Thursday, August 16, 2012

Intolerant of Intolerance

Well, not quite. But I have to admit I was greatly underwhelmed by last night's showing of Intolerance on TCM. The movie purports to tell us how hate and intolerance have been with us throughout the ages, cruelly hurting those who love, and does so by jumping back and forth between a modern-day (1916) story about a poor girl (Mae Marsh) who faces the wrath of the female reformers (referred to here as the Uplifters), and stories from 16th century France, Jesus-era Israel, and Babylon.

The thing is, I only really found myself caring about the modern-day story. In defense of Intolerance, I have to say that the modern-day story would probably have made a good silent movie all by itself. It's one of those great melodramatic formulas that we would see later, in silents such as Street Angel with Janet Gaynor, or any of the incarnations of Madame X or its imitators in the sound era. The sort of intolerance depicted here is still quite relevant today. Just look at how the First Lady bullied a teenage girl on national TV for eating the "wrong" food. Intolerance has also been a theme of some other really good movies I've recommended, such as They Won't Forget.

Praise should also be given to the sets in the Babylon story, which most reviewers claim are spectacular; for 1916 standards they most certainly are, and they look pretty darn good by today's standards too. (Of course, nowadays, a lot of this stuff would probably be CGI.) I wonder if any of them were reused for the silent version of The Ten Commandments. But the Babylon story didn't particularly excite me, at least in that it had an overly long build up. And the Babylon story isn't as uninspiring as the other two historical parts.

I don't think the problem is with a three-hour silent movie, either. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which was made one year earlier (I include this point only to mention that the problem isn't with 1916 silent film techniques, as opposed to naming later silent epics that had more advanced filmmaking techniques), holds interest well, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its controversial subject matter and the racism used in presenting it. And to be honest, I think that might have something to do with the problems I have with Intolerance. Griffith made Intolerance after he was stung by the criticisms over the racist content of Birth of a Nation. Modern-day critics praise Intolerance, and I get the impression that a good portion of that praise is simply because it's the Not-Birth of a Nation. Heaven forbid you praise Birth of a Nation for its filmmaking techniques and get branded a racist. No; it's much better to go 180 degrees in the other direction and praise the opposite film just because it's the opposite.

That's not to say Intolerance is a bad movie. It's reasonably well made, and certainly influential for its use of having sharply-defined different stories to tell the one overarching point. But I feel that it's also overhyped. It's also available on DVD, if you want to fast-foward through the slow bits.

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