a dynamic force totally alien to the narrative itself. It’s as though the plot was so suffused with cliché that Griffith was able to forget about it altogether.
A story that is well trodden more or less takes care of itself, leaving the director free to create his own effects. He may have chosen the subject of Birth of a Nation because he knew it would produce a scandal (it was a subject to which no one could be indifferent according to one talking head in the documentary), but what made it suitable as a demonstration of his own innovations was the triteness of the plot and the same must be said for its opulent follow-up Intolerance.
Griffith’s nonchalance with respect to his scripts was evident in his working methods. He often shot his sequences out of chronological order and without a continuity script. He claimed to do so because he didn’t want to be subjugated to anyone else’s ideas about his film. More than the contrived boasts of a would-be genius artist, Griffith’s assertion regarding the authorship of his work is revealing. It’s precisely the scene-setting, the attention to visual detail, the framing, the filmic set pieces, the subtle hues created by the lighting—in other words, all of the aspects of the film pertaining to its direction—that make a Griffith film so compelling.
It’s not true, of course, that Griffith invented the close-up. Indeed, as the documentary of this collection reveals, Griffith as an actor in another director’s film received a close-up long before Griffith supposedly concocted the technique. However, prior to Griffith, the camera never moved in the way that Griffith made it move. Under Griffith’s direction, the camera no longer merely documents the action; it articulates the viewer’s emotional engagement with the characters. This is, in part, why the actual storyline becomes nearly superfluous. What Griffith manages to do in his finer films—including all but Abraham Lincoln in this collection—is to allow the camera to establish a network of relationships among the characters and the viewer so that the unfolding of the film becomes a mapping of the tensions along the various connections within the network.
Hence in Sally of the Sawdust, ostensibly a light comedy, the camera continually lavishes its attention on Sally, played by Carol Dempster, even when she is not the focus of a given scene. At first, the adoring close-ups strike the viewer as misplaced in a comedy such as this but slowly Griffith’s interest becomes clear. Dempster’s face is alive with possibilities. Her glance searches for objects on which to alight. She lacks the beauty of Lillian Gish, the innocence of Mary Pickford. But that face is always up to something: it’s eternally aware. And it’s the camera under Griffith’s direction that makes us aware of her awareness.
As we watch her watching, we begin to search as well and it’s this second-nature searching (more than vicarious because it is a searching, a shared searching in which we join the character) that connects us to her and allows us to comprehend Sally’s seeking after that sense of belonging that otherwise comes off as derivative in the extreme. There is a reason that shopworn plots can still serve as fodder for a good film: such plots stay out of the way.
Perhaps this is why Abraham Lincoln is such a disappointing outing. The story is too involved for Griffith so he cut it down to what he must have seen as its bare essentials and for Griffith the bare essentials always mean the melodrama. But Lincoln’s story is only incidentally melodrama. Therefore, Griffith’s film lacks a basic core; it’s all periphery. We get untold minutes exploring the love and loss of Anne Rutledge and surprisingly little time investigating Lincoln’s political rise and his conduct of the Civil War. And yet Griffith’s willingness to disregard the historical importance of his story does not seem to liberate the director in the same manner his usual cavalier attitude towards scripts seems to have done.
Instead, Griffith’s direction throughout this film strikes one as stilted, unable to get going. The camera is uncharacteristically stable, the shots uncharacteristically dull. That is to say, it’s all uncharacteristic for Griffith at his best. The man shot many, many films in his career and the great majority of them were closer to this than to the masterpieces. If anything, Abraham Lincoln ought to make us grateful for all of the truly wonderful art we managed to get from Griffith given the burden of maintaining his demanding output.
This collection affords the viewer one other advantage unavailable in Kino’s earlier set of Griffith masterpieces: a glimpse into Griffith’s vision of the sinister aspects of our psyche. Two of the films in this set delve into the darker aspects of human nature. The first is Griffith’s imagining of a hodgepodge of ideas garnered from Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poetry, The Avenging Conscience. This is clearly a film in which Griffith attempts to pull out all of the film techniques of which he was aware. We find here effective use of the close-up, dissolves, superimpositions, and jump cuts. These techniques infuse the film with an appropriate surreality that explores the twisted consequences of ambition only to reveal a lighter reality. But as the haunting final shot implies, the madness of one’s fantasy looms ominously above one’s forced placidity. Perhaps that is not what Griffith implies with that shot but it’s such an impressive image that it demands effusive commentary.
The other film that explores the dimly lit crevices of our existence is The Struggle and this one nearly defies commentary. It’s a talkie, but it’s far more successful than Abraham Lincoln. It’s most certainly not a comedy, but contains an unsettling amount of amusement and is thereby much more biting in its wit than Sally of the Sawdust. It’s just as moralizing as Way Down East or Intolerance but it lacks the grandeur of these films. In fact, it’s this utter lack of flamboyance that makes this film so disturbing and so moving. It’s melodrama of the most tendentious sort and yet there is something about this film that beggars description.
Once again, I think, it comes down to the leading female character. The male character, the man battling alcohol addiction, delivers himself of all of the histrionics in the film but it’s his long-suffering wife and her quiet determination to see her family through all storms (particularly those created by her husband) that makes the film so engaging. Indeed, as I write this, I tell myself that this little potboiler hardly deserves my private devotion much less my public endorsement.
But then my mind goes back to that first close-up of the woman, before she became the drunkard’s wife, and the way in which the light shone upon her face, the way the framing of the shot seemed to outline all of the trouble she would experience but at the same time the luminous aura of that image promised that she would endure and that those she loved would endure. It’s all too ridiculous when put into words. It’s all too ludicrous in a script. But as an image—particularly as an image shot under the direction of D.W. Griffith—it becomes something just shy of a minor miracle.