City Paper is not for tourists.
July 9-11 at the
American Film Institute Theater
“New Canadian Documentaries”
July 10-24 at the National Gallery of Art
“South African Cinema:
Past, Present, and Future”
July 10-August 7 at the Hirshhorn Museum and the S. Dillon Ripley Center
The ostensible moral of The Third Man—often attributed to scripter Graham Greene but apparently the contribution of director Carol Reed—is that Americans were too bumptious and naive to make their way in the Europe they had recently delivered from Nazism. Yet the 1949 film, a critical and popular hit at the time, was significantly shaped by two Americans: Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and the mostly invisible man who is nonetheless indisputably the film’s star, Orson Welles.
Selznick took a role in choosing the movie’s principal cast, providing his contract players Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli in a deal for North American rights, but he didn’t want the troublesome Welles. The producer pushed for Robert Mitchum, until the actor’s marijuana conviction took him out of contention. Selznick’s final acts of control were to cut 11 minutes from the American version of the film and to replace Reed’s opening voice-over with the same words read by Cotten; the resulting version of the film remained the only one seen theatrically in the U.S. until now. Refurbished for its 50th anniversary, the reissue of The Third Man includes Reed’s prologue and all the missing minutes, which were shaved from scenes throughout the film. Among the restored footage is an additional 35 seconds of the famous final shot and many remarks in untranslated German, which emphasize the isolation of protagonist Holly Martins (Cotten), the clueless newcomer to Allied-occupied Vienna who decides to search for the elusive title character.
Some of The Third Man’s innovations are now familiar. The oblique camera angles and deep shadows have been emulated by scores of noirs, and Anton Karas’ multitracked zither theme—a sensation in 1949—sounds pretty tame in an age when large record stores may stock a dozen CDs by Tuvan throat singers. Still, the film’s alienated mood, shifting tone, unexpected humor, and evocative use of bombed-out Vienna locations seem almost contemporary. Today, the film seems a strategic bridge between ’20s German expressionism, Cold War nihilism, and end-of-history ambiguity.
The story begins when Martins arrives in Austria, summoned by old friend Harry Lime. He finds a city with a ready-made metaphor for postwar fragmentation—the central zone is patrolled by four-man military police teams with one representative each from France, the U.K., the U.S., and the Soviet Union—but no Lime. His mysterious pal has just been killed in a traffic accident, Martins is told, and both Lime’s friends and imperious British investigator Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) suggest that the American leave immediately. But Martins, a writer of pulp western novels, is asked to stay by a British propaganda officer (Wilfrid Hyde-White) who mistakes him for a serious novelist. Then Martins meets Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Valli), an actress who is beautiful and at risk of deportation to the Eastern bloc. If that weren’t motivation enough to remain in Vienna, Martins catches a glimpse of Lime in the shadows, grinning confidently as he’s suddenly illuminated—a very theatrical star entrance for Welles, and one that’s rarely been topped.
Reed made Greene’s script both more and less obvious; he spelled out Lime’s racket and made Anna a Czech refugee persecuted by Soviet agents (rather than the less sympathetic daughter of a Nazi), and yet he ditched the happy ending. Welles too had a go at Greene’s scenario, writing many of his own lines, including the much-quoted (if clunky in context) speech about the relative virtues of tumultuous Renaissance Italy and politically stable Switzerland (which produced only, Lime claims, “the cuckoo clock”). Welles also influenced the direction of his own scenes, notably Lime’s flight through the sewers, which recalls Fritz Lang’s M while presaging the atmosphere of his own Touch of Evil. Indeed, Welles’ unruly presence is the source of a separate drama that sometimes overwhelms the script. He divides The Third Man against itself—which makes Vienna a more apt location than Reed and Greene could have known.
The phrase “Canadian feature film” can chill the most ardent cinephile, but “Canadian documentary” is another matter. Long supported by a national film board—and perhaps inspired by their country’s bystander status in international events—documentarians have thrived north of the border. As the National Gallery’s second annual showcase of “New Canadian Documentaries” demonstrates, being an onlooker is serious work.
The series features three biographies, including Brakhage (July 10 at 3:15 p.m.), a study of a filmmaker every bit as willful, innovative, and influential as Welles. (The other biographies, which were not available for preview, are Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles; July 10 at 2 p.m., and Remembering Memory, about French philosopher Helene Cixous, July 24 at 3:15 p.m.) For 40 years, Stan Brakhage has made exalted home movies, increasingly abstract works that reject such cinematic conventions as narrative and even sound (“an aesthetic error,” he once believed). Jim Shedden’s portrait combines excerpts from Brakhage’s work (such noted films as Dog Star Man, the anti-Vietnam War 23rd Psalm Branch, and Window Water Baby Moving, an impressionistic depiction of childbirth) with footage of Brakhage and his family, friends, and supporters. If the filmmaker (and teacher) is the high priest of abstract film, he’s an affable and approachable one; the documentary shows him as a classic example of the back-porch American innovator, as happy playing with his kids as negotiating the outer limits of film theory.
The series also highlights two films from a different sort of front line, John Paskievich’s The Gypsies of Svinia (July 17 at 3:45 p.m.) and Nettie Wild’s A Place Called Chiapas (July 17 at 2 p.m.; July 18 at 4 p.m.). The latter visits that Mexican state to learn what’s happened since the widely reported 1994 uprising. Although the fragile cease-fire continues, Wild and her crew discovered that the region is tensely divided between areas controlled by the Zapatista rebels and the right-wing “Peace and Justice” paramilitary group. While attempting to depict accurately the plight of Mayan peasants (whom one government official casually labels “Chinese”) dispossessed by the paramilitary forces, the 1998 film inevitably influences events. At one point, Peace and Justice troops begin pelting the peasants and the crew with rocks as soon as Wild puts down her camera.
The Gypsies of Svinia is set in Slovakia, which has the largest percentage of Roma residents of any country in Europe, but its quandary will be achingly familiar to American viewers. The town’s Slovak residents call themselves “white” and the Roma (also known as gypsies) “black,” and have created a system of segregation that suggests 1960s Mississippi. Narratively, the documentary is a bit frustrating: It follows Canadian David Scheffel’s effort to help the Roma, an endeavor that has yet to really begin when the film ends. Still, it offers a disquieting lesson in the universality of ethnic stereotyping and hostility, showing how easy it is to create an underclass that lives down to the expectations of its imagined betters.
Of the previewed films, the disappointment was Kevin McMahon’s Intelligence (July 24 at 2 p.m.), a gimmicky and glancing overview of everything from supercomputers, high-tech surveillance, and weather forecasting to Mensa, classes for “gifted” children, and video games. There’s not much here that reasonably smart people won’t have already considered on their own. The program also includes The Herd (July 11 at 4:30 p.m.), an account of a 1929 attempt to move 3,000 reindeer from Alaska to Canada.
Both blessed and cursed, South Africa was the site of horrific exploitation and discrimination, but it exited the convulsive apartheid era as one of the continent’s more prosperous and stable countries. That status is reflected by the nation’s long history as a cultural center, one of the hubs of African pop music as well as one of the first African countries with an indigenous film industry. Music and cinema are closely linked in the two earliest entries in “South African Cinema: Past, Present, and Future,” a series sponsored by the National Museum of African Art and presented at the Hirshhorn Museum and the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The program begins this week with Cry, the Beloved Country (July 10 at 7 p.m., Hirshhorn), Darrell James Roodt’s old-fashioned but legitimately stirring 1995 adaptation of Alan Paton’s influential 1946 anti-apartheid novel.
Donald Swanson’s 1949 African Jim (July 31 at 7 p.m., Ripley) and Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 Come Back Africa (July 17 at 7 p.m., Hirshhorn) tell essentially the same story, but a lot can change in a decade. Both films follow a young man from the country who arrives in the big city, where he’s introduced to vice, bigotry, and camaraderie. The former, however, is essentially a star-is-born musical whose slim plot is an excuse for a string of upbeat numbers, mostly at what seems to be Johannesburg’s equivalent of the Cotton Club; it doesn’t take long for the same pompous white guy who fired the golden-voiced Jim as a “garden boy” to offer him a gig as a recording star. Come Back Africa also has much music in it, but protagonist Zachariah is not destined for stardom. Shot secretly without professional actors, the film is a catalogue of apartheid evils that ends in inexorable catastrophe.
The other previewable film, Katyinka Heyns’ 1998 Paljas (Aug. 7 at 7 p.m., Hirshhorn), is the tale of a joyless family’s emotional rebirth. Although the scenario involves the dubious concept of a young boy’s acquiring a guardian mime, this film is often powerful and evocative. The story doesn’t touch on the subject of race relations—there are no black characters—but it does convey the suffocating quality of life in a small (and small-minded) Afrikaner community.
The other films include Boesman and Lena, a 1973 adaptation of Athol Fugard’s play about a “coloured” couple driven from its home by the government (July 11 at 2 p.m., Ripley); A Walk in the Night, a 1998 drama about an unemployed man whose best friend is accused of a murder that the jobless man actually committed (July 17 at 2 p.m., Hirshhorn); and Voices From Robben Island, a documentary about inmates at the high-security penitentiary that held political prisoners during the apartheid era (July 24 at 7 p.m., Ripley). CP