Ah Yes! Griffith was a Marxist!
Translated by Ted Fendt
495 short films shot by D.W. Griffith between 1908 and
This film shows, in alternation, the life of country peasants and the management of the wheat market by speculators (one of whom ends up acquiring a quasi-monopoly), their accumulation of wealth, and the consequences at the agricultural and consumer levels.
We are shown:
|– The work in the fields and the surrounding life (4 shots),
– Speculator meetings (4 shots),
– The banquets of the newly rich (4 shots),
– The visit to the wheat silo (8 shots),
– The baker and his customers (4 shots).
25 shots in a quarter of an hour that are, essentially, all fixed, sequence-shots, veritable tableaux vivants (as in Goethe’s Elective Affinities) that impose a precise theatrical space – with diverse contrasts in actions, gestures and attitudes from one shot to another, accentuated by the framing always being the same.
production reflects a great virtuosity. Almost all of the film was shot in two
days, November 3, dedicated to exteriors, and November 13, 1909. (1) For a more
manner of working turns out to be quite original. For a contemporary,
socio-economic and thus supposedly realistic subject, we find here a fable
because the brevity of the work pushes
1. The day that
This shot can be compared to the last shot of the film, which shows the same action. There, however, there is no more than a single peasant, with neither a horse nor a plow, and he seems much more disillusioned than before. Thus, we understand, in a very concrete manner, the decline of this peasantry, who their economic representatives, no doubt, found no place for within the system reorganised by the monopoly.
lengthy discussions between well-dressed businessmen on the stock market floor
include a great number of characters, between five and twenty, all arguing and
gesticulating like puppets. It’s an early attempt at working on a crowd or
group scene, a domain in which
course of the shot, an old man moves away from the group of speculators, makes
a few steps towards the bottom of the frame, staggers, collapses and faints
(the change in composition might lead some to believe it was an accident during
a news report). Never does
The bakery – in four shots distributed across the film, always structured on the principle of an enlarged checkerboard – marks the development of the crisis well: the rise in bread prices (solidified by a written sign that the spectators of the film can read very easily, but which the people buying the bread cannot due to its placement having been chosen solely for the public), the quarrels that result from it, the intervention of the police, the distribution and then the absence of bread.
end, the fashionable dowagers (the target of numerous
Not everything is clear, however; the silence creates certain limitations. I suppose that it is the representative of these small farmers who was ousted by the Wheat King. And that the Wheat King, once in control of the market, was able to inflate the price due to the lack of competition. But I am not sure about that. My mind won’t stop working to understand, to figure out the meaning. Perhaps that’s a virtue of the film, although one that is, without a doubt, offered involuntarily.
Why does the baker suddenly give free bread to everyone? And why is there no more bread to distribute in the following scene? A specialist of the aughts tells me that it is a reference to the activities of the Bread Fund (a type of organisation that helped the poor) whic had begun to give bread to the destitute, but who soon had to give up due to the colossal rise in prices.
To be sure, Griffith was not yet perfectly assured in his narrative practice, as confirmed by the awkwardness of the insert shot of the letter that informs the Wheat King of his new fortunes (as unrealistic as it could possibly be). An oddly stable photograph stuck between two lively shots with the characters’ motions from before the insert being repeated afterwards. But one finds comparable faults in the all films from the period.
of these issues, you have to admit that, fourteen years after
The pictorial references are complemented by two literary references. A Corner in Wheat is inspired by two novels written in 1901-1902, The Octopus and The Pit, by the naturalist Frank Norris. (3) The cinema owes him a lot, since he also wrote McTeague, the 1899 novel adapted by Erich von Stroheim for Greed (1924). (4)
is also the first masterpiece of militant cinema. Eisenstein dreamed of
adapting Capital, but
|3. The Pit is an ironic title because it is
the nickname of the place where the wheat market trading is held and it is also
the grave where the Wheat King dies.
from Issue 1: Histories
French original © Luc Moullet 2007; English translation © Ted Fendt and LOLA 2010.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.