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It’s a commonplace of film theory that the gaze of a camera is more invasive than it is cooly objective. D.W. Griffith was aware of this tension. If A Drunkard’s Reformation (1909) represents his early faith in the power of cinema to produce moral improvement, presenting the titular drunkard’s reformation during a theatrical performance, by the production of his later picture True Heart Susie (1919), Griffith has tempered his enthusiasm for his medium and nuanced his understanding of the camera, an object that is morally ambiguous in its voyeurism.
We see, in Susie‘s closing scene, that Susie (Lillian Gash) finally kisses William (Robert Harron), her long-pursued childhood crush. She receives a peck in an intimate close two shot. The pair pull apart and we see amazement and pleasure on her face. Griffith, perhaps feeling that he is unjustly invading this private moment, pulls his camera back, reframing to a more discreet wide two shot. Finally, he cuts to an inter-title, entirely removing the pair from our (and the camera’s) gaze.
By forcing Susie and William’s absence upon us, Griffith acknowledges the transgressive nature of cinema. We are allowed to see the characters’ most intimate and private moments; this luxury becomes obvious when the embracing pair are removed from the silver screen, when we are not allowed to look.
In Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), many of the images are similarly – in fact, on occasion, more immediately – voyeuristic (in the etymological sense of to see without being seen). We watch a girl and a boy playing in the street with a crushed can, builders doing very little and the Queen Mother unveiling a statue to a crowd. The picture is a mosaic of shots captured on an almost always static camera with an unnamed narrator providing a commentary. The design is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), which consists almost entirely of still black-and-white photographs. It also brings to mind the tradition of cinema vérité. Keiller is unique, though, because he doesn’t seem to mind if his camera is detected. While it often isn’t, it certainly is from time to time. Passers-by glance down the barrel before walking on.
In fact, though, people don’t often figure in this picture. The majority of the shots are of London – its architecture, its literary curiosities and its banality – and the protagonists (the Narrator and Robinson) are both unseen. In this mode, the writer/director establishes another relationship between the camera and the subject matter that is interwoven with the more expected voyeuristic mode of filming. Every now and then we feel like the camera has arrived too late. When he speaks of meetings, we become aware that his cinema is one of absence. Like Griffith’s final inter-title, the Narrator provides a commentary on an event that is not to be seen. In a shopping mall, as the camera moves up an escalator, he mentions a friendly man with whom Robinson spent a few hours (though later, when he tried to call, he only reached a public telephone box). It’s jarring to realise that this event is long since passed and that all we are left with is second- (or third-) hand report.
The film is more engaging because of this shadowiness, a quality shared between the Narrator, Robinson and many of the events detailed. Keiller sets up a trail to be followed, pynchonesque in its slipperiness and aptly suited to the Narrator’s theme of social degradation. The best has past or is, at least, not now.
At its opening, Intolerance seems unsure of what it’s supposed to be. An early inter-title introduces ‘our play’, linking the picture to a dramatic tradition, rather than a specifically filmic one, and the first shot is of a book entitled ‘INTOLERANCE’ being opened. The text inside is not a dramatic script but instead dense prose. Both these motifs (the borrowing of drama’s critical lexis and the bookending of a film with a book being opened and closed) are common in early pictures. Their presence suggests that cinematic art is, for Griffith at least, in part a textual one. Even his key image, the Eternal Mother rocking the cradle, which punctuates his picture and unites his four separate narratives, is drawn from poetry: a poem from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) begins ‘Out of the cradle endlessly rocking’.
The qualifying phrase ‘for Griffith at least’ distinguishes D. W. from many of his contemporaries. He shoots differently from them: his camera is (on the whole) an objective one. By 1916, shooting and editing methods devoted to apparently invisible continuity and emotional subjectivity were already solidifying into convention. They appear in Danish films as early as 1912 and are built upon by American directors in the years that follow. Griffith, though, rarely uses either a point of view shot or a shot/reverse-shot structure (though he must have been aware of them). He is not concerned about the seams of his work showing.
Notice, for example, the discontinuity in the introduction of The Mountain Girl. Griffith begins with an inter-title (‘The Mountain Girl down from the mountains of Suisana’). There is then an iris wipe-in from the top left corner of the frame to a wide shot of an open area. The Girl is seated and occupies a space near the bottom right corner of the frame. There is then a cut to a close shot of The Girl, in the same position, with a slight angle change. There is finally a cut to a close up of The Girl, whose head is at an obviously different angle to the previous setups, in which she looks directly into the camera. Griffith achieves a distance between his audience and his picture with these techniques: his work strives for the spectacular (in its etymological sense of a public show that is to be observed) rather than attempting to draw the viewer into the narrative, engulfing her with emotion.
Any comments on the development of early filmmaking conventions must be tempered with an acknowledgement that many prints are no longer extant: Griffith was very likely not alone in his refusal to make trendy editing or shooting decisions. Equally, D. W. and whoever else worked as he did should not be condemned as primitive craftsmen, lagging behind cinematic developments. He makes a choice to ignore certain patterns; he is not ignorant of them. In Intolerance, the jaggedness of his cutting – the mismatches, the jumps and the changes of angle – achieves a tension within scenes which disregards apparent continuity. This aesthetic could perhaps stem from a belief that the whole is more important than the individual parts: that the subject of the piece is more important that the details that create it.
This editing style, if not perhaps the underlying aesthetic driving it, brings to mind the work of Godard, to pick only one of many later directors who turn away from Hollywood’s conventions of invisible editing. In his drive for a spectacle, Griffith is not afraid to move his camera every so often: there is what appears to be a crane shot that surveys much of Babylon at the beginning of Act II; within a splendid royal court of sixteenth century France, the camera pans right to show the viewer every corner of the room.
We notice too that, in an early scene involving The Little Dear One, Griffith intercuts a shot of The Dear One blowing a kiss to her departing father and a short of her returning to her house with a shot of two little chickens nuzzling with one another. Here is the whole above part aesthetic again and an example of montage (in the technical sense). The meaning is generated through the contiguity of the three shots, their juxtaposition next to each other. Association is championed rather than continuity and it is this sort of assemblage that was picked up by Russian experimental filmmakers after 1917.
Griffith did not invent montage. He did not pioneer the moving camera. He was not an intentionally revolutionary craftsman throughout his career. He would have us believe, though, that he was the most important director of his time (if not of all time). When he broke with Biograph, he announced his split on 3rd December 1913 with an advertisement in the New York Dramatic Mirror. It read:
D. W. GRIFFITH
Producer of all great Biograph successes,
Revolutionizing Motion picture drama
and founding the modern technique
of the art.
Notice that he looks both forward and back. He begins with the past, with ‘all great Biograph successes’. He does not yet feel confident to draw a distinction between moving pictures and ‘drama’: his wording suggests that the works we see on the screen are of the same aesthetic group as those we see on the stage. Yet he also believes that ‘Motion picture[s]’ may eventually be separated from other art forms: he looks to the future and to the development of ‘the modern technique’. Where he and works like Intolerance sit in the history of this process – the removal of film out from under the proscenium arch – is more complex to locate than his advert suggests.