Last Friday evening, I finally started watching Mark Cousins’ much-discussed, often-derided, but undeniably-important The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-part, 915-minute examination of the history of the medium. Covering the first two decades of cinema’s development, he naturally touches on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a film that was shown this past weekend here in Los Angeles in a new digital restoration, a few blocks from my apartment, where I also could have watched the film from the same service – Netflix – through which I was watching The Story of Film. Nearly one hundred years ago, Griffith shot the film’s famous Babylon set at the intersection of Sunset, Hollywood, and Hillhurst, in a part of town now known as Silver Lake, and where our great Vista Theatre now operates. The location is well known because the set stood standing as a local attraction until 1919. It later provided the basis in designing a section of the Hollywood & Highland shopping center, which in turn houses the Dolby Theatre, formerly the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards have been presented since 2002.
Intolerance, sometimes sub-titled Love’s Struggle Through the Ages, looks at the way the titular subject has been a persistent force across several centuries (an estimated 2,500 years), and Griffith’s art is in intercutting four distinct stories towards an aesthetic, thematic, and emotional whole, each one playing off and informing the others. We’re reaching that point with classic film as a whole. Films made before 1970 are being experienced in ways their creators never could have foreseen, from something as simple as digital projection, which, when it’s working right, should be relatively indistinguishable from regular film projection, to a system like Netflix, which allows users to watch films in pieces across a variety of platform with whatever attention span they’re inclined to give, to works like The Story of Film, which excise portions to prove points wholly separate from the overall goal of the original work.
Does this variety of methods of engagement change the original work? Or at least how we approach it? In what ways are films redefined and reexamined in the modern age, as not only viewing preferences, but outright prejudices emerge? These older films not only provide a valuable record of their time of production, not only still work as satisfying drama and art, but continue to actively challenge our tastes and viewpoints, really demonstrating what Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In this column, we will examine the ways in which streaming, home video, new theatrically-exhibited restorations, and anything else that might pertain continue to ensure that older films will never be “past.” The canon is still in progress, after all, not just due to the overwhelming number of great films made every year, but – perhaps more excitingly – all the great films we’ve barely touched.
The Story of Film seems, so far, a great place to find a basic foundation. Cousins rehashes much of what a film student learns in their first year of undergrad, while also recontextualizing popularly-held notions. In revisiting, for example, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (or The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), the Lumiere Brothers’ famous 1895 short depicting just what the title promises, Cousins naturally touches on the often-told (and possibly untrue) story of how audiences at the time screamed in terror as the train seemed to barrell towards them. Rather than diminish, let alone mock, such possible reactions, Cousins instead suggests that their thrill was in coming in contact with an entirely new manner of perception, one to which their senses had not yet grown accustomed. Undoubtedly they had waited at train platforms before, and cautiously moved away from the edge of the platform as the train approached; the Lumieres did not afford them such a luxury, and they reacted as they had been conditioned to.
I think of how 3D movies are having much the same effect now. I saw a presentation on the technology’s development a few years ago, during which the speaker showed a clip from Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf. The scene depicted an airborne chase that culminates in, among other thrills, the camera seeming to plunge right into a tree. Just as intended, all of us in the audience jumped as the tree zoomed towards us, only to smile to ourselves as we, and the titular hero, narrowly avoided a collision. “Did anyone see a tree?” the speaker asked afterward. Indeed, perhaps reactions such as these will, too, be amusing to audiences in 2120, so accustomed to a barrage of imagery in unimagined dimensions, both literal and figurative, that a simple tree barely phases them. In the meantime, if you have the opportunity, you go see L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat on a big enough screen and tell me that it doesn’t fool you for a second. The past is never dead; it’s still hurtling straight for us.
Next time, we’ll be discussing Criterion’s new box set collecting the most important collaborations between Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, and what happens when canonical titles are finally made available to the masses.
– Scott Nye