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Still Dots #68

Second #4154, 69:14, Image © Studio Canal Once again, we can’t get through a Still Dots post without mentioning, at least briefly, Freud and the uncanny: a man thought dead has been found, not only alive but beaming a mischievous smirk, on the streets of Vienna. Has Harry Lime–who might be described as the personification […]

Second #4154, 69:14, Image © Studio Canal

Once again, we can’t get through a Still Dots post without mentioning, at least briefly, Freud and the uncanny: a man thought dead has been found, not only alive but beaming a mischievous smirk, on the streets of Vienna. Has Harry Lime–who might be described as the personification of the Id, driven by the pleasure principle, unresponsive to the demands (or ethical interpretations) of reality–truly returned from the dead? Major Calloway at first assumed, and not without reason, that Holly’s discovery of an unheimlich Harry was a drunken hallucination; yet last week’s unearthing of a mysterious vestibule revealed that Harry has been utilizing Vienna’s sewer system as a hideout, truly a subterranean force lingering beneath the city’s cobblestone streets. “We should have dug deeper than a grave,” Calloway grumbles as he realizes Lime is still alive.

Now, in a moment reminiscent from about a dozen X-Files episodes, a grave is being exhumed in order to answer the question: Has a “dead man” really died? In today’s still, Holly sits in the lower left corner of the frame, continuing to down some kind of alcohol (but of course), while Calloway and the other MPs wait impatiently for the German-speaking workers to raise Harry’s coffin. One wonders what Calloway (not to mention Holly) would rather see when the casket is cracked open: Harry’s body, some other mysterious corpse, or an empty coffin. The first would reassure them that a murderous criminal no longer roams the streets, yet would also eerily contradict all notions of life, death, science, and reason that they hold to be true; the second two outcomes would at least explain what Holly witnessed, yet would also mean that Harry has faked his own death and cruelly fooled them all. (If Anna were here, one could only imagine the emotional maelstrom she’d be going through.) What actually happens when the coffin is ominously pried apart? I’ll leave that explanation for next week, but suffice it to say that even before the grave is fully exhumed, the scene pulsates with an uncanny dark magic, suggested especially by the gorgeous balancing of light and dark contrasts, with that harsh light gleaming off the tombstones in the upper left and the pool of thick black swimming around in the lower right parts of the frame. (The diagonal pathway cutting through the middle of the frame, then, is like a fragile boundary between life and death, between what’s exposed in the light and what’s hidden in the dark.) Unsurprisingly, there’s something about this moment that already suggests unexplainable mysteries; Holly’s anxiety is somewhat akin to Shake’s when the Aqua Teen Hunger Force visits Dracula’s grave.

Back to Freud, briefly: the concept of the uncanny takes on greater significance if we think about the German etymology of the term. As the father of psychoanalysis himself pointed out, unheimlich (which “uncanny” was somewhat misleadingly translated from) is merely the inverse of heimlich, which means “concealed, hidden, in secret.” The unheimlich, then, is that which has been exposed against its will, which further suggests that the uncanny element (that which is shielded from the public eye) is inherently abominable or a threat to humanity, especially if it is sexual in nature (according to Freud). Most of this applies to Harry Lime eerily well: the jury’s still out on whether he’s “abominable,” but he is obviously a threat to the penicillin-deprived men, women, and children he indirectly killed or made insane, and he’s sexual in the sense that Anna cannot love Holly while her passionate affair with Harry still lives on in her lovelorn memory. The fact that he’s been holing up in Vienna’s sewers further clarifies that the once-heimlich Mr. Lime has returned from the dead, been made uncanny, has resurfaced at ground level figuratively and literally (to coincide with the exhumation of his grave). What’s more, the uncanniest elements are those that we typically project our own repressed impulses upon, and which typically act as scapegoats after they’re unearthed, “freakish” monstrosities that come to represent human evil and calamity as a whole. In other words, if Holly really abhors the “undead” Harry as much as he now says he does, maybe that’s because Harry was always the Id to Holly’s super-ego: Lime was a magnetic force who always got the girl and followed his own impulses, a sort of doppelgänger that represented a more primal, unleashed version of Holly. Now that Holly has discovered that his longtime counterpart was even able to fake his own death, the uncanniness must be even more unsettling for him.

As a sort of side note, the uncanny takes on even more relevance in the context of robots and automatons, which we’ve also discussed before. Both robots and corpses exist in what roboticist Masahiro Mori deemed “the uncanny valley”: a rift between familiar living people and also-familiar doubles of those people, whether as robots, dead bodies, or statues/photographs. Mori even developed a hypothetical chart to illustrate people’s negative reactions towards creatures in the “uncanny valley”; as we can see, corpses and zombies (not to mention unsettlingly lifelike automations of human flesh) inhabit this valley.

Masahiro Mori’s chart delineating people’s emotional reactions to objects in the “uncanny valley.” As we can see, Holly’s discovery of Harry Lime roaming the streets of Vienna is about as uncanny as you can hypothetically get.

If robots represent a “comfortable” reproduction of the human likeness, and corpses occupy the opposite pole, where do movie stars and film characters stand on Mori’s chart? Remarkably convincing illusions of real people, reduced to gradients of light and chemical thicknesses whose contours are flung upon movie theater screens, movie stars are so popular perhaps because they are intimately familiar yet also unknowable: a close-up can reveal to us an actor’s immense eyelash, yet we also know this feature is a mediated combination of chemical and mechanical processes. Which begs one more tangent, before this conceptual hopscotching gets too out of hand: what about Anna Schmidt’s profession as a stage actress? What level of likeness would she occupy onstage–as a flesh-and-blood human inhabiting another’s mindstate, is she more or less familiar or uncanny than a film actress? Would her theatrical career constitute shapeshifting more than doubling?

In any case, Holly has clearly been plunged into the uncanny valley by his sudden reintroduction to the post-death Harry Lime. Harry’s emerged from the sewers, “his” grave has been exhumed: the Invisible Man now visible, the Underground Man no longer subterranean. Of course Harry went below ground for survival more than anything else, but he may also have some things in common with the protagonists of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground: outcasts who become (either justifiably or not) infuriated with the simplistic morality of Western society and voluntarily alienate themselves from it. But Harry Lime represents a subversion: if Ellison’s Invisible Man and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man both strive to escape a soulless, capitalistic society that emphasizes self-preservation more than anything else, then Harry seems to willingly plunge into amorality, embracing that economic self-interest to its most monstrous apogee. (Harry’s nihilist amorality may or may not become clearer as The Third Man goes on.) But all three characters may be experiencing the same ethical despair, and that may have more to do with the alienation of modern life in general than a pointed critique of capitalism. Any number of excerpts from Notes from Underground could point towards this interpretation, but instead I’ll quote the celebrated opening of Invisible Man. (Full disclosure: Invisible Man is my favorite book, so I’m happy merely to find an excuse to include it in Still Dots).

I am an Invisible Man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

“After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, The Prologue,” a 1999 photograph by Jeff Wall portraying the Invisible Man’s surreal, subterranean existence. Image © Jeff Wall.

These first two paragraphs of Ellison’s book actually reference an episode from Notes from Underground in which Dostoevsky’s nameless narrator, obsessed with taking vengeance on the policeman who brusquely bumped into him on a busy street, spitefully jostles him back, only to realize in horror that the policeman doesn’t even notice. Dostoevsky was actually a huge influence on Ellison (not to mention Sartre, Camus, and other existentialist writer/philosophers); one predominant theme in both Invisible Man and Notes from Underground is that people may act violently, criminally, or horribly in some other way simply to assure themselves that they have control over their own lives, that they do have free will, that their actions have clear (if devastating) repercussions in the real world. Again, then, Harry Lime has something in common with them: say what you will about Harry, he’s obviously in control of his own actions, indifferent to the moral proscriptions the rest of humanity may judge him with. Exactly why Harry behaves in such an amoral manner is a question we’ll save for future posts (and it may be unanswerable anyway). For now, though, the question is: What happens when Harry, the Invisible/Underground/Third Man, becomes visible?

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.