Film As I discussed this time last year, the film documentary, Visions of Light, introduced me to a great deal of classic film and more particularly its cinematography. Hidden amongst one of the key montage sequences underscored by Saint-Saens Aquarium from The Carnival of Animals is the shot from Griffith's Intolerance in which a 100 foot camera crane swoops through the massive sets with their massive statues and thousands of extras. A hundred years later, even with modern special effects technology, few shots in any film quite have this grandeur and thanks immeasurably to the verisimilitude of the ancient camera, the sense of watching history unfolding on a grand scale.
When I'd see the film a few years later it was on a tiny screen when I was going through a phase of thinking that the best venue for "old" films was on the old CRT 14" Sanyo portable on our back balcony. But even in that context, and despite realising it's not a perfect film by any means, the whole of the Babylon section of the film lost none of it's allure even if the ropey, unrestored dvd copy with its plonky Mickey Mousing electronic piano music which ScreenSelect had sent did draw away from the experience somewhat. Aquarium still feels like the perfect accompaniment with its mysterious, searching themes and drooping scales.
But these films were designed to be seen on massive screens in huge auditoriums, the IMAX experience of their day, and for anyone outside London, seeing a work like this in that context is an impossibility for perfectly sound commercial reasons. Despite the slight uptick in interest in silent film, there probably isn't the market for a revival of Intolerance with its three hours of piety and dislocated structure. I'm amazed even Metropolis managed to be something of a success a few years ago, but at least that exists in the context of being an antecedent to a great number of later films and so has an in-built curiosity value.
Nevertheless imagine my surprise, a few years ago, to see this sequence on a massive screen anyway because Martin Scorsese included it in his film Hugo which I saw in screen one of Picturehouse at FACT almost exactly five years ago. As I described in the ensuing review, throughout the film I found myself removing the glasses and enjoying the visuals without, especially during the sequences when the director cut in pieces of film history, suggestions for Georges Méliès's legacy. In one moment we see the very same swooping Babylon sequence, and Scorsese doesn't retrofit the shot in 3D, realising that it requires no tampering for it to envelope the vision of the audience.
Finally seeing it at this scale even for a few brief seconds was breathtaking. As I said then, "it’s not until you can see every figure on that ambitious set that you can fully understand the grandeur of what Griffith was trying to accomplish." You are indeed transported and in a way which isn't necessarily the case even with 3D films, thanks to the distancing aspect of the technology as it is now. However beautiful Hugo's visuals are, it's entirely possible that it was the shots from Intolerance I was thinking about most as I left the cinema that day and even as I wrote that review. Not that any of this excuses Birth of a Nation.