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Still Dots #96

The swath of darkness and shadow we see above is courtesy of two Austrian policemen, whose unsubtitled German commands echo along the sewer tunnels to an increasingly frenzied Harry Lime. Montage editing conveyed an ensemble of nameless military policemen in Still Dots 95 — nameless but, as Jeremy noted on Tuesday, not faceless, as their […]

Second #5880, 98:10, Image © Studio Canal

The swath of darkness and shadow we see above is courtesy of two Austrian policemen, whose unsubtitled German commands echo along the sewer tunnels to an increasingly frenzied Harry Lime. Montage editing conveyed an ensemble of nameless military policemen in Still Dots 95 nameless but, as Jeremy noted on Tuesday, not faceless, as their momentary close-ups bestow upon these unknown men an air of individuality, tactility, of fully-lived lives. Jeremy aptly compared this breathtaking sequence to Eisenstein’s didactic (in the best possible way) Soviet montage, which sought to overwhelm the audience with a number of shocks (juxtapositions and parallels between and within shots) that conveyed larger messages addressing a social totality. Yet in addition to Eisenstein’s theoretical purpose in allowing cinema to “think” through images, his use of montage editing (and its application to this scene in The Third Man) also relies upon purely formal connections what Eisenstein deemed “metric” and “tonal” montage (based solely on the length of the film/duration of the shot and its graphic elements, respectively) in his essay “Methods of Montage.” As The Third Man‘s chase in the Viennese sewers goes on, the intensity builds and a distressed Harry becomes aware of the impossibility of escape a tension established by the quickening pace of the edits (some of the shots which Jeremy discussed on Tuesday literally last for less than a second). It sounds like common-sense to say that montage editing achieves tension by cutting between shots with increasing rapidity, yet that careful attention to temporality was in fact one of Eisenstein’s (many) groundbreaking achievements; as Robert Stam argues, the director “temporaliz[es]…the essentially spatial juxtapositions of Cubist collage.” Jeremy included the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925) on Tuesday; here’s another example from my personal favorite of the director’s films, Strike (1925):

Carol Reed and editor Oswald Hafenrichter achieve a similar temporalization in the sewer chase scene, flawlessly manipulating time to affect the audience subconsciously. What’s more, The Third Man‘s chase scene also ratchets up the intensity by creating graphic juxtapositions between shots; the visual space through which Harry flees becomes increasingly constrained as the scene progresses, creating the impression that the tunnels are literally closing in on him. If the sort of micro-analysis that our series calls for serves to reveal the importance of precise split-second edits and the tiniest alteration in composition, then this montage sequence might be the fullest indication of that significance: cinema is many things, but among them it is a craft of ultimate spatial and temporal precision, in which one twenty-fourth of a second or one incremental camera movement can affect the audience in overpowering ways.

In its stasis, though, Still Dots 96 reveals to us not the mobile precision of montage editing, but the visual prominence of shadows on celluloid. If shadows have played a vital role in The Third Man’s visual palette, what with its dazzling chiaroscuro lighting and metaphorical interplay of light and dark, then this still might be the most blatant illustration of that centrality. (Think, for example, of the famous image of Harry Lime’s looming, distorted shadow dancing across the buildings of Vienna as he flees from Holly after their first encounter the shadow not of Orson Welles, but of assistant director Guy Hamilton, who wore a padded oversized coat to fill in for the actor while he was gallivanting around Europe.)

The shadow of The Third Man. Image © Studio Canal.

If cinema is, as many have axiomatically put it, the art of “painting with light,” then shadow is of course one of its essential tools (we might call it dissonance to light’s harmony, to put it in musical terms). Obviously shadows have always existed on celluloid, but it seems they did not become a crucial artistic feature until the work of German Expressionist directors such as F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, Robert Wiene, and Fritz Lang. (We may remember here that German Expressionism was one of the foremost influences on film noir, the quasi-genre most known for its emphasis on shadows.) Murnau made the landmark 1922 horror film that might still stand as cinema’s most accomplished use of shadow as a central figure: Nosferatu.

On a slightly more metacinematic note, aren’t film images themselves “shadows” of reality? This signifying relationship between the film image and its counterpart in reality underlay much semiotic film theory in the latter half of the twentieth century: the idea that the film image clearly is not the object itself, but is a mimetic signifier of that object, with a more inextricable relationship than that between word and object (signifier and signified). Not to get too theoretical, but the film image thus acted as the shadow of that which it represented. (We’re not seeing Orson Welles or Joseph Cotten, but their figurative shadows.) In actuality, the idea that movies were shadows of reality came to prominence before theorists like Christian Metz and Peter Wollen embraced it in the 1960s and ’70s. In postwar Italy, for example, filmmaker-theorists like Cesare Zavattini, in an effort to reclaim Italian national identity through cinema, espoused realist filmmaking that portrayed the everyday lives of downtrodden people a project especially suited to films, since they resembled reality encountering itself (the shadow speaking to the object that casts it). The most famous proponent of this mindset in the postwar years, though, was André Bazin, who thought that the mechanical recording function of the film camera created an ontological bond between the onscreen image and what it represents (in the manner of light casting a shadow). Later, in the 1970s, theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry drew a parallel between the luminous nature of cinema and the allegory of Plato’s cave from the Republic (ca. 380 BC), which told of a group of prisoners chained against a wall in a cave who would observe shadows projected into the cave by sunlight, and thus give representational forms to those shadows. (Plato’s allegory of the cave may thus be the earliest forebear of cinema itself.)

“Plato’s Allegory of the Cave” by Jan Saenredam, 1604.

Another American writer in the postwar years used the metaphor of the cinematic shadow to decry the inhumanity of portrayals of black characters in Hollywood films. On December 6, 1949 (less than two months before The Third Man opened stateside), Ralph Ellison  author of (my favorite book) Invisible Man wrote an essay entitled “The Shadow and the Act” for the Reporter. Centering on Hollywood depictions of race conflict such as Intruder in the Dust, Pinky, and Lost Boundaries, Ellison, while charting the malicious history of black representation in American film, offered this remarkable appraisal: “To direct an attack upon Hollywood would indeed be to confuse portrayal with action, image with reality. In the beginning was not the shadow, but the act, and the province of Hollywood is not action, but illusion.” Films thus act as shadows of social forces in reality, mirroring (but not originating) the cruelties and evils that exist amongst humanity. If movies are indeed shadows of sociopolitical actuality, then The Third Man casts a particularly rich shadow of postwar greed, barbarism, amorality, and devastation; if the province of the film is illusion, it is one in which the real-world shadow of postwar Vienna looms large within the projector’s beam of light.

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.