Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Last Movie Rented From Video Store I Have Been Going to for 15 YearsIt was The Third Man, which inevitably makes people want to write essays anyway, so it's fitting that it was the last tape I rented from this old store, which is finally going out of business. Now I am seriously going to have to make new adjustments if I am going to keep up my cinema-watching habit, such as perhaps buying a DVD player that actually works, and even looking--shudder (I dislike change)--into one of these subscription mail services. This video store was good enough that it had most of the stuff I wanted to see as a matter of general film education, including foreign and silent movies. There was even a large shelf devoted to 50s sci-fi, which I never got around to exploring, but it made me feel good to know they had it. The owner was a genuine cinephile. When I first came to the area on visits he had had a single screen theater adjoining the store that tried to show current films of an independent nature. The theater closed down about 10 years ago, but then he organized an annual festival at the local community college which put on screen a lot of stuff that was low budget or at least trying to be different. The store had a large collection of movie-themed dolls and puppets, King Kong, the Marx Brothers, the Phantom of the Opera, and so on. I don't know if there is any value or not in whether my children recognize Dracula or can identify the primary Marx brothers by name but if there is I can credit the atmosphere of the store for it. Customers were alerted of the closing in the old-fashioned way, by an actual mailed letter. Though this letter exhorted the public not to be saddened by the closing of the store, that the owner was excited about new projects he was turning his attention to, etc, he seemed rather downtrodden the last time I was in there. I wanted to say something on the occasion, express something of my regret, my appreciation over the years for having access to what was really a library, but--I didn't. They are having a big selloff before the store closes for good, so maybe I'll go back in. There are a couple of tapes I would like to get for the children anyway if he still has them.

I feel about The Third Man much the same way as I do about its screenwriter, Graham Greene--I like it a lot, but I would like it a lot better if it wasn't quite so damn famous and acclaimed by everybody else already. If it were less celebrated it would be one of those delightful discoveries or secrets one confidently feels he is in on, because it is one of those movies, as Greene is one of those writers, that is easy to see and explain why it is good, but is not, to me anyway, not so clearly to be seen and explained why it is great. This is the second time I have seen this film (there is a quote on the box from Roger Ebert stating that he has seen it 50 times, for what it's worth). I have taken the approach that the first time I see a movie that is supposed to be a classic to just relax and let it work on me naturally, as entertainment even. If this does not work and I continue to find its greatness too persistently insisted upon to ignore, then the second time I will exert myself more to try to 'get it'.

The first time I saw The Third Man--a few years ago, 4 to 6 or so, probably --in my 'natural' viewing, it was engaging and attractive but overall did not make a great impression on me. Its themes obviously did not speak to me at any visceral level, and I couldn't remember the plot to save my life. Film buffs rave endlessly about the cutting, but that is not the sort or thing that I would be greatly excited by. Otherwise I liked all the obvious things about it, the zither, postwar Vienna, the aristocratic beauty Alida Valli, most of the Greene screenplay. Having seen it a second time mainly served to reinforce its pleasures, and increase my familiarity with its writing, acting, stars, and so forth. More penetrating insights into its great qualities however were not to be gleaned on this occasion.

In the standard literature on this movie, much is made of the happy collaboration of so much first-rate talent at the height of its powers--Carol Reed, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Graham Greene, doubtless many others among the film crew who were at the top of their fields as well. Thinking about the proximate physical presences of so much first-rateness when one is so increasingly remote from any such people in one's own life tends to be more painful than invigorating for me; it undoubtedly does give the film the so very worldly and able air that attracts people to it however.

Despite some of the ambivalence I have hinted at concerning the general critical assessment of Graham Greene's writing, I am actually a pretty big fan. I enjoyed the three novels of his I have read (The End of the Affair, Monsignor Quixote, and A Burnt-Out Case) very much, and I look forward to any of his books that come up on my lists in a way that I do for very few writers. Of course he wrote many, many books, and they are at least superficially fairly similar to each other, but if you like his style, the different books usually offer the style applied to slightly different locales, slightly different professions, substantially (if not metaphysically) different problems/crises which give the reader some sense of novelty. It can be said of him, I think, what was said of Henry James--a good deal of life is left out, and the world as it is is more often shaped and improved upon to fit the qualifications of a Graham Greene novel than vice versa. His is an almost childless world, for example, or if characters do have children, they are no burden at all on their writing, travelling, drinking, womanizing, and so on, in the way that middle class people have never figured out how to get around. His characters too, are never at a loss for words. They are frequently stupid, or evil--usually a combination of both--but human beings in Graham Greene books are talking creatures, and whatever they are, whatever their station/relation to anyone else they announce through speech. Greene was famous for being a sexual dynamo, and seems to view the world at times as divided into the sexually energetic and those who are not so much. His cuckolded husbands and betrayed wives always struck me as accepting their conditions a little too conveniently meekly, as if the emotions of those deficient in comparable sexual power themselves are so weak and trifling as to be unpermissible in the Graham Greene universe. As there is so much of this in these novels too though, one wonders if many of the type represented by these put-upon and seemingly indifferent men whose wives the virile characters are forever helping themselves to were really homosexually inclined. Especially in the literary circles in which Greene moved, one suspects that the quotient of married homosexuals with dissatisfied wives in 1940s and 50s Britain was probably not insignificant. One last positive about the work of Greene though, and this film as well, is that one is always reminded/given the sense that writing at any meaningful level is a highly manly pursuit, that the writer is, or should be, engaged in work every bit as important and dangerous as that of policemen, soldiers, doctors, speculators, politicians and other vital professionals, with all of whom the true writer should be able to engage and contest with on familiar and manly terms. This is an attitude many writers of my sort foolishly gave up and failed to cultivate, either failing to understand the world as it is, or, even more foolishly, imagining themselves to be so brilliant as to be able to avoid having to engage with troublesome sorts of people while still being able to produce superior work, which except in instances of rare genius, is not a course a male writer especially is going to be able to successfully take.

With regard to Orson Welles, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons are two movies that work very well for me just as pure entertainments, that sort of set the brain working naturally by the synapses of delight that various of their situations and language present. This is similar to the most popular novels of Tolstoy, which can be, and are, enjoyably read even by people who are not intellectuals and have no formal or even informal training or interest in the study of literature.

The Burg Kino in Vienna screens The Third Man every Friday and Saturday at 11pm, Sunday at 3pm and Tuesday at 4:30pm, if you happen to be in town.

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