If you have not seen D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance since film school, or film appreciation class, or years ago on public television, etc., or worse yet (or maybe better yet, as it happens) have never seen it at all, get yourself down to Manhattan’s Film Forum starting tomorrow and catch it, in a stunning new restoration released by The Cohen Film Collection. It is nearly one hundred years old and I will put money down that it will be the most spectacularly vital film running theatrically in the five buroughs as of its first screening.
Why? Well, it’s not just the structure: in making this ostensible “answer picture” to the (completely justified) protests pertaining to his 1915 The Birth of a Nation, Griffith conceived four tales of this movie’s title theme, each set in a different age and place, and interwove them cinematically, with one of the key effects being, as Kevin Brownlow has so memorably described, a sweeping up of the viewer into four separate and equally engrossing climaxes in the film’s final third. This was/is admitedly a daring storytelling gambit, and not a whole lot of conventional narrative filmmakers have tried to meet this challenge since (although in a mildly ironic coincidence, noted Griffith disapprover Quentin Tarantino has performed structural tricks that Intolerance certainly set a kind of precedent for, in both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown). That’s the thing I absorbed pretty well on my first screening of Intolerance long ago, so it didn’t knock me out this time around. Nor, for that matter, did the content, although it is quite fascinationg. The discursive “modern day” story finds Griffith wrestling with his inner Victorian to concoct a condemnation of priggish reformers. The conception of the fall of Babylon has an interesting proto-feminist component in the person of a character named “Mountain Girl.” And so on. All good stuff. Pauline Kael has noted that the film contains the seeds of every kind of silent and then sound studio film that came immediately after it. And more than that: the movie has surprising scenes of nudity, quasi-nudity, and extreme violence and gore. There’s a beheading or two; the effects for these are not particularly convincing, but hey, they were in there pitching. In this respect, and given the movie’s still staggering scale of spectacle and set-construction (it’s almost impossible to believe that Griffith conceived, produced, shot, edited, and released such an elaborate movie in a mere year after his prior one), what Kael says still goes.
“ ‘Million Dollar Movie’ was VHS before there was VHS,” Mr. Goldstein said.
That childhood experience led him, with Ms. Cooper, to create Film Forum Jr., an attempt to acquaint today’s children — generally, age 5 and up — with the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and great musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain.” His own first movie, at 5, was “Pal Joey,” in 1957. “I didn’t know how sexy it was till years later,” he said.
“You can’t talk down to kids,” he said. “Kids have taste.” On Mother’s Day, he screened Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much, which involves an assassination plot and a boy’s kidnapping.
“Someone said, ‘That’s not for kids, it’s too scary,’ ” Mr. Goldstein recalled. “I said: ‘Yeah, it’s scary. But it’s not as scary as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ The Disney movies are really scary.” So he showed the Hitchcock film and “the kids loved it.”
For Mr. Goldstein, nothing compares to watching a movie with others around.
“You focus on the film,” he said. “You don’t focus at home or on your iPhone. Second, you get the benefit of the other audience members picking up on things you might not have noticed.” While it is not a phrase he likes, he added, there is such a thing as “communal experience.”
“Some films don’t work on video at all,” he said. “Silent comedy doesn’t work on video, as far as I’m concerned. You need an audience to laugh with you and to pick up on the gags you may not notice at home because you’re distracted in 20 different directions.”
[Photo Via: Gothamist]
The Film Forum is showing a beautiful new 35 mm print of Chaplin’s classic, “The Gold Rush” through this Thursday. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen and you have the time, step to this.
When I was sixteen the Regency Theater on the Upper West Side ran a Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin-Woody Allen revival for a few months. That was my introduction to Buster and it was love at first sight. I adore Chaplin too but Buster speaks to me in a more direct, personal way.
There’s a wonderful article on Buster by Jana Prikryl in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. If you are not familiar with Buster, this here is a fine introduction:
More than fifty years have passed since critics rediscovered Buster Keaton and pronounced him the most “modern” silent film clown, a title he hasn’t shaken since. In his own day he was certainly famous but never commanded the wealth or popularity of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, and he suffered most when talkies arrived. It may be that later stars like Cary Grant and Paul Newman and Harrison Ford have made us more susceptible to Keaton’s model of offhand stoicism than his own audiences were. Seeking for his ghost is a fruitless business, though; for one thing, film comedy today has swung back toward the sappy, blatant slapstick that Keaton disdained. There’s some “irony” in what Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler do, but it’s irony that clamors to win the identification of the supposedly browbeaten everyman in every audience. Keaton took your average everyman and showed how majestically alone he was.
Very early in his movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t he realzie he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occured to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.
Starting tonight, the Film Forum is hosting The Best of Buster Keaton. They will be showing a Buster movie, along with a couple of two-reelers, every Monday for the rest of the summer. Tonight gives Buster’s first feature for MGM–and arguably, his last good movie: “The Cameraman.” It’s worth seeing on the big screen for many reasons (the pool scene), not the least of which is this gorgeous sequence filmed at the original Yankee Stadium.