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New DVDs: Griffith Masterworks 2

A new box set from Kino includes five features from the ur-auteur: “The Avenging Conscience,” a 1914 production that finds Griffith on the verge of inventing expressionism; “Way Down East” (1920), at last available in MOMA’s restoration of the nearly three-hour road show version; “Sally of the Sawdust,” a 1925 comedy with W.C. Fields and the most troubling of Griffith’s child-women, Carol Dempster; MOMA’s reconstruction of Griffith’s first talkie, “Abraham Lincoln” (1930), with the slave-ship prologue restored; and a personal favorite, Griffith’s underestimated final film, “The Struggle” (1931). My review in the New York Times is here.

Folks in the New York area won’t want to miss Jerry Lewis in Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, a special event sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, Nov. 22 at 7 pm at The Times Center, 242 West 41st Street in Manhattan. Tickets for non-members are a pricey $48, but what better way to stimulate the economy than by giving it up for Jerry? Chris Fujiwara has an appreciation of Lewis at MOMI’s website, Moving Image Source.

279 comments to New DVDs: Griffith Masterworks 2

  • dm494,
    Embarrassingly, I don’t even remember the “joke” about salami in THE BIG COMBO. I rarely get double entendres…
    Fante and Mingo’s love for each other seems touching. They seem like real, affectionate human beings. This is so unusual in the context of its time.
    I agree that their being hitmen is problematic. But the censors of the time mainly allowed gay characters when they were villains. So I tend to rationalize the hitman aspects away, as a gimmick to get them past the censor.

    Despite this thread where I’ve endlessly complained – it is not clear that my views about bigotry are stricter than other people’s (you call them “uncompromising”). Lots of things that have been called racist in old movies seem to me harmless. Some people regard any old film in which a black plays a servant or Pullman porter, racist. I don’t – this is just realism.
    Many people regard the use of ugly terms in fiction racist. While I don’t recommend the use of such language at all, it is clear than some writers just use this for realism. Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” and “Waiting for Lefty” contain ugly terms, but they do not attack black people, or present them as inferior.
    I am not disturbed when actors play characters of other races. This is just a convention.
    So it is possible that my criteria are actually “mild”, compared to many people.

    What disturbs me very, very much, is when films portray a racial group as inferior or evil, or advocate discrimination or harm to that group. Such depictions have a real historical record of leading to horrific real life consequences.

  • And if it’s hard to imagine a POWELL and PRESSBURGER film on a Cahiers list these days, does that also mean that these critics felt they had to follow old prejudices (what was it with them and British directors anyway?).

    In Ken Russell’s autobiography, he writes of the Cannes’ screening of “Aria” –for which he directed a segment– in which quite a few members of the audience, who left the film after Godard’s segment, coming back into the theater at the film’s end credits to cheer Godard’s credits and boo the credits of every British director.

  • dm494

    Mike, thanks for replying. And I agree with your points about realism.

  • Brian Dauth

    Kent: I agree that there is a difference between “favorites” and “greatest,” but the question is how to quantify the subjective elements in measures of greatest without defining them out of existence. I think that the extreme of regarding the “greatness” question as merely a matter of taste is just as dangerous as the extreme that takes no account whatsoever of the social/cultural context in which an aesthetic experience occurs. As for personal monitoring, I am always trying (and failing) to attain a modest level of Buddhist mindfulness, but I do believe the limit you speak of to be far greater than usually acknowledged.

    As for TBOAN: Griffith tried to be definitive about what Dubois called the problem of the 20th century: the color-line (and very likely the problem of the 21st century as well. Racial/ethnic demons seem to play well still). I like Margaret’s notion about regarding certain aspects of a film’s content as “artifacts” of an earlier time/ignorant filmmaker. When I watch Franklin Pangborn swish across the screen, I am amused and not terribly bothered (I had not realized until I read Miguel’s post that queers were so hard to please).

    But race is a unique issue in American life/culture, and the vision of blacks that DWG presents in TBOAN is still the vision possessed by many Americans today. His portrayals of blacks have not yet reached the artifact stage — they still have a power to wound which Pangborn does not. I have shown TBOAN to youth I work with in Harlem and the South Bronx, and while they understand the context in which they images were made, they are still disturbed by them. Maybe such images reach the artifact stage only when a society has arrived at the point were such attitudes are perceived as absolutely anachronistic. Maybe four years of a successful Obama Presidency can bring America closer to that goal.

    As for M$B: besides the formal pleasures of the film, I am intrigued by how Eastwood frames his exploration of the value of human autonomy: both his inclusions and his exclusions are instructive (as were his emphases in BIRD as Nelson pointed out). There is a sense in M$B that the only rational choice for Maggie Fitzgerald is to opt for death. I can understand how someone who is disabled could be upset at Eastwood’s bias (and have been told by disabled friends/family how annoyed they were by Eastwood’s simplifications, despite their liking much else about the film) just as the youth I work with were upset by DWG’s images of blacks. The element of spectatorship seems to be the wild card in any evaluation of greatness/quality.

  • jbryant

    I suppose it’s quite possible that Citizen Kane started doing so well in such polls as redress for its being overlooked or underseen for several years (was it the 1952 Sight and Sound poll that started the ball rolling?). It didn’t do blockbuster business and lost the Best Picture Oscar, so both Welles and the film attained underdog status before their entree to the canon. Now that it’s been the big dog for so long, it’s not surprising that some are calling for term limits. I say let it reign. Of course it’s not perfect – humans don’t DO perfect. But it’ll do till perfect gets here (if I may paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones).

    I wonder if one reason it continues to rank so highly is that it’s such a rich, varied and precocious piece of work that it makes you feel as if you’re voting for ten films in one. The sheer ambition of it is timeless, with Welles, Mankiewicz, Toland and their collaborators tossing in everything they knew about film, theatre, radio, journalism, etc. More modest masterpieces can seem a bit puny by comparison. 🙂

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Brian: if the vision of blacks presented in TBOAN “is still the vision possessed by many Americans today” I would be curious to know how many of those many you estimate are in existence, and how that view fits in with Obama’s electoral success. Are most of the people who voted for McCain (admittedly a high percentage) likely to don KKK sheets or indulge in less obviously outrageous but still violently racist behavior? I don’t know, I’m just asking. I’m not bying the naive belief of some people that all of a sudden racism in this country no longer exist.

    I doubt that the artifact stage can ever be arrived at. What can be arrived at is the realization that all this old stuff was then and we are now. I doubt that there is a black person in a million, in this or any other country, who knows who Griffith was, or cares. If you tell them about TBOAN, they’re probably likely to tell you, Well, that’s the way things were then, that’s what white people thought and did. What else is new? We’ve been through it. Let’s see beyond 1915.
    Or words to that effect. I hope I am not too presumptuous in putting words in black folks’ mouths.

  • Mathieu

    ” quite a few members of the audience, who left the film after Godard’s segment, coming back into the theater at the film’s end credits to cheer Godard’s credits and boo the credits of every British director”

    Mike, yours is one more example we should all feel outraged about. I happen to be of French origin, and love so much of its cinema and culture; but how can I fully respect any critic or Film enthusiast who closes the book on a film solely based on its country of origin. I can’t even fathom such a thing. And England no less (I know, I know, the two cultures have always had a rivalry),even if you set aside the fact that Powell and Pressburger made a sizable chunk of the world’s greatest films, this is also the country of Hitchcock, Lean, Roeg, Boorman, Fisher, and the actor turned director whose film placed pretty damned highly on the Cahiers list….need I mention his name? That’s just a short list, and primarily drawn from a pool of directors whose films can’t be accused of stale ‘Kitchen sink’ styles.

    When you hear a person like Tavernier proclaim his love of Powell and Pressburger, you wonder if so many of his collegues and countrymen were, and are, holding back, resisting the power these two brought to the screen. How can following a strict critical ideology be more important than the beauty of art?

    It also seems foolish to ignore the Brits since some of the French greats in an around the time of the CAHIERS and NEW WAVE heyday have, shall I say, collaborated with the “enemy”. In the case of Jacques Demy and Alain Resnais, two of their best films were British productions (PIED PIPER & PROVIDENCE), and Resnais has directed many recent movies based on British stage plays. So what’s really going on here?

    Back to Amy Taubin and her SPIDER selection, I forgot to add what I consider to be an interesting footnote: that same poll, Robin Wood ended his list by saying “I wanted to include THE PIANO TEACHER (Haneke), but it’s too soon to know for sure”. To these eyes, this makes Taubin’s selection all the more precious. Her desire to go with her feeling about a film and put it on exhibition without having to wait to see if it ‘ages like wine’ is an example of a confident and adventurous move. Counter to the Ebert example I posted before where he felt he had to follow the canon. Frankly, I’m waiting for more such examples: How about a RUSHMORE or L’ENFANCE NUE to topple the 400 BLOWS, or a NEW ROSE HOTEL to topple DOLCE VITA, or the emergence of still neglected masterworks like BIG WEDNESDAY, SEDUCED AND ABANDONED, MAN’S CASTLE, L’ETRANGE MONSIEUR VICTOR (only to barely scratch the surface).
    Someone posted something truly frightening earlier about critics needing to keep up appearances to keep jobs and salaries, I really hope this is not what these lists are based on.

    Finally, I remember Andrew Sarris saying he preferred LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP to KANE… that makes two of us.

  • For me, list talk comes down to this: if someone I respect (distant critic, close friend, interesting artist, whomever) writes 10 (or 50 or 100) film titles on a piece of paper, slides it over and says: “I think you should see these”, I will endeavour to do so (however long it takes, and it can take forever). I don’t really care if that list is the person’s subjective favourites or their objective best; whether it’s canonical or anti-canonical; whether it is weighted or not towards the black-female-disabled-gay Other; whether it skews towards the recent or the distant past; etc. Individual lists are the only ones that matter! ‘Consensus’ lists that shake out each individual’s precious individual picks in order to arrive at the ‘golden mean’ of VERTIGO/CITIZEN KANE/RULES OF THE GAME/etc are a load of garbage – completely useless unless you’re 11 years old and wondering where to start.

  • Kent Jones

    Jean-Pierre has a point there. During the election, there was all this talk about all these white people who were going to get into the voting booth, have a last-minute racist turnaround and tip the election. Frank Rich was very good on the lunacy of this position. I always figured that the Republican strategy of nominating, as Kristol put it, “a real hockey mom” for Vice-President was the losing strategy. It was easier for me to imagine someone who liked Palin stepping into the voting booth and finally admitting to themselves: I like her but I don’t think she can run the country.

    While I wouldn’t put it in such brutal terms, I have to agree with Adrian about lists. They’re diverting, but that’s not where real film culture happens.

  • ”. . . quite a few members of the audience, who left the film after Godard’s segment, coming back into the theater at the film’s end credits to cheer Godard’s credits and boo the credits of every British director”

    I was at that screening and I can tell you that Mr. Russell’s recollections are highly exaggerated, to say the least. The hit segment, then and now, was Julien Temple’s “Rigoletto.” The rest of the picture is pretty tepid, except for JLG’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” hommage with a pair of nude models frolicking among oblivious bodybuilders. If no one was applauding Mr. Russell, my guess is that it was Mr. Russell’s fault.

    I’ve been declining to participate in these international “best” surveys for decades now. The results never produce “the best,” but simply a list of the films least objectionable to the largest number of participants, which presumably is how “Night of the Hunter,” a film that almost everyone likes to some degree, made such a good showing.

  • Brian Dauth

    Jean-Pierre: Obama’s electoral success is the first mile of a marathon. There are 25 more to go (plus the handful of yards added for the King of Sweden).

    The issue is not whether those who supported McCain are likely to don KKK robes, but if those voters (as well as Obama’s supporters) are willing to support the systemic changes necessary to end racism. A majority of those who voted showed that they could surmount any personal bigotry they might harbor and elect a black man. But will they now support that man’s efforts to reform a racist system that discriminates against people of color and the poor? Does electing a black man indicate that America is ready to end the system of racism that has been sovereign for centuries or just that a majority of voters have conquered bigotry on an individual basis, but want the system to stay just as it is?

    If they do not support systemic change, then the only accomplishment will be to have chosen a black man as the captain of the ship of state without any change in the ship’s direction — a hollow victory. Remember the trouble Obama got into when he suggested that it might be a good idea to spread prosperity around? There are more black children living in poverty in the South today than when Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society initiatives. It is not so much the KKK that we have to worry about, but people who confuse the overcoming of personal bigotry with the ending of racism.

    The March on Washington in 1963 was formally called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” (bless Bayard Rustin’s smart, queer heart). To end racism, America needs to alter the economic system that produces and promotes it. The question is whether Americans have the courage and stomach for such a radical shift. Is the change Americans voted for only skin(color) deep, or is it systemic? The next four years will tell.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Does electing a black man indicate that America is ready to end the system of racism that has been sovereign for centuries or just that a majority of voters have conquered bigotry on an individual basis, but want the system to stay just as it is?’

    Japanese writer has written study of Los Angeles riot 1992 with similar conclusion. Mayor Bradly was Black official elected 3 times, last time was when riot happened. Police Department had racist problem still with Black mayor. Police officer Stacy Koons who beat Rodney King and called him racist name said he voted for Mayor Bradly. Human heart is not always reasonable, so possible to be racist and vote for Black President.

  • Alex Hicks

    Here’s a plug for “Lincoln” and “The Struggle,” which I just saw with great pleasure. I was startled by “The Struggle,” which strikes me as a great film: done with a wonderfully observant eye for social detail, ear for dialogue and a sense of dramatic rhythm that oddly evokes melodramatic theater, neorealism and the great improvisers like Cassavettes. A kind of proto-neorealism (and perhaps less theatrically melodramatic than many instances of the real thing like “Rocco and his Brothers.”)

    Lincoln, after a wretchedly static and stilted intro in its log cabin sequences, picks up as it turns into a sprightly narrative of Lincoln’s political career and the Civil War.

    On the “racism” issue though, neither its embrace of Lincoln and the War to preserve the Union nor its anti-slavery touches strike me a showing a more complex figure than history would predict for an advocate of the Hayes-to-Johnson Southern order. The key is L the proclamation of Griffith’s Lincoln toward the end that “we shall take them [the Rebels] back as if they had never gone” (and ignore they popular clamor for confiscation or rebel lands, i.e., eradication of the Plantation estates), license enough for Jim Crow and its ilk.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Brian: you refer to “a racist system that discriminates against people of color and the poor.” That’s bundling together two related but different issues. While it is true that there are many (much too many) black people who are poor, there are also many poor whites. Poverty doesn’t chose its race. No matter what amount of tinkering Obama or anyone else brings to the system, it will not eliminate poverty. All we can hope for is that the poor will stop getting poorer and the rich richer. We live in a capitalist system and most Americans, including those who voted for Obama, believe in it and support it and are afraid of the possible consequences of refurbishing it, as the hysterical reactions to Obama’s mention of spreading prosperity around clearly indicated. Most people prefer the status quo to the unknown, except perhaps the very poor, and I’m not even sure of that.

  • Brian Dauth

    Jean-Pierre: You are right that they are bundled together — there can be no racial justice without economic justice. I also believe that we can hope for more than just stopping the poor from becoming poorer. Poverty may not choose its race, but historically races have been targeted to be poor. There was a time in America when the progressive income tax was actually progressive, but too much money was being redistributed in the wrong direction, and thus the birth of the Volker Recession and here we are (David Harvey’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF NEOLIBERALISM is a fine overview of the subject).

    As for most people preferring capitalism: I am not so sure. In my advocacy work, I meet many people who do not like this system (admittedly most of my time is spent in working class and poor communities). But I get similar reports from friends and colleagues in other parts of the country, both urban and rural. Education is the key, along with a realization by the middle class that maybe they have more in common with the working class than the elite class to which they aspire (but rarely achieve. See link below).

    America is an odd nation: it believes in equality, but only up to a point. America also believes in inequality as a necessary motivator for personal effort. The problem is that societal inequality has grown to the point that there are not enough rewards available to respond adequately to the volume of effort being made by the citizenry.

  • Dave wrote: “I was at that screening and I can tell you that Mr. Russell’s recollections are highly exaggerated, to say the least”

    Better to O.D., then choke on restraint – Ken Russell

  • Dave,

    I forgot to put a ;)after Russell’s quote.

    Have a good holiday,


  • Kent Jones

    Brian, forgive me, but do you really think it’s possible to “end” racism and poverty? And do you really think that Obama’s victory is the first mile in the 25-mile marathon? How about the 6th or the 7th? There’s a long way to go, but it’s important to remember that it’s a far distance from slavery to Jim Crow to the advancements of the 60s and beyond. That’s not an illusion, any more than Rodney King or James Byrd or Amidou Diallo or the Central Park Jogger case or Sean Bell are illusions. I’m not suggesting that you’re practicing it, but there’s a striving for ultimate perfection in political rhetoric that I find a little counterproductive. I think it’s important to keep a mental image of perfect justice, and a proportionate sense of incremental change.

    I’m not surprised by the reactions you get to capitalism. But is the problem capitalism itself or the belief in unrestrained and unchecked capitalism which was so central to Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II? At this point, there’s no choice. The dreaded “S” word more or less has to be spoken.

  • Which Cannes journalist, in the real world, would leave a screening and RETURN to cheer a name in the credits ?! Ken Russell is a master fantasist (of the paranoiac kind).

  • Adrian wrote: Ken Russell is a master fantasist (of the paranoiac kind).

    “Do not dream! Dreamers are sick people.” – Salome (Wilde) / Salome’s Last Dance (Russell)

  • dm494

    Brian, many Americans may believe in equality only up to a point because it isn’t fully compatible with freedom. People have to make a choice about which value they prefer. Libertarians make one choice, liberals (in the contemporary sense of the word) and those on the left make the other.

  • Brian Dauth

    Kent: I do think it possible to end racism and poverty: both are human-created plagues and can be undone if there is the will to do so. If you want to see the struggle as being in the 6th or 7th mile, great — I look at the poverty rate for black children and the incarceration rates for black males and do not see much progress. Individuals may be less bigoted, but the decrease in bigotry has not been accompanied by a proportionate lessening of systemic racism.

    As for capitalism: to exist, it depends on imbalances of freedom and equality: remove those imbalances and you no longer have capitalism. The version that has been around since the mid-1970’s is just the most pernicious version in recent memory.

    Dan: I have never quite undedrstood the logic that equality is incompatible with freedom. If a person is born into an unequal state, then her freedom is limited from the start. A society where equality exists is a stable society and without reliable stability, citizens are never free. Also, there is left libertarianism as well as right libertarianism.

  • Alex Hicks

    Is thers ANY film from the “developing” or “less developed” world on the Cahiers list? I’m not sure about the BFI’s top 100, but there are quite number among films chosen at least once by respondents to the BFI survey.

  • I repeat: it is NOT ‘the CAHIERS list’!!

  • burritobrother

    Haven’t received my copy of the Griffith box yet but looking forward to it. Just last year Kino said they had no plans to release “The Struggle” on dvd, very glad they did. Also, Grapevine Video has released Griffith’s 1919 western “Scarlet Days” on dvdr, and they plan on issuing “Isn’t Life Wonderful” soon. Good news all around. “Scarlet Days” is found at

  • Alex Hicks

    Adrian, Thanks for the correction.

    Still, it bears noting that by your standard the “BFI” or “Sight and Sound” list, is not the BFI or Sight and Sound list, as the surveying for that 2002 list cast a broad net, indeed a far broader one than the survey for the list that recently appeared at: . This recent list would at least seem to qualify, if any shorthand is palatable, as the “2008 French list.” Whereas the 2002 survey results available from are perhaps too cosmopolitan to even be termed the “2002 British survey results.”

  • Dave K

    If it were the Cahiers list, Gus Van Sant, M. Night Shyamalan, Brian De Palma and Abel Ferrara would be much more strongly represented.

  • Good point, Alex. However, even here, there’s an important difference between the lists: the SIGHT AND SOUND/BFI poll, while not (as you say) representing the ‘BFI POV” of its team alone, was at least launched and organised by that magazine. The one on the CAHIERS site we are discussing was not (as I understand) initiated or organised by the CAHIERS editorial team – they’ve simply reproduced it as a point of interest. The earlier (90s?) 100 FILMS FOR AN IDEAL VIDEO LIBRARY publication done by CAHIERS is the ‘real thing’, and is quite different to the one we’re discussing – it has an early Cyril Collard gay sex/quasi-porn film, for example! It’s a much more ‘polemical’ and idiosyncratic list, even though limited to what was available on VHS at the time.

  • Alex Hicks

    David K,
    Just so long as Cahiers isn’t too big on Gus Van Sant’s “PSYCHO, the latter films of M. Night Shyamalan, Ferrar’s CAT CHASER, and the direction of performers in the films of Brian De Palma,I think I can remember your post of 11.30.08 @ 11:22 am without fear of my head exploding.