Category Archives: USA

6. Joint 93rd – ‘Intolerance’

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.

Creative ideas:

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.

2. Joint 93rd – ‘Imitation Of Life’

Very comfy for a lush melodrama on a cold October night

I was very pleased to have ‘Imitation of Life’ as my second film of the top 100 to watch.  I had watched a couple of Douglas Sirk films (‘All That Heaven Allows’ and another one…) and enjoyed the decadent, hyperbole of the melodrama.  Unfortunately, as soon as I pressed play, I realised that the other Sirk film I had seen was this one!  Of course I would have watched it anyway (I’ve probably watched 50% of the top 100 before) and I am now looking at it for different reasons, but I couldn’t believe I had forgotten a film I saw in the last year.  My brain is clearly packing up.  Anyway, Kate and I settled in with some lovely food (always on offer at her house) and some pink fizz to suit the 50s tone.

I was very impressed with the way the film dealt with some major issues (harassment, sexism, racism, the role of women and the struggle of everyday working-class American life) in a straight-forward and adult way.  Occasionally it was a little heavy-handed, but the strong female characters were engaging and it was interesting that Lora and Annie were almost allowed to be more complex because they are widows, they are removed from the girlish romantic storylines of conventional Hollywood.

I started to investigate Sirk, who is an engaging Hollywood character.  He was born in Germany to Danish parents and was always an outsider in Hollywood.  He had to leave Germany in the 1930s as his second wife was Jewish.  With this outsider view he was able to see the excesses and hypocrisies within his adopted culture and create some ‘paradigmatic dissections of conformist 1950s American society.’  On his retirement after this film in 1959, he was considered a second or third rate director, although very popular at the box office. ‘Cahiers du Cinema’ and Godard revered him as an auteur and created his current reputation.  I am always really interested when critics re-evaluate artists and re-write film history.  Throughout his career, he focussed on cultural mores, constraint and repression.  This repression is obvious in the mise-en-scene in ‘Imitation of Life’ with the use of ceilings, low angles and placement of things in front of the camera (banisters, fences etc.).  There are a lot of fragmenting lines.  The female characters are also always physically corseted and constrained by their clothing.  The reflection of society is potentially represented in the multiple scenes where characters are seen as reflections in mirrors or shop windows.

I thought some of the acting was great – particularly from Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner.  Mahalia Jackson is amazing when she sings ‘Troubles of this World’ at the funeral.  A YouTube clip that I sent my dad (a big Mahalia fan) last time I watched the film!

Only at the end can Lora (Lana Turner) be the proper mother of Susie and Sarah-Jane – she had drafted out those duties to Annie, Juanita Moore’s character.  Is this a comment on women’s possibility to have a career and be a mother?

Ideas for creativity:

  • Colours – bright reds/dove grey
  • Lush Technicolor photography
  • Very forced/artificial/consciously fake – the painted backdrops
  • Spotlight lighting
  • Long depth of field
  • Vaseline on the lens/soft focus (especially on Lana Turner)
  • Static cinematography to focus on the lush sets.
  • A painterly quality – Sirk was influenced by Delacroix and Daumier.

Details of the film:  USA, 1959, Universal. Directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore

Details of viewing: 22nd October, with Kate at her house in Stanwick on DVD.