Pordenone 2001
feature by Sean Axmaker, 7 December 2001

Griffith: 1911

I don’t want to sound uncultured, but a little Griffith can go a long way, so the fifty-two (of the seventy-two) two-reel films made by Griffith in 1911 (shown in chronological order over the course of thirteen programs) was sometimes more duty than delight. He was cranking them out at an astounding rate, more than a film a week (by contrast, Chaplin took eighteen months to produce his twelve great Mutual classics in 1916-1917). Griffith was obviously balancing art with business. Many of the scripts were hackneyed, lazy, or simply repetitive, and even some of the more interesting stories turn on unconvincing twists, ridiculous misunderstandings, and absurd endings pulled out of the hat. And on a purely technical level, some of the surviving films lack intertitles and a few have yet to be reconstructed (I watched one film that was, literally, a collection of rushes arranged by location rather than a narrative composition).

That said, this kind of immersion can be fascinating. You can see Griffith work through and develop his narrative and cinematic ideas, and see the kinds of conventions that are not even questioned. How many early silent films get away with the ploy of a character lurking unseen in the background overhearing a private conversation? How many conspirators hatch their plans at open windows, allowing heroes to eavesdrop? (Both of these conventions more or less disappeared, or at least were handled more subtly, later in the decade.) More interesting is the use (or rather, nonuse) of off-screen space. Griffith’s 1911 films are not simply of the moment, but of the limitations of the frame, and when a character walks off screen they can no longer interact.

Thus a film like The Lonedale Operator, already considered an important step in Griffith’s development, stands out for its sudden jolt of sophisticated crosscutting (two events play out simultaneously in different locations) and its use of an almost unseen cut-in for dramatic detail. Social issues also rise to the surface of a few films (in As In a Looking Glass, a father sees his behavior reflected in his son’s mimicry and “learns his lesson”), as do some rather disturbing stereotypes. In The Baby and the Stork the cops look for a child kidnapper and grab the first immigrant they find with an infant, and don’t even have to apologize for the harassment! You get the idea that this is Griffith’s tacit reflection of what he considers acceptable behavior.




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