BEYOND COMPARING: THE INTERNAL DYNAMICS OF INTOLERANCE

by Yuri Tsivian

ASL (Average Shot Length) as calculated manually before it ever occurred to anyone that a computer could be used for that effect has always been conceived as a single number, one per film. Suppose we know that film A has an ASL of x, and film B an ASL of y. The only meaningful conclusion ASL can provide us with respect to films A and B will be by necessity a comparative one: to learn more about A and B, compare x and y. What this essay attempted to do when I wrote it (which took place, roughly, around 2005) was to show that nowadays, in the age of computerized statistics what we can do with ASLs goes beyond comparing films. Nowadays, we can project comparative statistics to throw light upon its inner structure, something that the title of this essay defines as “internal dynamics.” I used D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance as a case study. What follows is an account of what I did.

Indeed, an obvious limitation of the ASL index is that it can only be used to relate films. Looking at it the we only thing we can learn is, for instance, that Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera (ASL 2.1 seconds) is cut slightly faster that Eisenstein’s 1926 Battleship Potemkin (ASL 2.8 seconds) or that these Soviet movies run tenfold faster than Bauer’s pre-revolutionary masterpiece After Death (1915) whose ASL reaches 21.2 seconds—but none of these three numbers will tell us much about each film’s individual physiognomy, if one may call it this way.
The latter is something cinemetrics is designed to outline. Instead of reducing film’s cutting rate to a single average figure it stores in the computer memory the exact length of each individual shot and shows as a diagram the tides and ebbs of cutting within the duration of a film. As it registers the length of each shot and the position of each cut, cinemetrics is also a handy tool to explore complex editing patterns.
Take Griffith’s Intolerance, one of the most ambitious and influential films in cinema’s history. Intolerance is a tale of tales. To get across a homily summarized in the film’s title Griffith shows us four stories from four ages in human history. The idea of using multiple narratives to bring home a moral they have in common is not new in literature or film; what was new and unusual about Intolerance was that rather than present its stories one by one Griffith kept cross-cutting between the four. Those who have seen the film will recall that towards the end the back-and-forth between its stories tends to quicken its pace and that this quickening is reinforced by the fact that individual shots tend to become shorter and shorter.
The question that concerns me about Intolerance is not what moved Griffith to experiment with a complex and potentially confusing structure like this or what goals he was trying to achieve. Not that I consider such questions unimportant, but this aspect of Griffith’s film has been addressed and well explained. The most famous analysis of the cross-story cutting in Intolerance comes from the pen of my countryman Eisenstein, who (like, by the way, Vertov) considered this film seminal for what he and the rest of the Soviet montage-school filmmakers did in the 1920s. By cutting between several stories rather than within one, Eisenstein claims, Griffith has shown to us young Soviet filmmakers that editing was not about storytelling but about shaping ideas. What remained for us to do was to take up Griffith’s discovery and turn it into what the American director could hardly have dreamt it would become: an ideological weapon. This, in a nutshell, is what Eisenstein wrote in his essay “Dickens, Griffith, and Ourselves.”(1)
Two other powerful explanations of editing in Intolerance come, I am proud to add, from two of my colleagues at the University of Chicago, Miriam Hansen and Tom Gunning. If we trace cross-cutting back to The Lonely Villa (1909)—the first film in which Griffith cuts back and forth across distant spaces to connect two simultaneous lines of action—Gunning says in a study published in 1991 that we will be able to see to what extent the use of this cinematic technique was prepared and conditioned by a number of other new technologies that made turn-of-the-century people feel triumphant over distances and spaces: telephony, telegraphy, speeding cars and railway trains. Crosscutting is part of the modernity package. Had people living in 1916 not been familiar with the wonder of telephones, the wonder of jumping between ages would have been harder for them to take in.(2)
It was in the same year that Miriam Hansen’s Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film came out. One chapter of this book is about Griffith’s cross-cutting between ages. To understand its cultural roots we must look at Intolerance in the context of two ideas that occupied many a turn-of-the-century mind, Hansen explains. One of these is the millennialist belief in the forthcoming restitution of the universal language—the return of the pre-Babel world of tolerance and mutual understanding, hints at which Hansen has shown permeate the Babylon story of Intolerance. The other is the thought (voiced in Griffith’s interviews and shared by a number of writers on cinema in those days) that it was silent cinema—the language of pictures not words—that would eventually become the universal language of the future. In Hansen’s view, the four stories of Intolerance should be seen as Griffith’s attempt to rebuild the tower of Babel. Had he not thought his mission was to turn the new medium into a better language than that of words Griffith could hardly have hoped that, cut as he may between them, the four stories from four epochs would cohere.(3)
Nothing of substance can be added to these well-argued accounts, two by historians of film and culture, one by a major player in the field. It was less an interpretative need that urged me to use cinemetrics on Intolerance than a curiosity about film metrics as such, about its limits of relevance. I wanted to see what happens if I gathered the shot-length data about Intolerance as a whole, about each of its stories separately, and assessed their fluctuations within the duration of the film. Would this result in a disorderly (and therefore irrelevant) array of data or show a set of regularities, a pattern? And if it did, would it complement what we already knew about the editing of this film?
The first—and simplest—question that cinemetrics allows us to ask is about the average shot of Intolerance. It is 6 seconds long—nothing unusual for an American movie of the teens (though if one weighs this number against 21.2 seconds, the average shot length of After Death, made in Russia one year prior to Intolerance, one will be able to see what Russian prerevolutionary film journalists meant when they wrote, with a touch of slight, about hurried American cutting).
A more interesting question to ask might be whether or not the average shot length varies depending on the kind of the story Griffith deals with and on the epoch in which it is set—in other words, if there is a correlation between cutting rates and subject matter. If there is none, the average shot length within each story will be the same as it is throughout the film, but if there is, it may be worth asking which story is the fastest—the modern, the Judean, the French, or the Babylonian?
As it turns out, a discrepancy is present. Almost a second-long gulf separates the average speed of the more modern stories (one set in twentieth-century USA, the other in sixteenth-century Paris) from the ancient ones (Judea, 1st century AD; Babylon, 4th century BC), whose pace is below the average 6:
1st place: the French story (4.9 seconds)
2nd place: the modern story (5.6 seconds)
3rd place: the Babylonian story (6.5 seconds)
4th place: the Judean story (6.7 seconds)
Though there seems to be a trend in this distribution of cutting rates, these data are not always easy to interpret. I do not think many will be surprised to find out that the Judean story which takes Jesus Christ from the wedding at Cana to the cross is the slowest, but that the Modern story loses 0.7 seconds to the French one is counterintuitive; those who know Intolerance will likely say the Modern story feels more dynamic. I do not think it is our intuition that cheats us here but rather the averaging of numbers, for each time we strike an average we level the extremes. The reason the average speed of the modern story is lower than that of the French one is not that it is poorer in short shots—there are enough short shots in both—but that it is richer in long ones; the longest French shot runs for 32 seconds, the longest modern one for 53. It is exactly due to a contrast between the fast and the slow (in cinemetrics jargon, the cutting swing, or the range between short and long shots which varies from film to film and is distinct from the cutting rate, an index anchored in shot lengths alone) that the modern story feels more dynamic than its average shot length tends to show.
Yes, average numbers can be deceptive, but this does not rule cutting statistics out of court. As I mentioned earlier on, cinemetrics can represent data not only as a number but also as a graph that shows us the dynamics where naked numbers fail (Fig 1).

Figure 1

The graph in fig. 1 represents the dynamic profile of Intolerance as a whole, all its stories included. The straight dotted line (called “trendline”) shows that as a general tendency the cutting rate of Intolerance climbs during the film; the two-humped curve, the polynomial trendline, shows that this tendency is not steady; that the film starts slowly; has two waves of activity, a minor and a major one, and slows down at the end—a dynamics that complies with a time-honored dramatic theory according to which a well-crafted drama (or story, or film) must start calmly, have two climaxes, and resolve in a quieter coda.
I find this graph useful but not indispensable, for most people who know Intolerance well can say without looking that there must be something like an upsurge in film’s tempo around the place when the troops attack the strikers in the modern story, another one when the Persian troops attack Babylon, and, of course, a peaceful apotheosis responsible for the slowdown in the end.


Figure 2

A more interesting picture will emerge if we look at the metric profiles of each of the four stories taken separately(Figs. 2–5). While three of them comply with the film’s general tendency to pick up the pace, the Judean story (the slowest of the four) slows down as it follows Christ from Cana to the cross. My guess is that this anomaly may be due to an interference of a generic norm to which every Christ story must conform. When enough Passion plays are submitted to the cinemetrics database (this was a minor genre in the cinema of Griffith’s epoch, and not only of that epoch), it may well turn out that Passion plays routinely tend to slow down their pace towards the end to be able to relate the last events of Christ’s life in all their painful details.(4)
There is an interesting similarity between the dynamic profiles of the modern and Babylonian stories: both go up and down, then again up and down. Does this pattern reflect some general rule of dramatic rhythm, or is it perhaps Griffith’s trademark way of shaping the narrative flow of his films? Again, the future may show; to answer this we’ll need to examine metric data from more Griffith movies. So far (by July 2007) only 33 of Griffith’s film titles have been submitted to the cinemetrics database—less than one tenth of his entire output. But if there is a regularity to discover, I am willing to wait.
Note that the curve of the French story does not dive towards the end as the other three stories do—in other words, this story never slows down. This is not hard to explain, knowing that the French story ends in medias res, as it were. Griffith quits this story before the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre is over. A trickier question might be what makes him do so; it is here I think the Cinemetrics data can help us account for the subject matter instead of the other way round.
I do not think anyone will disagree if I say that leaving off in the heat of a battle in not Griffith’s normal way of ending a story—so little so that his biographer Richard Schickel has tried to explain this anomaly by a mistake on Griffith’s part: “as for the French story, it has a truncated feeling about it, as if, perhaps, Griffith shot more of it than survived the final cut.”(5) It seems more likely, however, that Griffith intentionally sacrificed a neat narrative closure of the French story to maintain the flow of Intolerance as a whole (see fig. 1). The French story ends as early as 15 minutes before the rest of the film does, and if Griffith decided to close it off with his usual slow-down it would work against the general climax he was building. To borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s metaphor, Intolerance is a motorcar with a four-cylinder engine, and no good engineer would allow one of its cylinders to undermine the others.


Figure 3

It is this unique feature of the narrative style of Intolerance, the teamwork of its four stories, which the elegant sinuous line in fig. 6tells us about. Remember, what made Intolerance different from other multistory narratives until then was that Griffith kept jumping back and forth between his stories. The data summed up by this diagram are not shot lengths as in previous cases but the length of the story chunks that Griffith cuts between as the film evolves. The line heaves where the cuts between the stories become more frequent, and where they get less frequent the line sinks. See how clever Griffith’s editing is. He begins with relatively brief story chunks in order to bring it home as early as possible that there is a connection between the four epochs. This done, Griffith can afford to linger on each of stories longer, to give it time for a proper exposition (primarily on the modern and Babylonian ones, for these two are by far the longest), which is why the line ebbs until about the middle of the film. But the higher the tension within each of the stories, the more Griffith switches between them. This, again, is followed by a slower coda. It is only when we see his editing at a glance—that is, as a graph—can we see why Intolerance is a masterpiece of timing and temporal composition.
Let me conclude this on a methodological note. Films like Intolerance have not only multiple stories but also multiple selves. Alongside the cultural, social, and historical selves shown to us by Gunning, Hansen, or Eisenstein, Intolerance has an inner self whose life is made visible by cinemetrics. Neither cinema nor its history can be sighted or sized up from a single perspective. In this respect I am, as one of Griffith’s intertitles characterizes Prince Belshazzar from the Babylonian story of Intolerance, “an apostle of tolerance and love.” There is a sad tradition in film studies to see analytical and interpretive procedures as competing rather than complementary; it would help the advancement of our field if neither analysis nor interpretation claimed a monopoly of it.
On the other hand I am not quite prepared to surrender the Babylon of film history by saying actually, Babylon is whatever you think it is. Nor am I pushing towards some sort of additive, multidimensional image of film history saying that cinema equals literature plus photography plus editing plus whatever other fields it has drawn upon.
The question of style is one of change. Cinema borrows things from other arts, but it also changes everything it borrows. If an arithmetic operation existed that could help us get a better sense of the history of film it would be not addition but subtraction. Cinema equals theater minus the techniques and conventions used on the theater stage. Cinema equals literature minus all the talk about meanings and texts. Cinema is photography minus its congenital realism. If more slogans are needed to stage a small-scale cultural revolution in film studies I invite everyone to send in more.

(1) See Eisenstein, “Dickens, Griffith, and Ourselves,” S. M. Eisenstein: Selected Works Vol. 3, Writings 1934–47, trans. William Powell, ed. Richard Taylor (London, 1996), pp. 193–239.

(2) See Tom Gunning, “Heard over the Phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde Tradition of the Terrors of Technology," Screen 32 (Summer 1991): 184–96.

(3) See Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, Mass. 1991).

(4) The only Passion play submitted to the Cinemetrics database thus far (July, 2007) does not seem to support my hypothesis. See From the Manger to the Cross, dir. Sidney Olcott (1912), http://www.cinemetrics.lv/movie.php?movie_ID=440

(5) Richard Schickel, D.W. Griffith: An American Life (New York, 1984), p. 314.