Title

Subtitle

THRILL BECOMES STORY

                                                                                        

                                                                                       i

                               "Thrill Becomes Story" 

                                                                  

  

 Mark Cousins first sets forth his major theory in the introductory section of the initial episode entitled “1895-1918: The World Discovers a New Art Form; Thrill Becomes Story.” His examples are taken from two films of the 1940s directed by noted veterans of the silent era. He shows a clip from Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca (1942) and explains that to most cineastes this beloved film would be considered a “classic.” However, he argues for a different usage of such terminology, contrasting Casablanca with another film from the same decade, The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947), directed by Yasujro Ozu. He argues that it is the Japanese film which should be designated as “classical,” whereas the Hollywood production is “romantic.” It is this seeming contrast between two modes of filmmaking that will dominate his treatment of the silent era and will color several of the later episodes. Maintaining most traditional film history has been “factually inaccurate and racist by omission” and “it’s time to redraw the map of movie history we have in our heads,” Cousins thus sounds an insurgent note, a move away from a Hollywood-centric view of film history to what he promises will be a more truly diverse interpretation, as symbolized by the Ozu film.

               

  In making his distinction between a “classical” cinema and a “romantic” one, Cousins consciously drew on a traditional aesthetic approach in which “classicism,” as seen in ancient Greek and Roman models, was exalted for its balance and harmony, qualities he finds in many Japanese films, especially those of Ozu. He contrasts this with the “romantic” treatment he finds prevalent in most Hollywood films, a narrative exposition he maintains favors emotion and sentiment to the point of manipulation and tends to appeal to escapist fantasy. While he expresses appreciation for the Hollywood film at its best, exemplified by Casablanca, as high quality entertainment, he clearly means to assign it to a lesser status than a film like The Record of a Tenement Gentleman which he perceives as a much more serious work than Curtiz’ film, dealing with transcendent truths.

 There are inherent problems, however, with the type of aesthetic dualism that Cousins’ interpretation proposes. Certainly, from the standpoint of seriousness, one could argue that the thematics of Casablanca are just as weighty, just as universally relevant as those in The Record of a Tenement Gentleman but that the different subject matter of the two films and the cultural context in which they were made is so distinct that his comparison is ultimately a forced one. Furthermore, Cousins, for all his citation of “classicism” as an ideal model based on historical precedent, seems oblivious to the negative consequences that have arisen in the past from the rigid imposition of such structuralism. Shakespeare, for example, was condemned by literary and dramatic critics of the neo-classical school for his intense emotionalism, mixture of comedy and tragedy, melodramatic effects, and violation of formal rules of time and place. Indeed, it was precisely this dominance of “classical” norms in the 18th century, producing a kind of aesthetic stasis, that provoked the rebellion of “romanticism” in the first place. Inevitably, the emphasis on order and restraint in artistic expression came to be associated with analogous efforts to impose limitations on societal and political organization, methods of control and authority that became casualties of the age of revolution that convulsed the West in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The ideals of balance and harmony, a seemingly neat and tidy way of defining existence in art, were swept away by a powerful movement that championed the natural and spontaneous, fully embracing the often disconcerting effects produced by the triumph of the unfettered imagination. Its relation to the larger political and social realm was underscored by Victor Hugo’s dramatic declaration of romantic revolt against neo-classicism: “There exists today a literary ancien regime as there once existed a political ancien regime.”

 Cousins, however, fails to address the obvious disadvantages in elevating one style of filmmaking over another. Taking on the political coloration that permeates much of his series, his preference for a particular approach toward cinema developed in a non-Western country is evidently meant to challenge Hollywood’s cultural imperialism. But his manner of exposition, as illustrated by the strained comparison between Casablanca and The Record of a Tenement Gentleman, is inherently problematic. By presenting cinematic development as a kind of clash of civilizations, the intended beneficiary of this form of argument becomes the victim of a dualistic prism. For rather than being an exemplar of cultural isolation, Yasujiro Ozu demonstrated throughout his career a continuing engagement with Western cinema even as he developed his individual creative style within the context of his Eastern civilization. While Cousins does acknowledge Ozu’s early admiration for, and indebtedness to, the great American comedians of the silent era, for the most part he prefers to see Japanese cinema and especially Ozu’s films arising in opposition to Hollywood.

         

  Had he so chosen, Cousins could have presented an interpretation that allowed for genuine cultural differences while simultaneously depicting the symbiosis through which filmmaking around the world emerged. Rather than attempting to draw a forced contrast between Casablanca and The Record of a Tenement Gentleman, he could instead have excerpted Ozu’s brilliant silent gangster film, Dragnet Girl (1933), a work from the director’s mature style. In this visually and dramatically rich film, Ozu built on the example of such American progenitors as Josef von Sternberg’s outstanding Underworld (1927). But not content with simply imitating, Ozu demonstrated his own creative genius as well as the influence of his culture in adapting Hollywood generic traditions into a Japanese setting. Dragnet Girl is thus as much an Ozu work, incorporating his signature visual style, as any of his home dramas while illustrating the positive benefit of the Hollywood cinema as a continuing source of inspiration to filmmakers in other countries. Indeed, the film’s dynamic heroine, played by Kinuyo Tanaka, seems also to incorporate elements drawn from Ozu’s memories of his first great cinematic love, the silent serial queen Pearl White. Yet the limited emphasis of Cousins’ historiography prevented such an analysis. In neither his book nor his series does he once acknowledge the legacy of American silent serials while his claim in the book version of The Story of Film that Hollywood gangster films began to influence Japanese cinema only in the later 1940s after the war in effect precludes even the existence of such a film as Dragnet Girl.  

              

  Ozu's productive engagement with Hollywood included even closer borrowings. Much like Shakespeare drawing on the rich store of Italian and French Renaissance literature as plot sources for many of his great plays, so Ozu, utilizing to the fullest his unique technique, transposed the narrative of an excellent American film, George Fitzmaurice's The Barker (1928), to a Japanese setting, creating one of his foremost masterpieces, the remarkably moving and expressive silent film, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934).

 When Cousins turns to the actual emergence of cinema and the first films from the turn of the last century, his approach, while brimming with enthusiasm, is far from the radical rewriting he had implied would be his practice throughout. Here, then, is once again the familiar chronicle of Thomas Edison and his associate, W. K. L. Dickson, the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, Edwin S. Porter, and G. A. Smith. Cinema in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century is depicted by Cousins exclusively as it developed in three countries, the United States, France, and Britain, with no indication that there was filmmaking elsewhere at that early time.

       

 It might have been possible even at this primary stage to have departed from the conventional accounts of cinema’s beginnings as related by Terry Ramsaye in A Million and One Nights in 1926 and repeated in the standard annals ever since. As an example, in this early period there was a remarkable pioneer in Mexico by the name of Salvador Toscano who began filming documentary footage of the life of his country as far back as 1897, work he continued for over two decades including his priceless chronicling of the Mexican Revolution. Because Toscano was deliberately using his camera to record for posterity the Mexico of his day, his material was carefully preserved unlike so many early films which have been lost. Cousins’ narrative of this time, however, remains anchored in the familiar. When he does belatedly take up Mexican cinema in the sixth episode, he shows footage of Pancho Villa and the revolution with his commentary stating that this material was shot by American filmmakers. Nowhere does he mention the pioneering work of Toscano and his chief professional rival, Enrique Rosas, in laying the foundations of the Mexican cinema when the medium was just beginning.

 Cousins’ presentation with its historical elisions is rooted in a significant omission concerning the development of cinema as an expressive, autonomous art. In “Thrill Becomes Story,” the section in which he documents the birth of the narrative film, he begins with an excellent discussion of the uniquely cinematic technique devised by Edwin S. Porter in his pioneering story film, The Life of an American Fireman (1903). He demonstrates how, in cutting from the outside of a burning building to the interior in which a mother and her child are menaced by the blaze, Porter was able to overcome time and space. This is followed by an excerpt from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924) illustrating the great comic artist’s advanced expansion of such editing techniques to create a special kind of magic on the screen. Cousins next shows an early example of parallel editing from a French Pathe comedy called The Horse That Bolted (1907). Whereas Porter had shown what happened next, Cousins notes that parallel editing was able to illustrate what was occurring simultaneously. From this, he switches to a clip from the famous French historical film by Charles le Bargy and Andre Calmettes, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (1908). Pointing out its innovation in having the actors turn their backs to the camera, he goes on to include a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) as an example of the continuing influence of this technique. He then takes up the issue of the actors’ relation to the public and the birth of the star system. With this transition to a new topic, he thus seems to imply that henceforward the progress of cinema art in terms of its basic grammar was unimpeded and the real struggle was to be in terms of content—the “classicism” vs. “romanticism” that he had discussed earlier.

               

  He thereby ignores at this point a fundamental contention that emerged in the years between 1908 and 1914. For despite its qualities in staging and acting, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise also had a negative effect, causing one of the rebels against its technique, Abel Gance, to later dismiss it as an example of “the first, simple films” retarding the advance of cinema art. As was once pointed out in many histories of cinema, the stagy approach adopted by le Bargy and Calmettes generated a taste among the cultured for similar films adhering to theatrical conventions. Thus was born the tradition of Film d’Art that reached a crescendo with the arrival of feature-length films and “Famous Players in Famous Plays” in 1912, exemplified by such works as Queen Elizabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt. Films of this kind were essentially silent photographed stage plays with little cutting and the actors placed at a considerable distance from the camera in a succession of long-shots. But precisely because they mimicked the established older art of the theatre and brought to the screen elevated historical and literary subjects, they gained for motion pictures, previously scorned by those in polite society, a prestige that had hitherto been lacking.

                 

 This regressive tendency in cinema was challenged in the early 1910s, not by the highbrow aesthetes of the day but by filmmakers resolutely appealing to a mass audience. Whether it was the Nordisk melodramas made in Denmark, the serials produced in America and France, the Westerns of Thomas H. Ince, the slapstick comedies of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company, or the many works directed by the as-yet unknown genius at the Biograph Company—all of these films, rejecting the proscenium arch limitations of photographed theatre, presented to their audiences real streets and landscapes on the screen wedded to exciting narratives. To the masses in both the sprawling new cities and the isolated small towns, these popular amusements provided a respite from their daily toil by giving them a chance to see the wider world while often demonstrating a populist sympathy for their struggles. It was thus the cinema as a mass entertainment that advanced the frontiers of cinema art in the years prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, not the aesthetically reactionary photographed stage plays attracting the cultured.

 While this salient development was long recognized by most historians of the medium, Cousins does not address this topic at this time in his presentation. As he revealed in his book, his revisionist approach to this key period was colored by the arcane and dubious theories propounded by Noel Burch in an effort to explain the delay in the Japanese cinema’s adoption of film techniques devised in the West until just after World War I. Indeed, the interpretation advanced by Burch in his study of Japanese cinema played a major role in shaping Cousins’ perspective of Japan’s films as a counter to Hollywood productions. Under the spell of Burch’s argument, Cousins largely bypasses the continuing struggle on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1910s between those filmmakers who embraced the new cinematic language and those who clung to the old theatrical manner of exposition.

 Cousins marks the transition to the 1910s by discussing the invention of the star system at the start of this new decade. He does this by showing clips from two 1909 films, Those Awful Hats and The Mended Lute, in which the first American star, Florence Lawrence, appeared. After commenting on her later tragic fate, he deals with Afgrunden (The Abyss), the groundbreaking Danish film of 1910 which launched Asta Nielsen’s spectacular career as a star. In his segment on Florence Lawrence, however, Cousins makes a telling and significant error when he states that she was known originally as the “IMP Girl” just before Carl Laemmle began the star system by revealing her name to the public. His commentary accompanying the clip from The Mended Lute says that this was one of the films in which she had been appearing for Laemmle. In truth, in the anonymous stardom she had earned before joining Laemmle and his IMP Company she was known as the “Biograph Girl.” Both Those Awful Hats and The Mended Lute were among her many Biograph films directed by He Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned at this point in Cousins’ documentary.

                  

  After the section on the establishment of the star system, Cousins takes up the silent cinema in the Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden. He declares that in the early 1910s, the Scandinavian films were the best in the world. Whether it was due to the Northern light or a sense of mortality and destiny, the early Danish and Swedish films, he states, were “more graceful and honest” than others, reflective of the values in their literary traditions.

 He begins by showing some remarkable, innovative footage from Benjamin Christensen’s first film as a director, The Mysterious X, the production of which began in Denmark in August of 1913 with the film’s release following in March of the next year. He goes on to discuss Christensen’s celebrated Haxan, also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages, which did not come out until 1922. Following this, he turns to Sweden’s Victor Sjostrom with a brief clip from his early feature, Ingeborg Holm, released in the fall of 1913. He then devotes more time to one of Sjostrom’s later masterpieces from the early 1920s, The Phantom Carriage (1921).

           

 In arranging the first episode in this manner, Cousins largely eliminated five crucial years of cinematic development from 1908 to the first half of 1913, the period preceding most of the first acknowledged masterworks of Scandinavian cinema. In addition, he takes the first episode out of the 1895-1918 time frame with which it was supposed to be concerned by emphasizing the later films of Christensen and Sjostrom. Throughout his series, Cousins repeatedly cuts between films made in different periods. While this technique is of varying effectiveness, it does often serve to illustrate valid points about the continuity of film history. The kind of chronological displacement in this section on Scandinavian cinema, however, is far more questionable because Cousins is, in effect, trying to demonstrate his thesis that the Danish and Swedish films of the 1910s were superior to all others made in the world at that time by utilizing as his primary evidence two remarkable films that were not made until the early 1920s.

 Cousins then asserts that once Christensen and Sjostrom were lured to Hollywood in the 1920s, Scandinavian cinema would not be again central to the story of film until the 1950s. He thus rules out any further consideration of filmmaking in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland for the next thirty years, although, in fact, many outstanding films were made in the region during the intervening decades. Typical of his approach, he reduces the exciting, crowded canvas of world film history to a few favored names. While, to be sure, time and budgetary constraints would have made it impossible to do full justice in a single series to the majority of noted creative figures prominent in the development of cinema, I think Cousins could have at least tried to avoid making such broad, dismissive generalizations about entire national and regional cinemas.

                    

  From the cold northern clime of Scandinavia, Cousins then journeys to an edenic, sunlit garden thousands of miles away, a rural landscape near the town of Hollywood in Southern California. He relates the familiar tale of how artists and businessmen settled this verdant region in the early 1910s to establish a new community centered around the production of motion pictures. Youth and glamour were what it emphasized, he says, and as his example, he includes a gauzy, soft-focus clip of Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 film, Shanghai Express, followed by a still photo of a sign proclaiming, “It Pays to Look Good.” Cousins’ narration intones: “Youth and glamour came out of its [Hollywood’s] test tubes. No one was supposed to be plain here or sad or old or racially equal or sexually different. What denial, what eugenics!” Cutting back to the present-day rural Hollywood landscape, he shows what becomes a signature symbol of the entire series, a red Christmas bauble he calls “shining, perfect, brittle,” the visual metaphor for the Hollywood dream machine.

 The contrast between a Hollywood built on fantasy and illusion and a Scandinavian cinema concerned with honesty and mortality could not be clearer or more obvious. Indeed, Cousins goes well beyond the stereotypical view of Hollywood as “Tinseltown” to suggest strongly that the shining perfection of its “eugenics” foreshadowed the Nazi effort to create a master race. His polemics, however, are not founded so much on facts as on calculated selection and manipulation to advance his thesis. For example, in the context of a segment supposedly concerned with Hollywood in the 1910s and the dreams it engendered then, he uses a clip from the 1932 Sternberg/Dietrich film with very different effects than would have been possible in the teens due to radical changes in lighting and film stock.

             

  Presumably, Cousins’ statement that no one in Hollywood films was supposed to be “plain, old or sad” is not to be taken literally but is rather rhetorical intended as an argument that from the moment it became a major influence internationally in the early 1910s, the American cinema projected an escapist fantasy that denied reality. In setting forth his thesis, however, he indulges in a massive denial of his own, a refusal to so much as acknowledge the existence of the early American films that depicted social conflicts and injustices, often with a power that remains compelling to this day. So numerous were these works that Kevin Brownlow was able to document them in his Behind the Mask of Innocence, a monumental volume on the American films concerned with contemporary social problems that were produced in the 1910s. Similarly, in 2007 the National Film Preservation Foundation, as part of its Treasures from American Archives series of DVD releases highlighting early American cinema, brought out a major collection of social issue films, most of them dating from the silent era.

                   

 Had he not adopted a very different course, Cousins could have included examples in his series from any number of American films of the 1910s that stood outside the prism of escapism he assigned to the cinema of that period, whether it was a powerful short film about the plight of the elderly, What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911), directed by that mysterious Biograph Man, or the equally powerful feature film about the sufferings of immigrants in modern America, The Italian (1915), produced by Thomas H. Ince and directed by Reginald Barker. There were the many strong films about the abuses of predatory capitalism such as Biograph's A Corner in Wheat (1909), the portrayal of the oppression of the Native American in another Biograph film, Ramona (1910), the depiction of prostitution in the big city in George Loane Tucker's Traffic in Souls (1913), the presentation of the harrowing conditions of slum life in Cecil B. DeMille's Kindling (1915), the dramatization of the controversial issues of birth control and abortion in Lois Weber's Where Are My Children? (1916).              

               

 In striking counterpoint to Cousins' view of a Hollywood cinema forever dominated by youth and glamour, there was nothing in the least prettified about DeMille’s The Whispering Chorus (1918), a dark and brilliant psychological drama with a decidedly plain, unheroic-looking leading man caught up in an inexorable tragic fate. Also sharply breaking with a glamorous image were the starkly realistic Westerns of William S. Hart, vividly depicting the dusty, corrupt towns of the American frontier, including in his powerful, widely acclaimed masterpiece, Hell's Hinges (1916), yet another early cinematic landmark overlooked by Cousins. 

                  

  From the standpoint of race and early Hollywood, neither in his series nor his book did Cousins make any mention of the remarkable career of Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa who, after attaining great popularity with the public due to his features for the Lasky Company, established his own company. One of the most outstanding films that he produced in which he starred was The Dragon Painter (1919). This film has been hailed for its incorporation of Zen aesthetics into the narrative.

 As for Cousins’ view that there was no place for the “sexually different” in early American cinema, here filmmakers were subject to the same prevailing censorship that also curtailed presentation of such issues in literature and on the stage at that time. Nevertheless, even this forbidden topic could be portrayed in films in certain contexts. The Vitagraph comedy feature, A Florida Enchantment (1914), is one noteworthy example that has attracted considerable attention in recent years. It is still considered quite daring in the sexual ambiguity of its protagonists who assume different genders. Such works, however, were apparently too much at odds with Cousins’ monochromatic conception of the emergence of American cinema to warrant mention in his analyses.

                   

  To drive home his thesis based on a presumptive chasm between Hollywood and a European cinematic tradition founded on principles of high art, Cousins also distorts the history of the Scandinavian cinema. For, in truth, in the early 1910s filmmaking in Denmark and Sweden was not yet wedded to a pure “art” cinema such as his commentary maintains. The prevailing tendency at that time was the organization of film production along industrial lines, especially in Denmark where the great Nordisk Company dominated production as it made the majority of the country’s films. In his book, The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer, the distinguished film scholar David Bordwell points out that Nordisk’s films exploited popular subjects and genres that appealed to a mass public. He writes that “Nordisk developed several popular genres—the crime film, the romantic melodrama, and the chase farce—while also copying the American Western and the historical film . . . The formulaic nature of the Nordisk genres may be gauged by the firm’s widely publicized ‘rules for screenwriters,’ one of which commands: ‘The plot shall take place in the present and deal with ‘elevated society.’ Pieces which deal with the lower classes and with farmers will not be accepted.’”

 Despite these apparent constraints, Nordisk made major contributions to the development of cinema art in the early 1910s with its exploration of filmic techniques and fostering of acting styles in longer narrative films that impressed audiences and influenced filmmakers around the world. As an example, there was August Blom’s landmark feature, Atlantis (1913), with a spectacular depiction of a sinking ocean liner, clearly capitalizing on the recent Titanic disaster, that remains exciting to this day. Less than three years later, Blom directed an even more remarkable film, The End of the World (1916), a compelling story of class conflict amidst impending doom. The dramatic climax depicts on an impressive scale and with innovative special effects the earth ravaged by collision with a comet. This Nordisk production proved a tremendous advance in the cinema’s ability to present science fiction with a sense of realism unmatched by any other medium. With Atlantis and The End of the World, Blom played a central role in developing the “disaster” epic, a genre that would flourish in Hollywood decades later with such blockbusters as James Cameron’s 1997 mega-hit, Titanic.  

                

  A creative hothouse turning out many fine films with an impressive galaxy of stars and directors, Nordisk thus set a precedent for future studios like Paramount and MGM in Hollywood. These full-blooded, immensely popular productions, however, were far from the austere art films concerned with metaphysical ruminations a la Ingmar Bergman that Cousins maintains was the norm for Scandinavian cinema in the early 1910s. It is little wonder, therefore, that he makes no mention of the giant studio in Copenhagen that dominated Scandinavian filmmaking for most of the 1910s.

  In truth, the emergence of the Scandinavian art film was a later development than is stated in The Story of Film. It was in Sweden during the latter half of 1916 that producer Charles Magnussen initiated a policy that favored films of high artistic quality over quantity. Thus encouraged, the Swedish cinema’s two greatest directors, Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller, began making a series of cinematically stunning, complex works expressing their artistic maturity. Such timeless masterpieces as Sjostrom’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1917) and Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) had themes that Cousins noted as characteristic of the Scandinavian aesthetic, although in neither his book nor his series did he mention these two highly influential films. At the same time in Denmark, Carl-Theodor Dreyer, a long-established scriptwriter at Nordisk, also rebelled against the standard approach to filmmaking in his country with his first films as a director.

       

 Cousins’ efforts to present the cinema of the 1910s as an aesthetic binary is further underscored by his almost single-minded concentration on Scandinavia vs. Hollywood in this part of the first episode. Apart from a fleeting clip of Giovanni Pastrone’s spectacular and innovative Cabiria (1914), he does not comment on the other flourishing European cinemas of that period in France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 The American cinema of the 1910s is then subject to another form of reductionism as part of Cousins’ polemical strategy. The impression the documentary conveys is that once the pioneers began setting up studios in Los Angeles in the early 1910s, filmmaking in other parts of the country became marginal at best. In reality, the New York City metropolitan area with its cinematic capital in Fort Lee, New Jersey remained a major force in American filmmaking throughout the decade. The outstanding and innovative pioneer filmmaker, Alice Guy Blache, made virtually all of her films of the 1910s in her own Eastern studios. Stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, after winning immense popularity in films made on the West Coast, returned to the East for several years to star in films. At the end of the decade, D. W. Griffith relocated his production company from Hollywood to New York and did not work again in California for a number of years. There were those artists like Pearl White, one of the most popular and influential stars of the 1910s, who did not so much as even visit Hollywood; all her films were made on the East Coast. Besides the New York-New Jersey region, there were flourishing studios elsewhere in the country in the 1910s, notably Chicago with the large Selig and Essanay companies and northern Florida where numerous studios sprang up in the cities of Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

            

  The omission of this background is significant inasmuch as Cousins places so much emphasis on the unique characteristics of the Southern California region as a determinant factor in the nature of the films that were made there. Indeed, his emphasis on physical environment appears to be summed up as a contest between a Scandinavia with harsh northern winters gestating an intellectually advanced cinema concerned with life and destiny and a Hollywood with a balmy, sunny climate acting as a sort of narcotic deadening filmmakers to a sense of reality. But however effective this might seem as a purely symbolic juxtaposition, the actual historical record belies such tidy assumptions. Ironically, instead of dispelling Hollywood’s mythical aura, Cousins’ inverted approach only ends up reinforcing the traditional stereotype albeit from a more negative perspective.

                

  Cousins continues his presentation of the birth of Hollywood with a segment on the establishment of feature-length films. He correctly points out that the 1906 Australian film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was the world’s first full-length feature. This is accompanied by a clip from the film, the only acknowledgment he makes in the series of the notable early Australian cinema. He then follows with the inclusion of scenes from Hollywood’s first feature film, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man (1914), and the precedent its techniques set for later Hollywood productions, including The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

              

  His next segment is concerned with the pioneering women of the American cinema in the 1910s, filmmakers he says have long been overlooked in the standard histories. He notes the achievements of Alice Guy Blache, praising the poetic quality of Falling Leaves, the 1912 short he excerpts to represent her, and Lois Weber, whose career is illustrated by her technically daring chase film, Suspense (1913). This section includes an interview with Cari Beauchamp, the biographer of the outstanding screenwriter Frances Marion, who provides some informative and intelligent observations. Marion’s contribution to the cinema is exemplified by dramatic footage from the great 1928 silent film, The Wind, she scripted, directed by Sjostrom in America and starring Lillian Gish.

 The inclusion of Frances Marion is something of a departure for Cousins as his main interest throughout the series is the director. (He does not discuss the three films she subsequently directed in the '20s.) His assessment of the feminine pioneers is positive, although considering his earlier indictment of Hollywood as a generator of escapist fantasies aiming for a eugenicist perfection, there appears to be an element of cognitive dissonance here. After all, as major shapers of the American cinema, one would assume that these women, along with their male counterparts, were implicated in what Cousins views as the creation of an unreal world of youth and glamour.

 It is significant whom Cousins leaves out from his exposition. Incredibly, he makes no mention of Mary Pickford, an absolutely central figure who played a pivotal role in the production of her films, nor of Mabel Normand, a major creator of American screen comedy who directed a number of her own films. He also fails to take note of Pearl White and the serial queen phenomenon that helped foster the idea of feminine emancipation among audiences all over the world.

  

  It is while excerpting Lois Weber’s Suspense that Cousins makes his first reference to a figure he has up to then ignored—and as it happens his statement is inaccurate. He claims that for a number of years historians attributed Suspense to a male director, D. W. Griffith. But given that Griffith’s directorial career has long been well documented, it is inconceivable that any knowledgeable film historian would have attributed a 1913 Rex production to Griffith who was then still at Biograph. In fact, it was Weber’s husband, Phillips Smalley, who co-directed many films with his wife, who was once assigned sole directorial credit in such standard sources as Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, an omission which later research has corrected. However, by alleging that Griffith was undeservedly given credit for an innovative film directed by another, he sets the tone for what will follow.

 He begins by stating, over footage of Griffith as an actor in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1907), that “If the great women filmmakers of the 1910s are under-remembered, then this man is over-remembered.  People say he invented the close-up and editing which isn’t true.” What he did for cinema art, however, says Cousins, was far more important in that, unlike the earlier stagy films, he brought a sense of realness to the films, or, as he put it, cinema must show “the wind and the trees.” After a clip from The House with Closed Shutters (1910), Cousins shows footage featuring Lillian Gish from Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921), noting the achievement of reality in the ice floe sequence in the former and the psychological intensity in the images of the latter. To his credit, Cousins, besides doing justice to Griffith at this point, at last acknowledges that there had been a tradition of heavily theatrical, uncinematic films against which the American director was in full revolt.

                         

  But although up to then this has largely been positive, he next turns to what he calls “one of the great shocks of cinema,” Griffith's epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation (1915). He shows footage from the battle scenes and the famous homecoming scene. While he pays tribute to its cinematic skill and the subtlety of the acting in the homecoming scene, he also says that this makes the film’s “racism more dangerous.” He then includes the clips of the black-dominated State House in South Carolina and the Ku Klux Klan’s ride to illustrate his view that this is a “deceitful” film and goes on to recycle the popular historical myth, complete with newsreel footage of the 1920s Klan, that The Birth of a Nation was the principal reason for the 20th century revival of the KKK. In similar vein, he highlights Rebirth of a Nation, a not very successful 2004 attempt by conceptual artist DJ Spooky to undercut Griffith’s perspective by remixing selected footage from the film.

                  

  Cousins then turns his attention to Intolerance, noting the influence of the 1914 Italian epic, Cabiria, on Griffith’s use of the moving camera and spectacular sets in his 1916 masterpiece.  He describes the theme of the four parallel stories comprising the film’s narrative as depicting the deadly effect of the forces of hatred and intolerance through the ages. However, in referring to the Modern Story as being simply about “gangsterism,” implausibly describing characters as dressed in “jazz era costumes” when the Jazz Age traditionally means the 1920s, he misses an opportunity to discuss Griffith’s social consciousness. He does comment on the film’s remarkable technical advances and its influence on Eisenstein in the Soviet Union. As a further example of the influence of Intolerance, he shows footage from the first great Japanese film, Minoru Murata’s Souls on the Road (1921), which blended two parallel stories.

             

  He concludes this first episode of the series with the observation that in 1918 cinema seemed to have reached its peak with the triumph of Hollywood, a garden turning out fantasy for a world audience. This, however, is a clear indication that the next episodes will document a challenge to the status quo.

 His selection of material from the 1910s in the main serves to reinforce his conception of the development of film art as a division between a classical style of cinema exemplified by Scandinavia and a romantic conception favored by Hollywood. While praising the sense of realism attained by Griffith in his use of natural backgrounds and cinematic techniques, at the same time he eliminated any reference to the exploration of social realistic themes that were the hallmark of numerous Biograph films and culminated in the 1910s decade with the Modern Story of Intolerance, later released as a separate feature in 1919 under the title of The Mother and the Law with additional scenes of societal inequities. A reference to Griffith’s pioneering social consciousness could have counterbalanced the highly negative impression conveyed by Cousins’ portrayal of The Birth of a Nation as a dangerous piece of racist propaganda. Instead, by characterizing the Modern Story of Intolerance as dealing with gangsters and never once mentioning its powerful depiction of capitalist oppression of labor and the injustices of prison and the death penalty, he essentially locks Griffith into Hollywood generic conventions which seems to be consistent with his ideological aim.

 

                   

 To be sure, there is nothing novel in Cousins’ perception of Griffith as his emphasis on The Birth of a Nation has appeared ad infinitum in documentary after documentary over the last twenty-five years or so and has been a major factor in the steep decline of the director’s reputation from its posthumous peak in the 1970s. Colored by the prevalent dogma of political correctness, they repeat the familiar narrative about the supposed responsibility of Griffith’s film for the Ku Klux Klan’s resuscitation in 20th century America. In fact, however, as newspapers of the period reveal, in the early 1910s, well before the release of the film, there were already scattered Klan revivals in many parts of the country. And as for its reappearance as a mass movement, contemporary newspaper accounts document that this did not occur as a result of the screenings of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and 1916 but was rather an outgrowth of the U. S. involvement in World War I during 1917-18 when a resurgent KKK shot to prominence with the declared aim of combating pacifists and pro-German elements in accord with the official propaganda of the time.

 Cousins’ approach toward Griffith is ultimately contradictory. On the one hand, he does acknowledge the director’s seminal and positive contribution to the development of film art, an extraordinary influence to which the majority of his contemporaries around the world attested. At the same time, by claiming he was “over-remembered” and failing to include any examples of his innovations at Biograph, he attempts to diminish his stature. And by stressing the controversy over The Birth of a Nation to the exclusion of any consideration of Griffith’s social consciousness in other films, he appears to be placing the director firmly within the context of a Hollywood in which, he asserts, “no one was supposed to be racially equal.” 

 Griffith’s relation to Hollywood rests on a fundamental paradox, one that Cousins does not address at all, either in his book or his series. From one perspective, Griffith can rightly be viewed as the founding father of Hollywood from the moment he took his company to Southern California in early 1910. However, he would also repeatedly rebel against the Hollywood system. His lyrical masterpiece Broken Blossoms (1919), with its sympathetic depiction of a Chinese protagonist encountering racial prejudice in a tragic story set in the London slums, was considered so uncommercial and downbeat by Paramount’s mogul, Adolph Zukor, that Griffith was forced to distribute it through United Artists, the company he co-founded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin in an effort to maintain creative independence from the large studios.

            

   In a further act of resistance against the encroachment of HollywoodGriffith moved his production to the other side of the American continent. Yet after enjoying considerable success with the films he made there, two of which, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, were intensely dramatic indictments of the male oppression of women, his independent studio at MamaroneckNew York came to an end with Isn’t Life Wonderful? (1924). This relentlessly uncommercial and powerful portrayal of poverty and unrest in postwar Germany was largely filmed there on location.

 Proving even less acceptable to the public, his swan song came in the early days of sound. The Struggle (1931) was another stark depiction of urban poverty made on the East Coast with scenes shot on the mean streets of the Bronx in sharp contrast to the studio-controlled realism preferred by Hollywood. In a lone positive contemporary review, the noted writer and critic Eric Knight presciently observed that in The Struggle, Griffith “eschews shiny sets, well-clad actors, nice stories of passion and polite fashion . . . Instead of picturing poverty in a romantic manner, photographing it picturesquely through soft-focus lenses, he turns a cold eye toward realism.”

 

                   

 Anticipatory of Italian neo-realism in many respects, as analysts have observed, Isn’t Life Wonderful? and The Struggle are, it would appear, too out of keeping with the director’s supposed adherence to what Cousins calls Hollywood’s tradition of “closed romantic realism” to warrant any references in his analysis. But then it is evident that Cousins has been highly selective of what to include and what to omit in order to sustain his particular theory of film history.

 It is likely this same insistence on theoretical purity that explains his total exclusion of the great French master of serial films, Louis Feuillade. In a largely appreciative essay on Cousins’ series, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests Feuillade’s absence as stemming from a possible “fit of absent-mindedness.” Yet even in his far more expansive book, with which Rosenbaum acknowledged he was unfamiliar, Cousins made not the slightest reference to Feuillade. It would seem that Feuillade’s serials, like the Nordisk productions, would have only complicated his theory based on the prioritization of “art” cinema paralleling advanced literature. Feuillade’s creative vision was grounded in resolutely popular fiction and as such it was scorned by those of his contemporaries who thought of cinema in terms of high art.  In sharp contrast to the prestigious Film d’Art productions, Feuillade’s serials were dismissed by the “cultured” for catering to a mass public attracted by the picturization of sensational crime stories. Cousins appears to be reviving past aesthetic priorities with the privileged status he accords the “classical” art film and the secondary place he assigns to an “escapist” Hollywood dominated by popular genres presenting narratives in a superficially realistic manner.

                 

  While recognized by most film historians today as a complex artist with a unique vision of his own, Feuillade evidently posed a challenge to Cousins’ attempt at systematization. As a filmmaker working in a popular genre, his affinities were clearly with those of his contemporaries in America who also engaged in the production of thrilling, well-crafted serials. In Feuillade’s films, there is a continual blend of reality and fantasy in a dream-like manner that defies easy categorization. In the context of an exposition drawing a fine line between European aestheticism as represented by the Scandinavian art film and the Hollywood dream machine, Feuillade’s serials would appear to represent an unwelcome intrusion that blurs such distinctions. Cousins’ interpretation is able to encompass later amalgamations of high art and generic traditions, such as the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but not at this stage in the cinema’s development. So rather than modify the rigor of his presentation by including such masterpieces as Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-16) and Blom’s The End of the World, he omits any mention of them.

 

                                   Next: "The Triumph of American Film"

 

 

 

                                                                      

 

 

Oops! This site has expired.

If you are the site owner, please renew your premium subscription or contact support.