D.W. Griffith, An American Life reviewed by George Pelecanos

Book Reviews
D.W. Griffith, An American Life reviewed by George Pelecanos
Oct 5, 2007, 04:00

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D.W. GRIFFITH, AN AMERICAN LIFE by Richard Schickel; Limelight Editions, 1996

When the editors of this magazine sent me this massive, seven hundred-plus page book to review, I experienced an immediate sensation of anxiety. I knew it would be “good” to learn more about D.W. Griffith, the father of narrative film. But then I remembered the experience of watching Griffith's overreaching production of Intolerance back in film school, and I remembered in particular the feel of my chin hitting my chest as I struggled to stay awake. Even then, I understood that I had to watch Intolerance if I was ever to fully understand the evolution of film. To watch that film, and to be able to tell others that I had seen it, would be “good.”

So I made it through Intolerance, and over the years I've seen several of Griffith's more noteworthy films, and now I've read this book. And the book is “good.”

Richard Schickel, Time magazine's film critic since 1973, has done an exhaustive job detailing the life of D.W. Griffith, from his post-Civil War southern upbringing to his stage acting career to his rise in the nickelodeon era to his emergence as a world-class director who developed and to some degree invented the language of film that we all take for granted today. More interestingly, Schickel details the emergence of the motion picture industry, then in its infancy, from both a business and sociological perspective. This is an historical record as much about early twentieth century America as it is about the man who was extremely influential in this century's most important art.

The author also fairly dissects the phenomenon of Birth of a Nation, Griffith's most famous and infamous film, in which blacks (white actors in black-face) are depicted as animalistic primitives out to rape porcelain-skinned southern virgins, that is when they're not devouring fried chicken in the Capitol gallery. It's hard to watch this sweeping film today without being amazed by its pictorial beauty and dumbfounded by its sheer ignorance. Despite claims of apologists, Griffith can hardly be excused for being a product of his time; while much of the country shared his sentiments, there were vocal, progressive thinkers—black and white—who made it clear that they were outraged after viewing this film in 1914. For his part, Griffith never understood the negative reaction, and as late as the beginning of the sound era, when his career was in its sad decline, he continued to present questionable, paternalistic caricatures of blacks in his films. Renoir said, “He had the naiveté of the authentic great man, an indisputable characteristic” of great artists. Whatever. Great artist or no, this doesn't let him off the hook.

As for the films, you might want to check out one or two. See Birth of a Nation if you ever get the chance. It's one of the greatest and most appalling films ever made. And see Broken Blossoms, Griffith's poetic nod to German Expressionism, for its mood, pacing, and exemplary silent screen acting.

I read this book because I'm interested, always interested, in the history of film. I learned quite a bit and struggled through some slow stretches and was occasionally entertained. If this sort of thing is your meat, by all means dig in. The truth is, most readers will probably be bored as hell. For the record, Schickel has written a definitive account of this important figure and his time.

-George Pelecanos

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