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This past summer audiences marveled at the complex structure of Inception, a film containing dreams within dreams, all taking place and affecting each other simultaneously. Director Christopher Nolan accomplished this sophisticated form of storytelling using the technique of parallel editing, in which separate scenes in different locations or periods are cut together to make it appear as if they are unfolding at the same time. But when compared to the work of a filmmaker who directed a hundred years before Nolan, Inception doesn’t look all that mind-blowing. Considered the father of narrative cinema, D.W. Griffith practically invented such techniques like parallel editing, pushing them to unprecedented levels of complexity and depth.
Griffith started with basic montage structures in early Biograph shorts like 1909’s The Sealed Room, in which the tryst between a cheating queen and her lover is cross-cut with a jealous and infuriated king’s macabre attempt to seal them off in their love nest. Here parallel action unfolds in adjoining rooms, the spaces and the action taking place within them related in the simplest of narrative and psychological terms.
But just a few months after A Sealed Room, A Corner in Wheat would demonstrate a quantum leap in Griffith’s use of parallel editing. This short film cuts back and forth between three spaces, with each representing not only a different physical location, but also a different social class: working farmers underpaid for their labor, shop merchants forced to overcharge for the harvested food, and wall street tycoons manipulating the markets to earn profit at the expense of the rest of the economic system. Capitalist exploitation is indicted by way of basic comparison. A lively party held by a wealthy wall street player is immediately followed by a tableaux of hungry customers lined up at the merchant’s store, unable to purchase the bread that has recently inflated in price due to the speculator’s greedy machinations. These three spaces that geographicallyare at a great remove from one another are connected by a cinematic chain illustrating economic cause and effect. But Griffith doesn’t just create meaning through montage; he also creates contrasts through profound disparities in compositions and movement in each scene. Through montage, the customers’ theatrical stillness puts the brakes on the oblivious merriment of the swells in the previous scene, and expresses the debilitation of an entire social stratum.
A year later, in The Unchanging Sea, Griffith would use parallel editing in a less ostentatious manner. He adds to his repertoire more artful compositions and more nuanced acting styles, further expanding the methods by which cinema could impart emotional and metaphorical meaning. The film’s story cuts between a fisherman who washes up on a foreign shore after an amnesia-causing boating accident, and his wife and daughter he has unknowingly left behind at home. Parallel editing isn’t used to generate suspense as in The Sealed Room, or to create conceptual associations as in A Corner of Wheat; it is used for lyrical storytelling. But just as lyrical are Griffith’s use of deep focus and multiple planes of action. The erroneously widowed mother rejects a courting gentleman in the foreground as her daughter plays by the sea in the background. There are various moments featuring action at the sides or corners of the frame while actors turn away from the camera. The viewer must make associations over the course of lengthy shots, must infer character reactions and emotions in compositions that emphasize realism over theatricality. The slow parallel editing rhythms of The Unchanging Sea necessitates a patient, well-considered understanding of the complex dramatic presentation.
By the time of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and Intolerance in 1916, Griffith had brought everything together. Parallel editing can unite detailed intimacy and epic grandeur; macrocosmic sweep and personal specificity; melodrama adapted from 19th century theatrical traditions and modern sensibilities developed in the cinema. Montage can compare and contrast, demonstrate cause and effect, and create via purely visual means structural patterns, ironies, and contrapuntal refrains. Often taken to task by critics—including admirer Sergei Eisenstein—for overextending Griffith’s talents, Intolerance not only deftly weaves action across four different spaces but four different centuries: ancient Babylon, the age of Christ, 16th Century France, and contemporary New York City. The connections and distinctions of these epochs are bonded not only through suspense, metaphor, and lyricism, but above all through the theme of intolerance and its disastrous effects throughout human history.
Whatever one thinks about Griffith’s audacity and hubris in taking on this grand idea, one should pay reverence to his monumental ambition, which lay the blueprint for mainstream narrative cinema today. In this way we can say that the true architect of Inception is D.W. Griffith.
Michael Joshua Rowin writes about cinema for The L Magazine, Cineaste,
Artforum, LA Weekly, and Reverse Shot.