Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 7:30pm
D.W. Griffith's True Heart Susie

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

True Heart Susie, D.W. Griffith, 1919, 16mm, 87 mins

As a tribute to the late Jacques Rivette, Light Industry screens a film he once cited as among cinema's greatest.

Tom Gunning on True Heart Susie:

"There are those of us who consider True Heart Susie to be Griffith’s masterpiece. A claim like this demonstrates perhaps the only reason for using terms like 'masterpiece' in this era so suspicious of canons, and even of critical evaluations. Such a claim must be polemical, an incitement to discussion and argument, rather than reinforcing the received judgment of generations. But more importantly, in its superlative claim to value, it indicates that such a discussion must involve an emotional investment (read: passion) on the part of the critic, as much as analytical demonstration. To be devoted to a film like True Heart Susie has nothing to do with the institutional and long-term support of cultural apparatuses that render literary canons suspect. But it does involve narrative structure and point of view, as well as the fine details of performance, framing, and even the use of intertitles that makes a seemingly modest film such as this appear nearly incandescent in its confessional and emotional power.

Sergei Eisenstein analyzed D.W. Griffith as a divided artist, accenting a split between the modern, urban, fast-paced Griffith, and the traditional, rural, and pastoral Griffith. True Heart Susie certainly belongs in the latter group, but like all of Griffith’s pastoral features, the barrier between a traditional and a modern world – and especially an urban and rural world – has been breached, and this contamination supplies part of the drama and tension of the film. As in Way Down East, A Romance of Happy Valley, or even The White Rose, movement from the city to the country and back carries tragic consequences for characters, as the two worlds come into conflict in such a way that our heroes no longer feel sure of the model of behavior they should follow. Interestingly in all these films, characters (and the drama) must return to the country (the time characters spend in the city in most of the films remains rather brief in terms of screen time – although enormous in their consequences).

But we might better characterize Griffith’s stylistics through a contrast not simply between urban and rural, but between the epic and the intimate (John Belton, in his insightful essay 'True Heart Susie' (1983), describes this split as between the epic and the lyrical; William Rothman, in his fine essay 'True Heart Griffith' (1988), makes a distinction between epic and 'intimate drama'). In my discussion of Intolerance in volume 9 of The Griffith Project, I related these two modes of Griffith’s narratives to the visual contrast between long shot and close-up. Although this poses a great simplification of his narrative devices, I think it reveals attitudes motivating Griffith’s framing. Received opinion often (falsely) characterized Griffith as the father of the close-up. In his own myth-making through the advertisement he placed in trade journals when leaving the Biograph Company in late 1913, Griffith emphasized that he introduced not only 'large or close-up figures' but also 'distant views.' From the Biograph films on, Griffith used a variety of distant framings to capture broad sweeps of action (Indian raids, Civil War battles, Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Siege of Babylon), endowing his films with an epic dimension. Close-ups, on the other hand, initially provided dramatic emphasis in Biograph films, emphasizing small objects such as the bar of soap with hidden jewels in Betrayed by a Handprint (1908) and the monkey wrench in The Lonedale Operator (1911). But in his feature films close-ups began to play more complex roles than magnification of crucial small objects.

This sense of intimacy in Griffith does not derive only from close-ups, but also from performances that make use of the close-ups. In True Heart Susie, Lillian Gish’s face becomes a battleground of emotions, expressing not simply a single essential emotion or reaction, but staging complete and progressive dramas of realization, recognition, and despair. Consider Gish’s close-up as Susie sees William and Bettina embracing after Bettina accepts his proposal of marriage. Description in words can only demonstrate the ungainly quality of language when posed against the natural expressivity of the face, but, in the interest of directing the viewer’s attention (or memory) to the moment, I will risk the offense. Gish first appears thoughtful: her eyes focused down as her hand mounts to her ear, which she fingers almost abstractly as if considering an intellectual puzzle. Then she laughs a bit, perhaps recognizing the absurdity of her long-term unspoken love, or perhaps momentarily convinced she has mistaken what she has seen. She looks off toward the couple briefly, then her eyes widen and her little finger begins to play with her lower lip as her smiles fades. She looks off left again more intently, her finger now in her mouth. Then her head wavers uncertainly, her eyes widen as she looks towards the camera, as if on the verge of fainting.

Throughout True Heart Susie performance, editing, and narration create a point of view through which we profoundly share the experiences of the characters. However, this sharing involves more (or less) than strict identification. For Griffith, sharing an intimacy also means being aware of a certain distance, which occasionally we can cross into an emotional nearness. Thus, in True Heart Susie we profoundly share Susie’s story and indeed become very close to her, a bit in the way Susie must become close to Bettina when she lets her share her bed in spite of her anger at her for deceiving William, in spite of her envy of her for possessing the one thing Susie loves and not valuing it. Nearness and intimacy mean overcoming a distance that one is fully aware of.

Thus, although we share Susie’s story and care about her heartbreak, we do not share her naïveté. We are always one jump ahead of her, realizing all the things she doesn’t: William’s vanity and lack of insight into the world around him, Susie’s own lack of forthrightness in claiming what should be hers. The illusions both she and William have about the way the world operates – often referred to in the intertitles as their 'faith' – reflecting a peculiarly American foolish expectation that their desires will be met, simply because they are earnest and intense. The film makes it clear that such 'faith' must be broken in the end, if they are to find any fulfillment at all."

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.