Sequence Analysis Gus Stalks Flora In The Birth Of A Nation

Shot 1 of the sequence is a fade-in to a long shot of Flora, who has left the safety of her home to fetch water from the spring for her mother. She enters from screen left into a small clearing in a heavily forested landscape. Although the spring water she seeks would supposedly be within walking distance from her house, in this shot she seems suddenly transported to a very remote place.9 As far as the eye can see, there are no signs of civilization, only huge towering trees. The landscape illustrates how well Griffith understood the potential symbolic resonance of the background or setting against which a dramatic sequence is staged in a film. The forest through which Flora passes on her way to the spring evokes an archetypal dream landscape, the woods of fairy tales and myths where innocent little girls carrying buckets or baskets are likely to meet up with big bad wolves.

Flora appears in a long shot, her body tiny in relation to the vastness of the forest. Here the long shot of Flora functions dramatically to increase our sense of her smallness and vulnerability. The way in which

Birth Nation Continuity Editing
Figure 1. The long shot of Flora functions dramatically to increase our sense of her smallness and vulnerability. The dark shadow at the base of the frame functions as foreshadowing. (The Birth of a Nation, 1915, Film Preservation Associates.)

Flora is lit, the light coming from behind her, creates a halo effect around her head. This technique, referred to as "angel lighting," adds to our sense of her innocence. A dark shadow cutting a diagonal wedge at the base of the frame into which she is headed functions as an ominous (and literal) foreshadowing of the doom she will meet as the result of her entry into the forest. (See figure 1.)

At this point Griffith might well have continued to follow Flora on her journey to the spring. But at the moment she enters the shadowy portion of the image and before she exits the frame, he interrupts her action with a cross-cut to Gus (shot 2) standing by a fence and seeming to peer after her. The cross-cut to Gus sets up dramatic irony, giving the viewer information that the protagonist, Flora, does not have—that Gus is following her into the woods. Thus, in shot 3, when Griffith cuts back to Flora heading deeper into the forest, blissfully unaware of the threat that we know has materialized, he increases our anxiety for her well-being. A cross-cut back to Gus (shot 4), however, dispels some of the anxiety. Gus seems to have had second thoughts about pursuing Flora and turns back.

The first two shots of Gus in this sequence provide another example of Griffith's sensitivity to the symbolic potential of a film's setting or mise-en-scène. It is significant that in these two shots Gus shares the frame equally with a slatted fence which juts out diagonally on the left side of the screen. (See figure 2.) In a film obsessed with the threat of breached boundaries between blacks and whites, the image of a fence appearing large in the frame as a black man is about to pursue a young white woman into a forest is anything but accidental. Gus is shown to hesitate at the fence, as if the fence represents a kind of societal superego. He hesitates, however, very reluctantly looking back in the direction of Flora even as he seems to turn away from his pursuit. As a result, the question is raised in the viewer's mind: Will Gus's internal restraints be sufficient to keep him from pursuing Flora in a society where restraints have recently been weakened? Griffith has already established that societal restraints have been undermined by the reckless policies of Reconstruction, "the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers" mentioned earlier in a title, and by a law that has recently passed guaranteeing blacks "Equal Marriage." Here Griffith gives us a powerful dose of his ideology (that Reconstruc-tionist policies are reckless and dangerous) through an image of Gus's reluctance to stop at the fence—without the need for a title.

In shot 5 Griffith cuts back to Flora, who has arrived at her destination: the spring where she is to fetch water for her mother. Here we see Flora in a full shot bending down to fill her bucket. Shot 6 is a close-up of the bucket being filled with spring water. Griffith then cuts back to a full shot of Flora as she finishes her task and wipes her wet hands on her dress. Griffith could easily have conveyed the same narrative information in one shot, but he chooses to present it in three separate shots joined together through match cuts on Flora's movements.

It is interesting to speculate why Griffith took the trouble to insert the detail of Flora's bucket being filled with water rather than presenting the action in one long shot. For part of the answer we need only consider the techniques of nineteenth-century novelists such as Charles Dickens, whose literary techniques Griffith often drew upon for inspiration in the construction of his films.10 Dickens is renowned for the care he took to render his fictional world in minute detail, in order to enhance the reader's impression that it was real. By focusing on the detail of the bucket being filled, Griffith too adds verisimilitude to his fictional world. The close-up of the bucket also gives the action dramatic emphasis. Fetching water at the spring was Flora's goal, her reason for the journey through the forest. By giving emphasis to this action through the close-up, Griffith

Gus Birth Nation
Figure 2. In a film obsessed with the threat of boundary breakdowns between blacks and whites, the image of a fence appearing large in the frame as a black man is about to pursue a young white woman is anything but accidental. (The Birth of a Nation, 1915, Film Preservation Associates.)

allows the viewer to breathe a sigh of relief. Flora's task is done. Nothing has happened to her. She can now return home.

But there is, I think, one more effect of Griffith's close-up here. The close shot of the bucket dipping into the water emphasizes the symbolic resonance of the spring. Springs, with their pure water, are often associated with virgins, but in myths and fairy tales, springs are also associated with the violation of virgins. Ingmar Bergman's film Virgin Spring, for example, is based on a legend in which a young girl on her way to church is accosted deep in a forest by roaming vagabonds who rape and murder her. At the very spot in the forest where her violation occurred, a spring miraculously appears. Because of the archetypal associations of springs with both virgins and the violation of virgins, Griffith's close-up heightens the sexual foreboding and anxiety that already infuse this sequence. Adding to this effect is the female imagery suggested by the close-up—a circular orifice in the midst of heavy foliage.

In shot 8 Griffith crosscuts from Flora back to Gus. Gus now appears in the same forest location where Flora appeared in shot one. Here Griffith indicates through the location match that Gus has not turned back. He is following Flora. Because we have seen Gus turning back from his pursuit of Flora in shot 4, this shot comes as a shock, illustrating how good Griffith was at manipulating audience emotions through the careful ordering or editing of his shots. He is playing with our expectations: first teasing us to think the danger to Flora has diminished, only to surprise us now with the information that Gus has moved beyond the fence and is still on her trail.

Our knowledge that Gus is in pursuit makes the next series of shots (shots 11 through 15) all the more alarming. Flora, rather than going straight home after filling the bucket with water, becomes distracted by a squirrel in a tree. Griffith conveys the depth of her distraction by cutting from shots of Flora gazing screen right to POV shots of a close-up of a squirrel from Flora's perspective. The squirrel appears surrounded by an iris, or circular matte, also signifying that we are seeing it through Flora's eyes. Griffith then cuts back to reaction shots of Flora from a reverse angle, capturing her fascination and delight in observing the forest creature.

Aside from making us worry that Flora is so involved with the squirrel that she will be taken unaware by Gus, Griffith's cuts between the squirrel and reaction shots of Flora have other narrative functions. Flora's interest in the squirrel provides a vivid visual means of characterization. Small animals like squirrels convey a sense of harmlessness, helplessness, and innocence, and these characteristics spill over onto Flora by association. If Griffith had depicted her as fascinated instead by the sight of a spider eating a fly or two moles mating, the effect would be quite different. Finally, and most crucially, cutting back and forth between Flora and the squirrel artificially prolongs the moment before the dreaded outcome we all fear, when Gus reveals his presence to Flora. Literary critics refer to this technique of delaying a denouement as "retardation." Here, the 13 shots this sequence devotes to Flora interacting with the squirrel enable the tension to build, in the cinematic equivalent of foreplay.

The rhythmic alternation between shots of Flora and the squirrel is suddenly interrupted by shot 16, a cross-cut to Gus emerging, as if from out of a cave, from the murky depths of the forest. Tangled, dead branches fill the top third of the frame. Gus stares intently, crouched and predatory, creating the impression that he is more a wild beast than a man. This shot comes as a shock not only because of the sudden appearance of Gus, but also because the film's mise-en-scène has totally changed. Up

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  • hanno
    Why does flora slap gus in birth of a nation?
    3 months ago

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