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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Never Has It Looked Like This ...

Blu-Ray Journey Through Intolerance (1916)

Came across a Babylonian tower of an 8mm Intolerance at the last Cinevent and wondered how collectors back in the day stood for ordeal that was threading those tiny reels (well over a dozen) to sit three+ hours before a gauzy image. But wait --- I ran such a print, Birth Of A Nation in fact, to a college audience in 1971, juggling plastic reels in darkness and praying each would come in right order. What hills we climbed in that analog, or belt/gear, era. Word to wise: Avoid three hour movies where reel change comes every ten minutes --- it's murder, I say. Show of hands please, for teenage or under collectors who bought D.W. Griffith epics on narrowest gauge from Blackhawk during the 60/70's. Here was what separated sissies from the strong. And what about price? Intolerance set us back $90.98/$103.98 for 8mm/Super 8 respectively in 1970 (the equivalent of $409.74 or $468.28 today). You can get the Blu-Ray for under $30. Who says old days were better?

Dig Deep, You Blackhawk Buyers, or Mow Grass/Shampoo Dogs Till You Drop,
For Privilege Of Owning Intolerance on 8mm.

Intolerance tends to be a duty sit even for most confirmed cineastes. Griffith himself would later admit it was "more depressing than hopeful." Three of four interlocked stories have downer ends, so to watch alone is no spur to sunny days. I say days because it takes me multiple ones to push through Intolerance. A last two views, one on laser disc 25 years back, and most recently the Blu-Ray, were spread over three/four sessions. So why lie across this track? For me, a reason is quality like nothing dreamt of before --- this Intolerance takes the long bridge from swamp that was older prints and gives best evidence of DWG as then-master of composition/action-staging, all of what he was lauded for then and we had to take largely on faith thanks to compromised presentations from 1916 to now. Are we in a Golden Age of film retrieval and rebirth? Weekly arrival of digital marvels like Intolerance say yes.

I'm for cutting cake on hundredth anniversary for Intolerance, since production did begin (on intended stand-alone feature The Mother and The Law) in 1914. What became Intolerance was actually cobbled from that venture plus a grand-scale Babylon saga Griffith dreamed up after flipping over Cabiria out of Italy. He didn't want Euros getting the better of him re bigness, and besides had Birth Of A Nation to live up to. DWG felt a same rock in his shoe as David Selznick when Gone With The Wind became that producer's epic to surpass. Impossible missions for both, and respective careers suffered. Intolerance also bore brunt of critic division and a confused public. Was Griffith asking too much of moviegoers? Intolerance is a tough enough commission a hundred years out, and we're supposed to be so much more sophisticated than '16's lot. The traveling roadshow for Intolerance was like hauling those elephants DWG used to dress Babylon sets, 135 people needed to tie ribbon on hard-ticket play in key locales. Keeping them paid and covering house nuts left less cash in Griffith, let alone his distributor, tills.

Griffith was the showman extraordinaire for all his openers. First-nighting to Intolerance would have been like going to the circus or a rock concert today. People surely came out of shows wrung out, what with all of live stuff plus emotional head-bang of the film. Trouble was Griffith the perfectionist never being satisfied w/work he'd done. In his parlance, there was no such thing as a finished movie. He'd rejigger roadshows from city to city, physical prints recut, scenes rearranged, to suit DWG's mood of the moment. Someone ought to do a book on Griffith the premiere impresario. He sure oversaw enough of them during career prime. Amusing too are tales of Dave pushing way into MOMA projection booths as late as 1940, wanting to tweak Intolerance. He just wouldn't stop figuring ways to enhance the thing. What survives of Intolerance is best-ever presented on Blu-Ray from the Cohen Film Collection (and includes The Mother and The Law, plus The Fall Of Babylon, each released post-Intolerance). There is also an excellent book, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: Its Genesis and Its Vision, by William M. Drew. The author's webpage has lately added data re newly discovered previews Griffith held for Intolerance in summer 1916. Seems all previous histories were misinformed as to when the film was first seen by an audience. Drew sets that record straight in expert and thoroughly researched fashion.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The first time I saw this film was in a Cinemateca Argentina exhibition in, I guess, 1988. It was a very good 16mm print exhibited in a small movie theater were there were no more than 30 people: to make things worse the exhibition was absolutely silent with no music, just a narrator to read Spanish translations of the titles. It was a very overwhelming and exhausting experience. A two or three years later I taped from TV the Paul Killiam version. While still difficult to endure what actually did help and eased the experience was the terrific piano score by William Perry.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

From the beginning I have run my programs for non-fans who won't sit through a movie that bores them just because it is "important6." That meant that when it came to silent films I had to create scores on reel to reel tape that put juice under the image. Had you seen or should you see INTOLERANCE when I show it it would be in one sitting and it would be exciting. This is from THE TORONTO SILENT FILM SOCIETY'S Shirley Hughes. "A: My knowledge of silent films, German and French cinema, came an awful lot from Reg Hartt’s Cineforum. At first he showed films at Innis College, then he had a place on Mercer St. for a while. Reg showed some really incredible silent films, from Phantom of the Opera to D.W. Griffith’s films. His strength was putting incredibly good soundtracks on the films. He has a really good ear for movie music and back in the good old days when it was all analog, he would splice them together himself."

3:01 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson remembers screenings of "Intolerance":

I saw this one in college; a few impressions:
-- The 70s college audience hooted at destructive "charitable work" being caused by society women losing their sex appeal.
-- When "The Mother and the Law" focused on the dispossessed poor and not on the over-the-top sermonizing against rich meddlers, it played well. But the race-to-the-gallows ending, while effective, felt like a reversion to stock melodrama.
-- The scale of the Babylonian story was still jaw-dropping, but does ANY Hollywood portrayal of epic decadence/luxury not look silly a few years out?
-- The remaining two stories never quite registered. Is it my memory, or did Christ and the Huguenots actually get far less footage?
-- While it was an intriguing experiment, it's still a stretch to unite the stories under a single theme. Later attempts to intercut stories usually made them explicitly comment on each other. Keaton's "Three Ages" actually took ONE story and played it out in three settings, with gags based on comparisons.

I picked up a used copy of the Image DVD some years back (part of a series of Griffith releases). Is that reasonably watchable?

6:49 PM  
Blogger steven haines said...

I'm too young to remember 8mm prehistoric days are the early VHS era. I'd always been intrigued by a photo I saw as a kid of the Babylon set still standing in Hollywood years after the film was shot. I HAD to see this movie.

I found a double tape set of "Intolerance" when I was about 18. It came in a yellow box, from a company called "Video Yesteryear" (at least I think so). The two tapes were rubber banded together, and the labels were typed. Not exactly the Criterion Collection...but for a teenage film buff in suburbs with nothing but a local Blockbuster, it was akin to the holy grail.

Anyway...I sat up one night and watched it, beginning to end, no break. I was utterly swept away by it, especially the last half hour. There were no tints, and the soundtrack was just a piano. I've never gone back to it in all these years...perhaps afraid it won't possibly be as good as it was the first time. It may be time to revisit.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I have to disagree on Intolerance being a hard sit. Seems like it ought to be, but I have empirical evidence-- I just watched it with my 15-year-old and he was enthralled and talks about seeing it again. Not sure what held him so except maybe to say, who dares wins-- the sheer gutsiness of the four-story epic construction seeming so much bigger than modern movies making epics out of the simplest good guy-bad guy shootouts. The Cohen Film Collection blu-ray is highly recommended.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Jim Harwood said...

I owned Blackhawk super 8 prints of both of these titles. Was fortunate to buy them used from Sam Rubin at Cinevent decades ago when he would bring used prints directly from Blackhawk. Definitely some wonderful memories of those days. I eventually bought an Elmo ST1200 so I was able to re-mount those super 8 400' reels onto 1200' reels, which was a big help. Later bought a 16mm Blackhawk print of INTOLERANCE and it was a definite step forward quality-wise. Still not a great looking film though, preprint-wise. I still collect prints from time to time, but most of my collecting is now on the Blu-ray and DVD front. The Cohen Blu-ray of INTOLERANCE is gorgeous. Finally you can see facial expressions and there is proper contrast. Digitally projected onto a large screen, it's something to behold. The 8 and 16mm prints don't even come close. And to think, in the end those Blackhawk 16's were going for almost $1000. I paid around $25 for the Blu-ray. I love film and all, but come on. Definitely a wonderful time for the collector we're living in.

8:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Could not agree with you more, Jim. Times were never better than right now.

9:01 PM  

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