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Still Dots #89

Calloway and Paine, our never-separate team of British detectives, skulk in the shadows of a fountain waiting for Harry Lime to walk into their trap, their faces unrecognizable in the mass of darkness of today’s frame. Holly has finally agreed to help “tie the noose” for his friend’s capture, and a veritable noose of British […]

Second #5456, 90:56, Image © Studio Canal

Calloway and Paine, our never-separate team of British detectives, skulk in the shadows of a fountain waiting for Harry Lime to walk into their trap, their faces unrecognizable in the mass of darkness of today’s frame. Holly has finally agreed to help “tie the noose” for his friend’s capture, and a veritable noose of British officers is currently tightening on the cafe where Holly sits as the bait. Were this a Looney Toons cartoon, rather than a subtly shaded noir, the situation might be represented (more comically) like this:

Calloway, our would-be Wile E. Coyote, is seen above skulking in a dark cave and waiting for his prey to step into the trap. The cordon of policemen is tightening around this cafe, shown in the brilliant wordless minute preceding this shot. For now, though, the Wile E Coyote metaphor seems strong. Calloway certainly thinks of himself as a wily and clever Brit, and having no way to imagine an alternative, his plan seems completely foolproof to him.

But just like our hapless coyote above, Calloway’s plan–a plan that seems too simple to fail–is about to go wrong in so many ways. The “bus” which will muck up Calloway’s plan comes in several unexpected forms. First and foremost, though, is a man whose shaky perspective we might be occupying right now. Wandering into this police sting is a man casting a large shadow on an opposing wall, but not the expected Harry Lime. The visual cue is almost blatant, drawing an easy comparison between this figure’s shadow and Harry’s retreating shadow as he ran from Holly’s first encounter with him.

On the left we see the shadow of the figure approaching Calloway and Paine, and on the right, Harry’s shadow as he runs from Holly down a Vienese alley. Images © Studio Canal

But, just as it happened to poor Wile E Coyote, the figure who comes into view is not his intended target, Harry Lime. Instead, wandering into our frame, comes an old balloon-seller who, perhaps ill-informed, has decided to hawk his wares on these deserted streets in the middle of the night. I’m sure Matt will delve further into his ghastly presence in Still Dots #90, but for now suffice it to say that his appearance at this point in the story, at this time of night, is a weird one. This might be easily forgiven if he came a cross as a gag, something that doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. After a minute-long dramatic build-up to the arrival of who we assume is Harry Lime, an old balloon-seller appears. The Marx brothers would have milked this moment for all it’s worth, but this figure, though certainly bizarre, cannot be funny. As he approaches, this anti-Harry Lime, he brings with him an otherworldly aspect. He is a nearly Lynchian character, stepping right out of some bizarre dream. And somehow, though they seem invisible to me, this old balloon man has set his unearthly sights on Calloway and Paine. Something tells him that these men, literally hiding in a dark corner of a Vienna street, might want to buy a balloon from him.

This kind of logic, if nothing else, is definitely not of this world. Take, for instance, one of my favorite scenes in Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Agent Cooper, our almost impossibly good hero, has just been shot in his hotel room, and as he lays dying on the floor an old man comes in to deliver a glass of warm milk. Despite Cooper’s obvious state of dire need, this bellhop, who Cooper’s associate Albert Rosenfeld would later describe as ” the world’s most decrepit room service waiter” and “Señor Droolcup,” proceeds to repeat himself several times, hang up the phone, and remind him to drink his warm milk, rather than help him stop the bleeding. The result is certainly bizarre and not too different from the old fellow selling balloon’s on a Vienna street this late at night.

Despite its strange and foreboding images of this figure to come, today’s frame is a bizarre image in itself, one that seemingly counters the conventions of cinematic design. It his generally been contended that viewers’ eyes happen to be drawn to faces, movement, and light, but today’s frame seems to follow the opposite of those rules. There are two ways to understand it. Certainly if this frame followed the opposite of those rules exactly, if that general rule read “people’s eyes tend to be drawn away from light, movement, and faces,” then this would be what much of cinema would look like. All of the action important to the story development is buried in this dark hole at the frame’s center. If we ascribed to, say, Bizarro Cinema, or a VERY modernist view of cinema, this might be what we saw more often.

The other way to read it, is of course, to say that it is still following that rule, and using it to tell us something very different. If indeed, our eyes are meant to be drawn to the brightly lit architecture that frames today’s image, particularly that positively glowing block on the left, then maybe it is a subtle message on what is and is not important. This is certainly a story about the city of Vienna as much as it is the story of Calloway or Paine, and maybe our eyes are being drawn to look straight at that city, rather than focus on the actors who occupy it. Maybe this is a moment of formalist rebellion, yelling “this is the real! this is the war-torn city of Vienna!” Or maybe it’s just a neat shot.

Talking about the tendency to look at those faces, lights, and moving things brings up an interesting project looking into that very principle. The DIEM Project is an investigation into the act of looking, particularly the act of looking at a screen. Using a system they CARPE, they track eye movements across a screen while viewers watch various videos, experimenting with very different images and sounds, sometimes muted, sometimes documentary footage, and sometimes fiction, truly a science experiment on the way we see. Their collection of hundreds of videos, which graph that CARPE-collected information back onto the images that were initially shown, are endlessly fascinating, but definitely defend the idea that we are trained to look at faces most of all. Today I’ll leave off with one of the most interesting, a graph of viewers of the particularly striking Paul Thomas Anderson flick, There Will Be Blood (2007)

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.