3

D. W. Griffith and the Development of Narrative Form

The achievement of David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) is unprecedented in the history of Western art, much less Western film. In the brief span of six years, between directing his first one-reeler in 1908 and The Birth of a Nation in 1914, Griffith did more than any single individual to establish the narrative language of the cinema and turn an aesthetically inconsequential medium of entertainment into a fully articulated art form. He has been called, variously, and, for the most part, accurately, "the father of film technique," "the man who invented Hollywood," "the cinema's first great auteur," and "the Shakespeare of the screen." Yet in the sixty years since his most important work was completed, Griffith's stature as an artist has been the subject of continuous debate among film scholars, and his critical reputation has suffered more fluctuation than that of any other major figure in film history. The problem is that Griffith was essentially a figure of paradox. He was unquestionably the seminal genius of the narrative cinema and its first great visionary artist, but he was also a provincial southern romantic with pretensions to high literary culture and a penchant for sentimentality and melodrama that would have embarrassed Dickens. Griffith was the film's first great technical master and its first legitimate poet, but he was also a muddleheaded racial bigot who quite literally saw all of human history in the black‐ and-white terms of nineteenth-century melodrama. In one sense, Griffith presents the paradox of a nineteenth-century man who founded a uniquely twentieth-century art form, and this tension between ages accounts for many disparities of taste and judgment that we find in his films today. But there is another contradiction in Griffith which is less easy to rationalize and which raises issues central to the nature of film art itself, and that is the very existence of such staggering cinematic genius side by side with the intellectual shallowness described above. Given the peculiar limitations of his vision, Griffith was never dishonest or hypocritical, but he was intellectually narrow to an alarming degree for a major artist in any medium.

3.1 D. W. Griffith during his Biograph years.

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