Gaining a ‘literacy’ in film, both for viewers and creators, involves the recognition (or invention) of certain conventions that apply to the medium. Over time, as a medium is recognized, developed, and matured, more and more of these conventions begin to fall in place. They range from the level of genre (e.g. horror films will have a certain type of music, lighting, etc.) to more subtle aspects of composition, structure, and so forth. The latter types often become so ingrained that we fail to recognize them anymore. We understand, through years of film ‘training’, that a shot of a girl looking downward, followed by a shot of a ball sitting on the ground, most likely means that these two images are linked–the girl is looking at the ball. Artful editing routinely traverses great gaps in time and space with little resultant confusion in the viewer.
In 1911, most movie producers and consumers didn’t have the same lifelong exposure to film (or television) that we now enjoy. D.W. Griffith, the director of ‘The Lonedale Operator’, was in a unique position at this time. His first film job came in 1908, when he was hired by the Biograph Company to take over as principal director, in hopes that he could produce a successful film (his predecessor had no such luck). In the five years that Griffith worked there, he made a massive amount of films, often several per week, and covered a wide range of genres, from drama and historical reenactment to cautionary drug tales and humorous shorts. In that brief time, Griffith not only honed his technical chops, but had the means to experiment with a wide variety of techniques. And despite Griffith’s questionable personal beliefs (which I’ll address in a later post), most film historians agree that he was widely influential in establishing many of the conventions of filmmaking. Even if he’d been a complete hack when he started, the sheer volume of work he produced would’ve led to at least one creative breakthrough. There’s no need to call someone a genius when they get that much practice.
‘The Lonedale Operator’ was shot during Griffith’s Biograph tenure and it exhibits several of the key conventions that he and his contemporaries helped establish. It’s an odd hybrid of genres packed into a relatively taut seventeen minutes. There are elements of romance, drama, suspense, Western, and even a bit of comedy near the end. The plot proceeds in four distinct sections:
- A young engineer courts his romantic interest, actress Blanche Sweet (impressive even at age 15)
- Her father is ill, so she covers for him at the Lonedale train station
- A pair of tramp robbers attempt to intercept a payroll delivery deposited at the Lonedale station
- The operator’s daughter thwarts the thieves by pretending to have a gun (actually a wrench)
It’s a fairly straightforward plot progression, but Griffith’s skill lies in the tension he creates through editing. In the final third of the film, there’s a slick sequence of cuts that volley quickly between several different locations. We see the robbers working furiously trying to break down the station’s door, the daughter’s frenzied attempts to relay a telegraph message, the receiving telegraph operator’s response to that message, and its final transmission to the engineer love interest, who races frantically toward Lonedale to save her. In contrast to the first two-thirds of the film, which uses more leisurely cuts to establish character and deliver ‘dialogue’, this particular scene lingers only a few seconds on each shot. We witness four concurrent actions, three of which are converging toward a single location. Rapid montage reinforces the dramatic and temporal tension–will the robbers arrive before the engineer? Will the sleeping telegraph operator wake up in time to receive the message? It’s textbook thriller style and we see it time and again in modern filmmaking.
Griffith’s compositional technique is also noteworthy. He frequently places his actors at the left or right edge of the frame, which creates a sense of imbalance and (again) tension. In images above, this effect is heightened when we see the robbers at the extreme right edge of their frame, while the young woman stands at the extreme left. Griffith is creating a visual distance that mimics the daughter’s fear of capture and her wish to pull away from the robbers. Similarly, he pushes in closer with the camera when the young woman makes her frantic telegraph. Griffith draws us in so we can share her emotional plight.
The close-up, which wasn’t common at this time, marks an interesting distinction between film and theater. The theater audience rarely moves closer to the stage, thus actors have to convey emotion through easily visible actions, so even the cheap seats understand their emotional state. This over-stylized form of acting inhabits most early cinema (partly exacerbated by the lack of audible dialogue), but the movement of the camera eventually afforded (even demanded) more nuanced performances. When the audience can examine the subtlest facial expression, dramatic pantomime is no longer necessary, nor realistic. The camera can often inhabit a space more intimate than those possible in real life. Not only can the camera push closer than our own bodies (at least by social standards), the projection of the cinematic image on a large scale amplifies even the smallest facial movements.
Griffith plays to this advantage not only for emotional effect, but for the purposes of narrative as well. The young lady ultimately usurps the robbers with a visual trick–she turns out the lights (indicated by the strange blue tint you see in the example frames) and holds a wrench like a gun, threatening her assailants. The robbers and the audience are fooled because they are both held at a distance. When Griffith uses a close-up to reveal the visual trick, the viewer plays a part in the narrative surprise.
I want to emphasize that conventions in a medium don’t necessary mean steadfast rules. Neuroscientists tell us that the brain craves recognizable patterns, but demands surprise and novelty as well. Either extreme is either too mundane or too frustrating. A song comprised of a single note playing at a predictable, unchanging rhythm for twenty minutes doesn’t interest our brains, nor does an undecipherable mess of noise that breaks all convention of musical structure. Cinema operates in the same fashion. Most modern viewers don’t like early films because they no longer possess the sense of novelty that early viewers experienced. I’m sure any image on the screen was interesting when cinema was new. Today, our sense of convention has developed to the point that we expect, consciously or not, both a consistent, recognizable viewing experience and some measure of surprise. Effective directors play against our expectations to create novel experiences, while maintaining a number of conventional practices in order to make films understandable. Avant-garde / experimental films often lead the way in breaking convention, while mainstream blockbusters frequently cling closely to it.
Even ‘The Lonedale Operator’ flirts with the unconventional. There are a handful of scenes where a character will walk across the frame, exiting on the right, only to emerge again from the right, yet walking in the opposite direction. This breaks our assumed spatial orientation with the characters and challenges our brain to reprocess our relative position to the characters. It’s not clear whether Griffith was doing this intentionally, or still working out that particular sense of spatial relationships, but it’s funny to think that, nearly a century later, our own sense of convention may make that movement stranger than it appeared in 1911.