Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo)

The quality and complexity of the animation has improved steadily with each of Hayao Miyazaki’s feature films.  Princess Mononoke’s (1997) epic canvasses seemed to represent a perfection of Studio Ghibli’s aesthetic, if not hand-drawn animation in general, until Spirited Away (2001) took their distinctive brand of surrealism to even more ornately detailed heights.  Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) seamlessly blended computer-generated images with Miyazaki’s trademark hand-drawn style, resulting in what was arguably the most visually sophisticated animated film of all time. 

Given this consistent increase in graphic ambition, it is somewhat surprising that Miyazaki has chosen a fairly straightforward, classically hand-drawn look for his tenth feature film, Ponyo (2008).  The animation techniques used here seem scarcely more advanced than those seen in the director’s first feature, Castle of Cagliostro (1979), and there is no indication that Studio Ghibli set out to top the spellbindingly grand vision of their previous adventures.  And yet, Ponyo feels in many ways more lively and enjoyable than Howl’s Moving Castle, and is ultimately one of Miyazaki’s most sublimely pleasurable films to date.  Where the dark epic Howl occasionally felt disconcertingly like a greatest hits collection of Miyazaki’s favorite tropes, Ponyo gives the impression that working on a relatively low-key children’s film revitalized the master animator’s creative energies by allowing him to bring the pleasant eccentricities of his aesthetic to the forefront.

Just as My Neighbor Totoro (1988) brought Miyazaki’s style to the surface following the bloated epics Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), Ponyo succeeds by clearing away the thick, ultimately unmanageable plot of Howl and telling an elegantly simple yet highly quirky story.  Adapted loosely and freely from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” the plot follows the relationship between a five-year-old human boy named Sosuke and a goldfish he dubs “Ponyo.”  Curious about Sosuke as soon as he adopts her as a pet, and smitten with the boy after he shares some of his ham sandwich with her, Ponyo quickly develops an insatiable desire to become a human.  Ponyo is able to achieve her goal with surprising ease, thanks to her hereditary skill with magic, but her transformation threatens to undermine the balance between the earth and the ocean, causing a huge tsunami.

The basic outline of Ponyo’s story makes it sound like a fairly straightforward fairy tale, but the simplicity of the plot (at least relative to many of Miyazaki’s other films) allows plenty of room for the kind of lovably odd details that set Studio Ghibli’s films apart from those of any other animation studios.  Most of the things one would expect to happen in a children’s film with a similar storyline do not even seem to have occurred to Miyazaki.  As is the case with most of the director’s films from Totoro onward, there are no real villains in Ponyo; the titular character’s father, who spends most of the film desperately struggling to prevent his daughter becoming a human, initially seems like an antagonist but is eventually revealed to simply be a concerned parent.  (He also happens to have the film’s most eccentric and memorable character design, with unkempt strands of red hair spilling over his striped suit).  There aren’t any dreary scenes of adult characters accusing their children of making up stories; Sosuke’s mom is surprised by Ponyo’s transformation into a human, but she quickly accepts the situation.  Nor are there any rational explanations as to why a tsunami causes the ocean to become suspended in midair, perilously close to the moon, or why a nursing home’s submersion under water rejuvenates its elderly inhabitants rather than drowning them.  The casual surrealism of Ponyo’s narrative makes the film feel like it has a direct pipeline into the absurdist fantasies of young children, a tone that far too few films aimed at a young audience manage to achieve.

That tone is aided immensely by the relatively simple animation style that Miyazaki uses in Ponyo.  It’s hard to imagine what a more advanced hand-drawn film than Howl’s Moving Castle would look like, but history suggests that Studio Ghibli could top its overwhelmingly sharp detail if they wanted to.  The animation style of Ponyo is reminiscent of drawings that a skilled and imaginative child artist might make, which is a perfect look for a film about very young children.  And while the style isn’t as obviously sophisticated as that of most of Miyazaki’s action epics, the skill of the animators is apparent in every frame.  The film opens with an absolutely dazzling wordless sequence that introduces the viewer to the underwater world where Ponyo lives, with an incredible array of crabs, various colors of fish, and jellyfish glide gracefully around the goldfish’s father as he drops inexplicable potions into the water.  A later scene involving the aforementioned tsunami is one of Miyazaki’s most impressive setpieces, with an oblivious Ponyo gliding on top of huge, fish-shaped waves as she chases after the car of Sosuke’s mother.  The animation in this film is scaled down to an appropriate level for the film’s kid-friendly story, but it’s still incredible.

Ponyo is a triumph of craft over technology, and its imagination and wit outpace that of virtually all of the computer-animated films being made today.  The story takes off on many odd, inexplicable tangents, and completely avoids the obvious moralizing and inane pop-culture referencing that one expects from modern family films.  It’s possible to argue that the stakes feel a bit low – when Sosuke’s mother disappears into a heavy rainstorm, there’s little question of whether the boy and Ponyo will be able to find her alive – but the calm, carefree pace is another aspect of the film that seems perfectly scaled to the film’s child’s-eye view.  Simply put, Ponyo is the best of Miyazaki’s light children’s films (the others being Totoro and 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service), as well as being among his most charming films overall.

Having seen all ten of Hayao Miyazaki’s films to date, I can say with confidence that he is one of the very best working filmmakers.  While a couple of Miyazaki’s early adventure films found his distinctive brand of surrealism constrained by generic fantasy tropes, and some of his latter films continue to have structural problems, the great animator has yet to make an outright dud.  Everything he’s directed from his stylistic breakthrough My Neighbor Totoro onward is essential viewing for any cinephile, particularly those interested in animation.  (Though it isn’t a particularly mature or representative work, I would also say that Castle of Cagliostro is a must-see).   Miyazaki’s vision is equal to that of master cinema fantasists such as Georges Melies, F.W. Murnau, and Jean Cocteau, yet he doesn’t seem to have taken any obvious influence from any other filmmaker.  With many of the high-water marks of Miyazaki’s oeuvre being produced in the second half of his career to date, there seems to be no ceiling on the quality of the master animator’s output.  Where I once avoided Hayao Miyazaki’s films for fear that they would be too impenetrable, I now eagerly anticipate his next wonderfully baffling production.

Castle of Cagliostro (1979) = B
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) = C+
Castle in the Sky (1986) = B-
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) = B+
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) = B
Porco Rosso (1992) = B+
Princess Mononoke (1997) = B+
Spirited Away (2001) = A
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) = B
Ponyo (2008) = B+

Thursday, February 9, 2012

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Seven, Disc Four)

Episodes covered:  Possible Kill Screen, Family Meeting

“Possible Kill Screen,” the penultimate episode of The Shield, climaxes with what is undoubtedly the finest scene of the entire series.  Vic has managed to work out his deal with ICE, offering to work as a well-connected undercover agent in exchange for immunity on anything he confesses to.  After taking a deep breath and pausing for what seems like an eternity (though it really only takes up about 45 seconds of screen time), Vic launches into a thorough and detailed account of his and the Strike Team’s many wrongdoings, from the Terry Crowley murder to the Armenian Train robbery to the murder of Lem.  Vic has once again masterfully slithered out of a seemingly inescapable hole, but in doing so he has finally been forced to drop any pretense of being a good cop, or even a decent human being. 

I haven’t given a lot of attention to Michael Chiklis’ performance in these posts, mostly because it is already so celebrated and has unjustly overshadowed the outstanding efforts of CCH Pounder, Jay Karnes, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, and others.  But this confession scene is a true tour de force for Chiklis, and simply one of the finest acting moments I’ve ever seen anywhere.  The sequence works largely because it finds seven seasons of deceptions finally coming to light, and because its relatively slow pace and quiet tone stands in such sharp contrast to the show’s default jittery pulpiness.  But it takes an actor of Chiklis’ caliber to really sell the full weight of Vic’s actions, as he goes on a complicated emotional journey from devastated shame and guilt to resigned defeat to nostalgic borderline-joy, and finally back to a shield of cocky defiance.  The scene is brilliant because it completely unmasks Vic, showing all of the ugliness behind his “ends justify the means” brand of law enforcement, and then puts the mask back on, giving insight into just how skillful this villain is at compartmentalizing his many flaws and presenting a heroic fa├žade.

By the end of his immunity-granting confession, Vic seems to have convinced himself that he’s once again gotten away scot-free, perhaps only alienating Olivia (the ICE agent played by Laurie Holden, who is suitably shocked as she is recording Vic’s confession).  But, even more so than usual, Vic’s actions have a profound effect on many of the show’s other major characters, and series finale “Family Meeting” is largely dedicated to the repercussions that Vic’s confession causes for himself and others.  Let’s look at where each of the major character ends up, one at a time.

Ronnie Gardocki:  Vic’s agreement with ICE doesn’t extend to Ronnie, who is obviously completely thrown under the bus by his mentor’s confession.  Ronnie is arrested by Dutch in the Barn, and Claudette smartly arranges events so that Vic is forced to watch his last remaining friend get hauled away, aware that he has been betrayed.  Ronnie’s belated character development in the last several seasons didn’t make up for his complete blankness in the first half of the series, and after seven seasons I’m still not sure whether David Rees Snell is even a particularly good actor (“tight-lipped stoic guy” seems like kind of an easy role, honestly).  But Ronnie’s final scene brings his muted character arc to a surprisingly strong conclusion, and the moment where he briefly confronts Vic about his betrayal is one of the finale’s high points. 

Shane Vendrell:  While Ronnie’s fate isn’t exactly happy – at best he will serve life in prison, and at worst he will probably be killed by Antwan Mitchell or one of his associates – he gets off easy compared to his former Strike Team comrade Shane.  Exhausted and no longer able to drag his injured, pregnant wife and their sick child along on his escape attempt, Shane decides to finally turn himself in.  But when Shane warns Vic about his plans, his mentor and former friend tauntingly informs him that it’s too late, as Vic is already immune from any charges that Shane’s confession could result in.  Disgusted by the prospect of a free Vic visiting his family while he’s in prison, Shane allows the police to find him at home, and then shoots himself in the head before they can arrest him.  What the officers find in the next room is more disturbing.  Shane’s wife and child lie in the bedroom, dead of apparent drug overdoses.  The image of Shane’s family, together in the worst possible sense, with his wife clutching yellow roses and a fire truck tucked under his son’s arm, is the most tragic moment of the finale, and it is all the more disquieting for being strangely beautiful.

Claudette Wyms:  Dying of Lupus and legally unable to stop her arch-rival Vic, the morally righteous Captain of the Barn nonetheless winds up achieving a level of satisfactorily heroic justice at the end of the series.  Claudette gets Vic in the interrogation room of the Barn, pointedly insisting that he sit on the criminal side of the table, and reads him Shane’s suicide note while showing him photos of his former partner’s dead family.  Afterwards, she forces Vic to watch his one surviving Strike Team partner Ronnie get hauled off to jail by her former partner Dutch.

Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach:  In addition to putting handcuffs on Ronnie – a highly satisfying moment of one of the Barn’s good cops finally getting a win over one of its most corrupt ones – Dutch is able to definitively mend his sometimes strained relationship with his former partner Claudette, who helps him goad a confession out of the junior serial killer that he’s been hunting for most of the season.  This isn’t a straight-up victory – the child’s mother is missing, most likely killed by her son’s hand (a situation possibly exacerbated by Dutch’s personal interest in the case) – but at least Dutch appears to have prevented a potential killer from claiming more than two victims.  And with Dutch being able to arrest a disgraced Strike Team member in full view of the rest of the Barn, he will undoubtedly be less of an outcast in the future, restoring a sort of moral force to The Shield’s universe.

David Aceveda:  The writers never quite figured out what to do with Aceveda after he left the Barn to join the City Council.  Still, the finale gave the mayoral hopeful an interesting one-off side story that brought his character’s smug moral rot into focus.  Aceveda is opposed in the mayoral race by a charismatic independent candidate who fans may remember as the comic book store owner from the season three finale (Andre 3000).  While Aceveda’s proposed solution to Farmington’s gang violence epidemic is to put more cops on the street, the independent candidate’s street level approach involves hands-on activities such as picketing outside of a crack dealer’s house.  That personal commitment to change causes the independent candidate to get shot and die for his cause, while Aceveda comfortably makes empty promises to TV reporters (and later gets told off by Claudette in another of the finale’s many satisfying moments).

Julien Lowe:  Julien was one of the show’s most intriguing supporting characters in The Shield’s early seasons.  The writers were wise to eventually move away from his struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with his closeted homosexuality, as that storyline started to seem a bit repetitive somewhere around season three, but they never really came up with anything compelling to replace it.  While the material that Michael Jace was given in the last several seasons rarely lived up to the quality of his performance, the way that the writers used Julien sometimes provided interesting commentary on the other characters.  Many times throughout the last season while the Strike Team members were busy trying to cover their asses, Julien could be seen in the background quietly but very competently doing his job.  Julien’s only notable moment in the finale finds him silently observing a happy gay couple as he drives by in a cop car, a small grace note that suggests that his internal struggle will continue to have a profound effect on his life.

Danielle “Danny” Sofer:  Like her former partner Julien, Danny tended to get lost in the shuffle as the writers introduced more and more auxiliary characters into their increasingly convoluted storylines.  She is more or less quietly back to work in the finale after Vic alienated her earlier in the season by refusing to grant her sole custody of their bastard child.  It’s a shame that the writers couldn’t find more for Catherine Dent to do after season two, since her performance was always strong and her character’s mix of vulnerability and reflexive conservatism was often compelling.

Corinne Mackey:  Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who played the estranged wife of Vic Mackey (and is married to Shield creator Shawn Ryan in real life), was one of The Shield’s unsung heroes.  Family drama side stories on crime shows are often less compelling than the major cops and robbers plots, but Corinne’s relationship with Vic was consistently interesting, and used sparingly enough that it never became tedious.  Corinne’s story was one of the most unique looks at spousal abuse that I’ve seen anywhere – mainly because the abuse was never physical (that seems like the one line that Vic would never cross), and almost entirely unintentional on the part of the abuser.  In a remarkably unglamorous performance, Ryan allowed Corinne to become increasingly unhinged as the series went on, making her eventual decision to help Dutch and Claudette bring Vic down wholly understandable.  It isn’t clear whether she’s happy where she ends up – in Witness Protection in Rockford – but knowing that she will most likely never see Vic again is as close to a happy ending as her character could realistically get.

Vic Mackey:  As a result of his confession, Vic gets his immunity and his job with ICE.  But he also loses all of the things that made him feel good about himself.  The Strike Team is destroyed, through actions that Vic now has to acknowledge are almost entirely his fault.  Other cops hate him.  He’ll never see his family again.  And his ass-kicking undercover ICE job turns in to a strict and confining desk job that requires him to type ten-page, single-spaced reports every day for the next three years.  Vic may have escaped from prison with his life intact, but there is a great deal of poetic justice in the show taking everything away from him in the process.  In the final scene, Vic is working a late night at his desk job as he sees cop cars speed by outside.  Seemingly on the verge of tears, he grabs his gun, adopts his signature scowl, and ambiguously heads out into the night.

The Shield is a terrific and groundbreaking television series, but I wouldn’t put it in the same league as The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad.  The plotting was often unnecessarily convoluted and messy (it isn’t hard to imagine a more tightly structured series that completely excised the Armenian Money Train plot, for example) and long stretches of the show (most notably all of season three) were frustrating in a way that the aforementioned shows rarely were.  Although The Shield was a frequently nuanced study of corruption, it didn’t pursue its themes as rigorously or as consistently as The Wire or The SopranosBreaking Bad has certainly surpassed The Shield in terms of stakes-raising plotting.   And though The Shield has an impressively stylized aesthetic, it was tonally a lot more one-note than Deadwood or Mad Men.

Still, I can’t think of another long-running series that closes with as strong a one-two punch as “Possible Kill Screen” and “Family Meeting.”  Every question that a fan could want resolved received a satisfying answer, and the corrupt main character was held fully morally responsible for all of his actions despite escaping legal punishment on a legal technicality.  And many of the show’s ace performers – particularly Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, CCH Pounder, and Cathy Cahlin Ryan – were given career-best material that they each completely nailed.  The Shield is an imperfect, uneven series, but it is worth sitting through the occasional frustrating sections to get to the tremendously gripping and powerful conclusion.

Quick Thoughts:

-   Laurie Holden’s character Olivia never became much more than a plot point, but at least she was a pivotal plot point, unlike Laura Harring’s season five lawyer, who served a purpose but never seemed like an essential part of that season.  The most underused season-long guest star was Michael Pena as Shane’s Vice Squad partner in season four, who was given so little to do that he didn’t even register as a plot point.

-  The best of the show’s returning guest stars would be either Anthony Anderson as Antwan Mitchell (throughout season four and a couple of times in season five and season six) or Forest Whitaker as Jon Kavanaugh (all of season five and the first two episodes of season six).  Even though neither character appeared in the final season, they definitely had a major impact on the overall story arc of the series.  Glenn Close’s season four role as Barn Captain Monica Rawlings was equally interesting and well-performed, but her story arc had little bearing on the show’s major plotlines.

-  The fact that ICE didn’t check in with Claudette before signing off on his immunity deal is a pretty major plot contrivance.  But unlike some of the show’s other leaps of logic, it was totally worth it for the outstanding confession scene and the resulting fallout.

-  The award for most extraneous storyline goes to Vic’s season three affair with the dog handler, a completely pointless subplot that neither started in an interesting place or went anywhere whatsoever.

-  Although Kenneth Johnson gave a nice, soulful performance as Curtis “Lem” Lemansky, and that character’s death at the hands of Shane was one of the series’ most wrenching moments, I can’t honestly say that the absence of his character from the last two seasons changed the show’s dynamic all that dramatically.  It’s true that Lem’s death was a major turning point for The Shield, to the point it basically fueled the last two seasons worth of plot, but the character was never fully developed enough for the show to seem fundamentally different without him.

-  What about the few Barn members introduced after the pilot?  Steve Billings, who first appeared as a background character in season four, gradually developed into The Shield’s one reliable source of comic relief, giving the show a much-needed wrinkle in its tone.  The writers and David Marciano gradually turned Billings into a full-fledged character capable of delivering the occasional dramatic moment as well.  Billings never played a major role in any of the series’ important storylines, but he was one of the few successful late additions to the show.  Tina Hanlon, first seen as a trainee in season five, seemed like an interesting new face at first, as her rookie insecurities and traditionally feminine appearance and attitude introduced a new element in the show’s dynamic.  But the writers never found a way to incorporate Tina into any of the show’s important storylines, and the character didn’t really take off despite the best efforts of Paula Garces.

-  Season seven was probably my favorite overall, despite a surprisingly slow first half.  Five would be the other contender.  Season four was essentially a side story that fleshed out some of the show’s themes without really advancing its master plot, but it was nonetheless one of the more consistently gripping stretches of the show.  It seems almost undeniable that season three is when The Shield was at its most frustrating, although it should be said that The Shield at its worst is still better than 99% of what television has produced.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: Greed

Year of Release  1924
Country  USA
Length  Studio-Edited Theatrical Cut:  140 min
TCM “Restored Version:”  239 min.
Lost Director’s Cut is rumored to have lasted at least 8 hrs
Director  Erich von Stroheim
Screenwriters  Erich von Stroheim and June Mathis (adapted from the novel McTeague by Frank Norris)
Cinematographers  William H. Daniels and Ben F. Reynolds
Editor  Joseph Farnham
Art Director  Cedric Gibbons
Cast  Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts, Jean Hersholt

Greed is a tricky film to analyze, because MGM’s indifference to (or hatred of) director Erich von Stroheim’s original vision for the film lead them to burn the vast majority of the footage intended to be included.  Early preview screenings of Greed are said to have lasted anywhere from eight to nine hours, but the version that the studio released to theatres was less than two-and-a-half hours long, even though it included all of the footage that studio head Irving Thalberg deemed worthy of saving.  What survived is a powerful and impassioned statement about the corrosive damage that money lust can cause.  But because so many scenes have been lost forever, we can only speculate about what was lost with MGM’s mutilation.

Though MGM’s destruction of the majority of the footage that Stroheim shot makes a “director’s cut” of Greed impossible, there are still some clues that suggest what the shape and scope of his original cut might have been.  Various drafts of Stroheim and June Mathis’ adaptation of Frank Norris novel McTeague are still in circulation, as are a great deal of production stills depicting scenes not present in MGM’s edit.  In 1999, Turner Classic Movies broadcasted a “restored version” running approximately four hours long.  The extra 99 minutes don’t contain any rediscovered footage, since again, it has all been destroyed.  Instead, film restorer Rick Schmidlin took one of Stroheim’s early continuity screenplays and combined the original release version with hundreds of the aforementioned stills, which were rephotographed and occasionally treated with pans, zooms, and opening and closing irises.

The restored version is obviously of note to anyone interested in film history in general and Greed in particular, but while it clarifies some of Stroheim’s intentions, it obviously can’t be considered a full-blown restoration of his original vision for the film.  As film historian Stewart Klawans points out, “the film envisioned by Stroheim can’t be seen at all.  Greed therefore exists primarily as an idea about filmmaking, which has passed among directors and writers, critics and moviegoers, for three-quarters of a century.”

What exactly is this idea that Greed represents?  It has something to do with what Klawans describes as “exhaustive veracity,” which in this case means a passionate and obsessive dedication to accurately depicting the story’s settings down to their last detail, as well as an inclination to lovingly depict the minutiae of the main characters’ lives that more conventional narratives might ignore.  Stroheim was clearly driven by a desire to outdo the historical spectacles of his mentor, D.W. Griffith, whose Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) are clear stylistic forbearers of Stroheim’s extravagantly detailed style.  This passion to get as much on the screen as humanly possible has led to such disparate works as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), which observes the day-to-day rituals of its titular character in excruciating detail; Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994), which takes nearly eight hours to give the viewer the feeling that they are a part of the impoverished village where the film takes place; and many of the films of Jacques Rivette, who seemed to keep the cameras rolling until he had exhausted literally every angle of his narratives. 

The story detailed in Greed is actually fairly simple in its rough outlines.  Two men, Mac McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt), have their friendship tested when Marcus’ cousin, Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts), who marries Mac, winds up winning $5,000 in the lottery.  The fallout from this unexpected event irrevocably corrodes Mac and Trina’s briefly happy relationship, with Trina gradually going insane from her miserly paranoia and Mac letting his anger over Trina’s behavior lead him to alcoholism and spousal abuse.  Meanwhile, Marcus’ jealousy over the couple’s good fortune destroys his relationship with both of them.  Mac eventually murders Trina in a blind rage, and winds up on the run from the law in the middle of Death Valley, while Marcus leads the authorities in a hunt for his former friend.  The two heat-exhausted men meet up in the middle of the desert, with no water in sight.  Mac beats Marcus to death, only to discover that he has already been handcuffed to his friend, and the film ends with an image of the two men chained together in the middle of a desert with no hope for survival.

That story sounds like it could be told rather quickly, and the theatrical edit of the film does manage to depict it powerfully.  Though I would never want to defend MGM’s decision to defy Stroheim’s wishes, it should be noted that their streamlined cut of Greed is coherent and logically put together, with the story’s meaning and morality left more or less intact.  Where RKO cut out the brutally sad planned ending for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and replaced it with an abrupt and unconvincing happy conclusion that seems utterly out of place with that film’s style and outlook, MGM retained Stroheim’s memorably bleak scorched-earth conclusion.  And where Universal’s “Love Conquers All” TV edit of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) turns that film into a wildly incoherent mess, MGM can at least be said to have retained the basic direction of Stroheim’s narrative, if not necessarily its radically digressive shape.

It isn’t possible to know for certain whether the lost cut of Greed would have ultimately been “better” than the final theatrical edit.  But while the theatrical cut feels more or less like a fully formed and relatively uncompromised film (considering that less than a third of it survived), it is important to note that the many digressions that Stroheim had planned for the narrative were clearly intended to give a holistic and specific weight to the main characters’ lives that would probably have made their gradual descent into outright barbarism all the more tragically powerful.  It is true that many of the departures that Stroheim had intended for the story – ranging from depictions of what the protagonists and their relatives enjoy doing on a Sunday afternoon, to entire rhyming storylines featuring happy and spiteful romances – are not strictly essential for the narrative to work, and they are the type of scenes that would be excised in a conventional adaptation of a novel.  But the bits and pieces of this digressive material that do survive in the MGM edit (and are much more evident in the TCM version) definitely add layers of weight and moral force to the depictions of the main characters.  One of the most memorable scenes in the film involves a down and out Mac attempting to beg the estranged Trina for some food which she refuses to give him.  This scene works in the theatrical cut, but has more emotional and ethical nuance in the TCM version, where there is more context for Trina’s cruelty, both because the extent of Mac’s recent physical abuse toward her is more evident and because more of their early happiness has been shown.  Who can say how much more nuanced and powerful this and other of the film’s most iconic scenes might have been in Stroheim’s original cut?

No matter what complexities may have been removed from Stroheim’s vision for the theatrical cut, the surviving footage is still undeniably powerful and gripping.  It could be argued that certain plot developments and character beats feel a bit abrupt or poorly motivated in MGM’s edit, but the movement of the narrative is mostly logical and consistent with the heightened realism of Stroheim’s aesthetic.  There is something iconic and definitive about well-performed pantomime, where the force of physical action makes the need for dialogue or method acting “naturalism” moot.  Gibson Gowland makes Mac the very embodiment of dumb, hulking sweetness, as well as its ugly flip side, blind brute force; he’s like a cartoon bulldog.  ZaSu Pitts does a great job of gradually stripping away Trina’s shy kindness and revealing the paranoia and spite underneath her demeanor; it is only in retrospect, or on repeat viewings, that it becomes obvious that those traits were there all along, and only exacerbated by her circumstances.  It’s difficult to think of dramatic silent performances that are more effective than those of Gowland and Pitts, aside from Falconetti’s justly revered portrayal in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).  It isn’t hard to imagine Mac and Trina existing in between their onscreen appearances.

Stroheim rarely moves his camera, but here he has mastered the art of the static shot invented by the Lumiere brothers and developed by D.W. Griffith.  There are countless moments of highly ornate physical beauty in Greed, from the glimpses of Mac’s cluttered and highly stylized dentist office to the final sun-scorched shots of the actual Death Valley.  Whether Greed is a great work of art is not really in question.  What we will always wonder is how much greater it might have been in Stroheim’s original conception.

Greed passes the Masterpiece Test

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