A Corner in Wheat
Dir: D.W. Griffith
Perhaps the first film where Whitey gets it.
This anti-capitalist fable is the work of silent film legend David Wark Griffith, still years away from making his controversial masterpiece “Birth of a Nation,” his directing career had begun a year earlier. Like everyone in the new movie-making industry, Griffith was cranking out dozens of short films a year to begin with; the quantum difference is his eye and his superb sense of how to make film tell a compelling story. Griffith learned quickly.
He’s thinking, much as a stage director would, of the picture as perceived from the audience. Instead of just filming actors and action, Griffith is thinking from the perspective of the camera. His compositions are meticulous, designed to communicate the maximum amount of meaning in a given frame. Before in film, actors stood in a stele-like row, or clumped together naturally and awkwardly. Griffith is positioning his actors so that they relate coherently not to each other, perhaps, but definitely from the perspective of the viewer.
There are parallel stories here, and ideas at play. Three hungry farmers cast their seed while a business tycoon corners the market in wheat.
(The trio uses a wooden harrow, outmoded even in 1909. Emphasizing the archaic nature of the farmer’s toil serves to ennoble the rustic types. Griffith frequently synonymized the urban life with sin and corruption, as did most of the movie-going audience, still predominantly rural at the time. Griffith’s camera placement, with the farrows angling into and past the camera from deep right rear to left foreground, is ballsy for the time – the actors end up walking right out of the shot!)
Prices rise, the poor begin to starve and riot, put down by police. The rich man, visiting one of his granaries, exults over his good fortune – and tumbles into a silo, suffocated by the sluicing grain. The farmer at film’s beginning is shown again, minus his companions. He ambles weakly along, casting his seed again.
The huge advance here is the cutting together of three stories, the principals of which have no awareness of each other. Meaning is created through juxtaposition, the montage technique later perfected by Kuleshov and Eisenstein in the Soviet Union. Near the center of the film, the poor’s breadline is presented as a static shot – not a frozen frame, but as a kind of mural of misery.
It is easy to cast “A Corner in Wheat” as the first Socialist film. It certainly stigmatizes the rich and the social control systems in place at the time – but don’t forget, this is the same director who glorified the Klan in “Birth of a Nation” six years later. The tycoon in “Wheat” is more a God-punished sinner than the terminal sufferer of ironic consequences. Griffith’s real ideology is sentiment, and through the still-viable dramatic strategy of melodrama, he is a master at invoking it.
Griffith is using all the elements at his disposal to create sympathy and emotion, and it’s here that film goes right and wrong at the same time. All of a sudden, it seems that seeing a film can be a much deeper experience – and it opens up the possibility that the same kind of pretensions that plagued existing art forms could infect cinema as well. For better and for worse, every film made from this point on has the potential to be, or not be, a work of art.
The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Register, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Lady Helen’s Escapade.’