Start here

America and The Hateful Eight

hateful-eight-tv-spot

One of the characters of The Hateful Eight carries a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln.  “Honest Abe” is remembered in the history books for having saved the Union, and Lincoln remains a symbol for the uneasy unity of the United States.  Like the U.S. Constitution, people are moved by the dream of unity on paper, but it’s much more difficult to make these ideas a reality.

The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino is a western by settling.  It shares elements with a thriller.  It often feels like theater.  As with most of his pictures, it is a melting pot of style and influence, and while he is often criticized for dabbling in genres, it feels appropriate in this context, especially considering its themes.  Like many, or most, of his films, there is an exploration of race and violence, but in this case they are recurring motifs under the umbrella of the greater theme: America itself.

This film begins with a shot of a crucifix in the wilderness, with snow accumulating on the body of Jesus.  No better symbolism could be used to introduce this Western.  The America of the film—and the America that exists today—carries the idea of Christ with it, but the civil society that has been, at least theoretically, sought by Christianity in the West has been covered by the more savage elements in the wild New World.  It may receive lip-service, but “good will towards men” gets in the way of survival and has never been useful for personal prosperity.  While Christianity remains ubiquitous in America, it has been altered by the environment; other things got in the way.   This image, like this film, reminds us that the civil society that exists in America is held together by the most fragile semblance of unity—and it’s worth noting that symbol of unity is represented the body of man being executed.

Circumstances have forced the Americans in The Hateful Eight to find themselves in close quarters, and the commonality they share is their desire to keep on the path towards their separate goals, in spite of those who get in their way.  That is where most of their commonalities end.  Samuel L. Jackson is “The Bounty Hunter”, who is on his way to Red Rock to collect money for three fugitives that he has chosen to capture on the dead side of “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”   Kurt Russell plays a bounty hunter called “The Hangman”, who has a famous reputation for bringing in his fugitives alive so “not to cheat the hangman.”  Even these two characters that share a trade come from different backgrounds and have a different outlook on the way their work should be completed.  The Hangman is bringing “the Prisoner” (played in feral perfection by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang.  We learn “The Bounty Hunter” is a black union solider from the Civil War when they cross paths with “The Sheriff”—or a man who claims to be the Sheriff—of Red Rock.  “The Sheriff” (in a great performance by the underused Walton Goggins) is a former renegade who didn’t surrender when the war was over, and seeds of distrust are quickly sewn between him and “The Bounty Hunter” for their recent past in America’s bloodiest war.

A storm is brewing. Because of the oncoming blizzard, The Bounty Hunter, The Hangman, The Prisoner, and The Sheriff are forced to take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet The Mexican, The Little Man, The Cow Puncher, and The Confederate (played by Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern, respectively).

In these close quarters, we have people from different backgrounds with different ideas of morality, honor, and justice, who are left with no choice but to live together until the storm passes.  The setting of Wyoming is a wise choice, because Wyoming remains nearly isolated from the rest of America the way America—mentally speaking—remains isolated from the rest of the world. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a microcosm of the American dream on screen.  It is an attempt at civilization in the wild, and a structure made by an entrepreneurial soul trying to carve out their own fortune against the odds.  The people who have arrived at Minnie’s are seeking shelter in a marketplace; seeking shelter within capitalism.  This mixed bag of individuals have arrived seeking fortune, running from their past, or in chains.  The violence that follows in this environment was never an “if” but simply a question of “when.”

Tarantino has created his what is possibly his darkest and most overtly political film yet.  It asks how we can trust each other if we are only interested in our own prosperity and survival.  It asks how we can cope with suspicion and fear.  Can we open our eyes before everything is ruined?  The film gives us the obvious answer, but still allows us to consider the possibilities.

This Means War: A Look Back at 1933’s Duck Soup

The Marx Brothers

“Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.” —Groucho Marx*

A characteristic of comedy that most people notice at a certain age is that many comedies and jokes become dated, and they simply no longer work on newer audiences.  (Think of the concept of “grandpa jokes” that crack up older people and fail miserably to younger audiences.  Or Jeff Foxworthy’s work.)  Shakespeare is usually one of the first arguments made against the idea that comedy becomes dated, but without the right context, Shakespeare—as funny as he is—does not present easily digested jokes for many people that haven’t dug deeply into the plays.

How something endures is generally not an easy question to answer; if it were, everyone would be doing it with whatever art they create.  The Marx Brothers were able to make comedy work for their audiences at the time, later with the audiences of the 1960s, and they are arguably still able to do so, specifically with 1933’s Duck Soup.

The Marx Brothers weren’t made for silent film.  When it came time for the talkie, the brothers had honed their comedic skills on vaudeville long enough that their wits were too quick to be captured by intertitles. These stories are dialogue-driven, at least when it comes to Groucho and Chico.  Puns and snappy come backs are delivered at such a speed that the intertitles of silent film could have never kept up:

“Rufus T. Firefly: Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you: he really is an idiot. I implore you, send him back to his father and brothers, who are waiting for him with open arms in the penitentiary. I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.

Chicolini: I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth.”

Even if Harpo doesn’t make use of the talking part of the talkie, he communicates well with the sounds of a horn and a harp.  Even if the harp is conspicuously absent from Duck Soup, he can more than make up for its absence with a pair of scissors that he uses to terrorize people seemingly because they just happen to be in front of him at the time.  In a true anarchic spirit, he will ruin a cigar or a necktie… just for the hell of it.  (One could even take a Marxist reading of his actions—pardon the pun—that by cutting cigars and neckties, Harpo is making an attack of the bourgeois ornaments of the wealthy capitalist: cigars and neckties.  But I digress.)

This rebellious nature was also apparent in the rest of their work, using comedy to challenge the absurd, puritanical morality of the time.  For a long time, Hollywood (and television for much longer) didn’t approve of suggesting the all-too-natural phenomenon of a married couple sharing the same bed, even if much of the audience saw this happen during their own childhoods on a nightly basis.  Yet, Duck Soup features Harpo Marx sleeping in the same bed as a horse.  A juxtaposition highlighting that what is natural—a man and woman sharing a bed—which was declared to be distasteful, while something absurd and unnatural—a man and a horse—is acceptable.  (Including the detail of horseshoes by the house shoes at the foot of the bed.)  It may seem like a simple gag by today’s standards, but the same style of comedy is still used by today’s comedians.  The influence of the Marx Brothers has carried on with timeless characters like Bugs Bunny—who is undeniably a spiritual debtor to Groucho, Woody Allen’s comedies, and the less memorable Sasha Baron Cohen character, The Dictator.

Another interesting characteristic of the Marx Brothers is that they have the ability to attract fans without partisanship. In 1932’s Horse Feathers, Groucho sings a song called “I’m Against It”, where he—in classic Groucho fashion—explains how he is against most anything at all.  It’s not uncommon for the left to use this song against the right, when it comes to something like gay marriage or the legalization of marijuana; it’s also not uncommon to see the right criticize the so-called “social justice warriors” of the left by playing the same song to criticize the left’s policing of language and perhaps a celebrity-shaming, internet media-based outrage.

Duck Soup appeals to both the left and right because it shows the stupidity of leaders which can easily mean either side, since stupidity—as anyone knows—is not exclusive to one political belief or another.  Years after its release, Duck Soup showed the ability to appeal to beatniks and peaceniks , both as a mockery of political leadership and as a symbolic take of many leaders’ insistence on absurdly rushing into war, which helped Duck Soup gain a new audience in the rebellious and chaotic 1960s and—to a lesser extent—during the Bush administration, since Bush seemed like a far less witty Rufus T. Firefly, all-too-ready to declare war. (One can easily imagine George W. Bush with the 9/11 report repeating Firefly’s line, “A four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”)  Interpretations such as this aren’t limited to those created to fit into a more modern context since, even at the time, Benito Mussolini ordered the film to be banned taking it as a personal insult.  It’s possible in these days to see in the film a send-up of Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, since it seems that power and leadership itself are being ridiculed by Duck Soup.  Rebellion against authority will always be a common theme of art and literature as long as there is someone with power over another, and it is for that reason, the Marx Brothers endure.  That, and their films are actually funny.

*Also, “duck soup” used to be slang for something incredibly easy, like the expression, “a piece of cake.”  The title is intentionally ironic, since the protagonist, Grocho’s Rufus T. Firefly, was given the job of running a country, which doesn’t sound like “duck soup” for most people.

**Also, the title sticks with the animal themed slang terms of other Marx Brothers films. (e.g. Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, etc.)

Children and Angels: A Look Back at 1999’s Magnolia

Image

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.

                                                    —Philip Larkin, from “This Be the Verse”

 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is one of those films that demands repeated viewings.  I believed so in 2000, when it became the first movie I ever purchased on the then-new medium of DVD.  It contains both great performances—I’m not sure Tom Cruise has been better before or since—and real emotional depth, brought from the all-too-common situation of children being damaged from their parents and upbringing, and the far-too-unnoticed, synchronistic connection between lives.  The film explores the connection with our past that leads to the mistakes or sins of the future, and the forgiveness we might need to exhibit to others or ourselves, and ultimately, the act of letting go.  Through the unlikely circumstances of infidelity, incest, theft, betrayal, and abandonment that make so many feel worthless, unlovable, or bitter, we receive a kind story of salvation and redemption.

The film begins with three stories, or possibly urban legends, that show the possibility and importance of synchronicity in the world, with the narration, “It’s in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just ‘something that happened.’  This cannot be ‘one of those things.’  This, please, cannot be that.”  From that tone-setting introduction, it moves to the main action of the story with a montage of all of the major characters to the tune of Aimee Mann’s (the songwriter for most of the film’s music) version of Harry Nilsson’s “One”, which highlights the isolation and loneliness the characters are experiencing.  “One is the loneliest number…” the song says, and although all of the main characters are surrounded by people, they are all experiencing their own disconnection in what is revealed to be an extremely connected world, much like what is described initially with urban legends.  The action takes place in Los Angeles, and the first theme I want to discuss is their connectedness through L.A. culture, which is largely based on the entertainment world.

Television

The characters of Magnolia are, at least through degrees of separation, connected to the television industry.  This is an important theme, since often they have an outward persona that we perceive first, only to be followed by what lies beneath: the truth that is off-camera, and the real struggles that are hidden from others.  Although I don’t expect anyone to spend their time reading this that hasn’t seen the film, for those who haven’t in a long time, I will give a brief synopsis of the main characters with some of their connections.

Characters

“Big” Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his final role) is a dying television producer who’s afflicted with brain and lung cancer.  He’s connected with his much younger wife, Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore); his caretaker, Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman); his estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise); and one of his productions is the television show, “What Do Kids Know?”, which is hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and has featured two child prodigies, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and, currently, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman).  He left Frank and Frank’s mother when she was sick with cancer—an action that Frank has not forgiven.

Frank T.J. Mackey is a motivational speaker who stars in informercials about bedding down women with sexist rants and catchphrases, often leading seminars with such topics as, “How to Fake Like You’re Nice and Caring.”

Linda Partridge is his much younger wife who’s stealing his drugs and having a breakdown both from her regret of past adulterous affairs and her decision to marry Earl for the money.

Phil Parma is Earl’s hospice caretaker, who is one of the cast members who we know little about other than his empathy and willingness to help others.

Jimmy Gator is the host of “What Do Kids Know?” which is the show that “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith and Stanley Spector have become famous for winning, and he’s the father of Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters), whom he molested in the past, which leaves their relationship strained and Claudia in a mess.  He, too, like Earl Patridge, is dying from cancer and trying to repair relations with Claudia and his wife, whom he has cheated on many times, not counting his abuse of Claudia.

“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith is the former childhood star and record holder of “What Do Kids Know?”  He was struck by lightning and had his financial winnings stolen by his parents, and is now a recently terminated employee of an electronics store—a job he was given for his minor celebrity rather than his expertise.  He seeks companionship from a brace-faced bartender named Brad, even though he has no idea how to go about it, although he thinks getting braces might be the answer.

Stanley Spector is the reigning champion of “What Do Kids Know?” and he’s interested in everything from the meteorology center at the network where the game show appears to most any book of information at the library.  He has a selfish and overbearing father, who, like Donnie Smith’s parents, seems more interested in the celebrity and money associated with the show than Stanley’s well-being.

Claudia Wilson Gator is Jimmy’s daughter with a cocaine abuse problem and a low self-esteem.  She feels broken from the abuse, and develops a relationship with Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly, in one of his best roles).

Officer Jim Kurring is a divorced police officer that is empathetic to most of the people he deals with.  He’s logical and seems to look out for the best interest of everyone with whom he comes in contact.  He has a relationship with God, shown by his crucifix on the wall of his apartment and the prayers he says throughout the day the film takes place.

Dixon is an African-American child whose path interacts both with Jim Kurring and Linda Partridge, although to most adults he’s largely ignored.  He’s aware of the situation with Marcy and offers to help Jim Kurring with the case and even names “The Worm” as the culprit during his rap to the officer.

Infidelity

    The characters of Magnolia are often cruel to their partners, as the story begins we’re shown Marcie (Cleo King) being investigated for a disturbance, which leads to finding a dead man in her closet.  (And features one of the more quoteable lines from the film, “I don’t even know no loud crash!”)  It’s revealed that she has many wedding rings and many lovers.  Earl Partridge tells his Phil about how much he loved Lily, his first wife (and Frank’s mother) and how he treated her poorly by cheating.  Jimmy Gator, whose character runs almost parallel to Earl’s, as he also shares television work, cancer, infidelity, and damage to his own offspring, had cheated extensively on his wife, which we both see in the opening montage, and, later, hear his confession.  In a karmic show of what-goes-around-comes-around, we learn that Linda Partridge is broken from her guilt of cheating on Earl.  Earl, Jimmy, and Linda all express regret for their actions and try—to some extent—to repair their actions.  Linda wants to be taken out of Earl’s will, Earl wants to reconnect with Frank, and Jimmy wants both his wife’s forgiveness and to reconnect with Claudia.  Not all of their attempts at redemption work and not all can be forgiven, which is consistent with real life.

Damaged Children/Dysfunctional Adults

Frank T.J. Mackey hates women or at least puts up the front that he hates women, and it’s due to caring for his mother while his father, Earl, left them in their time of need, leaving Frank to care for his mother.  Often people’s anger gets misdirected, and while he—in all rational thought—should hate men instead, he misplaces his anger towards the victims.  While this is in no way admirable, it’s natural in the way psychology tells us that the abused sometimes become the abusers.  Frank deals with his grief by becoming all that he hates, continuing the cycle.

Claudia Wilson brings home men from the bar, does cocaine, and considers herself too broken from the abuse of her father to be good enough for anyone.  Anderson has said that Claudia was his first inspiration for the film, sprung from the Aimee Mann lyric, “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again” (From the song “Deathly”).

“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith has had his life thrown into a downward spiral by losing the easily gotten fame of childhood, combined with his selfish parents, to where he, like Claudia, feels unworthy of love and doesn’t know how to express it to others.  He’s dysfunctional, perpetually late to his job, and forgetful—which is shown by the way he drove into a 7/11 and walked away with his keys in the door to his job at Solomon & Solomon, the electronics store.

Stanley Spector is verbally abused by his father and treated badly by adults that he comes in contact with throughout the film.  When he needs to use the bathroom on “What Do Kids Know?” the producers don’t listen to him to the point that he wets his pants.  His father, also, is unsympathetic.  Stanley is not yet damaged from the adults that he’s surrounded by, but it’s easy to see how he could easily become damaged in the future.

Dixon, an inner-city child, is shown to be nothing but helpful.  Like Stanley, he is ignored by the adults he encounters.  He tries to help Jim Kurring solve the murder, after initially deciding to root through the purse of an overdosed Linda Partridge; he ends up saving her life as he calls 911 to get her help.  Even though she isn’t able to speak, it looks like it’s nothing new for Dixon, who’s used to adults ignoring him.  Dixon calls himself of prophet, and accurately (by chance or not) predicts that “he’s running from the Devil, but the debt is always gainin’ and when the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord brings the rain in.”

In Donnie Smith’s barroom rant, after being ridiculed by a wealthier patron that maintains his bartender/crush’s attention that “it’s dangerous to confuse children with angels”, he screams that “it’s not dangerous to confuse children with angels!”  Anderson seems to assert that children are basically good until circumstances, mostly caused by their parents, make them jaded, heartless, or cold.  The two children of the film are mostly good and mean no harm.  Stanley is even shown sitting in front of the symbol of a winged Asclepius, the universal symbol of medicine, which from behind could look like wings growing from his back.  (It’s worthy noting that we begin to see Linda Partridge unravel in a pharmacy, which often uses the Asclepius as an international symbol.)  In Judeo-Christian mythology, Moses attached a bronze snake to his staff and those who looked to it could be healed, which was probably Anderson’s intent more than the Greek Asclepius, since there are references to Exodus and the Old Testament throughout Magnolia.

Claudia is damaged from the sexual abuse of her father, Frank is damaged from the neglect and emotional abuse of his, and Donnie is damaged from the lack of attention and exploitation of his parents.  Anderson is showing us the before and after, and possibly what damaged those who damaged their own children.  Yet, with the symbolic use of the Asclepius and the deus ex machina later, we’re to believe that such destruction that cannot be reversed, can at least be healed.

The Helpful

Officer Jim Kurring, whom we’re to assume from the prayers and crucifix is a devoted Catholic, doesn’t seem to be damaged as badly as the others.  We know he’s been divorced but also that he recognizes those who are damaged and those who need help and tries to do his job to the best of his ability with fairness and honest judgment.

Phil Parma cares for Earl.  He takes extra care to try to find his estranged son, avoids ending his shift because of his desire to help Earl and stay with him through what proves to be his last night.  He is courteous to Linda, respectful to Frank, and weeps when he has to give Earl the morphine that he knows will end the Earl as he previously knew him.

Jim Kurring and Phil Parma represent human ideals, those who strive to help others.  Kurring almost seems childlike in his conversation, simple and to the point.  We know very little of Parma’s desires, but we know that Kurring wants to be loved, the same way Donnie Smith does, which makes sense when Kurring lets Donnie go after catching him trying to return the money he’s stolen.  He hears Donnie’s story and he knows what it’s like to long for love and the all-too-familiar experience of being lonely.  Unlike the rest of the characters, Kurring and Parma place their caring for others above their personal desires, and appropriately, are the two adult characters that—despite their flaws—don’t appear to be wracked with guilt.  The two of them give hope to the possibility that rising above or letting go of the past is possible.

Synchronicity and the Deus Ex Machina

 

And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs

                                                                            —Exodus 8:2

When the characters are their lowest, the Aimee Mann song “Wise Up” is sung by all major characters, showing their connection both with each other and their shared pain.  It’s a delicate scene, considering how having the actors sing could be misconstrued as an ironic take on the situation, when instead it’s sincere and meaningful to the story. The scene begins with Phil Parma administering the high-dose morphine that will ease Earl’s pain, followed by Claudia’s cocaine abuse, Jim’s silent reflection in front of his bedroom crucifix, a drunk Jimmy Gator, Donnie sitting in front of his $100,000.00 “quiz kid” check, a depressed Phil Parma and a drugged Earl Partridge, a suicidal Linda Partridge, a conflicted Frank T.J. Mackey—fresh with the news of his father’s imminent demise, and a humiliated Stanley who has turned to his refuge of the library.

Dixon, the self-proclaimed prophet, ended his rap with the line, “When the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord brings the rain in.”  Shortly after Donnie, Claudia, Claudia’s mother, and Jim each cross Magnolia Ave. (this can be seen, although the sign is not in focus), the sky begins to rain frogs.  Stanley takes it as face value, “this is something that happens.”  Which Stanley should know, since raining animals has been documented, and Stanley is seen reading the works of Charles Fort, who wrote about both the unexplained and the interconnectedness of nature and synchronicity.  Once “the Good Lord brings the rain in”, all of the characters begin to deal with their pain.  Like Charles Fort, who said that the truth lies somewhere between “true believer” and “skeptic”, Anderson leaves it ambiguous; he doesn’t force the viewer to decide whether it’s God or not-God just that “this is something that happens.”  And the interconnected web of characters begins to face hard truths and forgive themselves or those who have hurt them.

Many people whom I’ve met have claimed the deus ex machina of the frogs from the sky is a cheap way to tie together an ending, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.  Anderson not only began the film by showing such phenomena but also maintained it throughout the film.  Considering that he cut his own trailers, many of which contained brief scenes of the frogs falling from the sky, I don’t think this was supposed to be a twist ending, but rather an expected occurrence of the extraordinary.  By showing how tightly the world is tied together, he challenges the viewer to consider the implications of the selfishness and cruelty, and how far-reaching the effect of our own selfish desires (e.g. lust, greed, and neglect) can reach and how long their damage can last.

It’s slowly revealed that when Jim Kurring talks to himself, he is usually in open-eyed prayer.  His reflection after the event isn’t about the frogs but about human relationships it’s said simply, but profoundly:

A lot of people think this is just a job that you go to. Take a lunch hour… job’s over. Something like that. But it’s a 24-hour deal. No two ways about it. And what most people don’t see… is just how hard it is to do the right thing. People think if I make a judgment call… that’s a judgment on them, but that is not what I do. And that’s not what should be done. I have to take everything… and play it as it lays. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that is a very tricky thing on my part… making that call. I mean, the law is the law. And heck if I’m gonna break it. You can forgive someone. Well, that’s the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street.”

 

    The film asks a question with an open-ended answer, which is rare in entertainment in general, but the question is an important one for every person: What can we forgive?

Paul Thomas Anderson invites us to consider the answer.

Magnolia trailer:

P.T. Anderson’s video for Aimee Mann’s Oscar-nominated song, “Save Me.”

Setting the Scene: The Opening of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Often, such as with the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the opening of a story tells much more key information than is immediately recognized by the observer of the work.  Graham Greene—an English novelist, playwright, literary critic, and former spy—wrote the screenplay (and accompanying novella) by establishing mood first and foremost.  This is a brief analysis of the opening to the film The Third Man. 

                                          Image

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

In Carol Reed’s 1949 film version of The Third Man, the director establishes the foreignness of the locale and the utter confusion of the protagonist, Holly Martins, in the opening sequence. There is considerable foreshadowing of the events to come, along with the dark mood of the story itself. The disorienting music, the unusual voice-over, and use of shadows set up the film for the dangerous and hidden mysteries of occupied Vienna, and eventually Harry Lime. By the time we get to the first scene of actual dialogue, Reed has established his film firmly into its setting and has informed the viewer of the type of adventure they are embarking on.

The music of the opening scene is strange to the ear of a British or American audience, as it is the sound of a zither, played by Anton Karas, a Viennese zitherist.  The sound was novel to the audiences of the film and it created quite a sensation on the popular music charts of the era.  According to The Continental Daily Mail, “Wherever the film is shown you can almost see the procession from cinema to gramophone shop. In its first three weeks sales have reached 100,000.”  The sound of “The Harry Lime Theme” topped the pop charts, a rare phenomenon of an instrumental film score.  Popularity aside, the music works in establishing the theme of a man in a foreign land, since the music is authentic Viennese and strange – at least when the film was first released – to Anglo ears, making them feel as out of place as Holly Martins.

What might be a minor detail to some modern viewers are the credits, shown on zither strings, letting audiences know that Orson Welles is starring in the picture.  The recognition is creating a mental note in the eyes of moviegoers to look for Welles, who will not appear in the film until much later.  If The Third Man were released today, Reed might have chosen to pay the Screen Actors’ Guild fines to keep Welles’ presence a surprise until his iconic entrance to the picture, much like David Fincher hid the identity of his serial killer in the thriller Seven because he believed that if the audience knew that Oscar-winner, Kevin Spacey, was in the film from the beginning, it would distract them from the story by looking for him.  As it is, I caught myself anticipating Welles’ entrance when I first saw the film over sixty years after its release.

The viewer is soon disoriented by the dark, snow covered architecture of Vienna and the voice-over of director Carol Reed explaining the black market.  There are images of smoke coming from buildings, a half-sunken boat in icy water, and men selling everything from matches to watches to shoes on the streets.  We’re shown that it’s cold and that it’s occupied by four different governments – the American, the British, the Russian, and the French – that aren’t the governments of the people of Austria.  This emphasizes the confusion of the bombed-out city by showing it’s being run by forces that don’t speak the same language as each other and very little of the language of the residents.  The city that Holly Martins enters is made of the rubble of a formerly beautiful place and is loaded with armed guards of assorted nationalities.  It’s one thing to be a fish out of water and another thing to be a small fish out of water.  In the DVD commentary, Steven Soderberg says that the original American version has the voice of Joseph Cotton (the actor playing Holly Martins) reading the voice over material, and he complained that it was confusing because it sounded like a man talking about himself in the third person, where the Carol Reed voiceover is the voice of a stranger.

Holly Martins looks dwarfed by the tall buildings as he was walking down the heavily policed streets, it shows how small and overwhelmed he is versus the city.  He walks right under a ladder on his way to Harry’s House and doesn’t even seem to notice.  For the audience, the ladder is almost a slash down the middle of the screen so it’s impossible for the viewer not to observe, and probably recognize the old superstition that it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, implying that this trip isn’t going to be smooth sailing for Holly Martins.

When he arrives to the door, a man shouts to him in German, and we the audience – under the statistical assumption that the audience is British or American – don’t understand what he is shouting.  The man is from a higher level, looking down at Martins, and even though the man is changing the light bulbs, because he is native to the area, he is given an air of superiority as the camera looks up to him and down to Martins.  The audience, too, has to struggle to understand the details of what this man is saying to him.  Appropriately, the details of Lime’s accident are confusing.  The audience learns with Martins and, as things are revealed to him, so are they revealed to the viewer.

At the funeral, it’s unclear whether or not Carol Reed wanted the set to appear as day or night – is it day-for-night or night-for-day?  It’s dark, but it’s also bright.  There is an interesting tonal ambiguity being displayed, such as the somber funeral situation that is being layered with the sound of the zither in a happy tune that sounds almost perfect for dancing.  Little is said at the funeral but so much is established.  Calloway is there, hanging back and observing in his leather jacket, gathering information.  Two men are suspicious of Martins and glare at him while whispering to each other.  Intrigue lies in every direction, and we’re informed that things are deeper than they seem, yet we don’t understand what is going on quite yet.  It is here that we first see the yet to be introduced Anna, who refuses to put dirt on Lime’s grave.  Martins does, foreshadowing the true fate of Harry Lime, which is completely unknown at this point in the film.

When looked at all together, this shows most of what the film is about.  All of the dots have been put into place and it’s now only a matter of connecting them, which will begin in the next scene, as Martins talks to Calloway, after his search for Lime has ended (or he believes it has ended) the movie begins to unravel the web that the opening sequence has placed before it.  Before the ending, Orson Welles will make what is possibly the grandest entry in film history, deliver an improvised, existentialist speech about the cuckoo clock, and Holly Martins will have all answers to his questions revealed.  Answers that were all foreshadowed by the opening of the film.

A Sonnet for Ol’ Dirty Bastard

While not trying to be too blasphemous and with apologies in advance to those celebrating the holiday, I could find no better time to post a sonnet for Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who was also known by the monicker “Big Baby Jesus.”  I encourage you all to have a safe holiday and try not to end up like ODB, (i.e. dead or in jail) this year.  Word.

When you rhymed it never made no damn sense

Don’t know if you were high or just plastered

Just love or hate, no sittin’ on the fence

Shit, we miss you, you Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Never knew, were you crazy or funny?

But you made us smile either f*ck*ng way

In heaven hoes better have your money

Else that St. John is gonna have to pay

I couldn’t believe you kept your welfare

Or that you tried out to play Mister Ed

Years go by, but yet it don’t seem quite fair

Still, I cannot believe that you are dead

When I try hard to get me some poontang

I always come back to the Wu Tang.

Ol' Dirty Bastard aka Big Baby Jesus

Ol’ Dirty Bastard aka Big Baby Jesus

A Sonnet for Psy

A weird internet thing happened and a South Korean rapper grabbed the attention of America in 2012. This is for Psy, whose “Whompum Gangnam Style” — or whatever it says— made it popular to be mysterious. Actually, who knows what the hell he’s been saying? Does it matter? Probably not.

A South Korean rapper is king

He’s taking the virtual world by storm

From every boombox, the jam is sounding

Inside the bar I ducked in to get warm

Everywhere we go, your song is playing

A great phenomenon, the reasons why

Nobody understands what you are saying

And not even sure how to pronounce “Psy”

Placed in the “one hit wonder” iTunes file

With the “Macarena” and “Bust a Move”

We wonder, “what the hell is ‘Gangnam Style’?”

We wonder, “what are you trying to prove?”

With the most famous song we can mention

’bout getting sexy ladies’ attention

The most famous weirdo from overseas.

The most famous weirdo from overseas.

A Sonnet for Honey Boo Boo

I don’t quite understand the bully-like fandom that comes with exploitative reality television.  Let’s just suffice to say that the freak show is alive and well — even if it doesn’t take place at the circus anymore.  Rumors are even circulating that Barbara Walters is considering Honey Boo Boo one of her “Most Fascinating People” of 2012.  That poor, poor child.

Why won’t anyone say that this is wrong?

Why don’t the cops shut this down quickly

She sings to Mountain Dew its own love song

One can be “healthy” and still be sickly

Rather than sets and a camera crew

Social Services should have stepped right in

Go-Go Juice makes the girl act a fool

But the audience is still tuning in

“Now they are actually better off

They might not stress for money anymore”

The Georgia gang is anything but soft

Smell the roadkill outside the kitchen door

How badly do you want the world to see?

Here comes exploitation on your TV!

 

Promotional Material for TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo

Promotional Material for TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo