Gregory Robinson’s All Movies Love the Moon
Of course it’s a book right up my alley, prose poems on silent film, an intersection of said films with culture (both historical and contemporary) juxtaposed with photographs of title cards. Gregory Robinson’s All Movies Love the Moon (Rose Metal Press, 2014) both instructs and delights. These poems move between summary and philosophy, simultaneously revealing the intrinsically compelling details while also allowing those details to uncover and discover their own truth. One of my favorite poems has to do with Lillian Gish (I know, no surprise there) and her meager role in Griffith’s Intolerance.
It’s been said that Griffith didn’t like to feature the same actresses consecutively for large roles out of apprehension that they’d begin to expect to always be the star. Perhaps, with Gish coming off the heels of her role of Elsie in Birth of a Nation, he decided to give her only the small role of the mother rocking the cradle. That’s all she does. Looks over the cradle, concerned and rocks it. Of course, it’s a beautifully lit and staged scene and along with the words of Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” dramatically ties the various historical segments together. But I often wondered if her feelings were hurt by this casting. In her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, she makes no mention of direct disappointment, but does state this: My role as the Eternal Mother took less than an hour to film. Nevertheless, I was closer to Intolerance than anyone else except Billy Bitzer and Jimmy Smith, the cutter. I felt there was more of me in this picture than in any other I had ever played in. Perhaps because I wasn’t acting a long role, Mr Griffith took me into his confidence as never before, talking over scenes before he filmed them, having me watch all the rushes, even accepting some of my ideas. He sent me to the darkroom to pick the best takes and to help Jimmy with the cutting. At night, as I watched the day’s rushes, I saw the film take shape and marveled at what Mr. Griffith was creating.
That passage feels genuine in its recalling, but I can’t help but read a bit of justification in there are well. A building up of her behind the scenes presence compensating her lack of on-screen presence. I think that’s why I like Gregory Robinson’s poem titled, “Intolerance”so much. In it Griffith gives her direction, reassuring her about the small role and her beauty, cajoling and appeasing her. The poem could be merely wry, but Robinson lets the immediacy of the moment meld directly with all that the film might stand for:
“Stop? No, you can never stop. You would think, wouldn’t you? Maybe it would be more loving to call it quits. But love’s real struggle through the ages is ownership, and like it or not we are yours.
The widening gyre of this world finds solace here, out of the cradle endlessly rocking, and in that space at the center of every doomed life, awkward and unknowing, is the singular certainty of struggle and the shelter of your hands.”
Rose Metal Press makes beautiful books and this one by Robinson is no exception. It’s a lovely convergence of history, ideas, imagery and statement.