Lost in the Movies: THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Intolerance

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Intolerance

As I noted last week, D.W. Griffith professed astonishment at the controversy surrounding Birth of a Nation, his 1915 epic. He followed it with another epic, even more lavish, this one devoted to the theme of intolerance in order to prove what a swell ol' guy D.W. was. This film had enormous sets, a cast of hundreds (thousands?), and a ludicrously ambitious structure and concept - the telling of four separate stories, in four different historical periods, cutting between them all so that they unfolded simultaneously. The movie came out in 1916. Think about that. This Herculean follow-up to his masterpiece was executed and delivered a mere year later; that should tell you something. Griffith directs Intolerance with the bravado of a drunken genius, as if he couldn't take the time to sort everything out neatly and just tackled the material on the wit of his whim. Consequently, his sheer enthusiasm makes the unwieldly, potentially overstuffed picture work. As someone who often has several books sitting by my bedside because I can't settle on just one, I have to say I dig the ambition.

The film opens with explanatory titles so that the audience will not get confused (it explains the concept of crosscutting so that it's understood Griffith will be cutting across time and space willy-nilly). The relationship between titles and visuals in silent film usually redounds to the former's detriment; the less explained away by mere words, the better. But the written titles have a special charm in Intolerance, as if the auteur himself is repeatedly butting in, unable to restrain his enthusiasm. He cajoles and nudges us, saying out of the corner of his mouth, "Look what I did here, eh?" In this rapidly unfolding, dizzyingly stylized piece of work, the titles are just one among many elements competing for our attention and greasing the wheels of Intolerance's whirling, giddy, disorienting approach. Four stories unfold simultaneously: a modern episode which follows a working-class family's ordeals at the hands of overzealous reformers, a retelling of Gospel passages culminating as Jesus carries the cross to Calgary, a particularly gory staging of the St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre in 1600s France - when Catholics massacred the Huguenots, and most elaborately the fall of Babylon due to the mechanations of a dogmatic pagan priest who refuses to accept the king's religion.

Unlike some silents which are watched mostly for their academic value, Intolerance holds its audience in genuine suspense and tension (and not all ends well), so skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want the film's surprises unveiled. The first storyline is the most mundane in setting (though some sequences of a strike are vividly staged) but the most emotionally effective. Mae Marsh, as the naive girl whose baby is taken away and husband condemned to death, provides the glue which holds the film together: when it embarks on its wildest fancies, it can always return to her simple but deep emotions to provide an anchor. The second storyline is the weakest; here, as elsewhere in cinema, Jesus is a rather pallid figure, more like a Sunday School illustration set in motion than a living, breathing human being. That said, the cross-cutting between the nattering hypocrites of the present day and the pharisees condemning Jesus for hanging out with sinners does lend an air of radicalism to the otherwise placid and underwhelming Gospel scenes.

The Huguenot storyline is not quite as compelling as the modern one, but it does culminate in the film's most shocking scenes of brutality. There is a genuinely disturbing sense of unease when we see Brown Eyes, our pure-hearted heroine (is there any other kind in a Griffith film?) awake from cozy slumber to see her house invaded by marauding mercenaries. They slaughter her family (including children and old women) as they run around in their pajamas, and then one mercenary rapes and murder Brown Eyes (the rape occurs offscreen though Griffith goes right up to the boundary line; the murder is shown starkly, straight-on). The violence in these sequences lends a weight to the fantastic battle scenes of Babylon and the personal melodrama of the present; it shows that intolerance isn't simply overcome by good will and happy endings. As for Babylon, it is mostly overwhelmed by spectacle, admittedly great, wonderful, lavish spectacle (including not just those crane shots of the huge sets, but also nude, nubile dancers in gorgeous shots that would never have been passed by the Production Code twenty years later). The one human element is the plucky, tenacious Mountain Girl, a great character who will give feminists at least one non-victim woman to admire.

These four storylines culminate with the fruits of their society's particular intolerance and as history dictates, three of them end in tragedy (we don't even get to see the resurrection here). As for the modern sequence, we're kept guessing till the last minute with over-the-top, but extremely exciting developments, as the Dear One rushes to prevent her husband's execution with last-minute evidence and encounters every possible obstacle along the way. We do finally get one happy ending, which is a relief after all the bloodshed.

Ninety-two years after Griffith's folly, crosscutting stories has finally become fashionable, even de rigeur for ambitious, freewheeling movies. A month ago, I offered up a largely negative reaction to I'm Not There with the following words: "Why is it a cardinal rule of multiple-storyline movies that said storylines must unfold concurrently? Sometimes it works, but here the mishmash of moods and styles and personalities creates a jagged work unable to build up and sustain its various moments...a more powerful picture would let us immerse ourselves in each stage one-by-one. It would trust our memories and outside knowledge to connect whatever dots there were to connect, to notice the contrasts and disparities while still allowing us to enjoy what each moment has to offer. [When] the intercutting slows down and we are allowed to take a breath and look around [it] reveals how thin most of the storylines really are..."

So why does Intolerance succeed where I'm Not There fails? Among other things, Griffith's film (like Babel and Syriana, two other crosscutting movies I enjoyed) matches the scope of its vision and approach with an expansive theme. I'm Not There zoomed in on one man, and couldn't even pin him down, while the other films cast their net wide and pull in little pearls that make the whole crazy adventure worth it; as if the broadness of their theme allows them to relax and touch down here, here, and here without worry of how it will all tie together. Griffith sets up his film as a classic white-elephant "important" picture with a huge theme, lofty sentiments, and generalized names for his characters ("the Little Dear One," "the Boy," "the Friendless one," "the Princess beloved..."). Yet, ever the lover of personal touches and humanizing details, the director tempers his grandeur with so many termitic moments (ravishing, almost hysterical close-ups, affectionate scenes of domestic bliss stretching from Huguenot France to working-class America, frenetic cutting that moves at an almost musical clip) that the whole structure collapses on itself and makes for an extremely pleasing mess.

Actually this is the hallmark of any truly great epic: not to solidify and close in human behavior by widening the scope, but to expand the narrative to include so many unreconcilible details so that one gets a sense of the wildness and unpredictability of experience. War and Peace tempers battle scenes of impressive scale and vast historical importance with scenes of the most trivial domestic squabbles and flirtations and society gossip...and in the end, it's the latter that hold up the book and strengthen the former, not vice versa. So it is here (as in Birth of a Nation). For all the marvelously stirring crane shots of extras parading down Babylon's steps, flanked by gargantuan statues of rearing elephants, one of the most memorable and effective shots is quite simple. The Dear One and the Boy enter through a shaded gateway onto a beach, held in long shot as the Dear One pulls away, darts her hand back into the Boy's, and continues to flirt and tease him, unsure herself what she really wants from him. It's human moments like these which justify the scale of those epic moments.

But what's truly revolutionary and noteworthy about Intolerance is the way it presents these different elements. Not at a leisurely pace so that we've gently faded from one sensibility to the other, but rather all smashed together. True, Griffith paces the different plots so that the climaxes occur simultaneously but by cutting across time and space he pulls us into a place beyond the concrete into a realm beyond continuity and order. (By the end he is no longer even placing title cards between the different periods, he just cuts straight from one to the other, which is jarring and invigorating.) Intolerance is closest to music or poetry - it flows intuitively, and it opens up an entirely new spectrum for the cinema, one which Birth of a Nation, as the summation of narrative filmmaking, could only hint at.

As such, the influence was inordinate. The principle of montage was largely derived from this movie, and soon the Russians and French avant-garde were teasing out the last elements of convention in Griffith's material and liberating cinema from the shackles of drama. But Griffith himself couldn't, or wouldn't, follow his film's lead. Because Intolerance did not connect to audiences in 1916, he spent much of his career playing catch-up; even his successes couldn't put him back on the footing he'd been on after Birth of a Nation, a footing that allowed him to radically experiment with the form like a kid who (in Orson Welles' formulation) had found the best damn toy train set and was running it for all it was worth. From 1916 on, he would focus on smaller subjects, often with great results (the only other film I've seen by him from this point on is Broken Blossoms, which is a classic). Though he would leave the experimentation to others, those artists to come walked through the gate which Griffith kicked open.

I leave you with the words of Pauline Kael, my favorite critic, who absolutely nailed the almost childlike enthusiasm, the gloriously naive folly, of Intolerance:

"His excitement-his madness-binds together what his arbitrarily imposed theme does not. Intolerance is like an enormous, extravagently printed collection of fairy tales. The book is too thick to handle, too richly imaginative to take in, yet a child who loves stories will know that this is the treasure of treasures. The movie is the greatest extravaganza and the greatest folly in movie history-lyrical, passionate, and grandiose."
Yet even with his greatest extravaganza behind him, Griffith continued to work and produce great films. Those will be coming up next in the AUTEURS series...

Previous: The Birth of a Nation
Next: Broken Blossoms

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.


T.S. said...

Thanks for the great read. As much as I find that I'm unable to get intellectually close to Griffith's work in a satisfying manner, I nonetheless find reviews of his work to be engaging in a way that helps me respect him. (It's that old scenario where you respect something as long as you're not watching it...)

I enjoyed your review of I'm Not There, too.

Joel Bocko said...

Glad I could help - I've noticed that too with certain directors I can't get into on a visceral level but can respect when others articulate what works for them (like Renoir, often considered the greatest ever, though I do like Grand Illusion & The River, and Rules of the Game has grown on me despite a very underwhelming first impression).

T.S. said...

I'm so glad to hear someone else had an initially underwhelming response to The Rules of the Game... I suppose I'll get to see if I still feel the same way come December.

Joel Bocko said...

Repeated viewings and readings have shown me a lot of what I was missing, but I'm still mystified by the visceral reaction some critics seem to have to the film. Even to the point where it's slowly creeping in on Citizen Kane's status as "greatest film ever." I can admire and even enjoy parts of the film, but it seems like all the things critics praise it for is done better elsewhere - and then there are other movies which go places Rules doesn't even dream of. To me, it feels too limited (unlike Kane) to be "greatest ever," but oh well.

Are you doing foreign films in December? I thought "holidays abroad" just meant you were taking the month off.

T.S. said...

Yeah, the plan is/was foreign films in December. I've taken it down from the Coming Attractions portion because now I'm starting to feel like my schedule might be too prohibitive to catch up on all the foreign films I'd like to cover for the series. Maybe I'll do a half-domestic, half-foreign December. Holidays abroad is still the plan, even if it's not marketed as such.

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