Throughout history some things never change.
What we call “justice” isn’t always just. We can only respect a person of opposing beliefs so much, until we will quietly mutter that we wish they believed what we did. Those with the moral high ground will impose their will upon those they deem “unfortunate”.
These shortcomings and many more will cause us mere mortals to fuck-up. Again, and again, and again…
D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE is the marriage of four separate narratives that share a few common themes. Think of it as the BABEL of its day.
In one thread we go to a stunning recreation of ancient Babylon, watching the city fall as warring factions who worship conflicting gods battle for control of it all.
In another thread, we skip forward to the time of Christ, watching him turn water into wine at a wedding and spare a woman from a public stoning by asking who amongst those gathered was without sin.
In the next, we are jogged several centuries closer to the present and land in 16th Century France. In this narrative, we witness a massacre of French Protestants (“Huguenots”) at the hands of the ruling Catholics.
Finally, in the most in-depth of the four narrative threads, we watch life in a 20th Century American City. Judgement abounds over sex, liquor, dancing, and dancing…with puritanism still holding America with a vicious grip (remember that Prohibition was still to come). In this thread we watch as workers struggle for basic rights, the poor turning to lives of crime, and standing judgement from those that believe they know better. At the story’s most intolerant, a woman’s baby is taken from her by those who (incorrectly) believe she is an unfit mother.
The film remains an incredible watch – an insane marriage of spectacle and substance. One imagines that it was the TITANIC of its day; recreating visions thought long-gone, and interlacing them with story and symbolism.
It was one of the tougher watches of this series so far, but handily one of the most enlightening.
What might be the most interesting thing about INTOLERANCE is the legacy it has left as something of a declaration of principles. There’s the misconception that INTOLERANCE is something of an apology for the hella-racism in THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
That wasn’t the case.
Instead, what INTOLERANCE was hoping to argue was that the people who criticized NATION as a film, and Griffith as an artist were, themselves, being intolerant. So if you’re keeping score at home, INTOLERANCE might serve as the first double-down in the history of cinema.
What’s amazing though – and what has led to the misconception – is how Griffith inadvertently created something that would persevere. His concept, no matter how facile, is one that had riddled so much of human history and that would continue to plague us a whole century later. Where his previous film seemed so horribly stuck in the past, just one year later he gave the world something that went even further into the past and could push forward into the future.
It leads one to wonder what will happen to the controversial works of the present as the years pass. Will they be lost to time? Their messages and their notoriety fading as the men who make them and the controversies they court fade from public consciousness? Or will they be turned into something other? Cautionary tales…precedents…”what the artist meant was…”?
Context is key in going beyond what is contained on the screen, and sometimes that context can be lost – especially in an age where we become so attention deprived.
But speaking of what happens on the screen…
What is always amazing in a film like INTOLERANCE is bearing witness to the small moments that seem so freakishly ahead of their time. Late in the story of The Dear One, a woman we only ever know as “The Friendless One” approaches the camera, and openly weeps. The lighting on her becomes so much more dynamic than most of what we’ve seen over more than two hours, and this singular moment becomes so striking.
The moment (a still frame of which can be seen below), is as modern as anything hanging in The Museum of Modern Art. It could handily be an interstitial in a Steve McQueen movie…or the opening shot of a Radiohead video.
At a time where film audiences and critics were just trying to get used to the medium, Griffith has the forethought to show what it will one day be capable of doing. It stands in such stark contrast to all of those parades and battles, and its brevity almost makes it feel like an accident. And yet, a century later it could not seem more deliberate.
For me, moments like that are why I feel the need to keep up with this series – to watch all of these “essentials” for myself. It’s less about the “Rosebuds” and more about the fable of the woman with the white parasol. Small moments can have great impact, but we have to surrender ourselves to them and give them our full attention. We have to put aside what we have read about and heard discussed and wander the gallery salons for ourselves.
We need to put down our electronic do-dad’s and look at the brushstrokes with our own eyes. Only then do we notice these sorts of amazing anomalies…only then do we realize their vision of days to come.
Like just about everyone else who sees this film, I will forever carry the image of the woman rocking the cradle with me. It’s so simple, so powerful. She always seems to return when things are getting the most intense…the most chaotic.
For me, that woman will remain a touchstone because of what she represents – that calming influence, that steadiness. She is the candle in the darkness, the calm at the centre of the storm. She is hope personified in a way that we all experience in our lives if only for a brief moment.
In a way, I feel like film itself can be that touchstone; that woman rocking the cradle. It can salve our wounds, and comfort us at our most distressed. Whether it brings us catharsis in the dark of a huge auditorium, or from the gentle glow of our laptop screens – film has an intimacy that few other art forms do, and a way of isolating us with what is most pressing on our minds.
The woman at the cradle is film at its most transcendent. It’s far above the commercial intents of the studios and the holders of property, and instead embodies the ability of the medium to truly affect its audience.
100 years ago, the woman at the cradle was what D.W. Griffith wanted in his heart of hearts to be. Whether or not he got there, and certainly how he got there is another matter…but striving to be that cannot be understated.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for September so far…
Erin watched IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PARTS I & II
Keisha watched THE GREEN MILE
Coog watched LA HAINE
Dell watched ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
Katie watched RUSSIAN ARK
Jay watched DAS BOOT
Natasha watched ALIEN
Brittani watched THE APARTMENT
Sean watched THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
Kevin watched DR. STRANGELOVE
Steven watched COME AND SEE
Kristina watched PLAY TIME
Zoë watched INSOMNIA (2002)