Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The NFR Project #54: Griffith's masterpiece, 'Intolerance' (1915)

The final battle in Babylon
Intolerance (AKA Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, Intolerance: A Sun-Play of the Ages)
Dir: D.W. Griffith
Prod: D.W. Griffith
Scr: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Premiere: August 6, 1916
210 mins., original cut; 197 mins., most existing cuts

Like his other notable epic The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance is an eroded monument, one that doesn’t really live in people’s hearts as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or The Gold Rush do. In critical estimation, like Nation, it is cherished for its technical achievements but not much else. It’s one of the first “art” films – a label that usually means – it’s brilliant but nobody watches it.

Birth of a Nation, the Civil War saga made by Griffith two years before Intolerance, was a stupendous filmic achievement and huge financial success. However, it was also grossly racist. This sparked an immense pushback from African Americans and social progressives across the country. (It is also cited as singlehanded reviving the white-supremacist terror group, the Ku Klux Klan.) In one of the supremely ironic moments in American film history, Griffith conceived of Intolerance in response to the liberal censure of his openly racist thinking.
Christ preaches
In this project, Griffith literally outdid himself. He dreamed of going far beyond what anyone else had done with film narrative, and he succeeded. Intolerance is structured like an immense musical fugue – different passages that all relate to a central theme. There are four different narratives – a story set in ancient Babylon, the story of Christ, a story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 France, in which Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and a ‘modern-day’ story concerning the deadly influence of socially progressive do-gooders. The result: a film originally nearly four hours long, catnip for critics but baffling to viewers.

So what makes it so great? It’s Griffith’s idea that not only was he capable of telling stories this way, but that the viewer is capable of understanding them, to synthesize the stories and relate them to the central image, the recurring image of the Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle, symbolizing continuity and rebirth (with the Three Fates sitting ominously in the background). It’s a faith in the audience that Hollywood would never test again.
'Out of the cradle endlessly rocking . . . '
 The modern story, “The Mother and the Law,” was in the planning stages even before The Birth of a Nation. It has the most solid storyline of the four, and the wooliest thinking behind it. In it, Griffith indicts the idle rich, the capitalist bosses, the striking workers, the criminal element, but above all the horse-faced biddies whose intolerance of the working class’ simple lives and pleasures leads them to interfere with and destroys the lives of the powerless The titles -- 'Jealous of youth and laughter,' '' We must have laws to make people good" -- lay out his message. All seem to conspire to deny The Dear One (Mae Marsh) and The Boy (Bobby Harron). happiness, their baby, and The Boy’s life. (Griffith prefers his characters as archetypes rather than as rounded personalities.) It a conventional tale, complete with a race to save The Boy from the gallows.

Racing eagerly alongside and amongst this are the other plot threads. The Babylonian sequence is by far the best realized visually, sumptuously designed and innovatively shot (the track-in shot of its mighty, elaborate setting is the best remembered part of the film). Beside these two, the French story seems perfunctory, and the Crucifixion almost an afterthought. The film’s pretentious intertitles don’t help. These, combined with the film’s visual grandiosity, make Intolerance seem hopelessly pompous and condescending.

But if you ignore the words, something happens. Every single frame is carefully and beautifully designed for maximum effect. Every scene is fully inhabited, with hundreds of actors in character and in harmonious action, even in the deep background and at the edges of the frame. The four stories are told with perfect clarity, using close-ups, dolly shots, irises, frame masking, panoramic sweeps, and more – none  used gratuitously, all subordinated to service of the narrative. (The four storylines are even given distinctive tints as a visual aid.) The film’s insane budget of $2.5 million ($47 million today) is sell-used, up there on the screen. Most astonishing is that the script was unwritten, existing only in Griffith’s head and explicated to an army of designers, technicians, crew and cast on a daily basis.
Griffith's scenic vocabulary: from panoramic vision

to excruciating closeup
The most important innovation is the film’s editing. With musical grace, Griffith cuts brilliantly not only within but between the stories, maintaining a hypnotic rhythm that imperceptibly speeds up throughout the film, until all four stories climax in a brilliant rush of imagery that leaps dizzy into the viewers’ laps. This achievement opened the eyes of directors and editors around the world. More than 100 years later, it still looks fresh. No wonder it perplexed many at the time.

Despite the critical praise and success at the box office, Intolerance was doomed never to meet its costs, and the losses dogged Griffith for the rest of his career. He tinkered with Intolerance’s editing for years afterward, even producing stand-alone versions of the modern and Babylonian stories. Today, when “director’s cuts” are all the rage, no definitive cut of Intolerance exists. He went on to make other great films such as Way Down East, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm, but never again was he allowed to on as large a scale. Hollywood’s business model would, with rare exceptions, no longer tolerate auteurs.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: The Curse of Quon Gwon.

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