Arts: Have I Got Views for You ; It's Usually Derided as Just a Sixties Fad. but, Says Tom Sutcliffe, Split Screen's Recent Revival Reveals How the Technique Can Underline Not Just Film's Artifice, but Also a Poignant Subjectivity
Sutcliffe, Tom, The Independent (London, England)
Look under "multi-screen techniques" in Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion and you'll get an account of split-screen's career trajectory in just six words - "Mercifully, the fashion soon wore off" it says dismissively, after noting a flurry of interest in the technique at the end of the Sixties. In other words, split-screen could be taken as just a passing fad - as embarrassing as loon pants and Afghan coats, and just as transitory.
But while Halliwell pretty well sums up the received cinematic opinion about split-screen, he isn't entirely reliable about its origins or its future. He seems to believe, for example, that the fad derived from the Montreal Expo of 1967, which seems a little odd, since Grand Prix - which pushed multi-screen effects to an epilepsy-inducing degree - was made at least a year earlier.
And the confident assumption that cinema purists would never be troubled again by what he saw as a gauche mannerism has also been looking a little ragged recently. Last year, Mike Figgis took split- screen to its logical extreme in Timecode - a film that consists of four seamless unedited takes sharing just one screen - and this year, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream has also been exploring the possibilities of dividing the camera's attention.
You'd be hard-pressed to put this forward as a revival exactly - even two swallows don't make a summer - but the time when it was a clearly a faux pas has passed. Split-screen these days is seen in the best company, not just with vulgarians who want you to know just who's calling the shots.
It never went away entirely, of course, because there were always directors brash enough to enjoy its faintly vaudeville effect. For directors like Brian De Palma, happy to play with the artifice of the screen and the camera's vision, split-screen was always a reliable short cut to a bit of cinematic razzle-dazzle. He actually attempted to film one sequence in Carrie entirely in split-screen, deliberately including camera equipment and tripods in the side of the frame he didn't intend to use in order to forestall nervous second-thoughts in the editing suite.
Despite this approach, second thoughts did prevail and the section eventually had to be rescued by his editor, Paul Hirsch, who wasn't converted by the experience. His remarks later neatly sum up a broad aesthetic prejudice against the device: "It can show the simultaneity of things," he said, "but you don't feel anything. Engaging your intellect takes away from feeling what's happening."
Which is another way of saying that suspended disbelief suddenly finds itself crashing to the floor again, having first had its nose rubbed in the artifice that is always present in cinema but often concealed. The split-screen effectively forces into the middle of our field of vision a seam that is otherwise invisible, because it occurs between scenes and we have become so practised at ignoring it.
There can be a utilitarian motive for this breach of decorum - classically, when the audience would like to see both ends of a telephone conversation at the same time. But such convenience always comes at a cost - that of reminding the audience that all film is a splicing of discontinuous fragments. This needn't necessarily be a bad thing - split-screen has always enjoyed a certain vogue among the more high-minded director, those who feel a Calvinist obligation to flagellate themselves and us for wallowing in the pleasures of credulity - but it's never exactly cosy or untroubling, even in films that simply want to knock your eyes out.
You can find a pertinent example in a film that long preceded Halliwell's date for the flowering of split-screen. Pillow Talk is one of those sex comedies in which Rock Hudson and Doris Day bicker flirtatiously before finally succumbing - off-screen and after the credits - to their mutual passion, but it also contains a sequence that plays teasingly with split- screen's combination of proximity and distance. …