Brownlow’s Griffith: Cynicism in the Service of Spectacle

Decades after beginning his film career with the groundbreaking and proudly anti-fascist docu-dramas It Happened Here and Winstanley, Kevin Brownlow made a series of well-regarded documentaries about giants of the silent era, including Keaton, Chaplin and DW Griffith. Having done some study of Griffith years ago, I was interested and surprised by much of the information Brownlow uncovered. While Brownlow is remarkably generous towards his subject, he supplies Griffith and his apologists (including then-living assistants and collaborators such as Lillian Gish) with more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.

Starting with Birth of a Nation, Brownlow peels the curtain on the overwhelming cynicism that led showman Griffith to pursue such a sensitive and inflammatory subject for his first big budget epic. Friends and colleagues peg Griffith as a sort of uncommitted bigot, content with all the biases of his Confederate upbringing but still retaining some black friends. The attraction of Thomas Dixon’s absurdly racist novel The Clansmen was not so much Griffith’s overwhelming bigotry (though it was that too) as it was his desire to create as large and intense a media spectacle as possible. The most powerful passages in Brownlow’s documentary come from his interview with a black man who saw Birth of a Nation in theaters in 1915. The interviewee decades later is still able to conjure his anger on that screening, the feeling of overwhelming dehumanization, the fantasy of entering the world of the film and making himself invisible so he could kill as many Klan members as possible. He fights back tears as he tells Brownlow of his urge, upon walking out of the theater, to kill as many white people as he could find.

Not that Griffith gave a shit. When told that the opening of his film in Atlanta would cause race riots, he reportedly said, “Oh I hope it does!” While blacks protested and the Klan swelled its ranks on the back of Griffith’s propaganda film, Griffith counted the money and changed the face of the film industry forever. The combination of grand spectacle and unabashed racism propelled cinema into the hearts and minds of the American middle class, who had thus far dismissed moving pictures as crude entertainments better suited to the lower classes. On the corporate end, consolidation and expansion became the order of the day, with large studios being built and smaller more experimental work jettisoned in favor of Griffith-style long-form bombast (more on that in a minute).

Perhaps almost as disturbing was the genesis of Griffith’s follow-up, Intolerance. The conventional Intolerance origin story, passed along by Martin Scorsese and others, is that of a contrite Griffith attacking bigotry to atone for the racism of Birth of a Nation, but the reality is almost exactly the opposite. Shortly before beginning production on Intolerance, assailed by much of the nation and even shunned by the initially supportive President Wilson, Griffith produced a self-pitying and and self-justifying pamphlet on – what else? – the importance of free speech. Intolerance was his epic-length expansion on this theme, decrying multiple historical examples of despots restricting the all-important marketplace of ideas, and the atrocities that inevitably result. Layered on top of this was a thick froth of Griffith’s completely phony pacificism, pathetically decrying “all sides of all wars.” The bullshit peacenik would further expose himself with 1918’s World War I drama Heart of the World, more or less commissioned by the US government as propaganda for the war effort. Though the film tugged at the heartstrings with depictions of man’s inhumanity to man, Griffith was more than happy to embrace a pro-belligerent slant in the film’s marketing, going so far as to paint criticisms of the film as treasonous.

If the late 1910s marked Griffith at the height of his megalomaniacal power within Hollywood, the 20s brought a steep decline with a series of increasingly embarrassing financial and critical failures, including an anti-French Revolution epic and another US government-commissioned propaganda piece bluntly titled “America.” By the mid-1930s he was unable to get any sort of work in Hollywood (though 1930 brought his talkie biography of Abraham Lincoln, my favorite of his films), and by the 40s he had settled into obscurity, alcoholism, various infidelities and finally a lonely death.

While I wouldn’t want to imply that Griffith’s storytelling style was more egregious than his racism, it is worth considering the deadening effect Griffith’s work has had on countless filmmakers and filmgoers. Brownlow is good to point out that Griffith stole all of the “innovations” he was all too happy to take credit for (close-up, tracking shot, frenzied cross-cutting), but it took an eye as sophisticated as Griffith’s to synthesize these elements into a coherent and comprehensible whole. The problem is that the underlying philosophy is all wrong – film is inherently deceptive, manipulative, dishonest. Triggering base impulses to produce visceral emotional reactions will never be enough, and is too easily manipulated to nefarious ends, after all Hollywood has been mastering and re-mastering this dark art for over a century (all the while utilizing Griffith’s original shotlists, with minimal changes). The only value, real value, lasting value that can come from talking pictures comes from expansions in visual reasoning, supplementary to ideology gleaned elsewhere, pushing forward the viewer’s visual vocabulary and imagination. Soviet filmmakers in the 20s understood this, despite all their excesses.

One of Griffith’s most profound innovations was in suspense in editing – there’s a small band of righteous heroes, hopelessly outnumbered and minutes from being overrun and massacred and then we CUT to their rescuers frantically riding to the site then CUT back to the imperiled heroes then CUT back to the rescuers and so on as many times as necessary until the rescuers show up in the nick of time and save the day. I don’t really see any positive value in this manipulative construction, and recognize its mastery by the US corporate media in controlling emotional responses of audience members during major news events (think Gaddafi about to bombard Benghazi, ISIS about to massacre the Yazidis on the mountain, etc).

It’s worth circling back to Brownlow in closing, as his early films are a major example of innovation with indisputably positive impact. By blurring the line between documentary and narrative and placing an investigative eye in historically impossible contexts, he subtly expanded the possibilities of what cinema could do, having a profound impact on a generation of filmmakers, including a young Peter Watkins who played a bit part in It Happened Here. Watkins in La Commune would expand on this style to such an extent that his non-professional actors would at moments seize control of the production, pushing the film into increasingly radical political territory, all on camera and in full view of the audience.

Walter Glass is a filmmaker living in New York City.