December 13, 2010

#49: Intolerance

Whew! This one was a doozy: it took me several sittings to get through this over-three-hour beast. D.W. Griffith's silent epic Intolerance (surtitled Love's Struggles Throughout the Ages) is the oldest film on this list (released in 1916! over ninety years ago!) by nine years, in fact (the next oldest is Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, released in 1925). I don't know much about D.W. Griffith but he also directed several other important silent films, most famously Birth of a Nation (1915), and the fact that his film stands apart from all the others on this list by nearly a decade indicates that Intolerance is meant to represent an entire era of filmmaking. If any film on the list needs to do that, this one seems appropriate, spanning four interweaving stories told throughout millenia and showcasing spectacle I never thought possible in 1916.

Company: alone. Sister Stephanie offered graciously to watch with me, but as it ended up happening on instant Netflix over several sittings it wouldn't have been too convenient for anyone I'm sure.

Cuisine: well, at various times: coffee, peanut butter and Domino's. I watched the last chunk during the SNOMG of December 2010, and well, wild horses couldn't have gotten me out of this apartment.

"Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking."

The film follows four stories -- one set before Christ during the fall of Babylon; one set during the crucifixion of Jesus; one set in the French Renaissance, before and during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; and one set in modern America -- that chronicle "love's struggle with intolerance." Mary is seen rocking her newborn baby in the cradle throughout the film in between segments, which cut back and forth between storylines with increasing rapidity.

This film has been remastered and re-released several times, and the cut available to me on Netflix had two traits I'm sure were not part of the original. A score is played throughout, which sounds like it was made by one or two electronic keyboards. At times it's useful, at times it sounds like MIDI. I'll admit though, it does distinguish each storyline. The other element is that each storyline has a sort of hue (like the green above) that also aid to differentiate and delineate the narratives. I think if this has honest to God been black-and-white and entirely silent, I wouldn't have made it through the three hours and seventeen minutes.

The film is also, as is the custom with most silent films, treated with titles along the way, which lend a helping, guiding hand but can also confuse the audience. I'm not sure if 100% of them are Griffith's original titles (some appear to be in more modern fonts than others), but some of them are actually poetry ("The loom of fate weaves Death for the boy's father"). My only complaint about some of them is that they stay onscreen too long -- for a film that's already such a chore to sit through, it doesn't make it any easier when I'm looking at the same words for 20-25 seconds.

The story I connected with the most was the modern story, of the Boy and the Dear One, who fall in love, have a child, have the child taken away by mistake, and deal with the violence and destruction of their lives. Perhaps it's because it was the modern story that it was the easiest to follow, or perhaps because it was the most detailed -- it did feel like it was paid more attention than the other stories, but maybe that was just my interest speaking. In any case, it's a gorgeously told story, with an especially beautiful (and, mind you, entirely silent) performance from Mae Marsh as the Dear One (pictured above).

Babylon under siege.

What impressed me most about the film was the scope of spectacle that I just didn't think was possible ninety-four years ago. I mean, look at these images!

And look at all those extras -- more than 3,000! The budget for the film was supposedly $2 million (nearly $50 million by today's standards) and although the film flopped at the box office, it's gained a legacy over time, as many of these types of films tend to do.

Perhaps the less harsh moral overtones of this film explain why it replaced Birth of a Nation (a film that's been accused of being overtly racist) on this list in 2007. This film battles against the more overarching theme of intolerance and hatred, which maybe isn't quite as partisan.

My favorite shot in the film comes late -- when the Boy has been falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The preparations are being made here, with three officials about to go behind the wall on the right, each ready to cut a string that will release the trap door under the noose, supposedly so no one person would be solely responsible for the hanging. What a shot this is! I love that all the men ascending the stairs are on the same foot, too. Just a geeky detail.

The film is referred to as "the only film fugue," which I find really interesting. A fugue is defined as "a composition in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation and recurs frequently in the course of the composition." It's true, there is no one main plot, it's only the four "sub-plots" which function together. A fascinating musical way to look at film, and now of course I'm trying to think of any other films that could be viewed as fugues. Maybe some Woody Allen or Robert Altman film? Not quite as neatly divided, maybe, but those are the only examples in contemporary cinema I thought might come close to that definition.

"Instead of prison walls -- bloom, flowery fields."

By the end of it all, I did feel like it went a little long, that the editors could have made a few cuts and gotten it down to even two-and-a-half hours without really missing any of the story, but the long shots of the Dear One thinking something over or crying or staring longingly at the Boy make me think that the film maybe functions as a tone poem, too. Film was such a new medium at the time and I suppose the true spectacle, even above the costumes and massive sets, was the novelty of cinema in itself. I'm just so flabbergasted that this was made ninety-four years ago. Wow.

Finally over that hump! It was a joy to watch, but a pain to sit through. Some movies are just like that. Back to more familiar territory next: Jimmy Stewart is the perennial Peeping Tom in Hitchcock's Rear Window.

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