Saturday, June 19, 2010

Greed is Great

I recently saw Erich von Stroheim's monumental massacred masterpiece,  Greed, or what passes for it, and it's both tremendous and heartbreaking. It's a film of extraordinary ambition, too much ambition, and that's what makes it so sad to watch.

In fact, you don't really watch it today; you watch pieces of it. It was originally ten hours long, and the studio butchered it down to a couple of hours of scraps.

The version I saw, now available on iTunes, fills in the missing holes with stills. The original footage, sadly, was torched.

The story behind the making of it is one of the great cautionary tales of art vs. commerce, the iconic model of an obsessed visionary fighting a losing battle with the men who pull the strings.

If you want the whole story, there any number of accounts in film books and websites such as this.

Here's the short version: in 1923, the fiercely independent Austrian director, set out to make an absolutely faithful version of Frank Norris' classic novel McTeague, not only dramatizing virtually everything in the book but making sure everyone felt it.

The story follows the quick rise and long fall of the title character, whose life is destroyed by a sudden infusion of wealth. A poor boy from a broken home, McTeague becomes a miner, finds some short-lived success as a dentist, and falls in love with a girl named Trina, who wins a fortune at the lottery. The money turns their lives upside down, setting into motion a fatalistic series of events that will result in jealousy, suspicion, poverty, misery, and murder. McTeague, on the run from the law after killing Trina, will wind up in Death Valley, where his money will have no value whatsoever.

It was the dark side of the Horatio Alger story, where the American dream of wealth creates greed, selfishness, brutality, murder, and turns people into animals. It's a real American tragedy, very much on the order of Dreiser's American Tragedy, a contemporaneous example of grim early 20th Century realism with which it is frequently compared.

The result was a 9 1/2 hour film that spared no expense in following everything in the book. By all accounts, it was brilliant; maybe one of the greatest films ever made.

It was, also, insanely too long. It was foolhardy. How could the studio possibly recoup the half-million fortune it had invested in the film? In all likelihood, it couldn't. Almost no one, then or (for the most part) now, sits for a film of that length, and certainly not a mass audience. It was the work of a director who was so committed to his vision that he had thrown out any sense of practicality. It was the work of someone with an unswerving commitment to his own artistic vision, a man who had gambled everything and ruled out anything smacking of compromise. It was a ridiculous venture, a balls-to-the-wall act of bravery, and a pioneering act of rebellion.

The studio answer was to cut and recut, until it finally was shortened to two all but incoherent hours, with whole scenes and characters completely eliminated. The film was a disaster of genius. The fraction of the film that remained may not have made a lot of sense, but scene for scene, it was masterfully acted and directed.

It ended Stroheim's career as a director; afterwards, he became better known as a character actor in other great films, such as Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion  and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. The latter is particularly memorable, as he plays a former film director who becomes the butler of his former star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) -- a role he plays with considerable conviction.

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