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Still Dots #6

 Second #310, 05:10, Image © Studio Canal Holly Martins has arrived at the home of Harry Lime, after a mandatory stopover with some international military officers at the train station in Vienna. Finding the apartment vacant, Holly is told by an endearingly disheveled landlord (who speaks only a smattering of English) that Holly is ten […]

 Second #310, 05:10, Image © Studio Canal

Holly Martins has arrived at the home of Harry Lime, after a mandatory stopover with some international military officers at the train station in Vienna. Finding the apartment vacant, Holly is told by an endearingly disheveled landlord (who speaks only a smattering of English) that Holly is ten minutes zu spat—Harry Lime has just left the building. In the still above, the Austrian landlord has not yet been able to fully explain the situation in English—hence Holly’s look of bemused puzzlement. Only a few seconds later, though, that expression will turn to one of mournful astonishment.

The role of Holly Martins may be Joseph Cotten’s most iconic: that of an unassuming American, somewhat reckless, more than a little vain, whose initially absolute code of ethics is unsettled by the end of The Third Man. More a character actor than a star persona, Cotten could blend into a wide variety of roles: a methodical and sinister murderer in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a melancholy artist obsessed with doomed romance in Portrait of Jennie (1948), a stolid “good son” caught in between the tempestuous passions of Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun (1946). But his lanky, athletic good looks and mellifluous Virginia drawl made him a perfect fit for “American everyman” roles: he was an urbane gentleman who could also be a little cocky and boisterous when necessary (as happens frequently in The Third Man, whenever he gets a bit sauced).

Cotten befriended Orson Welles in the mid-1930s, when both men were acting on Broadway and in radio shows; when Welles formed the Mercury Theatre company in 1937, Cotten was one of its original members, starring in productions of Julius Caesar and Shoemaker’s Holiday that year. Their collaborations would be even more fruitful on film, as the two men worked together on Citizen Kane (1941), in which Cotten’s role as Kane’s even-tempered confidante, Jedediah Leland, dispensed its own brand of sophisticated Americana; The Magnificent Ambersons (1943); Journey Into Fear (1943); Touch of Evil (1958), in which Cotten had an uncredited cameo as a coroner; and of course The Third Man.

"Journey Into Fear," 1943

 

Journey Into Fear is an especially interesting counterpoint to The Third Man. An adaptation of Eric Ambler’s World War II spy novel co-written by Cotten and Welles, Journey Into Fear stars Cotten as an out-of-his-element American engineer who travels to Istanbul, falls in love with an exotic nightclub dancer, and is targeted by the Nazis for supplying the Turkish navy with vital engineering information. Like The Third Man, Journey Into Fear features Cotten as a naive, vainly suave American who is swallowed up by an alien culture and directly confronted with the violence and ricocheting amorality instilled by the war. Though directed by Norman Foster, there’s some debate as to how much directorial input Welles provided (he was originally assigned the project but had to rush away to Brazil to film It’s All True); at the very least, the innovative pre-credits sequence (one of the first to presage the opening credits of an American film) is distinctly Welles’, with its floating camera that echoed certain shots in Citizen Kane and foreshadowed the acrobatic opening to Touch of Evil. Lest we get too off-topic, it bears mentioning that Welles’ influence pervades The Third Man—maybe not in an overtly directorial manner (there’s no doubt that Carol Reed was at the helm of The Third Man) but as a sort of auteurism of the actor, whose persona and offscreen reputation guides and invigorates the film’s storyline (after all, The Third Man centers around the dark mystique of Harry Lime). The chemistry between Welles and Cotten—friends throughout their decades of collaborative work—also deepens the film’s pathos and makes the still above unexpectedly affective, as Holly Martins’ eagerness to meet his longtime friend will soon give way to astonished grief.

There will be plenty of “star shots” throughout The Third Man—iconic, larger-than-life images of Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles, whose Harry Lime is granted one of the most astounding visual introductions in the history of movies—so perhaps we can save some of the deeper theories regarding the scopophiliac appeal of movie stars for later posts. At this point it will suffice to raise Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage and Kaja Silverman’s reinterpretation of it in The Subject of Semiotics. In the mirror stage, an infant…

arrives at an apprehension of both its self and the other—indeed, of its self as other. This discovery is assisted by the child seeing, for the first time, its own reflection in a mirror… The mirror stage is one of those crises of alienation around which the Lacanian subject is organized, since to know oneself through an external image is to be defined through self-alienation. (Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics)

 

Christian Metz would agree that part of the appeal of images of movie stars (or of cinematic images in general) is this recurrence of the subject’s mirror stage, in which the film spectator exists simultaneously within itself and without—”knowing oneself through an external image,” achieving self-alienation and identifying with an external subject in order to more fully comprehend ourselves as physically- and mentally-present subjects. When we see Joseph Cotten in the above still, our personae are refracted: we are ourselves (the individual subject that is the film spectator) and Joseph Cotten and Holly Martins. This is why the extent to which we identify with movie characters is so visceral and internalized, to the extent that spectators sometimes mimic the gestures and facial expressions of characters onscreen: through self-alienation, we are the characters onscreen.

Finally, the still above brings to mind Roland Barthes’ concepts regarding the signification of the film still when removed from the movement of the narrative, when separated from its “diegetic horizon,” as Barthes calls it. If, as he suggests, “the ‘move­ment’ regarded as the essence of film is not animation, flux, mobility, ‘life’, copy, but simply the framework of a permutational unfolding”—the “movement,” one might say, of discreet still images placed in succession, a movement not among them but within them—what does this tell us about Holly Martins in this image? That expression on Cotten’s face, so readable within the context of the film itself, becomes an enigma here, and perhaps more compelling, more entrancing, for its unknowability. I imagine seeing this image without knowing what the film is about or even what the movie is, simply as a fragment of a moment, and being tantalized by the fullness of this experience that I am unaware of, that I cannot possibly know. It is a different kind of identification from the narrativized context of The Third Man itself, but one that is, perhaps, no less immersive.

 

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #5

Second #248, 04:08, Image © Studio Canal   Here’s our man, Holly Martins, the author of such notable western pulps as The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at the Double X Ranch. His mission here has been doubly introduced in the soundtrack. The introductory voice-over which constructs the film’s Vienna, ends on a lighter […]

Second #248, 04:08, Image © Studio Canal

 

Here’s our man, Holly Martins, the author of such notable western pulps as The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at the Double X Ranch. His mission here has been doubly introduced in the soundtrack. The introductory voice-over which constructs the film’s Vienna, ends on a lighter note, with the voice of the director, Carol Reed, adding as if an afterthought:

Oh, I was gonna tell you, wait, I was gonna tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name is Lime, Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke and Lime had offered him some sort–I don’t know–some sort of a job. Anyway, there he was, poor chap, happy as a lark and without a cent.

As soon as the voiceover ends, Holly Martins climbs off of the train and weaves his way into this pack of customs officers. Between Holly and the British MP, we get the following stilted interaction, Holly Martins responding swiftly to the MP’s questions, as if he’s so familiar with these interactions he knows exactly what question will come next.

British MP: Passport please.

Holly Martins: Oh.

British MP: What’s the purpose of your visit here?

Holly Martins: A friend of mine offered me a job here.

British MP: Where are you staying?

Holly Martins: With him. 15 Stiftgasse.

British MP: His name?

Holly Martins:  Lime, Harry Lime.

British MP: Okay.

Holly Martins: I thought he would be here to meet me . . .

Why is this double introduction necessary? Why is its wording so strikingly similar? We hear “Lime, Harry Lime” twice, so my first assumption was, of course, that Carol Reed wanted to introduce some sort of prestige to the figure of Harry Lime, since that phrase must be followed by the silent (but assumed) “shaken not stirred.” But the publication of Casino Royale and the inception of that bastion of British masculinity wouldn’t happen for another four years. Why then? Do we need to hear it twice to understand that Holly Martins has been offered a job? Or perhaps the second repetition only serves to show some of Martins’ character. Since we already know the content, this time through we may play closer attention to Martins’ bravado-laced tone or the way his eyes drift off to focus on another goal.

Whatever the reason for this double introduction, Holly Martins steps into the scene like a lanky Sinatra, effortlessly navigates his way through customs, and floats out of the interaction leaning into his best impression of a hip-hop album cover and ready to take on the world, or at least meet his friend Harry Lime. Holly’s expression of aloof grace seems to show his lack of fear–he has not been intimidated by the presence of these occupying police, and is anxious more about his friend Harry than about the armed men who surround him. And yet in the back of his eye, there glows a glitter of doubt. Why isn’t Harry there to meet him? Why is he forced to navigate a strange city guided only by a street address? If anything could break through Holly Martins’ confident exterior it is the absence of his lifelong friend Harry, and in this frame, as he slides his passport back into his coat pocket, his eyes linger on the place where Harry might have been–should have been. He steps out of the train station with the stirrings of fear beginning to bubble inside him.

A notable lack throughout the film, but particularly visual here, is the presence of the fourth power of Vienna–the Americans.  Our introduction to the city divides it into its five zones, American, British, French, Russian and International, each policed by their own forces, except the International zone which is policed by four-officer teams representing all four interests. And here, Holly Martins is greeted by the officer from Britain. A few  other official-looking types float through the scene, but for some reason, the American in Vienna is being welcomed by a British MP, rather than someone both better versed in the veracity of American passports and fraternally tied in the worship of the stars and stripes. The presence of Americans in the film is conspicuous in its absence, indeed the only American in this still is Holly Martins himself. It is possible that one of the ethereal floating figures who beleager travelers in this crossing might be an American official, but their wraith-like presence leaves as much impression as their lackluster welcome for a fellow countryman. In fact, the entire film presents us with only one other image of an American official (below), driving a jeep full of representatives from Vienna’s four powers,”all of them strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language,” says Carol Reed’s voiceover. His face presents him as a specter of a driver, barely present within his own body.

Image © Studio Canal

In the coming film, Holly Martins will build friendships and rivalries with British officers, threaten Russians, and run from the French, but he will never interact with an American cop. Why is this? To answer this question I turn to Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, for this film lends itself to dream analysis. It follows more of a zither-haunted dream of Vienna than the city itself and with its unexpected returns to iconic locations, distorted buildings and geometry and wildly canted framings, one might even think of this city as a nightmare of Vienna. But in Freud’s breakthrough book, he imagined an agency built into the human dreaming (and waking) mind; an agency he called the censor. The censor’s duty, said Freud, is to make the dream acceptable to the waking mind, a mind constrained by the ethics and morals branded upon it from birth. And this censor works doubly, through the form of secondary revision, the dream becomes recensored when it is being recounted by the dreamer. When presented with a dream, an analyst like Freud was actually presented with a dream-text that had been doubly censored, once in its primary perception and again in its retelling. In the analysis of said dream, as in the analysis of the film, one can learn the important aspects by simply focusing on that which is not present after the two passes of censorship. That which has been censored is what can tell the most about the dream’s true content.

Vienna is a city of dreams and a city of Freud–he lived there from 1891 until 1938, a year before his death. Perhaps his ghost still haunts the city, forcing the manifest content of dreams to become apparent, but whatever the reason, the American authorities have been censored from this film like a bad dream. For most of our time here, our only representative of Americanism will be Holly Martins, the blustery pulp novelist who drinks too much and speaks no language but his own. But the brusque removal of American figures seems to tell us that this dream/film’s real intent has something to do with Americans.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #4

 Second #186, 03:06, Image © Studio Canal We’re now past the opening credits of The Third Man—which already have presaged a number of themes and ideas that permeate the film (not to mention foreshadowed some of the concepts that will arise from a structured analysis of its still images)—and are thrust headlong into its diegesis. […]

 Second #186, 03:06, Image © Studio Canal

We’re now past the opening credits of The Third Man—which already have presaged a number of themes and ideas that permeate the film (not to mention foreshadowed some of the concepts that will arise from a structured analysis of its still images)—and are thrust headlong into its diegesis. The postwar Vienna in which the movie takes place is a capital of contradictions: elegant and seedy, fueled by crime but struggling to maintain a semblance of decorum (those literary meetings! those posh bistros!). The Third Man‘s Vienna is paved with cobblestone streets and dotted with age-old architecture that denote a rich history, but that history has been visibly “bombed about” during the war—a rupture in the fabric of the past, present, and future that can be seen all too easily in the rubble that blankets the city.

We’re welcomed somewhat warmly into this world by an opening voiceover narration uttered in droll British tones (and provided by director Carol Reed himself). This prologue prepares us for a lively depiction of a city awash in poverty, destruction, corruption, and uncertainty—a clash of styles (misery conveyed through blithe wit) that parallels Vienna itself, a sparkling cornerstone of European history recently assailed by wartime violence. Reed’s voiceover tells us of the influx of troops—French, American, British, and Russian especially—that populated Vienna’s streets, trying to police this volatile city despite the fact that “none of them could speak the same language.” “Good fellows on the whole, tried their best,” the narrator opines—asserting, it seems, a sort of droll British aplomb in the midst of this multicultural hodgepodge. (It’s telling that when The Third Man was first released in the United States in 1950, David O. Selznick replaced Reed’s voicework with a narration uttered by Joseph Cotten, in character as Holly Martins.)

While his voiceover describes the French, British, American, and Russian zones spread throughout the city (as well as the “International Zone” at its center), Reed offers us a quick visual succession of signs foregrounded against Viennese landmarks demarcating the boundaries of each zone. It is in this rapid montage (each shot lasts about half a second) that we see the still above, marking the limit of the French zone. Each sign, moreover, is bedecked with the flag of its country—a further visual manifestation of national identity within the sign itself.

Signs, then, play a significant literal and figurative role immediately in The Third Man. The issue of adjacent national zones coexisting in Vienna (either harmoniously or contentiously) will reappear often, especially in scenes regarding the (forged) identification papers of Anna Schmidt (Anita Valli). While those zones are differentiated by signposts like the one above, Austrian culture itself is denoted by Vienna’s landmarks and architecture—for example, the sign for the Westbahnhof is visible in the upper left portion of Still #4, complete with an entourage of elaborately-sculpted figures. Signs like these offer literal indications of cultural specificity.

But the image of the “Zone Française” marker above also leads us to consider signs as communicators of meaning, as abstract representations of broader objects or concepts. How does one convey an entire grouping of cultural ideas and characteristics in a single visual sign (or “signifier,” if we use semiologist Ferdinand de Saussure’s more precise terminology)?

Besides internationally-known cultural landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall), flags are perhaps the clearest and most succinct visual denotations of national specificity. They are themselves “still images” within the “cinematic narratives” that countries themselves formulate: the Stars & Stripes, the Hammer & Sickle, the Maple Leaf or the emblazoned red circle forming snapshots that encapsulate a boundless number of accompanying cultural traits and mindsets. The flag, then, is not only a still image, but a word, or at least equivalent to the denotational power of the word: the French flag on the Zone Française marker (upended though it is, not to mention decolorized for us in this image) serves the same function as “France,” the written word. The one is an arbitrary assemblage of lines, colors, shapes into a graphic arrangement; the other is an equally arbitrary compendium of lines forming letters forming words forming sounds. Both act as springboards into seemingly boundless and polysemous spheres of national identity.

In Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Peter Wollen claims that cinema (taken as a whole) is one of the few signification systems that contains all three “modes” of the sign—indexical, iconic, and symbolic—as they were first elucidated by Charles Sanders Peirce. Wollen finds the indexical in cinema especially in neorealist films (particularly those by Roberto Rossellini and championed by Andre Bazin), reflecting as they do tumultuous changes in postwar cities by observing their poverty-stricken inhabitants, their crumbling architecture, their fluctuating infrastructures. (The rubble we see in The Third Man acts as an indexical sign.) He sees the symbolic, too: a larger system of metaphors and representational codes that movies employ in order to be “readable” by lay audiences (a visual language system inaugurated in part by D.W. Griffith and analyzed by Christian Metz). And the iconic: cinematic images that are opposed to any kind of realism, like those wondrously fabricated by Josef von Sternberg, who (according to Wollen) “sought…to disown and destroy the existential bond between the natural world and the film image” (Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, 136). Cinema typically operates by infusing and synthesizing all three of these “modes,” thus forming a series of signs that are “perfect” in the sense that they amalgamate these three modes as equally as possible (instead of prioritizing or eschewing at least one).

If cinematic signs are “perfect” in their synthesis of iconic, indexical, and symbolic signification, couldn’t flags act as similarly perfect signs? Iconic: a graphic display of lines, colors, shapes, existing solely on an aesthetic level. Symbolic: an arbitrary representation of national identity whose correlation to a specific country must be learned. Indexical: displaying certain beliefs or characteristics that are directly related to the country (like geographical borders or national coats of arms).   Cinematic still images and flags both act as remarkably complex visual symbols that entail a range of signification levels.

Before I sign off, how giddy am I to find that Murray Pomerance has written about a related topic in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema. In an article entitled “Significant Cinema: The Scene of the Crime,” Pomerance has this to say about the appearance of actual signs in cinema (such as the one in today’s still):

The sign-object inside a film is a sign itself and also a sign of itself… The sign-object does tend to utilize a ‘language-like’ code, referring us back to our understanding of memes, words, contractions, metaphors, and ambiguities at the verbal—or, since we orate signs to ourselves silently, the acoustic—level. We know not simply by seeing but also by reading, but reading in the most literal and unmetaphorical way… [Sign-objects] openly denotate the fact that the filmmaker is signing, and so they say their verbal meaning but also the fact of verbal meaning itself.

 

A sign-object from "I Confess" (1952)

 

A sign of a sign: do we see or do we read it? Or, perhaps more precisely, how do we read it? The code of that “Zone Française” marker is both visual and “language-like,” entailing a reading process that, while “literal and unmetaphorical,” also embeds at least two layers of decipherment within its reading process (visual and “acoustic”). How pleasing that the still above has a web of shadows, cast from tree branches swaying in the breeze, splayed directly over the written letters that we’re supposed to be seeing/reading: our eyes rest on a single point in the frame and exercise at least two modes of reading at once.

 

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #3

  Through the frame, we may be entering The Twilight Zone, specifically the episode A Kind of Stopwatch. Stopwatch‘s McNulty is an arrogant but pitiable bigmouth–a man that Rod Serling’s claims “holds a ten-year record for the most meaningless words spewed out during a coffee break”–who loses his job and in a low moment, is […]

Second #124, 02:04, Image © Studio Canal

If last week’s frame focused our kino-eyes on temporality and duration, with its stark juxtaposition of film and clocks, here we see its culmination. This is our first interaction with movement in the film, an abstract oblong shape cleaved by horizontal lines reveals itself as a  zither soundhole when the strings stir to life with the seemingly synchronous soundtrack. The vibrating strings dance to the upbeat rhythm that will color the streets of post-war Vienna throughout the film. This soundtrack became relatively well known on its own, performed on harp, on guitar, by big bands, on organ, and even  covered by the Beatles, but the original stands as a remarkable piece of music and an incredible performance. Those unfamiliar with the zither need only watch this live performance by The Third Man‘s composer and zither performer Anton Karas:

To see the time freeze, one must of course, first see it move, and this is the magic of movies and the limitation of still frames. To watch a film by reading a frame-based analysis is to contemplate something beyond one’s imagination, like a two-dimensional being trying to imagine depth, yet to look at the clip and not the frame would undermine the power of the frame itself. Our frame here freezes time so powerfully that it even freezes sound. A closer examination shows that a few strings still hang in their tight vibrations midair, stopped so suddenly that they cannot return to equilibrium. Quantum physicists have shown that this property can be true of electrons–the particle’s location can only be estimated to a level of probability–and in this instance we see zither strings operating under quantum physics. The one string’s location can only be guessed at, but what can be certain is that its frozen moment, one normally as fleeting as a 24th of a second, is trapped in this frame.

A Kind Of Stopwatch

 

Through the frame, we may be entering The Twilight Zone, specifically the episode A Kind of Stopwatch. Stopwatch‘s McNulty is an arrogant but pitiable bigmouth–a man that Rod Serling’s claims “holds a ten-year record for the most meaningless words spewed out during a coffee break”–who loses his job and in a low moment, is given a stopwatch with the power to freeze time. He, true to form, uses it to his own advantage, playing tricks and robbing banks, until the watch breaks and he is left alone in a time-frozen world. In a panic, McNulty, the God of his own time-frozen universe, screams “Somebody move! Talk! Say something! Help!” But it is to no avail, and he is trapped in a cold, silent, lonely world. Looking at this film via frames, we are trapped here along with McNulty, in a world where vibrating strings cannot even make a sound.

But back from our analysis to the frame itself, the focus on temporality extends beyond our particular obsession. Had Carol Reed or Graham Greene or Orson Welles or whoever dictated the creative ordering behind this introduction read much philosophy, they would have undoubtedly stumbled upon Martin Heidegger’s ambitious 1927 Being and Time which lays out an understanding of temporality, as well as setting the groundwork for most of contemporary philosophy. Heidegger lays it out like this:

The existential-temporal condition for the possibility of the world lies in the fact that temporality, as an ecstatical unity, has something like a horizon . . . The unity of the horizontal schemata of future, Present, and having been, is grounded in the ecstatical unity of temporality. (Being and Time, Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 1962, pg. 416)

We begin this story, as you will see, in the Present, in a city that has already fallen victim to the having been. The impressive temporal feat, is really in the plot of the film itself, which centers so much on the past–The first two thirds of the film are an investigation into the death of Harry Lime, the city is recently peaceable, carrying with it the scars of war. Every pile of rubble or antique architectural oddity, with which this film abounds, screams of the past, yet it is a film so vibrant and full of action. Suspense and anticipation cling to these characters and for that, of course, we need the future, that which may come. Without the future, there can be no suspense, and this film is nothing if not suspenseful.

So these strings dancing with vibrations across the credits screens can be seen as a visual representation of the film’s temporal form. The strings are the “horizontal schemata” which starts at the plucking of a finger, continues with the vibrating reverberation of the string itself, and ends with the anticipation of what note may come next.

As a brief postscript, our analysis thus far seems to paint this as a film particularly involved in the British Film Industry, from its approval from the British Board of Film Censors to its time-image juxtaposition of the London Film logo. Though it was named by the British Film Institute as the best British Film of the 20th Century, it is also a film set in an internationalized Vienna starring American actors playing Americans in Vienna.  The curious notion of this film’s Britishness seems in question due to its very content, but the 62-second rhythm is, thus far, pulling out its Britishest tidbits.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #2

Still #2 from our Still Dots series, analyzing frames from the film “The Third Man.”

Second #62, 01:02, Image © Studio Canal

How fortuitous that the logo for Alexander Korda’s London Film studio—a gorgeous image of Big Ben with heaps of silky deep-gray negative space on the right side of the frame—visualizes the concept of time right from the beginning of The Third Man. Pacing is key in Carol Reed’s film. The first two-thirds are comprised of build-up and anticipation (albeit one of the most rapidly-paced periods of sustained abeyance that I can think of in the movies), while the last third features a seismic release of all of that tension, a convergence of the film’s numerous storylines, attitudes, and visual motifs, as the recklessness and preconceptions of the main character, Holly Martins, are obliterated by some harsh postwar truths.

Actually, the logo for London Film (which Hungarian-producer Korda founded in 1932) was transformed often throughout the decades—as was the studio itself. Their 1937 release Fire Over England, for example, featured this company introduction:

While their 1955 release of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III featured this vibrant logo (which is remarkably similar in composition to the one before The Third Man, albeit Technicolorized):

Obviously Big Ben itself is the through-line here, a recurring denotation of British culture that became especially telling in the immediate postwar years. European film production in the late 1940s was an effort in reviving an industry lying in rubble (sometimes literally); the production houses in France, Germany, England, and nearby countries struggled to compete with popular Hollywood products that had inundated European theaters during the war.

Alexander Korda’s production efforts and the transformation of London Film reflected these upheavals. While Korda’s British successes in the 1930s included Rembrandt (1936, starring Charles Laughton) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940), wartime forced Korda to move his studio’s productions to Hollywood, where he and London Film were based for several years. (Korda had already been associated with United Artists, who had distributed some of his earlier British productions in the States.) In 1943, London Film merged with MGM-British (an offshoot of the American company) in order to distribute films in England—a partnership that itself bespeaks the half-contentious, half-collaborative nature of postwar film production and distribution.

Clocks, it turns out, featured prominently in a number of disparate postwar films. Orson Welles’ own film The Stranger (1946), co-starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, features Welles as Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler, who has claimed a new identity as a small-town schoolteacher in Connecticut. Robinson plays “Mr. Wilson” (a name meant to denote, it seems, an American everyman quality), the United Nations commissary who is hunting Kindler down; at one point, Wilson even claims that Kindler “conceived the theory of genocide.” What’s more, Kindler is often seen tinkering with clocks, and ultimately meets his demise at the hands (literally) of a gigantic clock atop a church belltower. One of the first postwar films to feature footage of concentration camps (footage which Welles described as visualizing “the putrefaction of the soul”), The Stranger seems to suggest that the second World War set in motion a mechanistic process of “civilized” violence whose dehumanizing effects would assail the world with clock-like inevitability. Clocks also made notable appearances in such postwar films noir as John Farrow’s bizarre (and underseen) The Big Clock (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), not to mention Vincente Minelli’s wartime romance The Clock (1945), in which American soldier Robert Walker and the love of his life, Judy Garland (who he’s just met), realize they need to get married right now—lest they never see each other again. These films’ obsession with the inexorable march of time, despite the different forms and tones they adopt, all seem to point towards a newfound realization, bestowed by the war, that mortality is unavoidable, that the future is not guaranteed, and that—most forebodingly—the war mobilized a process of destruction that was nearly automated in its precision.

Finally, the appearance of Big Ben in London Film’s logo brings to mind Gilles Deleuze’s theory of the “time-image” (a concept we’ll likely return to at least a few times). After all, Still #2 above is quite literally a time-image, at least on the indexical level of signification. Deleuze, on the other hand, speaks of the time-image on a symbolic register: he claims that, especially after the war, visuals in cinema began gravitating from a “movement-image” framework—the kind seen in conventional Hollywood cinema, emphasizing action and physical space—to a “time-image” framework—emphasizing thought and memory, and playing out more obliquely in a conceptual or internal space. In Deleuze’s words:

This is what happens when the image becomes time-image…The screen itself is the cerebral membrane where immediate and direct confrontations take place between the past and the future, the inside and the outside, at a distance impossible to determine, independent of any fixed point. The image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristics but topology and time.

 

Does this theory hold true for The Third Man? Does this postwar film, on the one hand so entertaining and breathlessly action-packed, conjure time-images imbued with memory, dread, uncertainty, and a basic rupture between what was once known and how things now appear to be (or will likely be in the future)? Again, that clock seems to form the perfect introductory image to The Third Man (inadvertent or not), as the stills we’ll encounter over the following months will force us to ask ourselves whether we’re watching the hands on the surface or the gears chugging away relentlessly inside.

 

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots #1

Second #1, 00:01, Image © Studio Canal   The “A” on The Third Man‘s official rating certificate is meant to stand for “Adult” and by 1949 no young people would be allowed into the theater, making The Third Man the British equivalent of an R rated movie. At the time there were only two ratings in […]

Second #1, 00:01, Image © Studio Canal

 

The “A” on The Third Man‘s official rating certificate is meant to stand for “Adult” and by 1949 no young people would be allowed into the theater, making The Third Man the British equivalent of an R rated movie. At the time there were only two ratings in the UK, Universal and Adult, but the British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC) would introduce Horror and EXplicit in the next few years. Filmmakers’ guidelines in the United States were stranglingly specific, causing a number of films to be banned outright. America’s stalwart Presbyterian moral defender, Will Hays instituted the MPPDA Production Code that held Hollywood’s head underwater from 1934 until it was finally disregarded with Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled (in 1915′s Mutual Film Company v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that free speech did not extend to moving pictures, so the club wielded by Will Hays’ commission was a deadly one; a censored film would be banned and destroyed.  One might imagine that across the pond (not the pond adjacent to Hollywood) rules would be a little different, but the British film board’s guidelines were strikingly similar.

The British Board of Film Censorship’s grounds for deletion from 1916: (in bold are guidelines that will pertain to our analysis of The Third Man)

1. Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles
2. Cruelty to animals
3. The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects
4. Drunken scenes carried to excess
5. Vulgar accessories in the staging
6. The modus operandi of criminals
7. Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women
8. Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing
9. The exhibition of profuse bleeding
10. Nude figures
11. Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress
12. Indecorous dancing
13. Excessively passionate love scenes
14. Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety
15. References to controversial politics
16. Relations of capital and labour
17. Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
18. Realistic horrors of warfare
19. Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
20. Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
21. Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
22. Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light, and otherwise
attempting to suggest the disloyalty of British Officers, Native States or bringing into disrepute
British prestige in the Empire
23. The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war
24. Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes
25. Executions
26. The effects of vitriol throwing
27. The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc
28. Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic
29. Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls
30. ‘First Night’ scenes
31. Scenes suggestive of immorality
32. Indelicate sexual situations
33. Situations accentuating delicate marital relations
34. Men and women in bed together
35. Illicit relationships
36. Prostitution and procuration
37. Incidents indicating the actual perpetration of criminal assaults on women
38. Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired
39. Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations
40. Themes and references relative to ‘race suicide’
41. Confinements
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses
43. Materialization of the conventional figure of Christ

Though many of these guidelines are laughably empiricist (and thus not empirical) it’s interesting to think that this Orwellian certificate was a de facto jumping-off point for moviegoers in 1949, and for our analysis today. Would audiences be relieved to see that Sir Sidney Harris (and thus the Queen herself) threw their signature on the film, literally. Does that signature somehow erase the moral ambiguity inherent in the film? We will come to see a city ruled by four governing powers, all four of which cannot communicate with the others except in a broken German, the language of the occupied, and all four of whose jumbling jurisdictions require 4 policemen for every duty. Does the Queen’s errant knight signing this film frame erase the criticism inherent in this portrait? This frame seems to be the filmic equivalent of the phrase “Don’t take this the wrong way but . . .” or even “Promise you won’t get mad” as if somehow by half-book-ending a harsh criticism in an apology, it becomes a positive statement. Jean Paul Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness in 1943:

Bad faith seeks to flee the in-itself by means of the inner disintegration of my being. But it denies this very disintegration as it denies that it is in itself in bad faith. Bad faith seeks by means of “not-being-what-one-is” to escape from the in-itself which I am not in the mode of being what one is not. It denies  itself as bad faith and aims at the in-itself which I am not in the mode of “not-being-what-one-is-not.” (Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press, 1984 pg. 116)

Bad faith is the vilest, most self-destructive form of lying, since—according to Sartre—the liar thinks that what they say is true. This frame is a lie that thinks that it is the truth. But though Orson Welles didn’t direct this film, his grand influence is already felt here, starting the film with a lie. Just as *spoiler alert* “rosebud’s” truth is a lie—it never reveals Kane’s secrets to Thompson—this frame can do nothing to reveal the secrets of the film to the innocent viewer. Even its form is a lie, the beguiling white on black seeming to taunt us into thinking in a binary system of white and black, good and evil. But through the film this lie will be buried, the lie of the binary under shovelfuls of The Third Man.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.

Still Dots: Introduction

The inauguration of “Still Dots,” a project entailing 102 blog posts written by the Walker’s Film & Video staff over the next 51 weeks, analyzing film stills from the film “The Third Man” (1949).

Herewith: the inauguration of Still Dots, a project entailing 102 blog posts written by the Walker’s Film & Video staff over the next 51 weeks. Inspired by Nicholas Rombes’ Blue Velvet Project” at the Filmmaker Magazine blog, Still Dots will analyze a series of cinematic still images. Each Tuesday, Jeremy Meckler will post his analysis of a single frame from The Third Man, beginning with the very first still image from the film. Each Thursday, Matt Levine will post his analysis of one frame 62 seconds later. One of the most evocative and multilayered postwar British films, The Third Man (one of the holdings in the Walker Art Center’s Ruben/Bentson Film & Video Collection) is readily available on stunning Criterion Blu-Ray or DVD, and is also available to stream instantly on Netflix; we hope the first installment of this project is a valid enough reason to (re)visit this infinitely entertaining masterpiece.

What happens when this 104-minute movie is extended to a timeframe of 51 weeks? How will our conceptions of time, composition, and visual readership transform over the next year? It’s a mystery worthy of one of Holly Martens’ dime-store paperbacks…

 

U of M Student Responds to “Shulie”

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films. This post presents several viewpoints and responses to Shulie which […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films. This post presents several viewpoints and responses to Shulie which screened in the Lecture Room during November.
 
 
Written by U of M Student Rashid Ali

Of all the films I have seen throughout this “And Yet She Moves” series the documentary, Shulie was the most unique one for me. The first aspect of my unique experience of the film was the way in which it was produced. The discussion prior to the film made me believe that Shulie was an unintentional masterpiece. The mundaneness of the subject that is being filmed fascinated me because this must have been differently refreshing in the mid 1990’s. The subject, however, isn’t so mundane. She’s an artist that is going through her daily routine of being in the studio, on the go, and dealing the people around her. I didn’t know that this was apparently a re-shoot of a similar production in the 1960’s. The original is quite different as it follows Shulamith Firestone doing things that aren’t necessarily related to her art. It was more like being in the subway, working in the post office. I love this contrast between the contemporary version and the original. I also founded interested how the film played tricks on the audience. We were led to believe that the contemporary Shulie follows the same real Firestone as we might have in the original. The opening quote of “No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper–from The Dialectic of Sex, 1970″ made me think about Variety in a weird way. The main character of Variety seems to be disconnected from her conscious in that she does whatever she wants and follows whomever she pleases. Although I wasn’t around in the 1970’s I can presume that there might be a little tension between the way in which the audience from that time perceives the film to our contemporary audience. I just wonder what that discussion would’ve entailed. As for the feminist movement, it would be interesting to see Subrin’s take on the evolution of this political movement throughout the last four decades. There is one mistake that we should avoid in my opinion. And that is assuming that the remake is a clone of the original and that aside from the time period in which we live in there isn’t much of difference.  Quite the contrary, there are important differences between the two films that should not be lost. For example, the way the second film uses concepts is different than the first and even better from my perspective. Another example is the camera shots, costumes, props and backgrounds. It’s much easier for me to aesthetically appreciate the contemporary version than the original.  One question what I thought should’ve been addressed in the discussion that followed the film was how the contemporary remake utilized ideas from the original. Overall, I was really impressed with this portrait of an artist in the making. It was different than all of the films that we have watched. I felt that I didn’t necessarily have to think but observe more. I didn’t have to think about concepts or ideas. I honestly enjoyed watching Shulie as much as the camera enjoyed film it.

A “Fragment of a Continuum”: Jim Hodges’ World AIDS Day Film Puts Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Art in Context

The film — a 60-minute multimedia mash-up of cultural moments — both encompasses and transcends Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ era to include references to social justice struggles throughout history, from those inspired by the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War to the Rodney King beating and the death camps of World War II. In a recent interview, Hodges characterized the film as “a fragment of a continuum.” That is, a moment captured from a long, contentious, and ongoing fight for equality, fairness and a more just world.

Jim Hodges   Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

While Felix Gonzalez-Torres remains revered in the art world — he posthumously represented the United States at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and his work made up the thematic basis of the 2011 Istanbul Biennial — what may be starting to fade in our collective memory is the context in which he worked: the height of the AIDS crisis. Asked last year to do a talk on Gonzalez-Torres’ billboards, artist Jim Hodges opted instead to do a film, one the Walker and some 60 other arts and community organizations are screening in observation of World AIDS Day tomorrow. Hodges’ Untitled, a collaboration with Carlos Marques da Cruz and Encke King, aims to mirror the cultural environment his friend Felix was working within, from the bold activism of ACT UP to the political face of the ’80s culture wars. But the film — a 60-minute multimedia mash-up of cultural moments — both encompasses and transcends that era to include references to social justice struggles throughout history, from those inspired by the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War to the Rodney King beating and the death camps of World War II. In a recent interview, Hodges characterized the film as “a fragment of a continuum.” That is, a moment captured from a long, contentious, and ongoing fight for equality, fairness and a more just world.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,”, 1991   Installation view in Manhattan for Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1992.   Photo: Peter Muscato     ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Here are a few excerpts from my interview with Hodges, whose art will be featured in the 2014 Walker exhibition, Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, co-curated by Walker executive director Olga Viso and Jeffrey Grove of the Dallas Museum of Art. Here are some excerpts from the full interview:

On how his film references Gonzalez-Torres’ art:

The film, as a structure, mimicked Felix’s “dateline” pieces, so there’s a crashing together of times. We bounce around from World War II to current times and back to the ’60s. There a lot of different times, and the tempo is quickly changing from one to the other. References in the film were references of Felix’s. The mirroring was a reference of Felix’s. Doubling of things was a reference of his.

The Smiths’ songs were references to Felix, because he loved the Smiths. The last song is “Death of a Disco Dancer,” and the first one is “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me.”

The songs are really important because they’re the voice of art in the film. There’s an honesty, a directness. There’s something very specific that happens in the music that doesn’t necessarily happen in politics and the kind of conflicts that continue over and over, with people struggling to have self-expression and self-empowerment, struggling up against government. So, this is part of the continuum. It’s nothing new, and it’s still going on.


Still from Untitled: Smoke from the implosion of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and burning oil wells in Iraq

On the September 11 terrorist attacks on his home city of New York:

This country went to war with Iraq based on silly ideas that we needed to go and find these weapons of mass destruction. Why would we miss an opportunity when the World Trade towers were destroyed and we were left with that rubble, the fear and unknown, and the stillness that overtook the city for a few days? The crazy people actually stood out, because everyone else was in this state of shock. Wandering the streets. Quietly walking. Respectful of each other. We were all in a state of shock.

What you have in you as a person, through this, is: I would never want this to happen to anyone else. This is so horrible. This should never happen to anyone, to have this kind of horror imposed on you from you-don’t-know-what.

I felt: Wow, I know what this feels like. This feels like what it felt like in 1988, when Scott was diagnosed with HIV. This is what it felt like when Scott died in 1993 of AIDS. It was like, “Oh my god, that’s the same feeling.” I thought: “Okay, now the circle just expanded. It’s not just me and my friends and a small percentage of the population who are suffering from this phenomenon. Actually, all of us have been brought into this reality of horror.”

So now, we’re all vibrating from that same place. We’re all on the same ground. So now is the time to actually have a dialogue: What’s going on in this world? How could this happen to us? Why would we never want to do this to someone else?

What’s the politicians’ answer? This is a time to, boom-boom-boom, beat those drums and, boom-boom-boom, make some money and blow somebody up and expand ourselves and take advantage of someone in this weakness. Let’s use this horror and shock that people are in and take them into a place that’s even more horrific. This is the kind of grossness of the machinery of politics. I don’t know what it’s about, ultimately. I know it’s about power and holding onto it. I know it’s aligned with economics. But I know it’s not about what I went through or what people go through.

I don’t think Americans are different from other people. When you see mothers suffering because their kids are being killed, I think that mothers, no matter where they are, universally would say, “I would never want that to happen to someone else’s kid.” But the government isn’t a mother. And that’s part of the problem.


Still from Untitled: An ACT UP protest at Grand Central Station, New York 

On why Untitled addresses both HIV/AIDS and other social issues:

The way our government irresponsibly didn’t address the health issue at hand when the AIDS crisis first became known is the problem. We have people in power who are disrespectful, who are prejudiced, who don’t see, who refuse to acknowledge an aspect of the society at large because of their ideological position. They won’t allow themselves to see the humanness that’s there. This is the problem that I see: this continuation—and the continuum—where the powers deny the humanness of the other. It creates the other and then destroys it, or is indifferent to it and lets it be destroyed. This is continually happening.

Felix had AIDS. Obviously, it was an important issue—not one that he was talking about all the time, but clearly it was affecting his work, his psyche. It ended his life. It had to be addressed in work by me as someone who was going to speak about him and his production, but it wasn’t the only thing that Felix talked about. It wasn’t the only thing where one can see, “Oh, here’s this problem. It’s just existing here, for us queer people.” No. Uh-uh. And it’s not a new problem, where people aren’t treated with respect.

On Gonzalez-Torres, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1996, and his art:

Think about where we are, what we suffer through, what we deal with—and what do we put forth? What are we bringing out and putting into the world, considering that the time bomb is ticking underneath our chair and there’s all this shit going on?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,” 1995     Installation view in San Antonio, Texas for Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Billboards at Artpace, San Antonio, 2010.    Photo: Todd Johnson    ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Film is Dead…Again

Numerous critics and writers have recently been responding to the proclamation that film is dead. Bleak is that prognosis may be, though, the truth—as always—is a little more shaded (and perhaps even hopeful) than it seems.

Wherever the diagnosis came from, numerous critics and writers have recently been responding to the proclamation that film is dead. As of late, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, The Onion‘s Scott Tobias, Salon.com‘s Matt Zoller Seitz, IFC’s Matt Singer, Jean-Luc Godard (about 40 years after his initial apocalyptic prophecy), director Peter Greenaway, cinematographer Roger Deakins, British artist Tacita Dean, neurologically-inclined critics in Psychology Today, and many others have dealt with the possibility that the medium of celluloid, after only about 125 years of flickering existence (long enough to reshape the way we viewed mediation and reality; positively newborn, though, in comparison to most other visual arts), is giving way to digital technologies. The responses above have ranged from panicked destitution to enamored zeal to melancholy resignation, but most of them agree on the facts: as digital cameras and projectors are becoming more technologically-advanced, elevating their pictorial qualities to something near the level of newly-struck film prints (or above and beyond, according to Deakins in the article posted above), moviemakers, distributors, exhibitors, and manufacturers are gradually pushing cinema towards the digital realm.

Those facts are incontrovertible. Kodak is phasing out production of celluloid film; Aaton, AARI, and Panavision will no longer make film cameras. Theaters that turn to digital projection are usually required to get rid of their celluloid projectors (for reasons that are unquestionably more economic than technological). Many film-processing companies have closed down, and new 35mm film projectors are no longer being manufactured.

How you respond to this news depends, of course, on your willingness to embrace change, to accept the fact that technologies evolve and displace what came beforehand; or on your nostalgia-steeped affection for an art form that has unified audiences for the better part of the last century, and which is becoming something of a romanticized antiquity. Like most movie-lovers, we here in the Walker film and video department greet the emergence of digital technologies with ambivalent melancholy. Like most moviegoers of certain generations, we all have euphoric memories of a projector’s lightbulb flickering through a physically-present strip of chemically-imbued film (my personal favorite: an astonishing 35mm restoration of Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman); none of us want to see this shimmering art form vanish from theaters. Luckily, for screenings at the Walker, it doesn’t have to: a recent grant furnished to our film and video department has allowed us to upgrade our projection equipment, facilitating not only a new digital projection system (with 3D capabilities) but also a celluloid projection system for both 16mm and 35mm (with variable frame rates for, perhaps, the occasional 18fps silent-film screening). All of these advancements will be sure to get a workout in the winter and early spring of 2012.

While it doesn’t seem like there’s much to add to the plethora of articles posted above, it bears repeating that celluloid is not dead; bleak as the prognosis may be, film has a long way to go before it approaches its deathbed (if that ever happens). Digital may be taking over, but there will always be museums, college campuses, cinematheques, and specialty houses that preserve and champion the projection of celluloid. (And there will always be film buffs who crave, at least occasionally, the glorious imperfections of celluloid—the scratches, the flickering grain, even the muffled hums and clicks of the projector in the nearby booth.) Furthermore, the communal experience of watching movies with an audience in a darkened theater will not die; whether projected on film or digitally, cinema’s value as a social gathering cannot be vanquished by developing technology. (This was the same fear that arose with the popularity of television in the 1950s; if TV couldn’t kill movie theaters, neither will Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, or cell-phone downloads.)

A last bit of irony I’d like to mention: the year 2011 saw what was probably the highest number of cinematic death knells in the history of movies, as die-hard celluloid purists could not ignore the fluctuations of the industry any longer; but 2011 also may have been the strongest cinematic year at least since the new millennium, with good-to-masterful new movies by the likes of Terrence Malick, Raúl Ruiz, Jean-Luc Godard, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Werner Herzog, Elia Suleiman, Steve McQueen, Kelly Reichardt, Errol Morris, Cristi Puiu, Lars von Trier, and Lee Chang-dong, and upcoming releases from Béla Tarr, Jafar Panahi, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, Lynne Ramsay, Takeshi Kitano, and Wim Wenders—not to mention re-releases of films by Godard, Truffaut, Fassbinder, and Roeg, among others. For an art form that’s supposedly dying, it’s incredible how much it seems to be thriving at the same time.

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