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Still Dots #57

Second #3472, 57:52, Image © Studio Canal Still Dots now enters the darker, grittier Vienna as Holly is introduced to the real black market: a secret trade that continues the punishments of war even after the fighting is done. Newton said it, for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and war is […]

Second #3472, 57:52, Image © Studio Canal

Still Dots now enters the darker, grittier Vienna as Holly is introduced to the real black market: a secret trade that continues the punishments of war even after the fighting is done. Newton said it, for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and war is no exception, and with such a monumental concept as war, the reactions are ubiquitous. While Harry’s secret Vienna drug trade is one of those reactions, perhaps, this Still Dots will interrogate another; an example from the world of war in literature with a novelist touched personally by war. Kurt Vonnegut was an American soldier captured by German forces who witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden. So, uncharacteristic for Still Dots, I would like to introduce this still with a long quotation. This is one of my all time favorites, from Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five.

“Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging a bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from  an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and the crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. Yet there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote ares. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a Baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed (Vonnegut, Slaughter-House Five, Random House, 1969, pg. 93-5).”

The reasoning behind this passage, which may seem oblique considering the compositionally interesting frame above, is evidenced by the words that Calloway is spitting out at Holly, camera right. As Matt discussed last week, this scene brings Holly face to face with the reality of war and the continuation of martial oppression even after the “war” has nominally ended. Calloway is laying all of his cards on the table, trying to get Holly to come over to his way of seeing things. Why? Perhaps it is due to Calloway’s genuine concern for Holly’s well being (Holly did narrowly avoid being snatched up by two of Popescu’s thugs before stumbling into this frame) but Calloway’s tenacity seems to imply more than that. Maybe something in Calloway’s military experience has taught him to trust in his instincts, and maybe, just maybe, Calloway knows that something is coming and that he will need Holly on his side.

Holly’s reaction is not unlike Billy Pilgrim’s for he too is a man unstuck in time. The Harry he knows is not the dirty profiteer that–as Calloway explains it–is responsible for the death or insanity of men, women and children in war-torn Vienna. Holly’s Harry is still a roguish prep school boy, standing up to the authoritative evil of the teacher or the dean. And Holly, too, is still living in that moment, as a delighted chum thumbing his nose at the  authority figure right in front of him, with the “innocent” best friend written all over his grinning face. Meanwhile, though, our teacher’s PowerPoint presentation is beginning to draw Holly back into the present world, where he is an alcoholic friend who is in over his head, and Harry is no longer the man he knew and trusted. Last week, Holly’s self-image still dwelled in that adolescent perspective, but war makes kids grow up fast, and before our eyes, the perspective has shifted. Holly has been reprogrammed.

The conventionality in his change of heart is surprising in a film as complex and multivalent as The Third Man, but Calloway’s last argument works because, like Helen Lovejoy, he essentially yells out “won’t somebody please think of the children?” What is it about children in peril that causes such a consistent change of heart? Whatever that secret is, it is working its clockwork magic away at Holly’s heart, for though he is not truly convinced of his friends guilt, he is now sitting squarely on the fence.

What is most striking, about this passage, though is how it draws me to view. In every instant I wish that I could see war as Billy Pilgrim does in movies. The theory of entropy aside, Vonnegut has written in this beautiful passage a way of seeing the world much different than our own. Can we imagine, for one instant, that instead of technology developing to make more deadly weapons, that it would develop to make more powerful ways of healing–like tubes that suck the bullets and shrapnel out of injured soldiers? It seems that technological development is something driven by money and violence, but this passage makes me wonder about watching every film backwards. The Third Man‘s dive into the dark underworld of Vienna would become a return to innocence. We could see Harry raised from the dead, reunited with Anna, and eventually, go back to the prep school existence he and Harry shared. This imagining is one best left to stoD llitS (Still Dots backwards) but they help to imagine the same utopian world that Vonnegut describes.

Dresden, a city even more devastated than Vienna by World War 2.

The Third Man is not a war movie like Billy Pilgrim’s war movie, though. It presents none of the boom and flash of war, but built into the bombed out buildings and streets is a cinematic history, as if each ruin is begging for a flashback of its own. The grim and dour Vienna that Holly gallivants around is certainly still scarred from Allied bombing, and before writing this passage (indeed even before becoming any type of published writer) Kurt Vonnegut witnessed a similar bombing. As a private captured by German forces in World War II, he was housed in non-maritime-Dresden during the fire-bombing by US forces. Slaughter-House Five can be seen as a book written in protest of that bombing, and similar ones yet to come, but what I find interesting of his descriptions is his focus, not on the horror of the war experience, but of what comes after. Billy Pilgrim and his crew of American prisoners of war are released as the city burns, and they wander through abandoned streets, looting houses of their valuables. The concept of the spoils of war is in no way a Vonnegut original, but what is interesting that even through this terrible experience of unimaginable death and horror, what Vonnegut recants is the story of the looting. Perhaps it is the same for Harry’s nefarious gang, and their illegal doings are really just another coping mechanism for the horrors they have seen. Whatever the case, though Holly is becoming stuck in time again, and his gears are beginning to whir as he discovers that Harry and his gang aren’t the good old boys he imagined.

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.