Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages

Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages ★★★★★

With the possible exception of True Heart Susie, Griffith's non-formal ideas never progressed past Victorian melodrama. So most of the ideas parlayed within the actual narratives of Intolerance are often precariously simple tales of heroes and villains - with the exception of the "Mother and the Law" sequence. Being that this section of the film was intended originally as a stand-alone feature (and eventually released as so with added footage in 1919) it makes sense that it's the only one which has any serious emotional impact within the individual segments it is chopped up into. However, this is not 'The Mother and the Law,' nor 'The Fall of Babylon,' but a film made of four stories which begin and end within and outside of each other. Even if some of the stories within the film reduce themselves to conventional melodrama, the structuralist whole of the film repudiates it - distancing itself from both these codified stereotypes and much of Griffith's prior work (ala BOAN). The works of DWG this has the most in common with are the more free-form works of 1909: not only is this the most ambitious film ever made, it's also a truly experimental one, with a budget that, for these kind of films, I wonder if we'll ever see again.

Granted, I think it's impossible to ignore Birth of a Nation completely if one intends on seriously writing on Intolerance. For about two and a half hours of that films 3 hour runtime, Griffith does not really 'innovate,' as much as flesh out experiments and techniques he had either learned or initiated within his time at Biograph. Cross-cutting too was something Griffith toyed with at that time, but then it was often with only two parallel sequences - BOAN ups it to four. It is exceedingly unfortunate that this final 30 minutes has to be the ride of the Klan - but to go into too much detail here would be avoiding Intolerance for too long, dealing with this and how our contemporary aesthetic principles derive from good vs. evil, quite literately black vs. white melodramatics deserves its own extended piece. However, it's necessary one stick to the form if one is to get to Intolerance. Within BOAN's final 30 minutes is the desire to create a operatic, Wagnerian cinema, Griffith's edit geography seems based on musical notation, the shot selection and placement resemble bars, hyper measures & key changes. Unsurprisingly, the sequence in the film was scored to Wagner upon it's original premiere, and based on how well it plays with it I wouldn't be surprised if Griffith was simply cutting to music. And while I do have great reservations saying this, it's imperative that one sticks to the form alone in this regard, because otherwise it would be impossible to understand the importance of Intolerance. Because it's these 30 minutes which form the entire structural foundation for Intolerance. It sounds almost maniacal at first - "Why intercut four sequences when you can intercut FOUR WHOLE CENTURIES!" And in a way that's telling of the broad generalizations of Griffith's ideas at this time in his career. But ideas can be one thing, and practicality another - and in that practical work one can find themselves conceiving of things they could have never dreamed of, whole new ideas can be formed, and whole new forms can be discovered.

Intolerance then, is possibly the first true work of total cinema, because it's narrative devices as a whole are propelled by montage and juxtaposition, rather than approaches from previously existent mediums. (or was it the concept of juxtaposition which gave birth to montage?) Immediately when comparing, it's evident that Griffith is probably not using musical notation as a model but is deliberately structuring a rhythm based upon the edits themselves from the prior picture. It's as though Griffith cut to a metronome slowly moving faster and faster - the only pattern here is the simple building of momentum, after an introductory section for the four segments, each sequence begin at a considerably slow pace, and gradually become shorter and shorter. This rhythm is only broken twice - the Babylon battle sequence in the middle of the film, and the murder of the Musketeer of the Slums which leads directly into the Boy's trial for his murder. Both of these are for good reason - both are formal peaks for the individual stories themselves - the former in terms of spectacle and the latter in terms of emotion.

Granted, some sequences seem to be there for the hell of it - the French St. Bartholomew's Day massacre story, which by itself is not even a film. And even less so the Jesus one, which barely takes up any of the films space. They are purely functional - they literately only exist as something for Griffith to cut to - which is perhaps why it works within this structural apparatus. The only times these sequences are effective are when they're being juxtaposed by a shot from an entirely other era. This free-associative cutting charts a series of options for Griffith the director: parallels, contrasts, (in fact these first two seem the entire purpose for the Jesus story) simple aesthetic beauty, sometimes the simple joy of a match cut itself. Other times, they provoke ones imagination - the Virgin Mary seated, rocking a cradle is (until the films last half hour, once again) used as a transition between time period..yet as the film advances, one feels the effect that they are watching Mary dreaming about the past and the future. A number of the most striking cuts comes when moving from the Modern section to the Jesus section - the Boy found guilty in his trial in the modern story juxtaposed with Jesus walking to his crucifixion, then later the Boy walking to his hanging juxtaposed with the crucifixion itself.

But, like that metronome speeding up, this film is going to soon move too fast for transitions - this films last half-hour remains fucking unbelievable, Griffith literately smash-cutting across centuries, faster and faster - this remains some of the most thrilling sections of movies as each of these stories drives to its climax. But outside of the actual effect of just watching it, what remains interesting is that Griffith ceases making any thematic parallels (outside of everything going to complete shit) and that these cuts are most often based on compositional matches. And it's this which also remains the most emotionally overwhelming component of the entire film, all the more striking because Griffith is not going for any clear denominator or thematic statement within these juxtapositions. Eventually the film seems to do all the work for itself - and perhaps because of the works structural approach it's only now that it begins to fully make sense, drift from form into emotion, and from emotion back into idea. I've seen this film numerous times since early adolescence, yet the suspense of the Modern story's concluding chase continues to kill me. We've just seen a political party massacre another one because of religious belief, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the fall of an entire civilization - what logical reason do we have to believe that a falsely accused Boy will be saved from hanging and that a poverty-stricken family will be reunited in 1916? The cuts make it feel as though Mae Marsh is racing against history itself. But they are reunited - and it feels like no deus-ex machina. It's hard to put this concluding segment into words, perhaps because that love rails so delebrirely against the other three stories, this history of destruction. The images are profound. But maybe it goes back to the structure - the Modern story was the only 'story' that was actually constructed as so. So of course it's going to end there, and it's tenderness is the heart of the movie.

"Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking.."

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