title: D.W. Griffith and the Dawn of Film Art

title: Part 8 -- Editing for Perspective

In part 7 of this series we noted Griffith’s three principal innovations of the first half of 1909: the fade-out, the tracking shot and the facial close-up. We now resume tracing the development of Griffith’s all-important editing technique in the remainder of his output during that time, when he began to develop the two primary tools with which editing would transform the art of film – changing perspective, which we will discuss in this part, and editing used as a structural device, which we will address in part 9. But first, we need to describe a far less imposing application of this same procedure.

Title -- Standardized StyleWe observed in part 7 that with the new year Griffith’s output increased by nearly 50%, as he now averaged three pictures every week. (And, again, let’s recall that in his nominal role as director Griffith was personally responsible for nearly all phases of operation, from the stories, casting, sets and locations through editing, titling and distribution.) To meet this hectic schedule, Griffith tended to choose simple stories, most of which were highly theatrical and could be played on a single interior set in one continuous shot. (Some, in fact, were!) At the same time, Griffith evolved a standardized structure that relied upon a purely mechanical use of intercutting – he simply arranged each story so that the action shifted between two related locations, which he then cross-cut. In retrospect, this expedient was not only efficient, but clever and reasonable – it provided a routine that required a minimum amount of pre-production planning while adding a modicum of shallow technical sophistication to help disguise uninspired and superficial plots.

An example of this approach in its pure form is The Wooden Leg (February 13 and 19). The silly plot involves a father’s rejection of his daughter’s suitor for a wealthy friend, whose courtship the father favors. To ensure the daughter’s happiness, the suitor and friend hatch a plan: the friend borrows a tramp’s wooden leg and pretends it is his own. Predictably, the snooty father is so repulsed by the revelation that he embraces the suitor by default. The entire action shifts between the father’s study and an adjoining parlor, thus lending a modest degree of cinematic interest to this threadbare tale. Yet the haste of production shows through in the absence of other sets, which tends to impair any sense of credibility. Thus, when the suitor goes outside to find a one-legged tramp, he simply runs off the set for a few seconds and then returns with the tramp. Even if a title had bridged the time gap (and the difference in length between the paper and release prints suggests that there was room for one in addition to the main and introductory titles), the seemingly important depiction of this crucial plot point would still be missing.

But even within this severely limited scheme, Griffith managed to provide an occasional extra touch to accentuate a simple tale’s emotional, comedic and suspenseful tones. Thus, His Ward’s Love (January 29) depicts a minister’s dilemma and heartbreak when his pretty ward falls in love. The film’s ten shots alternate between the porch of the minister’s home where the courtship occurs and the inside study, where he reacts to what is taking place outside and finally blesses the union. Griffith humanizes the stock situation by arranging the shots so that the couple’s flirtations alternate with the minister’s lonely depression and torment. Schneider’s Anti-Noise Crusade (March 8 and 9) uses a comic variant, as the frustrations of a man with uncouth houseguests are heightened by switching between shots of the guests’ crude behavior and the furious host reacting alone in his room. A suspenseful twist is found in The Prussian Spy (February 1). The first four minutes consist of a single shot of a living room where a woman entertains and then hides a spy in her closet as enemy soldiers fruitlessly search for hom and then decide to have shooting practice – with their target pinned to the closet door. The other scene shows the maid in the attic desperately sawing a hold through the floor to lift the spy up through it. By alternating the preparations for the shooting match and the maid’s progress, Griffith adds a fine touch of suspense to the dull exposition.

A Fool's Revenge -- hinting at perspective A Fool's Revenge -- hinting at perspective
A Fool's Revenge – hinting at perspective

Even though Griffith used intercutting routinely to enliven his two-set quickies, they still represent a dilution of the expressiveness that characterizes his best editing. One of his full-scale productions represents a solid advance in his use of the technique. A Fool’s Revenge (February 11 and 12) attracted great attention at the time, as it was an adaptation (and vast simplification) of the opera Rigoletto, and the class-obsessed New York trade press seized upon the symbolic value of spoon-feeding high culture to the movie-going masses. Although ignored by critics, Griffith’s editing of three similar sequences of the picture added extraordinary atmosphere to an otherwise routine action of a character entering a sleazy inn frequented by evil gypsies. Here is the final one:

  1. EXTERIOR OF THE INN. Rigoletto approaches the door and knocks.
  2. INTERIOR OF THE INN. Several gypsies furtively move toward the door.
  3. EXTERIOR. Rigoletto begins to sneak through the door.
  4. INTERIOR. Rigoletto enters, the door is shut and the action continues.
The exterior shots represent Rigoletto’s point of view whereas the interior represents the gypsies’. By prolonging Rigoletto’s entrance and by shifting perspective back and forth twice more than was necessary to show the action (for which shots 27 and 30 would have sufficed), Griffith creates an uneasy atmosphere of suspicion and tension that would have been totally lacking had the sequence been filmed in the standard concise manner of one exterior and one interior shot to depict the entrance. The effect is magnified by using it consistently each time the inn is entered.

Title -- Editing for PerspectiveA Fool’s Revenge brings us to the brink of an extraordinary use of editing – to direct our attention to a salient aspect of the scene being depicted that enriches our perception. At its most rudimentary level this involves a close-up insert of a detail that otherwise would not be apparent from the standard far-shot perspective. While Griffith occasionally had inserted close-ups of objects in earlier films, in early 1909 he began to do so routinely. Thus, A Politician’s Love Story, The Golden Louis, The Medicine Bottle, A Drive For Life, Resurrection, At the Altar and Jones and the Lady Book Agent all contain close-up inserts of objects that play crucial roles in their stories. Twin Brothers goes further by bringing the camera in closer twice in the same scene to pick out different details of a wider shot. Griffith’s confidence in relying on such shots helped to free his cast from dependence upon the broad theatrical gestures otherwise needed to explain important plot points that revolved around the details of specific objects. More generally, it expanded the types of stories he was able to use.

At this point, we should note that the close-up, while achieved in an artificial way by splicing together different pieces of film, in fact is a natural reflection of human experience, as it replicates the way we use our eyes. Walking down a street, we don’t just look straight ahead but turn our attention to various objects that interest us – another person, a moving car, an interesting plant, an obstacle we want to avoid. By focusing briefly on each one in turn, and at the same time temporarily tuning out the surroundings, essentially we are creating our own series of close-ups. Indeed, it could be said that the most effective film editing shows us the same details of a situation which we would want to see if we were free to direct our own attention.

All of Griffith's close-up inserts were essential to the plots. More significantly, though, Griffith used medium shots expressively and artistically in many early 1909 films to intensify feeling. They, too, correspond to the way we see, generally reflecting the immutable fact that we see movies through the lens of the camera, and thus the camera’s position comes to represent our own perspective in any given scene.
Edgar Allen Poe Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe – the camera respectfully retreats
If a close-up insert is analogous to examining an object more closely, then a medium shot is more flexible. By altering the camera position, whether through motion or by editing, Griffith pulls us along and dictates how we view key portions of a story. I Did It, Mama and An Awful Moment both close with tight three-shots of families that have narrowly averted tragedy, enabling us to share their intimacy. A Rude Hostess (March 3) shows all of its action in a continuous six-minute shot but closes with a medium shot of the dejected heroine alone in her room, lending a brooding end to an otherwise lifeless film.

The opposite effect – a cut to a wider shot – is found in The Medicine Bottle (February 3, 4, 10 and 16). The young daughter receives a saving phone call in medium shot so we can fully share her expression of alarm turning to relief, which cuts to a matched farther shot of the room, as if the camera (and we) had to withdraw from the intense excitement of the climax. The outstanding example of expressive editing from medium to long shots comes in Edgar Allen Poe (January 21 and 23). The poet has temporarily left his sick wife to try to sell some poems to a pitiless editor. Her death is shown in medium shot, after which the camera respectfully retreats to a far shot of the room, perfectly reflecting the cold and empty stillness that will greet the poet upon his return.

But the effect can be more subtle – consider the cut from far to medium shot occurs in The Voice of the Violin (February 19 and 23):

  1. BROWNSTONE EXTERIOR. An anarchist stands guard for his accomplice, who is placing a bomb in the basement.
  2. LIVING ROOM. A well-dressed lady plays a violin.
  3. BROWNSTONE EXTERIOR. The anarchist is drawn up the stairs.
  4. MEDIUM SHOT. He gazes in the window.
The Voice of the Violin The Voice of the Violin
The Voice of the Violin – drawing closer
Here, the medium shot reflects the anarchist’s thoughts being drawn inward, as is the camera itself, and at the same time (since the camera represents our point of view) urges us to come closer to share the mental process Griffith pauses to observe and highlight. Here, it underlines the irony of the anarchist's attraction to the violinist whom his accomplice is placing in danger, as well as the poignancy of his being torn between ideology and affection. Indeed, one of Griffith's key strengths is to invest single shots with multiple levels of pertinent meaning.

But there can be danger in reading too much thematically into such cuts – Resurrection (March 26 and 30, April 23) closes with a two-shot sequence: a far shot as the heroine wrestles with her conscience and then a matched medium shot as she resolves to remain a Siberian missionary. While the sequence as presented could be taken to symbolize her inner peace, the reverse scheme (going from medium to distant shot) could have indicated her selfless wider concern.

All of the foregoing involve the editing together of similar shots having different perspectives. Griffith also used free-standing medium shots during this period. Thus, I Did It, Mama (February 15) opens with a shot of two children playing in their room. The standard perspective would have shown them in the lower half of a room set, but here Griffith brings the camera closer so that they fill the frame, so as to emphasize their perspective. (When adults enter, the standard viewpoint is restored.)

A more expressive use of a separate medium shot is in The Golden Louis (January 28-30). Griffith uses poignant intercutting to depict a beggar girl freezing to death on a snowy staircase while a nobleman gambles away him money. To underline the girl’s suffering (and to ensure our empathy), Griffith replaces one of the full shots of the staircase with a far closer one. By doing so, he forces us to become intimately involved in the girl’s plight and to momentarily abandon our usual role of dispassionate observer.

At the Altar -- a standardized edit At the Altar -- a standardized edit
In Old Kentucky – the elaborate pan

We have already noted how the panning shot can achieve an impact similar to editing by directing our attention in a continuous way, as if we were scanning a scene rather than shifting our eyes abruptly from detail to detail. In The Peach Basket Hat (May 1 and 6), the camera pans back and forth as a man exits a house, returns to retrieve something, and then leaves once more. Thus the camera itself seems confused and indecisive as to the man’s direction, a marvelously evocative reflection of his own state of mind.

Although somewhat past our consideration of Griffith's first year, In Old Kentucy (July 29, August 3, 5 and 6) contains one of the most elaborate panning shots in the entire Griffith canon. The sequence is prefaced by a fabulously evocative shot of a sentry overlooking a bucolic valley (thus setting up the film's overall thematic discord between war and peace). Then, in a single 90-second shot the camera pans right to follow his view across the wind-blown shrubbery, enabling us to share his search for something unusual. The suspense finally is broken as we come to rest just as a rebel peeks up into the bottom of the frame (on the extreme left, as we nearly passed him by in our search!). We then pan left with the rebel as he crawls along but we stop with him as he looks around furtively and lays low. Then the pan resumes as leave him to follow his gaze until we come upon the sentry again, who is joined by a formation whose leader hears something. We pan right to follow the troop as it advances until the rebel pops up at the extreme right and runs off, pursued by the troops. Griffith's pan documents the proximity that barely separates the two deadly forces, involves us in both their perspectives, tracks their actions, and all the while sustains an atmosphere of combat tension – and all in a single shot that manages to generate such an extraordinarily complex wealth of meaning!

But back to editing ... At the Altar (January 30 and February 8) provides a convenient catalog of Griffith’s exploratory use of perspective in a variety of contexts, each for a different purpose. The far-fetched tale finds a scorned suitor contriving to revenge himself with a mechanical contraption that will shoot his girl as she is being married to his rival. In addition to fluent intercutting between preparations for the wedding and the rival’s revenge, and then again between the ceremony and a policeman racing to the rescue, it contains all three types of perspective changes we have noted.

At the Altar -- a standardized edit At the Altar -- a standardized edit
At the Altar – standardized formal editing

It opens on a rather tight group shot of a family and friends seated at a table, each character performing a bit of comic business (a lout eats greedily, a girl flirts, etc.). The camera then retreats to a wider view of the same scene as the action continues with entrances and exists, but the cut was hardly needed, as there was ample room in the closer view to capture all the actors’ motions. Rather, this seems to be another instance of Griffith’s “standardized” formal style that we noted above, in which he divides an otherwise boring three-minute opening shot in half for no reason than to lend it a slight dollop of interest.

Eventually, we see a close-up of the contraption by which the murder is to be done, but, curiously, it is only inserted into the scene in the church before the ceremony in which the suitor sets it up. (As Kemp Niver points out, somewhat typical for Griffith, there is an obvious mismatch between the light coat the suitor wears in the establishing shot and the dark sleeve he sports in the close-up insert.) Yet, the insert seemingly would have been more appropriate in an earlier scene in which, bitter over his rejection, the suitor devises his scheme – all we see is that he flounders around on the floor with a gun and some wood, without really being able to tell just what he is doing. (Perhaps this could be viewed as a suspenseful means of delaying our comprehension of a key plot element, but in context it merely seems frustrating.)

At the Altar -- editing for emotion At the Altar -- editing for emotion
At the Altar – editing for emotion

The most innovative shift of perspective occurs toward the end, as a policeman, having been alerted to the plot, races toward the church but trips, injures his leg, hobbles a bit and then collapses. At that point another man runs up to him, learns of the urgency and races off to deliver the warning. Just as he reaches the fallen policeman the camera leaps in to a five-second tighter view – hardly necessary, as the distant shot shows the predicament well enough. Rather, the sudden cut to the closer shot provides a jolt of exigency that yanks us further into the dire emotion of the situation. (Incidentally, note from the shadows that the two shots, although well matched in terms of composition, must have been taken hours apart.)

Griffith’s use of a perspective change to tighten emotions launches one of the most important properties of cinema and, when a scene is broken down into component shots, a key use of editing. Once freed from the compulsion to show all the action from a neutral, all-encompassing vantage, directors would become free to find the precise camera position for each portion of each scene to project an emotion they want to emphasize, an alignment of characters that suggests their relationships, or the composition of background elements to resonate the tone. That level of sophistication was still years away (and would emerge with Griffith’s features), but the first crucial step of freeing the camera from its strictly functional placement had been taken.

While our focus has been upon Griffith’s increasingly sophisticated exploration of cinematic technique, I want to conclude this part with one of my favorite films of this period that works for the very opposite reasons – its sheer simplicity, lack of pretension and genuine charm.
A Politician's Love Story A Politician's Love Story
A Politician's Love Story
As recounted by Linda Arvidson (Griffith’s wife and lead actress) in her 1925 When the Movies Were Young, they awoke one morning to find New York covered in an unexpected snowfall, with “the leafless trees and brush all a-glisten with a sleet that made them look like fantastic crystal branches. [Griffith] did not want to waste that fairyland just a few blocks away.” So, despite having no suitable story, Griffith grabbed his cast and crew to film some scenes in Central Park. The result became A Politician’s Love Story (January 18 and 19). Furious over an editorial cartoon, the title character brandishes a gun all around the newspaper office (the staff comically leaping under their desks all together) until he finds the artist, a lovely girl who melts his heart but deflects his advances. Walking through Central Park, he sits on two benches, becomes increasingly dejected as couples keep passing by, runs into the girl, chases off a masher, gets a tentative kiss and strolls off with her into a hopeful future. Although the only point of technical interest is an insert of the cartoon, the entire film is transparently edited, concise (a mere seven minutes), efficient, and completely free of the lurid exaggeration and absurd contrivances that impede genuine modern appreciation of so many productions of the time. The lovely outdoor shots evidence Griffith’s growing sensitivity to composition, scenery and tempo. As a bonus, it preserves a fine glimpse of how Central Park looked a century ago – aside from all the horse-drawn carriages, not much different than today. In fact, as I write this, we just had a surprise overnight snow and I’ve been staring out the window at our own trees wrapped in white with a fascination that echoes Griffith’s – a welcome reminder that, despite all the developments the world has seen since 1909, some of the most basic things haven’t changed at all.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
{Portions of this article were published in Classic Images No. 91}

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