by Juleana Enright
Earlier this year, Matt Levine and Jeremy Meckler – Film & Video staff members of the Walker Art Center – undertook a project determined to challenge the commonplace narrative/stylistic analysis of film and create a visual deconstruction of aesthetic proportions. Their project? “Still Dots.” Modeled after the “Blue Velvet Project” from Nicholas Rombes of the Filmmaker Magazine blog, the ongoing “Still Dots” will – upon completion – entail 102 blog posts written by Meckler and Levine over a period of 51 weeks. Though inspired by Rombes, Levine and Meckler steer away from the Lynchian classic to explore Carol Reed’s film noir, The Third Man – an evocative, multi-layered postwar British film vivified by cameo appearances from icons like Orson Welles. Each Tuesday, Meckler will post his analysis of a single frame from The Third Man, beginning with the very first still image from the film, and each Thursday, Levine will post his analysis of one frame 62 seconds later. Call it steadfast film dedication, or even a cinematic allegory for “stopping to smell the roses,” “Still Dots” is definitely a semiotic journey into how we watch movies.
We caught up with Levine and Meckler to chat about the project, and discuss why film screenings at the Walker dig deeper.
l’étoile: You’re both on the Walker Art Center’s staff. Tell us a little about your department and what you do.
Meckler: Well, unlike most of the theaters in town, the Walker provides supplemental information in their program notes handed out in the theater. These sort of allow us to delve a lot deeper into the meaning and context that surrounds each film. So we do a lot of research and analysis to put into the program notes, and write articles and blog posts and other copy about their social and political backgrounds and their connection to the real world. Basically, we answer the question of why each film matters. The department has a pretty small staff, so we really get to be a part of most of the decisions the department makes. We even got to help choose the chairs for the new theater!
l’étoile: How did you get started on the “Still Dots” project?
Levine: Jeremy was a big fan of the “Blue Velvet Project” and both of us were looking for new ways to think about films aside from the cumulative narrative/stylistic analysis that most critics, viewers and scholars employ. We thought that Nick [Rombes] was onto something with the “Blue Velvet Project,” since its analysis emphasizes the way meaning and style accrues throughout the film. Nineteen-sixties continental school film scholars like Raymond Bellour and Roland Barthes paid particular attention to the formal construction and language of the film itself. Barthes’ S/Z adopted a rhythmic and meticulous analysis for a Balzac short story that, in the end, unearthed structural tendencies of the piece as a whole. We see each “Still Dots” post as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which, when completed, will present a fuller understanding of The Third Man.
l’étoile: “Still Dots” is mirrored after the “Blue Velvet Project.” What are the similarities and differences between “Still Dots” and Rombes’ analyses?
Meckler: I think for comparing Nick [Rombes]’ analysis and ours, the biggest difference is within the films themselves. While I love both of these films, Blue Velvet is so deliberately uncanny and nostalgic compared to The Third Man that it demands its own style of analysis. Blue Velvet is more devoted to trying to deconstruct genre and narrative itself, and while The Third Man is a fascinating film, it is at heart a conventional film haunted by the spectres of Graham Greene and Orson Welles’ mysterious influence (and maybe even World War II itself). Due to this distinction, I think, a lot of Nick’s posts are more theoretical and heady, and less focused on the plot at whatever moment we have tuned in to. With our analysis, we try to do a bit more of a blend, since the film is formally very interesting, but it is also devoted to story and character.
l’étoile: Why did you choose to pick frames 62 seconds later as opposed to Rombes’ original 47?
Meckler: It was really just time constraints. We were just as entranced as you might be by the mysterious choice of a 47-second time-frame, but we asked him and the reason he picked it is because he wanted to write three posts every week for a year. What was important was that he came up with some structure, which in a way is kind of arbitrary, but the imposition of that structure on the analysis enhances it and forces you to pay more attention to the slower, less visceral points of the film. Our 62-second repeater was based on “Still Dot”s being written twice a week for a year.
l’étoile: The Third Man is know for its early use of distorted camera angles, harsh lighting, delirious close-ups and expressionist cinematography – pretty perfect for a project based on still shots. But of all the atmospheric black-and-white film noirs, why this one?
Levine: One of the more pragmatic reasons for the choice is that The Third Man is a part of the Ruben Bentson Film/Video Study Collection at the Walker, so we will have the opportunity to screen an original 35mm print at the end of our analysis. Perhaps more importantly, like Jeremy already said, it has a good blend of the conventional storytelling structures of Hollywood films and more subversive explorations into history, war, violence and morality. We had a list of other possible films that weren’t a part of the Ruben Bentson Collection, so maybe they’ll be the subject of a future endeavor. “2Still 2Dots”?
l’étoile: How many frames have you gone through so far and how many do you have left?
Meckler: As of today (July 3), we are at 59 out of 102 posts. It’s actually hard to believe that we’re more than halfway done with the project, especially considering that we haven’t even seen Harry Lime yet, but it’s maybe even harder to believe that we’ve each written a post a week for more than six months. It makes me feel like a real film scholar or a real nerd.
l’étoile: To those not versed in cultural studies or film theory, how would you describe why the project is significant and how it can be followed?
Levine: Most people who watch movies concentrate almost entirely on the plot and character on the screen, a perspective which is encouraged by the Hollywood style and the majority of film critics. That way of understanding a film is certainly important, and our method of analysis definitely incorporates the plot and characters, but we also are trying to dig up the subterranean aspects of the film text. From formal concerns like composition and rhythm to thematic understandings like socio-political context and larger questions of film grammar, we’re hoping to get at how expansive and nebulous the process of filmmaking actually is. What’s really exciting is that every film has built into it all of these ways of seeing, and looking at the film from more angles can make it more entertaining or fascinating, rather than less so.
l’étoile: By undertaking the “Still Dots” project, you hoped to answer for yourselves “how conceptions of time, composition, and visual readership transform over the next year.” How have they thus far?
Meckler: I think we might not be able to answer that question fully, since I think the point of the project is to interrogate those questions and exist as a time-based answer in itself. So I think the process of writing “Still Dots” has definitely given me a much deeper understanding of the rhythmic structure and depth of The Third Man, but the only way to fully put word to that understanding is to spend a year rewatching the film obsessively. As far as the way time is constructed, I think looking at the film via this structure really gets to the heart of the medium, though, since film is really a series of thousands of still images flashed in a dark room. The whole point of the filmic illusion is to convince viewers that what they are looking at is real, living, movement, but looking at the film on a micro-scale reminds me every week just how ethereal that illusion really is.
l’étoile: “Still Dots” has merited interest from the respected IFP publication, Filmmaker Magazine, tell us about that and the internship prospect.
Levine: Well, nothing is set in stone yet, but there may be more opportunities for us to write criticism and articles for Filmmaker Magazine in the future. It’s exciting because Filmmaker Magazine is on the cutting edge of the international film community, so we’ll see what happens in the future.
l’étoile: Matt, you also volunteer at the Trylon Microcinema. What up-coming screenings either at the Walker or at the Trylon – or both – are you looking forward to?
Levine: Well, to list a few, the Trylon is showing Sherlock Junior, my favorite Buster Keaton movie; and a Sam Fuller retrospective with Shock Corridor, The Crimson Kimono, Pick Up on South Street, and White Dog. The Heights Theater is showing A Night at the Opera with the Marx Brothers. This summer the Walker is showing Spellbound, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and The City of Lost Children in Loring Park. And there’s also the upcoming “The Renegades” exhibit [at the Walker], which is an installation of experimental works by avant-garde filmmakers of the golden age of 1960-73. And of course, there’s The Dark Knight Rises.
Click HERE to visit the “Still Dots” blog archive.