Feb 26, 2013

The Father of Film

Charlie Chaplin called David Wark Griffith "the teacher of us all," and Lillian Gish named him the father of film. Griffith originally wanted to be a playwright, but when one of his first plays flopped, he moved into acting and then directing in the new medium of motion pictures. From 1908 to 1913, Griffith worked for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, directing hundreds of films, primarily one-reelers, and perfecting techniques that became the grammar of film.

Early motion pictures were still attached to the static concepts of the stage. Griffith broke free of that, developing new camera movement and angles, dose-ups, and lighting and editing techniques that influenced generations of filmmakers. He left Biograph to develop longer feature films, and in 1915 he directed the film that would change the course of cinema, ensure his reputation, and also ensnare him in controversy: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

This story of the Civil War and Reconstruction was the first blockbuster, and despite its unprecedented three-hour length, it was a smash at the box office. Its combination of intimate human scenes and large-scale spectacle enthralled the public, but it also engendered a harsh backlash for its depiction of slavery as a benign institution and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes of the South.

There were protests against the film for its promotion of white supremacy, and many groups, especially the NAACP, unsuccessfully attempted to have it banned. Griffith, the son of a Confederate Army colonel, was shocked at the reaction, and his next film, took a different direction, focusing on universal brotherhood Intolerance (1916) was Griffith's most complex film, interweaving four stories set in different historical periods. These two films "established the motion picture a as a medium capable of artistic excellence and historical significance."

In the next decade, Griffith produced some fine films, but his work began to be perceived as passé, and soon the directing jobs dried up. D. W. Griffith died in 1948, having spent his last fifteen years mostly unemployed. Still, his contribution to the history of film prompted critic James Agee to write, "To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man." (All Facts Considered, by Kee Malesky)