Sunday, May 27, 2012

Intolerance: An Example of Astonishing Film Quality from 1916

Embarking on an interesting film journey this summer, our family is watching a film festival of mostly American classics, beginning with early silent films and working our way forward in time though classic directors, actors and productions.

Tonight's entry: "Intolerance," a three hour epic from D.W. Griffith that --I now understand why-- is spoken of as his true masterwork. This viewing has been an eye-opening and fascinating experience.

"Intolerance" is simply stunning in its ability to tell a compelling story. It is still moving, nearly a century after its creation. I am blown away by the production values and spectacle of this 1916 film including its sets, sheer number of performers, and quality of acting, not to mention use of special effects and transitions that had to have been in their infancy at this time. The sets (indoor and out) are well-built and complete and the acting is nuanced and suited to the medium.  It is all shockingly good, even by today's standards.

The fully developed artistic expression is remarkable, given that just a dozen years prior to this film, "The Great Train Robbery" is often credited as being the first film to even tell a narrative story. How quickly film, as a form of expression took root and grew in depth from those first days. Here Griffith weaves together four vignetted stories from four periods of history including the 'present day'. He uses different monochrome tones (sepia, green, red and blue) to distinguish his four stories and weaves them all together through overarching themes of motherhood and, of course, intolerance.

Clearly the greatest hurdle to a modern viewer in tackling a film such as "Intolerance" has to be the oddity that is watching a movie without dialog. And I have never considered myself a fan of silent film. In fact, I'm not sure that prior to this week I've even watched an entire silent picture all the way through. When I was a girl, they played the genre sometimes on TV and I always ran screaming. But with the few showings I've got under my belt now, I've come to realize that I appreciate the calmer pace of the story teling and the more active way you have to watch to make meaning. I am also very impressed with the actors who must convey not just emotion without words, but also action and plot, with very little help -- although the music and snippets of written material are integral in storytelling too. Another thing to appreciate with pre-Code films is how very loose and bawdy the costumes and themes are, relative to anything you might have come to know and enjoy in motion picture classics after the Production Code started to be enforced in the early 1930s. These early pictures are gritty, seductive, and earthy to a degree that was not seen again on the silver screen until at least the late 1950s.

Another eye-opening piece of the experience has been the superb technical quality of the film itself. I mean that the actual ability of this early celluloid to capture images is remarkable. I guess I had pretty low expectations. Sure there are lines and flashes of light and random dots and marks that show up, but the basic resolution and clarity of the filmed scenes is nothing short of spectacular. Watching this on Netflix on my rather large modern TV, I am in awe of the clarity of detail in the background. Some of the closeups show actors in such loving detail and high resolution, that you can picture them sitting in the room with you. It is really quite beautiful.

Not the least of the thrills with a film like this, is the amazing transportation into a different time period. I am a huge fan of period drama for this reason. But period drama, by its nature, necessitates that the given period be faked by a much more modern filmmaker. However, when a film is made in 1916, things that are set in the "present" cannot help but be the most stunningly accurate portrayal possible of the period "1916". Its rather heady stuff, to time travel junkies like me. And it sets up some powerful reflections. For instance, in "Intolerance," when the modern vignette shows labor/management dissent and riot, it is especially poignant to imagine the actual status of the labor movement (including these actors) at the time this picture was filmed. How very different the working world of cinema had to have been then. What working conditions and safety standards did Lilian Gish & Co endure while making Intolerance? Watching a history that the filmmakers themselves were enmeshed in is a fascinating study.

Exploration into the depths of silent film is not for everyone. But if you want to try a new take on an old art form, I would highly recommend it. Give yourself a film or two to reset your ears and your expectations and pick a nice quiet comfortable place to sit and indulge. If you find you enjoy the world of silents, there are countless hours of quality movies just waiting to be watched! (And chances are many of them beat cold anything showing on American TV tonight).

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