nothing about nothing and the use of narrative explosives

This time around, I didn’t stumble onto a Vimeo staff pick I liked as immediately as last time. This go-round I churned through a number, several of which were intriguing — “The fun part is closing circuits through vegetables” a guy says before doing a Massive Attack thing with eggplant and strawberries (!) — but not really worth examining in detail.

But I liked the name of this one, and it turned out to be nice and chewy from a storytelling standpoint. (I’m going to write about specifics below, so you should probably just go ahead and watch all 11ish minutes if you’re going to read on.) (And of course you should.)

One of the things I like about movies is how they seem to make magic out of ordinary materials. This whole short film is pretty much defined by two guys, a shovel, a car, and a shotgun. One of the ways to do this alchemy is to use the bomb principle that Alfred Hitchcock talked about: Show the audience that a bomb will go off, and then just have other, even mundane things happen while we wait, and you’re got yourself some engaged customers. The mundane stuff becomes “vital, by its sheer nonsense,” as he put it. (The quote is from my edition of Who the Devil Made It, Peter Bogdanovich’s book of interviews with famous old-school directors.)

In Nothing About Nothing, the bomb is a guy, Ollie, who is buried under sand pretty thoroughly and left to die in it, with the ticking bomb of his death beginning when the sand covers his head. Having finished the dirty work, the killer, Stan, walks back to his car and gets ready to go, cursing when he finds he can’t light his cigarette. The tightness in my chest here seems to confirm Hitchcock’s point that “nonsense” has become “vital,” since everything Stan does now, no matter how ordinary, is against the clock that is ticking toward Ollie choking on sand. This dynamic is drawn out for nail-biting minutes while we watch Stan drive away, time in which he doesn’t even have the decency to have a noticeable emotion for almost a minute while the camera is planted right on his face. When that “emotion” comes, it consists entirely of a sharp breath, the slight bulging of his eyes, and a little cursing.

So there’s that. Beyond the tension though, I like how Nothing About Nothing provides me good enough evidence for an unlikely theory. My thesis is the guy buried in the hole is the manifestation of Stan’s conscience. Here’s why: Ollie (his name, according to the credits) is not acting at all like you think he would. The milieu and the murder remind me of the forest scene in Miller’s Crossing, where John Turturro is just as hysterical and desperate as you expect a guy would be the moments before a mobster is supposed to bump him off. But in this short, Ollie is too composed, and not in that badass Denzel Washington way that suggests he’s biding his time before he unleashes hell fire. It’s less human than that, actually, as though Ollie is almost serene, although the shot right after Stan threatens him with a gun makes him look a wee bit nervous. But nervous people don’t normally taunt their captor about how he probably doesn’t have the guts to just shoot them already. Finally, if Ollie isn’t Stan’s conscience, why else would Stan take the tape off Ollie’s mouth? It wouldn’t make sense in real life, but it makes sense as a metaphor for the way we cannot always plug up the voices in our own heads.

A quick interlude here to break up the page and also show you the parallels between first and last shots. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions (so that I don’t have to make up any when I have no insight into what the similarity means).

Back to my argument that Ollie is a fragment of Stan. One thing I like about this idea is that Ollie’s taunt, “You lack vision,” sounds like the kind of critique Stan might have come up with after a self-empowerment seminar, the kind of general complaint that is now being completely misapplied to the act of killing a man. It’s an odd choice of words, since, as we know, it doesn’t take vision to kill a man for pay (as Stan seems to be doing, although I will admit, my third time on now, I still can’t understand what Stan is saying). But that’s exactly what somebody as cheap and unimaginative as a hired thug might think “vision” is.

So, anyway, if you buy my theory that the guy in the hole is actually Stan’s conscience — and of course you should! — then the last moment in the film is like the scene in The Shining where Jack gets unlocked from the pantry by what would seem to be the voice inside of his head. When he’s still in the hole, Ollie is easier to figure as a hallucination or a metaphor, but when he’s shooting Stan in the back of the head, he doesn’t seem very abstract anymore. It’s a great play on that combined feeling of suspicion, intuition, and fear we have that the boundary between us and the world is porous and the conviction that our thoughts, if felt strongly enough, are manifested there.

I’m kind of a sucker for anything that gets us into the psychological drama of a character (see last week’s post, which was about, well, guess what), but it’s not usually this well done, so bravo.

2 thoughts on “nothing about nothing and the use of narrative explosives

  1. I’ve got to agree with your theory here! Initially I spent the first couple of minutes after the film asking “how on Earth did Ollie get out of the hole then?” before it dawned on me I was missing out on the symbolic mine, as it were.

    My thoughts were pretty much triggered by Stan’s clear smoking ‘problem’. Maybe he’s trying to bury the habit, but the habit knows there’s no way he can give up?

    Just very quick thoughts of course, but I really enjoyed your article!

    • Thanks, I’m glad you got something out of it. Yes, I think the cigarette smoking might be significant, though I can’t figure out if it’s just an extension of his conscience or what. Like a lot of good things, it’s kind of ambiguous.

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