#371. Stories through Time

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is partly due to those people who don’t learn from history and are therefore doomed to repeat it. While most movies usually span a short timeframe, there are a few out there that manage to cover almost the entirety of human existence. Some even go so far as to speculate what the future would bring for humanity. After all, if humans keep making the same decisions and mistakes in the past, what could possibly change that habit in the future? These parallel storylines are often used to prove some point to the audience. While it can be interesting to see how people in ancient times acted in the same way we do, sometimes the message the filmmaker is trying to make is beaten home too much. This week’s two films use multiple stories throughout time to tell a story.

IntoleranceIntolerance
Year: 1916
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours

In telling multiple stories that span a long time period, each individual story is practically a short film in itself. The epic scale of the run-time for these films is merely a product of the multitude of stories that need to be told. During the early days of movies, short films were the norm, so stringing four of them together to tell a larger narrative was certainly doable. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) manages to span a timeframe from 539 BC all the way to 1914 AD, stopping off around 27 AD and 1572 AD in the process. This film was so impactful, not only as a form of apology for The Birth of a Nation (1915) but for inspiring at least one parody: Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923). Both films highlight the fact that humans have remained the same for a very long time.

Throughout the ages, intolerance has been a problem for humanity. The similarities between Cyrus the Great of Persia (George Siegmann), the Pharisees of Israel, and the Catholics of France all show how being intolerant of others leads to great destruction, pain, and death. Sometimes, the people being affected by the intolerance have their own intolerance against their persecutors, with a few notable exceptions. Even in modern times, money fuels the prejudice between businessmen and the workers they exploit. In the end, this intolerance isn’t necessarily based on the color of one’s skin, but instead on how one group of people has a prejudice against a different group of people who might threaten the wealth and power they’ve grown used to over the years. Aside from the obvious lesson that intolerance has been around for a long time, we also see that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours

While Intolerance covered about 2.5 centuries of stories, some modern films have gone from the beginning of time to the present day. The Tree of Life (2011) didn’t have nearly as many stories to tell, but the range was much greater. In contrast, Cloud Atlas (2012) only covers just over 450 years. However, Cloud Atlas examines the future as well via its parallel stories. While other movies that cover long timespans in short chunks will use the collective history lesson to sell a moral, Cloud Atlas speculates what the distant future will be based on what we know about human behavior. More to the point, Cloud Atlas shows us how individuals can span centuries in various forms, sometimes taking the spotlight or sometimes acting in a supporting role. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, I think we can all agree humans have the same basic thought processes that affect global history.

Actions have consequences, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Individuals who support the abolition of slavery in 1849 could affect the post-apocalyptic world of Hawaii in 2311. For instance, the 1849 journal of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) could influence Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who gains credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” via blackmail. This piece of music could influence Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist in 1973 San Francisco who escapes an assassination attempt after uncovering a nuclear conspiracy. Rey’s life could be novelized and read by Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who is accidentally committed to an asylum. Cavendish’s memoir could be turned into a movie that helps shape the revolution of the human clone known as Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in 2144 Seoul. This revolution leads to Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his tribal people worshipping Sonmi-451 in 2331.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 timeless tales

#370. D.W. Griffith

Some directors may have been prolific, but then there are directors like D.W. Griffith. In the 23 years of his career, he directed over 500 movies. Most of these films were directed before 1914, as Griffith made the newfound medium of filmmaking his playground to discover and cement many of the film techniques we know today. It’s weird to think the close-up shot wasn’t widely used before Griffith made it a standard. It is also interesting to note that Griffith worked almost exclusively in the medium of silent films. Of his 518 movies, only two were with sound: Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). These were the last two films he ever directed. With a catalog of movies this large, there are bound to be a few gems. This week’s two films highlight some of the most significant films D.W. Griffith ever directed.

The Birth of a NationThe Birth of a Nation
Year: 1915
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 195 minutes / 3.25 hours

Partly because the length of a reel of film was a technical limitation, many directors of the silent era made their movies on a single reel of film. At a length of 1,000 feet, silent movies could fit about 15 minutes of footage on a single reel. Longer movies would often advertise their run-time in terms of reels. With so many short films in circulation, it was a little odd to find D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was comprised of a whopping 12 reels. Even modern movies rarely break a three-hour run-time, but this silent spectacle certainly does. With movies like this, D.W. Griffith ushered in the era of the “feature-length” movie. He showed how much could be done in 12 reels of film, not only in terms of plot but also in terms of the creative and artistic methods used to tell a story of this length.

The Camerons of South Carolina enlist to fight the Civil War and soon find that Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) is the only surviving son of his two brothers. His headstrong attitude caused him to lead a charge at a major battle and earned him a nickname: “The Little Colonel.” Unfortunately, he is captured after being wounded in battle. While he is accused of treason by the Union and sentenced to hang, his mother asks Abraham Lincoln to pardon him and has her request granted. After Lincoln is assassinated, Ben finds the freed slaves of the South are using underhanded techniques to become elected officials. These former slaves don’t seem to know proper manners for governing individuals, which is why Ben tries to “scare” them into behaving by starting the ghost-themed Ku Klux Klan. Soon, order returns as the Klansmen ensure the slaves are no longer stuffing ballot boxes.

IntoleranceIntolerance
Year: 1916
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours

If The Birth of a Nation was long, Griffith’s follow-up, Intolerance (1916) was even longer. Around 200 minutes long, this epic is actually four different stories told in parallel. Because of the backlash he received for the racially insensitive The Birth of a Nation, Griffith answered the only way he knew how: through film. He wanted to show intolerance in its many forms as a form of apology for glorifying the racist ideals of the Ku Klux Klan in his previous movie. Fortunately, this apology seemed to work, as he continued to direct many films after this point, including the classics Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Regarding his legacy, the American Film Institute originally put The Birth of a Nation on its Top 100 list in 1998, replacing it with Intolerance during the 10th Anniversary list. A fitting substitution, considering the original circumstances.

To show “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (the subtitle for this film), Griffith follows four instances of intolerance across history. The oldest story is from the Babylonians, whose intolerance between different sects of followers of two different gods led to their demise. Even Jesus Christ (Howard Gaye) Himself experienced intolerance, the penultimate result of which was His eventual crucifixion. Centuries later, Catholics were intolerant of Protestants, which resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Finally, in the modern times of 1914, the socially backward situation that leads to a man being sentenced to hang just for protecting his wife from the boss who put him in prison the first time. Most of these moments of intolerance end in tragedy. There is one story that does manage to pull out a happy ending, while still enforcing the huge influence intolerance has over people.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great D.W. Griffith movies

Bacon #: 3 (San Francisco / Roger Imhof -> Man Hunt / Roddy McDowall -> The Big Picture / Kevin Bacon)

#190. History Lessons

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This famous quote by George Santayana highlights the problem society often suffers: long term memory loss. If something didn’t happen recently, we forget the conditions which led to it. Perhaps the reason for this is because history can be bogged down in details. History can be boring. However, as I’ve written before, history can be tolerable if it’s entertaining. The best times we can learn from our history are if we are open enough to laugh about it. Granted, history can be very brutal and unforgiving at times, but if we allow some of the accuracy to be tainted, these tragedies could be turned into comedies. Although sometimes it’s just fun to see that, as much as things change, some things remain the same. This week’s two films feature some comedic history lessons.

Three AgesThree Ages
Year: 1923
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 63 minutes / 1.05 hours

The more things change, the more things stay the same. There are certain elements of the human condition that tend to reappear, time and time again, regardless of the historical period. This theme can be seen in a number of films, including Cloud Atlas (2012), which even goes so far to show the parallels and connections of history well into the future. However, one of the most famous instances of the historical parallelism plot is that of Intolerance (1916). In this film, we see four different historical eras: Babylonian, Judean, French, and Modern. Each of these eras highlights the intolerance that has caused so many problems throughout history. In doing so, director D.W. Griffith tries to show us that our bigotry is not a new concept, as it has been around since time began. That being said, another human emotion which has been around forever is love.

Buster Keaton took a more upbeat approach to Griffith’s story with Three Ages (1923). Both share the multiple, historical periods, but Three Ages tries to highlight the struggle of man to win the heart of a woman. As such, Three Ages also mimics Intolerance by only using three archetypes: the boy (Buster Keaton), the girl (Margaret Leahy), and the rival (Wallace Beery). In the Prehistoric Age, the rival wins the girl by knocking her over the head and dragging her away. In the Roman Age, the rival wins the girl by beating the boy in a chariot race. Finally, the Modern Age (i.e., 1920s America) has the rival winning the girl over with massive amounts of wealth. Fortunately, it is in this final age when the boy finally gets the girl by stepping up and showing some confidence. Despite his monetary lack, the boy and girl have one thing in common: love.

History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sometimes, the best way to learn history is to see an incorrect version of it. For instance, the comedy album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years takes the stories we’ve all heard in school and puts a humorous and musical twist on them. From Christopher Columbus sailing to Miami Beach to open an Italian Restaurant to the accidental serving of turkey instead of an eagle for Thanksgiving to a very indecisive George Washington as he chooses his boat to cross the Delaware River, each segment is meant to twist history into comedy only because we know what actually happened. Or do we? At any rate, much of the comedy of these historical pieces comes from the use of anachronisms, which are modern items and ideas placed in a historical period before their time.

Mel Brooks’ slightly askew history lesson comes in the form of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). Instead of showing all the different historical eras together in a parallel format, like in Three Ages, Brooks takes the very standard, chronological approach. Starting with the Stone Age, we see a world filled with firsts, which inevitably creates the first critics. Next, the Old Testament is parodied with Moses (Mel Brooks) bringing down the Fifteen, scratch that, Ten Commandments. Continuing on to the New Testament, the Roman Empire is shown to be filled with excess as Comicus (Mel Brooks) escapes certain death. Bet you didn’t know the Spanish Inquisition was a musical. Nobody expects that. Finally, in a case of mistaken identity, we see the French Revolution where “it’s good to be the king.” If only the sequel was real, we’d also get to see Hitler on ice.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 hilarious history lessons