My essay ‘Screens within Screens’ fundamentally considerers the usage of split screen and embedded screens as a formal device within narrative cinema. My initial study of the split screen device within narrative cinema has led me to conclude; There are three distinct effects that the usage of split screen in contemporary cinema is employed to create.
1) is associated with surveillance and the assumption that technology gives us a privileged power to be everywhere at once and to record the objective unfolding of events in multiple situations simultaneously, the privileged view of the control room.
2) The other is more expressionistic, the multi image composition can be used to convey a fractured personal reality whereby the subjective viewpoint provides the only form of government. Often psychological and emotional conflict are characterized through this more expressionistic usage of the split screen format, or sometimes the split screen can be used to represent a sense of authorship whereby the cinematic vision of the director is called into focus by drawing attention to the construct of the film in question. This expressionistic use of split screen then is to encourage an emphatic engagement with the film’s author and/or central character(s). It is ultimately subjective and/or immersive.
3) The third is harder to define, often it will sit comfortably within either of the above categories however the key principle that defines this third category is interactivity, the deductive powers of the viewer(s) are called into question, the viewer(s) is challenged to put together the little pieces and make the big picture. There is then a game like engagement that is instigated through the use of the split screen to encourage comparative and deductive analyses. While there is of course a dialogue between contemporary cinema and computer games, and many contemporary films could be seen as heavily derivative from gaming interfaces, it is cinema ultimately that introduced the use of split screen in this context notably through the Murder Mystery genre and titles from the 70s such as The Boston Strangler.
The first chapter of this essay will be split into three sections and will attempt to chronicle three independent history’s of the Split Screen within mainstream cinema or at least site some of the key moments in those history’s. I have deliberately chosen to keep these three histories isolated from each other. They will at times correspond and at times contradict with each other, but ultimately I want each of these histories to be self contained and independently resolved, while ignorant of each other (isolated histories). What I am trying to achieve by doing this is a structural introduction to my second chapter which is about ‘meta narrative’ my aim is to introduce the subject of meta narrative by creating an essay where the subject of meta narrative is introduced as a meta narrative in itself, I will return to this point later, first I will describe each of the independent sections within chapter one.
Chapter one three histories
of the Split screen within
This history of split screen cinema is relative to the introduction of psychology into mainstream culutre and how structure and architecture have been used to both communicate and to some extent instigate psychological conflict. The bulk of this section will be a study of the film Psycho which represents a good place to mediate between German Expressionist Cinema (Hitchcock having learnt his craft in Germany during the era of Expressionistic Cinema) and the split screen films of Brian De Palma (De Palma’s cinema being explicitly influenced and in continuous dialogue with Hitchcock). It has been observed how the architecture of Norman’s house in the film Psycho corresponds in some interesting ways with Freud’s model of the psyche as divided by Ego, Id and Super Ego. The significance of this for me is as an introduction to a filmmaker using the technical structure of space within his film to assert a theme beyond the dramatic occurrences of narrative. I see Psycho as being a good introduction to expressionistic uses of split screen because of this empathies on structural space as a reference to psychological phenomena, thus it anticipates film makers such as De Palma who uses multiple screens and screens within screens as an expressionistic device to convey a fractured sense of self.
This next history of split screen cinema looks firstly at telecommunications, the split screen format was introduced into narrative cinema as a means of representing a phone conversation without cross cutting. The engagement with split screen in this history is in relation to technocratic power structures and an appeal to technology to provide government. Space and time become de-regulated and then re-regulated through technological innovation in this history and the medium becomes the message, while technology in it’s self becomes a symbol of governing power. Here the embedded screen represents location within a power structure, and through technology we are offered a privileged view, all seeing and god like, the man in the control room. I will look at the history of split screen cinema in relation to the history of telecommunications and compare Hollywood thrillers (many of which star Harrison Ford) in relation to news room reportage of the first gulf war. To consider how Technology and Authority have become synonymous in meaning, and how this presupposed authority has been created and then exploited for propaganda purposes. I will reference Foucault’s discourses about power structures and also theorists such as Theodore Roszak and Arthur Kroker who explore the notion of technocracy.
This third History of Split Screen Cinema is concerned with interactivity, and the split screen format that invites the viewer to make a choice between competing options, and by doing so to play an active part in resolving the narrative conflicts. I will follow the evolution of this mode of Split Screen cinema through the Murder Mystery genre and look at films such as the Boston Strangler where simultaneous abstract information is presented to the viewer, often in close up ‘clues’, I will follow the evolution of this interactivity within cinema through to contemporary cinema that has entered into a dialogue with computer gaming and the language/interfaces of Games. While also considering advertising and the appropriation of screens within screens in advertising contexts i.e ‘ugly woman before, beautiful woman afterwards’. I will thus identify the history of these interactive modes of split screen media, as being motivated by consumerist culture, the increasing demands of the consumer to be provided with an engaging experience rather than a simple product per-se. The main factors that communicate this engaging experience to the consumer are suggestions of choice, of their being options. I will thus follow this discussion of the evolution of interactive engagement within the split screen format from; the Murder Mystery genre through computer games and advertising and maybe conclude with a study of a contemporary product such as the series 24. What I want to define in this history is a relationship between interactivity and consumerist culture. I will conclude with some evaluation of contemporary politics, there is a conclusion I want to make, it starts with the murder mystery genre whereby though our choices we are able to identify and distinguish the villain, the murderer, by having options and being able to evaluate we are able to make the right decisions ultimately and the result of those decisions is justice’ thus there is a connection between democracy and justice and so a kind of association exists here between interactive engagement and democratic freedom, and I will identify this misconception as consumerist culture, and so this history of split screen cinema is relative to the history of consumerism.
The study of Meta Narrative is in many ways my real interest and by looking at screens within screens and presenting three isolated histories simultaneously I hope to be able to approach this subject.
What is a meta narrative? Simply put it’s kind of the bigger picture around the little picture, perhaps first introduced by Plato in his theory of ideal forms, an ideal form being an absolute value that is beyond the world of reason and logic, according to him there must be an ultimate beauty an ultimate truth etc against which all lesser examples of beauty and truth are quantified. In this context Meta Narrative is also transcendental and metaphysical, often spiritual or religious narratives appeal to the greater truth beyond the story.
Postmodernism uses split screen to both introduce and deny the idea of a meta-narrative one of the most resonant ideas among post modern thought is that culture is incapable of referencing beyond it’s self and thus the search for meaning just equates to containers within containers so to speak with in a fractured perception of reality. Postmodernism often acknowledges the fact that if there were an ultimate total narrative, a meta narrative, it would not be approachable through language and rational discourse, since by definition it would have to allude these containers, since the big picture can never fit within the little picture. Thus culture and philosophy in their search for enlightenment have inevitably become self obsessed and narcissistic and abandoned the exploration of metaphysics which once gave them meaning.
This section will then explore these discussions while referencing contemporary cinema and ways which it uses split screen in a paradoxical way to both suggest and deny potentialities of a meta narrative, the paradoxical logic of which can be compared to the famous liars paradox ‘this statement is false’. I will also reference relevant theories of post structuralism and post modernism from Lyotard and Baudrillard, through out this section.
May not be necessary, though I would at some stage like to introduce a consideration of Soft Cinema (Manovitch) or software cinema, cinema which uses a program to randomly present different material from an archive or database, not sure how this relates to my overall subject other than through the split screen, but I have a feeling that there is something interesting about this which might be a means of concluding my essay.