D. W. Griffith's overpowering 31/2 -hour epic, "Intolerance," gets the perfect showcase Saturday, 95 years after its premiere — a screening with live, original music during an event exploring, yes, intolerance.
The Maryland Institute College of Art has commissioned a new score by Anne Watts and Boister, who will perform it at 7 p.m. in the Brown Center's Falvey Hall. It's the closing attraction in a film series linked to MICA's exhibition about intolerance, "The Narcissism of Minor Differences."
No Griffith movie benefits more from music than "Intolerance," a four-plot fugue that encompasses the Christ story, Persia's conquest of Babylon, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th-century France, and pre-World War I workers victimized by owners, management, do-gooders and criminals. On the phone from Cambridge this week, Watts indicated that she followed this soulful design with a kind of robust subtlety.
"For the climax, a la fugal form, we do what's now called a mash-up, and play various themes over, through and above each other. We don't want cacophony; we just want punch."
Griffith promises in the opening crawl that his cross-cutting storytelling will express his thoughts and imaginings "as they might flash across the mind." The result is the most elaborate — and most entertaining — message movie ever made. Each story is about intolerance: religious, political, social or sexual. No matter how loose the connections are at first, by the final 50 minutes the cascading climaxes resonate (to quote critic James Agee) like "the swinging together of tremendous gongs."
Boister founder and composer Watts doesn't use "tremendous gongs," but she knew she needed to expand her sound. "So we doubled the keyboards, the drums, the horns and the guitars, and we added a tuba." They stayed true to Boister's eclectic aesthetic — and to Griffith's.
"He had an original composer, but he also drew from pop scores and the whole classical canon," Watts said. "He took a total hodgepodge approach — which is just the approach we like to take."
Actually, hodgepodge is the last term you'd apply to Boister. They draw on cabaret and classical, rock and jazz — and honor every form.
"You're watching what could possibly be the most revolutionary movie," Watts said. She said she thought she'd have to approach the score "rationally and traditionally, with separate themes for separate stories. But Griffith intended to pull together common threads of tyranny and violence and pain and death while bringing us up close to all his characters — moving his camera from way back, where you can see thousands of people, to focus in on one man or woman in a crowd."
Emotional and thematic connections, not just settings, inspired Watts' choices. "I thought I'd use the Irish band the Pogues for a modern street riot, but I ended up putting them into the Babylonian sequence. I use Rodgers and Hammerstein for the Huguenots — 'Hello, Young Lovers' — and, oh my God, it's heartbreaking. When you hear, in the voice of a really young girl — my little daughter — 'I had a love of my own, like yours,' it's like it's from a spirit from another world. The music for this movie needs to speak to the human frailty and dignity of the oppressed. Of course, I had to use some Bach."
"Intolerance" builds to a Christian pacifist vision, but its emotional coherence comes from Griffith's affection for characters who enjoy themselves and hatred for those who try to clamp down on them. The mill owner breaks up the workers' drinking and dancing; Cyrus of Persia turns Belshazzar's feast into a bloodbath. While delivering tons of heartbreak, Griffith proselytizes for the positive power of entertainment. Watts is an apt confederate. She said nothing made her feel more relieved than being told that a clip of her work was "exhilarating fun."
Anne Watts and Boister will perform the score to "Intolerance" at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Brown Center's Falvey Hall at MICA, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tom Gunning, author of 'D.W. Griffith and the American Narrative Film," will introduce the screening.