Daily Archives: September 8, 2014

Corner in Wheat (1909)

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*. A short film by D. W. Griffith for the Biograph Company, Corner in Wheat is usually cited for its early use of parallel editing. I would add that it’s rhetorical editing as well. Cutting between the working-class people in the bread line and the fat cats at their dinner party makes a political, more than a narrative, point.
*. It’s not really a “narrative” movie. The people we see look and behave in a manner representative of their type. Farmers sow their crop in a timeless routine, working hard to feed their downtrodden families. Tycoons smoke cigars and throw fancy dinners. The trading floor of the exchange is a chaotic pit.

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*. You may wonder why the baker doesn’t just put his sign regarding the increase in the price of bread out where the customers can see it, so he doesn’t have to point to it with every transaction. It’s done in part because the shot had to be arranged so the audience could see the sign, but also because Griffith wanted to introduce the drama of the customers having to cough up the extra change. Awkward functionality is a hallmark of early filmmaking.
*. A lot of silent films emphasize dramatic, theatrical posing. But there’s a place for small gestures as well. I love when one of the Wheat King’s toadies approaches him and is contemptuously dismissed. Watch him back away, nodding his head. The perfect corporate flunky (another eternal type). Then, this is the same guy who immediately comes back into the room after the others have left. Presumably to kiss some more ass or tell the boss what a visionary he is.
*. The Wheat King (his name is given in the telegram as W. J. Hammond, but he’s usually referred to as the Wheat King) is played by Frank Powell, a noted silent film director in his own right.

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*. Another thing a lot of silent films do is borrow from the companion arts of painting and the theatre for their sense of composition and mise-en-scène. This only makes sense, as there was no visual tradition in film for new movies to be made out of. Millet’s The Sower is often referenced here as an influence, but I would add how the shots of the struggling mass of humanity in the trading pit suggest a Renaissance battle scene: a jumble of figures, each individualized, the whole composition having multiple centres of focus and action balancing out into a single, larger significant form that collapses and rearranges itself, with the arms and heads operating like the crystals in a kaleidoscope. Note how the Wheat King becomes one central figure in the scuffle, then the collapsing man.
*. As another example, look at the arrangement of the mourners of the Wheat King’s body into two parallel diagonals. It’s a powerful tableau, recalling the battlefield expiration of some military hero, like Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe.

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*. The movie is based on Frank Norris’s The Pit. The ending, however, with the Wheat King being buried in wheat, actually comes from that novel’s sequel, The Octopus (where the burial takes place in a ship’s hold, not an elevator). Was Carl Dreyer watching? It’s hard not to think of the end of Vampyr.