Sunday, July 20, 2014

Calvino's On a Winter's Night and Haggis's Third Person

I am currently reading Italo Calvino's On a Winter's Night a Traveler and have just seen the film "Third Person" written and directed by Paul Haggis. Surprisingly, they have much in common. They are both about the process of writing and feature a tangle of connected or overlapping plots. Of course, when one is absorbed in one thing, it is easy to see it another. I saw "The Grand Budapest Hotel" while deeply immersed in reading W. G. Sebald and was convinced that the movie was an homage to Sebald. Of course it was an homage to a different German writer, Stefan Zweig, but Zweig and Sebald must have a lot in common. I read Sebald so closely, that there is very little that I experience in the world right now that doesn't strike me as Sebaldian. His writing swept broadly across nature and human history so it isn't surprising that I recognize touches of him everywhere. Calvino's novel was written in 1979, and so while I might recognize some Kafkaesque touches (and I would judge that Sebald did like Kafka very much), I can't give Sebald any credit for Calvino--perhaps the credit goes the other way. Calvino's novel is about the art of the novel, reading and readers, language, and plot with some healthy jabs at academic criticism and vocabulary. It is a text that appears and disintegrates and evolves into another text.  It is about a writer in friendly conversation with his readers. This whiley narrative persona hooks us (his readers) and drops us, hooks us again and drops us again. It is serious and hilarious. As I read this novel on the trolley got on my way to the movie theater, I kept finding myself smiling or laughing out right. More on Calvino's novel, later ... I hope. But in the meantime, what does this have to do with "Third Person."

"Third Person" is also about writing, writers, evolving and disintegrating plots. Haggis uses a structure similar to his film "Crash" (as you'll read in most descriptions of this film). That is, there are several stories going on at one time. The stories have a less straightforward connection than do those that make up "Crash." At first the similarities are in the setting and props. The opening scenes all involve water in some fashion, being frustrated, being late, and getting somewhere in a hurry. One characters swears, cut to another character also swearing, a shirt begins to come off of one person in one scene, and continues coming off of another person in following scene. Soon, larger plot elements of estranged marriages and lost children appear across the narratives. In one case there is an impossible conjunction between two characters who are on different continents. As the film progresses, the similarities become more apparent and these similarities take us back to the writer, Michael who may be in conversation with himself, perhaps his readers, and certainly with the universe.

"Third Person" is a kind of puzzle that you come close to figuring out by the end of the movie. Calvino's novel is a kind of game as well, one that he is playing with his readers and most likely with his critics. I am about halfway through. So, more later. In the meantime, find yourself a copy of the novel and see the movie. My copy is from the library at the University of Pennsylvania. I saw "Third Person" right here in Philly at the Ritz 5.

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