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Way Down East [1920)

David Wark Griffith.  Perhaps it’s fitting that I return to my mission by way of this controversial figure.  To ease your fears, my mission is cinema.  Things disappear.  D.W. Griffith.  Histories become written on the wind.  Sirk.  Search.  And the stream of consciousness carries us to the precipice.  Will we go over with the orphans of the storm?

Ice floe.  Sloe gin.  Bathtub gin.  Spinning jenny.

It was a different time.  Lillian Gish.  Smashing.  Pupkin.  Will we “go over” like the orphans?  Well, the orphans would have to wait a year.  But what we really have here is the Urquelle (the Q source) for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  It is a long, sad movie which ends with some of the most immortal celluloid ever printed.  It was like watching La Roue by Abel Gance.  Mercifully, 273 minutes would have to wait till 1923.  Griffith gives us a mere 145.

It was Billy Bitzer behind the camera for this story “arbitrarily” set in New England.  It is a bit like Ghost World in that it is universal (to a certain extent).  Are we in Chicago or Los Angeles?  It doesn’t really matter.  Anyplace.  But Bitzer, the cinematographer, was actually from this fictional setting.  Griffith was the hick.  From LaGrange (cue ZZ Top), Kentucky.

Lowell Sherman plays the villain.  Lillian Gish is just simply stunning throughout.

The story is transcendentally sad.  Richard Barthelmess is even a sad sack…until he becomes the unequivocal hero.  Burr McIntosh plays the backwards Squire who is required to “see the light” multiple times over the course of this film.  In his character we get glimpses of that stain upon cinema:  The Birth of a Nation.  But we also get the redemption of Intolerance.  Those two films alone (not to mention this masterpiece) display the crux of the problem:  Griffith cannot be written off as a bigot.  Far from it.

If you know D.W.’s work only from that famous racist relic, then you only have a small portion of the plot.  And yet, how do we explain that sad document?  Sure, it was a product of its time, but is that the end of the story?  The Birth of a Nation has endured as Griffith’s most famous film perhaps precisely because it is so repulsive to modern sensibilities.  But once one sees Intolerance, it is as if the man had seen the light.  Way Down East is perhaps the first feminist film.  Yes, Griffith turned it around within his heart to that extent!

Seemingly.  White River Junction, Vermont.  You can go read the backstory.  It is like François Villon‘s ink freezing in the inkwell.  The shooting of this film is the stuff of legend.  I can’t begin to wrap my head around the sets Griffith used in 1916 for Intolerance.  It is nearly inconceivable to me how Griffith made the abomination that is The Birth of a Nation with a clear conscience.  But by the time of Way Down East he had become a masterful humanist director.  As improbable as it sounds, it is true to my eyes.  This is not a biography of Griffith.  I claim no expertise regarding his oeuvre.  I merely urge increased engagement with his body of work.  There is something there.

-PD

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