2. D.W. Griffith (1875 – 1948)
There are two sides to every film—the story, and the technique used to tell it. While success on both parts is the test of any director’s talent, it’s not always the case that even the most influential directors triumph on both counts. While the techniques employed by D.W. Griffith serve as the foundation of moviemaking, for many critics of cinema the stories he told are now best forgotten.
Considered the father of modern moviemaking, Griffith made over 450 short films while employed at American Biograph in the early 1900s. With this prolificacy came the opportunity to experiment with the mechanics of film. His collaborations with cinematographer Billy Bitzer yielded the discovery of such editorial innovations as crosscutting and flashbacks, elevating the medium of film to one of true storytelling capabilities.
With 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made the film that would change his career. Though audiences poured into theaters to see it, the film’s overt racism and heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan were deemed inappropriate, and the film was banned in eight states. Though the controversy continues today (in 1999, the Directors Guild of America renamed the D.W. Griffith Award, their highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, because Griffith “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes”), there is no denying his impact on the industry.
Says critic David Sterritt: “He made many a bad movie, and his career petered out when his storytelling sense failed to keep pace with his formal ingenuity—and with new generations of spectators bored by the Victorian formulas he obstinately mistook for real experience. Still, his name remains solidly linked with techniques and devices taken for granted to this day, from the artful use of close-ups and flashbacks to the complexities of parallel editing and multiple narrative. His most ingenious movies, from the best Biograph shorts to features like Intolerance and the notorious Birth of a Nation, remain a source of ideas and inspiration for open-minded auteurs as different as Oliver Stone and Wong Kar-Wai, to mention just two who have clearly benefited from his brilliance.”