Wednesday, September 9, 2015

AFI Top 100: #49 "Intolerance"

Intolerance (1916)

It's happened. We've made it to the oldest film on the AFI Top 100 list, a movie acting as a clear replacement for one that deserved the spot more, but was too racist to be acknowledged by any film institute without backlash. Coming in at #49 is D.W. Griffith's epic tale of history, love, and intolerance, aptly titled... Intolerance, from 1916. What should have been it's place, you might ask? None other than Griffith's previous film, 1915's The Birth of a Nationa far superior film, but one so controversial, Griffith quite literally made Intolerance as a response to his critics for being soyou guessed it! Intolerant of his views! Get used to it, I'm gonna be saying that word a lot, which won't be half as much as this movie said it.

With an understandable need to represent a groundbreaking filmmaker like Griffith without igniting the same level of controversy for praising him, the AFI shoehorned Intolerance on here, and as a result, forced me to endure it. And at nearly 3 hours, it was no easy task. It watches like a silent Cloud Atlas, which for me, is hardly an invitation for excitement.

The concept of the film is a such: a present-day struggle featuring a woman who has her husband and baby taken away unjustly is juxtaposed with three tales of love and intolerance from throughout history. 1) The story of the fall of Babylon, 2) the persecution and death of Jesus Christ, and 3) the unrest and impending massacre in 16th century Paris. Woven into each of these tales is a more personalized story of a relationship doomed by the circumstances of their surroundings.

The movie's sometimes-used subtitle is Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages, adding to its heavy-handedness. The title cards, performances, editing, all of it can't wait to remind you that this is a movie about human beings struggling with intolerant societies. The title cards even have extensive footnotes, leaving little to nothing to the imagination. To say this movie lacks subtlety is an understatement. It becomes clear very early on that turn-of-the-century audiences needed quite a bit of hand-holding when it came to story told through moving pictures. This isn't a surprise, of course. The concept of editing two different shots together to suggest a cohesive meaning was only a few years old, as it was.

With character names like "The Friendless One" (Miriam Cooper) and "The Woman Who Rocks the Cradle" (played unrecognizably by the world's first movie star and Griffith favorite, Lillian Gish), it's like the movie knew that we wouldn't be able to keep track of everyone. Gish, who starred prominently in The Birth of a Nation, is featured here in an important, albeit nearly invisible role, as a woman who quite literally rocks a cradle, representing the passage of time. What sounds like it's meant to be poetic and deep comes off sounding contrite and unnecessary. To once again quote David Schmader, "the subtext is staggering, until you realize... that there is no subtext." 

Depending on the version that you watch, the quality of the film makes it difficult to follow along with the action and the characters. This is not a movie for newbies to Silent cinema, as the flickering of the lighting and the spattering nature of the film reel can be very jarring. This isn't actually the movie's fault, of course, and if you can push through the trial of actually paying attention, you will notice stunning costuming, inventive choreography (aka stage fighting), and sensual performances. I only wish it'd been easier to notice those things.

What is obvious is that Griffith used story as an excuse to create lavish, decadent set pieces that rival that of Ben-Hur. The tableaus are so expansive, so intricately constructed that there are moments where looking at them is quite literally awe-inspiring. These moments occur more towards the end of the film, when the story picks up a bit and scenes are constructed like something out of a painting. The Babylonian sequence is far and away the best, featuring the most compelling story and visuals the film has to offer. Griffith spared no expense putting this part of his vision together, and it's gone down in history as an apex of silent film cinema.

I'm not beyond appreciating a movie that I didn't enjoy watching, but I'm baffled about this one's presence on this list. Unlike other flicks I hate that are often heralded, this one is a conundrum. In my four years as a film major in undergrad, this Griffith film wasn't mentioned once. Not one time. Birth of a Nation? Probably 100 times in every history class. But not Intolerance. It may well be equally as epic, but the story is confounding. It's desperate, but makes no effort to take its time and involve you due to Griffith's focus on the scope, which is undoubtedly impressive. As a representative of the Silent era, Sunrise does a pretty darn good job. Intolerance is a concession, a less controversial shout-out to its director.

If you feel so compelled, or your interest was peeked, I certainly think it never hurts to see a movie for yourself. Luckily for you, like many old silent movies, this one is available in its entirety on YouTube here (an edited and beautiful, better-than-Netflix HD render) and here (the grainier, long version). Give it a go and see if you agree with me, or if you think I've been overly harsh.

Rating★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Triangle Film Corporation]

Check back next time for #48 on the list, Rear Window — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us

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