Even D.W. Griffith, the Monument Man, Couldn't Mask Ideology with Spectacle
Getting a primped-up, digitally-restored one-night screening at Film Forum this Tuesday (May 13), D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is all at once the Moloch of cineastical good intentions, the first great juggernaut of auteur ambition, and the largest experimental film ever made. It’s also a thunderstorm of cinematic dazzle. This restoration, already released on Blu-ray by Cohen Media, offers the most awesome presentation of the film seen anywhere since its initial run (which lasted, on and off, into the 1920s), and if your experience of it has previously been weathered 16mm prints or public-domain VHS copies, then even skeptics of DCP meta-archivalism (which "saves" the film as digital media, after all, not as anything physical) will have their breath stolen.
From the first modern-day ballroom scene (a deep-set composition learned from Feuillade and then tripled in size), to the Brueghelian crowd scenes in every segment, to the famous Babylon set, which remains stupefying and far more impressive than the entirety of The Lord of the Rings simply if not exclusively by virtue of it being 100% physically real, the movie commands space and scale like an advancing army. The first siege of Babylon by the Persians, particularly in the Dantean night scenes, is enough to make Intolerance a landmark of mise-en-scene spectacle, and if the Christ sequences and the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre thread are overshadowed, the famous and still bizarre weaving of the four narratives, leading to four separate climaxes, remains an inspired and fabulously crazy megamovie gambit.
Of course it’s such an edifice in the film culture landscape that addressing it anew is something like summarizing the Parthenon. (Not to mention, the usual tiresome Griffithisms are unavoidable – the laborious title-card explanations, some of them undiegetically bragging about the set design; the lame poetry; the heaven-help-us denouement, etc.) Sheer spectacle aside, looking at Intolerance again backlights its odd place in history – simply, that had it not been made as a Olympus-sized mea culpa by the same man who’d made The Birth of a Nation just one year before, it would not have been the subject of canonical arguments in the century that followed. But it was – and the stank of the earlier film will never dissipate, giving this modernist ogre the perpetual odor of desperate self-sanctification. The earlier film remains Intolerance’s bastard past, the legacy it could never live down.
All by itself, the preachifying do-goodism of the narrative assault was not all that unusual – in the first few decades, movies designed as blunt morality lessons, from Lois Weber’s Hypocrites (1915) to Robert Reinhardt’s Nerven (1919), were thick on the ground. But the temerity to essentially apologize for The Birth of a Nation’s catapulting racism and teary nostalgia for slavery with the Biggest Movie Ever Made, decrying exactly the kind of brutality you extolled the year before, still seems like a very large shovelful to swallow, and nobody can be blamed for not getting it down. Griffith, like Riefenstahl (and Michael Bay, Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Berg, et al.), cannot obscure ideology with spectacle, or hope that zesty, gorgeous filmmaking will negate the inherent ideological biases or intents, even if those biases or intents came rocketing out of the filmmaker’s other movies. In Griffith’s case, with Birth having possibly been seen by more people in its initial run than any other film ever made (records were not kept, but the estimates bury all comers), no apologia would suffice, even one as gargantuan as Intolerance.
But with that said, how about Griffith’s headline-ripped evocation of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in the modern-day narrative stream, assembled with proto-Soviet montage electricity? Using that fourth of the film to wail about a recent labor atrocity, and to publicly denounce coal industry godhead John D. Rockefeller Jr., was not a conservative or unrighteous move. Reportedly, even Lenin appreciated the moment when the film’s Rockefeller figure picks a coin up off the sidewalk with a satisfied flourish – explicitly referencing Rockefeller’s own often-told tale about how he started his empire, with a single found penny. Was Griffith – the Spielberg of his day, with the largest audience of any other single entertainer beside Chaplin – passionately antitrust and pro-labor, or a scrambling opportunist?
Intolerance famously crashed and burned in any case – name your box-office poison: sanctimony, length, the movie’s cinema-interruptus structural uniqueness, the lingering ethical unease left in a jaded public that by the time WWI was under way didn’t quite know how bad to feel about how excited they had been by Griffith’s previous epic. Griffith kept reediting Intolerance for subsequent rereleases, and even broke the film down for parts, stripping out two of its four strands and shaping them into features, none of which are worth much by themselves. Together, all of it is at least one of cinema’s great vexations, an astonishing and Herculean visual achievement cursed in various amplitudes by auteurism, guilt, memories of bigotry, evolving norms, and the power of cinema itself.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.