04 August 2008

Intolerance (1916)

d. D.W. Griffith / USA / 197 mins.

D.W. Griffith's Intolerance is the run-to movie for cineastes who want to champion the silent film director for his innovations, his influence, and his epic eye without being asked to defend the jaw-dropping racism of his previous film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). In many ways Intolerance plays out like a half-million-dollar (back when that was a hell of a lot of money), three-hour apology; Griffith was supposedly shocked by the criticism of The Birth of a Nation (What? Suggesting the Klan brought order to the post-war South is controversial?) and saw the opportunity in this endeavor to qualm the chorus by making a film that indicts the ruthless cold-heartedness of government tyranny and puritanical ideologues. In other words: intolerance is bad.

Like most apologies though, some parts of Intolerance are more palatable than others; it is an extravagant and cinematically ambitious film, although nowhere near the masterpiece status thrown on it. Woven together are four stories from four different time periods, intended to show the destructive nature of intolerance (not racial intolerance, mind you, which would have been an actual apology for The Birth of a Nation, but rather government versus the common-man intolerance). In reverse chronological order, we have a modern day tale of lovers torn apart by a society that thinks it knows what's best for them; a tale of the religious persecution of Protestants by Catholics in 16th-century France; a passion play of Christ's good deeds and then his crucifixion; and finally the fight to keep the peaceful Babylonian empire afloat against crusading high priests.

The woven structure seems unintentionally to call more attention to the parts as individuals instead of working together as a whole. The Babylon segment is most entertaining and the most successful. (It could have been a film by itself, which Griffith later realized. He edited the segment out of the film and released it alone to compensate for poor box office performance.) The passion play is the most intriguing story, particularly when you consider how Griffith might have produced it had it been his exclusive focus. As it stands, however, it's also the shortest of the four and barely makes its mark on the film; in all reality, it seems like it was only included so Griffith could cross-cut the trial of a modern character with Christ's, which creates an unnecessarily inflated and pompous analogy. The French segment is far and away the least interesting of the four and probably shouldn't have been included at all, or if necessary then should have been scaled down. The "modern" segment – two people adrift in a value-pushing society – is the longest of all the segments, but also the most overwrought. It was Griffith's true interest, evidenced by its spacious screen time; before starting what would become Intolerance, the modern segment was meant to be an entire film, with the working title "The Mother and the Law."

Griffith's pride in Intolerance is visible in the title cards, which note how painstakingly accurate the recreated customs or built set is. The mise-en-scene is impressive, particularly in the Babylon story, which was at the time the largest set produced in Hollywood. The editing is daring, but by drawing attention to the disparate stories it creates an effect that is thoroughly uneven. Ironically, being an influential filmmaker doesn't necessarily equate to being a brilliant storyteller; it's the unevenness that makes Intolerance falter (not to mention its running time, which believe it or not is longer than the corpulence of The Birth of a Nation). Like Griffith's other films, Intolerance suitable for those interested in film history, and the Babylon sequence is worth your attention alone, but you won't feel compelled to watch again.


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