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

THE AUTEURS - D.W. Griffith

Was D.W. Griffith a surprisingly modern auteur at times, even a proto-neorealist in the end? Was his true stroke of genius a powerful control of the intimate, rather than majestic command of spectacle? Did his career effectively end in the teens; what do his later works have to say to us? I'm concluding my first Auteurs series with links to my other entries, my own analysis of Griffith's career and aesthetic development, and several clips to illustrate the master at work.

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)
Biograph shorts, Part One & Part Two (1908-1913)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Intolerance (1916)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
True Heart Susie (1919)
Way Down East (1920)
Orphans of the Storm (1921)
America (1924)
Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
The Battle of the Sexes (1928)
Abraham Lincoln (1930)
The Struggle (1931)

Proceed through the jump for more...

Who was D.W. Griffith? I don't mean "who was he as a man?" but "who was he as an artist?" His reputation today is based on historical precedence (he was the first major director to emerge in feature filmmaking) and three films, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms - the first two larger-than-life epics, the third a quiet, melancholy romance of sorts. These were the only Griffith films I'd seen before starting the series, so I wasn't sure what to expect once we passed the threshold year of 1919.

What I discovered was that Griffith's touchstones were not the epic form (his later attempts at epics, Orphans of the Storm and America, are messy duds), technical innovation (by 1921, he already seemed fusty and old-fashioned), or even melodrama (a genre over which he did not hold sole provenance). What truly marks Griffith's work, when looked at as a whole, is a sensitivity to character, a wistfulness which skirts sentimentality and only overcomes that impulse due to its sincerity, and a delight in observation. His epics are marked as much by detail as by scope, and over the years, in works large and small, Griffith would constantly return to familiar sights, imbuing them with fresh individuality and emotion: family domesticity (with the father coming home to delighted children and a quietly pleased wife), fragile women left out in the cold by an indifferent society (and usually forced to rely on themselves or an equally fragile compatriot to keep them going), and of course, the heart-rending race to the finish (Klansmen on horseback racing to rescue a beleaguered white family, relatives of a convicted criminal minutes away from the hangman racing to deliver a governor's pardon, a weeping mother racing through real, grimy city streets to rescue her child from a drunken, violent father).

The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance are, in some ways, aberrations. Their consistency with Griffith's larger vision is the mark of their asides and fragments and backgrounds. The trademarks of Griffith's style lie hidden within their grand charms, so that what looks at first blush like a white elephant turns out to be millions of little termites, who swarm forms the superficial outline of a pachyderm. Later, Griffith's best works would be small in scale, but epic in thematic scope and visual suggestion. The theme of Birth of a Nation, of a safe, comfortable world threatened by dark and incomprehensible forces, finds its follow-up in works like Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, in which, per Yeats' warning, the center did not hold. The security and comfort of Birth's world has been shattered, and a cold wind is knocking at the door.

These later films (along with Griffith's final masterwork, The Struggle, which emerged after a decade of spotty and increasingly weak output) could be visual illustrations of Bob Dylan's furious warning in "Like a Rolling Stone": Griffith's protagonists wander around in a world they once feared but didn't understand, victims of a metaphysical awakening, of a universe devoid of any unifying light. These films are marked by an existential pallor - a sense that the character onscreen can rely only on themselves to survive, as the universal order has been shattered or proven false - which gives them a modern feel despite all of Griffith's fluffy Victorian mannerisms and increasingly outdated technique. Though in one regard, at least, he did manage to outstrip the avant-garde and embrace a forward-looking aesthetic. The Struggle, Griffith's final film and a financial and critical disaster, anticipates neorealism with the breathless naturalism of its characters and the unforced flow of its storytelling. (Even in his early days of canonical masterpieces, Griffith shot by instinct and without a shooting script; Marc Norman's What Happens Next, a marvellous history of screenwriting, informs us that though a screenplay existed somewhere, no one ever saw it on set, and Griffith seemed to be making up the film as he went along).

Indeed, had The Struggle not flopped, had Griffith's personal demons not consumed him, had the industry not turned its back on him so callously, the director might have developed into something unusual in the studio-bound, glamorous Golden Age: an authentic naturalist, pursuing an ineffable, Bazinian reality through location filmmaking, sensitive acting, and realistic scenarios. Perhaps he would have taken this nondescript observation into historical realms; already, he'd given us a drastically toned-down and fascinating Lincoln assassination in his first sound film. Of course, we'll never know, but I do encourage you to check out The Struggle: whatever its flaws, its power and individuality truly render it an underrated gem, and in some ways, the secret key to understanding Griffith as an auteur.

Griffith's first film: The Adventures of Dollie, which just turned 100...
An Unseen Enemy (1912), one of Griffith's best shorts, still exciting and suspenseful today.

Dueling Lincoln assassinations -

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Abraham Lincoln (1930) - starts at :53, ends at 5:38

Broken Blossoms (1919)

And just for the hell of it, in lieu of good clips from Way Down East & The Struggle (there aren't any), there's this:

I've already recommended that you rent The Struggle, but in addition to the film, the disc (which also includes Abraham Lincoln) has some great bonus features. They included a filmed conversation between Griffith (who seems positively debonair and dignified) and Walter Huston and various studio promotional items from the era including a placard which bizarrely tries to tie in the Emancipation Proclamation and the theater's attempts to draw in more customers.

If you want more, you can watch this documentary on Griffith's life and career. I haven't seen it, and can't vouch for it, but it looks interesting. It starts here.

Come 2009, we'll have a new Auteur to follow.

For a hint, fill in the blank:

"Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and __________
He could die happily ever after."

Mama's in the factory, she's ain't got no shooooes...see you there.

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