This stunning still from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) comes from the first few minutes of the 1999 reconstruction of the film. It’s really tough to pin down the author of this photograph for a number of reasons. Firstly, no one can say if this picture was just a production still or if it was a part of the final film. Moreover, the film has separate credits for a cinematographer, a photographer and a still photographer, any of whom, besides the director, could have composed this. Whatever the case, von Stroheim must have had a hand in putting together this tableau, which seems straight of a Renaissance painting, as is acknowledged by the paintings on the wall behind.
In the scene, Father McTeague is thrashed by one of the visitors at the bar: a spat possibly driven by money or the woman who accompanies him. (It helps recollecting that his son McTeague, himself, turns as violent towards the second half of the film). Although the picture only presents the immediate aftermath of an event, one can feel directly from the sheer physicality of the composition what has just happened. The downward arrangement of faces seems to trace the path of the blow that has landed on Father McTeague’s mug so precisely that one immediately recognizes what occurred and when.
This is also one of the reasons it invokes Caravaggio, whose paintings, too, exhibit a deep affinity for sinking profiles and dramatic faces turned towards various directions. It recalls, specifically, The Entombment of Christ (1603), where an impassive, fallen Christ is mourned by contrasting, agitated countenances and gestures.
The entire setup has an elliptic profile – from the heads of the characters, through the profile of the woman on the left, the barroom table, the curves on Mother McTeague’s clothing to her leftward-bent body – as if presaging the circular structure of the film (McTeague’s fortune, social status and disposition, among other facets, come a full circle) and closing the circle of violence and greed.
Then there are the hands, startlingly concentrated in a small area of the canvas, forming a a smaller circle at the centre. The man in black forms the void at the heart of the photograph (and a mirror image of Caravaggio’s radiant Christ, who demands our attention). And this confluence of hands seems to be pulling him out of an abyss, preventing him from being sucked in. The two women on either side of him, dressed in brighter colours, appear to be forming two angel wings attaching themselves to this devil of a man, trying to save him from the savage world of men he’s located in.
Just goes to show how early cinema was deeply influenced by other representational forms: an attempt perhaps to earn credibility among its peers. This is indeed ironic. For long, painting had sought to imitate reality and reproduce it as faithfully as possible. The arrival of photography, as Bazin noted, truly liberated painting from the irrational need to represent reality religiously. What is remarkably ironic is that photography (and cinema) tried to emulate painting with plastic manipulation and conceptual representation, such as the one above. It is well known that cinema is still plagued by the spectre of painting, which is given higher priority and attention – more than forms like music and literature – whenever film aesthetics is discussed. Films are regularly panned for being too literary or theatrical, but never for being too painterly. Even talking about framing and lighting reveals an undying fascination with painterly qualities of an image. (Rohmer, writing about CinemaScope declared: “…no longer will we speak of framing or lighting; instead we will talk about landscape and light”). I’m reminded of what Kurosawa writes in his autobiography:
What is Cinema? The answer to this question is no easy matter. Long ago the Japanese novelist Shiga Naoya presented an essay written by his grandchild as one of the most remarkable prose pieces of his time. He had it published in a literary magazine. It was entitled “My Dog”, and ran as follows: “My dog resembles a bear; he also resembles a badger; he also resembles a fox…” It proceeded to enumerate the dog’s special characteristics, comparing each one to yet another animal, developing into a full list of the animal kingdom. However, the essay closed with, “But since he’s a dog, he most resembles a dog.”
I remember bursting out laughing when I read this essay, but it makes a serious point. Cinema resembles so many other arts. If cinema has very literary characteristics, it also has theatrical qualities, a philosophical side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements. But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema.