Lost in the Movies: THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Broken Blossoms

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Broken Blossoms

After the grand folly of Intolerance, D.W. Griffith turned out a number of features in succession, many about the Great War that America had just joined. His most notable picture was Hearts of the World, a very pro-French testament to German barbarism, albeit with some of Griffith's antiwar sentiments stirred into the mix. Supposedly, that is. Hearts of the World is not available on Netflix, nor are the half-dozen other films that followed Intolerance. Since I'm using the online service as my guide, that brings us to 1919, three years later, and to the great director's most acclaimed work, following Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation.

Broken Blossoms couldn't be much more different from those lavish, ambitious epics. It is a quiet, poetic film, focusing on the plight of two individuals. It's about half the length of those earlier features, and does not contain an ambitious structure or massive themes or dozens of innovations. Broken Blossoms presents a director firmly in control of his craft, yet unwilling to show off. Much of the movie, especially the first half, unfolds in rather long shots, taking in the grimy surroundings of its two protagonists as they drift within its bounds (the film's one ambitious touch is its detailed sets, recreating London's poverty-stricken Limehouse district). The crosscutting is toned down here; it's used to heighten suspense but we're seldom as conscious of its effects as in Birth or Intolerance. If the latter film was the explosive work of a precocious but childlike sensibility, full of broad strokes and massive scale, Broken Blossoms exhibits a melancholy maturity.

Of course, we are still in the realm of melodrama: Griffith is not Ozu and his characters embody a poetic, sometimes mythic, heightened existence. They don't have proper names, but are called "the Yellow Man" or "the Girl." The camera lingers on their gestures and expressions, often to beautiful effect, but naturalism is not the desired goal. Still, in tackling this subject and these characters, D.W. Griffith has executed a remarkable 180 degree turn from Birth of a Nation. That movie is fundamentally a reactionary myth, an exercise in elitism which follows its wealthy, privileged characters as they put the rabble in its place and reassert the golden order of the ages within their threatened community. Birth of a Nation plays into primal terrors: fear of the outsider, fear of dissolution of the family and tradition, fear of despoiling beautiful, pure womenfolk.

Broken Blossoms' story follows a lonely Chinese shopkeeper who youthfully dreamed of converting foreigners to a creed of peace, love, and tolerance. Now he is broken and lonely, passing his days in opium dens and watching a beautiful, fragile street waif (Lillian Gish) who lingers outside his window display. Her father is Battling Burrows, a lumbering grotesque who uses his fists to make a living, but also to unleash his frustrations on his broken, wilted daughter. After one such beating, she stumbles through London's streets and collapses at the shopkeeper's feet; he nurses her back to health and falls in love, though their relationship remains chaste. There are a few touches which date Broken Blossoms' interracial romance: the presumption that a "yellow man" and white girl cannot even kiss; the casting of Richard Barthelmess, a white actor in Oriental make-up, as the Chinese man; and the melodramatic flourishes which occasionally compromise the delicate sensitivity of Griffith's approach.

Yet what Griffith is seeking, and often achieves, remains quite remarkable. Battling Burrows exposes the Klansmen of Birth as the fear-mongering, paranoid chauvinists they are; like them, he expresses concern for his daughter's purity, believes in separation of the races, and uses violence to achieve his aims. Unlike them, he isn't cloaked behind a white sheet, residing in a gentle mansion - in the slums, his naked cruelty is exposed for what it really is. By contrast, Griffith opens with some scenes in China which, in their playful sense of everyday life unfolding, humanize the "exotic" non-whites whom Griffith does so much to marginalize and stigmatize in Birth. The shopkeeper becomes the consummate outsider in his new community, yet he remains our protagonist, and we are meant to understand and sympathize with his alienation.

Those long, wide shots which place the characters within their environment, visually demonstrating their constriction and oppression, gives way to mediums and finally extreme close-ups once the girl and the shopkeeper come into contact. Suddenly the world contracts: only their two glowing faces are real and everything else becomes shadow. It's a subtle, and powerful, manifestation of a potentially maudlin sentiment: that love's flickering flame can overcome the darkest surroundings, no matter how briefly. Griffith's formal control allows us to sink into the character's experience without realizing what he's doing and his restraint is in some ways more impressive than the go-for-broke chutzpah of his previous epics.

Ultimately (avert your eyes if you haven't seen Blossoms and don't want the ending spoiled) the brief, shining moment of redemption turns out to have been very brief indeed. Burrows "rescues" his daughter from the shopkeeper in a complete subversion of Birth's climax: not wanting to be "saved" from the foreign presence, she is far more terrified of her home and hearth. Back in her house, she locks herself in the closet and Burrows takes an axe to the door - within minutes he's switched from the hero riding to the rescue to the enemy intruder forcing his way in. It bears repeating: this is a very subversive take on Griffith's oeuvre, much more so than Intolerance. In scale, formal elements, and story details he takes apart his masterwork and place himself firmly on the side of those outside society, beyond comfortable notions of family and home - everything is inverted. For his mostly white audience, primed to accept the traditional notions of propriety and social order (especially in his works, whatever Intolerance's baldly stated creed), Griffith presents an Asian shooting a white man, and primes the viewers to cheer. His transformation is complete.

The film ends with the shopkeeper's suicide, and in a tableau reminiscent of "Romeo & Juliet." This tragedy provides yet another contrast with Griffith's optimistic epics. Three of Intolerance's storylines end in tragedy. (One even concludes with the violent murder and rape of an entire family - 70 years before his time, was Griffith of all people channeling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer?) Yet the characters we are most invested in survive Intolerance's ultimate conclusion. Broken Blossoms provides no such happy ending, no hope, not even - and this is perhaps most notable - a social message which redeems the dead and turns them into martyrs. The quiet shopkeeper and the wounded girl are gone, dissipated into the waterfront mist. All we're left with is the memory of their brief moment of happiness. Never before has Griffith expressed such a tragic, melancholy view of life.

This brings to an end the Griffith features that I'd already seen. From here on, it's uncharted territory. Revisiting Broken Blossoms, and witnessing the unconventional new direction it opens up for the director, I wonder if he will continue on this path or return to the conventions of his earlier work. Upcoming entries in this series will have to mull that over...

Previous: Intolerance
Next: True Heart Susie

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.

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