Long Island Archeology


Artificial Archaeology and the Cinema- Griffith’s Intolerance
May 7, 2008, 10:24 pm
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The cinema has always had an interesting practical relationship with archeology in addition to a more obvious influence its image in popular culture. Who doesn’t think of Indiana Jones when archeology is in the news- despite the fact that the good Doctor Jones never had to fill out all the forms and paperwork involved with Cultural Resource Management before hacking his way through primordial jungle, or even complete a single grant application to actually pay for his map-overlayed flight to Peru. It is interesting to compare the differences between the actual processes involved in archeology, and the ways archeology is depicted– a false archeology- addressed through the cinema in a new way, both creating an actual, pseudo-ruin and a realistically artificial image of Babylon.

Intolerance– D.W. Griffith, 1916 (full movie here)

(the capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Great from Intolerance– the sets are full size, and, besides limited matte/model work and forced perspective, has little in the way of what we would call ‘special effects’- just old fashioned camera trickery and genius accountants at work)

Perhaps the best example of this ‘false archeology’ can be found in D.W. Griffith’s silent classic Intolerance. Equally a response to the criticism of his earlier work, Birth of a Nation, (the racist content of which reinvigorated the KKK from the shell of its post-Reconstruction strength to a menacingly popular organization from the 1920s onwards- the film had even originally been titled The Clansman) and an attempt to ‘top’ what had been his greatest success, the film, through four intertwined, historical stories (the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, Capture of Babylon, Crucifixion of Jesus, Contemporary America) “shows how hatred and intolerance have struggled, through the ages, against love and charity”. The result is intriguing: a gigantic, brilliant, financial flop of a film depicting the cruelty of hatred, directed by a man most famous for ending his previous film with the Klu Klux Klan rescuing Lillian Gish from marrying a black man by ‘riding to the rescue’, taking away guns from black men, and then keeping them from voting. President Wilson, upon seeing Birth of Nation, supposedly said it was “like writing history with lightning.”  So much for the Fourteen Points.

If it is possible to ignore Birth of A Nation‘s racist overtones and look at the film from a technical perspective, it was groundbreaking in terms of it’s filming methods and editing style. It is odd to think that other technically impressive films with unsavory overtones, such as the famously pro- Nazi box-office blitzkriegs Triumph of the Will and Olympia, are lauded for their creative achievement and at the same time reviled for their content. Birth of A Nation wasn’t an exception: it was incredibly controversial even when it was first released, and he did recut the film in 1921 to remove explicit reference to the KKK- of course, after everyone in America had already seen it. Intolerance was to be different- even more groundbreaking, epic in scope, and with a positive message that couldn’t detract from Griffith’s reputation. The film’s sprawling, four part story was made possible only by the financial success of Birth of A Nation, but despite this hefty bankroll, the film faced huge budget problems throughout its production, largely a result of the sheer scale of the project.

The four different sequences aren’t given equal time or attention- after all, who wants to see Contemporary America and it’s problems when you can watch saucy, nearly-nude dancing girls and sumptuous scenes of conquest.  The unabashed center of Intolerance is the Babylon sequences. Forget CGI cityscapes and lily-livered greenscreening: Intolerance‘s set design is the most incredible feat of directorial chutzpah, Hollywood financial wizardry, and genuine craftsmanship ever produced by the cinema- an honest to god attempt at making a full scale replica of Babylon. The Babylon sequences are given the most screen time and directorial attention, and serve to bind the overarching story- the fall of the city is the film’s most compelling scene as Griffith’s innovative camera lingers on the city as the invaders storm the huge set.  Hollywood has done nothing to equal this- even Ben-Hur’s chariot scene pales in comparison to the humongous Babylon set.
Babylon in Intolerance

(Babylon as seen in Intolerance, restored photo via Dr. Macro’s Movie Scans, click for full)

(Ishtar Gate from the walls of ancient Babylon, now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, click for full.)

(The walls of Babylon as they appear today, click for full)

(This Moloch Machine is In keeping with the same fine American tradition that has created a miniature New York City inside a city built in the middle of the barren wastes of the Nevada desert- Las Vegas. Designed to liberate tourists from the burdens of their capital through the wiles of chain restaurants and shopping, this mall, in Los Angeles @ Hollywood and Highland, is directly based upon the Intolerance set [note the elephant on top of the pedestal on the right], click for full)

It would, for obvious reasons, be difficult to argue that Griffith’s Intolerance is a literal archaeological history- the sets and costumes, realistic as they might appear, have as much to do with the actual history of Babylon as Schliemann‘s pillage of of golden treasure has in common with 2004’s excuse to unleash notoriously old man Peter O’Toole and horrendously accented Brad Pitt in Troy. Intolerance is largely a conjecture, a mix of actual archeology and the imagination of a particularly gifted art design. The film was extensively researched by Griffith, who insisted on a high degree of realism- or at least the appearance of realism, in the set design. Objects in the film were usually based off actual, excavated objects- academic books were flipped through ad nauseum, and, most interestingly, a huge scrapbook of sources was compiled exclusively for the film’s art design:

“There is, however, a good deal of evidence in the film itself to show that considerable research was done in such areas as history, architecture, furniture, costumes, and the decorative arts. Outside the film there are records and anecdotes which testify to the research done for both archeological accuracy and aesthetic effects in the film. In addition to these sources of information, there is, in the Griffith Archives of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a scrapbook compiled specifically for Griffith’s use during the filming of the Babylonian sequence of Intolerance.” {Hanson 496}

(Several pages from Griffith’s scrapbook on Intolerance– illustrations were often directly cut out from academic books and organized in the scrapbook by a dedicated team that worked personally with Griffith on the whole project.)

However, the demands of the camera could, and did, take precedence over the realism of the scrapbooks. Specific costume items had to be personalized for the actor or actress who would wear the garment. Stylization was allowed with some of the props, using the talents of the film’s incredible art design team (which Griffith directly led, having two Lead Designers on the film) to make certain particular objects were a bit more glamorous and attractive- after all, this is Hollywood Movie Magic we’re talking about, not some schmoe AIP vampire flick.

One architectural item in particular Griffith wanted in the film were elephants on top of the Babylonian city’s columns, perhaps inspired by an earlier Italian silent film on the ancient Carthaginians, Cabiria (1914).  This connection between Griffith, who has been alternately rehabilitated and condemned for Birth of a Nation, and Cabiria‘s director, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, is somewhat odd, since D’Annunzio faced similar PR nightmares for being one of the first fascists in Italy, serving alternately as mentor and rival to Mussolini, and briefly conquering the city of Fiume and turning it into perhaps the strangest country emerge from WW1, with it’s fundamental principle being ‘music’.  Epic films must attract epic egotists to their helms.

“Joseph Henabery recalls very well Griffith’s insistence upon the inclusion of elephants in the Intolerance set. Griffith was very keen on those elephants. He wanted one on top of each of the eight pedestals in Belshazzar’s Palace. I searched through all my books. ‘I’m sorry’, I said, ‘I can’t find any excuse for elephants. I don’t care what Dore’ or any other biblical artist has drawn- I can find no reason for putting elephants up there. To begin with, elephants were not native to this country. They may have known about them, but I can’t find any references.’ Finally, this fellow Wales found someplace a comment about elephants on the walls of Babylon, and Griffith, delighted, just grabbed it. He very much wanted elephants up there!” {Hanson 500}

The Intolerance set came to resemble an architectural model on a huge scale, albeit not a particularly accurate one. It’s sheer scale was overwhelming- massive, truly expansive, a monument in its own right, except it honored Griffith and the cinema instead of the Kings of Babylon- similar structures built more than a thousand years apart for entirely different purposes. The set strove for a ‘heightened’ realism- it was aggressive in its authenticity, but was still altered and changed from the ‘true’, architectural building it  aped to make it appear more realistic through the camera’s moderated eye. The set of Intolerance was an imperfect doppelganger, an artificial archeology that reflected the grand idea of Babylon more than its more practical reality.

Despite the set of Intolerance being, by its very nature, fake, it actually became an actual archeological ruin of a certain nature, for at least a short while. The huge costs of the film made dissembling the set impossible, since labor costs had already been overrun so heavily and Hollywood studios are, if anything, hesitant to sink more money into a film that has already been released. The film’s box office was also somewhat less than expected, although the film eventually did turn a profit- audiences weren’t very taken with the complicated four-part plot, preferring to spend their money on tamer fare that was less preachy. As a result, the set lay abandoned since the producers refused to spend more money to destroy their fake city. Thus, for a time, Los Angeles had an abandoned Babylon within its borders, quickly deteriorating in the wind and weather as the cheap production processes set design use as their trademark slowly came undone.  It soon became something of a tourist attraction, despite its worsening condition, and the city’s frequent fines.

An abstract question presents itself- had some disaster befallen the Earth in the winter of 1916, destroying our civilization in some sort of surreal, divine punishment for the forthcoming sins of flappers and Art Deco, would future archaeologists, coming across a ruined Babylon in sunny Los Angeles, have believed Hammurabi’s code had been proclaimed on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard instead from ancient Iran? Eventually, the set for Intolerance burned down in the 1920s, either as an accident or through the actions of producers still hesitant to spend money on removing the huge structure.

(The abandoned set to Intolerance rots away in Los Angeles after the film has finished shooting, but before a fire destroyed the structure)

Hanson, Bernard. ‘D.W. Griffith: Some Sources.’ The Art Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 4, 1972.

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Historical Films As False Reality- (Mel Gibson as Time Bandit)
May 5, 2008, 8:25 am
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(Errol Flynn, presumably aiming at the screenwriter of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves [1991] in his 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, from Dr. Macro)

Who doesn’t love a good historical flick- swords-and-sandals, kings-and-castles, blustery-moustaches-against-full-blown-beards; audiences usually flock to them, Hollywood producers phone them in while drinking Bloody Marys poolside, directors bait their lines with them when Oscar season opens, and actors enjoy the challenge and fun of playing dress-up and sword fighting. Yet, for all the Lawrence of Arabia‘s there are an equal number of Pearl Harbors. There is something about historical dramas that give screenwriters and directors a compelling need to not just rewrite history, but rewrite it badly. I don’t have a problem with historical drama with more than a few liberties- The Thin Red Line is one of my favorite films, and it is wildly different from its source material– but those films that decide that history isn’t interesting enough for modern audiences, then turn fantastic stories into common-denominator drivel are guilty of a particular sort of cinematic sin. These sorts of films typically have as much to do with either history or attempts at a compelling plot as Schliemann‘s archeological pillaging has to do with 2004’s excuse to unleash notoriously old man Peter O’Toole and a horrendously accented Brad Pitt in Troy. There is, after all, a large difference between what we would identify as ‘documentary’ and ‘reality’, something the ‘historical’ film is especially prone to violate- the director becomes consumed with making the audience ‘buy’ the film- thus the frequent overemphasizing of costume finery, CGI fakery, and accent fraudulence at the expense of plot and character development. Thus, the audience is condemned to a picture that ‘looks’ realistic enough, but distorts historical allegory by forcefully stuffing it into formulaic, three-act-structures and hackneyed, overused plotlines, even when the story doesn’t fit.

Perhaps the most frequent violator of both good taste and history is Mel Gibson, with his Apocalypto, The Patriot, and Passion of the Christ marking both a healthy interest in history and a very, very unhealthy method of filming said history. To begin- The Patriot; a story of the American Revolution suitably sauced up with a patently overblown, archetypically snobby English villain who is equal parts Grand Moff Tarkin and Oswald Moseley, florid and uncompelling violence (at least pander convincingly!), a ridiculously impossible plot, and the high crime of turning the Revolutionary War into Blackhawk Down. Mel Gibson himself plays some sort of uber-soldier-farmer-father, capable of killing infinite numbers of red-coated cannon fodder by either tomahawk or musket as long as he remains enraged about his son’s death at the hands of the British- the colonial Incredible Hulk, as it were. Despite there being no shortage of genuine stories and characters from the Revolution exciting enough to hold an audience’s attention for two hours: after all, revolts tend to be livelier affairs than never-ending dinner parties and society lifeThe Patriot turns what could be a genuinely compelling story into Ye Olde Die Hard.

Historical details are smudged to fit the plot and the audience’s preexisting notions of the Revolution- this is perhaps most evident in the film’s treatment of African-Americans. Slavery, which was of critical importance since the British offered blacks freedom and wages for joining up with Loyalists while many of the rebels were slave holders themselves, is unaddressed except for the hackneyed presence of ‘backwards racist + straightforward old black man’ in Gibson’s crack army of misfit rebels: they, of course, save each other and overcome prejudice in a most predictable way. The film fails to give itself over to what was a truly compelling story: a battered, incredibly fractured minority movement that managed, with significant foreign aid and good timing, to overcome a Great Power and win independence. The Patriot and the other films like it form a particular school of the historical film- the gross simplification of characters and plots to the point where they bear little resemblance to actual events and people, the setting of history in black-and-white, good vs. bad, hero against villain terms familiar to the general audience’s concept of cinematic storytelling and structure, (after all, history rarely follows a three-act structure) events being related through popular conceptualizations of an event rather than more interesting, historically verified incidents, and a film’s art design, costuming, and even the actors’ accents being similarly reflexive of the audience’s popular conceptions and opposed, as usual, to an infinitely more enthralling reality. Barry Lyndon, this ain’t.

(In this scene from The Patriot, one man and two pre-pubescent boys with three muskets, an axe and a dagger fire 12 times, never missing, and hack 11 redcoats to pieces in a matter of minutes; in the same time period, an entire column of professional soldiers fires 31 times, missing all but 30 shots: they do manage to shoot one of their own soldiers, giving them a 96% (if my math is correct) of missing their target, who is often just several feet away and yelling at them to pay attention. The Queen, apparently, needs to institute some serious target practice. After this, Mel Gibson stabs a horse with an American flag, which is illegal. This scene is also similar to another famous battle in the Revolutionary War that perhaps inspired this part of The Patriot.)

Returning to Mr. Gibson’s other works, we can see his unique blend of historical ‘authenticity’ and The Passion of the Christ. Now, here is a movie that Gibson could easily tackle- ‘historical’ Christ films haven’t been very popular or particularly well done, so there’s clearly some wiggle room here- and, it’s a classic story with built-in box-office draw. Still, applying a liberal dose of Aramaic and violence is no substitute for not having anything approaching either a story or the New Testament. Concentrating only on the crucifixion + scourging isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it is, after all, the climax of the whole plot of Jesus’s life, as it were: but the film falls flat when viewed outside of the tremendous hype of the movie. Yes, it is violent, and yes, the actors are speaking in Aramaic. Do these aspects serve as fitting substitutes for an actual, serious examination of Christianity’s central figure or even a Thin Blue Line-eque story of justice gone wrong? The answer is a resounding no, and yet again Gibson uses the crutch of false-history: shocking levels of violence (although there have been more violent films, and besides this, isn’t the entire point of Jesus supposed to be his teaching of peace as opposed to reveling in suffering?) and writing the dialogue in Aramaic, which gives a false idea of realism (no ancient Greek?) without any kind of historical relevancy. Yet, the audience hears the peculiar sounds of a dead language, sees the film’s brutal scourging, and forgets the complete absence of the entire rest of the New Testament and interprets them as realism. Gibson could well have made the film in pig Latin and added Deer Hunter inspired Roman tortures for the same effect: selling history as real onscreen has little to do with either good filmmaking or compelling history, and the result is clear- an overhyped, overplayed, mediocre movie about how awful it was to be Jesus when the Romans came calling.

(Now THIS is a film about Jesus I can get behind!)

Apocalypto left a particularly awful taste in my mouth: of all Gibson’s historical follies, this one had the most interesting, at least to me, historical setting. How is it possible to flub a film about the Flower Wars– it’s got it all! Human sacrifice, massive battles, brutal European conquest, clash of civilizations, disease epidemics, the fall of empire, personal courage- and did I mention human sacrifice? For god’s sake, just make a damn documentary about the thing, and every person who’s ever lingered on the History Channel or been caught up by Discovery will be in line at the local cineplex to see a movie about one of the most fascinating, unknown cultures to have ever existed. I wish DW Griffith, for all his racist sins, were alive to make this in the same vein as Intolerance: my cinema glands are salivating at the very thought- full scale Aztec temples in a Hollywood backlot, thousands of extras roiling about in battle, the collapse of societies: hell, throw El Nino in there for fun. If we’re reanimating people, bring back Orson Welles as a narrator or a scheming conquistador, Klaus Kinski beamed directly from the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Heston as a priest- come on, Hollywood, do I have to do all the work for you?

This is not from Apocalypto– it’s Werner Herzog’s fantastic Aguirre, the Wrath of God and it’s what Apocalypto could have been.

Again, Mel Gibson combines mistakes from his preceding films- using a dead language, while interesting to listen to, does not equal authenticity; violence without purpose is just silly, and over-indulging in violence is pandering; and killing scores of enemies does not make the hero of a film likable, empathizeable, or even interesting- it makes him Superman, and this isn’t a comic book. I did think the acting was well done, and Gibson gets extra credit for not using Hollywood’s magnificently stupid tradition of using dark-skinned people to double for actual Native Americans. The art design is very well done, with a lot of costume work standing out. But, for all the positives, there are scenes like these:

Yes, you too can survive jumping off gigantic cliffs, as long as you’re in a movie directed by Mel Gibson, and the camera is using liberal amounts of slo-mo. Also: