The first time I saw INTOLERANCE (1916) at Cinequest in 2009 I was wowed by the scale of the sets, awed by the ambition behind the film, and of course loved Dennis James' live score on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. But secretly, behind it all, there was a little doubt in my mind. I had actually enjoyed BIRTH OF A NATION much more (despite the racism and the pro-KKK plot). As a narrative, it just had a better structure and flowed better. In fact, just taking the narrative itself I couldn't help but notice it was ponderous, confusing, and kind of dull. Each of the four separate stories could have worked great on its own, but by switching between them I couldn't help but think Griffith gave all four of them short shrift and ended up confusing the audience.
So last Saturday I revisited it, on the Castro screen, in a beautiful new restoration (in digital, more on that later) and with a Carl Davis score. And...it's fantastic, a masterpiece. Maybe I was just better rested than the previous time (it played the final weekend of an exhausting festival). Maybe I'm just that much more studied in silent film and know how to watch it better. But I think the restoration is just much better than what I saw before. I still think many of the transitions between time periods were clumsy and jarring--Griffith was still in the process of inventing cinema at this time. But importantly, I can follow the stories now. Or rather, I can see it as one story--the contemporary (to 1916) story--punctuated with historical parallels turning it very explicitly into a timeless story. A young woman in undone through the intolerant machinations of others. Age-ism (particularly the elderly moral crusaders frowning upon the joys of youth), political machinations, religious intolerance, betrayal and double-crossing. These are all in the contemporary story of a young woman undone on one side by the modern pharisees and on the other side by her lover's criminal connections. And they are all more or less reflected in stories of 16th century France (political machinations leading to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre), ancient Babylon (where a priest betrays the city to Cyrus and the Persians just because Ishtar was praised instead of his god, Bel), and the story of Jesus Christ (culminating in his crucifixion, but also showcasing the traditional Jewish wedding where he turned water to wine).
Carl Davis' score was magnificent. As a friend and silent film scholar pointed out when we discussed it afterwards, Carl Davis never had time to really develop a theme in his score, as the music had to jump between time periods along with the film, but he did a fantastic job and his score works perfectly.
It also looked fantastic. Now I know this gets controversial. I know lots of purists who would avoid this screening just because it was projected digitally instead of on film. And I tend to agree with them, I love the look and feel of film. And especially if the movie was shot on film, it's only right that it should be shown on film. And I've seen movies where digital projection rather than film kinda ruined the presentation.... But this wasn't one of those. This looked amazing. The same friend/silent film scholar I alluded to above pointed out that this probably looks better than it did at its 1916 premiere, what with simply higher-powered projectors, they can put more lumens (measure of visible light flux) on the screen. This presentation is the argument that Digital Cinema Package (DCP) has arrived, and traditionalist haters be damned (not that it isn't still possible to have a crappy digital projection, just that DCP has arrived at the point where it can look better than film.)
Oh, and one last point. CLOUD ATLAS is the modern equivalent of INTOLERANCE. It kind of bombed at the box office, but I still think it succeeded (and exceeded) in everything Griffith was trying to accomplish. So if you haven't seen it, go get it.
Running Time: 167 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,237