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TAG: D. W. GRIFFITH

Posts tagged ‘D. W. Griffith’
November 17, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation

These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation on November 18 and 19 in Theater 3, and on November 20 in Theater 2.

<i>The Birth of a Nation.</i> 1915. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from Progress Films. Restored with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation and the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund

The Birth of a Nation. 1915. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from Progress Films. Restored with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation and the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund


I have been struggling with The Birth of a Nation for nearly a half-century, since I first saw it as a teenager. On the one hand, it reaches the highest artistic plateau film had attained in its time, and it is probably, on balance, the most influential movie, in terms of technique, ever. On the other hand, it reeks of the conjugal evils of slavery and lethal white supremacy. How does one reconcile D. W. Griffith’s Leonardo-like genius with his sleazy acceptance of a worldview that is so shameful and repulsive? Can the excuses of slightly tempering the racism of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in his adaptation or of a nostalgic Confederate-soaked childhood be fully acceptable? How tolerable was this “blind spot”—as Atticus Finch termed racism in To Kill a Mockingbird—when it condoned the nineteenth-century Ku Klux Klan and helped start a new one in the twentieth century? And, does the film still matter as a social document? I would like to try to approach answers to these questions by begging your indulgence and recounting my personal journey (or journeys) as it relates to the film. Much of this will lie outside the scope of standard film history and criticism, but this is no ordinary film. Read more

November 10, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria

These notes accompany the screening of Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria on November 11, 12, and 13 in Theater 3.

H. G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, simultaneous with the birth of the movies. By sending out their cadre of globetrotting cameramen, the Lumière brothers quickly opened up the world of the present (replete with all its regional oddities and exoticism) to film audiences. Wells mastered the speculative future in the tradition of Jules Verne, but perhaps even more intriguing for filmgoers was the possibility film offered to travel back in time and retrieve the distant past.

D. W. Griffith had dabbled in this (with his In Prehistoric Days, 1913, for example), but the real heavy lifting was done by the Italians. This is appropriate, since the thousand-year history of the Roman Republic and Empire was unrivaled in its impact on the contemporary world; Italy practically owned history. This was accentuated for visual artists by the poignant beauty of surviving ruins and statuary, both in Rome and spread over three continents. Italy’s heritage contributed mightily to the seeming authenticity of its celluloid spectacles.

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November 3, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith Leaves Biograph
Blanche Sweet in <i>Judith of Bethulia.</i> 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist

Blanche Sweet in Judith of Bethulia. 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist

These notes accompany the D. W. Griffith Leaves Biograph program, which screens on November 4, 5, and 6 in Theater 3 as part of the two-year An Auteurist History of Film exhibition.

1915 marked the publication of poet Vachel Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture, the first serious attempt in English to come to grips with the medium that had outgrown penny arcades and nickelodeons and was now threatening to appear in venues that would rival cathedrals. In the preceding year, as extraordinary European films like Benjamin Christensen’s The Mysterious X (released as Sealed Orders in the U.S.) and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria were arriving on American shores, D. W. Griffith had been tearing at the seams of his constraining Biograph contract. As with so many early commentaries on the movies, Lindsay struggled to find the language that would do justice to his thoughts. (One thinks of a young Eugene O’Neill groping for words, or of Griffith himself, trying to articulate something previously undefined and unrecognized.) In fact, in his enthusiasm for film, indicative of the heady atmosphere of the times, Lindsay waxed positively Biblical, informing filmmakers:

“All of you who are taking the work as a sacred trust, I bid you God-speed…. You will be God’s thoroughbreds…. It has come then, this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes. In after centuries its beginning will be indeed remembered. It has come, this new weapon of men, and by faith and a study of the signs we proclaim that it will go on and on in immemorial wonder.” Read more

October 14, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: “D. W. Griffith at Biograph”

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the "D. W. Griffith at Biograph" program, which screens on October 15 in Theater 3 and on October 16 and 17 in Theater 2.

i>A Corner in Wheat.</i> 1909. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. 35mm print, black and white, silent, approx. 15 min. Gift of Actinograph Corp. Preserved with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation

A Corner in Wheat. 1909. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. 35mm print, black and white, silent, approx. 15 min. Gift of Actinograph Corp. Preserved with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation

Henri Matisse said, “My purpose is to render my emotion… I think only of rendering my emotion.”

Film history textbooks dutifully catalog the elements of cinematic grammar and expressiveness that D. W. Griffith invented or refined in his five years at Biograph (in collaboration with his cinematographer G. W. “Billy” Bitzer [1872–1944], who worked at the Museum Film Library late in his life, providing invaluable information on the Biograph films and preparing a posthumous autobiography)—a virtually endless list that includes close-ups, fades, masking, parallel editing, the moving camera or dolly shot, backlighting, changing camera angles, restrained histrionics through the cultivation of a stock company of professional film actors, “spectacle,” etc. Yet the salient point is that all of these essentially manipulative techniques served a larger purpose. Griffith’s great genius was his intuitive understanding of the inherent power of the movies to render emotion, to evoke feeling. No medium, before or since, has so thoroughly facilitated art’s capacity to touch that raw nerve, the primal and authentic human essence, and Griffith was the first filmmaker to fully grasp and exploit this fact. Fashions and conventions come and go, but at their best Griffith’s films—like all great art—are deeply felt expressions of what we are, of what it is like to be human.

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September 22, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: “A Portrait of Edwin S. Porter”

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the "A Portrait of Edwin S. Porter" program, which screens September 23, 24, and 25 in MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Theater (Theater 3).

<i>The Great Train Robbery</i>. 1903. USA. 35mm print, black-and-white with color tinting, silent, approx. 11 min. Acquired from Don Malkames. Preserved with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts

The Great Train Robbery. 1903. USA. 35mm print, black-and-white with color tinting, silent, approx. 11 min. Acquired from Don Malkames. Preserved with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts

Charles Musser, director of Before the Nickelodeon and now a distinguished professor of film, has ties with The Museum of Modern Art going back to his undergraduate days. His The Emergence of Cinema and Eileen Bowser’s The Transformation of Cinema (both in the Scribner series A History of the American Cinema) have become standard works on this period. Eileen, for many years a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, is now retired. Blanche Sweet, a good personal and professional friend who died in 1986, stars in several of the D. W. Griffith films coming up in succeeding weeks.

As Musser’s film explains, Edwin S. Porter was a kind of jack-of-all-trades who accidentally stumbled into being the first director of note in American film. Although it is questionable that he ever saw himself as an artist, his presence in the early days of the medium, when truly interesting things were happening, makes it unfair to totally dismiss him. His later career lasted until 1916 and included some twenty features, mostly codirected with others (further diluting any possible auteurist claims). Among these were the now infamous The Count of Monte Cristo, starring James O’Neill (the film version of the stage role that figures so prominently in his son Eugene’s great Long Day’s Journey into Night), and the Mary Pickford vehicle Tess of the Storm Country.

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