As one unsigned review of The Birth of a Nation in Motion Picture News famously opined, "In dramatic and photographic technique, it is beyond our present-day criticism." Imagine a contemporary critic openly recognizing that a film was so advanced, so far beyond his or her comprehension, that it actively defied established nomenclature. Yet that's precisely the type of territory where one finds oneself when discussing the work of D.W. Griffith, whose conception of film form was borne of his desire to wrestle cinema from the confines of novelty and elevate it to the realm of high art. His controversial socio-cultural outlook—okay, racism—isn't sufficient enough grounds to disregard his enormous influence on both mainstream and avant-garde filmmaking. If anything, his unselfconscious, unwavering desire to essentially imprint himself on the cinematic image, even at the expense of his public perception, ultimately made him a martyr for the cause; as Stan Brakhage hyperbolically but poetically claimed, "hunks of Christ broke off in Griffith's psyche."
But it was more than just retaliation that drove Griffith to make this epic story of "Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages," a film whose very title seemed to disregard and actively contradict the sentiments Griffith displayed throughout The Birth of a Nation. The narrative possibilities of film form fascinated Griffith, as did the freedom with which to integrate narrative style into the medium. The most common criticism leveled against Intolerance is that its overall story is nearly impossible to follow, which isn't an unfair assessment. Its four interwoven sagas of human injustice—the "modern" story of a labor dispute in 1914 America, the Renaissance "French" account of the 16th-century slaughter of the Huguenots, the "Judean" tale of the Crucifixion, and the epic "Babylonian" depiction of the fall of Babylonia—likely work well enough on their own, but structured as they are, it can be damn near impossible to process them procedurally.
But Griffith wasn't interested in procedural storytelling, and though The Birth of a Nation signified how the formal techniques unique to cinema could reflect reality, he was never actively concerned with elucidating the "real" in his films. He constructed the narrative of Intolerance in such a manner that reflected human thought rather than novelistic storytelling. He wrote at the time that the events of the film weren't modeled after historical record or linear progression, but rather "as they might flash across a mind seeking to parallel the life of the different ages." Griffith's ephemeral approach to story, no matter how disorganized and uncharacteristic of "real life," speaks to his radical conception of the cinema as being much more than a mere duplication of "reality."
So how astonishing is it then that the film's greatest failure—its inability to tell a cohesive story—is also one of its greatest achievements? With Intolerance, Griffith actively defies the notion that films are somehow required to tell stories, at least the kind that can be processed and unwrapped in a tidy manner, by arranging the images in a manner that welcomed didactic interpretation rather than oppressive sermonizing. Griffith famously likened the film to a "Sun Play," a curious and innocuous phrase that aptly surmises so many of the director's theories. "Sun Play" seems a direct reference to the most molecular function of the form—that is, the evidence of light's movement captured on celluloid. Intolerance, in its grand unification form and content, is just as much about "Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages" as it is a poetic, theoretic, and geometric account of bodies in movement, the basest yet most profound record of mankind in art.
D.W. Griffith's Intolerance will screen at Film Forum from August 2—8.