A screengrab from a somewhat dazzling tracking shot in D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1922), a shot made all the more striking considering that a) Griffith’s Way Down East, made only two years earlier, contains virtually no camera movement whatsoever and b) Orphans of the Storm is otherwise pretty dull stuff; Griffith’s best and most interesting films are grounded in an American idiom that doesn’t really translate here to a costume drama set during the French Revolution.
For the next several weeks, I’ll be brushing up on my silent cinema, both American and international, and I figured I’d start with Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), a film that showcases his talent for melodrama about as well as anything he ever made, it seems to me. You can’t help but smile all through the damned thing, even while you’re aware of how egregiously hokey it all is. Eisenstein famously compared Griffith’s technique as a filmmaker to Dickens’ as a novelist, and it’s true that Griffith’s films have the wonderful expansiveness and sheer pleasure of good Victorian fiction—not intellectual novels like those of George Eliot, but page-turners like Jane Eyre. (Is it an accident that the plot of Way Down East, based on a popular American play, is a transparent rip-off of Tess of the D’Urbervilles?) The stock characters, the heavy sentiment, the rich tapestry of minor characters, the leisurely pace: Griffith’s films provide all of these pleasures in many of the same ways that the most compulsively readable 19th-century books do.
9/11 is everywhere and nowhere in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: it wants desperately to be an Important Movie about 9/11, but it can't see it as anything other than an inciting incident to an otherwise unremarkable melodrama. (This should be no surprise, coming as the film does from the director of The Reader, in which the Holocaust was used as a MacGuffin.) In Extremely Loud, 9/11 serves as a plot point, a convenient way of dispensing with little Oskar Schell’s father so that Oskar can embark on a mission to solve the mystery of a key he finds in his father’s closet, encounter a whole host of magical non-white people (!), reunite an estranged married couple (!!), and stumble upon his long-lost grandfather (!!!). As far as the film is concerned, 9/11 happened so that an elaborate set of coincidences and chance encounters could be set into motion, as a consequence of which husbands reconcile with wives and sons make peace with absent fathers.