David Wark Griffith
The Development of Cinematic Language
The Early Years
Apprenticed with Edwin Porter
A. Began with Melodrama which he learned both from Belasco stage and Porter’s plots
B Wanted to make filmed life look as natural as real life, yet follow conventional narrative structures
C. Between 1908 and 1913 he directed 450 one-reel films for Biograph
D. New ways to tell stories: the grammar and rhetoric of cinema
E. Griffith is credited with developing, through trial and error, the basic grammar and rhetoric of cinema.
1. Tested new ways of using the camera and broke away from theatrical conventions (the staged
drama filmed as if seen from the audience)
2. Realized that the content of the shot should determine the camera’s relationship to it
3. Integrated and utilized: medium shot, close shot, close-up, extreme close-up, long shot, extreme
long shot, pan, traveling (tracking) shots
4. Cut between these types of shots, through montage (editing) to create the whole scene
Different shots, or combinations of shots, have different emotional or ideational impact
A. Griffith believed that:
1. Films could mirror physical activities and mental processes
2. Moving shots, in which the camera moves, magnify the sensation of movement with their
3. Cross-cutting between two disparate things creates association in mind (spatial, thematic,
4. Films can focus attention on different objects (close-up); recall older things (flashbacks); tell
audiences how they should feel about both (reaction shot)
Heightened emotional content
Standard structures for creating tension (usually episodic)
Simplified moral universe
Allegorical or stock characters representing different attributes or figures of consciousness (virtue, purity, greed,
honor, avarice, sloth, etc)
Virtue threatened and/or rescued
Morality protected and order restored
A Corner in Wheat
A. Based on Frank Norris novel, The Octopus and short story “A Deal In Wheat.” Norris was one of a
group of progressive social realists (such as Upton Sinclair and Stephen Crane) who were trying to expose some of
the more brutal aspects of modern life, such as the problems and suffering caused by monopolistic capitalism.
B. Shot at Biograph Studio, Jamaica NY and on Location
C. Creates juxtaposition between growers and buyers through parallel editing in which he cross-cuts
between the two.
D. How are contrasts conveyed? In mis-en-scène? Cinematography? Via montage?
E. What are the differences between the spaces? What do these differences signify?
F. What is Griffith trying to say? What is the message of the film? What is it revealing or commenting on?