Scene Dissection, Spectacle, Film as Art

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Scene Dissection, Spectacle, Film as Art

The making and showing of moving pictures seems to constitute what I have taken the liberty of terming the "New Art."

—Louis Reeves Harrison, Moving Picture World, 28 June 1913, p. 1336

The coming of the feature film brought changes in film form once again. The longer film created problems similar in some ways to, if not as extreme as, the narrative crisis of the nickelodeon days. Among the first multireel Vitagraph films, The Life of Napoleon and The Life of Moses reflected the renewed narrative problems by reverting to the tableau style of pre-1908. When the stories to be told grew longer and more complex, clarity again became an issue. There was a renewed demand for lecturers to go out on the road with big special features such as Dante's Inferno. There were also several revived attempts to provide mechanical "talking" devices with the film, including the new version of Gaumont's system that was demonstrated in New York on 10 June 1913; Hepworth's Vivaphone, which was brought from Britain; and the prestigious presentation of Edison's long-awaited Kinetophone in early 1913. However, the now well-established mass-production system of the film industry gave even greater preference to a self-sufficient product than had been the case in 1909. Lecturers could not easily be provided for every film showing, and the experimental sound systems depended on separate sound mechanisms. When Warner's Features imported Eclairs three-reel Redemption in the spring of 1912 for sale on the states rights plan, their advertising stressed that it was "understandable to any audience—no lecture necessary."1

When a higher-paying audience came to see films in the more palatial theaters, there was a renewed call for respectable film fare and uplift. The social and educational goals of the earlier period were still important, but now there was a new emphasis on the need for a higher degree of art and intellect in keeping with this new audience. When the manager of the People's Theater in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, expressed his annoyance that Kleine's big production Quo Vadis? was going to non-film theaters instead of to the regular picture shows that rented the less-important Kleine releases, the World explained that Quo Vadis? was bringing in people who would not go to the nickelodeons. After seeing such features, it was argued, they would become regular patrons of the moving picture.2

Suitable fare for the higher-class audience was found in part through a reversion to the classics of theater and literature. At a much earlier time, before the development of the narrative systems that made a feature-length film possible, similar subjects were chosen because familiar stories would be recognized by audiences that shared a cultural heritage. Now the filming of classics assured the intellectual level of the works to be seen by an upward-striving middle-class audience. Of course, it was of equal importance that acknowledged classics provided pretested material on which higher production costs could be risked. Many of these early features, such as The Life of Moses, From the Manger to the Cross, Quo Vadis?, and Damon and Pythias, were of a religious or historical nature and took place in ancient times, subjects that reassured the newer audiences about the respectability and the intellectual level of the motion picture.

As features became more common, producers more often dared the production of modern plays or novels. However, original stories, written for the screen, were rare in the early years of the feature film. (Traffic in Souls November 1913, was one of the few exceptions.) An invaluable index of the literary sources tapped during this period is the list published by the World in July 1915 under the title "Books and Plays in Pictures: A Comprehensive List of Authors and Titles of Their Works That Have Been Produced in Motion Pictures Since 1910." Composed mostly of feature films, the list takes up five double-columned pages of the journal. Both classic and modern authors appear prominently, but the largest numbers of films are based on older works. Fifteen films are based on Dickens, thirteen on Shakespeare plays, eleven on Alexandre Dumas, nine on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and nine on Washington Irving (but five of these are versions of Rip Van Winkle, which seems to have exercised a particular appeal for filmmakers, as there were also versions before 1910). Six films each are based on the works of Scott, Schiller, and Clyde Fitch; five films each on Jules Verne, Charles Reade, and Victorien Sardou, and four films each on Victor Hugo and Wilkie Collins. Tennyson, Dion Boucicault, and Charlotte Brontë (four versions of Jane Eyre) are also well represented, as are the modern authors William C. DeMille and Richard Harding Davis, whose works are associated with seven films each. Likewise, Bosworth had produced film versions of six of Jack London's novels by that time.3

It must be admitted that an enormous number of the short films produced from 1907 to 1912 had also used well-established works as sources, but in the all-consuming daily search for new subjects, original stories had often been filmed as well. Writing for films was a new craft, having little to do with established literary forms. Production in the days of the one-reeler depended on the work of hundreds of amateurs. It was not only that the price paid for scripts was beneath the dignity of an established writer, but the craft itself was not in the professional writer's realm. An elegant turn of phrase was of no use in a silent-movie script (unless it appeared as an intertitle). The plot and the visual ideas were what mattered. The Edison Company hired "name" writers for their publicity value, but most companies advertised widely for scripts, and the scenario editor on the staff read, selected, and adapted the submissions. Out of the hundreds of journalists, magazine story writers, actors, and amateurs who submitted scripts, a handful developed into professional scriptwriters and were hired as the scenario editors of production companies. With the coming of the feature film, scenario editors more often prepared the shooting scripts of the established works in-house.

As discussed in previous chapters, the distribution and exhibition practices of the first multireel films had imposed certain requirements on the film structure, notably that of providing a sense of climax and completion for each reel. At the same time, there was less need for story compression in the feature film, and consequently, there was less of the compression of fast cutting. There was more time to build up atmosphere and more time to portray character and add psychological depth, and therefore less place for the shorthand of ideological editing in which Griffith had become a specialist. Editing rhythms tended to slow down and crosscutting to be used less extensively. The advice given in a 1914 manual for structuring a scenario is encapsulated by the subtitle for one of the chapters: "Sequence and Consequence; Logical Cause and Complete Solution; Sustained Climax; All Expectations Fulfilled."4 In those few words are outlined what was considered the ideal structure for the feature film. In the early days of the feature-film craze, there was also quite a lot of "padding," by those producers who lacked sufficiently large ideas or who were saving money by reusing footage shot for another purpose. (Nonetheless, it is sometimes difficult to know from the mangled and incomplete prints that survive whether an original film was really lacking in a coherent structure.)

Feature films also brought changes in the use of intertitles. The longer, more complex narratives of the feature films called once more for the help of titles to make the story clear to the spectator. On the other hand, titles that might take away from the suspense created by new narrative systems, by announcing what was to happen, were no longer desirable. It was felt that expository titles should be kept to a minimum. Dialogue titles, however, could supply exposition in what now began to be considered a more realistic manner and at the same time supplant, to some degree, the explanatory elements such as lecturers, actors behind the screen, and mechanical reproductions of talking. There was another reason, however, for the increasing use of dialogue titles: they came closer to the theatrical model. Dialogue lines formed the basis of the play script in the theater, and as we saw in chapter 9, dialogue titles in 1913-1914 sometimes even followed the procedures of the play script by naming the character who spoke. The procedure that had been rejected for the short film, that is, dialogue titles cut into the shot at the place where they were spoken or immediately after, was now found right for the feature film. The unassailable integrity of the single shot was giving way. From now on, dialogue titles began to appear more frequently than narrative titles and to carry more of the burden of narration.

The feature was required to hold the interest of the audience over a long period of time. In the earlier film program composed of short films, illustrated songs, and vaudeville acts, variety in the fare could be counted on to hold the spectator, who would be willing to wait through a less-successful offering because the next one might be better. As the feature replaced the variety show, it was found that some variety elements could still be incorporated. The most important at this time would prove to be spectacle. This could be provided in many ways: by impressive landscapes, enormous and expensive sets, large numbers of actors and period costumes, sweeping action in great depth, "big scenes," or special effects. Film spectacle far surpassed anything that the stage could offer, and audiences responded accordingly.

The popularity of the double exposure for scenes showing an actor meeting himself is an indication of how the process of making films fascinated audiences. Such effects were occasionally given a slight precedence over the principle of not breaking the illusion of reality: admiring the novelty, or wondering how it was achieved, might make audiences remember that they were watching a moving picture and not the real world. However, the most spectacular special effects, it was felt, should appear at the beginning or at the climax. As we have seen, when the producers of Jimmy (October 1914) used a bravura traveling shot, they placed it at the beginning of the film, where it would not distract once the narrative was under way. Such increasingly elaborate introductory sequences appeared before the story began, offering spectacle but in advance of the narrative. An additional motive for the introduction of actors at the beginning of the film is made clear in a review of The Prisoner of Zenda (Famous Players, February 1913), where the critic applauds "the idea of showing each of the principal characters on the screen prior to the first reel, and giving a good purpose in making identities clear." The introductions, then, could not only add spectacle and exploit star value; they could also serve to clarify a complex plot.5

The foreign imports that pushed the development of features in America were historical-spectacle films. The bigger the spectacle—that is, the more battle scenes, the larger the sets, the greater number of actors employed in such films as Dante's Inferno, Quo Vadis? and Cabiria—the more sensational the appeal to the Americans. Ambitious producers in the United States followed this lead. Griffith's first feature (longer than two reels), Judith of Bethulia, was a spectacle film, and his greatest success, The Birth of a Nation, was first of all seen as spectacle. The Birth of a Nation would not have been so successful if it were not for the intricate interweaving of more intimate scenes, the small scale that balances the large-scale scenes, but at that moment, the beginning of 1915, it was the size of the spectacle that counted most. Ince's production of The Wrath of the Gods depended on such big, spectacular scenes as "Lava flowing! Houses crumbling! Villages burning! The typhoon at sea!" With all that to look forward to, a spectator could certainly sit patiently through six reels. To a certain degree, spectacle in the feature film revived some of the fascination felt by the earliest movie audiences.6

Two methods exploited big spectacle scenes to the greatest advantage: (1) a moving camera, as in Cabiria, offered a sense of great depth and solidity in enormous sets, or followed action over a broad geography; or (2) large scenes were dissected in editing, providing through a variety of details an otherwise inexpressible sense of a larger whole. Both methods were used during this period.

In 1911-1912 Griffith's Biograph films came in for some sharp criticism for the increasing number of shots. Frank Woods thought that Fate's Interception (April 1912) overdid it: "There seems to be too frequent a change of scene with a rapidity that destroys a full continuity of thought by too much change in action of scenes." In August, when the Reverend Dr. Stockton took a pocket counting machine and stopwatch in hand to make an actual tally of the images flashing across the screen in a week's releases, he targeted The Sands of Dee as the outstanding "horrible example" with 68 shots.7 (Tom Gunning counted 75 shots in this film when he examined it on a viewing table.) That same month Stockton could have counted, but didn't, 107 shots in Man's Lust for Gold. And even that was far from the largest number per reel, which could be found in some of the 1913 films. By 1915 the New York Times critic (undoubtedly Alexander Woollcott), reflecting on The Birth of a Nation,contended:

The film director, flushed with the realization that he could move about with a freedom unknown to the stage, has been so delighted with this

liberty that he has indulged himself incontinently, without pausing to consider that he might be playing havoc with that precious element called tension. It is easy to predict that the cut back, and similar evidences of restlessness, will fade gradually from the screens, to be used only on special occasions (reprinted in George Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness, p. 208).

Many other producers followed Griffith's lead, but none went to such lengths as he did. The reaction to this development marks one of those turns in film history that shock and unsettle their first audiences and later are taken for granted, such as the effect of the moving camera in L'Avventura (1960) or the jump cuts in À Bout de souffle (1960). To be sure, mainstream or classical Hollywood cinema followed the prediction of the Times critic. Griffith was an individualist who tested extremes, who had an enormous impact on the construction of narrative systems at the base of classical Hollywood cinema, but who in the end drifted outside the dominant cinema, just as he remained something of an outsider in the industrial production system after he left Biograph.

The increasing number of shots in the Griffith Biograph films (and to a lesser extent in the work of other filmmakers) in the same years when the multireel film was appearing in growing numbers may have indicated Griffith's restlessness with the limits of the form, which he seemed always to be testing. However, the rapid cutting in these films was rarely due to the breaking up of the scene into details: the high number of shots in a Biograph film reflected an emphasis on alternate editing: the dividing of the action into numerous separate locations and cutting between them; when the producer returned to the same scene, he usually employed the same camera position. With the exception of occasional inserted close-ups, the integrity of the single scene was still important even in these rapidly cut films, although the concept was in process of change.8

To maintain perspective on the narrative systems in use at this time, let us remember that some films were still being made in one shot, from one camera position, and in full-figure shot. In The Borrowed Flat (American, 1911), for example, the one shot is interrupted only by titles, some of them announcing time lapses. Two men play practical jokes on each other, just as they did in comedy films in the days before 1907. And as Robert Grau observed at the time, director Thomas Ricketts' claim to fame in 1914 was dependent on

the famous one-thousand-feet-no-stop pictures, that is, one entire scene of a thousand feet without a stop or a sub-title. Motion picture followers will recall the earlier Essanay releases, "Justified," "Gratitude," "The Adventuress," "A Woman's Wit," and similar productions, produced, written and acted in by Ricketts, in which there was no change of scene for one thousand feet of film (The Theatre of Science, p. 366).9

Many other films of the 1907-1915 period used simple linear cutting, progressing from one scene, one shot, to the next for most of their length. We really cannot say with certainty, on the basis of surviving films, that the newer narrative systems we have been describing—and which are most evident in the work of D. W. Griffith at Biograph, of Thomas Ince at "101" Bison, and of Reginald Barker, Ralph Ince, Herbert Brenon, Sidney Olcott, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, and a handful of others—were dominant in this period.

Now, simultaneously with the growth of the multireel film, some producers, at least, increasingly began to employ elements of what we now call "scene dissection." This is the editing of shots taken from different positions and angles in the same scene, where previously only one position, one shot, would have been used. Such editing further increases the fragmentation of film space. Its use is justified on the grounds that in reality the spectator looks at only one part of a scene at a time, glancing from one person to another; therefore scene dissection may lend itself to (1) a greater illusion of reality, and (2) more control over the spectator's thoughts and feelings. The new use of the moving camera, asymmetrical compositions, and the cutting-in of dialogue titles signaled a shift in space perception. Such a shift affected the dissection of the scene as well. Producers of the spectacle film, with its immense sets, huge crowds, and big sweep of action, also found it useful to dissect scenes into smaller details.

One reason for the increase in scene dissection was the need for diversity within the film itself, previously supplied by a variety of short films. This motive finds some support in a scriptwriting manual of 1914, which explains that "the close-view has no equal for breaking dangerously long scenes." Now that it was necessary to hold spectator interest over a longer time span, the change in position would save tedium. A stronger motive, however, may be found in the growing complexity of narratives in feature films and the desire to portray psychological depth.10

Cuts to close views of the same scene, called "inserts," are probably the earliest manifestation of scene dissection. They required a physical cut in the film material to place the insert in the scene. Close-view inserts were no longer rare in 1912 (and, as we pointed out earlier, they were not unusual before 1907). Many close views in intervening years were achieved by having the actor move closer to the camera without breaking up the shot. Earlier, when the close-ups were inserted, they were apt to be filmed at just the same position as the larger scene, on the same axis to the camera, but closer. Probably there was a fear of disorientation for the spectator if the angle was not preserved when the close-up was cut in. In Vitagraph's Napoleon, The Man of Destiny (April 1909), there is a cut to mid-shot on the scene in which Napoleon, in a crowded room, is holding a child on his lap. At that time, when children appeared in a film, it was not uncommon to place the camera closer than was done for adults. The closer view of Napoleon and child is photographed from the same angle as the previous shot, but the background figures and objects in the closer view are different, either out of carelessness or, more likely, because the filmmaker did not think of the two shots as continuous in time. When cuts to close views became more common in the next few years, however, most such cuts would be carefully matched, in order to make them appear spatially and temporally related.

The newer way to handle a cut to a close-up may be seen in American Eclairs Filial Love (September 1912), in which there is a three-shot sequence showing a little boy writing a note. The cut goes from a medium shot to a close-up and back to the medium shot. The cut is on action and perfectly matched. The medium shot is at an almost frontal angle, while the close-up is over the boy's shoulder. This sequence of shots signifies a radical change in approach from the cut to closer view in the Napoleon film. There was no longer the feeling that the viewer must be eased into the change of proportion. Now the intervening space could be eliminated with a cut, and the spectator could easily accept another angle. The users of the new narrative system showed confidence in being able to lead the spectator through these changes without disorientation.

Another important factor in the development of scene dissection is the shot motivated by a character's point of view. This editing of shots occurs in a few cases in the pre-1907 period as well, in the two-shot sequences consisting of a character looking at or hearing something out of the frame, followed by the shot of what the person sees or hears. These sequences would normally be shown in reversed angles, such as the point of view of people attending the theater in The Drunkard's Reformation (Biograph, April 1909) and many other films with "spectator" sequences. One shot shows the spectators looking more or less in the direction of the camera; the next shows the stage frontally as they see it.

A newer version of reverse-angle editing appears in Billy's Stratagem (Biograph, February 1912), showing two children pursued by Indians and running toward the safety of the stockade. The sequence is cut in a series of alternate shots, representing each group's point of view of the other. Here, however, not all of the angles are quite frontal to the camera as the film cuts from one point of view to the other, since filmmakers had discovered that continuity could be held while varying the shots, as long as there was careful attention to screen direction. The added implication of a change of angle is that it is no longer necessarily the point of view of one of the characters: it may be a privileged point of view, that of the "narrator" or the film's spectators.

Attention to screen direction was a "rule" of editing that was only now beginning to be considered important. Today referred to as the "eye-line match," the rule dictates that when cutting from one person's gaze to another, the camera should maintain an angle that seems to remain "in front" of the scene. If the angle to which one cuts is too extreme, the spectator will have a feeling of having jumped to a new position, behind the actors. Once again, the purpose is to keep the spectator oriented from one shot to the next. Most spectators would not realize why they experienced disorientation, but they would probably feel it anyway, and even more strongly once they became accustomed to this guidance from the producer. The film historian Barry Salt reports that in tests conducted with film-school students in recent times, the spectators were totally unconscious of mismatched eyeline direction. Nevertheless, if filmmakers were concerned enough about the problem to make it into an editing "rule," it must have affected them as spectators, and presumably their contemporaries as well. The growing complexities of the feature film demanded more guidance for the spectator as more drastic changes in form were taking place.11

Point-of-view shots may be one of the most common elements of scene dissection, showing as they do groups of people talking and reacting to each other. Yet, when there are shots within the same scene and location that do not depend on a character's point of view, I think we can mark the beginnings of a more modern kind of scene dissection, and one that follows in the same direction as earlier developments in the creation of a narrative system, where the "narrator" is built into the film.

This may be illustrated with a sequence from the Vitagraph film Red and White Roses (March 1913, probably directed by Ralph Ince). The sequence deals with a plot to ruin the reputation of a political candidate and takes place in a restaurant. It begins with a title:

Title: "Murray of the opposition notes that Lida's brilliance makes an impression on Andrew."

  1. Andrew and his wife sit at a foreground table, with a merry group at another table behind them. Andrew seems to be looking at Lida at the other table.
  2. Similar camera angle but close enough to exclude the foreground couple while showing a closer view of the vivacious Lida and her friends.
  3. Return to first shot: Lida may be noticing Andrew, maybe not.
  4. At a third table, seen in the background of shot one, two men are observing Andrew's gaze toward Lida.
  5. Return to second shot: Lida laughing, a man leaves the table.
  6. Return to first shot: Andrew gazing at Lida.
  7. Return to fourth shot: the man from Lida's table now joins the two men, and they exchange confidential whispered remarks.
  8. Return to the first shot: the group at Lida's table gets up to leave; one man comes forward to greet Andrew and his wife and then introduces Lida to Andrew at the left of the image. She meets Andrew's gaze and smiles.

In this example all the shots take place within the same location, the restaurant. The first cut is motivated by a gaze and is at much the same camera angle. The cut from shot 3 to shot 4, however, does not appear to be any character's point of view. It does involve a gaze, of course, inasmuch as the two men have been watching the other people, but this is only apparent after the cut. The point may seem minor, but in fact it marks the significant shift in the way of filming a scene that was taking place in this period. There is a much more complex narration than would have occurred if, as in the earlier system, this sequence had been filmed as one shot.

Instances of scene dissection may be found in a considerable number of films from 1913 to 1914.12 The gambling sequence in The Spoilers (Selig, July 1914), for example, shows the conventions of scene dissection to be established in a way quite close to the future Hollywood style:

  1. Master scene showing the gambling table.
    Title: "My share of the Midas against …"
  2. Close-up of hero looking down to the right.
  3. Semi-close-up of the "good-bad" woman facing camera.
  4. Semi-close-up of the dealer looking to the left.
  5. Reduced view of master scene, in which the above three characters dominate the scene, although others crowd around.
  6. Extreme close-up of the dealer's hands and the cards.
  7. Master scene as in shot 1: the hero reacts.

D. W. Griffith also turned to scene dissection when he began to make feature films, and, as in the case of rapid cutting, he used the device in a way unique to himself, more extreme, if you will. Louis Reeves Harrison had noted a new film trend in the summer of 1914 (probably influenced by popular interest in the work of Sigmund Freud):

There is another form of visualized story, which may be called "intense drama." … It dissects … some mysterious working of the human mind. … We are far from being what we think we are and there are many exciting adventures yet to be made into the dark realms of mental change, adventures which can be used to awaken high suspense and, at the same time, fascinate us by startling revelations concerning our personal relations to the forces directing our careers (Moving Picture World, 11 July 1914, p. 208).

He was referring specifically to The Northern Lights and The Escape, both known as "psychological dramas," but he could have been describing Griffith's The Avenging Conscience (Reliance-Majestic, August 1914) as well. The celebrated sequence showing the detective's questioning of Henry B. Walthall, who is being driven to madness by his guilt feelings, consumes nearly fifty shots. The sequence includes only about three or four shots that might be considered master shots: medium shots of the two sitting together in Walthall's study. There is one exterior shot showing two men waiting and several "vision" shots showing Walthall's mental torment—an owl in a tree ruffling his feathers and hooting (two shots), and the demons of hell (two shots). The remainder (approximately forty shots) consists of a variety of close-ups, most of them extreme close-ups; Walthall's clasped hands on his knees, thumbs twisting; the detective's hand tapping a pencil on the desk, the swinging of the pendulum of the clock, the detective's foot under the desk, tapping; Walthall's nervous smiles, his darting eyes. In the cutting, rhythms are picked up from the content of the shots, and a title underlines the metaphor: "Like the beating of the dead man's heart."

Another factor in the growth of the feature was an increasing perception of film as art. In the words of Jesse L. Lasky, "Features … provoked the word art in connection with the moving picture."13 As early as 1909, the aesthetic qualities of some films were being singled out. The Little Shepherd of Tumbling Run from the Edison studio in the spring of 1909 was praised in the name of artistic achievement. It was poetic, one critic wrote, the tones and lighting sublime. In October 1909 Pippa

Passes, from Biograph, drew the attention of the New York Times, which at that time largely ignored the nickelodeon fare. The reviewer compared the lighting effects in Pippa Passes to those achieved by the Secessionist photographers. As it happens, Alfred Stieglitz's Gallery of the Photo-Secession, where this movement had its center, was on Fifth Avenue, around the corner from Biograph's Fourteenth Street studio. Stieglitz was dedicated to obtaining recognition for photography as a fine art, and in its early days, the Secessionist group had strongly emphasized the pictorial qualities of photography, which were influenced by nineteenth-century painting. (By 1911 and 1912, however, the Stieglitz gallery was also exhibiting the latest in modern painting and sculpture.)14

The idea that film might be considered an art form appeared at first in a similar search for pictorial elements. As Frank Woods wrote at the end of 1910:

There is increasing evidence that film manufacturers are becoming thoroughly awake to the great value of making their scenic backgrounds, together with the groupings of the characters, conform to artistic ideals, so that the scenes and the players will stand out as attractive pictures, as well as having dramatic or story values, and all this is very much as it should be. The French have been very successful in this respect, and have had the advantage of the wonderful scenery and architecture of the old world to make their selections less difficult. But the American producers are improving to a gratifying extent. In a film production last week by the Selig Company, A Tale of the Sea, there were several well studied scenes, and in recent films produced by the Essanay Company, the Edison Company, the Kalem Company, the Reliance Company, the Vita-graph and the Biograph companies there have been notable instances of artistic effect. It is a point that film producers should bear constantly in mind (New York Dramatic Mirror, 21 December 1910, p. 29).

In search of the pictorial, producers every now and then took to the reproduction of well-known paintings. Biograph proudly called attention to "an animated reproduction of Jean François Millet's Masterpiece, 'The Sowers,'" in their description of A Corner in Wheat (December 1909). A reporter noted that in Lubin's The Irish Boy, released on St. Patrick's Day in 1910, "One of the settings showing a cabin in Ireland is from a famous painting, one of the poses reproducing that painting entire."15

The link between painting and film was also taken up in early film criticism and theory. In a 1913 editorial, the World suggested that aspiring scenarists might visit the picture galleries for inspiration:

One of the recent successes of the art world in Europe was a problem picture, if we may so call it, entitled "The Fallen Idol. " This picture was by the Honorable John Collier, a well-known painter who has made a specialty of problem pictures…. The majority of great paintings, display incidents: historical, dramatic, and so forth. Modern art, however, is turning more and more to the problematical. As in the play, so in the picture…. Writers and painters of advanced methods of thought think it the right thing to leave you guessing. Now in this picture (there were reproductions of it in the New York Times and other papers in this country last summer) … we see a man seated, as it were, at his study table with a troubled expression on his face. At his feet kneels in suppliant attitude a beautiful girl, presumably his wife…. Now we see that a film maker in Europe has taken this picture as the kernel of a film story…. To the best of our recollection, this is the first instance in which a single picture has formed the inspiration of a film play. (Motion Picture News, 8 November 1913, p. 14).

In an article in Stieglitz's magazine Camera Work, the film theorist Sadakichi Hartmann recommended "short episodes in which all the laws of composition, color and chiaroscuro are obeyed, just as in a painting," and proposed such romantic paintings as Böcklin's Villa at the Sea as sources of films:

—Old Roman architecture, with waving pinions, and the approach of a coming storm. The wave would caress the shore, the leaves would be carried away by the wind, and into this scene of melancholy and solitude would enter a dark draped figure who in a few superb gestures, would express the essence of grief ("The Esthetic Significance of the Motion Picture," in Camera Work, April 1912, p. 21).

The scenarist Maibelle Heikes Justice had already followed the recommended method of visiting the art galleries, but her reaction was quite different. The famous Armory Show of the spring of 1913 presented a more radical version of modern art than the Honorable John Collier's "problem picture" in the 1912 season. Maibelle Heikes Justice was a very successful scriptwriter and representative of popular culture. When she visited the International Cubists' Exhibition, she, like countless other witnesses, found it to be a great inspiration for comedy, and she wrote a new scenario the next day. Selig promptly produced it as The Post-Impressionists (May 1913, directed by Hardee Kirkland), "a rip-roaring comedy on the Futurists and Cubists. There is a 'cube to a cupful' and then some." Noted the approving reviewer, "It is the silly season of the Cubists and we have been watching and waiting for something to freak."16

In a more serious vein, Louis Reeves Harrison called attention to characteristics of "modern art" that he found in a feature film called After Death (Nach dem Tode, Germany, October 1913, distributed in the United States in November). I think he may have been referring to French impressionism, but it is difficult to be sure. What is significant is that films might now aspire to be works of art in themselves:

There is an expression, even more important than beauty, that affects the emotions, a new and rather rare thing in moving pictures, though a highly-prized characteristic in modern paintings of rhythmic intensity. It was though one sat watching a series of expressionist pictures in exquisite tints, where ordinarily hard lines, glaring lights and smudges instead of soft shadows make outdoor effects and those indoors as well almost as repulsive as old-fashioned wall paper. [It] is a work of art (Moving Picture World, 22 November 1913, p. 873).

If a film were to be considered as art, then there must be an artist, and, according to the nineteenth-century romantic tradition, an artist who is a creative genius. The title of artist in this sense was awarded to D. W. Griffith by Louis Reeves Harrison when Griffith left Biograph in 1913. When Griffith entered films at the end of 1907, the publicized creator of the film was the production company, and films were sold by the brand. Now, at the end of 1913, Harrison set forth the myth of Griffith as the dreamer-artist opposed to practical businessmen who tried to hold him back. In a publicity story subtitled "The Art Director and His Work" (the term "art director" for the one who designs the film was not yet in use), Harrison wrote that "his efforts" were "hindered by the traditions of the studio," but the absence of the chief director for a few days in the summer of 1908 gave Griffith the chance to stage a picture as he wanted. Just a few weeks earlier, W. Stephen Bush had written, "[Griffith] has introduced many rules of moving picture stage craft which are recognized as absolutely essential to the art today and he possesses a power to tell 'a story in pictures' which almost amounts to genius." It is almost impossible, however, to find any contemporary published reference to Griffith's important contributions to the art of editing in this period. In 1914 Harry Aitken acknowledged them in a general sense, when he credited Griffith with "new ideas of … scenic arrangement or 'cutting' as we call it." he added, "Proper editing of the film should be a matter of weeks, not of minutes," explaining Griffith's system of tryouts in theaters before the real public, which allowed him to study the effect on the audience. "On that foundation," he explained, "we make the final cutting."17

Only a few people of culture at this time were really prepared to think of films as art, however. Others would say that such an idea was unrealistic, in the light of film's nature as a product of a major industry. Nonetheless, it was a time of high ideals in the years before World War I, and artistic ferment was in the air all over the world, even if the breath of the latest movements in the fine arts did not always reach the moving-picture people. There were still some parallels to be drawn between the expression of the new film art and the ideas bursting forth in other forms. One of the tenets of the modern-art movement as it was to develop in the following years was that the motion picture is the new art medium of the twentieth century. One of the earliest to begin to consider this possibility was Sadakichi Hartmann, a supporter of modern art who was struck, as were other intellectuals of the day, by the great popularity of the moving picture. He wrote, in the Camera Work article cited above:

It contains some element that appeals to the masses, and whenever I see one of these auditoriums packed to standing room only, I become conscious that I am in the presence of something that touches the pulse-beat of time, something that interests a large number of people and in a way reflects their esthetic taste (p. 19).

At the same time, he declared that he did see traces of art in the movies:

I know that most cultivated people feel a trifle ashamed of acknowledging that they occasionally attend moving picture shows…. To my mind there is not the slightest doubt that these performances show much that is vivid, instructive and picturesque, and also occasionally a fleeting vision of something that is truly artistic. Of course, it is generally not the story which interests me but the representation of mere incidents, a rider galloping along a mountain path, a handsome woman with hair and skirts fluttering in the wind, the rushing water of a stream, the struggle of two desperate men in some twilight atmosphere. These fragmentary bits of life, or merely of scenery, with the animating spirit of motion as main attraction, contain all the elements of pure esthetic pleasure (pp. 20–21).

Hartmann exemplified the current approach to the artistic qualities of film when he added, "Only when poetic and pictorial expression become the main object will it develop in esthetic lines."18

George Soule, writing of the drama and the new ballet of Pavlova and Folkine in the Little Review in May 1914, thought that the masses might be led to these higher forms by their experience with the movies, and went on, in a later issue, to express his gratitude that the films created a crisis for the stage, which he considered to be in a low state: "It is but a step from a moving picture such as D'Annunzio's Cabiria to a spectacle such as Reinhardt's The Miracle." The older and more conservative literary journal The Dial devoted an editorial in February 1914 to "The Cinematograph Craze," admiring the recent film illustrations of two literary masterpieces, Les MisÉrables and Dante's Inferno.19

George Pratt has some incisive observations to make on the cinematic parallels of the time with other modern-art movements:

Griffith's bold juggling with, and breakneck pacing of film editing in 1912 and 1913—his use of motion continually intercepted, and continually resumed—exactly coincided with the American public's growing awareness in those years of a restless "crisis which threatens all the arts." Reports from abroad described the "hysterical yelling " of the singer in Schönberg's revolutionary composition "Pierrot Lunaire," a work which seemed to be "strung together at random," and sounded "like madness." In his quarterly, Camera Work, Stieglitz published the baffling Gertrude Stein on "Henri Matisse" and "Pablo Picasso," asserting that this was "the Post-Impressionist spirit… expressing itself in literary form." Miss Stein herself, in later years, explained that in these two pieces she was "doing what the cinema was doing": building up each portrait with statements superficially the same, but subtly different, like the successive frames of a strip of film, but to one enraged reader, she was inexcusably tearing words loose from their meanings, applying an egg-beater to the brain (Spellbound in Darkness, p. 105).20

In a 1914 interview, J. Searle Dawley, a former Edison director now directing for Famous Players, offered a definition of film art as what he called "the drama of silence":

The drama of silence is human emotion conveyed by the poetry of movement…. The art of the drama of silence is movement prompted by emotions, not emotions represented by movement, as in the art of pantomime. The sequence of events and method of constructing a story give us an opportunity to eliminate what is called pantomime. An actor may stand motionless, gazing into a lighted window, and convey to the mind all the depths of love or hate. The intelligence of his position is carried to the spectator by what has gone before or by what may come afterwards…. It is the sequence of movement and scenes that is really the essence of this new art.

What is particularly interesting about his definition is the underlying notion that the spectator now participates in the film:

The universal appeal which the drama of silence has for the entire world lies in the fact that each auditor is creating his own emotions and language for the characters before him on the canvas, and they are according to his own mental and spiritual standard. Therefore, the spectator is supplying the thoughts and words of the actor and becomes a part of the performance itself. This, I fully believe, is the reason for the phenomenal popularity of the drama of silence throughout the world today (Moving Picture World, 31 January 1914, pp. 547–548).

The following year saw the publication of Vachel Lindsay's The Art of the Moving Picture and William Morgan Hannon's The Photodrama: Its Place Among the Fine Arts. Lindsay pronounced his thesis in capital letters: "THE MOTION PICTURE ART IS A GREAT HIGH ART, NOT A PROCESS OF COMMERCIAL MANUFACTURE." "It is not a factory-made staple article," he insisted, "but the product of the creative force of one soul, the flowering of a spirit that has the habit of perpetually renewing itself." Hannon, meanwhile, argued that the motion picture "is a representative fine art, like sculpture and painting, rather than a presentative one, like architecture or music" (emphasis in original). For both authors, film was related to painting, sculpture, music, and architecture. The idea that it should be thought of as "canned" theater, still held by some studio executives and theatrical impresarios, was now out-of-date. Only in an age of idealism could Lindsay so boldly challenge reality as to deny the motion picture its commercial basis. Most producers might have granted Lindsay his "poetic license" and continued to try to find ways to run a profitable business. Nevertheless the appearance of Vachel Lindsay's book provides some indication of the distance traveled since 1907, when an industry was struggling to mass-produce a factory product. It reflects some of the excitement felt by intellectuals when, in 1915, they began to look at the extraordinary phenomenon of the motion picture.21