If you have not seen D.W. Griffith's Intolerance since film school, or film appreciation class, or years ago on public television, etc., or worse yet (or maybe better yet, as it happens) have never seen it at all, get yourself down to Manhattan's Film Forum starting tomorrow and catch it, in a stunning new restoration released by The Cohen Film Collection. It is nearly one hundred years old and I will put money down that it will be the most spectacularly vital film running theatrically in the five buroughs as of its first screening.
Why? Well, it's not just the structure: in making this ostensible "answer picture" to the (completely justified) protests pertaining to his 1915 The Birth of a Nation, Griffith conceived four tales of this movie's title theme, each set in a different age and place, and interwove them cinematically, with one of the key effects being, as Kevin Brownlow has so memorably described, a sweeping up of the viewer into four separate and equally engrossing climaxes in the film's final third. This was/is admitedly a daring storytelling gambit, and not a whole lot of conventional narrative filmmakers have tried to meet this challenge since (although in a mildly ironic coincidence, noted Griffith disapprover Quentin Tarantino has performed structural tricks that Intolerance certainly set a kind of precedent for, in both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown). That's the thing I absorbed pretty well on my first screening of Intolerance long ago, so it didn't knock me out this time around. Nor, for that matter, did the content, although it is quite fascinationg. The discursive "modern day" story finds Griffith wrestling with his inner Victorian to concoct a condemnation of priggish reformers. The conception of the fall of Babylon has an interesting proto-feminist component in the person of a character named "Mountain Girl." And so on. All good stuff. Pauline Kael has noted that the film contains the seeds of every kind of silent and then sound studio film that came immediately after it. And more than that: the movie has surprising scenes of nudity, quasi-nudity, and extreme violence and gore. There's a beheading or two; the effects for these are not particularly convincing, but hey, they were in there pitching. In this respect, and given the movie's still staggering scale of spectacle and set-construction (it's almost impossible to believe that Griffith conceived, produced, shot, edited, and released such an elaborate movie in a mere year after his prior one), what Kael says still goes.
So there's all that, and it's all incredible and impressive and really really beautiful in the new restored version, and the Carl Davis orchestral score accompanying it all is apt and effective. But what really killed me on seeing the movie was the elasticity and innovation of its cinematic language. Both the freedom and the concentration with which Griffith composes his images and orchestrates their effects is constantly dazzling. His master shots are often in the standard mode of his day. In the scenes in the contemporary story, for instance, the action in the apartment of the characters called The Dear One and The Boy is conveyed by means of a relatively tight medium shot, and briskly carried out by the actors, but the things Griffith does to underscore particular actions are extraordinary. When The Dear One (Mae Marsh) learns that her beloved is going to the gallows, after a seemingly final appeal has been exhausted, the film conveys her despair by having her walk directly toward the camera, until her face is in a close up that nearly fills the frame, and of course the lens has been losing focus the closer and closer the performer gets to it. Watching it, the viewer is almost moved to rear back a little, so overwhelming is the deceptively simple effect. Elsewhere, particularly in scenes of ancient Babylon, Griffith breaks up his frame using optical variants of the iris-in/iris-out effect. Not settling for mere circles, Griffith throws in diamond shapes, diagonally blocks off two corresponding corners, and so on. These are old, relatively "crude" effects but I found them startling in their expressiveness. Was it, I wondered, a case of the effects being so old that they seemed new? No, I don't think so. I think it's more the case that narrative cinema has become so much a slave to a certain idea of verisimilitude that certain varieties of visual expressiveness have been squelched. (Antonioni, of course, was an active and innovative proponent of the fragmented frame, but he acheived his effects via architecture and interior design.)
In Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer With The Danish Filmmaker, Jan Wahl's splendid, and just recently published, account, Wahl recalls that great director's thoughts on this Griffith film: "Dreyer first viewed [...] Intolerance as a young man in 1916. To this day, it remains a staggering display of massive architecture, tremendous crowds (all real —no digital fakery or Schüftan process), a huge creation crying out against Tyranny and Injustice—an experiment employing new devices of cutting, framing, angles, inventing techniques as needed. According to Dreyer's own words, 'I went home completely dazed, overwhelmed by a new rhythm and the number of close-ups. In particular those of Lillian Gish at the conclusion.' [...] On that night, Dreyer became aware of how far one might aim in the medium." I think that Intolerance still retains the power to instill that awareness.