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3— The Histrionic and Verisimilar Codes in the Biograph Films

1. Bennett and Woollacott, Bond and Beyond , p. 65. [BACK]

2. Tom Gunning also uses the term "gestural soliloquy" for this performance device in his dissertation, "D. W. Griffith and the Narrator System," and his book D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film . [BACK]

3. Cross, Next Week East Lynne , p. 135. [BACK]

4. On the use of props, see also Naremore, Acting in the Cinema , pp. 84-87. [BACK]

5. Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama , pp. 72-75. [BACK]

6. See Gunning, "D. W. Griffith and the Narrator System," p. 747; Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema , pp. 189-91, and Staiger, "The Eyes Are Really the Focus," pp. 18-20. Chapter 7 of this book will look at trade press discourse on the verisimilar code, which also emphasizes the extreme importance of the face and eyes.

This footnote seems a good point to enumerate my disagreements with the Staiger article. I must first dispute Staiger's assertion that "the employment of theatre workers in filmmaking provides one of the strongest explanations for the appearance of a particular acting style" (p. 19). One cannot, when discussing this period, simply refer to the theatre. One must specify which theatre: the "first class" Broadway house; the popular-priced theatre largely given over to the melodrama; the resident stock companies; or the touring combinations sent out by the theatrical syndicates. Without further investigation, the fact that many film directors had theatrical backgrounds proves nothing. In which theatre, employing what performance style, did they work? Griffith's theatrical experiences, as I will show in a later chapter, exposed him mainly to the histrionic code, though he may, of course, have seen performances employing the verisimilar code.

Of course, Griffith's attitudes, and those of his colleagues, toward acting constitute another issue, but here again Staiger oversimplifies. In the period in question, the film industry's perceptions of the relation of film to theatrical acting underwent several shifts. In 1907-1908 some critics rejected theatrical acting as unsuitable by virtue of its "repose," presumably believing that the new style would fail to "get it across." In the next few years the film industry sought, as Staiger says, to emulate the "first class theatre" but also, as she omits to mention, to distance itself from the popular-priced theatre, where the histrionic code still reigned. By 1912 the film industry had developed a consensus as to what constituted appropriate film acting, convincing itself that it could not only outdo the popular-priced theatre but could surpass the verisimilar code as seen on the legitimate stage. It is true that "by 1912, companies were filming popular stage successes with current theatrical stars" (p. 19), but the reaction of the trade press was far from laudatory as suggested by a review of Nat Goodwin's Fagin in Oliver Twist: "The well defined action of the best motion picture actor is missing throughout" ("Nat Goodwin Disappointing," The New York Dramatic Mirror , June 5, 1912, p. 27). It should teach that if players of note are to enter film production it is necessary that they study to employ the art and technique of the picture, which at its best is decidedly removed from the stage. [BACK]

7. Two methodological caveats, with which I did not wish to clutter the text, may be relevant here. The fact that most gesture is analogic rather than digital under normal circumstances prevents the analyst from segmenting gestural signification. The analyst armed with a Steenbeck flat-bed editing table can stop the flow of gestrue at will. Although the technology enables us to note each small gesture, the reader should realize that this segmentation is an artificial process, and that one of the essential features of the verisimilar code is its analogical nature.

Although with the Steenbeck it becomes possible to annotate movement, assigning a specific meaning to each gesture or combination of gestures is much more difficult with the verisimilar than with the histrionic code, partly, of course, because the former is not predicated on a one-to-one correspondence between gesture and meaning. In the absence of a lexicon restricted by convention, gesture and especially a combination of gestures can take on an infinity of meaning, with the narrative context alone limiting the connotations. For this reason, the analyst's personal judgments becomes a greater factor with the verisimilar than the histrionic code. Suppose that an old man enters a shot, head bowed, shoulders sagging, arms hanging limply at sides. Does this signify defeat, despair, resignation, sadness, or simply momentary weariness? The problem becomes intensified with facial expression: two people can debate the meaning of a particular close-up for hours, as in the often-cited instance of Garbo's expression in the closing shot of Queen Christina . Even facial expression combined with posture can defeat attempts at quick and facile interpretations. Certainly no one would dare to impose a single, precise meaning on the final shot of Vertigo as Jimmy Stewart, having witnessed the second death of his beloved, teeters on the brink of oblivion. [BACK]

8. Marsh, Screen Acting , p. 54. [BACK]

9. Boweser, ed., Biograph Bulletins , p. 428. [BACK]

10. Throughout the Biographs, actors use diectic gestures, leading me to include them in the histrionic code. However, I have no evidence that the diectic gesture was frequently employed in the theatrical histrionic code. Because theatrical performers could have used verbal shifters and might not have needed diectic gestures, it may be the case that the standardized and conventional use of diectic gestures originates with silent film. If so, it would be inaccurate to label conversational gestures as either histrionic or verisimilar. However, between 1908 and 1913, while actors continued to point, their pointing movements became smaller, less emphasized, and more flowing. [BACK]

11. The importance of the face and eyes to the verisimilar code may tempt one to conclude that the increasing closeness of the camera between 1908 and 1913 accounts for the transformation of performance style. The reverse could just as well be true, however: the new performance style may have brought about the closer camera, a possibility we will consider in Chapter 4. [BACK]

12. Metz, Language and Cinema , p. 103. Some data about changes in signifying practices during Griffith's Biograph years, particularly those practices most often associated with performance, editing, and camera distance, may be helpful. In "D. W. Griffith and the Narrator System," Gunning tells us that the average number of shots per thousand feet of film was 16.6 in 1908 and 87.8 in 1913 (p. 761). As for scale, the long shot, with space above and below the characters' heads and feet, was standard in 1908. By 1910 the characters were framed at the ankle, and by 1911 characters were framed in three-quarter shot, which became the predominant scale of the classical Hollywood cinema. As Gunning points out, however, beginning in 1909 characters increasingly step forward to be framed between ankle and knee, so that camera distance does not remain a constant even in the earlier films.

Intertitles do not survive for many films. Because the earliest Biography with intertitles at the Library of Congress is A Change of Heart (September 1909), there has been confusion about the presence of intertitles in the earlier Biographs, our knowledge of which derives primarily from the Paper Print Collection. Gunning has concluded that most, and probably all, of the Griffith Biographs originally had titles. We do know that dialogue titles became increasingly frequent, a factor bearing directly on the construction of character.

For further information about film style in this period see Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema , pp. 155-240, and Barry Salt, "The Early Development of Film Form," in Fell, ed., Film Before Griffith , pp. 284-89. [BACK]

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