Saturday, December 29, 2007

Intolerable Silence


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Here's a bizarre thought. Imagine if Martin Scorsese had filmed the Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, the Gangs of New York and the Departed back-to-back during a period of a year and a half. Instead of releasing them separately over the course of two decades, he edited parts of them together into a single epic-length film, stripping each story down to its essential plot, and cross-cutting between the four to emphasize parallels in their narratives.

What kind of film would this be? Well, it would certainly be an epic of epics, taking place over four distinct times and places. Would it bring forth the stylistic and thematic similarities between these four distinct Films By Scorsese? Or would it encourage us to look at their differences? I'm not exactly sure, but I suppose the closest we'll get to knowing the answer is to view the only film I know of, though not By Scorsese, that was made in this fashion: D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. The 1916 film was first imagined as a straightforward exposé of the societal injustice of the day, but upon the extraordinary financial success of the perniciously racist Birth of a Nation, that concept was combined with retellings of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, of the crucifixion of Christ, and of the fall of Babylon into a single film with a vast scope. It's like a one-film template for an auteurist approach to reading cinema. As cinematographer Karl Brown told it, the four stories were shot in succession and assumed by most of the crew to be destined for four different releases that for some whim of Griffith's happened to share the same title: the Mother and the Law. In fact, two of these four would indeed be re-edited and released as stand-alone films in 1919: the Fall of Babylon and the current-day the Mother and the Law.

The releases and various re-editings and theatrical re-releases of Intolerance were never able to put the picture in significant profit. A September 1928 Variety article reported a $1,750,000 total gross on the picture at the close of the silent era, relative to $1,600,000 in costs, which may well have been even higher (wikipedia suggests it may have come closer to $2,000,000). But the financial failure of the film neither prevented Griffith from continuing his career as a director, nor has it kept many critics from hailing Intolerance as an unmatched high-water-mark of the silent film era. Take one of the most influential institutions of critical canon-formation, the Sight & Sound Top 10, which since 1952 has compiled "Ten Best Film" lists from critics around the world. That first year of the survey, Intolerance placed fifth in both the tallied result as well as on a simultaneous reader survey (incidentally, though they aligned on Intolerance in this survey, as well as the top two choices, the readers were ahead of the critics on Citizen Kane, which was a runner-up on the critics' compiled list but #3 on the readers'.) Since that 1952 assessment, a selection of contributors who have put Intolerance among their chosen ten includes Henri Langlois, Dilys Powell, Jonas Mekas, Enno Patalas, Vincent Canby, Armond White, and since Sight & Sound began inviting film directors to participate, Sidney Lumet, Masahiro Shinoda and Roy Andersson among others.

Most recently, the American Film Institute, in its tenth anniversary of the AFI 100 swapped out Birth of a Nation (#44 back in 1997) for Intolerance (at slot #49). Still, in the age of DVD subscription services and laptop movie-viewing, I sense that a huge-scale film like Intolerance begins to become more and more marginalized by modern movie watchers. Which is why I was so glad to get a chance to see the film tower above me on the Castro Theatre screen earlier this month, courtesy of the SF Silent Film Festival and Photoplay Productions, whose Patrick Stanbury brought a tinted print from London, introduced the screening, and performed 42 manual projection speed changes to ensure that we had the best presentation of the film possible. What a revelation it was to see the film exhibited this way! For the first time, I felt I was starting to understand not only the technical scale and skill involved in the film's making, but also the way the four interlocking stories joined to create a unique and modern narrative. That the three historical tales end in disaster due to intolerance and lack of empathy, makes the 'contemporary' tale become a moving plea of hope that the tragedies of history might not have to repeat themselves. This may be obvious to most, but it's something I'd never grasped before, when trying to watch a home video version of Intolerance, admittedly half-bored, on a television set. Anyway, the film's ultimate message cannot be fully comprehended just by reading about it; it's the precise filmmaking techniques Griffith employs that give Intolerance its emotional impact.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell have marked the birth year of the "classical cinema" style in Hollywood to be 1917. Griffith's cinema in Intolerance, released a year earlier, bears many signs that it is a precursor to that style, in which the 180-degree rule is enforced and editing emphasizes match cuts on eyeline or action. Griffith has broken out of what Thompson and Bordwell refer to as the "tableau approach" that contains all the action of a given scene in a single shot. Still, I noticed in Intolerance numerous instances in which cuts between shots in a scene jarred because they were not matched on action, or even because they would repeat the same action from different angles. Kevin Brownlow, in his chapter on film editing in the Parade's Gone By... mentions a theory by Ray Angus that these double action mismatches were entirely deliberate, but doesn't go into specifics. Some of these actions are dramatic enough that I wonder if Griffith thought audiences would be excited by seeing them repeated, as for example Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew clearly did when showing off Tony Jaa's most impressive Muay Thai moves from multiple angles. But that musing doesn't explain instances in which the repeated action is not particularly interesting, nor the other examples of oddly-timed cuts. The issue isn't that the Thompson/Bordwell milestone year of 1917 hadn't been rung in yet, as there are certainly examples of smoothly-edited films made before then; one I can recommend wholeheartedly is Cecil B. DeMille's the Golden Chance from 1915. Don Fairservice in his book Film Editing: History, Theory, Practice discusses several possible explanations, but gets to the heart of the matter, I feel, in this passage:
What must be acknowledged is that the jumps and mismatches in Intolerance generate a tension within scenes which transcends continuity, the jaggedness of the cutting contributing to the content. One of the main difficulties facing a modern spectator who brings to the experience of seeing the film all the accumulated baggage and conditioned responses of continuity cinema is that Griffith's work demands a different quality of understanding wherein the whole is infinitely more important than the parts...
There has been a recent discussion at girish's place about the function of musical accompaniment with a silent film. Let this screening of Intolerance stand as my Exhibit A in the argument for a terrific live performer providing music for a theatrical screening. It's interesting that I found myself registering cutting 'discontinuities' much less frequently in the action sequences, particularly toward the film's culmination as three of the four stories' narrative arcs (the Judean segment having become visually de-emphasized about halfway through the film) converged into a thrilling alignment. I have no doubt in my mind that Dennis James's unflagging Wurlitzer score had as much to do with my emotional involvement in Griffith's converging melodrama as any visual strategies of the director's own making. Does this mean I was manipulated by the music? Yes. But I'm pretty sure it was a manipulation Griffith would have approved of; he was always concerned with the quality of the musical scores sent to the orchestras in theatres playing his pictures, and I can't picture him wanting audiences to watch Intolerance in silence.

James's performance December 1st was all the more remarkable given that the previous night he'd been at the Stanford Theatre, playing to Frank Capra's the Strong Man (just days ago inducted into the National Film Registry) and that he would be providing music for Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil at the Castro that evening. As an example of the formally mature Hollywood style, released ten years after Intolerance, it's a superbly-made film. Yet it portrays an outlook on women that felt like a huge step backward from the strong heroines played by Constance Talmadge and, at least by the end of Griffith's picture, Mae Marsh. Luckily Garbo is a supernatural force that transcends roles borne out of a fear of female sexuality in the flapper era. But before this turns into another huge post topic entirely, let me turn away from my own thoughts on the film and recommend Anne M. Hockens' thoughtful analysis of Flesh and the Devil as a film noir predecessor (and speaking of noir...)

The Silent Film Festival's morning program gave Mr. James a chance to rest his hands and feet, as we were treated to a program of nine mostly-delightful, mostly-hilarious Vitaphone shorts featuring mostly-forgotten vaudeville stars telling jokes and playing music. If you're wondering why a silent film festival deigned to show a program of talking pictures, think of how many silent stars got their start on vaudeville stages (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, "Fatty" Arbuckle, and Mary Pickford are a few names you might recognize), how many theatres (including the Castro) brought both silent films and vaudeville acts to their patrons, and how important the coming of sound is to an understanding of the history of silent film, and you'll get the idea. Also, the films are really entertaining, and this particular program had never been seen together, much less in Frisco where a theatrical audience for Vitaphone shorts might grow quite healthily. My personal favorites of the nine shown were the Foy Family in Chips of the Old Block, and the Norman Thomas Quintet in Harlem-Mania, featuring a truly unforgettable drummer, and some unexpected camera positions to help accommodate his gymnastics.

In case you haven't noticed, it's been a while since my last post, which I can blame on the busyness and distractions associated with a cross-town move and the holiday season. I'm going to be playing a bit of catch-up on Frisco film events over the next few weeks here at Hell on Frisco Bay before I head off to Park City, Utah. But for now, while I'm on the topic of silent-era films, let me just point out the upcoming screenings of silents with live accompaniment I'm aware of in the next few months.

Monday night at Grace Cathedral there will be two performances of perhaps the most widely-seen of all silent films today, the Lon Chaney, Sr. Phantom of the Opera. It'll be accompanied by Dorothy Papadakos on the sanctuary's Aeolian-Skinner organ. I've never seen a silent film playing in a functioning place of worship before (no, the Paramount doesn't count!) so I'm particularly intrigued to check this out. There will be performances at 7PM for those of you with parties to go to by midnight, and 10PM for those of you who want to end 2007 with a scary movie.

The Pacific Film Archive has a terrific calendar for January-February, surely their best since, oh, way back in September-October at the very least. There's too much to process in one flip-through of the calendar program, but four series are of interest to appreciators of silent film and live music. First, a trio of Sessue Hayakawa films that, as I mentioned in my previous post, screen in conjunction with a UC Berkeley conference on silent cinema February 8-10. Second, a kid-friendly set of Saturday afternoon matinees including a program of Georges Méliès delights January 19th and a February 9th screening of Harold Lloyd in Speedy. Third, an extremely impressive series of European classics, some silent and some not, called the Medieval Remake, including Fritz Lang's rarely-shown Die Nibelungen in two parts January 20th, Dreyer's the Passion of Joan of Arc (paired with Robert Bresson's 1962 interpretation) January 27th, and Murnau's Faust February 16th. Finally, the resuming of the popular Film 50 series of screenings and lectures on the history of cinema will start off in the silent era and include a February 6th showing of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

If you miss that screening, which you're likely to as tickets for Film 50 screenings are scarce, know that you'll get another chance to see Robert Wiene's expressionist masterpiece on this side of the bay in a few months. SFJAZZ has announced the April 12, 2008 return of the Club Foot Orchestra to the Castro Theatre, where the ensemble will perform the signature scores from their heyday: Nosferatu and Sherlock Jr. as well as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. These folks haven't performed together here since before I was smart enough to realize how great silent films are; I'll definitely want to be on-hand for the reunion.

The Niles Essanay Film Museum has announced its Saturday evening program schedule through March, though not yet on its website. The year starts with Lon Chaney in False Faces January 5th, and continues with selections such as the Black Pirate January 26th (also expected to play the Balboa for that theatre's annual birthday bash February 27th), Charley's Aunt February 2nd, the Docks of New York March 15th, the Covered Wagon March 22nd, and much much more.

And just wait 'til you hear what Frisco's got in store when it comes to talkies!