My final comparison with the upcoming Cloud Atlas is a film that is actually very, very similar, albeit 96 years older. I am talking, of course, about the amazing spectacle that is D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

I’ve read a variety of stories about how this film came into being, but the one that makes the best yarn is that Griffith was stung by the criticisms of racism for his 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation (criticisms which I will admit were well-founded). So, as a result, he decided to make a film getting all his thoughts about man’s inhumanity to man out of his head and up onto the screen.

The two best descriptions of this film I’ve ever head are that it is a “cinema sermon” or, to use a musical description, “a cinematic fugue” (a fugue, for those not familiar with classical music, is a piece of music where one theme begins on one instrument or voice, then shortly afterwards, a second voice will enter with the exact same theme and combine with the first voice, thus layering on levels of complexity into the music).

Griffith’s idea was landmark – to tell four different stories about man’s intolerance towards others, all set in different periods of history, and cutting back and forth between the stories. The stories were linked by an image of a woman rocking a cradle (to do with a line from a poem about “the cradle endlessly rocking, bringing the same joys and sorrows”).

Griffith’s gargantuan effort (the longest version out on DVD currently, runs for 200 minutes) starts slowly but picks up speed, as he introduces us to the different characters in his four stories. Story 1, which takes up the most screen time, is the “modern” tale (for 1916) of a young lower-class couple in love, being pulled by the temptation to join in local crime on one hand and being persecuted by over-zealous social workers on the one hand. I can’t think of any other film that has ever used “over-zealous social workers” as part of its plot synopsis, which just gives you some idea of the eccentricity of Griffith and what he would fixate on.

Story 2, which takes up the least amount of screen time, is the life of Christ – or, more correctly, famous vignettes from his life, because there’s not really enough screen time for it to have a storyline. But what it does do is lend an epic Biblical weight (which would have worked wonders for the more religious audiences back in 1916) to key scenes, by suddenly “cutting to Jesus”, as it were. That said, the attention to detail in the scenes (just look at all the characters in the opening marketplace scene) is amazing.

Story 3 is set in France in the 1500s, in the time leading up to the St Bartholomew’s day massacre, when the Catholic queen of France gave an order to massacre the Huguenots (the French Protestant political party). We see this primarily through the eyes of a Prosper Latour, a young Huguenot, and his fiancé, Brown Eyes.

Story 4 is the most epic of all, at least in terms of sets and production values. It tells of the fall of Ancient Babylon, and how one of the greatest civilisations in the world (according to Griffith) was destroyed by the intolerance of the high priests, who betrayed the city by letting the Persians in to destroy them.

The mix of metaphors and imagery is undeniably chaotic. (In fact, it’s very strange that Griffith, who is working with Biblical ideas in the Christ story, is such a champion for ancient Babylon. The Bible’s version of the fall of Babylon is that it was a good thing, because there were thousands of captured Jews living in the city that finally got set free from 70 years of exile by the invading army.) But as long as you don’t think about it too much, it’s an astonishing feat of cinema. Even if you think the message is heavy-handed, it’s mind-blowing just in terms of its sets and choreography, featuring mile-wide sets and at least three battle sequences.

What makes the film so amazing is that it only works in the editing room. If you took any of the four stories by themselves, only the modern story would give you anything coherent enough to stand alone, and it would be a fairly low-grade melodrama that nobody would talk about it. But instead, the film has an incredible fury and pace that leaves you gasping. There is something incredibly visceral about seeing four stories climax at once that makes the whole thing much more than the sum of its parts.

*** MAJOR SPOILER WARNING ***

As an example of why the film works – it’s something about the cumulative power of images. At the finale of the film, we keep cutting back to the modern story. The boy is on death row, the girl is madly pursuing the governor to get a stay of execution. If it was just this story, we’d probably say that it would end happily and not get as involved.

But instead, the Huguenot story ends on a devastating note – Prosper arrives to find Brown Eyes killed (and presumably raped) and carries her body out to scream at the Catholic soldiers – who promptly mow him down.

Then we switch to Christ on the cross, the mob howling for his blood.

Then to Ancient Babylon, where the Emperor and Empress commit suicide together, realising that the city has fallen and there is no hope. Finally, our hero, the Little Mountain Girl, gets wounded by an arrow and dies.

So three out of four stories have ended unhappily – this IMMEDIATELY raises the stakes on the boy being being led to the gallows and the tension is unbearable. It’s a powerful experience, and really paved the way for multi-strand cinema.
*** END OF MAJOR SPOILERS ***

The source material that the Wachowski / Tyker trio are working with in the novel of Cloud Atlas is remarkably similar to this. There is a recurring theme throughout the book of the strong oppressing the weak (sometimes subtly, sometimes completely in-your-face), thus lifting the story above a simple gimmick about different time periods and genres, and the word on the street is that the script has taken the six stories from Cloud Atlas and put them together in an interwoven manner.

In short, they’ve re-created Griffith’s Intolerance for the 21st century. If they can pull that off, it will not just be a great movie this year, but go down as one of the great movies of the century. We can only hope. It’s about time we had a movie that deserved that sort of label.

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