December 14, 1909 [The Red Man's View, A Corner in Wheat]

The Biograph company directs its attention—actually, a deceptively bland stare, suitable for poker—to two disparate social conditions: the treatment of Indians and the shady doings of wheat speculators. What unites them is an air of certainty that these are matters worth exposing, wrongs worth condemning. And so they are—but what strikes me is the matter-of-fact tone of their "arguments." The cinema asserts itself as society's arbiter. These pictures do not question themselves, nor do they doubt their audience's assent. I'm not certain, but this may mark another loss of the audience's control over the experience of watching a moving picture. The message is as unconcerned with our opinion as are the images that convey that message. We appear to be captive in more ways than one.

The Red Man's View has little to offer visually, aside from its outdoor photography—but even this is less than engaging (although I suppose a manufactured wilderness would be even more distracting). The huddled natives, the Chief (his back turned to the camera), the squaw at the stream, her noble suitor—all these simple emblems of the Native—are shattered by the white man, portrayed as an unmitigated conqueror, the all-but-irredeemable villain of the piece. The Indians are expelled at gunpoint and forced to march—apparently far from home, but once again the uninteresting locales do not indicate they have traveled no more distance than the edge of the frame. They encounter more white men, are again exiled—and then the heroine is kidnapped and returned—in time for death on the trail, as the Chief succumbs and is mourned with silent drums and dance. This is the one affecting scene, a tableau of grief that is tender in its ministrations.

But the white man returns, threatens to reclaim the girl—but then a single decent white man arrives—our surrogate? A neat presumption; the picture tells us we should have it no other way. (A bolder drama would have the savior rise from among the Indians—but I think perhaps cinema does understand its audience, and is unwilling to overplay its hand.) He expels the conquerors, and the Indians are left to their funeral pile, slumped in grief, backs to camera. The Red Man's "view," then, seems to be directed away from us, whose decency is scant, and distance great. Still, the picture tries to draw us to their plight, inviting the mercy necessary when everything conspires against justice.

There is more hysteria in A Corner in Wheat, but the same simplistic presentation prevails, despite the jumps from farmers to speculators, sowing to selling. We see the methodical harvest, back and forth—and then the wheat speculators in darker, "realer" shades, madly trading (at one point actually flipping a coin) and gaining unearned, reckless wealth. The rich enjoy themselves while the ruined man is scorned—and bread prices rise, so that it is not only the farmer who suffers empty-handed but all of us in the theater, far from the fields. This tendency to jump from scene to scene marks many Biograph pictures (it appears that one D.W. Griffith is responsible for these; I believe he used to be a performer for Edison), and such back-and-forth-ing generates its own kind of hysteria—mirrored in the picture's climax, as the "Wheat King" is handed a telegram announcing he has cornered the world's wheat market—and his ecstasy leads to heavy-handed irony: He falls into the grain elevator—and the camera jumps to angry men at a bakery, beaten by the police (a startling indictment), while the Wheat King drowns in his cornered market.

It ends with a farmer sowing his wheat, making his way toward the camera—face front this time, not like the Indian, who sees no help at our hands; but the farmer comes to us with a weary tread, and the picture fades slowly to blackness. Like The Red Man's View, A Corner in Wheat—well, it corners us, and makes us either accomplices or victims—or both. So many of us go to the motion picture theater for "entertainment," but pictures like these seem to take the word from a different perspective, and "entertain" mere scorn for our inaction or hopelessness for our plight. I want to write that these are "adult" dramas, but in the theater I heard children cheer the Wheat King's demise; after all, everyone needs a five-cent loaf of bread.


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