Friday, July 31, 2015

At the Movies: "The Third Man"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Third Man
Carol Reed, 1949.

imbd: 8.3 (imdb 250: #107)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Fresh

I watched and reviewed The Third Man in 2009 in The Great Movie project. Mrs.5000 and I watched it again this week on the big screen at the fabulous Laurelhurst Theater.

The Third Man is a crisp, smart, darkly funny movie, highly stylized but with elements of gritty realism. Filmed on location in postwar Vienna – itself a place of stark contrasts between cosmopolitan style and heaps of bombed-out rubble – it is a classic noir detective story without a proper detective.

Instead of a detective, we have an American pulp novelist named Holly Martins. He is courageous, persistent, and well-intentioned; also reckless, naive, and a bit dim. He wades boldly into dangerous situations and is soon in way over his head in shady local intrigues, but persists doggedly despite not knowing, for instance, a lick of German. That’s a problem, in Vienna. The dialog is not subtitled, and throughout the film we are, along with Martins, immersed in a disorienting stream of foreign language.

The camera, too, helps us understand how out of his element Martins is. When we see him, or see the world from his point of view, the camera is often tilted at strange, disorienting angles. The people he meets are shot from so close up that the lens subtlety distorts their facial features, making them seem strange and alien. At night, the camera weaves through the twisting, half-ruined allies of Vienna, people appearing suddenly out of the darkness in vivid chiaroscuro. The movie's climax takes disorientation to its extreme, pitting characters in a chase through dark, maze-like sewers underneath the city.

Plot [more than usually spoiler-heavy]: Martins arrives in Vienna to find that a friend who had "a job" for him has just died in a car accident. He learns that the witnesses have contradictory stories and that the police were investigating his friend for racketeering, and he decides that he will investigate the situation and clear his friend's name. He enlists his late friend's lover as a reluctant interpreter; she will of course become his own love interest, but happily her story will not play out in a conventional or predictable way. Martins is hopeless as a detective – he makes about as much progress as you or I would, if we were to initiate an amateur investigation of organized crime on our first night in a town where we don’t speak the language.  Luckily for him, everyone can tell he’s too inept to be worth killing. When we eventually cut to the superbly filmed chase, we've have spent a long time scratching the surface of mystery and intrigue, and have earned our visceral thrills.

Like a lot of movies, The Third Man can be read as a moral drama about the loyalty owed to friends, lovers, and society in general, and about what happens when those loyalties contradict each other. Unlike the vast majority of movies that pose these kinds of questions, The Third Man does not offer its characters any easy answers. As in real life, they have to continuously decide where their loyalties lie as situations evolve.

Visuals: The use of a bombed-out city as the movie's set is both a bit crass and visually perfect. The set is, after all, the setting. The action takes place around, and sometimes literally careens among, a Viennese population still completely freaked out by the devastation of the war and the heaps of rubble that remain heaped on every block.

The film’s extreme contrasts of dark and shadow creates a number of memorable images. There are several instances where shadow is used ingeniously to create suspense, sometimes ending in surprise, sometimes (as in a famous scene involving a balloon vender) in a clever anticlimax.

Dialog: The dialog of The Third Man is unusually realistic for a film of this era. People interrupt each other and talk over the top of each other and say things that nobody pays any attention to. People keep trying to talk to other people whom they know don’t understand their language. Sparring over moral issues is often mumbled, and when people spout pieties there’s no trickery in the staging or soundtrack to make them seem noble.

Speaking of the soundtrack, it consists entirely of solo zither music. No, really. On one hand, this certainly helps give The Third Man a unique and distinctive personality. On the other hand, at theater volume, that zither was starting to get a little old by the final reel.

Prognosis: The Third Man is thoughtful, entertaining, idiosyncratic, and beautifully filmed. It deserves its spot on the late Roger Eberts’ “Great Movie” list.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Third Round: Gabo v. J. David!

Naum Gabo has a solid 3-1 record behind him coming into this match, whereas Jacques-Louis David has a bizarre 2-1-3.  Despite David's chaotic bouncing around the brackets, however, it doesn't seem that these two artists have any prior opponents in common.  It's abstract sculpture versus neoclassical realism in a midsummer stylistic showdown!  Enjoy!

Naum Gabo
1890 - 1977

Jacques-Louis David
1748 - 1825
  • Beat 20th century American Stuart Davis after a tough fight in Round 1.
  • Tied Honoré Daumier in Round 2. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!
  • Tied again with Paul Gauguin in Round 2 Tiebreak. YOUR VOTE SURE COUNTS!
  • Tied yet again, absurdly, with Francisco Goya, in another Round 2 Tiebreak. WOW, DOES YOUR VOTE EVER COUNT!!!
  • Finally escaped the vortex by beating David Hockney in yet another Round 2 Tiebreak.
  • Slain in his tent by Artemisia Gentileschi in Round 3.


Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Wednesday Post

Greetings from Ellinwood, Kansas
Former residence of E.L. Smith!

The last time we heard from the running Avatar was at the end of May.  He complained of what a challenging running year it had been, and how in the month of May he had been trying to "start being a runner again."  Yeah, he talks like that.  What he didn't know was that circumstances were about to keep him from running for the entire first half of June, during which he would balloon briefly to an all-time high weight!  Well, not him.  The Avatar doesn't weigh anything.  It's me who weighs so much.

We trudge on, eastward across Kansas.   We passed through Ness City, which is the county seat of Ness County; we passed through Rush Center, which is not the county seat of Rush County; and through Great Bend, the largest town since Casper, Wyoming, a place where we were able to find an independent coffee shop!  And then we went one town further, to Ellinwood.  Ellinwood is the hometown of my buddy Chris, so the Avatar thought he would stop in and check out, as Chris put it in a recent communication, "where the shit went down."

As is the custom, the Avatar looked around online for some postcards to send you.

This school no longer exists.  I've noticed that the kind of architecture that would be laboriously conserved in a courthouse or a downtown office building, or a church, was generally been ripped down many decades ago in schools.  Schools are ridden pretty hard and then typically cleared away to make room for new facilities, and then too they get hit by arson more often than does, say, the average bank.  You usually only see this kind of old school architecture in places where the school district itself was shut down and the building was left to rot, along with the rest of the town in most cases.

Ellinwood's little downtown is still there.  It was probably never very big -- Great Bend is just a few miles up the road.  Who can compete?  (Incidentally, the City of Ellinwood's Slogan, "With Streets of Golden Wheat," is at best extremely misleading, as is clear from this photograph.)

Churches get used pretty gently, and people treat them like they were sacred.  Reasonably enough.  So, Saint Joseph's Church is still there.

The Ellinwood Mill and Elevator Co. no longer exists.  For reasons X, Y, and Z, I suspect that it occupied the spot that is now the Great Bend Co-op's big plant, across the railroad tracks from the highway, down by the golf course.  But it's just an educated guess.

Does the E.L. Smith Residence still exist?  Tough to say!  A lot of the houses over on Kennedy Street look a lot like this one, but I didn't see a convincing match.  Not that I tried very hard.  I invite readers of a compulsive nature to see if they can find the Smith house in Ellinwood's modern urban fabric!

In the meantime, here the former residence of Chris:

Eastward continues the Avatar!  Look him up if you find yourself in Central Kansas!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round 3: Ely v. Manet!

Timothy Ely
born 1949

Took First Place in Phase 1, Flight 7, with a voting score of .813.
Tied for First in Phase 2, Flight 5 of the Play-In Tournament with a voting score of .500.
Laid a beating on William Dobson in Round 1.
Surprised Man Ray in Round 2.

Édouard Manet
1832 - 1883

Thumped on Minimalist Robert Mangold in Round 1.
Overcame Andrea Mantegna in Round 2.

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Through History with The Monday Quiz: the 1060s

1066 and all that. 

1. The New Book of Tang, a ten-volume set intended to improve on what we call The Old Book of Tang, was finished in 1060. You can buy it for $50.67 on Amazon, albeit not in a first edition. What do you suppose it was about?

2. The city that we call Tartu these days was, in 1060, the leading settlement of Ugandi (not to be confused with Uganda). In 1061, it was raided and burned by a Finnic tribe called the Chudes. This is part of the early history of what small country?

3. Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, probably the most powerful leader in the history of the Mixtec people, was born in 1063. There’s a list of 94 cities that were conquered under his reign, and he married often and well to form alliances with aristocratic families. Hoping to make sure no one else had a good claim to his empire, he had all of his brothers-in-law killed. Alas, he missed one, who caught up with him and killed him in a ritual sacrifice in 1115.

Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, right, with an associate.
 In what modern country did all this happen?

4. “The Great German Pilgrimage of 1064–1065… was led by Archbishop Siegfried of Mainz, Bishop William of Utrecht, Bishop Otto of Ratisbon, and Bishop Gunther of Bamberg. There were between seven and twelve thousand pilgrims on the journey. The pilgrimage passed through Hungary, Bulgaria, Patzinakia, and Constantinople…. The pilgrims were treated harshly wherever they went, and were ushered off into Anatolia once they reached Constantinople. Their troubles increased when they reached Latakia; there they met other pilgrims who warned them of the dangers to the south….”

Where were these people trying to go?

5. In 1065, García II became King of Galicia. He was also sovereign over the area to the south of Galicia, and claimed kingship there as well. He was therefore the first person with the title of King of what country? Hint: it still exists, but hasn’t had a monarch since 1910.

6. Pisa was often at loggerheads with a competing maritime city-state about 150 kilometers up the coast to the northwest. “In 1066, hostilities broke out between the sea-faring population of the two cities and continued intermittently for almost twenty years.” According to Pisan writers of the time, what other city was definitely the aggressor in this long conflict?

7. In 1066, Harald Hardrada was killed by King Harold Godwinson of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald Hardrada was the king of what country?

8. In 1067, the rapidly expanding Seljuk empire attacked Caesarea, in Cappadocia. Where the heck is that?

Beautiful Cappadocia!
9. It’s complicated, of course, but 1069 is a date sometimes given for the start of Nam tiến, a southward expansion at the expense of Campa and other neighbors that would continue for more than 700 years. What country did the expanding?

From the point of view of Campa, it was
more of a "northern incursion."

10. In the Harrowing of the North, a winter campaign of 1069-1070, a monarch shored up his shaky claim to the throne by terrorizing an uncooperative region of his recently acquired kingdom. The Harrowing was a “campaign of general destruction of homes, stock and crops as well as the means of food production. Men, women and children were slaughtered and many thousands are said to have died due to the famine that followed.” Who was in charge of this stern piece of state-building?

Last Week: the 1050s

1. The medieval computer is an astrolabe.
2. The Phonix Hall in Uji is in Japan.
3. Tughril was the leader of the incredible expanding Seljuks.
4. Antigo Cuscatlán sounds kind of Aztec/Mayaish, and is in El Salvador.
5. The 1054 bungling of Cardinal Humbert's mission is a big watershed in the schism of Christianity.
6. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was the only homegrown King of Wales.
7. Anawrahta and the Pagan Empire were the basis of modern Burma.
8. Bishop Ísleifur Gissurarson and the island of excellent historical records: Iceland.
9. In nomine Domini created the position of cardinal and established the modern rules of papal election.
10. King Peter Krešimir IV was perhaps the greatest king that Croatia has known.  So far.

That's Pfly and Unwise Owl with the win, gS49 nipping at their heels, and everyone else feeling insecure about their understanding of the High Middle Ages.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round One: Murillo v. Nash!

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have made it through to the Ns.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
1618 - 1682


Paul Nash
1889 - 1946


Vote for the artist of your choice! Votes go in the comments. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Friday, July 24, 2015

At the Movies: "Gone Girl"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Gone Girl
David Fincher, 2014.

imbd: 8.2 (imdb 250: #156 and dropping slowly)
Rotten Tomatoes: 86% Fresh

A book is not automatically better than its movie adaption. Gone Girl, the book, is a pretty-good thriller that takes a long time to get up to speed and has more detours than it really needs. Gone Girl, the movie, preserves the strengths of the story and tells it with a narrative economy that gives it a bit more grip. An opening montage sets the pace and the tone; nothing more than a dozen or so images of buildings in and around fictional North Carthage, Missouri, it tells us everything we need to know about the social setting in which the story is going to take place. The best character from the novel, a detective looking for the missing “gone girl” of the title, is given a lot of screen time in a strong supporting performance (Kim Dickens; I also liked Tyler Perry in a supporting role as a celebrity attorney). The film shares the book’s meandering conclusion, but as a faithful adaptation it was pretty much bound to.

Plot: A man discovers that his wife has gone missing! The evidence suggests some sort of foul play, but we know he didn’t do it. Hey wait, do we really know he didn’t do it? Maybe he did do it! Wait, maybe he did what? I’m pleasantly confused!

Prognosis: If you haven’t read the book, you will find this an entertaining psychological thriller with some surprising twists. If you have read the book, you’ll think it’s an entertaining and well-made adaptation. Viewers with weak stomachs, be advised that there is a single scene of almost comically graphic, and completely gratuitous, gore. Viewers with a weakness for verisimilitude, be advised that there is a scene in which a man refers casually to his fiancé’s “world-class vagina” to a group of strangers at a reception, and is greeted by fond chuckles instead of awkward, appalled silence.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 6. I originally give it a seven, but I’m finding that like many pretty-good but unremarkable movies, it has faded from my memory awfully quickly.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Infinite Art Tournament, First Elimination Round #40/64

Faceoff #1: Dou v. Merz

Gerrard Dou
1613 - 1675

Tied with Arthur Dove in his first try at the First Round, back in January 2013.
Lost to Oudry in Round 1.


Mario Merz
1925 - 2003

Lost to Dutch master Gabriel Metsu in Round 1.

Faceoff #2: Millais v. Millet

Sir John Everett Millais
1829 - 1896

Lost to Michelangelo in Round 1 by a single vote. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!


Jean-François Millet
1814 - 1875

Gleaned by Joan Miró in Round 1. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!

Vote for the two artists of your choice! Votes generally go in the comments, but have been known to arrive by email, by postcard, or in a sealed envelope.

Please note that you may vote only once in each face-off.  Opining that both of the artists in one of the two face-offs is superior to the other is fine, but casting your votes for two artists in the same face-off is not permissible.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Free Box Tapes #18 & 19: Steely Gustav

More tapes from the Free Box of yesteryear. 

Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic (1974) 

Sixty-Four Words: This is widely considered to be one of the great albums of its time. I think that if you enjoy Steely Dan, this record really captures their production values and instrumental virtuosity. Personally, I feel like they made songs musically complex without making them exciting, beautiful, or interesting. I could never have guessed that “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” would be a hit song.

Disposition: Will be disposed of.  Yell if you want it.

Mahler, Symphony #2 ("Resurrection")

Sixty-Four Words: I've never much warmed to Mahler's Second, and I had low hopes for an anonymous recording on a low-grade "LN" cassette.

Turns out that it’s an exciting recording, very energetic and dramatic! The unknown conductor and orchestra treat the ol’ “Resurrection,” which often comes off as stodgy, as if it were fresh and new. Even the sound quality is better than it should be!

Disposition: A definite keeper.