December 13, 2009 marks the 100th anniversary of a momentous event in film history – the world premiere showing of D. W. Griffith’s “A Corner in Wheat.” As it was issued without fanfare in the usual rotation of nickelodeon programs, patrons could hardly have been aware that they were witnessing the first masterpiece of the nascent art of cinema.
The term “masterpiece” is impossibly subjective, yet in the context of art it seemingly should honor a work that exploits the unique resources of its medium to create meaning well beyond that inherent in the materials themselves. For narrative movies, it entails using the distinctive properties of film to transcend the sheer mechanics of telling a story.
Other cinema pioneers already had discovered all the resources that distinguish film from other established art media (primarily literature, theatre and still photography), but it took Griffith to intuitively grasp and exploit their expressive potential. Up to that point, the unique advantages of film as an art medium were largely untapped. “A Corner in Wheat” was the first movie to apply a panoply of film techniques to create emotional resonance well beyond narrative needs. In the memorable (if somewhat exaggerated) words of James Agee in a 1948 memorial tribute:
[Griffith] achieved what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to … the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art; and to realize that this was all the work of one man. … There is not a man working in movies, or a man who cares for them, who does not owe Griffith more than he owes anybody else.Griffith's achievement is all the more amazing when placed in the context of having produced, written, cast, directed, edited, titled and supervised the distribution of over 150 movies in 1909 alone. (Studio records show that “A Corner in Wheat” was shot in two days, along with parts of two other movies.) At that pace, it’s hardly surprising that most of Griffith’s output at the time was routine and presented only an occasional glimmer of esthetic interest, but it’s equally amazing that from amid the dross there emerged an extraordinary feat like “A Corner in Wheat” that bursts with artistic innovation.
Loosely based on Frank Norris stories, “A Corner in Wheat” uses an arsenal of novel cinematic methods – and a few theatrical ones as well – to enrich the emotional meaning of its simplistic, socially-conscious (and still timely!) tale that contrasts the sudden rise and downfall of a wheat speculator with the lasting impact of his greed upon farmers and consumers. The movie is available on YouTube (albeit in fuzzy focus that obscures the crisp beauty of the photography and without the customized musical accompaniment that always was an integral part of exhibition at the time). For ease of reference, I’ve prepared a structural outline – please click here to view it and a set of stills – please click here to view it of important shots; both are derived from my Museum of Modern Art 16 mm print.
Here is my take on the many features of “A Corner in Wheat” that rise to the level of art and which, taken together, signify a masterpiece. I’ll begin with those that are derived primarily from literature or the theatre and progress toward those that become uniquely cinematic.
The disproportionately long opening and closing shots form a neat decorative frame of nature, as if to suggest that the tale is but an unfortunate part of the greater world, which will continue without regard to the temporary ills depicted in the story proper. (And shot 11 of the farmyard, coming at the mid-point of the story, echoes the frame to serve as a reminder of the context.) Indeed, with only about 14 minutes in which to tell his story (the accepted limit of movies – and presumed attention spans – of the time), it is astounding that Griffith would “waste” over one quarter of it on scenes that have no direct connection with the plot; clearly, he felt the importance of placing the tale in a social perspective. (It is worth noting that in an earlier film that year, “The Country Doctor,” Griffith had used a comparable framing device of panning through a natural setting to the home where the drama is to occur, and then closing with a complementary shot panning away from the home, both to place the plot in the context of its community and then to turn away after its bitter outcome, and overall to symbolize eavesdropping on a slice of live within everyday surroundings. Those two shots were closely matched, suggesting the indifference of nature, whereas here the closing shot gains poignancy through its far slower pace and a notable variant: the farmer, now crushed by hardship, no longer can afford helpers, and is left to struggle alone.)
Interior sets at the time were necessarily compact, as the insensitive film stock required massive amounts of artificial lighting. Yet, Griffith creates significant thematic contrast between the farmer's wide expanses of natural beauty (filmed in then-rural Jamaica on Long Island – how times have changed!) and the artifice of the crudely-assembled, cramped rooms into which he packs the speculators and their sycophants. Indeed, the stock exchange scene is so densely crammed with frantically-gesturing traders as to depict them as animals and to seemingly mock their livelihood. Similarly, the claustrophobic confines of the King’s office and banquet hall defeat any notion of luxurious sprawl. Indeed, the grain elevator set, denoting the King’s domain, is deprived not only of any sense of depth but of reality, as its background consists of a blatantly artificial painted flat. Having established this equation (space = moral integrity; constriction = perversity), Griffith disrupts it twice for thematic effect. Scenes 1 and 11, when the farmer confronts his family, first in preparation for his hard work, and then on the brink of defeat, are composed so that he seems boxed in by the walls of his barns and a nearby haystack, as if to symbolize loss of his freedom. In shots 18 and 20, the interior of the grain pit is so clouded with dust that the walls are barely visible, so that the king, and then just his flailing hand, seems lost in a wide reach of space (that is, the natural domain of his victims). Yet, the equation also functions on a literal level at this climax of the plot – the king’s fatal fall into the cascading grain (itself a symbolic venture into the farmer’s world where he doesn’t belong and his first contact with real, basic food, rather than the fancy synthetic stuff of his banquets) is caused by the grain elevator’s insufficient room for people (and especially those of lofty status not accustomed to such places of humble work) to pass by the gaping pit.
A related consideration is the array and movement of characters within each set. While the limited depth of theatre stages requires that most movement occur laterally, outdoor movie shooting affords the opportunity for characters to advance and recede, which can enrich their portrayals with overtones of challenge and retreat, intimacy and distancing, identification and isolation. Here, along with confining the king and his cohorts to interior sets, Griffith mostly moves them from side to side, providing a lackluster perspective. Even the frenzied traders in scene 4 are just a pulsing clump with no motion in depth, and the banquet scene, in which the table runs front to back, remains static, since the characters don’t move, but rather converse and gesture in place. In contrast, the farmer comes right at us as he sows, thus engaging our attention. Yet by having him enter from the side in shot 11, his motion has come to parallel that of the speculators and thus symbolizes being beaten down by those who have ruined him. More complex is shot 7 in the bakery, as the poor woman not only steps forward to read the sign in front of the counter but to do so must walk around her child, thus drawing closer to us and at the same time on a literal plane drawing attention to the motivation for her need. Griffith’s most compelling use of blocking is the final shot, where the farmer approaches to confront us with his plight, and then turns away and recedes, perhaps out of shame, but also challenging us to follow him into the literal and metaphoric night and not let him drift wholly out of our concern.
Without dialog, silent film necessarily had to use descriptive title cards to explain parts of the plot. Omitting titles altogether resulted in extremely simple plots with straightforward chronology (such as “The Great Train Robbery”). An alternative was to rely on extensive titling that reduced the following scenes to mere illustrations of what the audience already had read (as with the title before shot 5 here). Griffith’s gift was to use titles sparingly and to rely on his images to convey meaning. Clearly, he felt no need to explain the scenes with the farmer, as their actions and significance were sufficiently clear. Of the seven titles, the texts of the ones after shots 3, 5 and 12 are purely symbolic and serve mainly to provide some sense of separation between the preceding and following scenes. Indeed, only the title before shot 5 is at all needed for the narrative. Only once does an insert disrupt the pace – that comes with the letter between shots 16 and 17, which really are a single scene. Most remarkably of all, Griffith embeds two explanatory signs within shot 7 itself, allowing that scene to unfold without distraction. In addition, rather than just flashing once and then having their impact dissipate, the lingering presence of the two signs casts a constant pall over the entire scene, a painful reminder of the reason for the customers’ hardship. By refraining from extensive titling, Griffith shows confidence in the power of his images. At the same time, he avoids limiting the universality of the events he depicts, as would an introductory title giving a specific location or a closing proclamation purporting to summarize a single lesson to be learned. (A significant comparison, which belies the assumption of constant progress in Griffith’s artistic development, is his July 1910 production of The Usurer. The strikingly comparable plot (with equally strong resonance today) depicts a greedy financier who suffocates in his bank vault while his foreclosure victims are being evicted. Yet the sheer visual impact is sapped by overly direct and frequent titles. Thus, the banquet scene is prefaced by: “Living high on monies gleaned from the miseries of others,” and the usurer’s death by not just one but two superfluous moralizing comments: “While the usurer struggles for life, others struggle to meet his impossible demands” and “Wealth beyond all measure, but all his evil gains avail him nothing now.” Griffith even inserts two “Meanwhile” titles between scenes of celebrating rich and suffering poor, thus mitigating the force of direct contrast cutting. And perhaps worst of all, The Usurer has a happy ending, announced by yet another title: “Shocked by the cruel contracts, his sister atones by cancelling all debts and returning all property.”)
Without dialog, movie acting was quite crude, with broad, demonstrative, repetitive gestures necessary to convey meaning. Here, Griffith enhances the impact of his depictions by differentiating the styles of his actors for an expressive purpose. Thus, Griffith creates added empathy for common folk by having them act naturally (and, in the case of the farmer, with particular lethargy), in contrast to the speculators, who distance us with their unnaturally exaggerated agitation. In several scenes, Griffith emphasizes the contrast by presenting the two styles in direct juxtaposition, as when servants stand largely immobile during the wild gesticulation of the banquet (shots 6, 8 and 10), and when, throughout all the activity in the king’s office (shots 3 and 5), a single man stands at the side door completely still – and with his back to us, as if to emphasize his humility and anonymity, compared to the self-aggrandizement of his “superiors.” Once we accept this delineation, it adds to the power of the climax, as the speculator lies dead, as if only in the final gesture of his ruined life he returns to the humanity from which had he tried so hard to distance himself and to which he had devoted so much of his professional energy to defeating.
While still photography provides an opportunity to use the focal length of a lens to emphasize a subject through crisply focusing on a particular plane within a deep shot in which backgrounds are blurred, movies present an added opportunity to change focus within a shot. Here, in scene 2 Griffith gradually shifts the focus from background to the foreground as the farmer approaches the camera in order to maintain emphasis on the human element, yet without wholly ignoring the context of the farmer’s struggle, as would have occurred in an inserted close-up. (The subtle effect is lost in the YouTube versions, in which all the images are uniformly soft.) While I cannot be sure, this and the final fadeout might have been the first cinematic use of these devices.
A primary distinction between film and both theatre and still photography is the camera’s ability to change viewpoint. The standard perspective of this era resembled the audience's view of the stage, in which the entire action was shown. Here, Griffith moves beyond the customary far shot for special emphasis, although without resort to the closeup, which later would become a Griffith hallmark. To underline the violence of the climax, Griffith not only moves in closer to the king in the grain pit, but locates his camera deep within the pit – a bold viewpoint that takes us to an unaccustomed vantage that by itself commands special attention; here, it also enables us to share (and perhaps gloat in) the king’s demise. Also remarkable are the second and final shots, which not only enfold the farmer in his natural surroundings but involve us more deeply in his approach and retreat than would have been possible on a shallow stage.
A related element is the speed of action depicted in various shots. Here, too, Griffith establishes a simple equation of a calm, steady demeanor upholding the dignity of the common folk vs. the exaggerated, frenzied gesturing of the speculators. Thus, the farmer treads slowly and purposefully through his field while the traders gesticulate wildly and sharply; even their wives wave their hands violently at their banquet with diffuse, wasted energy (while the servants, significantly, stand mostly still). The symbolic apex of this distinction arises at the astounding shot 9, an eleven-second freeze frame at the bakery, in which the people are completely devoid of any motion at all (and thus seems as far as possible removed from their wealthy oppressors), the effect being heightened by the surrounding shots of the hyper-activity of the speculators’ banquet. Again, pacing underlines the thematic power of the aftermath as the dead king, once so restless, has succumbed to the absence of motion that we have come to equate with those whose suffering he had caused.
Even by this early point in his career, Griffith’s mastery of this most basic film technique had become quite fluent. Most editing is functional, intended to present a smooth development of the narrative, as in Griffith’s presentation of shots 13 through 18 and 20 through 23. Yet he also exploits the emotional potential of editing and in particular cross-cutting, by which dissimilar scenes are juxtaposed, in this case to accentuate different social strata by directly contrasting their settings. The impact is to compel us to seek relationships between such divergent shots, even where they have no apparent outward connection. As with his stylized acting, Griffith contrasts static shots of the victims with active shots of the elite, whipping our attention back and forth from the dining room to the bakery in shots 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, and then again between the drowning king and the riot at the bakery in shots 18, 19 and 20; while underscoring their disparity, the mere fact of showing one after the other forces us to link them not only in time as parallel developments but in a more subtle way that adds great poignancy to the contrast between the two threads of the story. (Without detracting from Griffith's achievement, it is only fair to note a likely literary source of his inspiration. As George Pratt points out in his marvelous Spellbound in Darkness (University of Rochester, 1966), Norris had anticipated such cross-cutting in his 1901 The Octopus, where he alternates mouth-watering descriptions of each course of a lavish banquet at the home of a wealthy industrialist ("fattened on the blood of the People ... an unspeakable cannibalism") with the starvation and death of the vagrant widow of a worker he had ruined.)
A component of editing is the pacing of individual shots. The longest shot in the entire film is # 7, in which the direct impact of the corner falls upon common folk at the bakery. Its effect of emphasis is magnified by the far shorter shots that surround it. Significantly, it is this shot above all the others that encapsulates the theme and, through its length alone, shows where Griffith’s empathy lies. All but one of the other long shots (#s 1, 2 and 24) belong to the farmer, similarly reflecting Griffith’s compassion. Yet, Griffith’s use of shot length to signify concern is not invariable, as the other lengthy shot – # 4 – seems ironic, casting a critical eye on the activity of the stock exchange, as it lasts far too long for its meager content and thus implies a wearying attitude toward the unnecessary energy incessantly squandered in such pursuits.
Aside from occasional irises (blacking out most of the frame to emphasize a closeup detail), the use of optical devices to alter the natural appearance of a shot is rare in Griffith shorts (and elsewhere during this formative era). (Technically, the freeze-frame here is not an optical device, as it was achieved by having the actors stand still rather than by repeatedly printing the same frame of the negative.) Yet, “A Corner in Wheat” boasts an astounding advance by ending in a fade-out (albeit an incomplete one, probably achieved by gradually closing down the f-stop of the lens as far as possible). Years later, Hollywood would adopt a standardized – and far less creative – use of a fade-out, usually followed by a fade-in, to mark the passage of time or a change of location. Here, Griffith's use of the device is far richer, as it operates on at least four interlocking and highly effective levels. First, it is decorative, bringing the movie to a smooth close rather than the traditional abrupt cut to a black screen or a closing title. Second, it is atmospheric, enabling us to reflect on the significance of what we have seen rather than suddenly jarring us back to reality. Third, it is literal, depicting the fading light as the farmer must work far into the night in order to compensate for the king’s exploitation. Most remarkably, it functions figuratively, symbolizing the innocent victims’ fading hopes. The fact that Griffith’s fade-out achieves so much, and functions in so many ways at once, attests to his grasp of cinema as an art medium.
Having said all of this, it is only fair to note that “A Corner in Wheat” is far from a perfect or even a well-polished work, as many shots could have benefited from retakes. But its flaws only serve to emphasize that Griffith was an intuitive artist whose achievements are all the more remarkable for having emerged from a system designed only to efficiently grind out a constant flow of commercial product for mass consumption. Indeed, in all likelihood the impact of the techniques we have noted was largely subconscious, if not wholly lost on the largely uncultured and uncritical audiences of the time. That Griffith chose to invest “A Corner in Wheat” with so many devices that neither were necessary to tell its story nor contributed to the profits from its routine distribution strongly suggests his particular interest not only in conveying its social themes but in pursuing his vision as an artist. But perhaps the indisputable test of Griffith’s talent – and the ultimate tribute to his talent – is that even today, despite its period mannerisms, primitive look and drastically simplified approach to a complex social issue, “A Corner in Wheat” retains much of its power to move us on a purely human level. And that, to me, is the sure sign of genuine art.
Copyright 2009 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2009 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.