Friday, March 8, 2013

Intolerance In Washington, D.C.

D.W. Griffith's Intolerance that is, which is playing at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art on Saturday, March 9, 2013, at 3 p.m., I do believe. The Baltimore-based group Boister will provide live musical accompaniment. Admission is free.

Maybe Katie-Bar-The-Door and I will see you there.

In case you know nothing about it, Intolerance weaves four separate story lines—the life of Christ, the fall of Babylon, the massacre of the Huguenots, and a modern-day story about the victims of an overreaching reform movement—into a three-plus hour spectacle that might be the most ambitious movie ever made. Accounts vary as to how much of his personal fortune Griffith poured into the production—some say as much as $2 million, the most for any film before Gone With The Wind—but there's no question that this was the most lavish production of the silent era.

Or to put it another way, to show the sack of Babylon, Griffith basically built a full-scale replica of the ancient city on a Hollywood backlot and then laid siege to it.

"Imagine," wrote Daniel Eagan in America's Film Legacy, "how audiences in [1916] must have reacted to the sight of walls and battlements four and five stories high, to courtyards set on three different levels and filled with hundreds of costumed extras, to visuals so expensive it's like they were filmed on and made out of gold."

The film opens with the story of a modern-day reform movement determined to improve the spiritual life of the working class even if it kills them. Fueled by jealousy and financed by an autocratic mill owner, the reformers crush the life out of their would-be beneficiaries, particularly "the Dear One" (played so memorably by Mae Marsh), the embodiment of youthful joy and innocence. Only a crabbed, self-righteous hypocrite could find fault with someone so pure; that the reform movement's machinations lead to Dear One's fall is a testament to its destructive purposes.

To underscore the point, Griffith cuts to a scene from the life of Christ, that of a Pharisee praying in public so that others might better observe his piety. "Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am better than other men."

The film's third storyline focuses on the political intrigue in the court of King Charles IX that led to the massacre of Protestants in Paris in the late sixteenth century, while the fourth and final story, about the jealousy between rival religious factions that led to the sack of Babylon, rounds out Griffith's theme, a rousing condemnation of the humorless, meddling, Puritanical impulses that characterize so much of America's reformist zeal on both ends of the political spectrum. Watching it, I thought it was a pity that Griffith never directed a screen version of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry.

Structurally, Intolerance is as audacious as anything ever attempted on film—four simultaneous stories linked only by a common theme and the generally rising action—with the editing style growing more complex as the action in each story reaches its climax. The film's last half hour, with quick cross-cut shots between a marauding army, a racing car, a speeding train, the slaughter of the Huguenots and the crucifixion of Christ, has been described as a fugue, a concept borrowed from music where two or more voices entering successively and sung in either imitation or counterpoint to build on a common theme.

Griffith's visual fugue later inspired Sergei Eisenstein and other Russian directors to develop the montage—quick shots cut rapidly together to condense several events or a lengthy period of time into a single short sequence.

Questions have persisted almost from the beginning as to Griffith's motives in making Intolerance. For years, historians assumed Intolerance was his apology for the racism of The Birth of a Nation, but more recently, biographers have suggested Griffith was lashing out at those who were looking for an apology. Personally, after watching it in the context of the times, Intolerance looks like the act of a supremely self-confident artist determined to top both himself and his chief competition, Cecil B. DeMille and Thomas H. Ince, who that year directed ambitious historical epics of their own, Joan the Woman and Civilization, respectively.

Whatever his motivations, Griffith succeeded brilliantly.

Which is not to say that all four of Griffith's stories are created equal. Christ's life, for example, gets the least amount of screen time, presumably because Griffith assumed his audience knew the story so well, he needed only reference a particular well-know incident to underscore a point he wanted to make in one of the other story lines.

Too, the story of Protestant-Catholic infighting in sixteenth century France isn't all that interesting even if it does result in a satisfyingly bloody slaughter by the film's end. Without a central figure as compelling as the Dear One or Babylon's Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge), the court intrigue becomes a bit opaque, delving too deeply into the minutiae of history without giving us someone lovable to root for.

But when it focuses on the modern and Bab- ylonian stories, the film soars. It's telling that in the role of the Dear One, Griffith cast Mae Marsh from his stable of performers instead of his usual go-to girl, Lillian Gish. For truly tragic suffering—and for an ideal of Victorian womanhood that existed only in Griffith's head—no one was better than Gish. But Marsh, with her kewpie doll face, bow-tie mouth and round, startled eyes, was better suited for a role that required joy, passion and an almost childlike innocence. Along with her work in Judith of Bethulia, The Birth of a Nation and Hoodoo Ann, this represents Marsh at the peak of her career.

The film's most unforgettable performance—and for me, the best in any film in 1916—came from Marsh's co-star, Constance Talmadge. In the Babylonian sequence of Intolerance, she plays "the Mountain Girl," a pretty, perky, petulant teenage beauty who finds herself fighting against a palace conspiracy that threatens to topple the kingdom. Wide-eyed and gangly-limbed, Talmadge is as hyperactive as a puppy amped up on kibble and amphetamines, windmilling her way across the screen, and you can't take your eyes off her. Neither could audiences in 1916 and she quickly became a star.

"[I]t's a mark of her skill," Eagan wrote, "that she stands out in a segment filled with orgies, sacrifices, semi-nudity, wild animals, and wholesale destruction."

In short, if you're a connoisseur of mind-blowing cinema, watch this D.W. Griffith epic and consider your mind blown. See you tomorrow—maybe.

1 comment:

Katie said...

The Monkey is busy doing other things so I thought I would give my review of the Intolerance with music performed by Boister Saturday at the Freed.

The movie was pretty much as the Monkey described it. "...a three-plus hour spectacle..." This wasn't the best silent movie I've ever seen (and living with the Monkey I've seen quite a few), but it wasn't bad either. I found Act II better than Act I. The set up in the first act was a little tedious and overdone, but the cutting and the action of Act II kept things moving quickly.

Unfortunately the music did not complement the movie. If you were there to listen to the band and the movie was just some video in the background, I guess it was enjoyable. (There were certainly many people who seemed to enjoy it.) Unfortunately, as a person who was primarily interested in the movie, the music didn't enhance what we were seeing on the screen, instead of enhancing the action on the screen it kept bringing me out of the moment. Hava Nagila at the celebration of Babylon, really? La Marseillaise for the Huguenots? Um, that's a couple of hundred years too early. The Beatles, The Clash, Pippin? I guess using recognizable modern music would have been ok if it was appropriate, but the choices Boister made weren't. (The music in the second half was also too loud, but that's an error of the technicians, not the musicians.)

The Monkey and I have now seen four silent movies with musical accompaniment. Three were a terrific experience, unfortunately this one wasn't. Too bad, but we'll keep going because seeing a silent movie in a theater with live musicians can be a great experience.