This week, I had the nerdiest argument I have had in some time, and I feel like the subject is worthy of a blogpost. So here we go.
I fucking love silent film. There is a magic and an excitement to it.
When everything is new in cinema, people push the boundries. And that leads to wonderous deeds. Narrative wasn’t necessarily as important as wonder. Making something really interesting.
But, silent cinema is not without its dogs. Which brings me to this discussion.
Everyone knows Birth of a Nation. It’s in the cultural zeitgeist still today Its a touchstone for how widespread racism actually is in this country. Its the first film shown at the White House (emphasis on white) and the highest grossing film of all time until Gone with the Wind (also racist).
In film school, they teach Birth of a Nation primarily because it invented the chase scene. More correctly, it invented the narrative language we use around action scenes. The fact that something can happen in one area, while someone else is coming from another area, and you can cut back and forth between them. No one had done that till D. W. Griffith. At least, in that clean of an editorial way.
So, you can’t avoid Birth of a Nation. It is THE racial cultural oddity that people always harken back to.
But, I will bet you didn’t know, fuckin D. W. Griffith actually got backlash back in the day. In an effort to prove…..ostensibly how not racist he was ? (to this day, I am still not sure why the fuck he did it. He states his reasons at the front of the film, and I don’t buy them), he made another movie.
That movie is Intolerance.
And it fucking sucks
This film is trash. Let me get this out of the way up front. On the Ebert scale, I would give it 1.5/4, and I will explain why later on. Someone asked me if I thought it was a better movie than Birth. And I said, that is a question wrongly asked. Birth deserves no rating. People don’t watch it for reasons that people watch film. They watch it because he invented the chase sequence lexicon that we use today, and because its one of the many cultural touchstones that show how ingrained racism is into America. It doesn’t deserve a rating.
Said differently, they are both shit, Birth is obviously worse, but thats not what this is about.
This post is about Intolerance.
To save you three hours, its a fucking Cloud Atlas style between four time periods showing how people were always intolerant (natch) of some “other.” It’s whataboutism the movie. It doesn’t come to any kind of conclusion other than “lets all try to be better maybe.” Which is not a real argument at all. Its kind of like, “Yup, we were all shitty. Don’t worry about the 3 hour hero worship film I did about racism”
Plus, the film is about as interesting as watching paint dry. It has neither scope nor vision. Its a series of boring events done by boring people.
And look, silent epics don’t have to be boring. Look at Napoleon.
That film is FIVE HOURS long, but its compelling all the way through. And it has technique worth studying in film.
Someone told me that Intolerance was a must watch for film students. I completely disagree.
There is a TON of fantastic silents out there. Tons of them. And Intolerance doesn’t teach anything. Every technique in there someone else had already done (including Griffith himself), but better.
So, in summary, fuck Intolerance, watch Un Chien Andalou instead.