Silence is Golden: Retrofitting Cinema and Rebuilding Greed

Programming note: Turner Classic Movies will show a four-hour-and-fifteen-minute restored and reconstructed version of Eric von Stroheim’s GREED (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt0015881/) at 6 a.m. [EDT] on Labor Day.

Erich von Stroheim (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm0002233/)‘s GREED (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt0015881/), the story of three friends whose relationship is destroyed by avarice after one wins $5,000 in a lottery (no small sum of money in 1924 when the film was being made), is one of the earliest and, arguably, most ridiculous examples of how a director’s clash with a studio executive — and not just any executive, but, in this case, “boy wonder” bigwig, producer Irving Thalberg (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/name/nm0856921/) — can result in cinematic infamy.

Greedy Hand-Colored Hands from GREED
Greedy Hand-Colored Hands from GREED

Intended by von Stroheim to run almost nine hours (at one point, he proposed the idea of having an audience see the film in four hour segments over two successive days), GREED (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt0015881/) was poorly reviewed and a box-office flop when its butchered (but logistically necessary) two-hour edited version was released in January, 1925.

Despite its many problems, the film is nonetheless beautifully shot (with effective details such as hand-colored yellow accents in scenes where gold appears), and is now highly regarded by modern critics — most notably, for the final grueling sequence, shot in death valley, that uses potent symbols (such as a caged bird that cannot survive despite being set free) to make clear that with all-consuming avarice comes the inevitable corruption of the soul.

In all, 446,103 feet of film were shot for what became an 8,500-foot long movie. The excess that wound up on the cutting room floor would eventually be burned. And that would have been the ignominious end for this otherwise unimportant film had not stories of the director’s war with the studio over its editing become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Perhaps it was the romantic ideal of an artist not wanting to bow down to the demands of a businessman. But whatever the reason, finding an uncut, restored version of the entire film became a sort of holy grail for archivists and film historians.

One-Sheet poster for von Stroheim's GREED
One-Sheet poster for von Stroheim’s GREED

Though no intact version has ever been found of von Stroheim’s film, it was learned that the director did, in fact, create a continuity prior to production. In 1999 — seventy-five years after principal photography — this continuity, along with still photographs from lost scenes, was used to recreate the missing parts of GREED (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt0015881/).

It is this version that TCM has aired in the past and will air on Labor Day.

But is the reconstruction really a film? Still photographs that are “panned and scanned,” zoomed in upon and moved across the screen to simulate motion do not a movie make. Much like the long anticipated but hugely disappointing reconstruction of the entirely lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (http://video NULL.google NULL.com/videoplay?docid=1667392134797038328) starring Lon Chaney, the re-assembled GREED (http://www NULL.imdb NULL.com/title/tt0015881/) is no more a “film” than a a sketch artist’s flip book or scenes projected from a magic lantern.

In an age when Blu-ray discs carry the label “director’s cut” or contain deleted scenes along with a filmmaker’s commentary (from both directors and producers), it is curious to wonder what von Stroheim and Thalberg would have done with such technology. Could such a movie have even been made?

Perhaps, in the end, it is the technology of the time that determines what a film truly is.

As the mechanics of making and financing movies has changed, so too has the mechanisms for distribution, promotion, engagement and study.


For more information about TCM’s presentation of GREED this Labor Day, click here (http://www NULL.tcm NULL.com/this-month/article/78137%7C0/Greed NULL.html).

Bathed in Blood

Hematolagnic Ablutophilia. Noun. A macaronic neologism that combines Latin and Greek roots to mean a sexual fetish which evokes arousal when the subject or object is bathed in blood. First usage? This article.

True Blood's Lilith
True Blood’s Lilith

The fifth season of HBO’s True Blood (http://www NULL.hbo NULL.com/true-blood/index NULL.html) featured a character inspired by Jewish folklore (http://www NULL.jewishvirtuallibrary NULL.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0013_0_12540 NULL.html) named Lilith (http://trueblood NULL.wikia NULL.com/wiki/Lilith). Silent and sinister, she is believed to be the first vampire ever to walk the earth. And she walks completely nude, covered in blood as vampire men and women fall under her intoxicating spell. Her blood is the source of immense power. And she is dripping wet with it.

Bathed in blood, the Lilith of True Blood (http://www NULL.hbo NULL.com/true-blood/index NULL.html) is —more so than the winged demon of Hebrew mythology — evocative of a tradition in vampire lore that finds its origins in the historical figure of Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory. A late 16th / early 17th century Hungarian Countess infamous for having allegedly killed hundreds of young girls, she reputedly bathed in their blood in order to retain her youth.

Countess Dracula (1971)
Ingrid Pitt in Hammer’s Countess Dracula (1971)

Depicted in many films — most notably 1971’s Countess Dracula, starring Ingrid Pitt, and two more recent offerings, one with Anna Friel and the other, Julie Delpy) — Bathory’s story of bloodlust in the pursuit of youth is legendary.

Yet, while testimonies following her arrest — extracted under torture, supplied by “witnesses” with connections to those who owed money  to her husband, or just plain gossip and hearsay —described how Bathory tortured and murdered young girls (as many as 650 by some estimates) no references to the bloodbaths appeared in the transcripts from her “trial” that surfaced in 1765 and were published in 1817.

So why does legend overshadow the facts of her arrest and subsequent life sentence to confinement in a tower of her castle?

Elizabeth Bathory, c. 1585
Bathory at age 25 in the only surviving contemporary portrait of the Countess

The first written account of the Bathory case — Jesuit scholar László Turóczi’s Tragica Historia — was published in 1729 at the height of the alleged vampire attacks in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734. A fantastical account of a blood-craving Countess, appearing at a time when “enlightened” Europeans were exhuming and staking corpses, sealed her fate.

As Bathory’s reputation grew (in works like historian Matthias Bel’s The Castle and Town of Csejte [1742]), so did that of the vampire (Father Abbot Dom Antoine Augustin Calmet’s seminal Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Bohême, de Moravie, et de Silésie, for example, appeared in 1746).  By the middle of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Bathory’s name would become synonymous with bloodlust, vampirism and blood itself.

Not only blood, but the blood of virgin girls. It called into question not only her mental state, but her sexuality as well.

From Coleridge’s Christabel at the beginning of the nineteenth century (1797, 1800)  to Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and, ultimately, Stoker’s Dracula by century’s end (1897), the influence of Bathory’s legend on the development of the vampire in literature, however veiled, was still clear. Gratuitous bloodletting with undercurrents of lesbianism had become so much a part of vampire lore, in fact, that Bathory, the historical figure, was lost to scholars for almost a century.

Contemporary historians Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, however, helped to resurrect Elizabeth and her reputation. McNally, in particular, in his Dracula Was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania (1983) suggests that the Bathory legend has roots in antiquated ideas about gender. Lust and sadism were thought to be masculine vices. Bloodletting for a woman, then, must be attributed to her vanity, her pride.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo
The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo

Curiously, it is exactly the sin of pride (which included vainglory or vanity as far as the Church was concerned) that condemned the Lilith of mythology. In Hebrew Apocrypha she is Adam’s first wife.  Desiring equality with him — including the option of having sex in anything other than the missionary position — Lilith was rejected by both Adam and God for such independent thinking. Upon a self-imposed exile, she becomes a temptress, seen as a winged demon from Babylonia and Sumerian traditions, and forever associated and intertwined with the serpent of the Garden of Eden. Demonized for her sexuality, Lilith becomes / is a symbol of man’s fear of strong-willed women. Sexual beings with their own desires. Creatures that shed blood, yet are renewed.

Something deep in our reptilian brains, it would seem, is repulsed by yet attracted to this potent image of a beautiful woman embracing the serpent or covered in blood. No coincidence, then, that when Adam’s second wife, Eve, is tempted by the serpent and, in turn, tempts her husband to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, her punishment is not only their banishment from the garden, but the curse of pain in childbirth for all women to come.

If blood is the life (Deuteronomy 12:23) and life is power, a powerful woman may have been judged by early man to be too bloodthirsty. Depraved. A demon. A vampire. Craving blood. Shedding blood.

Perhaps even pictured as bathing in it.

 


 

Lest you think that accusations of bathing in blood are reserved for a late 16th / early 17th century noblewoman, see what a housekeeper at a London hotel said about Lady Gaga earlier this year (http://digitaljournal NULL.com/article/317322).

For more information about Countess Elizabeth Bathory, visit www.infamouslady.com (http://www NULL.infamouslady NULL.com/).