Tuesday, January 07, 2003

D.W. Griffith is not ready for his close-up, Mr. De Mille

Slate offers up yet another irritating article (scroll down for my comments on their Christmastime Atheism screed), this time written by Bryan Curtis and about genius filmmaker D.W. Griffith.

Griffith was without a doubt a visionary moviemaker, pretty much inventing the "language of film" that we all take for granted. For instance, if you take a shot of character A looking to the right and place it next to a shot of character B to the left, when watching the shots in succession you automatically assume the two characters are looking at each other. Griffith did it first, starting way back in 1909. "Rules of editing" such as this pretty much define the Hollywood style of filmmaking still in use today, nearly 100 years later. Granted, I do think Eisenstien did more interesting things with montage editing in the 20's and 30's, but it goes without saying that pretty much every movie you'll see today owes a debt to Griffith.

The man also jam-packed his films with racist images, propaganda, and general Trent Lott-style Confederate apologism (to coin an akward phrase). He is America's Leni Riefenstahl. Both filmmakers made beautiful and moving films
(Griffith's Intolerance and A Corner In Wheat, which features a creepy "crushed by grain" death scene, and Riefenstahl's Olympia series come to mind). Both filmmaker's racism and cultural bias shines through clearly in their work. No one doubts the quality of Griffith's films, and the fact that they should be studied and even admired for their artistic merit. But to deny the racism of the man who created Birth of a Nation is naive in the extreme. When Curtis writes:

What all this suggests is that Griffith had no well-formed inner politics and that whatever ideology he put on the screen was malleable to the social whim of the moment (or whatever books he was reading).

what he is suggesting is the cultural version of the Nazi soldier's excuse of "just following orders". It's not his fault, it was just the culture he was immersed in. That's not a good excuse for Palestinian suicide bombers, Nazi soldiers, or Trent Lott, and it's not a good excuse for Griffith.

**UPDATE** Via Atrios I find David E. of the Fablog has written on this subject already.

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