Kristin Thompson has written a fine post on the blog she shares with David Bordwell about a singularly inventive video by a Spanish student, Aitor Gametxo. He has taken D.W. Griffith’s little-known film Sunbeam (1912), which takes place in a tenement building on multiple floors and rooms, and arranged the scenes that take place in each room in a grid format, so that what takes place in the upstairs room on the left occurs on the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and so on. The performers then move in and out of the spaces, respecting Griffith’s editing ploys.
The result is as delightful as it is informative. I’m not going to go into the fine details of Griffith’s handling of simultaneous action or his intuitive understanding of naturalistic film cutting, because others – such Thompson or video essay enthusiast Kevin B. Lee – can do so very much better than I. I’m just doing what Thompson asks, which is to help spread the word about an imaginative piece of film analysis and a rather beautiful piece of work in itself, reminiscent in its way of Mike Figgis’ four-screen Timecode or the celebrated multi-roomed HBO promo video Voyeur.
Aitor Gametxo’s visual exposition of Griffith’s artistry is an object lesson in understanding how some silent films (indeed other films) work. It is one of a growing number of video essays to be found online, particularly on the Vimeo site, which film scholar Catherine Grant, of the Film Studies for Free blog, has been gathering together under the Audiovisualcy channel. Such essays analyse film texts in video form, making their arguments by illustrations from the films themselves, in a variety of often highly creative ways. What is noticeable is that none of the essays she has uncovered so far, with the one exception of Variation: The Sunbeam, David W. Griffith, 1912, is devoted to a silent film. I’ve gone looking for examples and not found them. Why is this? Are silent films insufficiently understood as being a part of film studies? Do the films not interest students and lecturers as much as they might? Do they lack the sense of cool that may come from deconstructing the cinema of today?
Or will the reimagining of Sunbeam help inspire further such investigations into early film form and strategies?