Thursday, June 2, 2016

On The Third Man, The Book of Blam, and My Dissertation

The Third Man, which was released in 1949, is a movie about the Holocaust before it had a name. The villain Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, is a mass murderer of children. Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, a writer of pulp fiction, is drawn to him as would almost anybody be. Lime never sees his victims. He's made his money selling watered-down penicillin which has killed more people than he will ever meet. He could be the German administrator looking at the Jewish passengers on trains to Auschwitz as numbers on a page. To put in terms of late capitalist society, he could be the guy who doesn't think all that deeply about the terrible factory conditions the kid in the Philippines endures in order for the company to maintain a decent profit margin. I'll let Lime speak for himself. The scene takes place at the top of the Ferris Wheel in Vienna. 
"Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?

"Lime: You know I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be so melodramatic. Look down there. [Here, the camera captures the dilapidated fairgrounds beneath them from a long aerial shot.] Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays." 

So where do your sympathies lie? Well, if you read these lines on the page, you hate Lime, the kind of monster that we wish was unique to Europe in World War II. He tells ghastly jokes about killing small children. But if you watch the film, you are torn. There is Lime, charismatic and funny and like Welles himself, gargantuan in his appetites and always happy to play the raconteur. Like the best performers, you never know what he is going to do next. He feels the polls in the Ferris wheel and is always studying his surroundings in Vienna -- "bombed about a bit" as the opening narration described -- with the curiosity of a child-man. And then there are the dots on the ground, the children you never see, who speak a language you will never learn. 

The mind plays tricks, and I thought about Lime's words recently when I read The Book of Blam, a Yugoslav novel from the 1970s written by Aleksandar Tišma. The book has recently been republished by the New York Review Books. Blam is an inhabitant of Novi Sad, an Austro-Hungarian town about two hours north of Belgrade in Yugoslavia, a town which saw a massacre of Serbs and Jews during World War II. He walks the streets of a town made up of ghosts. The opening of the novel finds Blam sitting in his apartment looking outside the window, studying a couple of characters who remind him of a distant past. He walks downstairs out onto the street, where he senses an optical experience common to the twentieth-century city dweller:

"People look different when you are on a level with them. The proportions of their bodies change. The relation of one part to another. Formerly conspicuous curves – foreheads, noses, breasts, shoulders – flatten out, and limbs scarcely visible from above jut in all directions. New conditions of light, new reflections affect hair color, eye color, skin color. Clothes seem to hang differently, the new angle accentuating certain wrinkles and shadows while attenuating others." 

Tišma's protagonist has the eye of a cinematographer. Blam understands how the position of the observer and the power of lighting can define and redefine a human subject’s appearance and the role this human subject plays in urban society. There is no ur-image of a particular human body and the cinematographer’s attempts to capture the ur-image, as he battles new lighting conditions, searches for the right lens, and changes his own position, are futile. 

And yet he is a very different cinematographer than Robert Krasker, who shot The Third Man. If Krasker could see the bodies of the Viennese, grotesque, strange, but still unique and human from up close, and the odd shapes only from afar, Blam sees characters who can seem grotesque and strange, but which can dissolve into odd dehumanized shapes even from up close. It's not clear who he can connect with in the new brutalized world.

Maybe Blam is not a cinematographer, but an animator. Blam understands the human body as a collection of shapes and colors which morph and transform. He does not adopt the full animation of Disney, but the limited animation of UPA and of the Zagreb School, in which the animator’s brush reduces bodies to their absolute essentials, and slight changes in lines can transform the entire meaning of a particular human body, and in which organic, breathing, blood-filled entities merge with buildings, stones, inanimate objects.

I have not been as productive on my dissertation as I would like. I've been too busy reading, writing grants, teaching, begging for more funding. I plan to start providing snippets of my dissertation on this blog, translated from academic-ese into a language hopefully my friends who don't live within the narrow confines of Cinema Studies can understand. I will also be writing notes on this blog which I will later translate back into academic-ese. I need to do something that will keep me productive and allow me to maintain my sanity. 

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