The Reel World: Atmosphere

Finals week is upon us. A cloud of stress and uncertainty and a foreboding air of impending doom are soon to descend over our beautiful campus. Recently, instead of catching up on my readings, I watched one of my favorite mystery films, “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” (2011). As I look out the window of my room onto the snowy, cloudy and gloomy landscape, the parallels are apparent in more ways than one. Director David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s hit “Millennium” (2005-2007) novels won critical acclaim for its bleak portrayal of modern Sweden in a murder mystery involving Nazis, serial killers, misogyny and corruption. As I watch the snow fall onto the ground outside, I half expect Lisbeth Salander to come riding down Powder House Boulevard on her trademark motorcycle.

Walking around campus, it is easy to see the all-too-quick approach of finals week in everybody’s interactions. Everyone seems harried, a little more stressed and just a little less patient. And, if you’re like me, you’re a little more likely to be dressed in sweatpants. The campus seems more serious and just a little bit (or a lot) less fun.

In short, the atmosphere of our campus is just a little subdued and harried. It’s somewhat fascinating for me to see the way the mood of the campus shifts, changes and dampens collectively. In any film, the atmosphere is arguably the most important facet. When it’s done perfectly, it has the power to give a film legendary status.

One of the greatest films of the 20th century, “The Third Man” (1949), provides an atmosphere not unlike today’s scene on campus but with much higher stakes. The film, which is directed by Carol Reed of “Oliver!” (1968) fame and features Orson Welles as Harry Lime, follows American writer Holly Martins as he is hired by Welles’ character in post-WWII Vienna. When Martins arrives in Vienna, Lime is dead. Martins then sets out to investigate Lime’s mysterious death, looking for a mysterious “third man” who was present at the scene of the crime.

“The Third Man” gives a master class in atmosphere. Post-war Vienna is represented as a dark, gloomy place, where greed, crime and corruption prey on a populace beaten-down and war-weary, and those who try to stand and make something good of themselves are snuffed out. The use of low camera angles and an ironically folksy score highlight the atmosphere perfectly. In the film, there is a pervading sense that the bar for humanity is so low in Vienna that anything and everything could happen, and morality and law would be powerless to stop it.

In that vein, perhaps we can take heart in the fact that Tufts today is still on the whole more hopeful than Vienna after the war, no matter how doom and gloomy finals week makes it seem. Our bleak atmosphere is more akin to the comedic “Office Space” (1999) than “The Third Man,” and I think that’s a small victory worth celebrating. At this point, we need all the victories we can get, people.

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