D.W. Griffth and the “Narrator System”

Surviving prints from both the “early” and “transitional” eras of cinema are actually quite rare, and so it’s often difficult to identify a given film as the “first” to feature a given technique. In part, however, because so many of D.W. Griffith’s films have been preserved, historians have found them an abundant repository of at least “early” instances of many techniques, such as “close-up figures,” “switchbacks,” and “fade outs.” Whether or not Griffith “introduced” all of the “innovations” cited in this self-advertisement—and thus deserves credit for the industrywide influence that he claims—is a subject for much debate. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, for example, charge that “early historians, unable to see many films from the pre-1913 period, took [Griffith] at his word, and Griffith became the father of the cinema.” Tom Gunning argues that Griffith undoubtedly cultivated “a system of filmic devices” to deal with “the task of narration” but goes on to remind us that this “narrator system, although specific to Griffith, appeared within an international change in narrative form which occurred during the years 1908-13.”

Back to CHAPTER 8/Part 2