Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Intolerance

Silent movies tend to bore me, and I can't figure out why. I try to watch them to appreciate the history of cinema, but I often find that the music sounds the same, the acting is unintentionally and hilariously overblown to get its points across, and the inter-titles are left on screen way too long. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), his followup to (or as some call it, his apology for) Birth of a Nation, has many of the same features I find tiring in other silent films, but I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of this nearly three-hour epic, I had really gotten into it.

Intolerance, or its full title Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages, is really four stand-alone tales told in a parallel manner, inter-cut with each other so they all build to their own separate climaxes simultaneously, unlike an anthology that finishes one story before moving on to the next. It's a complex, ambitious structure - recently used by the Wachchowski's in Cloud Atlas - and it's designed to highlight the common theme of the stories. That theme, as if the title wasn't enough of a clue, is intolerance and how love struggles against it.

In the first story (chronologically speaking), religious intolerance in ancient Babylon allows the great city to be conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia; in the midst of the conflict, a mountain girl, because of the great love she holds for Prince Belshazzar, fights to the bitter end against the invaders. In Biblical Judea under Roman occupation, the Pharisees' intolerance of Jesus Christ, even after his miracles, leads to his crucifixion. More than 1,500 years later, the events leading up to and including of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Protestant Huguenots by Catholic Royalty in France are depicted. Finally, in a contemporaneous American story, moral puritans cause a labor strike that ultimately leads to a woman's baby being taken away from her when she's deemed unfit while her husband awaits execution for a crime he didn't commit. In the midst of these stories, the film cuts away frequently to the image of Eternal Motherhood, a woman rocking her baby in the cradle.

As I wrote above, Intolerance contains many silent film traits I struggle with, and because of the nature of the film's structure, it takes a while to figure out who all the characters are and what they're trying to do. Griffith also elects not to give most of his characters names, describing them in the inter-titles as the Mountain Girl, The Dear One, Brown Eyes, etc. In addition, Griffith apparently doesn't think his audience is smart enough to figure out what message he's trying to impart on them, so his inter-titles not only contain exposition of characters and plot but also explanation of what his themes are, even underlining key words just to make sure we get it. And as much criticism that Birth of a Nation rightly gets for its racism (actors in black-face playing crude stereotypes and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan), Intolerance has its share of questionable values, most notably with how it depicts the moralist women of the modern story as a bunch of bored, ugly women who can't get laid or as the film puts it, "When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option."

All that being said, by the end of the first act (the film is told in two acts), when Cyrus launches his first assault on Babylon, the movie really picks up steam. That battle, using thousands of extras and life-sized replicas built for the film, is a grand, thrilling on-screen battle and is surprisingly violent (heads are lopped off, limbs get hacked off, blood is spilled). If nothing else, Griffith showcases an incredible sense of scale, and he knows how to use the wide, long shots that highlight the scopes of his sets, and he knows when to cut to a meaningful full close up. The sequence of the Persian army swarming over the steps of Babylon is one of the all-time moments of awe ever put on film.


Griffith also shows mastery of techniques he pioneered in Birth of a Nation that filmmakers today are still using, most notably crosscutting. In the modern story, he cuts back and forth between the efforts of the woman trying to reach the governor to get a pardon for her husband and the preparations the prison officials perform as they prepare for the hanging. It's quite intense and thrilling. We follow the condemned man from his dark and cramped cell, where a priest gives last rites, to his long walk up the gallows, with the camera pulled back far enough to show the entire height of the machine and its imposing power. Meanwhile, his wife and a friendly cop desperately race after a train in car.

There's a lot in Intolerance that is dated, and some of the melodrama is laughable, but even after nearly 100 years, it contains powerful, unforgettable moments and imagery, and the film's influence on so much in that time since then can't be denied/ It's a bit of work to get through, but it's worth it in the end.

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