1916, D. W. Griffiths, starring up to 3,000 extras, but also Lillian Gish and Constance Talmadge (who I still have a thing against because she was the sister of Buster Keaton’s mean wife Natalie). I watched this online and at school waiting for my French class. I have to admit that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to the three hour run time, but realise that it is a crucial film to help me understand the progression of film. This is the only D W Griffith on the BFI list, I presume the distasteful nature of The Birth of a Nation made sure it wouldn’t make it.
This film constantly refers to itself as a ‘play’. I’m not sure if that is because it considered itself a photoplay or that it added some more gravitas. The idea of a play is continued in the stagey (if lush) sets and the mostly long-shot static camera (although excited to read the book I have just got on the cinematographer Billy Bitzer) However, there are some great forward tracking shots (to create the zoom effect that wasn’t around until 1932 for film cameras) and close-ups. I really like the painterly, soft-focus way that faces, especially the female faces have been filmed. I can see an enormous influence for F W Murnau in them. It feels like an ancient religious icon and you can see why people have classed this as a great piece of universal art, along with Beethoven’s 5th. It does have a timeless quality to it, despite not being well-received initially.
The narrative involves four different plots, that of ancient Babylon, Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, Renaissance France and modern America. I’m not sure that I would have spent my energy on all four as the modern day story is by far the most engaging because of the human interest. The Babylonian one has some amazing sets and I love the slaves opening the enormous gates and some of the fight sequences, but the French and Jerusalem settings do seem to be filling in time (oh so much time!) without adding much to the response. I definitely think I would agree with David Thomson’s analysis:
‘The cross-cutting, self-interrupting format is wearisome…. The sheer pretension is a roadblock, and one longs for the “Modern Story” to hold the screen…. [That story] is still very exciting in terms of its cross-cutting in the attempt to save the boy from the gallows. This episode is what Griffith did best: brilliant, modern suspense, geared up to rapidity — whenever Griffith let himself slow down he was yielding to bathos…. Anyone concerned with film history has to see Intolerance, and pass on’.
Other key things I liked or noticed:
- Griffiths creates easy pathos – ‘the little dear one’ and ‘brown eyes’ as names for some of the female characters. It also means it is universal, but also makes sure the spectator is aware of the response they should be having.
- Recurring theme of the cradle rocking to indicate universality.
- Impressive editing – love the irising, the complex cross-cutting and cross dissolves
- A lot of intertitles – have recently re-watched ‘Sunrise’ and am so impressed in the ability to not use them. Amazing matte paintings
- The dear one reminded me of Emily Watson
- Typical view of Jesus, liked the use of lighting on him
- In the harem dancing sequences, I liked the more realistic female bodies
- It is weird to think that this was going on at the same time as WW1
- Gets really exciting towards the end when they are trying to stop The Boy’s execution. Loved the camera following the speeding train.
A list of my intolerances (probably not as serious or universal, but I have many…)
A picture in soft focus.
A moving image that focuses on the set.