Thursday, April 28, 2016

No Audio Audient: Intolerance

This is the fourth in my 2016 monthly series in which I am catching up with classic silent films I haven't seen.

When I asked my Flickcharters Facebook group which of four versions of D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance available on YouTube I should watch, one of the first responses was "The longest one."

It's possible that was a sarcastic response designed to subject me to a lengthy endurance test, but I took it at face value as meaning "The longest one is the one that's truest to the director's original vision."

While that's probably correct, it was with some reluctance that I discarded the 2:42, 2:46 and 2:57 versions and opted for the one that ran 3:17. Which would make this one of the longest films I've ever seen, right up there with Seven Samurai and 2014's Winter Sleep, though trailing the Abraham Lincoln epic Gettysburg.

Well, I don't know if you can sit there and give your full attention to a three hour and 20 minute silent film, but if you can, you're a better man than I am. Or if you're a woman, you're a better woman than I am.

It's fair to wonder whether I really gave Intolerance a fair shake. Almost from the start I was put off by its poetic, flowery title cards, which prized abstraction over narrative exposition. The fact that the title cards were used to beautify what we were already seeing, rather than to explicate it, meant that I probably should have been paying more attention to the images, rather than less. But I decided pretty much from the start that I'd try to multi-task through Intolerance -- that it would be the only way I'd survive the experience. I'd be sure to look up every time there was a new title card, but I could not be expected to stare raptly at the screen the rest of the time. Once I realized that the title cards weren't helping much with the exposition, it was probably too late.

The movie is divided into four stories of supposed intolerance through the ages, and makes certain to continue to remind us of the theme, as the word "intolerance" appears a good 20 times in the title cards. One is a modern story of a worker's strike and the unfolding repercussions on a girl ("The Dear One") and a boy ("The Boy," which is a funny name for him because he has a moustache and is clearly an adult for much of the movie). One is a story in ancient Babylon, which is probably the most grandiose but is also the one I tried least hard to figure out. One takes place in 16th century France. And then one is, naturally, the crucifixion of Christ. Transitions occur between these scenes with the aid of a figure rocking a cradle, intended to represent "eternal motherhood" or some such nonsense. He also goes to pages of a book to indicate the transition.

The one that gets the most screen time -- and the one I made the greatest attempt to follow, beat by beat -- is the modern story. Which makes sense, as the other three were added to a movie Griffith was already making, which seems a bit strange as they are by far the most technically ambitious three stories. Griffith apparently added them as he reconceptualized Intolerance as a response to the NAACP and others who criticized the racism in The Birth of a Nation from the year before. The odd thing about that was that Intolerance was not, as is sometimes thought, an apology for Birth of a Nation. Rather, Griffith dug himself in deeper by presenting himself as a victim of intolerance by those who didn't understand Birth. Puh-leeze.

And so again it becomes difficult to separate the art of Griffith from what we know about him as a person. Intolerance was obviously the most ambitious film that had ever been made at that point, but it may also be the most ambitious film that has ever been made, relative to the prevailing standards of the medium. Of all the other films that we think of as great technical breakthroughs throughout the years -- from Citizen Kane to Avatar -- few are perhaps as off-the-charts, go-for-broke ridiculous in terms of sheer gumption. The number of extras alone made this an astounding logistical feat, and that's not taking into consideration sets and costumes that seem authentic and then some. It's as though Griffith got a taste of grandeur in Birth and decided he was going to make what might come to stand as the greatest movie of all time.

Yet despite all this ambition on display, Intolerance fails as basic storytelling, which is why I came very close to giving it a thumbs down rating of 2.5 stars. I ultimately chickened out and went with a three. Still, I feel like one's feelings about the man shouldn't affect one's perspective on this film any less than they affect one's perspective on Birth. Although he does not offend in the text of Intolerance, he offends in the subtext, especially once you learn more about what drove him to make it. All the artistic skill and ambition are therefore tainted.

And I was really taken aback by his ego. There may be some logical expectation for this, but I kind of laughed to note that his initals -- D.G. -- appear in a little insignia at the bottom of most title cards. (I say "most" because the title cards are oddly inconsistent, with different fonts used and different formats presented -- I assume this was either to differentiate the stories, or perhaps as a later attempt to fix up the surviving cuts of the film with whatever materials were available at the time.) So while we would assume a massive ego based on what we know about Griffith, here we get actual evidence of a sort of narcissism that seems to have no functional explanation other than Griffith just liking the appearance of his own initials.

Before we just dismiss the movie as a bunch of impressive technique in service of empty and hypocritical platitudes, I should of course again reconsider the notion that I just didn't give Intolerance a chance. I was almost pre-checked out on it. There were baseball games I wanted to follow online as I was watching it, and follow them I did. During two of the three sittings it took to watch it. The other one, my shortest sitting, was at night, when I watched 23 minutes starting at hour two. And fell asleep about four times.

But I'm not watching this movie again. A little of it goes a long way. When you watch Intolerance, I think the point is to recognize it as a staggering cinematic achievement, to admire the commitment to grand spectacle, not to breathe in every nuance and really care much what happens in it one way or another. When you know the driving force behind it, you are even less interested in meeting it on its own terms.

So yeah, I've seen Intolerance once, or at least three-quarters of a time. I will never watch it again.

What will I watch in May? I think I need a light palette cleanser. How about a little Charlie Chaplin? The Kid it is.

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