Our Film/Video staff surveys the world of moving image art from classic to global, experimental to digital.
On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was. News Event: Russian Fireball Meteor If you are on the internet right now, you’ve probably heard about the unexpected meteor crash in western Siberia, injuring thousands. The crash is also stunningly […]
On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.
News Event: Russian Fireball Meteor
If you are on the internet right now, you’ve probably heard about the unexpected meteor crash in western Siberia, injuring thousands. The crash is also stunningly cinematic, with footage captured (largely by panoptically prevalent dashcams and security cameras) seemingly straight out of an action movie. The meteorite burning up in the atmosphere lights the world with an otherworldly flash and the resulting shockwave broke windows and damaged buildings across the region, one that houses much of Russia’s military and nuclear production. It’s an all too real reminder of our fragility on earth, since a similar event killed the dinosaurs who ruled the earth for 185 million years (that’s about 177 million years more than there have been humans).
Film Recommendation: Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) takes place in a Russian wasteland of its own, one referred to as “The Zone” that is reminiscent of the Zone of alienation surrounding Chernobyl, despite the film predating the disaster by 7 years. Within The Zone lies The Room, a mystical space that can grant the wishes of any who visit it. This journey into the center of a forbidden and dangerous zone in the rural Russian countryside is science fiction and philosophical exploration, in equal parts, and led critic Derek Adams to write when comparing this film to Francis Ford Coppolas Apocalypse Now (1979), “as a journey to the heart of darkness, it’s a good deal more persuasive than Coppola’s.”
For those who can’t make it to a video store, Stalker is available on Netflix, though not streaming.
If you’re looking for a quick fix, a link to a film to watch while you twiddle your thumbs and think about our pending global annihilation, you can’t go wrong with almost anything from the Criterion Collection, all streaming for free on Hulu for this weekend only. (Though of course, you’ll have to stomach the film’s interruption with several ads, but thus is the price of freedom.) Several of Tarkovsky’s other films are available through Hulu, Ivan’s Childhood, Solaris, and Andrei Rubelev, and they are all worth watching.
Smash Cuts is a continuing series in which two members of the Walker’s Film & Video department go head-to-head on a divisive film, debating its various faults and merits. For our inaugural edition, Jeremy Meckler and Matt Levine discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Warning: here be spoilers! Matt: Obviously if you’re going into a Quentin […]
Smash Cuts is a continuing series in which two members of the Walker’s Film & Video department go head-to-head on a divisive film, debating its various faults and merits. For our inaugural edition, Jeremy Meckler and Matt Levine discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Warning: here be spoilers!
Matt: Obviously if you’re going into a Quentin Tarantino movie, you know you’re going to get graphic hyperviolence, a rewriting of both cinematic and real-world history, and a subversion of one of the director’s favorite genres: exploitation flicks from the 1960s and ‘70s. So I wasn’t as outraged by the premise of Django Unchained — in which Jamie Foxx’s former slave teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to kill white slaveowners and racists in the Antebellum-era Deep South — as some other people were (Spike Lee most publicly), though the underlying premise is unsettling (is it possible to make a badass revenge flick while remaining sensitive to this country’s insidious racial history and its unsettling aftereffects?).
After seeing the movie, though, it really does seem like Tarantino doesn’t have the ambition or the intelligence to indulge his fanboy tendencies while simultaneously saying something insightful or original about the knotty issue of race in American history. So my dislike for the film isn’t based on moral outrage or indignation at his insensitivity, since it’s obvious that Tarantino isn’t even trying to open up a dialogue about this tempestuous issue. But that seriously weakens my respect for Tarantino as a filmmaker (which is already only middling) and makes me question my enthusiasm for Inglourious Basterds, which I thought was a clever but precarious deconstruction of the integral roles that media and storytelling play in popular conceptions of history. It’s almost like Tarantino is so postmodern that he subscribes to the empty notion of “post-race,” which assumes that we live in a world that’s transcended racial divides and in which unique racial experiences no longer have to be respected — though anyone who thinks modern America is colorblind is oblivious to incarceration rates (and how they differ between whites and blacks) and to the widening racial and economic segregation in many urban areas.
“It’s almost like Tarantino is so postmodern that he subscribes to the empty notion of ‘post-race,’ which assumes that we live in a world that’s transcended racial divides and in which unique racial experiences no longer have to be respected…”
Jeremy: For me, I was not at all interested in the debate as to whether or not Django Unchained would enhance discussion about race relations in the United States. There have been so many films whose purpose has been to illustrate the very real racial inequities inherent in the culture, and the collective memory of the nation is certainly tied to a contemporary erasure of the horrors of those race relations. But, the thing about those films is that, though critically acclaimed, most of them suck (I’m thinking most specifically of Crash here) and none of them have managed to change the institutional and personal prejudices people face daily. School segregation and economic inequality seem to be increasing, not decreasing, not to mention the startlingly high incarceration and arrest rate differences across racial lines, but no movie, be it a mainstream critical darling like Crash or a deliberately provocative Blaxploitation-inspired-western epic like Django Unchained can make a dent in those problems. So I’m just not interested in judging this film by its ability to initiate discussions about race, whatever Quentin Tarantino may have said in interviews.
But, looking at the film itself, I think it has nothing to do with accurate historical portrayal or with the current situation in our culture. Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving. Tarantino’s films, so often praised for their “realist” dialogue, are so far from that, existing in a space so far from the real world, and so deep into minute obsession with the formal aspects of a particular era of studio production, that imitators consistently fail to keep up. I like Tarantino precisely for this, for his obsession, his use of bricolage and homage, and the way his films talk about issues from the perspective of living inside a 70’s film.
“[Django Unchained] has nothing to do with accurate historical portrayal or with the current situation in our culture. Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving.”
And Django Unchained is one of his best in blending its particular combinations of styles and influences. It owes much of its style to the first revisionist westerns, the ultraviolent and morally complex films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, but it incorporates aspects from all over Tarantino’s library of influences. It has a lot of Blaxploitation in it, particularly a scene in which Jamie Foxx is chained up in a shack full of southern whites that could be copied nearly shot for shot from a scene in Foxy Brown. It also has a lot of deliberate Looney Toons cartoon violence, particularly in Tarantino’s strange cameo in an outrageously bad Australian accent. But beyond its charming blend of influences, the life-blood of Tarantino’s style, this film brings in some incredibly sweet moments between Waltz and Foxx. It’s a great buddy cop picture that happens to be set in the deep south during the wild west era.
Matt: You’re right that the best part of the movie by far is the rapport between Foxx and Waltz, and you’re also right that Crash is awful. I definitely didn’t want another highfalutin message movie about racial tolerance, and I had no misconceptions that Django Unchained could or should do anything to rectify the immense racial conflicts that still exist (have always existed) in this country. That being said, Tarantino’s infatuation with revenge storylines, indebted though they are to blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, is more juvenile and simplistic than it’s ever been. I’m not a big fan of Kill Bill Volume 2, but at least in that movie Bea starts to come to the realization that eye-for-an-eye vengeance might not be as unproblematically gratifying as she had assumed. With Django Unchained, on the other hand, we’re supposed to be titillated and satisfied with the graphic (though, as you mentioned, Looney Toons-esque) violence that piles up in the last hour, including at least two men that are shot in the genitals and a woman who is comically blasted out of one scene by Django’s shotgun.
“Tarantino’s infatuation with revenge storylines, indebted though they are to blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, is more juvenile and simplistic than it’s ever been.”
Aside from any question of racial sensitivity, Django Unchained‘s glorification of violence reveals not only a deluded view of human behavior, but also a filmmaker who seems to be running out of tricks. (I know Django Unchained is celebrated for its originality, but seriously, what does it have that we haven’t already witnessed in at least one Tarantino film?) He borrows some stylistic traits from Peckinpah and Leone, and even some broad plot points, but their treatment of violence is wholly different: Harmonica’s vengeance in Once Upon a Time in the West is carried out with a grim sobriety, as though he has nothing left to live for so he might as well embrace hopeless violence; and Straw Dogs is all about how vengeance can chillingly turn a man into a sadistic monster. As opposed to Django Unchained, which ends with a massacre followed by Django and Broomhilda von Shaft reveling in the carnage as though they’re in post-coital bliss. The movie is indeed supposed to take place in some kind of hermetically-sealed Movieland that has nothing at all to do with reality, but it’s not that simple; movies aren’t released into a vacuum. Django Unchained, in my opinion, operates at the lowest level of postmodernism, which suggests that nothing really matters in reality any more, so we might as well embrace a wholly artificial, mediated world.
Jeremy: Here’s where we differ, I think. Tarantino’s films are definitely postmodern and supremely intertextual. You would have to be a bigger geek than I am (if you can even imagine that) to identify all of the visual and narrative references that Tarantino packs in here for his fellow geeks, fetishists, and lonely purveyors at the few remaining video stores. But just because this world is fake, doesn’t mean that nothing in reality matters. I think it’s exactly the opposite, and that his films use their own shiny exterior to talk about concepts in interesting ways. Tarantino’s garish, polished, stylized universe is one that foregrounds its own artificiality, the way that modern art started to do at the turn of the twentieth century. The film is not intended to be watched as a document of history, and since it is so phony, it can’t really be read that way, even if most of the mainstream critique of the film has come from this camp.
Yes, there are probably historical inaccuracies in the film’s setting and characters; the most commonly leveled one (by a variety of historians and critics) is that the ultra-barbaric and near-unthinkable sport of mandingo fighting never existed. But I think what’s remarkable about this film and much of Tarantino’s work, is just that it really doesn’t matter whether it is “true” in the real world. The sentiment of the characters in his phony universe shines through, and his thesis is strengthened by its unbelievability. Watching a cartoonized, glorified scene of violence and gore on the subject of slavery is a way to think about that unthinkable subject, not because of the conversations it starts about slavery here in the real world, but because that moment of comparison between the real-world horror of slavery and a juvenile revenge plot allows a space to imagine the alternative. The alternative to this film, in my mind, is to put forward something realist that brings up the same issues, and that might be an interesting proposition too, but realist work is just as fake as stylized work. They are both films, just films shot in different styles. And isn’t a willingness to display its own means of production at the heart of modernism, not post-modernism?
“Watching a cartoonized, glorified scene of violence and gore on the subject of slavery is a way to think about that unthinkable subject, not because of the conversations it starts about slavery here in the real world, but because that moment of comparison between the real-world horror of slavery and a juvenile revenge plot allows a space to imagine the alternative [treatment].”
What’s more, this film, more than any of Tarantino’s earlier work, enlarges the gap between itself and reality by injecting a-historical moments, super stylized violence, and a ragged storyline together to create a setting, which no viewer can take for historical. So I think you’re mostly right that Django Unchained is a part of Tarantino’s vague and unexplained obsession with revenge plotlines, it is in no way original or new to his work, and many of its characters are flat photocopies of characters from other Spaghetti Westerns, but that is what makes it a strong film. And though it certainly isn’t much different from some of Tarantino’s other films, largely Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, and Jackie Brown, it is as well crafted as any of them. Django Unchained certainly has its failings, and I do think Basterds and Jackie Brown are both much better movies, but it does some things remarkably well, and does it with style, beauty (in parts) and some genuine Hitchcockian suspense.
Matt: Your comparison between Tarantino’s artificiality and that of modern art in the early 20th century is a very good point, although I think their historical contexts make all the difference: the formalist art from a century ago was responding to a Romanticist tradition that was dedicated to a faithful (or at least emotionally cohesive) portrayal of reality, whereas in today’s world we’ve been inundated with mediated artifice for decades. In other words, whereas the formalism of early modern art was breaking the artistic mold, today that kind of self-reflexive artifice is commonplace (witness the majority of television comedies today, for example Family Guy, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Modern Family, Community, etc.).
In terms of the historical accuracy of Django Unchained, I’m not really concerned with specific inaccuracies and definitely don’t think the movie should be read as a document of history; but I am concerned with the movie’s indifference towards the overall trauma of slavery. I wish I could agree that the combination of cartoonish, glorified violence and highly disturbing scenes of racial brutality offers “a way to think about that unthinkable subject [and] allows a space to imagine the alternative” to this kind of artifice, but I think the common interpretation is the other way around: watching that cartoonish violence side-by-side with scenes (albeit partially offscreen) of slaves getting ripped apart by bloodthirsty guard dogs or mandingo fighters gouging out each other’s eyes and getting offed with a hammer conflates these wildly different brands of violence, as though racial hostility is just another artificial trope for filmmakers to recycle into their own deconstructionist gimmick. This was partially true of Inglorious Basterds too, but not nearly to the same extent: imagine if Tarantino had balanced his goofy revision of World War II history with actual scenes of Jews being ushered into the showers or their corpses carted off by the dozens. He seems to have been aware that his kind of self-reflexive artifice comes off as heartless when paired with actual historical atrocity, so why is he comfortable including similar-minded scenes in Django Unchained? And while you’re right that a film about slavery in a more realist vein would be just as heavily mediated as Django Unchained, its effect on the audience would not be one of escapism and mollification, but (perhaps) an effect of introspection and unease. Django Unchained is certainly well-made, stylish, and visually beautiful—but in this case I don’t think that’s enough.
“Imagine if Tarantino [in Inglourious Basterds] had balanced his goofy revision of World War II history with actual scenes of Jews being ushered into the showers or their corpses carted off by the dozens. He seems to have been aware that his kind of self-reflexive artifice comes off as heartless when paired with actual historical atrocity, so why is he comfortable including similar-minded scenes in Django Unchained?”
Jeremy: Maybe you’re right, and I’m just a sucker for style. I love the tight, visually beautiful, and heavily stylized moments in this film just like I love the spaghetti westerns that they pay homage to. But, I don’t think you’re right to say that this film reacts with indifference toward the trauma of slavery. Take a look, for instance, at the film’s most charismatic character, Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Shultz. This is a character so disgusted by American slavery that he literally throws his life away only to kill a despised slave owner, and edify his sense of pure horror when faced with the reality of slavery. This moment actually makes little narrative sense, and feels relatively disjunctive in an otherwise tightly plotted enterprise, but I think it shows the film’s core, which is a strong refusal to accept this evil practice.
Perhaps there are indeed things and images too sacred, too intrinsically awful and unthinkable to be portrayed in Tarantino’s admittedly sloshy style, and if there are, then slavery may indeed be one of them. But I think criticizing this film for being revisionist or for being stylized is not dealing with it on its own terms. Certainly this film is unseemly, and probably in poor taste, but its vulgarity comes from the same place as Shultz’s misplaced sacrifice, a complete disgust and rejection of the ideas behind slavery. The film hates the institution of slavery so much that it finds it necessary to show some gruesome images of its horrors, and some disgusting rhetoric, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s speech about the phrenological justifications for slavery. What you see as a trivialization of slavery seems to me to be a sign of respect to its massive and terrible influence. It is exactly to avoid producing a mollifying or escapist film that those vile images and ideas are necessary. Absolutely those scenes are incredibly distasteful, but that’s their intent. I have a hard time believing that anyone walked out of that theater the same way they would have walked out of a real escapist film, like Avatar, or that anyone really thought that they walked into another moment in history. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that that’s what all the style and gauche camerawork is for, to make sure that people cannot take this revisionist tale for reality. And the truth that lives outside the film, unseen (like much of that gruesome scene with the dogs) and implied through the narrative, is more terrible. This film reclaims history, rather than portraying it, but by doing so does that somehow negate history’s influence? I don’t think so.
“I think criticizing this film for being revisionist or for being stylized is not dealing with it on its own terms. Certainly this film is unseemly, and probably in poor taste, but its vulgarity comes from the same place as Shultz’s misplaced sacrifice, a complete disgust and rejection of the ideas behind slavery.”
Certainly this film is closer to Blazing Saddles than it is to Lincoln, but through its stylized parody, it gets at something a bit deeper, while remaining beautiful, very funny at times, stylish, and entertaining for those who can hold their screen gore.
Still Dots, our year-long plunge into Carol Reed’s The Third Man is over, with an upcoming free screening of the film on 35mm serving as a cap on the thirteen months we have spent thinking about this film. While writing a long form article to sum up our experience working on the project, we couldn’t help […]
Still Dots, our year-long plunge into Carol Reed’s The Third Man is over, with an upcoming free screening of the film on 35mm serving as a cap on the thirteen months we have spent thinking about this film. While writing a long form article to sum up our experience working on the project, we couldn’t help but think back on our favorite posts from the last year. And, as many of you may be trying to catch up on Still Dots before the screening (so that you’ll be able to figure out what the heck we’re talking about) we decided to share our favorites. Here we present our top ten posts out of the hundred and two we wrote. Out of a sense of fairness and midwestern modesty, we’ve each picked our five favorite posts written by the other, as well as a few essentials we couldn’t live without.
Matt’s Top Picks:
Personally, my favorite posts of my own are the ones which allow fleeting, unexpected insight into characters (for example, Still Dots #38, in which we can imagine Baron Kurtz as a lover of violin music, blissfully serenading Vienna’s hoity-toity elites); which bring in other cinematic examples that I previously would have thought had no connection whatsoever to The Third Man (#54, in which the structural patterns of experimental, avant-garde filmmaking come into play); or which forced me to deal with the overarching themes and worldviews with which The Third Man is concerned (#102, which parallels Holly’s unhappy ending with the postwar plight that the city of Vienna is likewise undergoing). But I’m most partial to Still Dots #64, a still image which succinctly represents what Richard Misek would call The Third Man’s “wrong geometries”—a skewed envisioning of Vienna which correlates to the film’s postwar malaise and ambivalent moral outlook. I loved bringing in other examples from visual arts which help exemplify the distinctly distorted aesthetic of the film, but the main reason I look back fondly on #64 is because it allowed me to make a diversion that empathizes with Anna Schmidt’s character. I love Anna: she may be the film’s most courageous and emotionally genuine character, despite (or because of) her undying allegiance to a bona fide murderer and racketeer. Departing from our usual template, I indulged myself by including a still of Anna in between our 62-second intervals, and wrote a hypothetical account from Holly’s perspective of his love for Anna. Such an indulgence broke our own rules, but also allowed me to temporarily inhabit the characters of both Anna and Holly—and isn’t the ability to float in and out of other characters’ mindstates one of the metaphysical luxuries that cinema offers us?
Still Dots was also fascinating because it allowed me to see how Jeremy’s writing and opinions differed from my own. I always looked forward to reading his analyses, his intellectual dexterity and his clear, swift prose, yet if pressed I could narrow it down to five essential, must-read posts:
5) #79: Arriving smack-dab in the middle of my favorite scene in the movie (Holly and Harry’s lengthy, complex, philosophical discussion on the Riesenrad Ferris Wheel), Jeremy’s post juggles James Joyce and Nietzsche (full disclosure: most of my discussions of Nietzsche were based on Jeremy’s previous citations of him) while emphasizing the underlying yet decisive influence of the two men’s Catholic upbringing on their modern behavior. #79 also represents one of the few times that Jeremy and I disagreed about characters’ emotions and motivations (Jeremy has a slightly rosier interpretation of Harry Lime than I do), in illuminating, highly revealing ways.
4) #43: The image here is a cross-dissolve between Harry’s porter (who is about to be killed thanks to Holly’s carelessly loose lips) and Anna Schmidt. I absolutely adore dissolves (no other image could possibly be more cinematic; even a still image of a dissolve suggests the movement of the film projector), and Jeremy connects the history of this cinematic syntagm to one of my favorite directors, Fritz Lang. Even better, Jeremy raises the tantalizing possibility that something scandalous is hidden within Anna’s bedposts – though if this is the case, we’ll never know which shocking discoveries remain inside.
3) #53: One of the most exciting action scenes in all of The Third Man – a chase between Holly and two of Popescu’s goons – is illustrated by Jeremy through a series of stills from various, seemingly unrelated films (The Matrix, High Noon, Vertigo, Casino Royale, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane). In doing so, Jeremy points out the substantial, ontological difference between the still image and the mobile one – a distinction which essentially forms the visual basis of cinema. In Jeremy’s words, “the illusion of cinema itself is the deception that lives between the film frames, that conceptual jump that transforms a series of still images into a living and moving shot, and that magic lives in the formless darkness that flashes itself between the frames.”
2) #49: The man who appears in Still Dots #49 will be onscreen for less than a minute, yet Jeremy nonetheless offers a convincing hypothesis that this taxi driver is in fact a cyborg. In doing so, he also raises the unsettling proposition (via Donna Haraway) that all of humanity is now cyborgized in postmodern technologization – a monstrous hybrid of man and machine. Where else, outside of Still Dots, would The Third Man raise the possibility of mass mechanization replacing humanity?
1) Speaking of the numerous eclectic strands that can be strung to The Third Man via a project like Still Dots, there’s no better example than #61, in which Jeremy cohesively incorporates in-depth formal analysis, the work of film scholar Richard Misek, 2D vs. 3D, the perspectival techniques of Renaissance artists such as Diego Velazquez, the novels of Orhan Pamuk, Copernicus, Galileo, Baruch Spinoza, and Einstein’s theories of general relativity and “Einstein’s Cross.” Our original intention with Still Dots was to explode the possibilities of film analysis through semi-arbitrary, microscopic constraints, which we hoped would lead down unforeseen avenues of exploration; nowhere is this better achieved than in this post.
Jeremy’s Top Picks:
As far as individual posts are concerned, certainly some shine through as stronger than others. I was particularly proud of the posts in which I managed to integrate disparate topics: Art History, Theoretical Physics, Philosophy/Theory, Literature and those posts which allow us a brief view of a character in a different light. I also, in retrospect, like the posts in which I went a little further off the deep end, so to speak–mostly the result of being unable to think of what to write about aside from a wild tangent. These are admittedly hit or miss, but a few of them rank amongst my favorites.
Among the posts I wrote, I am most proud of #61, which Matt wrote so glowingly about above, a post that manages to straddle countless disciplines without feeling too stretched (I hope). #77 is my most emotional post, and also the one in which we explain our project’s esoteric title. If this is to be a readers’ guide to those trying to catch up on the project, then I would also recommend #5, where Freud entered our co-analytic brain, and #18 where Marx came into the mix. I also prize those wild flights of fancy, #15, #31, #49, and most of all #85, where I trace the history of film all the way back to a bet made by a railroad tycoon and Ivy-league benefactor.
Matt’s posts tended to be well researched and tightly focused, with some marvelously deep analyses of cinematic tropes, historical contexts, and production history, demonstrating a tremendous force and knowledge about the film. His analysis and mine ended up complimenting each other perfectly, with his factual knowledge, graceful writing style and stylistic clarity the perfect balance to my slightly more chaotic blend of ideas. Building off of his analyses mine became stronger and more focused. I love some of his later posts, his last two #100 and the final, #102 are an amazing blend of formal and structuralist analysis, emotional potency, and devoted attention to the history of The Third Man itself (#100 goes so far as to quote the Greene novella on which the screenplay is based). I remember the first of Matt’s posts to really blow me away was #14, which largely consisted of a history of dogs in cinema. At that point, I knew that our project was growing into something good. Beyond that, as it is that time of year, I will offer my top 5 posts by Matt:
5) #66: this one its own flight of fancy. Beginning with the deliberately false assumption that The Third Man can be read as a horror film, Matt dances his way through the genre and makes a sharp compositional comparison between the sewer entrance Harry escapes into and the terrifying monolith that dominates Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The included clip, from Dario Argento’s Suspira, chills me to this day.
4) #68: This one manages to straddle several worlds, drawing together social science, The X-Files, Dostoyevsky, The Aquateen Hunger Force, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man into an argument that is not only (remarkably) coherent and focused, but important as well, about our relationship with corpses. It was also praised as an “eye opener” on Indiewire.
3) #48: I love this post. I can’t tell you exactly why, but each connection, comment and insertion seems perfectly structured, chosen and curated and I cannot read it without watching the entire clip included, from Nicolas Roeg’s eerily beautiful film, Don’t Look Now.
2) #80: I love this post for the same reason that Matt loves my post (#79). It is one of the few places in our analysis where we disagree. The rich and close contextualization of a shot, one of the film’s only extreme clos-ups, can completely transform the tenor of this important scene, and Matt’s analysis adds different paths of comprehension, further enriching the scene. Plus, this post is full and complex, with inclusions of Dadaists, Borgias, and even Nietzsche.
1) #56: Matt takes this opportunity, the moment that Holly realizes the evils that his friend Harry has done, to elucidate the evils of capitalism and war. In one stroke he divines Holly’s wavering trust in memory and friendship and the myriad problems with the military industrial complex. At once focused on these characters, The Third Man, war in cinema, and the real-world atrocities of war, this post hits hard and ties everything cohesively together in a way that makes me happy to be involved in this project.
In Still Dots, our yearlong dive into the deep end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), I became so obsessed I began to live and breathe Vienna. So much so, in fact, that I went so far as to draw a few pages of a comic book based on one of the film’s most […]
In Still Dots, our yearlong dive into the deep end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), I became so obsessed I began to live and breathe Vienna. So much so, in fact, that I went so far as to draw a few pages of a comic book based on one of the film’s most famous scenes.
SPOILER ALERT: This comic will ruin a part of the film’s carefully constructed plot. I don’t recommend reading it before you have seen the film, and if you haven’t seen it yet, please consider attending the upcoming free screening at the Walker Cinema, on Thursday January 17th. For more information on the project and what we learned from it, check out our new essay or a complete archive of posts.
For this, our last close-up of Holly and our second to last post in this series, I thought it apropos to look through the close-ups we have seen of him so far. If, as Charlie Chaplin is quoted as saying “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot,” then perhaps […]
For this, our last close-up of Holly and our second to last post in this series, I thought it apropos to look through the close-ups we have seen of him so far. If, as Charlie Chaplin is quoted as saying “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot,” then perhaps this trip through our memories of Holly will be as harrowing as it is nostalgic, but here it is. Holly Martens, This is Your Life. Click on any of the photos to link back to the original Still Dots post which featured them.
Here, in one of our first posts, a lackadaisical Holly Martens meets Harry’s now-dead porter, who tells him that Harry is dead: either “already in hell” (while he gestures upwards towards the sky) “or in heaven” (while he points downwards). Our poor Porter would soon meet the same fate (by way of Holly’s big mouth) but this close-up on Holly marks his real entrance into the film’s narrative–the many deaths of Harry Lime.
Now, determined and hatless, Holly presents himself in a strikingly similar fashion to today’s frame. This shot could almost be a closer shot of today’s still, and similarities in lighting, styling and setting (both of these shots take place at Harry’s grave in Vienna’s huge Zentralfriedhof–literally central peace garden) suggest that they may have been shot on the same shooting day. In both frames, Holly seems to be taken with a sense of anguish–and though today’s funeral may be a stronger version of that same emotion–another strong dissimilarity exists. Holly’s gaze in today’s frame is millimeters off from the forbidden lens of the camera, while this earlier funerary moment draws his focus downward, toward the body being interred before him. While his anguish was once directed at his friends death, it is now directed higher and wider. Holly’s distaste is no longer for Harry’s death, partially because he pulled the trigger which caused it, but now is directed at the whole of the world–a world in which he feels obliged to shoot his oldest friend. We will return to these two funerals more a little later, but now:
Holly, now in a totally different realm of story and space, seems to have changed little. His petulant investigative style is supremely ineffective on Dr. Winkel, sitting camera left. But sitting in this tchotchke-stuffed space, Holly’s presence manages to draw in more aspects of culture and religion in Vienna than it does secrets of Harry Lime’s life or un-death, and gives Holly countless opportunities to exercise his American exceptionalism, calling the man wink-el instead of the Germanic vink-el.
Here, Holly is on a reprieve from the noir world of murders and secrets, and is standing in Anna’s apartment, helping her rehearse and reminiscing about Harry. As we reminisce about this moment in our analysis, a sort of meta-nostalgia, we can take note of the differences in Holly’s “look” throughout these stills. Notice how dark his hair appears here, versus the almost blonde locks he sports above. His outfit seems almost identical from moment to moment, but perhaps the white shirt – tie – sweater – jacket combo serves as a de facto uniform for American authors gallivanting through Europe. Either that, or the broke writer has sold the rest of his clothing, and is down to his last good suit. Whatever the situation, his suit, sweater and all, never leave him throughout his journeys, only varying by the presence of the fedora.
Fedora-clad again, Holly has walked back into the noir mystery of this story, his brow furrowed and his look (down at an inquisitive and accusatory child with a ball) almost identical to the look he gives a pesky cigarette above. If it is true that the eyes are the windows to the soul, then Holly hides his soul well with these deep downward gazes and his low-brimmed hat. His expression, mirrored by the more frantic father beside him, seems to connote the beginning of realization of the horrors that may befall him. As he is accused of murder and chased through Vienna by the mob that now surrounds him, Holly may be realizing that he bit off more that he can chew.
In this moment, eyes opened once again, we see another change in Holly. He has gone from lackadaisical literary lackwit to dick-tracy-esque pseudo-detective and now, with Calloway’s explanation of Harry’s horrid deeds, he is again transformed–this time into a skeptic. He has certainly not made his full transition yet, but his trust in the inherent goodness of Harry Lime is beginning to waver. Were Harry to walk out from behind a wall, Holly wouldn’t be able to shoot him dead as he has just done, but he also has no inkling yet (and neither does Calloway who is lecturing him from off-screen) that Harry might still be alive. In a sense, this scene marks Holly at his most jaded, since as far as he knows, he can do nothing and has uncovered nothing through his investigation–nothing except an undeserved murder for Harry’s porter. Holly, in this moment, is close to packing it in and heading back stateside, leaving all of these worries behind him. Yet there still lies within Holly, a little of the silly scribbler who walked into our story, and that romantic, adventurous, American spirit will keep him in this city long enough to get reeled into the middle of things again.
Here, we see the completion of that last transition. In his only smile (at least within the confines of Still Dots) Holly seems to be letting go of childish things. As Matt wrote in this post, “This is a different Holly Martins than we’ve seen before: if our poor cowboy has been, as Jeremy said on Tuesday, “sitting squarely on the fence” regarding Harry Lime’s guilt, he’s now faced with incontrovertible evidence that proves his longtime friend’s barbaric crimes . . . The Holly we see in Still Dots 58, in other words, is a man who’s become convinced that his best and oldest friend is a monster.” This smile is not one of a child’s guileless joy, but is instead a smile of release–an ironic laugh where he should be crying as he realizes the evil for which his friend Harry is responsible.
Now, post realization (and drunk as a skunk to boot) Holly goes through another stage of grief, this time changing his motives completely, and legitimating his time in Vienna through one person: Anna. With a decision in this scene, indicated by Holly’s oscillating POV gaze, he chooses romantic love over the fleeting joys of lust and flirtation that (literally) dance before him, buys a bouquet of flowers, and resolves to go confess his love to Anna. Of course, as we will find out more deeply in Still Dots’ final post on Thursday, this attempt at romance will fail and Holly may indeed be left wondering what brought him on this fool’s errand to Vienna in the first place. Whatever the cause, his forlorn gaze down at the whiskey glass in front of him is telling, and Holly finds alcohol an apt fortification against the pain associated with the realities of life.
After a close-up hiatus, due mostly to the appearance and prominence of the film’s other main character–Harry Lime–Holly now stands face to face with his oldest friend, fearing for his life. Harry has just intimated that he ought to shoot Holly and throw his lifeless body from the top of the Ferris wheel they now occupy. Imagine how rough this moment would have been on the happy-go-lucky Holly who smiled his way through Still Dots #6 above. Now, a threat mostly unthinkable at the outset,does not bring Holly to tears, but leads him to hug tightly to the gondola’s frame, preserving his life over his longest friendship. All of the innocence in Holly’s character has been burned off and he is now the detective he always romantically imagined he was, facing off against a dangerous smuggler and holding his own. One wonders if this too, might be a moment in which Holly might wish he’d never come to this city, and never burned off the gentle kindness that pervaded the scribbler’s silly notions.
Here Holly’s alliances switch–his misplaced and unrequited love for Anna has overcome the nostalgic love he once bore for Harry. This look of determination and the cold hardness in his eyes is the signification of this shift. Holly has just decided to sell out his best friend for the woman they both have loved, whether she likes it or not. Of course, Anna will play no part in this scheme, tearing up the passport she is given, but for Holly the shift in relationships has already occurred. He has made the decision to abandon Harry, and he will not renege on it. We are getting ever closer to a Holly willing to do the unthinkable deed he has just done. Holly isn’t ready yet, but he is closer (he has just uttered “he deserves to hang, you proved your stuff. But twenty years is a long time – don’t ask me to tie the rope.”).
Suffering from his last case of cold feet before the plunge, Holly has just been shown something unseeably awful. Bundled up into himself, nearly disturbing his perfect detective/academic/author costume, Holly is ready to descend, ready to throw Harry under the bus, ready (almost) to shoot him. It will take the killing of Sgt. Paine to truly push him over the edge, but this frame shows distaste more than any before, causing an almost visceral reaction (Holly looks like he might be sick). Whatever he is staring at, off in the dark distance, he is thinking of how Harry must fall.
And all of this brings us to the Holly we see today, a man we will spend little time and less dialogue with. What is made clear–through both his actions and his physical posturing–is that he is not the same man we have seen thus far in the movie. He is harsh, and cold–resentful of a world that has betrayed him and his romantic ideals of friendship, justice, goodness and (perhaps most of all) God. Holly has experienced his own Nietzschean awakening, but while for Nietzsche “Gott ist Todt” is an expression of freedom as well as collapse, Holly sees only collapse in the godless plane he occupies. I only wish we could see what happens next in the life of Holly Martens, whether he turns back (now jaded and existentialist) to writing westerns, whether he stays here in Vienna, friendless and alone with Calloway as his only companion, or whether he sets off for some other greener pastures, hoping for something that could let him forget the events that occurred here in Vienna.
Any hints that we might have to what this future holds lie only in today’s close-up. The close-up, as we have discussed, initiated the world of emotive cinema, the cinema which contained within its series of cuts and edits, a built-in narrator. Certainly there has been much attention paid to the close-up throughout movie history, be it the obsessively chronicled history of Steven Speilberg’s particular adaptation (video above), the countless close-ups that have dug their way into our collective cinematic memories, or even the close-up’s particularly notable position in the glory of Hollywood, displayed below in Sunset Boulevard‘s famous last scene. If, as Marlon Brando said, “In a close-up, the audience is only inches away, and your face becomes the stage,” then this still marks our last entrance into the historic Holly Martens theater. Though, despite the undisputed power of this shot, the shot that comes next is probably the most notable of the film, offering incredible emotional depth from an extreme long perspective.
Analysis of The Third Man’s final shot will have to wait, until Matt’s final post this Thursday, but now, with Holly attending Harry’s funeral for the second time, I cannot help but be reminded of the words of Karl Marx, who said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
This quote has cropped up countless times, most recently in a scene in Ben Affleck’s Argo, between John Goodman and Alan Arkin. But as Harry watches a coffin containing the body of Harry sink into the ground, for a second time, it seems to have played with this formula. If this funeral, which bookends The Third Man, is an example of history repeating itself in this way, then which is the farce? Certainly Harry’s death is tragic, so it would appear to be the first (fake) funeral which is our farce, with this second repetition as tragedy. But, remember, our first funeral contained within it, the body of a hospital orderly, the unlucky Joseph Harbin. Harbin may have been colluding with our gang of thuggish racketeers (Kurtz, Popescu, Winkel, and Harry) but it is hard to see his death as more deserved than Harry’s, particularly considering that he was likely murdered–like our poor porter–in cold blood. So maybe Harry’s real funeral, despite his charms, is the farce; perhaps, in a sense of ultimate irony Harry is being buried in the same grave he had dug to fake his own death. While the moment feels tragic, it is certainly ironic too. A man who cheated death has eventually led himself to it, and the extenuating circumstances that led him here make up the farce.
In the end, much has changed, and little has changed. Holly will continue to act as a moral being–if a broken one–Anna’s compassion will continue to be her guiding light. Calloway will keep fighting corruption in Vienna, even without his trusty companion. Vienna itself has not been cured, by any means. While one racketeer has indeed fallen, and his team of cronies arrested, another will rise to take his place. What has really changed, most of all, is that a little bit of charm and a little bit of evil have left the world, along with his trusty porter and the nice-guy cop who hunted him. Like this five-minute ending montage from legendary HBO series The Wire, the film’s real main character–the city–keeps moving as it has been. People have fallen on both sides of the eternal war between cops and robbers, but new figures on both sides will take their places. Vienna (and Baltimore) live on as it has and all that we have left is a tired man whose eyes bear the weight of all he’s seen. So we bid farewell to Holly to Harry, to Anna and Calloway, but know that the film’s true hero, and most complex character–Vienna–lives on to this day.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
After a long subterranean sewer chase , and many escape attempts by Harry, foiled by the team of nameless police officers who haunt every exit and underground nook and cranny, Harry’s fingers are finally tasting the cool, clean air of freedom. In the tunnels below, Sergeant Paine lies dead or dying, fatally shot by Harry’s […]
After a long subterranean sewer chase , and many escape attempts by Harry, foiled by the team of nameless police officers who haunt every exit and underground nook and cranny, Harry’s fingers are finally tasting the cool, clean air of freedom. In the tunnels below, Sergeant Paine lies dead or dying, fatally shot by Harry’s gun. Harry too has been shot, by major Calloway whose bullet comes almost reflexively as a response to Harry’s own. Down below, Calloway cradles Paine’s limpening form, loosening his military cravat and generally making his passing more comfortable, while Harry drags his weakened body up a spiral staircase to freedom. Meanwhile, behind him, Holly loosens Paine’s grip on his revolver and takes it, heading out on his own. Holly is unnoticed by Major Calloway, whose attention is focused closely on his dying friend. Matt wrote last week about how “intimate male-male relationships have had a central place in action movies and, especially, films noir,” and the doting intimacy that Calloway shows, loosening the tie and unbuttoning the shirt of his dying partner, is indicative of the near-romantic nature of those relationships. Were it not for this emotional closeness, Calloway would certainly notice Holly as he snatches up Paine’s gun and goes to follow his own injured friend. But, due to the intimacy in both of these relationships, both dying men will have a loving (if cruelly so on Holly’s part) witness to their passing.
Our frame today, though, represents Harry’s last push toward life, toward freedom, and away from that self-destructive death drive that has cropped up so often recently. The upward push of these fingers on the grate will barely manage to wiggle the steel barrier until, seemingly exhausted from the effort and the life spilling out of his bullet wound, Harry collapses back into the underworld. This frame will be a close as he can come to freedom. Then, collapsed back onto the stairwell, gun in hand, Harry and Holly will have their last moment of intimacy–a silent stare through the Vienna tunnel. Their guns imply the truth that both seem to know: only one of them can walk out of this tunnel alive. Then, after a stunningly emotional series of wordless closeups accompanied by the off-screen voice of Major Calloway (now aware that Holly has gone and taken Paine’s gun) yelling after him “Martens! Martens! Don’t take any chances. If you see him, shoot,” Harry, with a pair of doe-ish eyes give a little–almost imperceptible–nod. The myriad implications in this gesture are beyond my grasp, but as far as our narrative is concerned, he seems to be both bowing to Holly’s righteousness and giving him permission to dole a final death-blow to the man he has been hunting since this film began. Thus ends the life of Harry Lime, with a bullet from Paine’s revolver, held by his oldest friend.
But what drives Holly to pull the trigger? Certainly there ware many factors to push down that hammer for him. Calloway’s yelling words, the recent fall of Paine, and the implied violence in their exchange pushes him in that direction, with the gun that dangles from Harry’s fingers suggesting that Harry will go down in a blaze of glory if Holly doesn’t put him out of his misery. But still, for such a moral creature as Holly Martens, it seems hard to justify this action due purely to the heat of the moment. Certainly the man is a romantic and apt to get caught up in the narratives he sees around him, but would Holly really murder if he could avoid it? Couldn’t he have just disarmed Harry, rushed him to a hospital, where he could be healed well enough to spend the rest of his years behind bars? Perhaps something in the gaze that the two men exchange, something in the little nod Harry gives him, tells Holly what he must do. Whatever the outcome, Holly has certainly changed. His action is so unimaginably out of character–truly a courageous, if cruel, act and far from the mincing ideals that he walked into our story with–that he must really have gone through a major transition to reach this point.
For Calloway, the willingness to use lethal force on Harry comes at a definitive moment: the shooting of Sergeant Paine. His shot fires off, an echo of Harry’s own, and perhaps for Holly, this is a breaking point as well. Holly might once again feel responsible for this death. Paine was, after all, only running out in the open, an easy target for Harry’s shot, because he was trying to protect Holly. His last words are selfless as he calls out, drawing attention to himself: “Mr. Martens, sir, get back! Get back! Keep back, sir! Hurry, come back, sir!” In these last few sentences, Paine manages to squeak out three sirs, even though he is dealing with the same reckless fool he has dealt with for the whole film. Paine dies, ever the gentleman, and for Holly’s sake.
The last time Holly was (indirectly) responsible for a death–that of Harry’s friendly porter–the intrigue became real for him. He realized that he wasn’t, as Calloway had intimated, some foolish scribbler looking for a story where there was none, and that there really was some nefarious plot going on beneath the surface. Paine’s death, however, seems to hit home with Holly in a new way. The nearly wordless Holly we will see after this death has a hard set jaw and a pessimistic, harsh view on the world. Holly has fully transformed himself from Romantic to Naturalistic and his dour, no-nonsense viewpoint matches that well. Perhaps it is his new-found lease on life that enables him to pull the trigger, one that like John Steinbeck or Jack London, sees the world as a cruel harsh place where only the toughest survive. And lest we forget, this Holly is very different from the pre-Vienna Holly–a ludicrous writer of popular fiction, with Sergeant Paine as his only fan. With Paine dies any connection this old Holly, the man Calloway once called “only a scribbler with too much to drink.” This new post-Paine Holly is harsh, serious, and deadly. It is hard to imagine that this changed man might never write another romantic western. And so, again we face the fact that Holly kills Harry.
We’ve brought this similarity up before, but a scene from John Steinbeck’s grade-school-English classic, Of Mice and Men, bears a striking resemblance to this killing, here represented onscreen by Gary Sinese (who directed and plays the gun-wielding George in this scene):
Like George, Holly kills his best friend, a man he has known since childhood and grown to feel safe with, but a man who he knows can be a menace to others. But while George’s slaying of Lennie is portrayed as a mercy–when compared to what would have happened if he had been found by the lynching party after him for murder–Holly’s shot comes for the sake of justice, not pity. So while Lennie’s death is coded as the tragic killing of a hapless innocent who knew not what he did, Harry’s death is coded as the satisfaction of a lifetime of crimes, even those too unthinkably vile to be portrayed on the screen. So while Holly is indeed forced to (like George) “kill his own dog,” he is not in the same scenario. Holly is not protecting Harry from some greater evil that could befall him, he is just exacting the strong sense of justice he feels. Another interesting moment in Steinbeck’s short novel comes after the shot is fired:
Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. “Never you mind,” said Slim. “A guy got to sometimes.”
But Carlson was standing over George. “How’d you do it?” he asked.
“I just done it,” George said tiredly.
“Did he have my gun?”
“Yeah. He had your gun.”
“An’ you got it away from him and you took it an’ you killed him?”
“Yeah. Tha’s how.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.
Slim twitched George’s elbow. “Come on, George. Me an’ you’ll go in an’ get a drink.”
George let himself be helped to his feet. “Yeah, a drink.”
Slim said, “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.” He led George into the entrance of the trail and up toward the highway.
Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys” (John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, 1937)
While we never get this moment with Holly, we never see his reconciliation with himself as he comes to term with killing his best friend, we can draw from this moment some of what he may be going through in this instant of turmoil. Such a huge event cannot truly be overcome, and perhaps like George, Holly will lie to cover that unthinkable truth. Maybe Holly too, will let the story be told that he wrestled the gun from Harry’s hand and shot him with it, in self defense. But Holly, like George, must always live with the truth: that he shot a man in cold blood.
There is, of course, another option for our analysis. If we understand Harry’s death as a mercy killing of its own then Holly’s act takes on a slightly different timbre. To understand the act this way hinges on our understanding of today’s still, the fingers reaching through the grate, as the true end of Harry’s life. If Harry, collapsing back into the underworld before staring sullenly at Holly and offering him a slight nod, had already resigned himself to his death, then perhaps that nod really was a gesture of permission, and maybe it really was an act of mercy. Harry certainly would be miserable in a cell for the rest of his days, and maybe something in his subtle nod tells Holly–in a secret code developed through a shared boyhood–that it’s okay to send him on to the next world. If that is the case, then this act is more reminiscent of a different literary figure, one from the 2000’s, not the 1930’s. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows it becomes clear that a similar permission-based murder occurred. Here is the scene from the 2011 film adaptation:
If this were the case, then we would see Harry’s nod as the same merciful message as Dumbledore’s, “You must be the one to kill me, Severus. It is the only way.” Seen in this light, the weight of the killing must still hang heavy on Holly’s mind, but at least he might sleep easy knowing that it was not his choice, and that Harry’s significant surrender and subservient nod granted that same permission.
I realize now, nearly 2000 words into this post, that I have neglected to talk about today’s frame from any angle than that of the story. The only important thing I have to note, beyond the gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting of this dark Viennese street, is to look at the fingers themselves. Relatively innocuous, these fingers are long stately ones, cuticles clean and well tended, with no dirt under the nails. Hardly the fingers of Harry Lime, a man who has been scrabbling through the sewers in secret since his supposed death, nor of Orson Welles, who himself spent the weeks of shooting gallivanting around Europe. That is, of course, because they are not Harry’s or even Welles’ fingers, but instead the fingers of the film’s director, Carol Reed. As Matt pointed out a few weeks ago, Welles told the director “Carol, I can’t work in a sewer, I come from California.” And so, for this shot from the real Vienna sewers, Reed acted as Welles’ finger double. But there is a second level of elegance to these fingers’ placement in the film. It was, remember, Carol Reed’s voice that introduced our story, our setting, and our dastardly Harry Lime way back and the beginning of this tale. I find it a little poetic that it should be his hands, then, that offer us the last gesture of Harry’s life, since with his death, so dies the film. And, of course, so dies our project with it. Matt will post the final Still Dots #102 on November 30th. Thanks for reading.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
Here he is, finally standing before us as an honest-to-God human being. Harry Lime is no longer a glossy, larger-than-life übermensch staring down upon his domains, but now a human body, wet and cold in Vienna’s sewers, terrified and running for his life. Harry’s rehumanization is, of course, a combination of carefully crafted stylistic and […]
Here he is, finally standing before us as an honest-to-God human being. Harry Lime is no longer a glossy, larger-than-life übermensch staring down upon his domains, but now a human body, wet and cold in Vienna’s sewers, terrified and running for his life. Harry’s rehumanization is, of course, a combination of carefully crafted stylistic and narrative factors.
From the first, his transference (to borrow a word from psychoanalysis) would not be possible if his entrance into our story hadn’t been so grandiose. The first two thirds of the film swing by without his presence, except as the mythic glue that ties together each of our other characters. This treatment would do much to boost any ego, but when Harry Lime enters the narrative, alive and smirking, the mythic pedestal he stands on has been raised sky high. And when you consider the shot that introduces him, in which his face seems to glow its way off the screen. This would have been only more striking in 1949, since most films were printed on nitrate film base, a substance whose beautiful image was only surpassed by its dangerous flammability. With a nitrate print and a silver screen, though, the moving images were said to glow with a luminescence since unmatched, spawning the term “movie star” for the way actors and actresses lit the theater in close up. Imagine how striking this appearance would be if Welles’ face seemed to be glittering its way out of the darkness of the night sky.
But beyond the power behind that radiant shot, the narrative buildup of 66 minutes of screen time, and even Welles’ larger than life persona (he could never really play an ordinary fellow) it is his character that above all separates him from we mere mortals. His deadly blend of coy charm and callous selfishness make him so beyond our comprehension we can’t help but fall in awe. He is a cruel Machiavellian but a people person nonetheless, and we can’t help but love him even while we fear and hate him, putting us in a position much like Holly’s own. In a way, Harry walks into this film as much more than human, closer to a super-villain or master-mind, but one so cloaked in charm and moxie as to be unrecognizable. Take for instance, this description of Batman’s eternal foe in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth.
Much like this image of the Joker, Harry seems almost more human than human, functioning at a level of “super-sanity” well beyond the realms of normalcy. Harry has moved beyond the level of cognitive dissonance we practice in our every day lives, in order to subscribe to the limitations of society, and graduated into an amoral universe of selfishness and guile. He is a sociopath, as he saunters into this film, but now, chased into the sewers by our heroically moral protagonist, he has sunk to the level of a human, one of the dots he so famously talked about from on high.
The moment of this transformation, as we have noted before, may come not on his end, but on Holly’s. It may come the moment that Holly sees those children, the unseeable children who convince him that he must help to bring in his oldest friend. And maybe that really proves that this film is Holly’s story, not Harry’s as is so often seen. It is in the moment that Holly’s perspective changes that Harry falls from on high, becoming a flesh-and-blood man rather than a haunting shadow. Then, when Harry steps like a particularly clever fly into Harry’s (and Calloway’s and Paine’s) elaborate web, it is as a man and not a god.
And now, as he flees through the sewers, embarrassingly human in his wet shivers, loud footsteps, and even the moist air escaping his mouth in the cold night air, Harry is suddenly vulnerable in a way he has never been. When this film began, he was dead, then he was undead—a spectre or a vampire—but now he is alive and like all living things, he hovers on the brink of his own end. Here, looking off for pursuers in this dark tunnel, Harry seems to be thinking that this might be the last place he will ever see. The comparisons to the hell he once believed in, at least during his catholic school upbringing, seem obvious.
But beyond the metaphysical, his physical comes to the fore. The misty air that visually signifies his breath, the flat lighting that makes his face seem realist and wrinkled, not flawless and shiny, and the fast wordless cutting all combine to make us see a cold, wet man running for his life. Whatever our perspective on Harry’s evil deeds, he is pitiable in this moment as his eyes see the last door closing on his chance of escape. With dogs and guards at all the exits, and teams with lights circling him and getting closer, the expression on his face can only be one of doom.
Freud, who is almost present in this unconscious level of Vienna’s infrastructure, would see the conflict in Harry’s eyes as a conflict between two of his internal drives, which he referred to by various terms. Eros and Thanatos, the libido and destructive tendencies, or simplest of all, the drive to life and the drive to death. Named for the Greek personification of death, Thanatos (whose twin brother Hypnos is sleep and dream personified) became for Freud a part of the essential human condition, or indeed the condition of all life. From Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
It must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by circuitous paths along which its development leads. If we are able to take it as a truth that knows no exceptions that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before animate ones’ (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Norton, 1961, pages 45-6).
And so, as Harry faces his own impending doom, be it death or capture, he is facing up to the satisfaction of a drive that has plagued his actions his entire life—a drive to return to the dead matter from whence he came. Of course it is this same drive toward self destruction/death that likely lead Harry in his foolhardy decision to even show up to meet Holly in the cafe which was almost certainly a trap. Whatever his motivation, Harry now stands surrounded in a dark tunnel with few options left to him, drawing in some of the cold breaths that could be his last.
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 6324. For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.
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 […]
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:
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.
And now we find ourselves in The Third Man‘s last significant setting, the surreal subterranean space of Vienna’s ancient and magnificent sewer system. While nearly all of this movie has been shot on location in the city of Vienna, and a good deal of these sewer scenes were shot in Vienna’s real sewers, it also […]
And now we find ourselves in The Third Man‘s last significant setting, the surreal subterranean space of Vienna’s ancient and magnificent sewer system. While nearly all of this movie has been shot on location in the city of Vienna, and a good deal of these sewer scenes were shot in Vienna’s real sewers, it also presents a strikingly different space than any we have seen before. Even in Vienna’s avenues and boulevards (except for the notable shot that will end this film) we have not been thrust into the realm of deep space as we are in these sewers. The back of this frame seems to stretch on into the wild blue yonder, or as Paine explained earlier, “right into the Blue Danube.” One can almost see the mouth of that river yawning out of the back of today’s frame, ready to swallow Harry Lime and his pursuers into its immensity. If we accept Matt’s assumption from last week, that “Holly and the British military’s descent into the sewers entails a penetration into the unconscious itself” then the invisible connection to the Danube that almost certainly lies in this frames shadowy distance could be seen as a connection between Vienna’s unconscious and the collective unconscious of Eastern Europe. The Danube is the most prominent river in this part of Europe, running through ten countries and four capital cities (more than any other river in the world) and penetrating the heart of eastern Europe before eventually flowing out into the Black Sea. The Danube’s influence on cinema itself is also notable. Take for instance, this scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey set to the dulcet tones of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz:
And if our setting indeed succeeds in offering us a ladder down into eastern Europe’s collective unconscious, then our shot’s principal characters offer us insight into Britain’s mind. A recurring image throughout British literature and film, we see the officer and his assistant, a bond which can never be broken. Think of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Inspector Clouseau and Cato, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, or perhaps more notable even, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. Tolkien was known to have patterned their powerful bond on that of the military officer and his batman (no, not the superhero but a uniquely British position–sort of a wartime butler), and though Paine is a Sergeant and not a lowly batman, he is still filling this role for Calloway. While in many ways, The Third Man, like many of the films of Orson Welles’ own, is a tale of masculine betrayal, Calloway and Paine’s is a different story. These two men, no doubt, learned to rely on each other during wartime, and now as they operate as military policemen, their war-forged bond is all the stronger. Whether they are journeying into the sewers to catch a notorious racketeer or into the fiery heart of Mount Doom, these two figures are essential to the British collective memory.
The wartime moment is particularly salient, since our two British military officials are currently under fire. They have chased Harry down this flowing hall and seemingly have him cornered, when a couple of shots ring out in the darkness. Calloway’s look of consternation and the sense of lateral motion come as he lunges toward the cover and safety of the wall. All but holed up in opposing trenches, Harry and his captors are involved in a standoff here in the dark tunnel, and while his pursuers certainly have the advantage of numbers, he has a couple of advantages of his own. He is a sewer dweller, and in his home turf, he can turn corners and climb ladders knowing exactly where they lead. He is also unencumbered by the moral sensibilities that plague Holly and fortify Calloway, and these gunshots (the first we hear fired in the film) are a testament to his own moral turpitude.
But today’s frame brings us into another subterranean realm, a literal realm of sewers and pipes that live under the city. Most urban cities contain some kind of elaborate underground system, be it the Parisian catacombs, the New York subways, or Montreal’s RÉSO, these systems operate as a circulatory system, moving different aspects of the city around beneath the surface. Our subdermal adventure leads us into a complex sewer system, which must serve some essential functions for the city of Vienna, but it is clearly not designed for its ease of traversing, nor is it lit in ways that preclude all hiding spots. The only reason people are supposed to come down to these depths is to maintain the sewers, so the skinny catwalks and slippery walkways are not designed to be occupied by more than a couple of men, and the dozens of policemen at Calloway’s beck and call are quickly filling these spaces. However, each shadowy inlet (like the two visible behind Paine’s head) offer Harry dark hiding spaces from pursuers. In a sense, these veins and arteries of the city are a perfect place for a virus like Harry to hide; they offer him maximum fluidity with the hundreds of grates, manhole covers, and other entrances across the city. But, as the police close in on him on all sides, he must feel a little viral, like a floating entity surrounded by the city’s own immune system.
The audio that accompanies today’s frame, and indeed this whole upcoming sequence, is also relatively remarkable. For the next four and a half minutes of screen time, the minimal dialogue will come through in unintelligible shouts and whistles. The clanging zither strings that have filled most of this film have also dropped out. Most of the soundtrack will be occupied by the sounds of running footsteps and stomps, and the ever-present sound of running, rushing water. In this sequence, aurally at least, we are submerged in the water of the sewers, our ears barely high enough to pick up the faintest shouts echoed by the sewer’s cavernous walls. We have spoken of Nietzsche frequently in our analysis, but he would have been in hell in this underground maze, because–if psychoanalyst and feminist theorist Luce Irigaray is right–water is his greatest fear. In her book Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche she writes a dialogue between two characters: one is Nietzsche and the other is water itself, which he loves and hates and which he is currently submerged in. From that book:
“Out of the sea the superman is reborn, but still he fears to sink under her waters even as he aspires to their vastness. Hermit, tight-rope walker or bird, he always keeps away from her great depths.
Between sea and sun, he lives on the earth. And whether those two attract or repel each other in the same element, he still remains between. Life is given him in the (female) one, but he also received it from the other. Cross between plant and ghost. And he can be neither born nor reborn without water, can neither live nor live on without fire and light. But the source of his beginning is always overturned. Because he is walking toward his end. Dwelling in the element necessary to him–the air.”
And like Irigaray’s supposed Nietzsche, our masculine heroes and villains all find themselves in this world between water and sun, living on Earth’s surface and barely clinging to the air which sustains them. Throughout this sequence (where we will live for the next few posts) Harry’s loud breathing as he runs through the tunnels becomes more and more belabored. Could it be that this creature of sun and air, this Nietzschean nihilist, operating purely from his own self interest, also fears the water he has chosen as a refuge? Could he–like the Nietzsche put forward by Irigaray–fear the water and the feminine for the same reason, that he cannot understand it to exploit it?
Whatever Harry’s reasoning, we now occupy a subterranean realm like the one put forward by Bob Dylan’s seminal Subterranean Homesick Blues. An alternate underworld, operating silently and in relation to the simultaneous overworld, but alien to most visitors, and the den of racketeers and criminals. This is a setting repeated so many times (think of Bane’s sewer-based gang in The Dark Knight Rises, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ own lair, the Mines of Moria, or the Morlock’s underground city in The Time Machine, to name a few) it must tap into some archetypal storyline. Whatever the initial source, they certainly seem as if they could be linked to one of the most famous underground rivers, the river Styx. Styx, one of the many rivers of Greek myths’ underworld, was the river one must cross in order to reach the afterlife. The expression “a coin for the ferryman” comes from this river, since those newly dead could pay Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, with a coin they were buried with. The Styx is also the river, where the baby Achilles was dipped, making him invulnerable everywhere except his famous heel, where he was held during his dip. But importantly, this underground waterway was the border between life and death, and that essential human fear carries with it an importance that lodged this image in our collective brains, like a morsel stuck between teeth, forcing us to repeat it over and over. As our underground crusaders here chase Harry through the tunnels beneath Vienna, guns in hand, bullets whizzing by, it is only fitting to see them sitting there, on the border between life and death themselves, and from their behavior–everyone but Holly at least–they certainly know it.
This week’s Still Dots will end on a high point (literally) with a scene in a similar setting, from The Fugitive (1993).
Today’s still presents us with one of a surprising perspective. Looking out over the semi-deserted street, bombed out buildings and—as Matt discussed in detail last week—the Cafe Marc Aurel, where Holly lies waiting at the center of a spider’s web, we are looking out from Harry’s point of view. The previous shot situated Harry reaching […]
Today’s still presents us with one of a surprising perspective. Looking out over the semi-deserted street, bombed out buildings and—as Matt discussed in detail last week—the Cafe Marc Aurel, where Holly lies waiting at the center of a spider’s web, we are looking out from Harry’s point of view. The previous shot situated Harry reaching the top of a mound of crumbled marble, right behind this slightly ironic figure of blind justice in the rubble. Curiously enough, or perhaps out of general dimensional ignorance, Calloway’s team of policemen, sent in to “trap” Harry have completely neglected the mountains of rubble surrounding their locale. In typical police fashion (at least from an understanding set forward by Hollywood heist movies) the cops have imagined roads as the only way to approach this spot, and Harry is too smart for their game. Harry traverses Vienna, it seems, mainly through abandoned ruins and complex sewer tunnels avoiding the roads completely, and his chosen mode brings him to this beautiful vantage point.
This frame is a part of one of the most beautiful shots of this entire film. After a quick medium close-up of Harry in his full cigar-smoking lotharian glory, he looks off camera right and we cut into this POV shot. A slow, pan starts at the fountain, where Calloway and Payne are currently hiding, along with their single balloon. It continues across a swath of wartime destruction—literally, city blocks of nothing but flattened buildings—and passes to today’s moment, skirting the object of this gaze, the Cafe Marc Aurel, where Holly waits for Harry. The shot continues from this point, lingering a moment and then starting a slow track forward, above the railing and into space toward the cafe. The POV shot certainly emphasizes the psychological implications of the camera’s movement. The pan seems self-evidently to connote a turning of the head, the zoom or the focus-pull a change of interest—a literal telephotification of the ocular lobe—but the track, especially one as seamless as this, brings a sense of actual movement. This is not a hand-held shot, though, so the movement through space seems infinitely graceful, almost ghostlike as the camera glides toward its destination. Harry will next appear to us coming in the back door of the cafe, seeming to have crossed the police-guarded street by some invisible mode. Perhaps he truly is one of the phantoms occupying this city of ghosts, and this track is the beginning of his gentle departure from gravity’s bounds.
This track, though brief, carries an elegance borne in many of the longer tracking shots in the history of cinema. Whether Max Ophuls’ dance-like movements, or highly formalist tracking like the above shot from Godard and Gorin’s Tout Va Bien, the track has always been the sign of mastery of the cinematic project. Orson Welles himself had a strong penchant for big, obvious tracking shots. Take for instance, this famous shot from Citizen Kane. The sign, which the camera passes through, was built in two pieces that crews pulled apart as soon as the camera was out of view. (The only version I could find on YouTube included an altered soundtrack)
But back to our frame today, one can almost see the shape of the out-of-focus figure conspicuously drinking coffee in the window, gesticulating wildly. In the time since our last post, Anna has walked right in, through the police barricade, and come to try to talk Holly out of narc-ing on his friend and her lover. Spitting with venom, Anna has found out about this sting from Kurtz and the gang, all of whom have been arrested this morning. In one of her most mean spirited attacks, Anna let’s out something we’ve all been thinking: “Honest, sensible, sober, harmless Holly Martins . . . Holly, what a silly name . . .” Then, while Anna is haranguing Holly on how Harry will never be fool enough to come into a police trap, Harry walks in the back door.
In a moment of character reversal, Holly is suddenly the cruel bad friend while Harry is the naive fool. Holly, going back on his earlier devotion to his old friend, has set up a huge sting operation to help catch him. Meanwhile Harry, even with the knowledge that all of his co-conspirators had been arrested, decided to come and meet Holly in this suspiciously trappable zone. Whether blinded by his friendship to the dangers that he might encounter, or simply willing to risk those dangers for the sake of the friendship, Harry shows in this moment a selflessness that has been absent from his character all along. And meanwhile, honest, sensible, sober and harmless, Holly has set a trap that will ruin Harry’s chances at freedom. Anna’s statements, at how Harry would never be fool enough to make this meeting, only go to intensify the extreme guilt that Holly must be feeling.
Our frame today also contains within it a glimpse of one of this film’s unseen characters, that of World War II. With half of the frame consumed by a leveled building, it seems impossible to avoid the presence of that war within the film. Harry’s entire character, the black-market profiteer, is a parasitic reaction to the war itself, and the constant and looming presence of the cold war is cemented by the repressed aggression between the British forces (Calloway and Paine) and their Russian equivalent (Brodsky). There are many ways in which this omnipresence can be a sign of the times, especially since this film came from England, a country whose fascination with the subject of World War II has yet to wane, but it can also be read as a deliberate choice. In a sense, all of the plot elements, the actors, the story, the zither-score, could be seen as window dressing for a larger project: to show the horrors of the second world war. It’s reception would certainly go to forward that hypothesis, with Guardian critic Robert Cook writing of The Third Man: “In Britain it’s a thriller about friendship and betrayal. In Vienna it’s a tragedy about Austria’s troubled relationship with its past.”
In this way, The Third Man, shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, it’s intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets. While certainly different, Peter Watkins’ 1965 film The War Game shares many of these characteristics. The War Game was produced for television and (though never screened in Britain due to its graphic and terrifying images) imitates the conventions of documentary to create an image of England after a nuclear attack. Like this understanding of The Third Man, The War Game puts forward a strong anti-war message and leaves an understanding of the horrors of war, particularly those wars waged in cities and impacting thousands. Both films, The War Game and The Third Man carry within them a terror of living in a world in which such things are possible, particularly after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.