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Still Dots #95

Deep in the subterranean world beneath Vienna, be it the city’s unconscious mind or the ancient Greek border between life and death, we are completely submerged in this nearly wordless world with a partially new cast of characters. Before us today stands one of them, one of nearly a dozen shots of nameless, wordless characters […]

Second #5818, 97:08, Image © Studio Canal

Deep in the subterranean world beneath Vienna, be it the city’s unconscious mind or the ancient Greek border between life and death, we are completely submerged in this nearly wordless world with a partially new cast of characters. Before us today stands one of them, one of nearly a dozen shots of nameless, wordless characters that we see in close-up in this segment. Beyond the abnormality of this in the Hollywood style of filmmaking–close-ups are ordinarily reserved for the most highly paid stars in each picture–this series of close-ups seems to posit an alternate film, one populated by these wordless figures. In the following catalog of these, one can see and understand the power relations and emotions rushing through these characters in a fashion similar to that of a comic book or french photo-roman. But while watching the film–in which each shot commands the screen for 0-5 seconds–the psychology of this team might be less visible.

Along with today’s still, here are those close-ups:

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Image © Studio Canal

Not a word of comprehensible dialogue is spoken through this segment, only whistles, yells, and the sounds of these men running, climbing, and jumping through the tunnels. All of these actors are uncredited as well, yet their faces inject a sense of purpose, excitement and suspense into what would otherwise be a simple chase sequence. By creating these distinct characters chasing Harry through the tunnels, rather than the faceless force of the British police we’ve seen thus far in the film, Reed’s direction manages again to put us into a moral grey area, identifying with the pursuers through these personal close-ups, and identifying with the pursued through his witty charm and prodigal presence throughout the film. It’s also worth noting that, hard as it is to find out who these uncredited actors actually are, one of them went on to a position in that essential British cinema franchise, the James Bond movies. Following Bernard Lee, who plays Sgt. Paine in this film and M in the early Bond movies, Robert Brown (who holds the flare in the second of our line of close-ups) would go on to play M in four of the next five Bond’s, before seeding the role to Dame Judi Dench.

But these close-ups are interesting for more than just the interlocking comicky story they tell in conversation with each other. Edited rhythmically into the action sequence, almost evenly spaced, these closeups and their editing are very reminiscent of some of the films of Sergei Eisenstein, put forward two decades earlier. Eisenstein’s remarkable use of the close-up is historic. Inspired largely by the films of D. W. Griffith, who is largely seen as the first to utilize a close-up, Eisenstein took the close-up in a completely different direction. Where Griffith’s close-ups created more intimacy with the story’s main characters and revealed things that could only be seen in detail, Eisenstein’s closeups often operated on a more metaphoric level, introducing several characters in close up to gauge the population of a group of characters. Eisenstein’s close-ups were not about romanticizing figures the way Griffith’s were, but instead used this technique to deromanticize the archetypal figures he used, making them into people again. Just as Eisenstein and Griffith’s politics were at odds, Griffith was a traditional conservative, responsible for Birth of an Nation and Eisenstein was a Bolshevik leftist, so too their takes on a particular technique was opposite. Take a look in this amazing sequence from Battleship Potemkin:

As Eisenstein wrote in his treatise Film Form, his cinema was against Griffith’s romanticized use of the close-up and crosscutting. From that book:

In 1924 I wrote, with intense zeal: “Down with the story and the plot!” Today, the story, which then seemed to be almost “an attack of individualism” upon our revolutionary cinema, returns in a fresh form, to its proper place. (Through Theater to Cinema, 1934)

Eisenstein’s wording is definitely strange, here, and to the untrained eye his phrasing would lead us to believe that he had come to believe–through some form of maturation–in an almost Griffithian mode. The real truth, of course, is that his words came out through coercion. In 1932, under Stalin, Soviet art forms came under much stronger scrutiny and the formalist experimentation of Eisenstein’s earlier work too closely resembled the work of European bourgeoisie modernists for Stalin’s liking. Eisenstein, and many other great pioneers, were forced to conform or give up their life of making art. The new state-mandated style, socialist realism, called for romanticizing in similar ways to that Hollywood style instituted by Griffith, and so much of Eisenstein’s later work became interested, once again, in story. But this sentence, and indeed this entire book, can be read in a different way. Rather than assuming that Eisenstein had truly given up on what he believed, “with intense zeal,” one can see these words as a code four us later readers to decipher. Like Da Vinci’s notebooks, these pages hold a valuable method but we must unlock its secret before we can understand them. So when Eisenstein talks of what a fool he was, quoting himself, he is really putting forward the argument he would put forward if the censor did not exist.

This of course brings to mind many things we’ve mentioned throughout this project, from the literal censorship involved in 1940’s British Films to Freud’s uncanny “censor” agency in the mind and even the literal censorship in this film with those images too horrible to be shown. What is apparent throughout, though, is that that which is censored is also that which is important. And if these faces mimic Eisenstein’s alternative soviet cinema in form, then they also mimic the censored in content, for these are the only characters whose power to speak has truly been erased. Perhaps like Eisenstein’s words, those horrible dying children, and Freud’s repressed memories, these censored beings hold–within their stoic and silent presence–some secret that the rest of the film lacks. Perhaps their silent close-ups truly lie at the shadowy underground heart of this film steeped in the sewers of Vienna.

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.