Saturday, December 17, 2016

No Audio Audient: Greed, or how to watch a four-hour movie in 24 hours

This is the final installment of my 2016 series No Audio Audient, and now I will be taking a short/long break from silent movies. (No judgment, though; I quite enjoyed it.)

Sometimes, when finishing one of these year-long series on my blog, I metaphorically collapse in a heap from exhaustion.

Sometimes, though, I save the best for last.

And sometimes, it's both.

I'm not going to say Erich von Stroheim's Greed was the best film I watched for this series -- I also gave a full five stars to Sherlock Jr., and I can't say who would win in a face-off -- but it certainly ended things on a strong, if long, note. Especially given the baggage I brought into it, the difficulty I had getting a hold of it, and the difficulty I had carving out the significant time investment to watch it -- in the thick of the holiday season at that.

I'll address those in that order.

First, the baggage. Even without knowing much about Greed, I always associated it in my mind with Griffith's Intolerance, which I also watched for this series. Both are silent movies, both have abstract nouns as their titles, both figured to take an epic and multi-faceted approach to examining their chosen abstract nouns, and both are incredibly long. Because I didn't like Intolerance very much -- respected it somewhat, but didn't like it -- I worried that Greed would be another yucky spoonful of medicine. As it turns out, Greed is a far more focused effort than Intolerance, in spite of its epic running time, and that's just the first of myriad differences between the two.

Then there was the difficulty in getting my hands on it. I mistakenly believed that Greed, like most silent movies, is in the public domain, meaning that a multitude of versions would be available to watch on Youtube. I actually can't say for sure that it's not in the public domain, but I will tell you that a number of the Youtube links that apparently go to this movie end up saying that the content is not available for copyright reasons, providing pretty good circumstantial evidence. I did, however, find one available at about an hour and 47 minutes, a severely truncated version of the movie, though I thought I didn't care at that point. (See: previous comment about the holidays and exhaustion). Only after about five minutes did I realize that the title cards were in Italian. This was what stopped me in the midst of the November viewing I had planned, and forced me to rent it from iTunes instead. In retrospect, I realized I might have been able to turn on English subtitles (a funny option for a silent movie), but I'm glad I didn't recognize that at the time, because von Stroheim's full (or close to full) vision was what I ended up loving.

Which leads directly to my difficulty watching the movie. That difficulty arose from something I didn't notice until after I'd already started my iTunes download: that the version I was downloading was four hours long. I've never downloaded anything close to that long from iTunes -- I don't think I've even crossed the three-hour mark. It's not a problem of hard drive space, but a problem of time. No matter how long the movie is, you have to watch it during a 24-hour window before your rental expires. (It's the one time I wish I were linked up to the Australian iTunes instead of the U.S. one, because Australia gives you two days.) So I planned out how I would manage it very carefully. Having identified Tuesday as a viewing date because my wife was going to a Christmas party that night -- she didn't go, but that's neither here nor there -- I brought my computer in to work at lunch just so I could get an early start. I watched 20 minutes during lunch, then another 40 here and there before I finally got time to myself at night to tackle the remaining three hours. Figuring I'd watch the final few minutes the next morning if I just got too tired, I managed to avoid that fate by pulling in to the fish line around 12:30. And managed to write 40 Christmas cards (well, addressed 40 envelopes and stuffed in the cards) as I was doing it. So really, I watched it in just about exactly half of the 24 hours promised in the title of this post. Given that most of the remaining 12 hours would have been comprised of sleeping and working, it was still pretty tight.

How could I give a movie five stars if I were also addressing 40 Christmas cards?

A movie like Greed exceeds the status of a movie -- it becomes more like an experience, one you don't have to be closely watching every single second. At this point I should probably tell you more about it.

Even this four-hour version is a severely truncated version of von Stroheim's original vision. The film he originally made was more than eight hours long, and it was seen by only a dozen people. Needless to say, this version was hacked up by the studio, since even back in 1924 people were not watching eight-hour movies. The extra footage has subsequently been lost. The version that emerged was between two and three hours, as I understand it, and was a source of intense sadness and frustration to its director -- especially after the dozen who watched his original cut praised it as the greatest film ever made. (Not the same type of claim back then as it would be today, with nearly a century more movies to choose from, but still.)

The version I watched from iTunes was a 1999 attempted restoration of the director's original vision. This was managed with still photographs of the scenes that were cut and subsequently lost, inserted into the narrative at relevant junctures. Most of the cuts came from two subplots involving four other characters that are truly tangential to the main narrative -- one understands why the studios cut their material. But since the stills still existed, the restoration team placed them according to von Stroheim's original specifications. Realizing that still photographs don't play particularly well in an art form that relies on movement, the stills are given a sense of movement by the panning of the camera, the focusing in on certain parts of it, etc. And the content and composition of these photos is so rich that you really do feel like you're seeing the parts that were lost. As a technique, it reminded me a bit of that part of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they show the passage of time in these guys' lives from still photos pored over lovingly by the camera. I almost feel like I preferred the Greed still photo approach to if I'd actually been able to see the moving images, as it made the movie feel like a historical relic of something that really happened -- like one would review old photos to get a window into the way the world once was. I found the effect captivating, and that it played an essential role in building this world.

What world? I should probably tell you a little bit about the story, which is remarkably simple. It's the story of a California miner named McTeague, who has a rotten streak he inherited from his no-good drunkard father, who dies early on. His mother begs a traveling dentist to take her son on as an apprentice, to get him out of this life, and indeed, McTeague picks up a new career. He falls in love with a patient, the cousin and intended fiancee of one of his best friends, who reluctantly agrees to let the more smitten McTeague step in and court her. She's initially resistant to a romantic involvement but is eventually convinced to marry McTeague. Just before they are able to get married, a lottery ticket wins her the very large sum of $5,000, leading to resentment from her cousin, who now regrets having allowed McTeague to step in. As they get married, she has a strange reluctance to ever spend any of the $5,000, which leads to ... well, not good things.

If this movie were directed by D.W. Griffith, this would be just one of six stories meant to illustrate the concept of greed. Von Stroheim restricted himself to three, two of which are the aforementioned subplots that were cut out of the movie, and indeed, I do believe they had significantly less screen time than his main narrative thrust. This leaner decision did wonders for me. I wasn't constantly left wondering which plot was progressing in which way, the feeling that overtook me as I steadily began paying only half my attention to Intolerance. Even while addressing Christmas cards, though, I could easily keep abreast of what was happening in Greed, a pace partly managed by the captivating use of the still photographs. I did seek clarification on a couple things in Wikipedia afterward, but they were minor.

And something about this story just blew me away. We burrow down deep into it. I mean, deep. In a weird way I was comparing it to the French storybooks about Babar the elephant, which I actually tease for their formidable length and their odd mixture of sweeping epic and minor detail. One we have, for example, tries to do everything from capture the entire building of a village, to talking about a single math lesson where someone thought that 4+4 = 9. I don't have time to explain it much better than that as this piece is already reaching a daunting length, but just know that that doesn't work in a children's story. But it works like gangbusters in a movie made for adults -- or at least, when the vision behind that movie is von Stroheim's. The depth of the development of these characters resembled something it might take a TV series a couple seasons to capture, as you bunkered down with them and really lived their lives with them. Greed is renowned for being shot on location, and I think that plays a big role here -- you get San Francisco of the era, as well as Death Valley, and dozens of other locations somewhere in between. The difference between location and a studio set is profound.

The performances here are also amazing. Von Stroheim gets real subtlety from his actors, as we watch emotions creep over their faces -- he didn't feel like had to have them play to the back of the theater at all. So Greed also feels more modern in its approach in this respect. I'll name the primary three in case their relatives are reading: Gibson Gowland as McTeague, Zasu Pitts as his wife Trina and Jean Hersholt as his friend-cum-rival, Marcus Schouler.

I'm quite sure I could go on about this movie for another hour or two of typing time. I'll just close by saying that the movie's cumulative effect is profound and immersive, and where it goes is uncompromising and bleak, worthy of the blackest crime thrillers -- and feeling years ahead of its time in that respect as well. The Death Valley climax is a real show stopper. The weight of everything that's happened and how it's all resolved just leaves you speechless.

I do have one final thought, though. At the very beginning of Greed, when von Stroheim's credit is on the screen, it says "Personally directed by Erich von Stroheim." Never seen the word "personally" inserted in there, and initially I thought it was kind of funny. The more I watched, and the more I realized the type of epic vision (I need a synonym for that word) that was compromised by what the studio did to his film, I felt the tragedy of that extra adverb. He did put his whole personal self into the movie, but it was just too large, too ungainly, and too brilliant for its time. His contemporaries didn't know what to do with it. Maybe we would today.

And on that note, we bring No Audio Audient to a close. Well, not quite. I imagine I'll have a post to wrap it up in January, but that's a consideration for another day. I'll also be giving you a little taste of the movies I'll be watching each month in 2017, since I've already got my idea for next year (as well as 2018, come to think of it, though I'll wait a year before telling you about that). But 2017's monthly series will wait for another day as well.

For today, back to getting ready to get on an airplane in five days, and all the things I still have to do before then.

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