Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Third Man

My ten great movies #8: The Third Man

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Even for passionate movie lovers, two things tend to date the classic films of the thirties and forties: their sets, with the inescapable smell of the studio, and their orchestral scores, which to modern ears tend to sound depressingly alike. It’s quite possible, then, that we have both the city of Vienna and Anton Karas to thank for the fact that The Third Man still seems so fresh. The zither score, combined with the extraordinary locations, result in a film that seems both utterly of its time and completely modern—and one that requires less of a mental adjustment to enjoy than any other movie of its era I know. Combine this with Graham Greene’s great script, with its uncredited contributions from Orson Welles and others, and we have what is both the breeziest and darkest of noirs, a film I love so much that I steal from it directly both in my novelette “Kawataro” and the conclusion of my novel City of Exiles.

Everyone knows how completely Welles dominates the movie with only a reel or so of screen time—which, while delicious, seems much more of its period than the rest of the film—to the point where our memory of Harry Lime tends to overshadow the rest of the cast: Joseph Cotten, the very moving Alida Valli, and especially Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, who contributes perhaps the film’s most stylish performance. The big moments—Harry’s entrance, the ferris wheel scene, the great closing shot—are deservedly famous, but I also like the small touches: the wizened little boy with the ball; the moment when Sgt. Paine (the wonderful Bernard Lee) loads the picture of a rhinoceros into the slide projector by mistake; or the glimpses we get into the work of hack writer Holly Martens though the eyes of his admiring readers: “I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas.” But as Carol Reed’s great film reminds us, there are certainly snakes in Vienna. And they’re very charming.

Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

The cultural chalk circle

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Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity was the best movie I saw last year, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since Gravity was pretty much the only movie I saw last year. Now, this isn’t entirely true—I caught Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and The Hobbit in theaters, and got around to watching a fair number of others at home—but it still marks a drastic drop from my old routine, in which I’d often see a new movie in theaters every week. I’ve noted before that having a baby daughter turned me overnight into a studio executive’s idea of the average moviegoer, who is only motivated to get out of the house for a sequel or a proven franchise, but I’m still shocked by how quickly the transformation took place. When you look at it in another light, though, it only brings my moviegoing habits, which were always something of an outlier, into line with the rest of my pop cultural life, which has long been growing more circumscribed. My house is crammed full of books, but I read embarrassingly little new fiction, and I buy maybe five or six new albums a year. And if I managed to stay a cinephile for comparatively longer, it only postponed the contraction of our cultural lives that takes place sooner or later for most of us, usually around the time that we start to have more things competing for our attention.

When you’re born, without knowing it, you’ve dropped a stake at a certain random point in a huge expanse of art and pop culture. The books you read, the music you hear, and the media you experience are all shaped by the tastes of your parents and the immediate community to which you belong, which enclose a subset of all the art available within an invisible chalk circle. Later, as you enter the wider world of works intended for people your age, you expand that circle outward into the books and movies that everyone around you seems to know, from Dr. Seuss to The Phantom Tollbooth. As time goes on, the circle continues to broaden, and to strike out into unexpected directions, and it’s in high school and college that it seems to reach its greatest circumference. It’s no mystery why: you’re young, unencumbered, but hungry for knowledge, and although you haven’t had a chance to differentiate your life significantly from those of your peers, you can treat art and literature as glimpses into other forms of human experience, or mirrors that reflect back some aspect of your own. It’s no accident that most people seem to spend more time listening to music in their late teens and early twenties than at any other point. You’ve got access to more influences than ever before—along with faster Internet connections, at least in my day—and you use the resources you have to start putting together a soundtrack for your own story.

Orson Welles in The Third Man

Later, though, the circle starts to contract. After graduating from college, many people stop reading books altogether, and the rest of us rarely have much time to explore beyond the table of new releases at Barnes & Noble. When you look at Pitchfork’s list of the top albums of the year, you’re lucky if you can recognize even a third of the names. If a new book or album gets sensational reviews, you’ll check it out, but for the most part, you stick to a handful of old stalwarts, which means that you always make a point of picking up the new Radiohead, even if you only play The King of Limbs a couple of times. Once again, the reasoning here isn’t hard to see. You’ve got a job; you’ve got social obligations; maybe you’ve started to raise a family; and the gaps in your life that you used to fill up with art are occupied by life itself. One by one, the babies get thrown out of the sleigh, and although you don’t miss some of them as much as you expected, you cling to others for as long as you can. For me, a movie house has always been a special place of magic, and I made pilgrimages to that temple on a weekly basis, so its not surprising that I only gave it up when my life had already changed in empathic ways of its own.

But as Harry Lime says in The Third Man, it’s not that awful. Television, for instance, has slowly expanded to become a larger part of my cultural awareness—as it was when I was growing up, before contracting in college and immediately thereafter—and although this isn’t a new pattern in American lives, I’ve been lucky enough to have it coincide with what everyone agrees is a golden age for the medium as a whole. I’m slowly working my way back around to music, in an indirect fashion, courtesy of my ukelele and a new record player, which allows me to rediscover albums that aren’t readily available anywhere else. Reading is still a problem, and while I still get through a vast amount of nonfiction, usually for one writing project or another, my personal consumption of fiction for the last year has been limited to a few John D. MacDonald novels, a smattering of short stories, and the first third of Infinite Jest. Still, I hold out hope that it gets better from here. My circle of culture is smaller than before, and it continues to be recentered, but for most of us, that’s just the way it works. And although the outer limits of that chalk circle grow fainter with time, it’s reassuring to know that it’s still there.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2014 at 10:06 am

Posted in Books, Movies

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The best closing shots in film

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Lawrence of Arabia

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 13, 2011. Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!

As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.

Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click for the titles:

Using the rule of three

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Comedy, as we all know intuitively, is largely built on threes. It often shows the same thing three times with slight variations, followed by a kicker at the end, which is why so many jokes are built around three different nationalities, religions, or professions, like those about the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer. There’s the famous comedy triple, in which two items set up a pattern, followed by a third that serves as a punchline. (There are countless examples, but I’ve always liked this one from The Simpsons: “Well, little girl, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my day: whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the Fox network…”)  A similar rule applies to magic, which depends on the basic pattern of setup, development, and surprise climax. In Magic and Showmanship, Henning Nelms describes a trick in which a color-changing fan is used to magically dye handkerchiefs different colors, and then says:

Commercial color-changing fans can display four different hues. But this is bad showmanship. Dyeing one is trivial. Dyeing two arouses interest. Dyeing three provides your climax. There is no reason to add an anticlimax simply because you are prepared to do so.

So why is the number three so powerful? For the same reason that one point is just a point, two points is a line, and three points, suddenly, is structure. Our brains are wired to look for patterns, and it takes three items to confirm or deny that a pattern exists—and it can be very satisfying either to be given the payoff we’ve been expecting or to be shown how cleverly we’ve been misled. Writing about The Godfather, David Thomson speaks of “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” as when Michael kills Sollozzo and McCloskey. “It is a killing in which we are his accomplices,” Thomson says, and three is the minimum number of story points required for the reader to actively conspire in the narrative. This is why most of our stories, from jokes to fairy tales to novels, still consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Or, as Philip Larkin puts it, “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.”)

This also applies to a story’s constituent parts. Narratives tend to have a sort of fractal structure: an individual chapter or scene will often have the same three-act structure as the story as a whole. This often applies to the movie scenes we tend to remember most vividly, which are structured as miniature plays—think of Holly’s first meeting with Harry in The Third Man. My own novels and stories are usually structured in three acts, to the point where I use numbered sections even in short novelettes, and that applies to individual chapters as well. When I’m outlining a chapter, I’m generally thinking in threes, even before I know what will happen: I’ve learned from experience that three story beats is a strong foundation on which to build a chapter, for the same reason that a tripod needs three legs to stand, so I always make sure that the chapter falls into three roughly similar parts, at least in the first draft.

And yet here’s the funny thing: when it comes to the final draft of a chapter, the first and third parts often don’t need to be there. I’ve spoken before about the importance of writing the middle—that is, of cutting the opening and closing sections of a chapter and jumping from the middle of one scene to the next—and I’ve often noticed that rough drafts spend too much time moving toward and away from the real center of interest. In short, the rule of three is invaluable for structuring a first draft, but in the final version, much of it can be thrown away. In my experience, it’s best to reserve the full three-act treatment for big, climactic scenes, while for transitional chapters or sequences, usually only the middle is necessary. The reader can fill in the first and last parts on his or her own—but only if they’ve been written and cut in the first place. They’re still there, but they’re invisible. And that’s how you use the rule of three.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

My ten great movies #6: The Third Man

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Even for passionate movie lovers, two things tend to date the classic films of the thirties and forties: their sets, with the inescapable smell of the studio, and their orchestral scores, which to modern ears tend to sound depressingly alike. It’s quite possible, then, that we have both the city of Vienna and Anton Karas to thank for the fact that The Third Man still seems so fresh. The zither score, combined with the extraordinary locations, result in a film that seems both utterly of its time and completely modern—it requires less of a mental adjustment to enjoy than any other movie of its era I know. Combine this with Graham Greene’s great script, with its uncredited contributions from Orson Welles and others, and we have what is both the breeziest and darkest of noirs, a film I love so much that I steal from it directly both in my novelette “Kawataro” and the conclusion of my novel City of Exiles.

Everyone knows how completely Welles dominates the movie with only a reel or so of screen time—which, while delicious, seems much more of its period than the rest of the film—to the point where our memory of Harry Lime tends to overshadow the rest of the cast: Joseph Cotten, the very moving Alida Valli, and especially Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, who contributes perhaps the film’s most stylish performance. The big moments—Harry’s entrance, the ferris wheel scene, the great closing shot—are deservedly famous, but I also like the small touches: the wizened little boy with the ball; the moment when Sgt. Paine (the wonderful Bernard Lee) loads the picture of a rhinoceros into the slide projector by mistake; or the glimpses we get into the work of hack writer Holly Martens though the eyes of his admiring readers: “I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas.” But as Carol Reed’s great film reminds us, there are certainly snakes in Vienna—and very charming ones at that.

On Monday: Kubrick, of course, but not the one you were expecting.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2011 at 10:00 am

The making of a novelette (part 3)

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In his nice little book Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block, while describing how he incorporates all kinds of disparate elements into his fiction, uses an image for the creative process that I’ve always thought was particularly appropriate:

I may borrow a bit of physical description, for example, or a mannerism, or an oddity of speech. I may take an incident in the life of someone I know and use it as an item of background data in the life of one of my characters. Little touches of this sort get threaded into my characters much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.

Most writers, I imagine, can relate to this. As carefully as any novel or story may be planned, many of its constituent parts will end up being the result of chance, impulse, or random inspiration. “Kawataro” is no exception. Although what I’ve described so far might sound like a fairly rational process, that rationality, if it exists at all, occurs mostly in the intermediate planning stage. When it comes to the details of the novel itself—the characters, the scenes, the small touches that make a story live—the process is much more intuitive, and the results can take even the author by surprise.

The backgrounds of the characters in “Kawataro,” for instance, were a combination of pragmatism and personal inclination. For my viewpoint character, Hakaru, I had a particular type in mind: a smart, observant outsider, but not a scientist, which would allow me to explain certain concepts to the reader in a way that was hopefully unobtrusive. I’ve used the figure of a journalist in a number of stories (including the upcoming “Warning Sign” and “The Boneless One”), partly because I’m married to one, but also because it’s a job that involves asking questions and going into unusual places, which is useful from a storytelling point of view. For a change of pace, I decided to have Hakaru (named, incidentally, for this man) be a videographer with a research background. I knew that projects like the one I was describing were usually videotaped, so he had a good reason for being there. Plus I’ve done a lot of video production myself, so I could easily describe his work if necessary (although it ended up not entering the story at all).

My other main character, Dr. Nakaya, was a bit more determined by the plot I had already sketched out. She had to be a scientist involved in the study of language formation among the burakumin of my fictional village. At some point, it occurred to me that she might also be a burakumin herself. Once these details had been established, her character quickly fell into place: intelligent, slightly severe, but emotionally involved with the predicament of these villagers in ways that were only gradually revealed. As for the other characters, they were mostly functional types—a few fell into the category of characters, familiar from The X-Files, destined only to be victims—but I tried to invest them with at least some specificity. (For some reason, I love Miyamoto’s pink shirt, which is inspired by a similar shirt worn by a figure in The Cove.) And the three sinister children at the heart of the story were clearly rooted in my memories of spooky kids from The Grudge and similar movies, with one of them wearing a red raincoat that was my homage to Don’t Look Now. (It’s an homage that would seem overly obvious in a straight horror movie, but which works pretty well in a different genre.)

Now that I had a general plot and a cast of characters, all that remained was to fill out the story itself. Many of the scenes were dictated by the shape of the conventional story I’d chosen: an outsider arrives in a small town, meets the locals, is confronted with violent and seemingly supernatural events, and finally discovers a rational explanation. In the details, though, I was free to indulge myself. The scene in which a little girl with a bouncing ball watches Dr. Nakaya argue with Miyamoto, then later implicates her in his murder, was a straight homage to The Third Man. Many of the visual details of the story—the rain, the figure in the woods, the children’s drawings unexpectedly revealing a monster—were taken from the vocabulary of horror movies. The layout of my imaginary village determined the beats of the chase scenes. And the image of the dead innkeeper, folded up like a frog, came from a dream I had over ten years ago, which I was glad to finally use here.

In the end, then, I had a story constructed from many dissimilar elements—an article in a science magazine, a Japanese legend, a few character ideas, memories of favorite movies, even dreams—which all came together, I hope, in a seamless and inevitable way. Tomorrow, I’ll wind up the discussion by talking a bit about the revision and submission process, and how I feel about the story that resulted. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 1)

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Tomorrow night, my wife and I will be attending the Chicago Symphony’s Tribute to Roger Ebert, where orchestral selections will be played from many of Ebert’s favorite movies, including Casablanca, The Third Man, and 2001. This would be an exceptional evening in any case, but it’s especially meaningful to me, because Ebert, who is scheduled to be there in person, has had more influence on how I think about the movies than any other film critic, and more impact on my life than most writers of any kind. Which isn’t to say that we don’t often strongly disagree—you could start with his one-star review for Blue Velvet and work your way back from there. But a critic who always agrees with you isn’t much of a critic, and Ebert’s opinions, whether I share them or not, have been a central part of my life for as long as I’ve been able to read.

When I was seven years old, I stole Ebert’s Movie Home Companion from my parents’ bookshelf, and haven’t given it back since. Over time, my first copy, which would have been of this edition, grew so tattered that both the front and back covers fell off. (Judging from the discussion on this article on the AV Club, this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.) I absorbed Ebert’s thoughts on Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and hundreds of other films years before I had the chance to see them myself, to the point where I’m often able to recognize a movie on television solely because I’ve memorized his review. His discussion of the Sight & Sound poll was my first exposure to the idea of an artistic canon, an idea that has guided much of my life ever since, for better or worse. And I certainly learned a lot from his reviews of such films as Emmanuelle and Caligula, even if I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

The result was that—much the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress did for George Bernard Shaw—Ebert’s reviews formed a sort of cultural bedrock in my brain, teaching me how to write and think, as well as how to watch movies. And it was through his work that I began to realize that the life of a critic is nothing less than the best possible excuse for an extended conversation with the world. When you consider the length of Ebert’s career—which runs from Bonnie and Clyde through The Social Network and beyond—it becomes obvious that no other writer of the past five decades has engaged with so many artists and cultural issues for such a large audience. And it’s no wonder that Ebert’s other published work, which ranges from walks in London to the Phantom of the Opera to the joys of the rice cooker, is so beguilingly diverse: after a lifetime spent on the front lines of the culture, he’s emerged as complete a human being as they come.

But his greatest legacy, of course, is what he’s taught us about the movies. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking more closely at Ebert’s reviews, which have profoundly influenced the way I think about all works of art. (In the meantime, here’s a classic article about his wonderful house.)

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