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A Year in Close-Up: Still Dots and the Blue Velvet Project

By Matt Levine & Jeremy Meckler

November 29 was a momentous day: After one year and 102 blog posts containing a collective 125,000 words, our Still Dots project was complete. Since December 13, 2011, we’d been pulling one frame from every 62 seconds of screen time in Carol Reed’s remarkable film The Third Man and, twice per week, writing an in-depth analysis of it. Reed’s 1949 classic—part of the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Collection—throws Holly Martens, a naive romantic (and western novelist to boot), into the harsh realities of postwar Vienna to visit his oldest friend Harry Lime, a streetwise con man who is dead and being buried as Holly arrives. Much like Citizen Kane (1941), from which it borrows two of its leading actors, the film centers on the way male friendship and betrayal interact with the realities of war and greed. Though we certainly did not intend it, The Third Man seems an extraordinarily apt film for the two of us to write together.

Our analyses related to specific frames, either discussing the narrative or characters at that particular point in the film’s chronology, dissecting the mysterious visual factors that conspire to create The Third Man’s shadowy environs, or taking wild flights of fancy based on the particularities of that frozen moment. Through our project we tied in serious thinkers and authors (from Freud to Marx, Sontag to Dostoyevsky, Einstein to Eisenstein), various films (anything from The War Game to Star Wars), and other aspects of contemporary culture (superhero comics, Looney Tunes, Mad Men, and The Wire), to name a few.

Still Dots was inspired largely by Roland Barthes, who in his famous 1970 essay “The Third Meaning” considers film stills as separate from both film (since they lack the illusion of movement) and photography (since they are not photographs so much as evidence of that flickering illusion that they constitute). We hoped that a semi-arbitrary time-based constraint might reinject a bit of the magical rhythm so unique to cinema; at the same time, we realized that the images pulled from the film lacked that illusory living movement—they’re “still dots,” in a sense (although our title really came from a key scene in which Harry Lime offers a disturbing logic for his murder and racketeering schemes).

As film theorist Raymond Bellour would put it, “They are pro-texts, as, without being similar, plans and drafts are for a written work, sketches for a picture. … [O]ne can no more quote a film than a musical work or theatrical production.” Here, at the end of our yearlong quest into new form, we come to reflect on its successes and failures, and see what it has taught us in its 102 installments. To delve more deeply into the process of this microanalysis, we talked with Nick Rombes, the author of the similarly structured Blue Velvet Project, on which we largely modeled our own.

Deepening the Mystery of Film

When talking to Rombes, whose project for Filmmaker Magazine pulled a frame from every 47 seconds of David Lynch’s modern classic Blue Velvet (1986), we found many similarities to our experiences. As in our investigation of The Third Man, Rombes discovered myriad secrets hidden within the nooks and crannies of Blue Velvet, yet said that the film’s mysterious core only intensified. “In some strange way,” he said, “I know less about [Blue Velvet] now than I did before.”

The Third Man certainly holds some depths that we have only begun to plumb. The plot’s fundamental connection to the morals built into Holly and Harry’s Catholic-school upbringing seemed to shine out from most dialogic interactions in ways that were invisible when watching the film at full speed, for instance, and the film’s focus on the city of Vienna as its primary character only became apparent in extremely slow motion. Both of our projects allowed us to delve into these similarities in tone and structure, aspects often overlooked in favor of story and production values in the brief and quickly written analyses common to the critical realm. Said Rombes, “I think you go in a different direction than if you are watching it completely slowed down and you watch how carefully and how lovingly the shots are [composed].”

Throughout the process of writing, too, we found the experience transformative to our way of thinking. Early on, many (ourselves included) had doubts that we would find enough to write about for each of the 102 frames we pulled. Our early posts tended to be shorter and tentative but gradually they expanded. Rombes found this in his project as well, admitting that the writing process itself changed drastically from what he initially expected it to be. “When I pitched the project to Scott [Macaulay of Filmmaker Magazine], I said, these are going to be short. I was thinking about 200 words—short and impressionistic.” Like Rombes’ project, ours sprawled over time, with posts frequently nearing 2,000 words, and as it went on, brevity became more and more challenging. The process ultimately altered how we write and think, we agree—as does Rombes: “It’s almost a record of you changing as a writer. It kind of exposes you in a weird way.” And through both projects we were given essentially free rein to write what we pleased, a lack of constraint that certainly added to the sense of exposure as a writer. “I didn’t have to submit it for approval–I knew that it would be raw right on the site,” Rombes recalled. “It created a kind of danger.”

The medium itself—a blog on an established art website—helped both our projects as well. As Rombes told us, “The thing that happens with modern technology is you can just take that idea and go crazy with it.” Another innate quality of modern technology—the ability to include hyperlinks and embedded media in online publications—also enabled both projects’ boundless breadth and near-infinite connective tissue.

What is essential to all three of our experiences is that they were immersive and transformative, both personally and analytically. Still Dots has certainly reprogrammed our minds in a new way, and the Blue Velvet Project is no different. “I find it difficult to sit down and write a long form essay–like a 20,000 word essay on something,” Rombes said. “I almost feel like I would have to do it in fragments now.” But our experiences have also been intensely personal. Rombes put it more succinctly (and courageously) than we could dare to: “It probably sounds a little weird, but I am so grateful for this project that Filmmaker Magazine gave. Literally, it saved my life. So it’s very hard for me to segment out how it’s made me think about film, but it has certainly helped me think about life in a way that’s been very affirming. I have a fondness for the project that’s outside academia and all that kind of stuff.”

While Rombes asserted that Blue Velvet was made more complex and mysterious, rather than less so, by this kind of analysis, we experienced a similar inability to come to some kind of ultimate understanding about The Third Man—and, honestly, we’re happy that we don’t have to chalk that up to some kind of collective tunnel-vision. Yet even this incomplete grappling with a film as multifaceted as Reed’s can only be achieved by such a microanalysis: by paying microscopic attention to individual frames, 62 seconds apart, we may see how many ideas and individuals contribute to the film’s numerous strata. Cinema—because it is so industrial, collaborative, logistically complex, so time-consuming, so indexical of a specific historical setting—incorporates a bewildering complex of tangentially related influences. This is why a microanalysis such as Still Dots or the Blue Velvet Project can “deepen the mystery” of a great film.

While based on Rombes’ project, Still Dots differed in many ways. Most significantly, it was a collaborative effort, with two writers alternating between posts. Having another thinker looking at the same text brought out unexpectedly varied and enriching points of view. This worked in many ways to increase the quality of the project. Many previous posts were used as a springboard for the next, and each of us seemed to be picking up slack in areas the other hadn’t touched on. Something in the process of writing obsessively about this film, while simultaneously reading what a friend wrote about it (with a bit of competitive spirit mixed in), produced a dynamism that pushed each of us further into obsessive depth.

Reflections in the Lens

What is challenging in this project (and indeed in any creative endeavor deemed “done”) is to look back at that work without seeing the faults. Countless directors refuse to see their own movies once they hit theaters; as Orson Welles once put it, “it makes me nervous not to be able to change anything,” and the limitations of our projects necessitate this as well. So looking back on Still Dots is largely a process of self-reflection. The strange real-life time-based nature of this project (as opposed to the implied causal time-based narrative of the traditional narrative film) transforms us into characters, and the project as a chronicling in the dynamic changes we went through in the last year. This not only applies to our writing—looking back at the earliest posts is almost embarrassing, like reading a poem you wrote in a middle school English class—but also to our relationship with the film and the characters that live within it.

For Levine, this meant identifying with Holly Martens and using him as a conduit to explore, within himself, the push-pull relationship between irony and sincerity. His final post, #102, allowed him to explore one of the central ambiguities of The Third Man: namely, whether the filmmakers chastise Holly and give him the unhappy ending he “deserves,” or whether they sympathize with his attempts to deal with a turbulent world and come to grips with his burgeoning realism and cynicism. Holly may be a foolish, blusterous, drunken, self-styled cowboy through much of the film (and is at least indirectly responsible for the death of three people), but his transition from wide-eyed, blissful optimism to a world-weary recognition of the horrors of the world is something that, essentially, we all have to deal with. The assumption that the filmmakers denounce Holly’s foolishness and want to make him unhappy by estranging him from Anna asserts that the filmmakers view the world with distanced irony, unable to sympathize with Holly’s clumsy but sincere attempts to fathom a difficult world. Levine’s year with Holly Martens led him to conclude that sincerity should be valued over irony, that even if we regard the world with cynical realism, we should still embrace love, hope, idealism, and other romanticized fallacies that an ironic postmodernism might deem outdated.

For Meckler, who identified much more strongly with Harry than Holly, this process taught other lessons. Harry Lime’s postmodernist ability to conflate seemingly exclusive ideas (like a belief in, as Harry says, “God and mercy and all that,” along with a conscious complicity in horrific murders) sheds significant light on today’s world. In many senses, Holly Martens represents the old, romantic, idealistic, and altogether premodern masculinity, while Harry represents the post-modern and self-involved nihilism that defines American society from about 1980 to today. And while Harry may be complicit in monstrous deeds, as we all are in abstract ways, his sense of friendship, love, and trust seems to somehow break through the cynical walls his roguish demeanor has thrown up to protect himself. Harry has found a way, however deep in his dark character, to hold onto that hope and love (the stuff that Holly lives on) without being a patsy in a harsh, cruel world.

Delving so deeply into these characters worked well for analyzing the important dialogues that take place between Holly Martens and Harry Lime. In analyzing such scenes, Levine swung a little more for Holly, and Meckler a little more for Harry. In those few instances where we disagreed, we could have a real discussion about the two characters involved. This quality, identifying with a character enough to argue on their behalf, only helped send us yet deeper into the belly of the beast (prompting Meckler to even go so far as drawing a comic book based on a famous scene).

A Call for Innovation in Criticism

By simply extending the amount of time one usually spends with a movie, Still Dots has forced us to ponder the experiential nature of cinema itself. We essentially agreed to spend at least one day each week with characters who normally would pass us by in the space of two hours or less. Charting the emotions and worldviews, the transformations and personalities, of characters such as Holly, Harry, Anna, and Calloway over the space of 12 months acquainted us with them as intimately as they might have been with Carol Reed or Graham Greene (who wrote the screenplay).

Our conceptions of movies—even our favorite movies—typically take the shape of memories, sometimes nostalgic, visceral yet hazy at the same time. Usually when we watch a film, the image passes us by and vanishes immediately. Analyzing films not as moving images but as stills—and furthermore, by extending that analysis to twelve months by semi-arbitrary time constraints—allows us to approach characters as though they were figures from our own lives (albeit with uncommonly intimate access to their thoughts and emotions). This kind of analysis is at once more emotional and more distantly observational, and it may be for this very reason that such a project adds to the mystery of a film rather than lessening it, turning it into an alchemical life somehow ossified into a fossil available for our analysis.

Having explored this film so extensively over the course of a year, neither of us were surprised that Still Dots added to our respect and enjoyment of the film, but we both remain surprised by how fluidly The Third Man toggles between registers of mainstream entertainment and bleak ethical philosophy. We can think of few movies that balance their thrills so deftly with their moral introspection.

Of course such a microcosmic approach is more illuminating with a film as intelligent and multifaceted as The Third Man, but it does seem like a similar project would befit most films, simply because of their eclectic, collaborative, industrial nature. (Imagine how many ideological knots could be untied from something as seemingly innocuous as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to use a particularly over-the-top example. It’s not a notion foreign to Rombes, who says he toyed with using this form of analysis on “a film that wasn’t really an art film, like, say, Starship Troopers .”) And if something like this could make individual films more fascinating, it could serve a similarly invigorating purpose for film criticism in general. The preponderance of writing on cinema enabled by digital publication, which allows any film enthusiast, regardless of experience or historical comprehension, to fashion themselves into a published critic, has not necessarily changed the essence of criticism itself: most reviews are still primarily indebted to narrative and character, offering a synopsis and perhaps a checklist (with varying degrees of insight) as to acting ability, aesthetic creativity, or narrative believability. If nothing else, we hope Still Dots has made it clear that films, and film criticism, are so much more than this: sociohistorical context, philosophical rumination, deconstruction of sight and sound itself—cinema, and analysis of cinema, are invigorating precisely because they are practically all-encompassing, almost limitless in scope. In other words, film criticism is “about” anything that films are about, and although the majority of critics would still assert that movies are essentially narrative- and character-oriented, this tunnel-vision viewpoint has been hampering writing about film practically since its inception. With such a pervasive scope, a micro-analysis such as Still Dots or the Blue Velvet Project may in fact be the panacea that film criticism calls for: a new way of looking at the cinematic world.

But Still Dots and the Blue Velvet Project, which follow a nearly identical structure, are not the only way to change the world of film criticism. Our new method was, in itself, nothing but a set of rules and arbitrary constraints; it is in their departure from normalcy that new ideas and experiences have grown. Certainly everyone, and even every film critic, does not have the time to write a film review lasting a full year, but that does not mean that the only alternative is the same three-paragraph blurb that appears in newspapers worldwide. We call for innovation in criticism to match innovation in the most rapidly changing medium. If we want interesting ideas and engaging, intelligent discussion of this art form, we cannot relegate it to the three-column-inch, star-gauged tedium where it has lived for so long simply because thinking of an alternative might be risky.

If we want new ways of seeing, we must achieve them through new ways of thinking—especially if we assert, as we do, that film criticism is an art form like cinema itself, which can only break new ground and lead to new discoveries if it takes the tedious, outdated mold as it currently exists, and eviscerates it from within. If we want new ways of seeing, we will have to achieve them through new ways of thinking about film, and new ways of writing.

“Cinema—because it is so industrial, collaborative, logistically complex, so time-consuming, so indexical of a specific historical setting—incorporates a bewildering complex of tangentially related influences. This is why microanalysis can ‘deepen the mystery’ of a great film.”

“If we want interesting ideas and engaging, intelligent discussion of this art form, we cannot relegate it to the three-column-inch, star-gauged tedium where it has lived for so long.”

Second #3,968 of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949)

© Studio Canal

Still from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), and the subject of Nicholas Rombes’ second post for the Blue Velvet Project

Second #2,294 of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949)

Image © Studio Canal

Second #5,332 of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949)

Image © Studio Canal

Second #6,252 of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), and Still Dots’ concluding frame

Image © Studio Canal

Second #4,526 of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949)

Image © Studio Canal

Second #3,658 of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).

Image © Studio Canal

Second #6,128 from Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949)

Image © Studio Canal