Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Oh god, not the auteur theory again

Hollywood history is replete with moviemakers fighting against the studio executives in order to maintain their artistic vision. Sometimes, studios have misedited movies, and that, along with an innate distrust of Big Business (which the studios certainly were, at least compared to directors) has led to an unfortunate exaltation of the auteur. Namely, there seems to be a lot of faith that just because a movie was made by an auteur who goes against what studio bosses would want, that automatically makes the movie better. (I think you see some of the same reasoning with foreign films: they're "not Hollywood" and so seen as unconventional and superior, even though foreign films can be just as bad as any B-movie Hollywood ever churned out.) Just because somebody is an auteur doesn't mean that his work is magically imbued with superiority; sometimes if not often, a much better movie could have been made if the director and the suits had worked together. A good example of this is Erich von Stroheim's Greed, which is airing tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM ET on TCM.

Zasu Pitts plays Trina, a woman who marries McTeague (Gibson Gowland). She buys a lottery ticket, which turns out to be a winner, bringing her $5,000 -- quite a substantial sum back in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the money brings them no good. Trina is afraid of losing the money and so refuses to spend any of it; her husband wants the money for himself, as does their mutual friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Their mutual greed binds them and eventually leads to their mutual destruction. It's an idea that has great potential.

But director Erich von Stroheim squandered that potential. He based the movie on a ponderous novel which was popular in the day, and decided to make his movie if not as ponderous as the book, then at least as long. When he and the producers sat down to watch the final cut, it ran to something like nine hours. Any reasonable person will tell you that this is much too long, but never let it be said that there's any reason in Hollywood. The suits were horrified, and insisted that the movie be cut down. Von Stroheim responded by cutting out about half of the movie, although by all reports this still left it longer than Gone With the Wind would be 15 years later. So, the producers, fearful they would lose their investment, took control of the movie away from von Stroheim and gave it to an editor who cut it down to about 140 minutes. The problem is that the editor is generally considered to have cut out a good portion of the essence of the movie, excising character and plot development.

In some ways it's a shame, as there's no reason the story couldn't be told in two hours. And to be fair to von Stroheim, he did come up with some striking images. One sequence has Zasu Pitts rolling around on a bed of gold coins, showing just how she loves her money. As for the gold coins, there are a lot of sequences in which they've been tinted gold. Finally, there's the movie's climax, which was set in Death Valley (and filmed there for authenticity). These scenes are excellently made, with Gowland and Hersholt having turned on each other. It's just too bad that we have to wait so long to get to those scenes.

And thanks to restorationists, the wait is even longer than you'd think. After Greed was edited down to the 140-minute theatrical version, the remaining elements were presumably destroyed (although urband legends have them surviving). In the 1990s, production stills were found and, using von Stroheim's director's notes, these stills were inserted back into the movie, turning a story that's too long at 140 minutes into something that runs just about four hours. It shouldn't be necessary, and frankly, I think it makes the movie too tedious. It's just too bad that von Stroheim and the producers couldn't have come to an agreement back in 1924 to come up with a 140-minute version that would preserve most of the director's vision. They were right to cut it down; they just didn't cut it down in the right way.

Greed doesn't seem to be on DVD, which is a shame, since this doesn't give us an opportunity to compare the 140-minute version with the four-hour restoration.

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