The rise of this more realist cinema owes to a great many factors and influences, but it is clearly tied to the increasingly industrial base of the cinema that built upon narrative traits from the nineteenth-century novel and the well-made theatrical play. Narrative unity was built around character psychology within a rational world where events were relatively plausible, even in genres such as the adventure film. The "realism" of classical realist cinema was a product of numerous cultural and now cinematic codes and conventions. Further, the specific ability of the cinema to record and edit representational images lent great power to the credible presence of the characters and their fictional actions and worlds. The steady development toward an increasingly narrative cinema brought some more conservative forces to bear on film practice, especially with the more industrial, studio production norms. Burch and others label this an Institutional Mode of Production because of its privileging of consistent thematic, spatial, and temporal parameters. Clearly, the most successful model for this international classical realist cinema was the Classical Hollywood Cinema.
The formation of classical Hollywood narrative has been explained by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, who argue that classical story construction went hand in hand with developments in the mode of production and new conventions in film style. The classical narrative is organized around a goal-driven protagonist whose desires determine the cause–effect ordering of the plot, which often comes to include a second, embedded plot line. Saving the western town from the outlaws may also involve helping out and finally falling in love with the school marm, for instance. Minor characters typically help or hinder the protagonist's progress. Moreover, the time and space serve the story, which is often generic or formulaic, and there is clear closure with the protagonists achieving or failing to achieve their goals. During the 1910s in particular, Thompson points out that the move to feature-length films forced filmmakers to look to short stories and novels more and more for guidance in character and plot developments. Simultaneously, film techniques had to adapt to the challenges posed by longer narratives. Editing and camera techniques, along with lighting, acting gesture, and even set construction, worked toward clear methods of delivering story information.
With the rise of studio productions and more standardized storytelling, writers and directors functioned increasingly as narrators, guiding the audience's attention with film language as well as written inter-titles. More and more, unity of purpose and even redundancy were built into the presentation of fictional worlds, moving storytelling away from the series of tableau shot sequences and lack of closure that characterized much of the primitive film aesthetic. Increasingly, time and space were constructed around characterization, themes, and plausible plot ordering, with eyeline matches or dissolves clearly delineating the protagonist's perceptual attention or thoughts. Analytical editing, and especially shot-reverse shots, concentrated the audience's attention upon the interplay between actors while systematically unifying a functional diegetic time and space, or the world of the fictional character. After the established dominance of the classical cinema, first in the United States and then internationally, the free play of tableau space and other key components of the primitive aesthetic only resurfaced in consistent form in various avant-garde movements. Classical realist cinema, building as it did upon representational codes for verisimilitude and stories that stressed plausibly motivated human agents, became the foundation for commercial narrative cinema worldwide.
The arrival of sound added greatly to narrative cinema's arsenal. Recording natural sound, which later became known as direct sound, provided "real" documentary-quality sound. However, sync-sound recording was quickly found to require some manipulation to appear natural and at the same time serve the story. Sound design was tested for ways it could reinforce the narrative, delivering essential information such as dialogue and key sound effects and music, while repressing potential distractions. Sounds were carefully selected to guide the spectator's attention to specific characters or events and to fit the diegetic space. Even interior scenes began to have distinctive mixes, so that a conversation inside an office building in one scene should have a
D. W. Griffith's status in the history of the cinema is unique. Griffith grew up in a family that romanticized the mythic Old South and its values—his father was a Confederate Civil War hero—and he also prized Victorian literature and melodrama. Initially an actor, Griffith pursued playwriting, then shifted into writing for motion pictures, quickly earning a job as director at Biograph in 1908. No other director's career has gone through such extreme shifts in critical reception. For most of the twentieth century, Griffith was heralded as the founder of American cinema's narrative traditions, thanks primarily to his steady stream of over four hundred innovative short films and then The Birth of a Nation (1915). Subsequent features, especially Intolerance (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919), were also praised for their story construction and technical sophistication. He was credited with adapting nineteenth-century narrative devices for the cinema and bringing genre, character development, and continuity editing into Hollywood movies. Publicity surrounding Griffith helped forge the mythical image of the motion picture director as creative genius.
Griffith's career parallels the growth of narrative cinema. He was there every step of the way as movies shifted from shorts to spectacular features, from a cottage industry to the classical studio system. Starting in 1908, Griffith brought together an efficient production team. Their films, including The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), reveal a constant updating of techniques for delivering story information clearly and emotionally. Griffith refined staging, shot composition, scene-to-scene organization, and editing rhythm to build character, suspense, and logical time–space relations. The Birth of a Nation , Intolerance , and Broken Blossoms exploited early cinema's full arsenal of storytelling techniques, including cross-cutting, rhythmic editing, and manipulative mise-en-scène. The controversies surrounding The Birth of a Nation also proved the cultural power of cinema. However, by the 1920s, Griffith's career was uneven at best. His two early sound films were failures, and after The Struggle (1931), he never directed again.
Since the 1980s, Griffith's status has been in nearly steady decline, or at least dramatic reassessment. An important renaissance of early film history has systematically rediscovered and reinserted other individuals, films, and social forces as crucial formative influences on the development of American and world cinema. Moreover, the insights of cultural studies made it impossible to continue forgiving the sexism and vicious racism at the core of his work while at the same time praising his craft and romanticizing his life. For many today, Griffith represents much that was wrong with Hollywood, American ideology, and even dominant film histories of the past. Nonetheless, Griffith's films remain key texts for understanding the development of narration in cinema. Theorists interested in film language point to their shot scale and editing patterns as important markers of a developing cinematic code system, while others look to Griffith as a canonical source of gender and genre construction in cinema.
The Lonely Villa (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), Enoch Arden (1911), The Lonedale Operator (1911), The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Judith of Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), America (1924)
Bernardi, Daniel. "The Voice of Whiteness: D. W. Griffith's Biograph Films." The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema . Edited by Daniel Bernardi, 103–128. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film . New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
Gunning, Tom. D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Henderson, Robert M. D. W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph . New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Jerome, 1970.
Mast, Gerald, and Bruce F. Kawin. A Short History of the Movies . New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Taylor, Clyde. "The Re-Birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema." The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema . Edited by Daniel Bernardi, 15–37. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
different timbre than dialogue in a restaurant or a phone booth. For instance, early on in His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), Walter (Cary Grant) and Hildy (Rosalind Russell) walk through a busy newspaper office to meet Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). In an earlier scene the newspaper office was louder, with typewriters banging away in the background, establishing the diegetic space. But this time the sound effects are more muted, since the louder noises would distract from the conversation. Similarly, when the characters move on to a lively restaurant setting, the noises are reduced to clinking plates and glasses on their table only. When Walter is surprised by some bit of dialogue, the entire restaurant seems to go silent, ensuring that the audience notice how the normally chatty Walter is suddenly rendered speechless. The editing rhythm and shot scale reinforce the importance of this moment, as Walter has to think fast to change the course of the conversation and thus events. When he leaves the table to call his office from a small phone booth, the sound ambiance reflects a supposedly cramped space, though of course Grant is merely crouching in a set on a large sound stage. Conventions for classical sound mixes were established quickly to generate stable sound–image relations for delivering a causally motivated, codified, and classical diegesis.
Not all realist cinema had to be so formulaic and generic, however, and one of narrative cinema's most important theorists, André Bazin, specifically analyzed the realistic value of cinematic technique. Bazin, while often very complimentary of conventional narrative cinema, preferred films that broke away from formulaic tropes. He believed that the essence and strength of the cinema lay in its ability to capture key aspects of lived experience. Cinema's narrative potential would be best fulfilled by films that engage the spectator in ways comparable to real-world perception and understanding. The world is complex and often ambiguous, thus cinema should exploit tactics that can preserve some degree of those rich qualities and reward the spectator's active attention. Longer takes were often preferable to manipulative editing. In fact, Bazin lamented that classical Hollywood cinema had become too predictable in its editing by the late 1930s, reaching what he labeled its equilibrium profile, the point at which Hollywood films moved too smoothly forward, like a mature river, without digging deeper into the terrain. Cinema, to connect with reality, had to renew itself constantly, and Bazin found that by the 1940s, rejuvenation was occurring in the use of long takes and deep space compositions by Orson Welles (1915–1985) and William Wyler (1902–1981) in the United States, but especially in movies by Jean Renoir (1894–1979) in France and the neorealists in Italy. These directors carried the cinema back to its mission of delivering time and space in more authentic ways. For realist critics such as Bazin, once classical realism became so widespread, it lost much of its ability to reveal spontaneity and truth to the spectator.
A wide array of directors and national cinemas forged alternative styles in reaction to or isolation from the classical conventions of realism as well. Post–World War II film practice in particular boasted a lively and engaged modern art cinema. Directors as varied as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda offered more subjective fictional worlds with complex, even contradictory characterization. The Art Cinema foregrounded stylistic choices and the filmmaker's presence, often constructing diegetic worlds full of ambiguity. Some modernist directors touted their experimental styles as closer to the uncertainty of lived experience, while others distanced themselves from concern with the real world and explored the cinema's formal potential. Working in their wake, the classical realist cinema incorporated some of these innovations, and its notions of plausibility and complexity certainly changed across time, but it typically remained centered on generic tales of goal-oriented protagonists. Since the 1980s, American independent cinema has tended to bridge the extremes of classical cinema and previous modern art film tactics.