It sounded like a great idea. ”We’re having a movie party. Not whole movies, just scenes. Bring a few DVDs over and we’ll fast-forward to your favorite scenes.”
You can learn a lot about people from what they choose. We watched everything from Steve Martin singing about pain and dentistry to Max von Sydow playing chess with death.
There are a lot of familiar scenes. They are almost the soundtrack to American lives: ”It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Or, ”I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
But two scenes had the profoundest effect on me. Totally opposite in effect and both brilliant. And seeing them together made an important point about movies, art and life.
In The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles has been selling tainted penicillin on the black market in postwar Vienna. As a fugitive, he meets his American friend Joseph Cotten in an amusement park. As they ride the huge Ferris wheel above the city, Cotten asks disgustedly, ”Have you ever seen any of your victims?”
”Victims? You’re being melodramatic,” Welles replies. They look down at the antlike people below them on the ground. ”Tell me, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 Pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend? Free of income tax.”
When they descend to earth, Welles rationalizes, with a con man’s glint in his eyes: ”After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow says: ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ ”
It is a wonderful scene. Visually, it is stunning, with the city turned into a stark black-and-white toy below them. Verbally, it is stark, pithy writing.
But no one speaks that persuasively in real life. Writers do that; they have the time to. All those witty retorts that come to you as you descend the stairs are used by the writer as if they occurred during the conversation.
But in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there is an odd intrusion of real life, clabbering in its banality.
Government bureaucrat Dr. Heywood Floyd visits the moon to speak to other bureaucrats. He is introduced: ”I know you’ll all want to join with me in welcoming our distinguished friend and colleague from the National Council of Astronautics, Dr. Heywood Floyd. Now, Dr. Floyd has come up specially to Clavius to be with us today, and before the briefing, I know he would like to have a few words with you. Dr Floyd?”
The words are flat and empty.
”Thank you, Dr. Halvorsen. Hi, everybody. Nice to be back with you. Well . . . first of all, I bring a personal message from Dr. Howell. . .” And he continues with this palaver for some minutes, ending with, ”The purpose of my visit here is to gather additional facts and opinions on the situation and to prepare a report to council recommending when and how the news should eventually be announced.”
John Kerry could have said those words. There are a few forced laughs, a lot of awkward silences and polite applause at the end of the speech, as if Floyd had said something worth hearing.
It is a scene that most people snooze through, just as the bureaucrats would in real life. But it and all the ”intense inane” of the first three-quarters of the film set up the splendor of the final psychedelic trip with its light show and surrealism.
It took guts on the part of Kubrick to play up that banality, to insert real life into an art form normally spruced up for its audience with witty rejoinders and double entendres.
And great art to be so artless.