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Still Dots #79

We catch Harry, master actor that he is, with a particular slackjawed expression as he gazes from the side of the Ferris wheel’s gondola. Holly has just charged Harry with something that must rankle them both at the base of their Catholic upbringing. In response to Harry’s nihilistic monologue on the inhumanity of all of […]

Second #4836, 80:36, Image © Studio Canal

We catch Harry, master actor that he is, with a particular slackjawed expression as he gazes from the side of the Ferris wheel’s gondola. Holly has just charged Harry with something that must rankle them both at the base of their Catholic upbringing. In response to Harry’s nihilistic monologue on the inhumanity of all of those still dots, Holly charges: “You used to believe in God.” Harry is either legitimately flabbergasted at the accusation, or he is playing the fool for Holly’s sake, but either way the insult seems to strike to the bone. For these two friends, close since they were boys in catholic school together, this accusation–that Harry’s behavior might mean he has eschewed God–is an attack not only on their religious upbringing but on the moral code which was ingrained in them using that structure. As Matt deduced last week from Holly’s expression alone, Holly has finally and fully realized that he and his good friend can no longer see eye to eye, and it is with this knowledge that his barbed statement “you used to believe in God” means instead, “I used to believe in you.”

In a sense, though, Holly is the more regressive figure in this interchange, if only because he equates humanity with a belief in God. Harry himself espouses a more nuanced view of God in his slack jawed response, “I do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and mercy and all that . . .” and then he seems to trail off. While this may appear to be lip service to a God he no longer worships, Harry has, inasmuch as we can tell from this lip service, managed to conceptually separate morality and religion. In his landmark book, On the Genealogy of Morality, Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to do this selfsame conceptual leap, making the large argument that all religions share a common morality, one Nietzsche called the “aescetic ideal.” Essentially, Nietzsche argued that all religions restrict the human spirit, through prohibitions from dietary rules to the more serious prohibitions against murder and evil. Nietzsche’s proposed alternative, his so-called “Noble Morality” would stand in contrast to all world religions.

His famous parable, is the story of the sheep and the eagles. The sheep are habitually eaten by the eagles, and so in response, they hate their predators and call them  “evil,” and equate all actions on a scale from good to evil, evil being the most eagle-like. The eagles, on the other hand, love the sheep, because they are delicious. For Nietzsche, an inspiration for countless nihilist philosophies, all morality and religion is based on the sheep side of the equation, yet he advocated for the eagles’ perspective–the “Noble Morality.” And as Harry stands in this gondola, looking down on all of his delicious £20,000-a-head prey, it is not hard to see him as an eagle surveying the prey that he loves and to see Calloway as the sheep who hates Harry for his power. But where Nietzsche saw this split, between sheep and eagles, as his own split with religion, Harry has gone even further into (post) modern identification, managing the considerable cognitive dissidence by believing in God while behaving like one himself. For Harry, God is not dead, he just doesn’t have a hand in these affairs. As he will soon tell Holly, “The dead are happier dead . . . the poor devils.”

So, inasmuch as Harry’s philosophy aligns with Nietzsche’s, it goes further still, and is even more reminiscent of modernist legend, Stephen Dedalus, the protaganist and Joyce-stand-in of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen, a gifted artist, brilliant student, and reluctant catholic, grows from a pre-verbal childhood to his eventual rebellion against the Irish Catholic tenets he was raised with. Like Harry, Stephen discarded those aspects of religion that hindered him artistically (though Harry is a con artist) and it is easy to imagine Harry agreeing with Stephen’s assertion that: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” In essence, Harry occupies this strange role, since he us undoubtedly the villain of our enterprise, of also being an analog for every hero of the modern era. Of course, Holly wouldn’t know this, because reading only Westerns, he has never heard of James Joyce, and perhaps that’s why Harry’s dissolution from religion must strike him so deeply. Holly is living in a pre-modern era, and for him, there can be no separation between religion and morality, no grey area between good and evil. Now that Harry’s actions have marked him as definitively bad, Holly has no choice but to add Harry’s name to his very own naughty list.

But while Holly has finally lost the hope he had for his friend’s goodness, a vague glimmer of hope appears for us in Harry’s spirit. For as we may be encouraged to identify with Holly’s stalwart moralism, Harry’s emotional crimes may come off as even more monstrous, especially the disregard he has shown toward his former lover, Anna. This, of course, prompted Holly’s doubts, romantic that he is, but now Holly seems to have bigger fish to fry, and rightfully so. Certainly heartbreak is a lesser crime than murder, and Harry has all but admitted to be complicit in a systematic murder of Vienna’s sick. But now, knowing what he thinks of humanity, or as Harry would call it, “the suckers and the mugs,” we see a more sensitive and emotional side of this charming badboy. For as his old friend Holly stands across from him challenging his religious code, Harry’s eyes drift to the window where he longingly scribbles Anna’s name and a heart on a fogged-up section of the glass. The most charming part of this action is its position, as he half-heartedly defends himself from Holly’s (rightful) accusations, Harry cannot help but think of his love for Anna, and his fingernails rattle against the glass as his eyes gaze longingly at the city through Anna’s name.

A longing rattle of fingernails against glass as Harry’s thoughts drift off toward Anna. Image © Studio Canal

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.