Mary nurses her wounds in prayer and, like Hunham, in drink. Curtis was a casualty of Vietnam, and of more besides. “Barton boys don’t go to Vietnam,” Hunham says. “Except for Curtis Lamb,” Angus observes. “Except for Curtis Lamb,” Hunham concurs, trying to get Angus to read between the lines, to notice how the deck is stacked. Hunham lectures about the ancient world but is more guarded with his own history; he parrots Latin maxims and institutional creeds but has grown weary of the “glazed, uncomprehending expressions” of his well-heeled students. He is a man quietly enduring life but scarcely living it.
In Payne’s work, such endurance can seem akin to circling a drain. Dissolves add a somnambulant dimension to a montage of Angus wandering through Barton’s dim passages at night. Sights dreamily commingle: gulps of sacramental wine, plumes of smoke, a photo of Curtis. Just outside is the repose of the snow-blanketed campus. But too much repose can wear us down. One dissolve slips away from Angus while he sits with his confused father. The next shot returns to him some time later, his expression forlorn — another dissolve that is less about a chronological leap than a fine emotional increment, and Angus’s sense of the past as an anchor pulling him into an abyss.
Hunham nudges him toward another conception of time, one that echoes the hold-and-relinquish duality of the dissolve. We must study the past, he says, but we need not be ensnared by it. “You can do this,” he tells his protégé, tearfully shaking his hand. In a climactic scene, Mary, too, invites Angus’s hand into hers, making literal a connection that was previously entrusted to form: a dissolve from Angus, shaving in front of a mirror, to Mary, standing alone before her own reflection.
This is what the dissolve complements so well: the woolly, idle moments that fill our lives but are seldom represented on our screens. Breakneck speed can be found anywhere, from social media to restless blockbusters. But even the quickest dissolve suggests languor and contemplation. The characters in “The Holdovers” spend much of the film spinning their wheels, but their downtime does change them. The film’s dissolves ask us to ponder that change, to feel the passage of moments and acknowledge the gaps and disorientations between them. Too much repose may wear us down, but too little erases the rhythms and textures of life.
Any given cut can gather disparate emotions; any cut can introduce continuities and discontinuities. But the dissolve, with its tentative overlapping, has its own soulful way. With the solicitude of a hand gently held, it can layer together a welter of thoughts even as it yields, hesitantly, to the next image. It captures the slower registers of our spare hours. In those woozy intervals, life shifts and wavers, moments blur. Change is in the air.
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