LAB: GRIFFITH BIOGRAPH CROSSCUTTING

DESCRIPTION: Selection of last-minute rescue films by Griffith from early days

BACK TO THE LAB LIST

Cinemetrics lab is the latest addition to our site, and is still work in progress. When finished, the lab is envisaged to offer students of film history a range of analytical tools that will help them dissect, visualize and compare film-related data. We started with a large-scale comparative chart which looks a little like a star map. It is a scattergraph each dot on which represents a film available on our database. Select areas by dragging a rectangle to zoom in and see better different areas of film history. Once you have found your film on this map you will see how it relates to thousands of other films on the x-axis of time (past 111 years of film history) and on the y-axis of average shot lengths. What we intend to do is to add more tools to the lab in order to augment its statistics apparatus and enhance its means of data visualizations.

Year/ASL chart. Note the Log10 scale on the y-axis. It allows us to see all films in the very widely spread high ASL range.

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This lab's films are shown in yellow.
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List of films in this lab:

Fatal Hour, The : (7) ASL 33.5
Medicine Bottle, The: (7) ASL 10.9
Her Terrible Ordeal: (7) ASL 15.1
At the Altar: (7) ASL 21.8
Behind the Scenes: (7) ASL 23
Drive for a Life, The: (7) ASL 15.4
Cord of Life, The: (7) ASL 24.3
Lonely Villa, The: (7) ASL 10.6
Lonedale Operator, The (tinted version): (7) ASL 9.2
Death's Marathon: (7) ASL 7.2
An Unseen Enemy (2nd Attempt): (7) ASL 6.9
Greaser's Gauntlet, The: (7) ASL 40.2
Guerilla, The : (7) ASL 16.3
Girl and Her Trust, The: (7) ASL 6.5
Modern Prodigal: (7) ASL 14.3
A Beast at Bay: (7) ASL 6.3
The Prussian Spy: (7) ASL 26
Death Disc, The: (7) ASL 24.9
Child's Strategem, A: (7) ASL 7.7

Notes.

INTRODUCTION

These notes include pieces of documentation and reflection on crosscutting in D.W.Griffith's films. Those of them availalbe at the Cinemetrics database are listed as clickable titles (complete with some summary statistics and sparklines) and appear as yellow dots on the black scatter-board above the list. The configuration of the dots shows a pronounced tendency towards faster cutting rates from 1908 to 1913 (which is consistent with overall pattern of increasing cutting rates across Griffith's entire career  and his career at the Biograph studio as one can see on the scatter-plots in Cinemetrics labs.

What I will do in these notes are two things: enter a) verbal and b) visual evidence related to crosscutting in Griffith. The verbal evidence comes in form of an annotated table which lists all Griffith's films in which salient crosscutting patterns have been detected by different film historians (including the present author). The first column lists the film titles by year, the second one by titles, the third one, called "notes," cites various statements on the use crosscutting in these films (including mine, unsigned). The quotations and source selection is far from complete; I will be adding to the table as I go through many other books (plus the same ones more thoroughly).

The other, visual set of evidence placed below the table are graphes generated by Keith Brisson in 2010-2011. These are not the conventinal Cinemetrics graphs -- what Brisson did in some of his graphs was to represent the length of a shot not by different-length equal-width bars as we do on Cinemetrics, but to use the width of a bar on the x-axis to replicate its height on the y-axis. Some other diagrams are "super-graphs" that resulted from partition-marriages of more than one crosscutting-centered films.

 

ALTERNATING SCENES, CUT-BACK, SWITCH-BACK, CROSSCUTTING, INTERCUTTING, PARALLEL EDITING

The above series of terms offered by different filmmakers and film historians refer, roughly, to one the same editing pattern AB[C…]AB[C…]…AB[C…] in which every character stands for a piece of action taking place at its own location. The table below lists first observed cases of crosscutting (the term to be used here as well) in Griffith’s films bringing together some descriptions of this technique by modern and contemporary observers; the titles are color-coded by genres; the table is preceded by two definitions of the techniques by two of modern Griffith experts.

Definitions:

What Joyce E. Jesionowski calls intercutting: “In the winter of 1908-9 Griffith sought to tailor the activity in the shot to the development of the sequence of shots – in other words, to cut into the real continuousness of an action. Although the span of activity would always determine the length of some shots in Griffith’s films, those made in the winter of 1908-9 proved that, at least in theory, action did not have to play out its time in a shot before passing on to the next “stage.” Significant dramatic activity could be tailored by the cut, because the dramatic effect was contained in the way a sequence of relationships was being built from shot to shot.” (JESIONOWSKI 1987, 63)

What Tom Gunning calls parallel editing: “Parallel editing can be defined by three characteristics. First, it alternates two separable series of shots (and in 1908 was referred to as “alternating scenes”), setting up what is most often described as an a-b-a-b pattern. In addition, parallel editing indicates specific temporal and spatial relations. The actions shown alternately are signified as occurring simultaneously in different places, most frequently fairly distant locales.” (GUNNING 1991, 95).

Color Code Legend:

Color-coded titles delimit five narrative uses of crosscutting:

Red-colored titles single out those films in which crosscutting serves the purpose of suspense. Usually, these are last-moment rescues, as in The Lonely Villa in which the wife and kids are shown besieged by a group of burglars as the husband whom the wife had managed to reach by phone is driving to rescue them. Unsuccessful rescue efforts count as well. Our hypothesis here is that the cinemetrics graph indicating the increase/decrease in cutting rates in the last-rescue-format movies might be steeper than in other Griffith’s “Biograph” films and skewed towards the end of the film.

Blue-marked titles are those in which crosscutting is used with a rhetorical purpose in mind, for instance the fortunes of the rich and the poor in A Corner in Wheat, the best known film of the kind;

Brown titles are those in which parallel editing structures the gags of comedies, as the laxative-domino behavior of guests in Her First Biscuits;

Green titles are those in which crosscutting is used to interrelate two distant geographic locations; the most famous examples are After Many Years or Enoch Arden in which a shipwrecked sailor shown in pensive pose on a deserted island is intercut with shots showing his sorrowful wife; cuts like this were supposed to establish a common mental and emotional space despite the tyranny of distance.

Mauve titles refer to films like The Fugitive in which crosscutting serves to underscore narrative symmetries (union/confederate “Johns” with their respective mothers and sweethearts) rather than augment narrative energy as it does in the last-moment rescue films.

Black titles stand for TBD – genre to be decided.


Year

Title

notes

1908

The Greaser’s Gauntlet

The Greaser’s Gauntlet Griffith’s seventh film for Biograph, introduces the first extended use of parallel editing in a Griffith film” (GUNNING 1991, 75)

The Greaser’s Gauntlet contained only sixteen shots in a longer film (1,027 feet in 35mm). (GUNNING 1991, 133)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fatal Hour

The Fatal Hour was made some six weeks after Griffith’s directorial debut at Biograph and raises parallel editing to a melodramatic intensity through a new control over the portrayal of time. With its parallel-editing climax and invocation of time in its story, The Fatal Hour supplies a perfect opportunity to explore the new relations within tense opened by parallel editing.” (GUNNING 1991, 95)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind the Scenes

The cutting rates increases as the parallel editing enters stage between the mother dancing and the daughter dying.

 

 

 

 

 

After Many Years

Parallel editing as used for crosscutting geographically remote places. “After Many Years is the first Griffith film which uses parallel editing extensively without a last-minute rescue” (GUNNING 1991, 110)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Guerilla

“Films from both 1908 and early 1909 [which] laid the foundation for the most famous of Griffith’s early suspense melodramas” (GUNNING 1991, 195)

The Guerilla sets the chronotope for many of Griffith’s later parallel-edited, last-minute-rescue films. This one-reel film, 898 feet long in 35 mm, contains forty-five shots, more than any other Griffith film of 1908. Three months earlier The Greaser’s Gauntlet contained only sixteen shots in a longer film (1,027 feet in 35mm). … Griffith’s first film with a civil war setting, The Guerilla deals with a Union officer’s wife besieged in her own home by a brutal Confederate guerilla while her husband rides to the rescue. Alternate editing patterns become quite complex, interrelating several lines of convergent action in different locations. The film not only cuts between the Union troops led by the officer rushing to the rescue while the wife struggles with the guerilla, but also intercuts the cowering wife barricaded in her parlor and the guerilla battering the other side of the door. For the first time uses a three-pronged editing pattern found in his later last-minute rescue films such as The Lonely Villa, The Lonedale Operator, An Unseen Enemy.” (GUNNING 1991, 133)

 

 

 

 

 

The Song of the Shirt

 

1909

 

 

 

 

The Cord of Life

“Griffith continues to refine the suspenseful possibilities of parallel editing in the first months of 1909” (GUNNING 1991, 190) in: the Cord of Life; At the Altar; The Drive for Life; The Medicine bottle.”

“About five years ago the same company released a drama, ‘The Cord of Life,’ in which the cut-back was used so effectively to heighten the suspense and add to the thrill that many people in the audience of the theatre, in which one of the present writers watched the picture, were leaning forward in their seats and making excited comments – the supreme test od a picture ‘with a punch.’” (J. Berg Esenwein, Arthur Leeds, Writing the Photoplay (Springfield, Mass.: The Home Correspondence School, 1913, p. 133)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prussian Spy

The Prussian Spy … is a good example of this uneven development in articulation. The first shot of the film lasts an agonizing ninety-nine feet (16 mm), more than half the length of the entire film. An enormous amount of information is contained in this shot, with characters entering, exiting and reentering. A spy (Owen Moore) is concealed in a closet by his lover (Marion Leonard); the concealment is discovered by a French officer (Harry Solter). To torment the woman and destroy his enemy, the officer tacks a target onto the closet door, claiming he must practice his aim with his pistol. All of this takes place in a single shot. … However, as soon as a parallel editing schema can be introduced, the film alters radically. The second half of the film fragments into ten shots. The woman has sent her maid (Florence Lawrence) to open a trap door above the closet and help the spy escape. The sequence alternates dramatically between the trap door and the parlor containing the closet. Griffith repeatedly interrupts action with a cut on gesture (the French officer aiming his pistol at the targeted door), switching to the progress of the maid as she pries the trap door open and attempts to get the spy out of danger.” (GUNNING 1991, 198)


 

The Deception

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Altar

A rejected admirer sets up a trap to kill his sweetheart and her fiance before they married and then commit suicide, but before he passes away, he leaves a confession. Fortunately the confession is found on time and a police man runs to the church to save the couple (Wikipedia plot summary)

 

Lady Helen’s Escapade

 

 

I Did it, Mama

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Medicine Bottle

… “In a series of films made early in 1909, Griffith explored the effect of intercutting on the notion of dramatic causality and discovered that spatial, moral and dramatic causality were linked and interrelated. ” The importance of The Prussian Spy, The Medicine Bottle, The Deception, Lady Helen’s Escapade, and I Did it, Mama may not be immediately apparent. Except for The Medicine Bottle, these films are constructed of two primary set-ups that alternate abab throughout the reel. But these films were one of the most important exercises that Griffith performed during his Biograph period in that they represent the beginning of the end of the tyranny of physical activity in Griffith’s films.” JOYCE E. JESIONOWSKI (1987,p …)


 

 

 

 

 

The Drive for a Life

Harry's jealous former mistress puts poison in some candy intended for his new fiancée. Harry discovers what she has done, and races to save his fiancée before she eats the candy. (IMDb plot summary).

"Pratt made two further interesting points. First, the contemporary reviews ... were quite ambivalent about the device, conceding its sensational character, but criticizing the way it reduces acting to insignificance, and often stretched plausibility beyond breaking point, thus becoming risible ... Even Griffith's champion Frank Woods found the ending of "The Drive for a Life" hard to take. Second, a projectionist complained to The Moving Picture World that the different character of the scenes on either side of the alternation -- the speeding car on the one hand, and Mignon's deliberate stretching out of the time before the anticipated eating of her fiance's present on the other -- seemed to demand two different projection speeds, necessitating many sudden changes in cranking rate to the projectionist." (BEN BREWSTER, TGP 113)


 

 

 

 

 

Her First Biscuits

Parallel editing structures the gags of comedies:

Her First Biscuits

His Wife’s Visitor

Pranks

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lonely Villa

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Country Doctor

The Country Doctor “Griffith suspensefully employs parallel editing, cutting between the two young victims as the doctor rushes back and forth, torn between duty to his poor patient and the needs of his daughter.” (GUNNING 1991, 215):