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03.04.09

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Phaedra

CUE THE ELEPHANTS: D.W. Griffiths' 'Intolerance' was an epic on a scale rarely achieved in cinema.

Babylon Revisited

D.W. Gritffiths' 'Intolerance' gets big-screen treatment at Cinequest

By Richard von Busack


LEAVE IT to Orson. The 2002 Kino DVD release of Intolerance has a snippet of 1970s Welles saying that "parts of it were dusty even at the time; parts of it would still be fresh tomorrow." D.W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance is not as dusty as it seems; it's so much more than a white elephant. True, there are moments of tableaux vivants and processionals with the camera frozen before the proscenium arch. Then, without warning: some heart-stopping moment of acting.

Just as the Old Masters were never wrong about suffering, neither were the Victorians wrong about the effects of sudden death on the survivor. Check the De Niro–ish performance by Robert Harron as the Boy who loses his father in the modern sequence of this multistrand epic. Or, when Mae Marsh goes straight from delight in her baby (gnawing ogrishly on its toes) to bereaved mother, the effect is emotional whiplash: it gets sobs out of you before you know what happened.

Griffith takes this comparative essay on inhumanity from a religious turf war in ancient Babylon to biblical Judea to 17th-century France and finally to a modern slum of 1916. The tales are knitted together by Lillian Gish sitting at the Cradle of Man, visually illustrating a quote from Leaves of Grass, as the Three Fates watch in the background. Essential to Griffith's subject is, strangely, Prohibition. The director's own intolerance shows up in his caricatured mannish "reformers." You can't expect restraint from a Kentuckian describing someone trying to get between him and his bourbon.

A great deal of Intolerance's wrath is at a nation ready to make a stupid mistake. In the modern sequence, the Dear One (Marsh) is separated from her baby because some Temperance Tessies discover her nursing a cold with a half-pint of whiskey. The Hebrew Pharisees (one of them is Erich von Stroheim, whose heavyweight sneer is eclipsed by a stage beard) are furious at everybody's favorite Jesus miracle, the winemaking at Cana. And "Griffith asked me for a Babylonian beer hall," the director's assistant Joseph Henabery told Kevin Brownlow. This thundering-against results in a kind of lunatic cause and effect—reformers drain money, causing red ink, causing pay cuts, causing strikes, causing Gatling gun attacks on strikers. Jesus gets the cross for bootlegging.

One surfs through these beautifully wrought stories. The film sank when it first came out—a brilliant folly. The next year, the move toward the 18th Amendment began and America entered one of its most violently intolerant periods: the Palmer Raids, anti-German hysteria—all a heartbreaker for a man, as Gish put it, who had such faith that cinema was the universal language.

So here is cinema at its dawn: rich in spectacle, sex and violence and tenderness. The strike sequences have the punch of Eisenstein. The Babylonian gates still inspire awe, with their live yet mouse-size elephants waiting at its entrance. Here are literal whores of Babylon ("Women corresponding to our street outcasts" notes the title card) dressed more warmly than the vestal virgins of Balthasar.  Perhaps most lovable: Constance Talmadge's sweet hillbilly, the Mountain Girl, who gets emancipated and picks up arms to defend her king in the French section. Critics who accuse Griffith of only allowing waifs in his film need to remember her. Intolerance's cutting back and forth is what got Crash and its legion of po-mo imitators celebrated. And even in Cinequest there are some examples of how filmmakers have forgotten more than Griffith learned.


INTOLERANCE, presented by Cinequest and the Stanford Theatre Foundation, with live organ accompaniment by Dennis James, shows March 6 at 7pm at the California Theatre; tickets are $12.

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