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Still Dots #43

Were zither chords visible, a jangly milleu would still hang over this frame from the chord marking the end of our poor porter’s life. His clear eyes turn and look to an unknown assailant, and hang suspended behind Anna in cross-dissolve limbo. Is it one of the four men who met on the bridge last […]

Second #2604, 43:24, Image © Studio Canal

Were zither chords visible, a jangly milleu would still hang over this frame from the chord marking the end of our poor porter’s life. His clear eyes turn and look to an unknown assailant, and hang suspended behind Anna in cross-dissolve limbo. Is it one of the four men who met on the bridge last week? Or perhaps some dastardly assassin hired by the group? Whoever it is, the porter’s eyes tell us that he recognizes his end has come, just as the zither crescendo cues us to see trouble brewing. In seconds, the last twinkle of the porter’s eyes will disappear, never to be seen again, but for now they linger like the Cheshire Cat’s smile gazing through a fascinated Anna.

In a scene hidden between this Still Dots and the last, we see Holly passing by Harry’s old apartments again when the porter leans out of the window and tells Holly “I am not a bad man. I would like to tell you something.” Holly’s fierce excitement is met by a shushing from the porter and an invitation to come back that night, when the porter’s wife has gone out, to hear the rest of the porter’s story. Just after promising to help Holly in his mad quest–for the third time–the porter shuts the window behind him and turns to meet his zither-clanging assailant. But remember, this assailant is a direct product of Holly’s meddling. Had Holly not carelessly dropped the porter’s name to Popescu, the man would not be facing this trouble at all. Whatever secret it was that the porter had to share will now be lost to the ages, and it only becomes another of the loose ends and mysteries that plague this city the Matt called “a night city if ever there was one.

Superimposition in Fritz Lang's "M" (1931) demonstrates Hans Beckert's (played by Peter Lorre) mental instability, Image © Kino International Films.

As the porter is quietly murdered off screen on the other side of the city, Anna should have no clue, but something about her fascinated yet sullen expression seems to suggest a chill running through her. Perhaps some element of their superimposition suggests a spiritual or possessional connection, and since this is the last image we see of the porter, this gaze is his last chance to claw at screen-life. This is a less deliberate association than the image itself suggests, since it is a quick dissolve between shots rather than a sustained superimposition. Cross-dissolves are not unusual in almost any type of film, but something in the lingering glimmer of the porter’s eyes suggests that this is more than a smoothing between shots. In the shooting of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles–a student of stage theater–did his fades and cross-dissolves outside of the traditional editing method. Instead of editing filmstrips in the studio to create dissolves, Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland gradually dimmed all of the lights on set until his actors and sets faded into blackness. This method maintained control of exactly which faces or figures would remain lit the longest, leaving their ghostly projection burned deliberately into viewers’ minds. While The Third Man is definitively not Orson Welles’, his shadow looms large over it, and today’s cross-dissolve carries with it some of that Wellesian intentionality.

The spirit of the porter may indeed be captured in this frame, though, the dissolve is no more than a fleeting superimposition. Superimposition has long been used as a meaning-making cinematic trick, almost as long as montage itself. Georges Méliès was known to pass the same film through the camera as many as seven times to create the cinematic tricks that made his short films so enchanting. Fritz Lang’s expressionistic collage created complex meaning through multiple exposures and superimpositions. Though perhaps less deliberate than the Fritz Lang examples, and less magical than Méliès’, today’s Still Dots captures a subtle combination of characters visually, that harkens back to the silent era.

A multitude of faces and eyes superimposed in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927), Image © Kino Lorber Films.

The other thing I find fascinating about today’s still, is Anna’s activity. She semi-obsessively fiddles with the decorative piece on the head of her bed, peering down into the space beneath it. What could be seen as a fiddly nervous habit could also present itself as something more suspicious. A knock will come at the door and Anna will quickly replace this metal piece and pull her hand away, as if she had never touched it, before beckoning them in.

This bed becomes a set piece in other moments of the film yet to come, becoming a unique yet unassuming signifier of “Anna’s apartment.” Holly and Anna will both drape themselves over its art-deco lines. But if Anna’s actions can be read literally, there might be something hidden inside this innocent bed, stuffed into a post and covered with the decorative piece she holds in her hand. If this is so, if Anna has some secret thing–a document? a photograph? some piece of evidence?–stashed in this secret compartment, it will literally never be mentioned outside of this six-second shot. Were this a film that followed traditional rules of storytelling, such a secret would have to lead to some payoff, even if it was revealed so subtly. Hayao Murakami’s IQ84 sets up this binary more eloquently, in two passages.

“According to Chekhov,” Tamaru said rising from his chair, “once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.”

“Meaning what?”

Tamaru stood facing Aomame directly. he stood only an inch or two taller than she was. “Meaning, don’t bring unnecessary props into a story. If a pistol appears, it has to be fired at some point. Chekhov liked to write stories that did away withh all useless ornamentation.”

 . . .

Aomame nodded. “Meaning you want me to break Chekhov’s rule.”

“Exactly. Chekhov was a great writer, but not all novels have to follow his rules. Not all guns in stories have to be fired,” Tamaru said. Then he frowned as if recalling something.

(1Q84, pg. 325, 352-3)

The object that Anna may or may not have stashed in her bedpost, is the pistol entering this story. Perhaps our close reading will tell otherwise, but it seems that this gun will never be fired.

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.