Friday, December 14, 2018

Intolerance (1916)

Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages, USA, 197 minutes
Director: D.W. Griffith
Writers: Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Mary H. O'Connor, Walt Whitman, Frank E. Woods
Photography: G.W. Bitzer
Music: Joseph Turrin (2002)
Editors: D.W. Griffith, James Smith, Rose Smith
Cast: 125,000 men and women, 7,500 horses, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, Margery Wilson, Eugene Pallette, Spottiswoode Aitken, Constance Talmadge, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, George Siegmann, Elmo Lincoln, Howard Gaye, Lillian Langdon, Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Reid, Donald Crisp, W.S. Van Dyke, Frank Borzage, Tod Browning, King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim

In 1971, Orson Welles hosted a PBS broadcast of Intolerance which naturally he introduced with ringing praise. Then, for a closing segment, he came back, looking as if he had actually watched the film just then too—God knows what version PBS was showing in 1971. But Welles appeared to be still in the throes of it, marveling over its intricate complications, worrying it was too sophisticated for audiences in 1916 and perhaps 1971 too. He suggested some obvious ways people might think it was a failure, or didn't work, but finished, "That failure remains one of the great successes in the history of cinema." My own experience is that I first saw parts of Intolerance in a film class in college—God knows what parts they were in 1981, but I remember the Babylon scenes and yellow tinting. It was the first movie the class looked at and the lesson went toward the same end as Welles's assessment, with art history detail. Intolerance is big in every way—long, complicated, elaborate, teeming, pretentious, convoluted, nearly whirling out of control, especially in the last hour, when it stays on its feet mostly by the expedient of cutting away to one after another of its four ongoing stories—or to blue-tinted Lillian Gish rocking the Walt Whitman, "out of the cradle, endlessly rocking"—cutting back and forth like the guy spinning plates at the top of sticks. It's like 76 open air three-ring circuses have taken over the downtown of your city. Who would think to do it?

Obviously, the tycoon moviemaker D.W. Griffith, son of a Kentucky farmer. But here's the thing. Intolerance always seems to go to the head of the class on all these invention-of-cinema-as-we-know-it-today lists of early movies. I'm writing about it today because it's so high on the big list of movies at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, presently #105 and once as high as #44. Yet two movies that can lay claim to being essential sources for Intolerance are lower—the Italian epic Cabiria, from 1914, does not even make the list of also-rans that takes the list up to 2,000 titles, and Griffith's own Birth of a Nation from 1915 is down at #280. Oh wait, I think I slipped into my assertion sideways there so let me be more straightforward. Griffith's great movie, in this dawn-of-cinema sweepstakes, is The Birth of a Nation. Intolerance muddles up its narrative force for the sake of ambitious cross-cutting experimentation that ultimately does not work. The Birth of a Nation is the birth of epic narrative cinema, practically born full grown. But it's so noxious thematically that there appears to be some tendency to overlook much the same swill in Intolerance, because it's wrapped into the picture a little more discreetly. This is the D.W. Griffith problem.

Both of these big Griffith movies (they are his Godfather and Godfather II) are like watching the story of American history as told by Rush Limbaugh. The Birth of a Nation has all the topsy-turvy up-is-downism of Fox News as it sets out its story of how white Southerners were oppressed and mistreated by freed slaves after the Civil War, necessitating the creation of the heroic Ku Klux Klan. It tells the story so effectively, in fact, that it was still being used as Klan recruiting propaganda in the 1960s. Intolerance, by comparison, is more often just blustery and dithering, laboring to turn the concept of intolerance itself into a kind of white whale that society must fiercely hunt, casting the filmmaker in the position of haunted driven Ahab, perhaps. "Intolerance" is a remarkably plastic notion here, and can be used to judge practically anything Griffith doesn't like: progressive reformers, Catholics, Jews (mocked as "Pharisees" and shown involved in crucifying Jesus), and some dubious sect in ancient Babylon. Not sure what his problem was with that last one, but the rest speak for themselves.

In fairness, out here on the tip of what was it like to watch the movie?—yes, this towering saga of cinema with its swirling multiple stories has high moments if your butt has the stamina. There's a reason Orson Welles was all in a sweat at the end of it. But Intolerance is in the neighborhood of three hours, long and exhausting, requiring a way of looking at movies I'm not used to, with intricate tableaus that by rights belong with media you can freeze-frame and slo-mo at will, although at the same time I'm sure the biggest screen possible would also help. Let's just say ideal circumstances would be watching it with Elvis Presley. The Babylon scenes are massive. Here's where most of the 7,500 horses appear, though I thought it looked a bit short. Perhaps 4,000. But they are still impressive sets and frames. Unfortunately, the Babylon story is also the most incoherent and uninteresting. The Jesus story is mostly isolated scenes from the gospels, and suffocatingly pious, but mercifully the shortest. Then, nearly as incoherent as Babylon, there's something woven around the 16th-century St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.

That leaves the modern story, which is by far the best and most fully developed, not surprisingly the project Griffith was most focused on at the time Birth of a Nation was released. The intolerant response to that movie—meaning for example the public objections by the NAACP—triggered Griffith's impulse to blow up his next movie real big and hammer his idea of intolerance, which as I said appears to be basically objections anyone might have to what he thinks. That's intolerance. It's like people today saying they are oppressed by political correctness and want freedom, but what they seem to really want is the freedom to insult and demean classes of people they don't like. Check out the way Griffith spins it in the picture's subtitle, Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages—"love." The modern story in Intolerance is also the longest, a piece of hyperbolic social realism and a tearjerker out of 19th-century popular theater, with lots of unbelievable but interesting twists and turns. The winking twitching mugging by Mae Marsh as the Dear One can go over the top, but bear with it.

Still, for me, in the end, Intolerance is mostly a chore. Some of that has less to do with the movie itself and more with the insane multiplicity of versions. I started out watching it on Amazon Prime, for example, briefly went mad trying to find information about one Charles Hofmann's piano score, and then noticed that the time of the movie was just a little over two hours, which means it's some cutup version by God knows who. Thanks Amazon Prime! I ended up watching the 197-minute Kino version from 2002, though others closer to 177 minutes have their partisans. After more than 100 years it's all such a mess. These silent pictures and early talkies really show how much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, film archiving is compared to printed material like books. As for the quality, is Intolerance essential viewing and a movie you must not miss, not even a single minute? Did you hear a word Orson Welles said?


  1. I'm just glad someone is still watching Intolerance in 2018.

  2. The first epic narrative story of cinema is a justification for the rise of white supremacy. I know this is notorious but where's the book that explains how this Moby Dick of a story could have happened? Does Greil Marcus ever try on this question? Or Mailer?