Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Be Freaking Awesome (Intolerance)

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.

Film Review: Way Down East

Continuing on with the 1001 Films I Apparently Must Watch Before I  Die, we hit number 8, with yet another silent film of D.W. Griffith. It’s a bit surreal, actually, because I’m up to 1920 in terms of cinema years, but most of the teens decade has been seen through Griffith’s lens. I suspect that there are a lot of silent films that got axed from the list to make way for the stuff in the more recent decades, but I’m content with the ones I’ve seen so far. Silent films are enjoyable, but they are definitely more demanding on the modern-day viewer.

There is a sense in which perhaps this film is a bit redundant if you’re trying to get a feel for D.W. Griffith as a film-maker. You can get an idea of his melodrama from watching Broken Blossoms; you can get a feel for his epic style from watching Birth of a Nation; and, of course, to get it all in one astoundingly brilliant package, you can watch Intolerance.

But still, Way Down East is a fairly gripping film that stands up on its own, even if the melodrama feels dramatic. It starts with a caption reminding us that the Christian standard of marriage – one man, one woman – was a fairly new phenomenon, but one that is the best for all involved. However, it can be difficult persuading men of this … The caption said it much more poetically than this, of course, but we know straight away that we’re being set up for a tale of a woman who’s going to be abused by a philandering man.

In fact, the word “set up” is probably how I’d define this film. What gives it it’s strength is that it’s constantly setting up things that are going to go wrong later in the film. Thus, even in it’s nicest moments, there’s a constant air of tension in the air, and when things really do go pear-shaped, we’re already sucked right in.

The tale concerns young Anna Moore, played by Lillian Gish, who’s now had a major role in all of the Griffith films I’ve seen. Her mother sends her to visit her rich relatives to beg for some money, and in the process she is seduced into a sham marriage by the womanising Lennox Sanderson. (Who has the awesome caption: “Lennox Sanderson had three passions in life: Ladies, Ladies and LADIES!I love it.)

We know straight away, that this is going to end in trouble, but Griffith stretches out the romance and the seduction, thus making it all that more devastating when Anna finds out a) she’s not married, b) Lennox is not going to help her out at all with her pregnancy (and one can only imagine how scandalous a 1920s audience would have found all this!).

This is the opening setup, and it’s fairly harrowing, but the story then moves along to show Anna as she takes up residence as a maid with the Bartlett family. The Bartlett family open their arms to her, and I think the scenes of redemption are fantastic as this broken woman (beautifully portrayed by Gish, by the way) for the first time sees life getting better. There might even be some decent romance in her life, from young David Bartlett (portrayed by Richard Barthelmess, who played the Chinaman in Broken Blossoms – this time getting a white role). But Squire Bartlett is a harsh man, offering no forgiveness to those who break the Scriptures, and Anna’s “husband”, the rat Lennox lives nearby and is trying to seduce Bartlett’s niece…

We can tell it’s all going to come to a head, and so the melodrama of it all is relentlessly piled on by Griffith, until it all ends in a climactic scene in a blizzard. I’d love to know how all that was filmed, because it looked quite cold and realistic to me, even all these years later.

In short, your enjoyment of this film will depend on your moral outlook on life (the engine of the whole thing is a rather strict reading of Christian teachings on marriage) and your ability to cope with silent films and melodrama. But I found it a pretty gripping 2 1/2 hours.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Broken Blossoms

No 7 on the 1001 Films list . . . I don’t like my chances of seeing the whole lot, but I’m enjoying the ones I do see.

As we’re in the tale end of the 19-teens (1919, to be precise), it’s mainly DW Griffith that’s getting a look in. I’ve already reviewed his Birth of a Nation and the brilliant Intolerance, but this film, Broken Blossoms, goes to show that he could make films that ran for less than three hours that were just as compelling. Much as I love long films, there’s something to be said for something brief and effective.

The plot on this one is really simple. A Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) decides to come to the West with the ideal hopes of teaching white men about the truths of Buddhism. When we cut to three years later, he’s living in London, running a knick-knack shop by today and spending his nights in a depressed cloud of smoke at the local opium den. Meanwhile, our other main character is Lucy (Lillian Gish), the abused daughter of a boxer by the name of Battling Burrows.

The story is really about these two lost souls connecting with each other, and the consequences that come about from it.

There are some slightly disturbing elements to this film. For starters, none of the main Asian characters are played by Asians. Also, typical of Griffith’s films, the characters have more symbolic names, rather than real characters. The story is not about real people, but about larger than life emotions. So thus Richard Barthelmess’ character is referred to simply as the Yellow Man (but there is a name above his shop, for those who look closely). There’s also the element that the Lucy character is only 15-years-old, so while he treats her a lot more nicely than her violent father does, isn’t there something seedy about his intentions as well? The film attempts to deflect this by making quite clear that nothing physical happened between them, but the question is still there.

However, if you can put all that aside, you will get sucked right into this film because, as usual, Griffith is the master of emotional manipulation. He knows instinctively which scenes make our blood boil, and which make them melt, and they’re all thrown into this film. Scenes of troubling viciousness (even by today’s standards) are placed alongside scenes of tenderness, and if you give into it, it will move you.

Probably of all his films I’ve seen so far, this one gets to the core emotions the fastest and plays them the loudest, thus setting a trend for Hollywood of what it is that engages an audience’s emotions as they watch a film. Emotional manipulation of the highest order.

4 out of 5.