GRE Reading Comprehension

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Source: NO9

Practically speaking, the artistic maturing of the cinema was the single-handed achievement of David W. Griffith (1875-1948). Before Griffith, photography in dramatic films consisted of little more than placing the actors before a stationary camera and showing them in full length as they would have appeared on stage. From the beginning of his career as a director, however, Griffith, because of his love of Victorian painting, employed composition. He conceived of the camera image as having a foreground and a rear ground, as well as the middle distance preferred by most directors. By 1910 he was using close-ups to reveal significant details of the scene or of the acting and extreme long shots to achieve a sense of spectacle and distance. His appreciation of the camera's possibilities produced novel dramatic effects. By splitting an event into fragments and recording each from the most suitable camera position, he could significantly vary the emphasis from camera shot to camera shot.

Griffith also achieved dramatic effects by means of creative editing. By juxtaposing images and varying the speed and rhythm of their presentation, he could control the dramatic intensity of the events as the story progressed. Despite the reluctance of his producers, who feared that the public would not be able to follow a plot that was made up of such juxtaposed images, Griffith persisted, and experimented as well with other elements of cinematic syntax that have become standard ever since. These included the flashback, permitting broad psychological and emotional exploration as well as narrative that was not chronological, and the crosscut between two parallel actions to heighten suspense and excitement. In thus exploiting fully the possibilities of editing, Griffith transposed devices of the Victorian novel to film and gave film mastery of time as well as space.

Besides developing the cinema's language, Griffith immensely broadened its range and treatment of subjects. His early output was remarkably eclectic: it included not only the standard comedies, melodramas, westerns, and thrillers, but also such novelties as adaptations from Browning and Tennyson, and treatments of social issues. As his successes mounted, his ambitions grew, and with them the whole of American cinema. When he remade Enoch Arden in 1911, he insisted that a subject of such importance could not be treated in the then conventional length of one reel. Griffith's introduction of the American- made multireel picture began an immense revolution. Two years later, Judith of Bethulia, an elaborate historicophilosophical spectacle, reached the unprecedented length of four reels, or one hour's running time. From our contemporary viewpoint, the pretensions of this film may seem a trifle ludicrous, but at the time it provoked endless debate and discussion and gave a new intellectual respectability to the cinema.

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The primary purpose of the passage is to

  • A discuss the importance of Griffith to the development of the cinema
  • B describe the impact on cinema of the flashback and other editing innovations
  • C deplore the state of American cinema before the advent of Griffith
  • D analyze the changes in the cinema wrought by the introduction of the multireel film
  • E document Griffith's impact on the choice of subject matter in American films

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