Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Three writers on D. W. Griffith

September 4, 1948
James Agee: David Wark Griffith

HE ACHIEVED what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.

We will never realize how good he really was until we have the chance to see his work as often as it deserves to be seen, to examine and enjoy it in detail as exact as his achievement. But even relying, as we mainly have to, on years-old memories, a good deal becomes clear.

One crude but unquestionable indication of his greatness was his power to create permanent images. All through his work there are images which are as impossible to forget, once you have seen them, as some of the grandest and simplest passages in music or poetry.

The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in The Birth of a Nation. I have heard it praised for its realism, and that is deserved; but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a perfect realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like, as veterans might remember it fifty years later, or as children, fifty years later, might imagine it. I have had several clear mental images of that war, from almost as early as I can remember, and I didn’t have the luck to see The Birth of a Nation until I was in my early twenties; but when I saw that charge, it was merely the clarification, and corroboration, of one of those visions, and took its place among them immediately without seeming to be of a different kind or order. It is the perfection that I know of, of the tragic glory that is possible, or used to be possible, in war; or in war as the best in the spirit imagines or remembers it.

This is, I realize, mainly subjective; but it suggests to me the clearest and deepest aspect of Griffith’s genius: he was a great primitive poet, a man capable, as only great and primitive artists can be, of intuitively perceiving and perfecting the tremendous magical images that underlie the memory and imagination of entire peoples. If he had achieved this only once, and only for me, I could not feel that he was what I believe he is; but he created many such images, and I suspect that many people besides me have recognized them, on that deepest level that art can draw on, reach, and serve. There are many others in that one film: the homecoming of the defeated hero; the ride of the Clansmen; the rapist and his victim among the dark leaves; a glimpse of a war hospital; dead young soldiers after battle; the dark, slow movement of the Union Army away from the camera, along a valley which is quartered strongly between hill- shadow and sunlight; all these and still others have a dreamlike absoluteness which, indeed, cradles and suffuses the whole film.

This was the one time in movie history that a man of great ability worked freely, in an unspoiled medium, for an unspoiled audience, on a majestic theme which involved all that he was; and brought to it, besides his abilities as an inventor and artist, absolute passion, pity, courage, and honesty. The Birth of a Nation is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as “the greatest”—whatever that means—but as the one great epic, tragic film.

(Today, The Birth of a Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him; nor can I be sure that the film wouldn’t cause trouble and misunderstanding, especially as advertised and exacerbated by contemporary abolitionists; but Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years.)

Griffith never managed to equal The Birth of a Nation again, nor was he ever to strike off, in any other film, so many of those final images. Nevertheless, he found many: the strikers in Intolerance—the realism of those short scenes has never been surpassed, nor their shock and restiveness as an image of near-revolution; the intercutting, at the climax of that picture, between the climaxes of four parallel stories, like the swinging together of tremendous gongs; the paralyzing excitement of the melodrama near the waterfall, in Way Down East; Paul Revere’s ride and the battle of Bunker Hill, in America; Danton’s ride, in Orphans of the Storm; most subtle and remarkable of all, the early morning scene in his German film, Isn’t Life Wonderful?, in which the ape-like Dick Sutherland pursues Carol Dempster through a grove of slender trees. All these images, and so many others of Griffith’s, have a sort of crude sublimity
which nobody else in movies has managed to achieve; this last one, like his images of our Civil War, seems to come out of the deep subconscious: it is an absolute and prophetic image of a nation and a people. I will always
regret having missed Abraham Lincoln, his last film to be released: a friend has told me of its wonderful opening in stormy mid-winter night woods, the camera bearing along toward the natal cabin; and that surely must have been one of Griffith’s finest images.

Even in Griffith’s best work there is enough that is poor, or foolish, or merely old-fashioned, so that one has to understand, if by no means forgive, those who laugh indiscriminately at his good work and his bad. (With all that “understanding,” I look forward to killing, some day, some specially happy giggler at the exquisite scene in which the veteran comes home, in The Birth of a Nation.) But even his poorest work was never just bad. Whatever may be wrong with it, there is in every instant, so well
as I can remember, the unique purity and vitality of birth or of a creature just born and first exerting its unprecedented, incredible strength; and there are, besides, Griffith’s overwhelming innocence and magnanimity of
spirit; his moral and poetic earnestness; his joy in his work; and his splendid intuitiveness, directness, common sense, daring, and skill as an inventor and as an artist. Aside from his talent or genius as an inventor and artist, he was all heart; and ruinous as his excesses sometimes were in that respect, they were inseparable from his virtues, and small beside them. He was remarkably good, as a rule, in the whole middle range of feeling, but he was at his best just short of his excesses, and he tended in general to work out toward the dangerous edge. He was capable of realism that has never been beaten and he might, if he had been able to appreciate his powers as a realist, have found therein his growth and salvation. But he seems to have been a realist only by accident, hit-and-run; essentially, he was a poet. He doesn’t appear ever to have realized one of the richest promises that movies hold, as the perfect medium for realism raised to the level of high poetry; nor, oddly enough, was he much of a dramatic poet. But in epic and lyrical and narrative visual poetry, I can think of nobody who has surpassed him, and of few to compare with him. And as a primitive tribal poet, combining something of the bard and the seer, he is beyond even Dovzhenko, and no others of their kind have worked in movies.

What he had above all, his ability as a craftsman and artist, would be hard enough—and quite unnecessary—to write of, if we had typical scenes before us, or within recent memory; since we have seen so little of his work in so many years, it is virtually impossible. I can remember very vividly his general spirit and manner—heroic, impetuous, tender, magniloquent, naive, beyond the endowment or daring of anybody since; just as vividly, I can remember the total impression of various major sequences. By my remembrance, his images were nearly always a little larger and wilder than life. The frame was always full, spontaneous, and lively. He knew wonderfully well how to contrast and combine different intensities throughout an immense range of emotion, movement, shadow, and light. Much of the liveliness was not intrinsic to the characters on the screen or their predicament, but was his own vitality and emotion; and much of itnotably in the amazing flickering and vivacity of his women—came of his almost maniacal realization of the importance of expressive movement.

It seems to me entirely reasonable to infer, from the extraordinary power and endurance in the memory of certain scenes in their total effect, that he was as brilliant a master of design and cutting and form as he was a composer of frames and a director of feeling and motion. But I cannot clearly remember one sequence or scene, shot by shot and rhythm by rhythm. I suspect, for instance, that analysis would show that the climactic sequence on the icy river, in Way Down East, is as finely constructed a piece of melodramatic story-telling as any in movies. But I can only venture to bet on this and to suggest that that sequence, like a hundred others of Griffith’s, is eminently worth analysis.

My veneration for Griffith’s achievements is all the deeper when I realize what handicaps he worked against, how limited a man he was. He had no remarkable power of intellect, or delicateness of soul; no subtlety; little restraint; little if any “taste,” whether to help his work or harm it; Lord knows (and be thanked) no cleverness; no fundamental capacity, once he had achieved his first astonishing development, for change or growth. He wasn’t particularly observant of people; nor do his movies suggest that he understood them at all deeply. He had noble powers of imagination, but little of the intricacy of imagination that most good poets also have. His sense of comedy was pathetically crude and numb. He had an exorbitant appetite for violence, for cruelty, and for the Siamese twin of cruelty, a kind of obsessive tenderness which at its worst was all but nauseating. Much as he invented, his work was saturated in the style, the mannerisms, and the underlying assumptions and attitudes of the nineteenth century provincial theater; and although much of that was much better than most of us realize, and any amount better than most of the styles and non-styles we accept and praise, much of it was cheap and false, and all of it, good and bad, was dying when Griffith gave it a new lease on life, and in spite of that new lease, died soon after, and took him down with it. I doubt that Griffith ever clearly knew the good from the bad in this theatricality; or, for that matter, clearly understood what was original in his work, and capable of almost unimaginably great development; and what was over-derivative, essentially non-cinematic, and dying. In any case, he did not manage to outgrow, or sufficiently to transform, enough in his style that was bad, or merely obsolescent.

If what I hear is right about the opening scene in Abraham Lincoln, this incapacity for radical change may have slowed him up but never killed him as an artist; in his no longer fashionable way, he remained capable, and inspired. He was merely unadaptable and unemployable, like an old, sore, ardent individualist among contemporary progressives. Hollywood and, to a great extent, movies in general, grew down from him rather than up past him; audiences, and the whole eye and feeling of the world, have suffered the same degeneration; he didn’t have it in him to be amenable, even if he’d tried; and that was the end of him. Or quite possibly he was finished, as smaller men are not, as soon as he had reached the limit of his own powers of innovation, and began to realize he was only repeating himself. Certainly, anyhow, he was natural-born for the years of adventure and discovery, not for the inevitable following era of safe-playing and of fat consolidation of others’ gains.

His last movie, which was never even released, was made fourteen or fifteen years ago; and for years before that, most people had thought of him as a has-been. Nobody would hire him; he had nothing to do. He lived too long, and that is one of few things that are sadder than dying too soon.

There is not a man working in movies, or a man who cares for them, who does not owe Griffith more than he owes anybody else.
 "(Agee) was superbly intelligent, informed, sensitive, witty; and he could write like an angel. He was the best movie critic this country ever had."--Arthur Knight, Saturday Review.
"What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity...that his articles belong in that very select class--the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know--of newspaper work which has permanent literary value."--W. H. Auden.
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Jan. 22, 1975 (Editorial):
In much the same way that trumpeter Louis Armstrong devised a new musical vocabulary that was to have massive influence on the playing of jazz, David Wark Griffith developed a new grammar of film that altered the art of making motion pictures. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it could have been called an art until Griffith, born 100 years ago today, began his remarkable explorations of its potential.
Film-making was pretty raw when Griffith came on the scene, consisting of little more than the stiff, fixed-position filming of stage plays. Griffith’s genius yielded ideas that are now commonplace —the closeup, fade-in and fade-out, the long shot, vista, back lighting, and tinting, among others—but which, like most other bold innovations, encountered much opposition.
However, comfortably within his lifetime (he died in 1948), there was broad recognition of the fact that under his guidance film had emerged as a medium of expression as distinct from the stage as it was from the world of literature. The late author and film critic .James Agee summed up the wonder:  “To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of a melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, co-ordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize
. . . this is the work of one man.”

There is ample testimony to the soundness of Griffith’s instincts when it came to molding screen actors and actresses into movie stars. Mart Pickford and Lillian Gish are outstanding examples, and it can be added that it was Griffith who induced the famous Douglas Fairbanks to leave the stage for the screen.

In the course of a career that earned for him such grand accolades as “father of the film art” and “king of directors,” Griffith produced and directed almost 500 pictures costing $23-million and grossing about $8O-milllon. At the time of his death, his most famous film, The Birth of A Nation, had earned more than $48-million.

This epic of the Civil War and the reconstruction period, heavily biased as it was, nevertheless had a majestic sweep to It and went a long way toward capturing the essential genius of the man. Many critics agree, however, that his 1916 film, Intolerance, was the Griffith masterpiece, though it fell far short of the popular acclaim showered on The Birth of A Nation.

Intolerance, on the same grand scale, wove four stories together (the complexity of the device seemed to bother the audiences of the day), each depicting an example of intolerance. Some idea of the scale of Griffith’s operation may be obtained from the fact that he used 16,000 extras in one scene.

It seems doubtful that we will ever see the like again. Griffith’s talents were unique—and no one today could afford 16,000 extras.
“A very great experience”—Urjo Kareda, Toronto Star
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is not only the oldest movie in town—made in 1914—but quite the best as well. ...

Seeing it again offers the chance not only for a reunion ‘with an archetype but also for a return to The source beginnings of this century’s enchantment with the movies.

The Birth of a Nation is a tremendous, heroic, lyrical melodrama about the Civil War and the period of reconstruction. (It’s strange to think that when the film was made, there must have been many people who remembered that historical period just as people remember the 1920s now).


It is always difficult to come to terms with an old film which winds up on the wrong side of the political- moral fence.

Of course, the immediately notorious thing about The Birth of a Nation is its violent anti-Negro bias and its final hosanna of praise for the Ku Klux Klan. (It was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, and at the end it is the Klan which rides in for the rescue).

This nora1 lapse, in addition, to a’ few sequences which may’ seem naive or stilted, still leads some people—surprisingly in this supposed time of sophisticated film audiences—to sit sniggering through the film.
But this wasted act of condescension (seemingly unavoidable if a film is more than 10 years old) closes the door to the countless remarkable and memorable qualities of such a masterpiece as The Birth Of A Nation.
Griffith’s film is immersed in technical innovation.

Nobody who has ever seen a major battle scene can fail to see the beginnings in Griffith’s extraordinary staging, photographed (in part) aerially, at a lower angle than usual, in superb compositions of movement punctuated by clouds of smoke.

Nobody who has ever seen scenes of farewell can ignore the originality of Griffith’s version, in which the screen is alive with outstretched arms and crazily waving handkerchiefs.

No amount of frantic editing can match the excitement and genius of Griffith’s system of intercutting as his narrative reaches its climax.

Moving from roaming marauders to beleaguered victims to the advancing rescuers, the film moves forward with cumulative impulse and tension.
Griffith’s use of fragile, vibrant actresses—Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh in this film—remains very moving. The famous scene in which Miss Marsh welcomes her brother home from the war is as rending as anything ever put on celluloid.

They stand, staring at one another for an aching moment. Then, sudden chatter (we can’t, of course, hear it, but can assume its triviality). He picks vaguely at some silly, frills that she’s put on her dress, she goes to straighten his hat.


Pause; another overeaching moment. Suddenly, with all the swiftness of human emotions, she is in his arms and weeping. She draws him into the house, and as they stand framed in the doorway, his mother’s hands are seen moving out to embrace him. The perfect scene ends.
The Birth of a Nation is filled with such treasures. Most of the sequences are very brief—a matter, of seconds, usually—but they fuse almost subliminally to form a mosaic of illuminated moments in human achievement and personal destinies.

The film is a very great experience. Nobody interested at all in their own cultural history can afford to miss it.
--Urjo Kareda was a major figure on the Toronto live theater scene. His influence on this city was tremendous. This was one of his rare film reviews.

  This piece, by the Toronto Star's Geoff Pevere is all too typical of the current anti-Griffith climate. It has more mistakes in it than Swiss Cheese has holes. See the William M. Drew posting for details.

Jan. 8, 2005. 12:34 PM

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation conquered a new frontier of filmed storytelling, but generated a powerful backlash for its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as the valiant heroes of the U.S. Civil War.

A confederacy of Klansmen  
GEOFF PEVERE <http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Render&c=Page&cid=970599109774&ce=Columnist&colid=969907620784>

Among the many places in America where the Ku Klux Klan rode to the rescue 90 years ago, perhaps the most conspicuous was the White House.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson insisted on it. He'd been hearing about this "photoplay," directed by the already-famous David Wark Griffith, that people across the country were lining up to pay the unprecedented sum of $2 a head to see.

The year also marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the War Between the States, and popular interest in the still-vivid event was high.

The photoplay was called The Birth of a Nation. It was about how the post-Civil War American South had been saved from rapacious carpetbaggers and marauding former slaves by the Ku Klux Klan.

It was the first nationwide sensation in the history of moving pictures and it made something new of its actors - Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall - something that would soon come to be called "stars."

It conquered a new frontier of filmed storytelling, a frontier comprised of rhythmic editing; the calculated alteration of camera positions, from the intimate close-up to the panoramic battle sequence; visual compositions in depth and the manipulation of primal emotional response.

This movie juxtaposed the historical with the personal, letting a story of lovers torn apart by war unfold against a backdrop that included dramatic recreations of real events, such as General Lee's surrender at Appomattox and John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Said actor Walter Huston years after first seeing it, "It made the blood tingle."

The Birth of a Nation created an appetite for cinematic spectacle that still enthralls us.

In the wake of its success, which alerted people like the young mogul-to-be Louis B. Mayer to the potential of producing features like Birth on an assembly line, the nickelodeon era was over and the day of the movies as a mass attraction was established.

President Wilson joined millions of Americans in being impressed. After emerging from the sweeping, three-hour epic (based on two novels by the bestselling white supremacist Thomas Dixon), the president offered what may rank as the first blockbuster blurb: "This is history written with lightning," he is alleged to have said.

To the extent that it scorched wherever it struck, Griffith's pioneering long-form feature (previously, the longest American movie, also from Griffith, had run four reels, or 40 minutes) was like American history disgorged by a flamethrower.

The story of two families, one Northern and one Southern, whose fates would be fused together then ripped apart by the Civil War and its aftermath, Griffith's silent movie was the most significant event in American popular culture of its day.

This film consolidated just about every narrative and stylistic development in the barely two-decade-old medium into a powerful and propulsive experience.

It also single-handedly redefined the business and established movies as the century's most influential form of mass communication. All we know of movie culture today began with The Birth of a Nation.

But Wilson's legendary assessment was also a masterstroke of political doublespeak, because lightning can dazzle but also destroy.

Almost immediately after Birth began a commercial run that would continue in one fashion or another into the early years of the sound era - the most popular silent film ever made, it eventually reaped an astounding $60 million (in pre-Depression U.S. dollars) on a $110,000 investment - Griffith's vision of the South ravaged by Reconstruction generated a massive backlash.

Led primarily by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the anti-Birth movement decried the film's sensational depiction of freed black slaves as lazy, lecherous, ignorant and vindictive.

In one sequence, the virtuous "Little Sister" (Mae Marsh) of the once-genteel, Southern aristocratic Cameron family is driven to suicide by a lust-crazed black soldier (a white actor in blackface). Another features the spectacle of a state assembly dominated by blacks guzzling booze, gnawing fried chicken and plopping dirty bare feet onto desks (images Griffith drew from racist editorial cartoons of the Reconstruction period).

Not surprisingly, the NAACP and its supporters sought to block the film's release.

As aesthetically and technically groundbreaking as it was, The Birth of a Nation is virulent and unequivocal in its depiction of the former Confederacy (for which Griffith's father fought as a colonel) as a fallen Eden beset by black devils and sneering Yankee exploiters.

In the movie's climactic moment - which must have had audiences cheering, crying and howling - the humiliated Cameron patriarch holds a pistol over his only living daughter's head as black soldiers attempt to pound their way into the cabin where a small group of white people have barricaded themselves against the dark hordes.

This man is ready to sacrifice his own child if the brutes get in, but then a sound is heard - or, to be precise, is suggested by Griffith's evocative editing. It's horses. It's a rescue. It's the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan. In the nick of time.

For the rest of his life, Griffith claimed not to understand what upset so many people about the movie. As far as he was concerned, he was simply chronicling his personal experience listening to his parents describe the deprivations that had befallen his childhood home of Kentucky during Reconstruction.

In 1930, at the time he was making his penultimate movie - a historical biopic of Lincoln - the 55-year-old Griffith filmed an interview defending The Birth of a Nation. Clearly well-rehearsed, conducted over cigarettes by Abraham Lincoln star Walter Huston in a plush sitting room, the interview ran prior to the film in a fresh commercial release.

In this interview, Griffith - who had not had a successful film in nearly a decade - defends the movie's heroic portrayal of the KKK.(Not true. For more info see the William M. Drew post--Reg Hartt).

Wistfully, he claims the Klan had "a purpose" in those days, that it "saved the South."

The great contradiction of Birth, between the monumental nature of its expressive achievement and the reprehensible message it expressed, has always tempered its historical status.

Over the years, many have attempted to either defend Griffith or mitigate his prejudice by insisting he be granted consideration in context - that is, as a 19th-century sentimentalist and southerner for whom the post-Civil War south really seemed a ravaged place saved by the KKK. But it's simply impossible today to watch the film and not be appalled.

In his Griffith entry in the most recent edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson calls the movie's racial politics "embarrassing."

In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan, which had originally formed as a secret society dedicated to exacting vigilante justice against what it saw as the enemies of the defeated South, was a moribund, depleted and antiquated organization. That changed with the movie's release. In Georgia alone that year, KKK ranks ballooned to 8 million, and 22 Klan-related lynchings took place. This is historical fact. But it is also something else: The birth of history as something shaped by the movies.(See the William M. Drew post for the correct info on this error.--Reg Hartt).

While Griffith's film proved an effective recruitment campaign for a reborn Klan in throughout the 1920s, the popular image of the organization itself tarnished immediately. It would seem that the backlash, combined with the growing civil rights consciousness of the 20th century, prevailed.

Few, if any, heroic portrayals of the hooded, white vigilantes followed. If anything, the image that stuck was one of irredeemable ugliness. The Klan became the symbol of white Southern race hatred, and the figure of the hooded Klansman was invariably associated with burning crosses, redneck ignorance and gruesome lynchings.

By 1939, the year that Gone With the Wind was released, the most popular and eagerly anticipated American movie since The Birth of a Nation conspicuously omitted the KKK subplot in Edna Ferber's original novel.(GONE WITH THE WIND was written by Margaret Mitchell not Edna Ferber--Reg Hartt).

The Birth of a Nation's "history written with lightning" struck the KKK only once. The fire burned bright but left only ashes.

Sources: The Film Encyclopedia, by Ephraim Katz.; Griffith Masterworks, Kino on Video (DVD); The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson; The Silent Cinema, by Liam O'Leary; The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, by David Thomson.

gpevere@thestar.ca <mailto:gpevere@thestar.ca>