Still Dots #54
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Still Dots #54

Second #3286, 54:46, Image © Studio Canal

Holly Martins is a blur: having been met at the British Cultural Centre by two of Popescu’s murderous goons, Holly hightails it through an exit door and up a rickety spiral staircase. On Tuesday, Jeremy illustrated this pursuit by employing stills from other films throughout cinematic history; today, we have a still from this actual chase scene that seems to represent nothing at all. Sure, we can make out the ghostly blur of his right hand and the upturned brim of his hat, but mostly this image is comprised of line, shape, light, shadow, grays and whites and blacks. Most of the stills in this project, even if they don’t necessarily spell out the storyline in one frozen image, at least offer representational forms for us to analyze: people, settings, objects, things we can relate to The Third Man‘s story at large. Still Dots #54, however, seems to emphasize the non-representational register of the cinematic image, its existence as a purely formal assortment of chemical-suffused film grain with a physical ray of light shining through it. (Yes, I choose to overlook the fact that we’re looking at The Third Man via DVD, not via film projector; but let’s avoid that whole can of worms for now and pretend we’re members of The Third Man‘s inaugural 1949 audience, viewing it in its original and ideal habitat.)

The Third Man clearly belongs under the immense umbrella of narrative filmmaking: despite its numerous complex undercurrents, its primary focus (at least on the surface) is to relate its story, viscerally, clearly, from beginning to end. Yet even the most straightforward narrative film is, obviously, a formal entity at the same time: a mediated text comprised of light, grain, shadow, color, whose aesthetic properties can be (but usually aren’t) viewed on an entirely different plane than the narrative. The conceptual aim of experimental works such as Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine is to slow down or distort original footage from narrative, representational films until it transforms into pure abstraction, revealing the formal endoskeleton that lies within all cinematic stories.

Similarly, when looking at Still Dots #54, the narrative context of this image—the fact that Holly, pursued by two assassins, is slipping through a side door for sheer survival—concerns me less than its abstract, formal arrangement. The bold black lines cutting diagonally through the frame, most at the same angle. The beautiful, strong blacks and whites in the windowpane that sections off the right side of the screen. The shadows and gentle shades of gray. I can imagine an abstract film that, like Tscherkassky’s, could pulverize this very image, perhaps extending a few frames of footage into minutes of screen time, brushing aside the narrative and taking a magnifying glass to the mediating structures that lie underneath. It would be The Third Man as experimental animation; like the films of mid-20th century avant-garde innovators Len Lye and Norman McLaren, the representation of objects, people, and places would explode into pure line, shape, color, and movement.

These movies suggest a sort of abstract chase scene in which dots and shapes (rather than people and vehicles) pursue each other frenetically. Intense, rapid movement is integral to Lye’s and McLaren’s films as well as to the whole action-movie trope of the chase scene in general; at their most extreme, they turn characters and story events into mere speed and movement. Action movies are typically seen as the antithesis to avant-garde abstraction, but they do come closer to the “cinema of attractions” kinetics that were championed by so many Surrealists and film theorists in the silent age (such as Robert Desnos and Sergei Eisenstein). They may not be experimental in intent, but chase scenes like these allow us to ignore the plot temporarily and enjoy cinema for its non-representational, purely abstract qualities.

Silent-comedy chase scenes, such as this one from Buster Keaton's "Sherlock Jr." (1924; Image © Kino Video), allowed audiences to temporarily ignore plot and revel in movies' purely visual qualities, not unlike later avant-garde films.

But there is still a story working itself out in The Third Man: Holly races to the top of the stairs, ducks out a window after being attacked by a cockatoo, slides down some rubble, and eludes his two pursuers by hiding in a gutted, seemingly bombed-out car. He realizes that his own story is becoming more perilous, implying darker consequences, and is no longer merely the cowboy adventure he had begun to enjoy. In the next scene, Holly will turn to the organization that he has regarded with the most disdain and antagonism since his arrival in Vienna: the police.

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.

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