A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)

At the New York Film Festival, Ang Lee recently premiered his new movie, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which he shot in 3D with 4k resolution at 140 frames per second -- the usual frame rate for movies is 24 frames per second. The result is said to be "hyperreal," but almost all the critics who saw it said the technology was a distraction, involving the audiences much more in the visuals than in the story. One critic commented that "the distracting unpleasantness of [Lee's] movie's highly attuned visual clarity makes for an undiscerning and artificial experience the eye just won't follow." Watching the hundred-year-old Intolerance last night, I wondered if viewers of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 2116 might find such criticisms of its technological innovations as shortsighted as we now do those of audiences who objected to D.W. Griffith's narrative innovations in Intolerance. Griffith told four stories in his film, each set in a different era, and constantly cut between each of them. We're used to that way of finding a unity in multiple stories, having seen it in films as various as Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999), to name a couple of more recent examples, but audiences in 1916 were unready for Griffith's attempt at it, and the hugely ambitious and expensive film was a calamitous flop that the director paid for throughout the rest of his life. To some extent I sympathize with those original audiences: The constant cutting from story to story is often frustrating and annoying, but not so much because of the cutting as because half of the stories are not well-told. The scenes from the life of Jesus are too familiar and too scattershot to develop any dramatic tension, and the part that deals with the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre is muddled by a lack of involvement with the characters. (Each sequence, incidentally, features a performer who would last well into the sound era: Bessie Love, wearing an improbable pointed headdress, plays the bride of Cana, and a surprisingly slim Eugene Pallette plays Prosper, who meets his fate on St. Bartholomew's Day.) The Babylonian sequence and the "modern" story are the two that work the best. The former succeeds because of its wild spectacle, centering on probably the most famous set ever built for a movie. It was perhaps inevitable that the sequence should turn into a series of tableaus, with a cast of thousands striking what seem to us affected poses, but were really based on 19th-century historical genre paintings. (See below.)  Constance Talmadge overdoes the striding about that's meant to suggest the Mountain Girl is a liberated woman, the equal of any man, but she's fun to watch. The modern sequence is the only one with developed and interesting characters, even if some of the acting takes time to get used to. Mae Marsh jumps around goofily to suggest the Dear One's joie de vivre, but when she settles down and starts suffering, she becomes quite touching as the woman whose husband (Robert Harron) is wrongly imprisoned and who loses her baby to well-meaning but puritanical do-gooders. And Miriam Cooper gives the film's best performance -- that is to say, the one that looks most natural to contemporary eyes -- as the Friendless One. Still, the star of the show is Griffith himself, demonstrating his mastery at building suspense with the intertwined conclusions of the French, Babylonian, and modern sequences. We can laugh at the final scene of the heavenly host bringing peace to a war-torn world, but it must have had a different effect on audiences in the midst of World War I.
The Belshazzar's Feast set for Intolerance
Edwin Long, The Babylonian Marriage Market, 1875.



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