Lights, Camera, Conversation… The Intolerable Likeness of Being

Posted on May 28, 2011


We are so quick to pounce on our filmmakers for not being “original,” but what does antecedent have to do with achievement?

An American descends upon a bewildering foreign destination, reduced by war to a shell of its former self. His purpose is an encounter with a countryman, someone whose affiliations no longer lie with America, someone who’s gone missing, someone who’s no longer the man he was, someone who winds up brutally butchered, someone so larger than life that the character had to be played by an actor known as much for his great talent as his gargantuan girth. This quest leads our protagonist through byzantine byways, past the sphere of sanity, into the heart of darkness, and along this journey is uttered this line of dialogue to a man from the military: “I want to speak to you, Kurtz.” Indulge me, for a minute, as I turn quizmaster and allow you ten seconds to arrive at the name of the movie built on these plot points.

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If you are any kind of film buff, you will – with nine of those seconds to spare – stifle a yawn and respond, “Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.” And I’m going to smile an evil smile and say: Better luck next time. I was talking about Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The war I was referring to isn’t Vietnam but WWII. The bewildering foreign destination isn’t Saigon but a bombed-out Vienna. The American who arrives isn’t Martin Sheen but Joseph Cotten, and the other American, the larger-than-life character inhabited by a larger-than-life actor, isn’t Marlon Brando but Orson Welles. Of course, Kurtz is but a bit player in The Third Man, while in Apocalypse Now, that’s the name of Brando’s very central, very cosmic character, the man at the root of the investigation who resists easy discovery in the manner of a god who tests His faithful and reveals Himself only to the most worthy – but that red herring I tossed in just so you’d fish elsewhere for an answer.

How startlingly similar the sketches of these two stories are, even if these outlines are developed by the respective directors into vastly different works of art – one a boundless phantasmagoria of acid sensation, the other a drum-tight noir. Coppola, of course, was famously inspired by Joseph Conrad, but what about Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay of The Third Man and later spun off a novella of the same name? Considering Conrad’s reputation, it’s very likely that Greene had stumbled upon Heart of Darkness, which was published as the nineteenth century steamrolled into the twentieth. (The Third Man was released almost five decades later, in 1949.) But even if he did find his imagination fired by Conrad, consciously or otherwise, Greene’s work (and subsequently, Reed’s film) would be an indubitably valid achievement, a splendid tribute to Jean-Luc Godard’s contention that it’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.

Abbas Kiarostami transformed this notion to a full-length feature. In Certified Copy, the protagonist claims, through his book on art, that a reproduction is as valid, as valuable as the original. Perhaps to support this thesis, Kiarostami himself alluded to an earlier “original,” Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (which possibly birthed Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise as well), where, again, a man and a woman mint new definitions for their relationship in a new city. But we, in our country, seem to believe otherwise. The minute we spot something familiar – whether the structure of Mani Ratnam’s Aayitha Ezhuthu (“copied from Amores Perros!” we protest) or the throwaway shot of a reunion in an Elysian eternity in Rang De Basanti (“copied from Gladiator!”) – we are roused to indignation. Of course, not all inspirations are alike and plagiarism (very, very different from inspiration) needs to be punished, but we may enjoy our movies more if we focus on achievement instead of antecedent. If that’s good enough for Godard, maybe it ought to be good enough for the rest of us.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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