The Third Man
We recently hosted a movie crew for five days. Twelve film students from the New York Film Academy used our house as a film set--and hostel--to complete what was the final project for the year. The director/screenwriter/producer was a vivacious, very intelligent girl from China, who we had hosted a couple of years ago while she matriculated at a local high school.
The project was fascinating to observe. Movies are omnipresent in our culture, but little is known of them outside the industry, as to how they get made, what is involved in their construction. What most people know about movies consists of the actors. Movie buffs will also wax on about this or that director, and you occasionally will hear something about some cinematographer. Nothing about the writers (there are always many, many writers, as in plural, within just one film), or the costume designers, or set designers, or the guy in charge of lighting or sound or editing. These people are anonymous, but nothing goes on within the making of a movie without them.
Indeed, the many different production companies that role down the screen at beginning and end credits seem now to me to be absolutely necessary. It takes an army to make a movie. It takes a company just to feed this army. The final impression this adventure had on me was that what we experience from our entertainments--but really from any and all aspects of life: our businesses, jobs, our friends, our religions, our politics--is but the surface. The Third Man, my favorite film, is not great because of Orson Welles’ performance, nor Alita Valli’s, nor Joseph Cotten’s. Nor any of the amazing supporting actors (I particularly like Ernst Deutsch’s Kurtz, and Erich Ponto’s Dr. Winkel). It isn’t even about Carol Reed’s wonderful direction or the great writing from Graham Greene (who was the sole screenwriter who originally wrote the novel as a prelude to the film). The film is a miracle --all films are miracles of a kind-- of collaboration. If at the end it all works, and if it can be said to be art, you can chalk it up to an amazing symbiosis of talent, opportunity--meaning money--effort, and luck. What you see on the screen is the apex of the effort which bobs on the sea of time (our iceberg in this analogy), and this is true of all our creations, all our connections in life: our connections being our friends, our interests, our experiences.
The “movie” of our own life has this same dichotomy: lived underneath in the algal weeds, the currents flowing here and there, with the messiness of our exertions, is where the true meaning lies, full of questions upon questions; and on the surface is where the actors play their two-dimensional lives and where we barely notice --but don’t often allow ourselves to ask about -- the deeper questions flowing in the muddied currents.
Everything can be considered entertainment. The show, the theater, but also science, philosophy, history, the arts, the many religions. There is the surface, the show upon which we project our hopes and expectations, our needs, the surface which we accept without questioning too much. The scientists say this or that, and we, not being scientists, accept it all. The religious leaders also propound this or that is true, or this or that is false, and we accept it because we are not divinity students after all. We see the show, and then we genuflect before it.
This is no way to live a life. To accept blindly. To walk in single file hither and yon wherever you are told to go.
Do this and...you go to Hell! Don’t do this...and you go to Hell! Judgment! Fall on your knees! This is the show. This is the surface play. Underneath it is all the mess of texts and historical judgments, cultural ideas that changed with the wind. Asking one question brings this house of cards down, just one simple query, and it is this: Is it true?
There are ten thousand different ways to see the truth. Every truth has its gaffer, its sound technician, its lighting director. The further down you go, the further you see how things work, how things are put together, the more despairing it can all seem. We want one truth, not ten thousand. We want the movie to be about Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton and Alita Valli, not the swirling truths that fly out tangential to all those third man references. Who is the third man? Is he the dead man, the man before the war, the man who used to believe in things, the man who existed behind the scenes, but is now projected high up on a Ferris Wheel, talking of cuckoo clocks, the man Alita Valli loved, then lost? The man of shadows, cast by a lighting guy getting paid a buck-fifty an hour?
Keep going. There must be thousands of others not yet thought up.