GRIFFITH – by Sergei Eisenstein (Essay date – 1949)

Twentieth – Century Literary Criticism – Vol.68

Editor: Scot Peacock

G R I F F I T H

Sergei Eisenstein (Essay date – 1949)

SOURCE: “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory and The Film Sense, edited and translated by Jay Leyda, Meridian Books, 1957, pp. 195-255.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1949, Eisenstein explores Griffith’s innovative use of montage as well as film techniques which can be traced in literary form to the works of Charles Dickens. ]

d-w-griffith

“The kettle began it. . . .”

Thus Dickens opens his Cricket on the Hearth.

“The kettle began it. . ..”

What could be further from films! Trains, cowboys, chases . . . And The Cricket on the Hearth? “The kettle began it!” But, strange as it may seem, movies also were boiling in that kettle. From here, from Dickens, from the Victorian novel, stem the first shoots of American film esthetic, forever linked with the name of David Wark Griffith. Although at first glance this may not seem surprising, it does appear incompatible with our traditional concepts of cinematography, in particular with those associated in our minds with the American cinema. Factually, however, this relationship is organic, and the “genetic” line of descent is quite consistent. Let us first look at that land where, although not perhaps its birthplace, the cinema certainly found the soil in which to grow to unprecedented and unimagined dimensions. We know from whence the cinema appeared first as a world-wide phenomenon. We know the inseparable link between the cinema and the industrial development of America. We know how production, art and literature reflect the capitalist breadth and construction of the United States of America. And we also know that  American capitalism finds its sharpest and most expressive reflection in the American cinema. But what possible identity is there between this Moloch of modern industry, with its dizzy tempo of cities and subways, its roar of competition, its hurricane of stock market transactions on the one hand, and . . . the peaceful, patriarchal Victorian London of Dickens’s novels on the other?

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

Let’s begin with this “dizzy tempo,” this “hurricane,” and this “roar.” These are terms used to describe the United States by persons who know that country solely through books—books limited in quantity, and not too carefully selected. Visitors to New York City soon recover from their astonishment at this sea of lights (which is actually immense), this maelstrom of the stock market (actually its like is not to be found anywhere), and all this roar (almost enough to deafen one). As far as the speed of the traffic is concerned, one can’t be overwhelmed by this in the streets of the metropolis for the simple reason that speed can’t exist there. This puzzling contradiction lies in the fact that the high powered automobiles are so jammed together that they can’t move much faster than snails creeping from block to block, halting at every crossing not only for pedestrian crowds but for the counter-creeping of the crosstraffic. As you make your merely minute progress amidst a tightly packed glacier of other humans, sitting in similarly high-powered and imperceptibly moving machines, you have plenty of time to ponder the duality behind the dynamic face of America, and the profound interdependence of this duality in everybody and everything American. As your 90-horsepower motor pulls you jerkily from block to block along the steep-cliffed streets, your eyes wander over the smooth surfaces of the skyscrapers. Notions lazily crawl through your brain: “Why don’t they seem high?” “Why should they, with all that height, still seem cozy, domestic, smalltown?” You suddenly realize what “trick” the skyscrapers play on you: although they have many floors, each floor is quite low. Immediately the soaring skyscraper appears to be built of a number of small-town buildings, piled on top of each other.

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith

One merely needs to go beyond the city-limits or, in a few cities, merely beyond the center of the city, in order to see the same buildings, piled, not by the dozens, and fifties, and hundreds, on top of each other, but laid out in endless rows of one- and two storied stores and cottages along Main Streets, or along half-rural side-streets. Here (between the “speed traps”) you can fly along as fast as you wish; here the streets are almost empty, traffic is light—the exact opposite of the metropolitan congestion that you just left—no trace of that frantic activity choked in the stone vises of the city. You often come across regiments of skyscrapers that have moved deep into the countryside, twisting their dense nets of railroads around them; but at the same rate small-town agrarian America appears to have overflowed into all but the very centers of the cities; now and then one turns a skyscraper corner, only to run head on into some home of colonial architecture, apparently whisked from some distant savannah of Louisiana or Alabama to this very heart of the business city. But there where this provincial wave has swept in more than a cottage here or a church there (gnawing off a corner of that monumental modern Babylon. “Radio City”), or a cemetery, unexpectedly left behind in the very center of the financial district, or the hanging wash of the Italian district, flapping just around the corner, off Wall Street—this good old provincialism has turned inward to apartments, nestling in clusters around fireplaces, furnished with soft grandfather-chairs and the lace doilies that shroud the wonders of modern technique: refrigerators, washing-machines, radios.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

And in the editorial columns of popular newspapers, in the aphorisms of broadcast sermon and transcribed advertisement, there is a firmly entrenched attitude that is usually defined as “way down East”—an attitude that may be found beneath many a waistcoat or bowler where one would ordinarily expect to find a heart or a brain. Mostly one is amazed by the abundance of small-town and patriarchal elements in American life and manners, morals and philosophy, the ideological horizon and rules of behavior in the middle strata of American culture. In order to understand Griffith, one must visualize an America made up of more than visions of speeding automobiles, streamlined trains, racing ticker tape, inexorable conveyor-belts. One is obliged to comprehend this second side of America as well—America, the traditional, the patriarchal, the provincial. And then you will be considerably less astonished by this link between Griffith and Dickens. The threads of both these Americas are interwoven in the style and personality of Griffith—as in the most fantastic of his own parallel montage sequences. What is most curious is that Dickens appears to have guided both lines of Griffith’s style, reflecting both faces of America: Small-Town America, and Super-Dynamic America. This can be detected at once in the “intimate” Griffith of contemporary or past American life, where Griffith is profound, in those films about which Griffith told me. that “they were made for myself and were invariably rejected by the exhibitors.” But we are a little astonished when we see that the construction of the “official,” sumptuous Griffith, the Griffith of tempestuous tempi, of dizzying action, of breathtaking chases—has also been guided by the same Dickens! But we shall see how true this is. First the “intimate” Griffith, and the “intimate” Dickens.

The kettle began it. . . .

As soon as we recognize this kettle as a typical close-up. we exclaim: “Why didn’t we notice it before! Of course this is the purest Griffith. How often we’ve seen such a close-up at the beginning of an episode, a sequence, or a whole film by him!” (By the way. we shouldn’t overlook the fact that one of Griffith’s earliest films was based on The Cricket on the Hearth)

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

Certainly, this kettle is a typical Griffith-esque close-up. A close-up saturated, we now become aware, with typically Dickens-esque “atmosphere.” with which Griffith, with equal mastery, can envelop the severe face of life in Way Down East, and the icy cold moral face of his characters, who push the guilty Anna (Lillian Gish) onto the shifting surface of a swirling ice-break. Isn’t this the same implacable atmosphere of cold that is given by Dickens, for example, in Dombey and Son? The image of Mr. Dombey is revealed through cold and prudery. And the print of cold lies on everyone and everything—everywhere. And “atmosphere”—always and everywhere—is one of the most expressive means of revealing the inner world and ethical countenance of the characters themselves. We can recognize this particular method of Dickens in Griffith’s inimitable bit-characters who seem to have run straight from life onto the screen. I can’t recall who speaks with whom in one of the street scenes of the modern story of Intolerance. But I shall never forget the mask of the passer-by with nose pointed forward between spectacles and straggly beard, walking with hands behind his back as if he were manacled. As he passes he interrupts the most pathetic moment in the conversation of the suffering boy and girl. I can remember next to nothing of the couple, but this passer-by. who is visible in the shot only for a flashing glimpse, stands alive before me now—and I haven’t seen the film for twenty years! Occasionally these unforgettable figures actually walked into Griffith’s films almost directly from the street: a bit-player, developed in Griffith’s hands to stardom: the passer-by who may never again have been filmed; and that mathematics teacher who was invited to play a terrifying butcher in America—the late Louis Wolheim — who ended the film career thus begun with his incomparable performance as “Kat” in All Quiet on the Western Front. These striking figures of sympathetic old men are also quite in the Dickens tradition; and these noble and slightly one-dimensional figures of sorrow and fragile maidens: and these rural gossips and sundry odd characters. They are especially convincing in Dickens when he uses them briefly, in episodes. The only other thing to be noticed about [Pecksniff] is that here, as almost e\er\ where else in the novels, the best figures are at their best when they have least to do. Dickens’s characters are perfect as long as he can keep them out of his stories. Bumble is divine until a dark and practical secret is entrusted to him. . . .

Intolerance - shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story) D. W. Griffith, American film master
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)

Micawber is noble when he is doing nothing; but he is quite unconvincing when he is spying on Uriah Heep. . . . Similarly, while Pecksniff is the best thing in the story, the story is the worst thing in Pecksniff. . . . [G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men] Free of this limitation, and with the same believability; Griffith’s characters grow from episodic figures into those fascinating and finished images of living people, in which his screen is so rich.

Instead of going into detail about this, let us rather return to that more obvious fact—the growth of that second side of Griffith’s creative craftsmanship—as a magician of tempo and montage; a side for which it is rather surprising to find the same Victorian source. When Griffith proposed to his employers the novelty of a parallel “cut-back” for his first version of Enoch Arden {After Many Years, 1908), this is the discussion that took place, as recorded by Linda Arvidson Griffith in her reminiscences of Biograph days [When the Movies were Young]:

When Mr. Griffith suggested a scene showing Annie Lee waiting for her husband’s return to be followed by a scene of Enoch cast away on a desert island, it was altogether too distracting. “How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won’t know what it’s about.”

“Well,” said Mr. Griffith, “doesn’t Dickens write that way?”

“Yes, but that’s Dickens; that’s novel writing;

that’s different.”

“Oh. not so much, these are picture stories; not

so different.” But, to speak quite frankly, all astonishment on this subject and the apparent unexpectedness of such statements can be ascribed only to our—ignorance of Dickens.

David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg
David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg

All of us read him in childhood, gulped him down greedily, without realizing that much of his irresistibility lay not only in his capture of detail in the childhoods of his heroes, but also in that spontaneous, childlike skill for story-telling, equally typical for Dickens and for the American cinema, which so surely and delicately plays upon the infantile traits in its audience. We were even less concerned with the technique of Dickens’s composition: for us this was non-existent—but captivated by the effects of this technique, we feverishly followed his characters from page to page, watching his characters now being rubbed from view at the most critical moment, then seeing them return afresh between the separate links of the parallel secondary plot. As children, we paid no attention to the mechanics of this. As adults, we rarely re-read his novels. And becoming film-workers, we never found time to glance beneath the covers of these novels in order to figure out what exactly had captivated us in these novels and with what means these incredibly many-paged volumes had chained our attention so irresistibly.

Apparently Griffith was more perceptive . . . But before disclosing what the steady gaze of the American film-maker may have caught sight of on Dickens’s pages, I wish to recall what David Wark Griffith himself represented to us, the young Soviet film-makers of the ‘twenties.

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

To say it simply and without equivocation: a revelation. Try to remember our early days, in those first years of the October socialist revolution. The fires At the Hearth sides of our native film-producers had burnt out, the Nava’s Charms [Nava’s Charms (by Sologub) and At the Hearthside, two pre-Revolutionary Russian films, as is also Forget the Hearth. The names that follow are of the male and female film stars of this period.] of their productions had lost their power over us and, whispering through pale lips, “Forget the hearth,” Khudoleyev and Runich, Polonsky and Maximov had departed to oblivion; Vera Kholodnaya to the grave; Mozhukhin and Lisenko to expatriation. The young Soviet cinema was gathering the experience of revolutionary reality, of first experiments (Vertov), of first systematic ventures (Kuleshov), in preparation for that unprecedented explosion in the second half of the ‘twenties, when it was to become an independent, mature, original art, immediately gaining world recognition. In those early days a tangle of the widest variety of films was projected on our screens. From out of this weird hash of old Russian films and new ones that attempted to maintain “traditions,” and new films that could not yet be called Soviet, and foreign films that had been imported promiscuously, or brought down off dusty shelves—two main streams began to emerge. On the one side there was the cinema of our neighbor, post-war Germany. Mysticism, decadence, dismal fantasy followed in the wake of the unsuccessful revolution of 1923, and the screen was quick to reflect this mood. Nosferatu the Vampire, The Street, the mysterious Warning Shadows, the mystic criminal Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, reaching out towards us from our screens, achieved the limits of horror, showing us a future as an unrelieved night crowded with sinister shadows and crimes. . . .

Shooting a scene from Way Down East, Griffith seated below the camera D. W. Griffith, American film master
Shooting a scene from Way Down East, Griffith seated below the camera

The chaos of multiple exposures, of over-fluid dissolves, of split screens, was more characteristic of the later ‘twenties (as in Looping the Loop or Secrets of a Soul), but earlier German films contained more than a hint of this tendency. In the over-use of these devices  as also reflected the confusion and chaos of post-war Germany. All these tendencies of mood and method had been foreshadowed in one of the earliest and most famous of these films. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), this barbaric carnival of the destruction of the healthy human infancy of our art, this common grave for normal cinema origins, this combination of silent hysteria, particolored canvases, daubed flats, painted faces, and the unnatural broken gestures and actions of monstrous chimaeras. Expressionism left barely a trace on our cinema. This  painted, hypnotic “St. Sebastian of Cinema” was too alien to the young, robust spirit and body of the rising class.

1-dw_griffith_(1875-1948)
D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) Painting; D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) Art Print for sale

It is interesting that during those years inadequacies in the field of film technique played a positive role. They helped to restrain from a false step those whose enthusiasm might have pulled them in this dubious direction. Neither the dimensions of our studios, nor our lighting equipment, nor the materials available to us for makeup, costumes, or setting, gave us the possibility to heap onto the screen similar phantasmagoria. But it was chiefly another thing that held us back: our spirit urged us towards life—amidst the people, into the surging actuality of a regenerating country. Expressionism passed into the formative history of our cinema as a powerful factor—of repulsion. There was the role of another film-factor that appeared, dashing along in such films as The Gray Shadow. The House of Hate, The Mark of Zorro. There was in these films a world, stirring and incomprehensible, but neither repulsive nor alien. On the contrary—it was captivating and attractive, in its own way engaging the attention of young and future film-makers, exactly as the young and future engineers of the time were attracted by the specimens of engineering techniques unknown to us, sent from that same unknown, distant land across the ocean. What enthralled us was not only these films, it was also their possibilities. Just as it was the possibilities in a tractor to make collective cultivation of the fields a reality, it was the boundless temperament and tempo of these amazing (and amazingly useless!) works from an unknown country that led us to muse on the possibilities of a profound, intelligent, class-directed use of this wonderful tool.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

The most thrilling figure against this background was Griffith, for it was in his works that the cinema made itself felt as more than an entertainment or pastime. The brilliant new methods of the American cinema were united in him with a profound emotion of story, with human acting, with laughter and tears, and all this was done with an astonishing ability to preserve all that “learn of a filmicallv dvnamic holiday, which had been captured in The Gray Shadow and The Mark of Zorro and The House of Hate. That the cinema could be incomparably greater, and that this was to be the basic task of the budding Soviet cinema—these were sketched for us in Griffith’s creative work, and found ever new confirmation in his films. Our heightened curiosity of those years in construction and method swiftly discerned wherein lay the most powerful affective factors in this great American’s films. This was in a hitherto unfamiliar province, bearing a name that was familiar to us, not in the field of art, but in that of engineering and electrical apparatus, first touching art in its most advanced section—in cinematography. This province, this method, this principle of building and construction was montage. This was the montage whose foundations had been laid by American film-culture, but whose full, completed, conscious use and world recognition was established by our films. Montage, the rise of which will be forever linked with the name of Griffith. Montage, which played a most vital role in the creative work of Griffith and brought him his most glorious successes. Griffith arrived at it through the method of parallel action. And, essentially, it was on this that he came to a standstill. But we mustn’t run ahead. Let us examine the question of how montage came to Griffith or—how Griffith came to montage. Griffith arrived at montage through the method of parallel action, and he was led to the idea of parallel action by—Dickens! To this fact Griffith himself has testified, according to A. B. Walkley, in The Times of London, for April 26. 1922, on the occasion of a visit by the director to London. Writes Mr. Walkley: He [Griffith] is a pioneer, by his own admission, rather than an inventor. That is to say. he has opened up new paths in Film Land, under the guidance of ideas supplied to him from outside. His best ideas, it appears, have come to him from Dickens, who has always been his favorite author. . . .

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

Dickens inspired Mr. Griffith with an idea, and his employers (mere “business” men) were horrified at it: but. says Mr. Griffith. “I went home, re-read one of Dickens’s novels, and came back next day to tell them they could either make use of my idea or dismiss me.” Mr Griffith found the idea to which he clung thus heroically in Dickens. That was as luck would have it. for he might have found the same idea almost anywhere Newton deduced the law of gravitation from the fall of an apple: but a pear or a plum would have done just as well. The idea is merely that of a “break” in the narrament a shifting of the story from one group of characters to another group. People who write the long and crowded novels that Dickens did. especially when they are published in parts, find this practice a convenience. You will meet with it in Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Meredith, Hardy, and, I suppose, every other Victorian novelist. . . . Mr. Griffith might have found the same practice not only in Dumas pere, who cared precious little about form, but also in great artists like Tolstoy, Turgeniev, and Balzac. But, as a matter of fact, it was not in any of these others, but in Dickens that he found it; and it is significant of the predominant influence of Dickens that he should be quoted as an authority for a device which is really common to fiction at large. Even a superficial acquaintance with the work of the great English novelist is enough to persuade one that Dickens may have given and did give to cinematography far more guidance than that which led to the montage of parallel action alone. Dickens’s nearness to the characteristics of cinema in method, style, and especially in viewpoint and exposition, is indeed amazing. And it may be that in the nature of exactly these characteristics, in their community both for Dickens and for cinema, there lies a portion of the secret of that mass success which they both, apart from themes and plots, brought and still bring to the particular quality of such exposition and such writing. What were the novels of Dickens for his contemporaries, for his readers? There is one answer: they bore the same relation to them that the film bears to the same strata in our time. They compelled the reader to live with the same passions. They appealed to the same good and sentimental elements as does the film (at least on the surface); they alike shudder before vice, they alike mill the extraordinary, the unusual, the fantastic, from boring, prosaic and everyday existence. And they clothe this common and prosaic existence in their special vision. [The author adds in a footnote: “as late as April 17, 1944, Griffith still considered this the chief social function of film-making. An interviewer from the Los Angeles Times asked him, ‘What is a good picture? Griffith replied, ‘One that makes the public forget its troubles. Also, a good picture tends to make folks think a little, without letting them suspect that they are being inspired to think. In one respect, nearly all pictures are good in that they show the triumph of good over evil.’ This is what Osbert Sitwell, in reference to Dickens, called the ‘Virtue v. Vice Cup-Tie Final.'”]

D.W. Griffith - Ice floe Scenes (Vermont) Way Down East
D.W. Griffith – Ice floe Scenes (Vermont) Way Down East

Illumined by this light, refracted from the land of fiction back to life, this commonness took on a romantic air, and bored people were grateful to the author for giving them the countenances of potentially romantic figures. This partially accounts for the close attachment to the novels of Dickens and, similarly, to films. It was from this that the universal success of his novels derived. In an essay on Dickens, [in Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky] Stefan Zweig opens with this description of his popularity: The love Dickens’s contemporaries lavished upon the creator of Pickwick is not to be assessed by accounts given in books and biographies. Love lives and breathes only in the spoken word. To get an adequate idea of the intensity of this love, one must catch (as I once caught) an Englishman old enough to have youthful memories of the days when Dickens was still alive. Preferably it should be someone who finds it hard even now to speak of him as Charles Dickens, choosing, rather, to use the affectionate nickname of “Boz.” The emotion, tinged with melancholy, which these old reminiscences call up. gives us of a younger generation some inkling of the enthusiasm that inspired the hearts of thousands when the monthly instalments in their blue covers (great rarities, now) arrived at English homes. At such times, my old Dickensian told me, people would walk a long way to meet the postman when a fresh number was due. so impatient were they to read what Boz had to tell. . . . How could they be expected to wait patiently until the latter-carrier, lumbering along on an old nag, would arrive with the solution of these burning problems? When the appointed hour came round, old and young would sally forth, walking two miles and more to the post office merely to have the issue sooner. On the way home they would start reading, those who had not the luck of holding the book looking over the shoulder of the more fortunate mortal; others would set about reading aloud as they walked; only persons with a genius for self-sacrifice would defer a purely personal gratification, and would scurry back to share the treasure with wife and child. In every village, in every town, in the whole of the British Isles, and far beyond, away in the remotest parts of the earth where the English speaking nations had gone to settle and colonize, Charles Dickens was loved. People loved him from the first moment when (through the medium of print) they made his acquaintance until his dying day. . . .

“The kettle began it. . . .”

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

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