I first watched Erich von Stroheim’s superb silent film Greed on the Turner movie channel around a decade ago. The version they showed then was the four-hour-long restoration that combined the approx. two hours of surviving live-action footage with another two hours of movie stills from the footage that had been lost forever. This odd combination of moving pictures punctuated by stationary images was one of my strangest, most poignant film-watching experiences, and it helped me appreciate what an ambitious project the original work must have been. (Stroheim shot it as a nine-hour epic, a scrupulously detailed version of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, but it was reduced to one-fourth that length by the studio. Legend has it that much of the original footage was destroyed to extract the silver nitrate in the film; this possibly invented story makes for a stirring footnote, given that the film is about materialism corrupting all that is good in human nature!)
The version of Greed screened at Cinefan on Wednesday was the severely truncated two-hour print, which was disappointing, but it also made it possible for the film to be seen as a continuously running feature meant for a regular audience – rather than as a historical artifact, a butchered epic that had been reconstructed as best as circumstances would allow, so that movie scholars could gape at it. The introduction to the film, made by a member of the Osian-Cinefan team before the screening, was respectful and well-informed (it also included an apology about a print of the longer version not being available). However, it built up the film too much. Phrases like “a true landmark in cinema history” and “regularly on the top 10 lists of best films” were thrown about, most of which are justified but not very discreet – especially given that the version of the film we can see today is emphatically not the one that Stroheim created 85 years ago.
But even in this pared-down form, Greed still has a lot of power. I remain particularly impressed by the cinematography and the naturalistic (for the time) performances: the burly Gibson Gowland in the lead role of McTeague, the slow-witted dentist who is increasingly dismayed by his wife’s obsession with hoarding her money; Jean Hersholt as his one-time friend Marcus who starts off seeming benevolent and large-hearted (even sacrificing his love for his buddy in a gloriously melodramatic scene) but who soon reveals a more devious side; and Zasu Pitts as the woman in between, whose lust for her newfound wealth leads to hand-wringing of Lady Macbeth-ian dimensions. The location shooting in San Francisco (and in the austere landscape of Death Valley, for the climatic scene) was revolutionary for the time, as was the use of high-angle shots and close-ups. (While watching the pioneering silent films, one has to keep reminding oneself that things movie-watchers today take for granted were once new and unheard-of. That’s also true for this film’s vaguely sexist stance about a woman’s responsibilities to her husband, which will be disturbing to modern-day sensibilities. Made me think of D W Griffith glorifying the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation.)
One thing about the Cinefan screening: the version they played had no music score at all (actually, I’m not sure if Greed has ever been properly scored; it could be that Stroheim’s efforts to achieve maximum realism precluded the use of a soundtrack). This seemed to discomfit many members of the audience - I’ve never heard so much coughing and general fidgeting in a movie theatre in my life (someone suggested that maybe it was just easier to hear the coughing and fidgeting in the absence of any sound coming from the film, but I don’t think that was the case). This despite the fact that most of the audience seemed to appreciate the film overall (though there were understandable chuckles during scenes like the one where Marcus nobly gives up his girl, telling McTeague, “You can have her, old sport. Anything for a friend!”).
[More on Greed here]
Coincidentally, on the same day, I watched a film that dealt with the early days of cinema and was set in roughly the same period that Greed was made in. K M Madhusudanan’s Bioscope opens with a Paul Cezanne quote, “look at that mountain, once it was fire” – possibly a reference to how unrecognizable modern-day cinema is from its distant origins in bioscope tent-shows and the persistence-of-vision trickery in photo-books. The story, set in 1920s Kerala, has a poor man named Diwakaran watching his first bioscope show, becoming entranced by the instrument, buying it from its owner (a Frenchman about to leave India) and taking it back to his village.
As expected, people are both fascinated by and afraid of the new device. Devilry is suspected; there is gossip about a ghost in the machine; superstitious people speculate that the pictures cast by the bioscope are the imprisoned shadows of dead people, and that this is against the order of nature; a witch-doctor pronounces that Diwakaran’s wife will never recover from her illness unless the foreign object is destroyed. At a screening of a Dadasaheb Phalke film, as people marvel at the scene – so familiar from folktales and oral renditions – where little Krishna defeats the snake Kaliya, a villager mumbles, “All this is an illusion. But the story is true.”
Bioscope is a languorously paced film with a lot of recurring imagery, notably a beautifully shot slow-motion scene – taken from a woman’s feverish nightmares – that shows the bloated corpse of a white man being washed up on a shore and carried away by three fishermen. There’s something appropriate about the slow pace, because what we’re seeing here is an elegiac tribute to a world that is on the verge of being altered forever – we can see that modernity is about to impinge on this setting, that permanent change is on the horizon, and the film seems simultaneously excited and saddened by the prospect, looking ahead to the future but also reluctant to leave the present behind.
I also enjoyed the scenes of villagers watching in awe as images from films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and the Lumiere Brothers’ historic Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station and Workers Leaving the Factory play out in their little tent. And of course the Dadasaheb Phalke film on Krishna, which for some reason has the little God dressed in pyjamas in one shot. Unless that was another optical illusion.