Last year, Christopher Nolan drew—and divided—audiences with his epic space spectacle, “Interstellar.” And while a full third of the nine features he directed were Batman related, it’s impossible to have a thorough discussion of Nolan’s body of work without including his 2010 blockbuster, “Inception.” One of the more mind-bending films of his consistently mind-bending filmography, “Inception” is Nolan’s third most financially successful film to date (behind the second and third installments of the Dark Knight franchise), and the sixth highest grossing film of 2010. With it, Nolan created a multilayered, complex story about dreams and dreams within dreams, adding tiered levels of reality and time. It was nothing short of an inspiring achievement, especially in writing and editing.
In a newly resurfaced video essay, Kevin B. Lee contests that, incredible as “Inception” was, the technical foundation of the film was laid over a century ago by none other than D.W. Griffith. Lee claims it was Griffith’s tendency to use parallel editing, which ultimately gave birth to the modern movie.
For those new to the term, Lee explains, “In parallel editing, separate scenes in different locations or periods are cut together to make it appear as if they are unfolding at the same time.” He then dives into his thesis, articulating that, “D.W. Griffith practically invented such techniques as parallel editing, pushing them to unprecedented levels of complexity and depth.”
With a staggering 520 credits to his name, Lee obviously couldn’t touch upon every—or even most—of Griffith’s films. Instead, he wisely highlights a handful, focusing in particular on three of them to emphasize his point. He begins with “The Sealed Room” from 1909, in which Griffith cuts between two simultaneous scenes occurring a mere room apart. The director then makes “a quantum leap in parallel action” later that year with “A Corner in Wheat,” cutting back and forth between a tycoon who corners the wheat market, the farmers who are underpaid for their work harvesting the grain, and the wheat merchants who must raise prices on their consumers. The ramifications of the tycoon’s actions are seen in the shots featuring the farmers and consumers, as is the disparity between the wealthy and the destitute depicted in the film. A year later, Griffith uses parallel editing to “tell a story with unprecedented lyricism and nuance” in “The Unchanging Sea.” In the dozen-minute short, Griffith unravels 20 years in the lives of a fisherman stranded on a foreign island, and his wife and child living without him back home.
Lee concludes that Griffith’s “films laid the blueprint for mainstream narrative cinema today. In this way, we can say that the true architect of ‘Inception’ is D.W. Griffith.”
Watch Lee’s seven-minute study below, which traces the birth of parallel editing.