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Monday, May 6, 2024

RAW movie club: Intolerance

Scene from Intolerance. Did Babylon really have huge statues of elephants? It sure looks impressive. 

It's a really long movie, so I was relieved it turned out to be excellent. The Wikipedia article about the movie lists four different major versions of the public domain film. I watched the Kino version, 197 minutes long, which has a soundtrack. I checked it out from Hoopla. Finding a free version to watch online is not difficult, there's one at the Internet Archive. 

The influence on Illuminatus! apparently consists in the way it uses separate plotlines and switches abruptly from one to the other. There's a modern plot about poor people being abused by the rich and by the system. Another plot depicts the life of Jesus, another shows Belshazzar's Babylon  under attack from the Persians, and another shows the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France in 1572.  The common theme is intolerance, not just religious intolerance, but the kind of intolerance that results in Prohibition and various moral crusades and moral panics. 

I wasn't particularly looking forward to the life of Jesus stuff, and the actor playing The Nazarene, Howard Gaye, is kind of stiff, as if he's affected by the pressure of playing the Son of God. But the scenes from the New Testament are some of the best bits! The wedding at Cana is depicted, with the first miracle of Jesus being an  intervention to make sure there's plenty of good wine for the wedding celebration. There's also a great depiction of the incident in which Jesus saves a woman from being stoned to death for adultery. 

Although it dates back to 1916, in some ways Intolerance is more modern than I expected. A long movie with big crowd scenes anticipates many epics that came after. The plot about the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre depicting one religious faction killing people in another faction is unfortunately currently relevant. (While the plot depicts Catholics killing Protestants, Griffith shows that previously Protestants had carried out an attack on Catholics, and shows how one massacre becomes an excuse for another.) The jumps from one plotline to another are reminiscent of a recent film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, which to  tell you the truth I didn't like all that much. 

And there were other surprises. I did not expect the intensity of the violence. Some of the depictions of women in  Babylon were sexier than I expected. I was also surprised by some of the crowd scenes. The huge sets in the Babylon scenes are really impressive. I did not expect such as "wow" factor from such an old movie. 

Lots of critics of course have written about the movie. I couldn't find what Jesse Walker thought of it at his movie review site. The Wikipedia article says Pauline Kael considered it the greatest movie ever made. 

Here is the entire review from Scott Sumner, one of my favorite bloggers: "Intolerance (US, 1916) 3.5 This rating doesn’t mean much as it’s both a great film and a deeply flawed film. Today, 1916 seems like ancient history, and thus this historical epic has an additional layer of meaning for 2019 viewers, as compared to what people saw in 1916. On the other hand, the images are less astonishing than they would have appeared to 1916 audiences. That trade-off is sort of a microcosm of life. Has any other major director ever produced a very liberal film immediately after producing a very conservative film?"

Some of Robert Anton Wilson's themes come up in the movie. It shows why Prohibition is wrong and doesn't work, and it depicts how the system is cruel to the poor. 

In June, I'll pick another movie from RAW's top one hundred and watch it and blog about it. As with Intolerance, I'll announce my choice for anyone else who wants to take the opportunity to watch it, too. 


Jesse said...

Since you went searching for my thoughts on Intolerance: I said a bit about it in this old article. (RAW disliked the paragraph of the piece that mentioned it, writing sardonically: "I 'see' a lot more -- a hell of a lot more-- in those films, but I must be hallucinating.")

Bobby Campbell said...

I watched Intolerance as part of RAW's 8 Dimensions of "Mind" class, without knowing anything about it or D. W. Griffith, and it absolutely electrified me!
Probably mostly bc of the context of it being vouched for by RAW, but also the wild juxtaposition of it feeling both ancient & modern, and additionally being 22 and stoned to bejeezus :)))

Intolerance was a huge influence on Agnosis! Intercutting isomorphic storylines to create simultaneous resonance, and also I stole a bunch of the best one-liners:

The end of the movie where the prison walls dissolve into a flowery field made me cry! Absolutely beautiful.

Pretty much everything I've learned about both D. W. Griffith and the intentions behind Intolerance have tempered my initial enthusiasm, but I still have the fondest memory of that initial viewing.

Eric Wagner said...

Bob Wilson liked Lillian Gish's book "The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me."

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Bobby, this is another example of something that's been discussed previously, RAW's ability to see the good in people and tune out the bad (other examples being Ezra Pound and maybe Tim Leary), see the article Jesse links to that RAW didn't like. On the one hand, few great artists lack a bad side, on the other hand, maybe RAW is tolerant to a fault?

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Jesse, It would be nice to be able to easily browse all of your reviews, I could not figure out how to get beyond this year's and last year's.

Jesse said...

Blogger revamped itself in a way that made the blog archives much harder to browse. The easiest way to see if I've written about a movie is to plug it into a Google search like this: "citizen kane"

At some point I should assemble the top 10 lists into a more accessible format. Maybe I'll self-publish them as a little book someday (I seriously doubt that any of the bigger publishers I've worked with would be interested)—but only when I'm close enough to the grave that I've stopped feeling the need to revise them.

Bobby Campbell said...

RAW's excessively rosy view of his influences is just one of those mysterious things!

Did he think the ends justifies the means? Is it a "print the legend" thing? Or maybe he just legitimately saw them that way? IDK!

The article that Jesse linked to (which was fascinating btw!) is kind of an interesting thing for RAW to object to, because the criticism of DGW is pretty mild and very diligently contextualized.

My longstanding suspicion is that RAW was so protective of these guys, because he thought the ideas they represented were too important to risk getting lost in the wash.

I don't know that RAW was necessarily too tolerant, but rather he prioritized some things more than others. (RAW was way more tolerant of Ezra Pound's prejudices than say Gloria Steinem's)

Personally, I very much benefitted from RAW's sanitized pantheon of visionaries, but the job of splitting the hairs between the flaws in their character vs. the flaws in their great works looms large!

Jesse said...

Just to be clear: He didn't object to the fact that I criticized Griffith. He was saying that I had writte a way-too-reductive description of Intolerance and Broken Blossoms.

(I replied that of course there was more to the movies than what I had said in that paragraph but that I had been "writing about how they're used or misused to defend Griffith against the charge of racism, not what they mean in themselves"; I added that while I've never been able to get into Broken Blossoms, "Intolerance is one of those sui generis works of mad genius that can't ever be replicated." He responded that they were both top-100 films for him but "That's what makes horse racing.")

Bobby Campbell said...

Makes sense!

Thanks for clarification :)))

Oz Fritz said...

Thank-you, Tom, for the great review of Intolerance. I had a large influx of work come up and didn't find time to watch it.

I would speculate multiple factors making RAW less judgmental than most domesticated primates. These include less investment in the unconscious belief of a static, unified ego/personality; his criticism of Plato's ideal forms; his training and experience with Zen; his extreme caution with committing to the certainty of any position. It may come down to a matter of presence. RAW may have been fully present with whatever he engaged with less distraction from other considerations. Oh, and his commitment to forgiveness. I don't think RAW was without judgment of any kind, if that's even possible. I don't think he turned a blind eye or didn't have criticism for truly horrible things. It seems people that influenced RAW and that he admired were trying to make the world a better place – trying to improve the human condition; affirming life, like one of his favorite philosophers, Nietzsche, who certainly had his share of faults. RAW also endeavored to make the world a better place and help people make themselves smarter and funnier therefore I think he could relate to those others and cut them some slack. The call for more slack recurs in Reality Is What You Can Get Away With. Some of the less saintly qualities of Pope Bob himself get revealed in his long awaited biography. I find his example something to live up to rather than to be criticized.

Brian Dean said...

On the Ezra Pound thing, I have a somewhat different take - given that in the first commentary of RAW's on Pound that I came across (a long, long time ago - I knew very little of Ezra Pound at the time), RAW talked of Pound's "ranting antisemitism" which he (Pound) later felt remorse for (apparently Allen Ginsberg cited the I-Ching's "no blame" to him over it). Bob raised this in several places - even the intro to "Everything Is Under Control" mentions this mutation of Pound's to a rather nasty ranting and raving as a common dynamic among some conspiracy theorists. So I never really thought of that aspect of Pound's life as something that RAW made light of. He was the *first* commentator I heard it from!