Griffith's Legacy


A few days ago we had in the film studies center a program called “pictures and sounds”. What they do is to provide a sound for a silent picture in any way but conventional. They did The Adventures of Dollie (1908) with Kouji, which basically means a man supplies everything you hear by his mouth. This film is our great Griffith’s directorial debut. Incidentally the gypsy who is selling his baskets immediately reminds me of Thoreau (whose basket nobody wants to buy). But this little short that I have never seen before again brings back this American provinciality that Eisenstein talks about.

Eisenstein, because he is not an American, sees this eternal return of the father a Victorian morality. In fact, Griffith films are so charged with morality that one wonders what could be the cause? After all, is not the audience of this nickelodeon era seeking entertainment? But what Eisenstein accuses Griffith is not this laughable morality—which is rendered clownish by our vocal artist, exactly what it deserves—but his sensibility. And for Eisenstein this sensibility directly leads to—montage. Griffith began to cut not only between scenes, but also in the midst of actions. This sort of frame cut eventually leads to that the patterning of cutting overrides the profilmic integrity. On this basis Bordwell says that Hollywood cinema is a cinema of cutting. Obviously, for Eisenstein, the Hollywood type of cutting is only a Dickens type of sensibility which is maybe appropriate to his time, but not in the age of modernism. Isn’t it obvious that in a modern Hollywood we have much faster cutting rate?

Intolerance boasts “12500 men and women, 7500 horses, and endless spectacle”. Now people believe that it is precisely because the film made particular mistakes: excess of spectacle over narrative, theme over character, sentiment over motivation, that is was doomed as a “magnificent failure”. But come to think of it, the fact that the film was advertised as a spectacle, as opposed to say, having a strong story, is a significant fact. It means the main marketing virtue of this film is the spectacle, that the narration, albeit has a strong presence in this film, is probably not more than a pretext as the string supporting all those shiny laundries under the sun. It is important to understand that this kind of “logic of spectacle” is not patently American; there is nothing vulgar in it—unless you believe Fellini is vulgar. The notion of “cinema of attraction” is powerful because it is not only a “primitive” stage of cinema (history), but also a mode of presentation that persists today (psychology).

Spectacle is not a problem. But what is fatal of Intolerance is that not only the central theme does not make much sense to American audience, the stories themselves cannot be said to have exemplified the very notion. The modern story is that of persecution resulted from excessive morality; the story of Jesus is one of religious persecution, this is not a matter of intolerance; the stories of Babylon and France are heavily tainted with political power struggle. In fact, none of the four stories qualify for this abstract theme that is intolerance.

The urge to depict Jesus and ancient life is totally justifiable; the idea of narrating in alternation is all the more ingenuous; yet the central idea which is supposed to unite all the fragments is not working. To illustrate this point, let us do compare it to one of its knockoffs, Leaves from Satan's book (1921), by Dreyer. Although the rip off misses what is most important in Griffith's work, the alternating narration, and instead just tells one story after another, it does manage to unite the four stories under a same character (Satan) and a similar logic of procession: evil doing is always evoked by men's declined lust for beautiful woman—what a revelation! The only exception being the Jesus story (one day maybe someone will make a film about Judas betraying Jesus because he was madly in love with Magdalene).

At least from the surface, Michael Haneke's films share a similar theme to some of Griffith's biograph films, made well known for their critical role in making the transition from attraction to narrative. This theme is the intrusion to a bourgeois nuclear family. In both The Londale Operator and The Lonely Villa, we have a series of actions that represents a same routine between the male and the female: from the initial unison, to male's departure, female's danger, female sends the message to male, male comes to rescue of female, and their final reunion. Haneke's revision to this code is that,

a) The early disability of the male, both in The Hour of Wolf and Funny Games.

b) The intention of the intruder or the nature of this intrusion is never made clear.

c) The delay or complete dismissal of reunion.


One can definitely say that Haneke is not promoting the Victorian or bourgeois morality. In fact he appears to hate it so much that in The Seventh Continent, a perfectly respectable nuclei family has to commit suicide and before that, to literally chop their household items to pieces. Much of the shocks produced are based on the audience’s identification with this morality. The money in to the toilette is an example. One feels when watching this endless sequence that if one hates something so bad that usually means one loves it. Destroying is the other side of possessing. What the bourgeoisie is about is not to keep things in good shape, but to know what is ours, what is not—and to respect that distinction. Therefore this family only destroys everything that belongs to them. They do not go out to burn other people’s house. And they sell the car because they don’t want to leave it to the others. It is amazing to see how Haneke is so true to bourgeoisie’s attitude toward material possessions. Griffith, on the other hand, naively plays down this aspect, leaves it to programs such as “how to become a millionaire”.


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