Wednesday, 25 August 2010

1909 - Corner in Wheat - D.W. Griffith

Corner in Wheat is an unsettlingly deceptive film. On its surface, the film appears to stake a claim for being described as Griffith’s first masterpiece (particularly during the first half of the film). The film’s greatest strength is its subject matter. Over the last two years, we have seen an increasing number of films attempt to elevate film’s cultural status by tackling ‘prestige’ genres and writers, such as tragedy and Shakespeare. 

Corner in Wheat is the first film on the Film: Ab Initio list to tackle a contemporary political issue on film.
The film portrays three different elements of the corn industry: the growers, the speculators and the eventual buyers of wheat. The ease with which Griffith moves between the three different worlds is impressive. In particular, he makes the most of the technique first seen in The Great Train Robbery, crosscutting. This allows him to juxtapose the plight of the working men struggling to afford the bread with the lavish opulence of the successful speculator who attends a dinner with his society friends. The film’s primary focus is the speculator, known as the Wheat King.

It is extremely interesting to not how little the image of corporate America has change over the last one hundred years. The first time we meet the Wheat King, he is surrounded by men who are all dressed in similar attire. This reminded me of the agents in The Matrix, which was released exactly ninety years later (see the two pictures below). As Aristotle once said, “It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world”.


With his raised left eyebrow and grinning eyes, his role as the film’s ‘villain’ is established immediately by Griffith. As the film them moves to the Wheat floor where all the trading takes place, the heightened movement of the actors combined with their parting for the wheat king as he arrives made me think of John Milton’s hell in Paradise Lost:

With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he, with his horrid crew,
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,
Confounded, though immortal. But his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him: round he throws his baleful eyes,
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.
(Book I l. 46-58)

The Wheat King’s ‘obdurate pride and steadfast hate’ are on full display when he physically accosts a trader (see image above). The cramped, claustrophobic room (see image below) could not be more different to the vast open space where we see the solitary farmer ploughing his weed earlier in the film. The ‘adamantine chains and penal fire’ may not be visible, but the audience is certainly given the impression that they embody this scene on a metaphorical level.

At this point in the film, I was taken aback by the complex narrative structure and was convinced that Corner 
in Wheat may well be a more than worthy predecessor of both Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood; with all three films portraying ruthless American industrialists who embody the darker side of the American Experiment.

Therefore, I could barely conceal my disappointment when the Wheat King falls down a grain elevator and is killed by the very wheat that he was speculating on (see image above). In an instant, the film went from a complex examination of a Faustesque character to a simplistic Biblical parable on the excesses of greed. And returning to the aforementioned Milton quote, the Wheat King is an archetypal villain; he may have ‘obdurate pride and steadfast hate’, but unlike Milton’s Satan, he lacks the ‘lost happiness’ and ‘huge affliction’ that makes Milton’s character such a powerful and memorable character.

Hence when I saw the following over at the excellent Silent Volume, I was more than intrigued:
I’ve never forgotten the image of the Wheat King writhing at the bottom of the grain elevator as the stream of grain buries him. He’s a greedy bastard and he smothers.

Do we really need more nuance? Do we want more? Exploring why the Wheat King could become ‘king’ of anything in a democratic society might deny us the opportunity to convict him fully. It’s so cathartic to set a blatant villain in sharp relief to blatant victims—those victims being us, of course. Griffith knew it in 1909, and we know it now. Nevertheless, there is a deeper lesson to be learned from Corner in Wheat, if we’re prepared to look for it.

I think it is too easy to be satisfied by an image in art that plays to our political rather artistic impulses. For example, Oliver Stone was roundly criticised for not having such a moment in his biopic on George W Bush. To think up an example, the image of the Mission Accomplished banner falling on W’s head may have provided momentary satisfaction in Stone's film for those of a certain political persuasion. But art does not exist so that we can indulge in wish fulfilment. Rather than finding the Wheat King’s demise cathartic, I felt that it narrowed the spectrum of what the film was trying to convey, and this sentiment worked retrospectively too.

Whereas earlier I praised the film for juxtaposing the Wheat King’s high society lifestyle with the people who could not afford to buy bread (see the two images above); now, these scenes seem emotionally manipulative retrospectively, willing on the audience to act like a Roman mob and feel pleased with the Wheat King’s violent demise.

And although I think Silent Volume is correct to draw a parallel with today by later comparing the film’s events with what happened with AIG today, I think he has drawn the wrong conclusion. The legacy of Griffith’s decision to adopt an oversimplified moral stance and use crass juxtaposition of conflicting images can now be found daily on news channels to distort and over-dramatise insubstantial issues into full blown crises. The moral of the film is not that greed is bad, but rather that the moving image can greatly reduce the ambiguity of the written word and oversimplify a complex discussion.

As with many films, Corner in Wheat disappoints after a most promising beginning. There is no doubting Griffith’s broad scope and ambition with Corner in Wheat, but ultimately the film reveals its philosophical core to be as complex as a medieval morality play. And given the delightful allegory that Feuillade has constructed in the same year with The Surf of the Fairy, it is hard to excuse the film’s melodramatic simplicity on the grounds that it was an early silent film. 


  1. Hmm.

    I definitely agree that the film 'wobbles' in tone a little towards the end, but I'd go with Silent Volume on the quality of the grain death image... It's a real corker, and doesn't detract from the film's place in the Kane/Blood line, in my opinion. (The 'There Will Be Blood' link is especially significant, as this one's based on Frank Norris, a major influence on Upton 'Oil!' Sinclair)

    The film as a whole (unlike Milton's superbly tragic verbal characterisation of Satan, say) operates in a purely visual way - the opening juxtaposing the dignified vertical plough lines of the farmers with the buzzing shirt cuffs of the owners; the second sequence mirroring left/right two tables: opulent feast and barren bread. This makes the choice of such a visual 'downfall' perfect, and brilliantly symbolic.

    Where I'd say it goes 'wrong' is almost the opposite from your suggestion (that it should be subtler and have more gravitas)... I think the transition to a more extreme form of 'Juvenalian' satire (signalled by the obscene 'YOU HAVE CONTROL OF THE ENTIRE MARKET OF THE WORLD' card) leads neatly to a nasty Swiftian end. The mistake is in having the owner melodramatically lifted out of the pit, and wept over by his wife...

    The perfect close to this film, transforming it into a fantastic visual satire (anticipating the Marx 'Duck Soup', or Chaplin's 'Great Dictator' etc) would be a single close-up of a loaf of bread on that table. With the Wheat King's ring finger just poking out of the side.

  2. @Rob - I think you make a much stronger case for the film than the piece I quoted, particularly in regards to the comments about the film functioning as a Juvenalian satire and operating in a purely visual level.

    I suspect though, that the film owes more to Griffith's own strong Christian beliefs than any aspirations towards making a satirical work of art. However, to counter my own argument, does the author's original intention matter?

    I suspect it does not. I will certainly return to this film and your comment as we approach Griffith's later films

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