Friday, July 1, 2011

Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages

Year: 1916
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 49
Writer: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos
Director: D.W. Griffith
Star: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Margery Wilson

Well, that was an ordeal.

Three plus hours. Four distinctive storylines spanning thousands of years. Innumerable variations on the word “Intolerance.” Babylon. Beheadings. Jesus. Wine. Angry Catholics. Hopeful geraniums. Cars racing trains. Lillian Gish rocking that damn cradle.

To steal a quote from the esteemed Dr. Ian Malcolm, it seems that the filmmakers “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

There’s one heck of a lot here. Writer/Director D.W. Griffith (in case we forget that at any point in the movie, he makes sure to remind us by stamping his initials on the bottom of every title card) gives us four stories of intolerance throughout history. The first is about the fall of Babylon at the hands of the Persians. The second is about Jesus. The third is about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the final one tells of a family trying to live despite outside forces conspiring for their downfall.

The intercutting between these four stories doesn’t work, plain and simple. Yes, intercutting between several subplots that touch upon a similar theme to create a cohesive film has been used before (“Crash,” “Short Cuts”) and used well, but the stories are so dissimilar here and the intercutting so random and oddly timed that all it accomplishes is frustration and the immediate destruction of whatever tension had been built.

Even worse is the method Griffith uses to cut from story to story. It’s Lillian Gish rocking a cradle. And rocking. And rocking. It feels like she rocks that damn cradle for an hour of the movie’s three hour running time (obviously not, but it feels that way), and at times she’s rocking that cradle so intensely any child inside would be dead from being thrown back and forth against the wood. Yeah, it’s a metaphor, I get it. But it’s a bad metaphor and all it adds to the film is the possibility of a drinking game that could end in alcohol poisoning.

Why did Griffith feel the need to create four movies instead of just one? One really well-done movie about intolerance would be so much better than two pretty-well-realized stories and two tedious messes. The Christ subplot and the Massacre subplot are treated as superfluous throughout, almost to the point where we forget they exist until they appear again. The Massacre one in particular is bad. Really bad. The acting here, especially that of the Queen, is so hammy and overdone (and I’m saying this understanding the different styles of acting in silent films) that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. Even the quite daring development of killing off the main characters at the end of the Massacre arc is nulled since the same thing happens in the Babylon arc.

The “modern” storyline is just depressing. Really, how much abuse can these poor people take before the viewer just stops caring and tunes out. The main character is called the Dear One and here’s what happens to her over the course of the arc. Her father loses his job. Her father dies. She falls in love with a criminal. Just as her criminal boyfriend goes straight, he is framed for theft and sent to prison. She has a child while the now-husband is behind bars. She gets a cold. Her child is taken away from her. She is almost raped. Her husband, who just got out of prison, is charged with the murder of her near-rapist. Her husband is sentenced to death. The Governor denies her pleas to stop the hanging. I love a melodrama as much as the next Douglas Sirk fan, but this is too much. Tyler Perry would watch this and say “Whoa dude, maybe you should simmer this down a little bit.”

The Babylon storyline held my interest the most, not because the characters were engaging or the storyline moved me, but because there were plenty of neat toys and sets to oogle. The main city set is probably one of the coolest images ever put on film, and the battle scenes are fantastically choreographed and shot on a beautiful, epic scale. Griffith also is not afraid to shy away from the violence, showing multiple beheadings, stabbings and spearings during the invasion scenes, which have a surprising impact, perhaps because I was expecting none.

The title cards are also troublesome, beginning with the fact that there are so many of them. In the same way that the intercutting made the tension lax, the numerous cards do it in lesser ways. It’s also that the cards are so unnecessary in most cases. Some have trivia and tidbits that Griffith thought we might find interesting, like that each man in an army must perspire every day. Others just blatantly state stuff we are seeing on the screen. We don’t need a card telling us the wedding just ran out of wine if we are seeing characters tipping over wine jugs and realizing they are empty. Others are just inadvertently funny, as when a card simply says “the hopeful geranium” or the many, many, many times Griffith uses the word “intolerance” or some variation of the word that isn’t really a word (“he was intolerated for a term”).

No discussion of the movie would be complete without mentioning its close association with “Birth of a Nation” (unseen by me) and “Broken Blossoms.” There are black men in “Intolerance” in the Babylon plot, but they are called Barbarians and have horrible, cliché tribal costumes and markings. They also don’t look happy, possibly because they saw “Birth of a Nation.” I’ve read multiple times that this is Griffith’s apology for his portrayal of black people in “Birth,” but though I understand that point-of-view, I’m not sure I agree with it. Perhaps instead of apologizing, he’s simply stating that he did not appreciate the “intolerance” his last movie received from sane people everywhere. But I write that knowing that “Broken Blossoms” showed us the first interracial romance ever on film, even if the Asian man in the film was played by a white man and had an opium addiction. How muddied the water gets the more you try to see through it.

I had the distinct feeling that I was being preached at for almost all of “Intolerance.” But to what end? Isn’t this movie, by its very definition, preaching to the choir? What person is going to go into a movie called “Intolerance” and think “I wonder if being intolerant of other people is a good or evil thing?” In case you couldn’t tell from the first few paragraphs, the moral of the movie is that intolerance is bad. I have told you, in the two seconds you took to read that last sentence, what Griffith takes over three hours to convey. Thank me later.

My Score (out of 5): *1/2

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