lundi 15 novembre 2010

Kevin Brownlow Interview (Part V)

Part 5
D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille
For this last part, Kevin talked about two of the most important American directors of the teens. Griffith and DeMille were great innovators and also controversial figures. We discussed both aspects.
Vous pouvez lire la traduction française et écoutez des extraits sonores ici.

In 1993, you made a three-part documentary on DW Griffith with David Gill (DW Griffith: Father of Film). What was the influence of Griffith on other film-makers at the time of The Birth of a Nation?
Hardly anybody that I interviewed didn’t rave about Griffith and didn’t acknowledge The Birth of a Nation as the greatest thing they’d seen. What is extraordinary to me now is that we didn’t discuss the politics. Now I’d seen the picture at a 13 year old with a school friend at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead when they were running the sound version. And the sound version is catastrophic because it’s speeded up. Griffith having shot it at 16 fps, it’s now shown at 24 fps. It looks absolutely ridiculous. It’s also terrible quality and we both came out saying: “What a load of rubbish!” But we didn’t respond to the fact that the Ku Klux Klan were the heroes and the blacks were the villains. And when I spoke to people who remembered the picture, the first time round, they all regarded it as cowboys and Indians, besides being tremendously proud of the film as a member of the industry who produced it. And raving about Griffith. I don’t remember anybody pointing out the all to obvious fact that it was wildly racist! So that is curious. When I saw a Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films, they asked the great film makers what films they regarded as memorable, Carl Dreyer –of all people!- chose The Birth of a Nation as number one. So despite the riots they talk about and the protests at the time, it obviously had a very different reaction on people. And I think that the appalling thing to admit is that it was generally accepted that blacks were not exactly sub-human but getting that way. And these wonderful men in white were indeed worthy of being the heroes. The ironic thing is Griffith and Dixon who wrote The Birth of a Nation, were opposed to the resurgence of the Klan which The Birth of a Nation did so much to help. However, if you take part one, it is the most moving pacifist film. It’s only in part two that it gets really vicious…but it’s so exciting…to think that it’s a film made in 1915. If you see it with an orchestra, it’s absolutely pile driving, the ride of the Valkyries being played for the ride of the Klan. But you don’t show it in public, it’s still the most controversial film ever made. I tell you one thing, Madam Sul-Te-Wan who was a black actress in The Birth of a Nation was asked about Griffith and she said: “If my father and Mr Griffith were drowning in the river, I’d step on my father to rescue Mr Griffith.”

The Birth of a Nation is nowadays a very controversial film. Its blatant racism makes it a very disturbing feature. In the documentary, you managed to give a very balanced view of the film and its film-maker. How did you start to tackle this difficult subject?
Well, a miracle happened! We were making a film about Harold Lloyd and went to see one of his kid actors, Peggy Cartwright who played in one of his two-reelers and she was in her late 70s, I suppose. And the last person you would think would introduce a husband who was black. She was married to an actor called William Walker and he had been at the first showing of The Birth of a Nation and he gave us an account of what it was like to see that film as a black man and it was terribly moving. And what we couldn’t include was his description of how after the show he stood on the street and watched the Klan march. But that was the absolute miracle of good fortune that we found somebody who was so eloquent about the picture. And I thought that was enough. But PBS in America, decided we had to have two black academics as well. So for the American version, they got John Hope Franklin and without checking they got Tom Cripps who has written a lot about black films, only he’s white! (laugh) They were very dismayed when he arrived for the filming and discovered they got the wrong man. (laugh) Anyway, I don’t think what either of them say changes the balance of what we had with William Walker.
But I do think that The Birth of a Nation ought to be seen and not censored. It’s not the American way to censor pictures. I think it’s even against the Constitution. They tried hard enough over the years. It’s always been disastrous. If you hide something away, and then build up the reputation, I think it does more damage than showing it and letting people make up their own mind. But in that case, for that film, you really have to show it looking at its best for the artistic impact was so enormous and you need to know why. Nobody remembers now that Fox put out a picture in the same year called The Nigger (1915, Edgar Lewis). But the film is lost and nobody bothers about it. But that was just as controversial in its way, in its small way, as The Birth of a Nation.

Do you think that Griffith has been sometimes overrated at the expense of other lesser-known film-makers of the time?
Yes, I do. I don’t think he invented all those things that he was supposed to have invented. To suggest he invented the close-up is to deny all the portrait painters since the beginning of painting. Not to mention that the very very first motion picture that you can see is Edison like Fred Ott's Sneeze is in close-up and that’s 1894! And Griffith began directing in 1908. But he did use these techniques extremely effectively. But there are other directors who made marvellous films. Particularly, lost names like Reginald Barker who made The Italian (1915). The early Tourneurs, the early De Milles, Mickey Neilan’s Amarilly of Clothe-Lines Alley (1918) and Stella Maris (1918), the films of John H. Collins and Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915). But also, Griffith was technically highly praised but in fact, could be extremely odd. His editing was unique. He knew narrative editing and that was extremely effective. But continuity editing, cutting from mid-shot to wide-shot. Say, a warrior unsheathing his sword, he does it twice. He overlaps it. Nobody else did that in Hollywood. They immediately got the idea that you make it a smooth transition that makes it almost seamless. So looking back at Griffith work, some of it looks extremely primitive. He’ll suddenly cut to a close-up against pure black in a studio lit, whereas the wide shot is outside! Maddening… And yet, he is undoubtedly brilliant with films like Broken Blossoms (1919), Intolerance (1916), True Heart Susie (1919). Absolutely amazing. And some of the Biographs are superb and stand up wonderfully today. Something like The Knight of the Road (1911) about a tramp in the California fruit farm is brilliant and he did these without script, just knocked them off in a couple of days. Although I remember one of his actresses saying how extravagant he was. So he probably used up a lot of film making them. But I do think..that’s why I’d like to write a book, I’d like to repeat Francis Lacassin’s title an Anti-History of the Cinema [Francis Lacassin: Pour une Contre-Histoire du Cinéma, 1972] and bring forward those directors that have been so overlooked over the years.

For somebody who has never seen any Griffith pictures, which one would you recommend as a starter?
We were shown a beautiful new print of The Lonely Villa (1909) at Pordenone Silent Film Festival, together with the two films that had inspired it [Le médecin du château (Pathé 1908); Terrible Angoisse (Lucien Nonguet, Pathé 1906)]. They would be an ideal start. Then I would go on to another Biograph like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) or The Unseen Enemy (1912) preferably in an original print off the negative, because they are so superb to look at. And many of the negatives survive. I would definitely start with that and then something like Broken Blossoms (1919). Intolerance (1916) is a crazy film but it’s also a masterpiece, if you have a live orchestra and huge screen, it has tremendous impact.

In 2003, you directed a two-part documentary on Cecil B. DeMille (Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic) covering his silent and talkie period. What made DeMille such an innovative director in the silent era?
The obvious things like dynamic lighting which other people weren’t using so early. I think The Cheat (1915) is as great film as they said it was. The atmosphere is dependent on that extraordinary lighting that he developped. He took a lot from David Belasco but we don’t know what was going on in the theatre at those days so one assumes it all starts in the movies. I am a terrible film critic when it comes to describing these things…There is an energy about those teens DeMille. For a man who was able to shot The Cheat (1915) during the day and The Golden Chance (1915) at night. I mean that is energy. But he puts it in the picture as well. They all those teen films…they’re not too long. They are very well made. They’re beautifully lit, fantastic use of locations, often very interesting themes, especially Kindling (1915). And I think those marital pictures are marvellous too. But, by the time the 20s come, they get awfully silly and yet he is able to direct a film like The Godless Girl (1929) which is brilliant.
An important point about DeMille. He wasn’t the sort of innovative director like Eisenstein was by any means. What he established was the future look of Hollywood films. Other directors went along his route rather than imitating Griffith. And his pictures became incredibly overblown and almost ridiculous as they did in the mid-1920s so did the others. But his films of the teens, I find the most interesting.

The French Cinémathèque is organising a DeMille retrospective in April-May 2009. Which films among DeMille silents would you recommend as must see?

The silent films I would recommend for the DeMille season:
Certainly The Godless Girl (1929); Why Change your wife? (1920); Whispering Chorus (1918) is an exceptionnal masterpiece, The Little American (1917) is a lot better than you think and it’s also had a great influence on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, R. Ingram); Joan the Woman (1917) I suppose ought to be seen, a lot of it is very good; The Heart of Nora Flynn (1916), The Golden Chance (1915), The Cheat (1915) one the most important films of the teens; Kindling (1915). I only stop there because there are so many of them. But The Captive (1915), The Warrens of Virginia (1915), The Girl of the Golden West (1914), What’s his name? (1914) are very good too. All those teens films need to run at 21 fps and The Godless Girl at 24 fps.

DeMille is also a controversial figure for his involvement in the Director’s Guild during the McCarthy era. There was a very tense general meeting in October 22nd, 1950 involving Joseph L. Mankiewicz, then acting director of the Guild, John Ford and all the directors of Hollywood. Could you sum up what happened during this meeting and tell us what you discovered regarding John Ford’s involvement?
As a matter of fact, I can! We interviewed various people for the DeMille film and even before that everybody that was there that I spoke to confirmed the story that DeMille had picked up the list of the 25 directors who had signed the petition to hold this meeting that they were at. And said: “ How interesting some of these names such as Zinnemann, Wilder, Wyler”…and it became one of the standard Hollywood stories when the Director’s Guild of America made a film about themselves, Mankiewicz was interviewed and repeated that story including the wonderful moment when John Ford gets up and says: “My name is John Ford and I make westerns. I admire you Cecil, but I don’t like you.” Now, there are a couple of documentaries coming out and I believe a book, on this subject. And the transcript of the Director’s Guild meeting has also come to light. And I’ve just looked at it and when Cecil DeMille is supposed to pick up the list of names and read them out in that sinister way, he actually doesn’t. What he does is, he reveals, the Communist front organisations that they belong to. But he doesn’t name names. Now, that was a pretty serious thing to do at that McCarthy period, it could lead to people losing their jobs. But as I say, he did not name names. A little later, Rouben Mamoulian gets up and he says a curious thing: “For the first time, I am ashamed of my accent. I always thought I was an American but now I realise..” and I think what has happened is very difficult to explain this clash. It went on for hours and hours. And these men, after all, were story tellers and they did exactly what DeMille did in his history films. They bend history a little bit to make it work as showmanship. So to make the story work, they’ve taken that accent thing from Mamoulian and put it on to DeMille. As a result, we are going to have to change the sequence in the documentary. Does that do it?
Now, John Ford got up and he said: “My name is John Ford and I make westerns.” And he talked about Cecil B. DeMille being…everybody knows his films make more money than anybody else..etc.. “But I don’t like you, Cecil!” And he won the heart of all those directors that were at the meeting. Now, when we were making the film, Cecilia Presley-DeMille, C.B.’s granddaughter, told us that actually her grandfather had received a letter from John Ford, after that meeting, praising his performance and saying what a great man he was. And that’s in DeMille papers at Brigham Young University.

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