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Video Essay: “square shot”

A video essay on Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored.
Over the summer I made a little video essay inspired by Reverse Shot's Take Three issue, which focuses on the specific use of sound in a film.  The video, square shot, is somewhat cryptic so I've included some text for a bit of context.  Special thanks to Michael Koresky.
The sounds of the studio in 1931 are a real pleasure: what you are listening to is literally the sounds of an industrial-artistic complex figuring out how to make its product heard.  Cavernous echoes, noises expanded into and being swallowed by massive soundstages are the strange, eerie signs of early talkies.
Josef von Sternberg was one of the most inspired filmmakers to leap at the challenge and see the possibilities opened up by sound.  An initial mention, or homage, must go first to his brilliant sound debut Thunderbolt (1929), a subject deserving its own poetics, but instead let's look at and listen to the final gunshots in 1931's Dishonored, those that execute the Austrian spy-prostitute "X27," Marlene Dietrich.
Rather than resign himself to the accidental echo chamber of the era's aesthetic, Sternberg embraces the dramatic and poetic force to be found in the nominally undesirable sonic texture.  The shots that kill Dietrich and end the film may be brief, but they can be felt in the tactility of the clap echoing through the constricted fortress courtyard, a setting that provides a "realistic" excuse for the haunting studio reverb.
Because Sternberg has so cleverly contextualized this sound effect in the film, this short video essay is not centered on the sound itself, but rather on the definition of the cinematic space that the final, brutal sound will move through.  Foot traffic and character movement work to chart the mise en scène that those fatal sounds ultimately traverse—Sternberg's moving insight here is that the sound, finally, comes from space itself.
I liked this quite a bit, Danny.
A cool argument, that Sternberg took the sonic lemons of early talkie technology and from them made cinematic lemonade. What I love is the absolute hollowness of the audioscape when there is no dialogue or sound, this before the concept of “room tone”. The utter muteness of the soundtrack gives a stifling counterpoint to the soldier’s cry for justice, and offers a visual correlative to the cold, barren execution grounds. It’s an aural and spatial blankness against which X27 makes her final gestures affirming her worth as a person, a woman. I think it’s worth linking to the original clip in order to appreciate how you break it down spatially and temporally (though in all honesty I think your video doesn’t so much interpret it as reinvent it entirely… into something triangulating Bresson, Ken Jacobs and B. Kite!) Love the opening shot of her pounding away at the piano in her cell. Sternberg sure knew what he was doing with negative space.
Really great. Can’t wait for more dkaz words and concepts put into images.
Thanks for the kind words Craig, Kevin & Ryland! Kevin, I think you are spot on with those observations (but too kind with the compliments!). Thanks for linking to the original, which last I checked had been removed from YouTube (I love the phantom Sternberg fans who seem to continually upload sequences from his movies with Dietrich).

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