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What is the 21st Century?: Griffith is Always Modern

“But are we making things for the people of our epoch or repeating what has been done before? And finally, is the question itself important? We must ask ourselves that. The most important thing is always to doubt the importance of the question.”

Orson Welles


I know it's a little perverse to write about D.W. Griffith in a column devoted to the 21st century. But cinema, being synonymous with culture, forms a history, and a defining aspect of any present is always how it interacts with its pasts. Though many of them are lost, nowadays it's easier to see a Griffith film than it was the 1910s. They can be rented or streamed online. They're available in boxed sets and budget packages. Who D.W. Griffith is in 2009 tells us not only about our cinema, but what'll happen to the cinema of the future. Or what should happen. That is, that which we've done, and that which we should do. I contend that Griffith is modern. The difference between the modern and the contemporary is that the modern always remains so. Shakespeare, Bach, Manet and Dostoevsky will always be modern. Griffith will always be modern. He is, in 2009, as much the "cutting edge" as Leos Carax. To treat Griffith, patronizingly, as an "innovator" leads us nowhere. For one, he wasn't the first to do any of the things he's credited with — we know that now. Then there's a desire to contextualize Griffith. We've been uneasy about embracing him; the praise always seems to come with an apology. You don't have to look much further than John Steinle's profile of the director for Senses of Cinema. It shouldn't be that way.

If they teach us Shakespeare in school, they should teach us Griffith. Film tradition, auteurism, the effects of deconstruction— these are all just footnotes to something greater: the movies themselves. Everything else is just a game. If you’re writing about a film, the film’s importance in a larger body of work (whether the work of a director or a national cinema or the entirety of film history) is secondary to its human importance—as an idea, as an expression, as an emotion. If I'm trying to explain the importance of a painting like Manet’s Boy with a Pitcher, I won’t focus on the history of the painting or its place in Manet’s body of work. What's important is the painting itself. The same goes for cinema. To treat something as only important within some constructed system — history, ouevure, etc. — is to demean it. Cinema is important. Yes, it's easier to view movies as being just examples of something. But the truth is that films are originals. Griffith is an original.  He didn't give us the close-up, the cross-cut, or the tracking shot, but he made movies seem like the most natural medium for expressing human feeling — the only medium, maybe. As though emotion, art and morality only existed in images and the edits that connected them.

The movie is always radical; cinema’s the only viable example we have of perpetual revolution. Even the most conservative notion becomes radical in a movie (were there directors more radical than Leo McCarey, whose Catholicism might as well have been anarchism?). The paradox of Griffith: he was the last Victorian and the first Modernist. A man who, in attempting to perpetuate the 19th century, invented the 20th. In trying to continue the theatre, he discovered cinema. Griffith didn't invent the 1910s and the 1920s, but he did invent the 1940s, the 1960s, 1970s, and, to a certain extent, the 2000s.  It wasn't Griffith who gave us the first close-up, but it was Griffith who invented the neo-realist film, Griffith who gave the image weight when it had been defined by its weightlessness. Regardless of his own morality, he made it moral. The Struggle remains one of the most modern films ever made, a film whose meaning doesn't decay like its nitrate prints (though isn't that part of the beauty of cinema? that movies outlast themselves?): stark, terrifying, as physical as a Cassavetes and as psychological as a Tourneur.  The movies' radicalism is the secret equation through which Griffith's Victorian fantasies invented feminist critique in True Heart Susie. Cinema remains the moral medium, the one that, due to the effort, money and popular appeal involved, creates the most moral decisions. It's hard to be moral drawing with a pencil. It's possible, but it's hard. But a movie director is always moral. A novelist answers to his or her reader, but a director answers to history.

To believe in the vitality of cinema we have to believe in Griffith, and vice-versa. There should be no excuses. Griffith has to be reclaimed, the same way we must reclaim countless other directors whose greatness has been reduced to accepted truths and historical placements. The meanings of their films have changed over the decades, but meanings remains nonetheless. If we believe movies can last, we have to believe they've lasted. We've gotta find and claim our Ray, our Tarkovsky, our Tourneur, our Lubitsch, our Vidor, our Keaton, our Rossellini, our Hawks, our Cukor, our Cassavetes, our Lang, our Renoir. But reclaiming the past isn't enough; the present must be claimed as well. No more talk about "the good new Taiwanese film;" that it's a good movie should be enough. Enough erudition; let's be idiots. Let's unencumber ourselves and get to the heart of the matter. Cinema is shameless, irresponsible and completely true. We should embrace it shamlessly, irresponsibly and truthfully.


What is the 21st Century? is the column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.

Nice piece, Ignatiy. One thing I find myself always coming back to when teaching Griffith (and this come directly out of Miriam Hansen and Tom Gunning’s outstanding scholarship on him) is that, with A CORNER IN WHEAT and INTOLERANCE, Griffith demonstrated the possibility of organizing a film on the basis of an abstract idea, on a conceptual framework. This mode has been and remains a necessary rebuke to the dominant “everybody’s connected” mode of making social sense through cinema, that insists on using script contrivance to forge phony direct contact between a bunch of characters, in the CRASH style. Even when this mode is executed as intelligently as it possibly can be, as in certain Egoyan films, it still tells us less about the deep structures that bind a social system (in the case of CORNER) or an ideology (in INTOLERANCE) together. Griffith was almost beyond modern on this one.
That’s an interesting angle Michael! I wish I had taken some classes on Griffith. What filmmakers would you say continue in that tradition of organizing a film around an abstract idea? I assume that by the 1960s it was fairly common, but do you think between Griffith’s reign and then anyone picked up this mantle? Soviets perhaps?
Well, I’ll chime and say this idea of construction and critique is one of the main things Godard takes from Griffith. The ancestry of Godard’s narration can be traced to Griffith’s title cards. Often when you watch a Griffith with an audience, people’ll laugh out of embarrassment at them, because they’re so frank, such direct, unedited expressions of Griffith’s “voice.” I think Vivre Sa Vie, for one, is more Griffith than Brecht. Then there are people who continue Godard’s lineage — Denis, I think, with The Intruder. We can trace certain Jia films to Griffith, whether Jia intends us to or not. I think Michael Cimino continued it to a certain degree: for all of his current disguises, he, like Griffith, was more or less incapable of lying as a director. But it wasn’t really Griffith’s “construction sense” that he was continuing. Eisenstein et al. had the least trouble embracing Griffith (who, for the late teens on, was already considered “old-fashioned” by many of contemporaries — but innovation usually resembles deficiency). Vidor sort of did the inverse: he could take a simple narrative and make it feel as though it was part of an entire society, which is more or less what he does in The Crowd and The Big Parade.
Where’d you get the Orson Welles quote? I’d like to read it in context.
F for Fake, if I recall. A fuller version of the quote: "Elmyr de Hory had dramatized the question of whether or not art exists. It has always existed, but today I believe that man cannot escape his destiny to create whatever it is we make- jazz, a wooden spoon, or graffiti on the wall. All of these are expressions of man’s creativity, proof that man has not yet been destroyed by technology. But are we making things for the people of our epoch or repeating what has been done before? And finally, is the question itself important? We must ask ourselves that. The most important thing is always to doubt the importance of the question. "
Sorry I never got back, I was pulled TIFFward. Even though it’s wholly unsuccessful, Fast Food Nation is a perfect example of another film organized around concept rather than characters or action. One of the main complaints about that film is that “the threads never came together,” so trained are we to have all the protagonists meet on a doomed plane at the end or whatever. I ended up talking about this briefly when I wrote about John Gianvito, because the main threads in The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein also refrain from a final knotted conclusion. What we have instead, of course, are meditations on “the food industry” and “the Gulf War,” two topics capacious enough to accommodate human beings who may not, you know, be on a first-name basis. But I agree with Ignatiy, Godard is a great example. And it’s often forgotten how much Eisenstein admired Griffith, and how those who brought Brechtianism into cinema got a good deal of Griffith in the bargain when they often turned to Eisensteinian construction.
It’s really Griffith, not Brecht, that defines “the Brechtian approach” in cinema (with a few exceptions, like Rancho Notorious and a few of the later Sirks). Henceforth, we’ll write Griffithian where it applies (and it applies often). The problem then is to find the genuinely Brechtian.
Who is we? Genuinely Brechtian: Spione, You and Me
Lang and Brecht — there’s a good combination. “The only genius among us” — that’s what Lang supposedly said about Brecht. And of course there’s Hangmen Also Die.
It’s great what you say about Griffith inventing the 20th century while trying to preserve the 19th!
I have to admit I don’t know “Struggle” as a Griffith film. Are you referring to the subtitle of “Intolerance,” which was “Love’s Struggle Through the Ages”? As to your closing line, although I think you are an original, your spirit seems to incarnate the spirit of the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, and wonder what influence she had on you. She knew film history, but wanted enjoyment of the movies to be rambunctious at times, with even a hint of counter-grain anarchy (usually manifested as admitting the occasional enjoyment of “vulgar” pleasures)!

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