61. D.W. Griffith
THE BIRTH OF A NATION, INTOLERANCE, BROKEN BLOSSOMS
If you haven’t been to film school or performed the equivalent autodidactic cinematic research, chances are your knowledge of D.W. Griffith comes to some or all of these points: (a) he made movies a very long time ago, (b) he carries great but obscure importance in the history of cinema, and (c) you can’t really like him because he was too racist. You might also know the name of his best-known film, The Birth of a Nation, that it came out in 1915 — which supports point (a) — and that Griffith adapted it from a play called The Clansman — which supports point (c).
As far as point (b) goes, we here come to a problem that, in one form or another, afflicts much of the early-cinema canon. How much willingness can remain in even today’s cinephilic public to sit down to a 94-year-old silent film about something that happened a long time ago — the U.S. Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed, in this case — that runs over three hours and has a lot of blackface in it? Many surely feel the same way about Sergei Eisenstein’s meditations on revolutionary Russia or even — though surely not anyone reading this site — a picture as relatively recent as Citizen Kane.
All these films share a bit of a bad rap, a perception at the crossroads of arid content, utilitarian aesthetics, and the kind of historical distance than feels like dangerously like irrelevance. But first-time viewers who ignore their assumptions and actually experience a film like Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin or Birth of a Nation tend to sense a certain artistic vitality, even if they don’t exactly “enjoy” what they’ve seen in the same sense that they enjoy their favorite modern movies. And here one of those film-school terms tends to come in very handy indeed, because these viewers have sensed “film grammar” developing before their eyes. We’ve grown used to the unique way that cinema depicts what it depict, but so much of credit for the refinement of the way it depicts it ultimately flows back to D.W. Griffith that the fascinating aesthetic history lesson of his work more than makes up for its icky racist one.
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