THE “I” OF THE CAMERA – William Rothman (1988)

  • The I of the camera : essays in film criticism, history, and aesthetics
  • Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics
  • William Rothman
  • © Cambridge University Press – 1988

America’s experience of film is virtually unique in that in almost every other country, the impact of film cannot be separated from the process or at least the specter of Americanization, In America, film in no sense represents something external; it is simply American. But what is American about American film?

For a decade or so after the first film exhibitions in 1895, film shows presented a grab bag of travelogues, news films, filmed vaudeville acts, trick films, and gag films. The audience for film in America was disproportionately urban and was made up of recent immigrants, largely from eastern Europe. (The extent to which that was true is a subject of some contention among film historians.) In a sense, film has been involved, even in America, in a process of Americanization – “naturalizing” recent arrivals, teaching them how Americans live (and also breaking down regional differences, a process that television has taken over with a vengeance). However, following the sudden growth of nickelodeons in 1908, exhibitions were skewed to be more “upscale.” The theatrical narrative – especially adaptations of “legitimate” novels and stage plays – became the dominant form of film in America, as it has remained to this day. Griffith’s early films made for the Biograph Company were clearly intended for an audience of Americans who, like Griffith himself, could take for granted the fact, if not the meaning, of their Americanness.

Griffith Directing Battle of the Sexes

But then again, virtually all Americans either are born as non-Americans or are recent descendants of non-Americans. One might think that there could be no such thing as a specifically American culture, but that is not the case. In the nineteenth century, for example, what is called transcendentalism — the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau, the stories and novels of Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Henry James, the poetry of Whitman — is quintessentially American. However, this example underscores a distinctive feature of American intellectual and cultural life. There was no nineteenth-century French philosopher approaching Emerson’s stature, but had there been, young French men and women today, as part of the experience of growing up French, would be taught his or her words by heart and learn to take them to heart. But in the process of growing up American, young men and women are not taught and do not in this way learn Emerson’s words or the value of those words. Americans, as compared with the English or French or Chinese or Japanese, are unconscious of the history of thought and artistic creation in their own country – unconscious of the sources, American and foreign, of their own ideas.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

The American and foreign roots of nineteenth-century American philosophy and literature cannot be disentangled: This is part of what makes that work so American, as is the fact that it takes the identity of America to be a central subject. What America is, where it has come from, and what its destiny may be are central themes through which American culture has continually defined itself. In the crucial period from 1908 to the country’s entrance into World War I, the period when narrative film was taking root, American film took up this question of America’s identity, culminating in The Birth of a Nation, the film that definitively demonstrated to the American public the awesome power that movies could manifest. Indeed, in the work of D. W. Griffith, the dominant figure of American film during those years, America’s destiny and the destiny of film were fatefully joined.

Griffith started out with an idealistic vision: America’s destiny was to save the world, and film’s destiny was to save America. By the time of The Birth of a Nation, however, he had drawn closer to the more ambiguous, darker vision of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. He had made the disquieting discovery that in affirming innocence, the camera violates innocence; however idealistic their intention, movies touch what is base as well as what is noble in our souls. This knowledge, with which he struggled his entire career, is Griffith’s most abiding — if least recognized – legacy to American film.

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

Griffith’s attitude toward modern ideas, especially concerning the role of women, was ambivalent. That ambivalence was most pointedly expressed in the tension between his flowery, moralistic intertitles and the dark mysteries he conjured with his camera. Griffith combined a Victorian conviction that it was proper for women to be submissive with a profound respect for the intelligence, imagination, and strength of the women in his films. And what remarkable women he had the intuition to film! As I ponder Griffith’s spellbinding visions of Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, and others, I am struck equally by the voraciousness of his desire for women and his uncanny capacity to identify with them.

After the war, the American film industry grew to international dominance. The postwar Hollywood in which Griffith struggled fruitlessly to reclaim his preeminence clearly allied itself with the libertarian spirit of the “Jazz Age.” But with all their glamor and spectacle, their Latin lovers, flappers, and “It” girls, Hollywood films of the twenties never really made clear what that spirit was, nor its sources, nor the grounds of its opposition to orthodox ideas, nor the identity of the orthodoxy it was opposing. Following the withdrawal or repression of Griffith’s seriousness of purpose, the years from the end of the war to the late twenties are the obscurest period in the history of American film.

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

We are taught that that was the “Golden Age of Silent Film,” the age when film became a glorious international art and language. Yet those were also the years when Hollywood’s power over the world’s film production, and its hold on the world’s film audiences, came closest to being absolute. Strangely, except for the occasional cause celebre, such as von Stroheim’s Greed, the magnificent comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, and Murnau’s Sunrise (which, together with Chaplin’s City Lights, provided the swan song for that era), no American film of that period still has an audience (beyond a core of hardened film buffs), even among film students.

Coming at a time of creative crisis, the simultaneous traumas of the new sound technology and the Great Depression (which brought about changes in studio organization and ownership) disrupted the continuity of American film history. There was an influx of personnel — directors, actors, writers, producers – from the New York stage (and, increasingly, from abroad, as political conditions worsened in Europe). By and large, the Broadway imports (unlike the Europeans) were unlettered in film. They approached the new medium with ideas whose sources were to be found elsewhere than in the history of earlier film achievements. Then again, “the talkies” were a new medium for everyone, even for movie veterans for whom filmmaking had been their education.

When Hollywood movies began to speak, no one could foresee the new genres that would emerge. It took several years of experimentation, of testing the limits, before a new system of production was securely in place and a stable new landscape of genres and stars became discernible.

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