The Birth of a Maverick: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance

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The Birth of a Maverick: D.W. Griffith’s <em>Intolerance</em>

On this blog I will periodically offer lists on particular topics under the heading, “5 for the Day.” Here is the first entry. The subject: “The 5 Greatest Uses of Contrapuntal Narration,” inspired by Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I'm introducing today at the Museum of the Moving Image.

First, a note on terminology: contrapuntal narration is a specific type of narration that is not merely decorative or functional (i.e., giving the audience a bit of extra exposition, papering over plot holes, or even establishing a mood—as in most Raymond Chandler-derived, hardboiled movies). It is, rather, narration which functions in counterpoint to the action; narration which undermines, contradicts or otherwise pushes against the images; active narration that defines an internal, personal world, a world that exists apart from (or parallel to) the world depicted onscreen.

A music dictionary defines contrapuntal narration as:

1. Melodic material that is added above or below an existing melody.

2. The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.

3. A composition or piece that incorporates or consists of contrapuntal writing.

4. A contrasting but parallel element, item, or theme.

Definitions 2 and 4 are my favorites. They describe the sort of narration I think is most active, most justifiable, most aesthetically interesting. I am talking about narration that does not tell in lieu of (or in addition to) showing, but rather, narration that describes a somewhat different reality than the one depicted in the images.

Here, then, is The House Next Door's very first “5 for the Day”:

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.


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