September 15, 1916 [Intolerance]

It appears that The Birth of a Nation has itself given birth. And if the earlier child has grown into a burden for Griffith, he passes it along to us, in three hours of (partial) retribution for the sins of the father, self-consciously ambitious and heavy-handed—but like its predecessor, impossible to ignore. From its Whitman-inspired transitional captions to its Cabiria-esque excesses, from its dictatorial "reformers" and Pharisees to its riots and massacres—and Crucifixion—the film refuses to surrender. I was exhausted, at some point even eager to leave—but Griffith managed to hold me in my seat as he carved some beauty from this massive lumberyard of sets and situations.

Everything piles on top of everything else, including the narrative, jumping from era to era, plot to plot. Babylon may have been more spectacular than the modern "western city"—but the former's biblical depravity barely matched the ruthless egoism and greed of the latter. And while the moments of spectacle remain most in my head—the "colossal hospitality" of Belshazzar, the horror of Golgotha—I cannot forget the image of the straight razors slitting the cords as they test the gallows, the mother's hand approaching the lost baby's bonnet, the poor-quarter "Musketeer" wrongfully accused, Jesus writing in the sand as the adulteress is spared—Griffith insisting at every moment that the definition of "epic" lies not merely in size and engrossing scope but in depth—and while he hammers this sense of "deep thought" with his usual extravagance—distrusting his audience's intelligence, I fear (or perhaps too rightly judging it?)—he finds a visual language that captures both High and Low in the same lens. Other filmmakers surely embrace this "epic" perspective—but few will be given the kind of money it takes to traverse Western Civilization—$200,000, I read, and can barely believe it. But perhaps the modern epic of high and low will not always need unlimited funds, and will instead watch the little world in front of them, and see that it, too, moves in interesting circles.


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