Monday, January 04, 2010

The Third Man

One of the more productive things I got to do over the trip home was get some reading done. A lot of it has been a massive book about basketball, augmented with magazines, comics (I re-read We3, and it still sucks the air out of my chest), and the annotated screenplay to The Third Man. It's a movie I'd seen a couple years ago, but had for the most part forgotten, so I was happy to read through it on the flights to and from California.

One of the more impressive of the story's many, many impressive qualities is the way that the story so fittingly describes an time and a place -namely postwar Vienna- so perfectly. The confusion and disconcordance of having one city ruled by four different allied powers, most of whom not sharing a language with each other, let alone the people they are set to govern/protect. The stoic optimism of a war-scarred populace, eager to move on from the conflict but living in  system that won't let them... it's a rare thing to me, to get that sort of sense from any type of work, let alone a book and a film. I honestly don't know how they do it. Part of me suspects that it's a talent that eludes even the best of storytellers. Part of me is certain that it's more a result of my place and time. Does living in America in 2009 (yeah, I know) have a flavor that could be expressed? I could write in a story about economic peril and the hopes of a black president, but in fifty years from now, would someone read that and think "that's exactly what it was like!" Or would I have to include some veiled Rihanna reference?

Obviously, it's more than pop culture. While we (meaning, I) love to think that popular culture goes a way towards defining the greater culture, it far more often than not means sweet fuck all. With the exception of post-9/11 media, I can't really think of anything that snapshots specific American culture after the Cold War*. Perhaps it's because we as Americans have such a diverse climate of economic and social stations that it's nearly impossible to connect them without the benefit of several decades of distance to provide hindsight. It might be that most Americans tend to project their experiences and backgrounds onto the country, effectively ignoring everyone else. Maybe it's the apathy of the suburban MTV generation that has shifted our attitude to that of a vapid shrug (it's a cliche, I know, but not an unfair one). I have no idea. But as I was thinking about this, I was convinced that the most common way to get a picture of our country at any given moment is to show it in or immediately following tragedy**. It sounds dramatic, but maybe that's the only time we'll be able to look around and agree about what's going on. Or at least that's the closest we get to it.

But I digress. I want to write about The Third Man. Because it's one of those movies that holds up so damned well. I'm not one of those classic film nerds that can't watch anything made in America after the mid-70s. I will talk loads of shit about Avatar, and yet I avoid most foreign films on the grounds that they're depressing for the sake of being depressing, and I will prefer color to black & white. I don't consider myself an erudite scholar of film, but I like to think I know what I like. and I love The Third Man. I could rail on about the framework or the advancements in cinematography, but it'd be 100% bullshit lifted from other places, ass opposed to the 50% bullshit that I'm just making up. In order for me to even notice things like that, it has to be so spectacularly good or bad that my attention is taken from the dialogue, acting, and overall theme. So I don't notice that when I'm watching The Third Man. I notice the more obvious things: the Karas soundtrack, which I put on a mix at some point in college and baffled even myself with, The zither fluttering along through the scenes, almost ditzy when juxtaposed against the story. There's the drunken petulance of protagonist Holly Martins, a European caricature of an American if there ever was one***, even if the character was supposed to be Canadian****. There's the opportunists, fops, and schemers that show up throughout the story, and the distance of the Austrians, who don't want anything to do with anything that isn't getting their lives back on track. This is classic noir, and still it stands as more than just a detective story. Oh, and there's Orson Welles. He was already the major filmmaker of the world, and he had just turned his back on Hollywood. He was just the actor here, but he improvised one of the best movie lines in history (he later said he stole it from somewhere else) like it was nothing.

I don't want to get into the story too much, because there are turns and revelations that still amaze me (even if one of the biggest ones is given away by the movie poster/DVD cover).  But I would recommend checking it out. You can watch it on Netflix ad the moment, and you can probably pick up a (non-Criterion) copy for pretty cheap since it's in the public domain. But I'd suggest checking out the book or screenplay first. It won't take up much of your time (I read most of it on the worst plane ride ever), and it really is worth it. Afterwards, check out the movie, and tell me I'm wrong about this. Tell me you don't get a feeling for postwar Vienna, despite the fact that it serves mostly as a backdrop for the story.

Anyway, that's just what I'm feeling on it.

* of course, this isn't entirely true. Wall Street probably did a great job of  defining the mid-late 80s for a lot of people, despite the fact that there's no mention of the decline of American industry, the dumbest fashion sense in history, and the historic rise/acceptance of rap music. Philadelphia might also carry a distinct resonance, while Forrest Gump will always serve to remind us how fucking dumb and self-servingly nostalgic we can be.
** the other might be comedy. Of course, this is not always the case, but it's a lot easier to gain insight towards the culture of a time and place by what jokes can and can't be made and the way that they are made. Of course, 85% of American comedy disproves this entirely.
*** I still laugh every time he intentionally gets Calloway's name wrong.
**** what non-hockey playing Canadian shows up in another country and takes a swing at a cop first thing off the plane? There are Canadians that don't play hockey, right?

1 comment:

sean said...

watched it this weekend. amazing. they just showed it on the big screen at the local theater. i am sad i missed it. the soundtrack alone is worth tuning in for.