Waiting for the Monolith
We sat in the dark for nearly a century; we were traveling together. We hoped we were going to have fun, a good scare, or just be occupied. We were strangers there, but fellow pilgrims, and the cinema was a palace for our wondering.
But it was like a prison, too. Wasn’t there a sinister air, a feeling that someone must be in charge—working the machinery, dimming the lights, taking our money? Yet there was no one in sight except for people selling tickets and wistful usherettes. Instead, there was this feeling of being alone in the dark place, exposed to the searchlight of the projector, and the suddenness (quicker than saying “cut”) with which a nice family picnic might be invaded by a tiger, a tidal wave . . . or even a black monolith.
Do you remember that moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001? There we are in a semi-desert (in Utah perhaps, or Namibia), at “the dawn of man,” where ragged apes battle for futile power. Then all of a sudden a monolith is there, before our eyes (made by Brancusi or HomePlastics, Inc.), dominating the scene and proving that something is in charge. That’s ominous (the apes chatter in fear), but it’s a relief, too (they gather beneath the black intrusion, waiting for the feature), because the world is more frightening for apes if no one is running the show. That could mean there’s no show. And as educated apes gave up on God, so we were left open to uncertainty.
The suddenness of the monolith is a sublime intervention, as if fate or advertising had told those apes that Las Vegas was just over the magic-hour horizon, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis opening at the Sands tonight. Or as if that fluttering kite of shadow in the western sky might be an asteroid approaching, like the one we believe hit the Yucatán 66 million years ago.
The monolith was a religious experience and such awe does call a god into being. But who could be that god? It might be the light, the money, or the haunting apprehension in being part of a movie crowd. But then directors said, It’s me. I’ll be God! The arrival of that thin black screen (really, that’s what it is), was Kubrick’s way of saying, C’est moi, Stanley. Just see what comes next! And we were left having to decide whether this was arrogance, pretension, or the wonderful wizard of cinema.
Directors shouted “Action!” and “Cut!” Those bold words were meant to signal they were in control, and that shaky confidence has worked from D. W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock to Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. This is a book about that assumption of authority and our hope that it promotes cinema into a great entertainment for the world, or even an art. It’s the history of a job and the arc of magic. Without those optimistic explanations, “cinema” might be just a machine that teaches people they are deluded, alone and insignificant. So direction was what the word suggests, a determination about not being lost, a filling of the void.
At first, there was no such thing as a theory. There wasn’t even directing. There was a camera and the light. Just photography, a sensationalism: having lovely faces to look at when there was no one actually there.
Imagine you are nineteen in 1890. You have a camera and you are so intent on taking pictures that other people believe you are obsessed. (Film directors are expected to be obsessed—it goes with their not noticing so much of real life.) At the end of the day in your room, in London or Chicago or Calcutta, you are studying the picture of your girlfriend, present and absent at the same time.
Cut there, because my 1890 assumption is awkward now. I’m making the male gaze our origin legend. My editor suggests adding “or boyfriend” to be “more inclusive.” I’m happy to do that, but it leads back to historical matters. In the early days of the picture business, it was invariably a man wanting to photograph a woman, and the sad record of our fine art has to face how often that was a path to seduction, exploitation, and the control lurking in the phrase “directed by.” By now, women are a little more likely to hold the camera and direct a film, but seldom do they gaze at men the way my 1890 guy was fixed on his girlfriend. Doesn’t “gaze” have a note of rapture? Our photographer felt that she was there for him, and in 1890 that was still an orthodoxy. It follows that the romantic pressure in movies—their thrust, their hope for meaning—was different for men and women. We are determined to repair that imbalance, but watch carefully: it is possible that “cinema” might vanish in the reformation. Suppose the cult of directors could be ending, swept aside by CGI, streaming, and correctness in a medium that often edged into the illicit.
You’re going to have to follow that line. We’re going to have to live by it.
The young man has a snapshot; he took time and trouble over it; and now he has the image even if the romance has ended. He made the picture the year before, on an excursion to the countryside. He asked the girl to stand just so, under that sycamore, but in a soft light—and would she take her hat off and let her hair be free? Then he saw the sun had clouded over just a touch; it put her face in a more pensive light. So then, as she was thinking, or so it seemed, he took the picture (that word is important, for theft can be authority). The snap was a record of the light, of her, and of our new power over the momentary. But looking at the picture put us on the edge of once upon a time. Perhaps the young man would tell a story about this woman and where she went, an odyssey, and how he followed her for years and thousands of miles, and rescued her from being lost. (At 16 snaps a second, you might have a ninety-minute story . . . with 86,400 snaps. This was the industrialization of the split second, fifty years or so before man, or Man, split the atom.)
He began to be moved by the way this slip of photographic paper could overcome time and mortality and might grip strangers. “Action!” he ordered; it sounded so positive. Perhaps he was directing this girl and real life, just because he had chosen them. Didn’t he want her? But perhaps the medium—its isolation and its worship of something seen—was directing both of them. He had never had so intense a relationship with a stranger. He realized that properly once she left him. But don’t rule out the possibility that she thinks he dropped her once he had the photograph to be in love with. There is an intimacy in photographs that may challenge human closeness.
“Action!” was like an open sesame. It started with this young man or a few other geniuses, but in ten years the world was hooked on the word, its energy, and that black monolith of desire.
How quickly this new medium began to fuel our longing for stories, dreams, and self-deception. I am talking about a total culture, and this quaint imagined anecdote from 1890 fits just as well with how we are using selfies and smartphone images in 2020. Who is directing your smartphone? Is it you, or your friends, or is it the corporations that preside over such media and call them social, as opposed to merely revenue-generating? Or is it the transaction of seeing and being seen that is in charge?
Come to that, is anything “in charge”? And is it frightening when that question has no sure answer? Is that what alarmed the girlfriend, so she left him? Did she get the idea that he was more moved by the photo than by her?
If you were a kid in 1890, that was not so far from David Wark Griffith (born in 1875) or Erich von Stroheim (born in 1885). They are examples of the early movie director, though that was not either one’s first ambition. They were both early failures with egos that rebelled at being put down. Griffith was born in rural Kentucky ten years after the end of the Civil War. His father had been a colonel in the Confederacy, and then a state legislator. But he had died when D.W. was ten and the mother moved them to Lexington, where she opened a boardinghouse. This was on the edge of survival, when some of her boarders were traveling actors or people in theatre. Griffith the boy listened to them and thought he might be an actor—so many film directors have come to the set as would-be actors, afraid of being nobodies.
Directing defines the practice of film, but it also embodies the desire to be “someone.” So many directors are tempted to be actors: Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Erich von Stroheim, Vittorio De Sica, Laurence Olivier, François Truffaut, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand. Don’t forget Jerry Lewis, or his longing to become (and to deride) Dean Martin in The Nutty Professor.
Don’t write off the famous Hitchcock cameos as gimmicks: the fat man dreamed of being with slim actresses. When Martin Scorsese took on the one-scene role of the bloodthirsty passenger in Taxi Driver, he was laying claim to the dread and violence of his film. Deeper still, some directors envisage themselves as all their characters. In his great film Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman was invested in the women played by Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson. After all, both would be his lovers in actuality, in his head, and on his screens.
D. W. Griffith wasn’t good enough as an actor, so he took up writing—scripts and plays—to survive. That’s how he got a few small parts at the Biograph studio, and that’s where the bosses concluded that he was wooden as an actor and uninspired as a writer. But if he still wanted a job he could “direct.”
What does a director do? Griffith wondered. We are talking about a time, the 1900s, when the distinctive creative force in filmmaking, the power, was split between the cameramen and the actors. This was a reenactment of what our young man went through in 1890 with the young woman. The cameraman and the camera were joined at the hip. And by 1890, it was common knowledge that some photographers were so remarkable they might be artists.
But few people knew how a movie camera worked—how to load the film without its being spoiled; how to be sure that the film ran through the camera at a steady speed, with the sprocket holes fitting the claws exactly; and then how to unload the film and get it processed—making the negative positive. Some cameramen processed their own negative because they were unwilling to let the film out of their hands. But sooner or later labs sprang up, and in those labs there might be a genius who sidled up to a cameraman and said, “Look, if you underexposed the film by a stop, say, and then I pushed it twenty seconds longer in the developing—no need to explain this, but trust me—then I think the film could pick up an extra intensity, a feeling beyond mere reality. You’ll see it. Interested?”
So Kodak and their rivals were like directors, and if one day Gregg Toland would teach Orson Welles all he needed to know about the camera, I doubt he explained the full wonder of extra-wide-angle lenses, with depth of focus so that the middle ground felt irrationally stretched out and expanded, with astounding emotional impact: it’s part of why Citizen Kane feels so grand and so lonesome, so megalomaniacal. Welles saw or felt that but he couldn’t talk turkey to the lab.
You can guess the other key role: someone to stand under the tree to be photographed, and to look pretty, noble or funny or villainous—someone the public could “get” in an instant, someone who fit in with the emerging scheme of being good-looking or bad-looking in melodrama. Prolonged dramatic acting, such as people revered in the theatre, was not easily managed in movies because it needed context and preparation. But a girl could be enchanting on the spot, and there were comics who made you laugh out loud in three seconds. Quickness became a decisive directorial touch, like a glance or a knockout punch.
It was said that the camera loved some people (though not others, and that was the source of a discrimination—it might become a fascism—that has always challenged democracy). In practice it also meant that people doing the filming loved or desired some people being photographed. That was not indecent; it was the prelude to having strangers in the dark love the filmed faces. Something else followed from that: if there were a dozen pretty girls waiting for a chance at Paramount or Universal, why not “entertain” half of them? The direction of the process permitted a certain promiscuity and it was taken for granted. In your imagination, you can do anything. That’s another fascism, or the risk of control getting out of control.
D. W. Griffith had always been a historical convenience—until he was suddenly reassessed as inconvenient. More or less, historians have said that in the beginning there was frontier disorder in the enterprise of movie and in its narrative potential, but then David Wark Griffith, tall, courtly in an old Southern way, and wearing a broad-brimmed hat to indicate where he was, intervened and said, begone chaos—we will have shots that fit together in a tidy story; we will make a movie a series of compelling instants or moments; we can school the pictured faces to find a level of sentimental delivery that is coherent and appealing; we will convert motion into emotion, just like the way electricity is provided. We’ll make a couple of these one-reel tales a week. I’ll be in charge. And then the business can go out in the world and sell the pictures and we’ll take a portion of the revenue to make more pictures.
Very well: we’ll get just a fraction back and the business will keep the portion, the meal, the diet, and all the corn the country grows. We’ll call that a compromise.
It is a pretty story, and not inaccurate. But all over the movie world there were hundreds of people—not always men—who were engaged in the same unmapped treasure hunt. Griffith had the acuity (it is vital in movie directors still): he could organize the untidy set and the larking around of the players; he could tell his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, there was a plan and a story, even if he was making it up as he went along. I am in charge! Someone had to be, otherwise the hundred questions every hour would go unanswered and the project could dwindle into inertia. Directors did not really have time to rehearse or revise an intimate scene; those niceties got lost in all those infernal questions that have to be answered: Will Lillian Gish be back from the doctor’s in time to do the ice-floe shot? How do we get the cat to drink the milk? Is the actor Bobby Harron drunk or just happy? Should Mae Marsh wear the floral dress or the cloak? We need $11,300 in cash by six o’clock.
Griffith played or occupied the role of the director, a He Who Must Be Obeyed (and whose answers should be acted on), because he was a genius, or a mastermind, or perhaps just there, wearing the hat. The “genius” lived somewhere between moral authority and public relations. But Griffith was very good in his time, and he had a fine gentlemanly way with his actresses that placed them in a Victorian scheme of romance, guilt, and suspense. Just as Griffith organized the set and its jobs, so in history the pandemonium of movies before 1915 was reconstructed around his lofty figure and ill-defined example. No one answers a hundred questions an hour correctly, but he has to have the nerve to provide answers and make the questioners gamble on believing them.
None of this trick would have worked but for The Birth of a Nation and its wild guess that crowds raised on ten-minute movies might sit still for three and a half hours for what was an “event” picture. D.W. had a part in the raising of the money to do the film ($100,000), and he had a smaller share in the colossal revenue it brought in. But he would be set aside in ten years or so by the industry his picture had created and funded. (We say it maybe grossed $100 million, but we don’t really know, because the accounts were not kept properly.) He could run a set, but cash flow was out of his control. Never mind: Lillian Gish would strive to get him on a U.S. postage stamp (in 1975) and the history books emerging in the 1960s would identify him as a pioneering father. Film studies in universities depended on geniuses: therein lay departments and majors, tenure and respect. The torrent of raw cash could be overlooked and it has seldom been taught.
Copyright © 2021 by David Thomson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.