"24": Split screen's big comeback

From Fox's "24" to Destiny's Child videos to Hollywood, the splintered aesthetic of multichannel storytelling -- once the province of the '60s avant-garde -- is suddenly everywhere.

Published May 14, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

In Fox TV's cult-hit series "24" (which has its penultimate episode tonight and concludes next week), the screen serenely fractures into two and three frames against a black background. It does this for scene changes, for cellphone conversations, before and after commercial breaks and sometimes just to be beautiful. In doing so, "24" has quietly become the first prime-time dramatic series to employ multiple screens as an active storytelling technique: Playing federal agent Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland drives through the San Fernando Valley, his ex-lover on one phone in one panel, his wife on another. Far and wide, close shot and medium shot, assassin and hero, mother and daughter; as many as six simultaneous images, often locked by the visuals of a ticking digital clock, keep the concurrent stories lines careering past us.

Splitting up the screen has slipped into movies and TV shows so deftly that almost no one has pointed out what a break it makes with the past. Except for a brief, astonishing moment in the late '60s, with movies like Richard Fleischer's "The Boston Strangler" and Norman Jewison's original version of "The Thomas Crown Affair" and, of course, "Woodstock," edited by the brilliant Thelma Schoonmaker (among others, including a then-unknown Martin Scorsese), the history of film has been a history of the single screen: one image, one shared moment in time. An artist once insisted to me that you couldn't have it otherwise; the moment you break up that screen, you destroy the illusion that allows you to carry off your audience.

No longer. A new story form is here, where the splintered frame is not an aberration, not a trick, but an integral part of the story's syntax. Take the three-channel Destiny's Child video, "Emotions," directed by Francis Lawrence and released in August of last year. Each panel follows the three singers simultaneously through a triptych of frustrations and petty disappointments until they join, in the end, to comfort each other. In "Timecode," director Mike Figgis' four-quadrant take on Hollywood development hell, an ensemble of actors improv their way through 90 uncut minutes, divided solely by their placement in one of the four squares that are always on the screen. "The Laramie Project," a Sundance film (adapted from a New York play) that premiered this spring on HBO, uses an array of divisions to navigate through a complex series of flashbacks that tell the story of Matthew Shepard's death and its impact on the eponymous Wyoming city.

Director Stephen Hopkins says he first got the idea for "24" because "there were so many phone calls in the script that these people would never share any screen time together." A great fan of "The Boston Strangler," Hopkins had just had a two-channel independent film felled when he was approached by the producers of "24." He immediately saw that the show offered a unique opportunity to use the divided screen. "I loved the idea of showing what people were saying on the phone but also what they didn't want other people to see," he says.

A handful of filmmakers have been trying to divide up the single screen almost since film began. In 1927, Abel Gance made the three-screen silent classic "Napoleon," using a process he called "Polyvision." To those whom Polyvision confused, he wrote: "Do me the favor of believing that maybe your eyes do not yet have the visual education necessary for the reception of the first form of the music of light."

The music of light, he called it. Which is what you could call New York's Times Square, whose very buildings blink and shimmer. "It is the future of the cinema which is at stake," Gance continued. "It will become a universal language if you make the effort to try to read the new letters which, little by little, it adds to the alphabet of the eyes."

Could Gance have foreseen that the necessary visual education would come from our contemporary glimpse culture: computer screens, channel-zapping, video games, CNN crawls, JumboTrons, surveillance cameras, Web sites, screens in our stores, on our desktops and in our nurseries? The much-maligned shortened attention span is actually, as Gance predicted, an ability to navigate through simultaneous images. It's the alphabet of our eyes.

When so many images flicker at you, you see differently. You glance. You glimpse. Your eyes keep moving, and you use your peripheral vision, the kind of sight connected to fight or flight (and actually processed in a separate part of the brain than the direct gaze). You don't get the entire picture; you can't, and you learn to take this partial experience as being accurate enough.

In his fascinating DVD commentary for "Timecode," Figgis talks frankly about how there are times when you just can't take in what's going on in his four-screen film, even when, occasionally, he keeps one screen on a subject long enough that you're effectively only watching three, as when a woman eavesdrops for several minutes on her lover. The point is, you don't need to. This very incompleteness, this partialness, creates its own tension, which becomes part of the story, as it does in "24," where absence of information is a theme.

What starts as necessity becomes a skill, even a pleasure: There's an unnamed satisfaction in stretching this newfound ability to navigate through images. We're actually hungry to use this ability, to feed it with something more substantive than frenzied Web animations and stock tickers. We crave stories. The single-channel film is the visual art form of the gaze; multichannel is the art form of the glimpse.

It's an art form increasingly found in galleries and museums, where more artists than I can possibly list here have been creating multiscreen environments and multichannel works, many entirely narrative in nature. The French artist Pierre Huyghe created a double-screen piece that parallels excerpts from Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" with his own film of the actual bank robber, now 30 years older, reenacting the crime with actors on a set. Cecilia Dougherty's "Gone" uses a double screen to reinterpret the story of the gay son in the PBS vérité series "An American Family."

The Iranian artist Shirin Neshat frequently uses two screens facing each other to vividly convey the rigid divisions in gender between Iranian men on one screen and Iranian women on another. Doug Aitken used three rooms with multiple screens to evoke a lonely man's walk through a Los Angeles night. Sam Taylor-Wood's seven-screen piece "Party" peels away the dynamics of a cocktail party by filming one with seven cameras in real time. Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Gary Hill and other video artists have long used multiple monitors to fracture time and images.

The last time people were chopping up images like this was way back in the '60s, when sex and drugs were good for you. In what came to be called "expanded cinema," underground filmmakers put projectors on light shows and threw images around galleries. In 1957, Jordan Belson and Henry Jacobs began massive multiprojector shows on the ceiling of a San Francisco planetarium. In 1959, Charles and Ray Eames (best known for the Eames chair) put a seven-screen display called "Glimpses of the USA" together to show America to Nikita Khrushchev, who loved its seven simultaneous images of Marilyn Monroe blowing kisses. The Eameses made a six-screen presentation called "House of Science" the next year, and then the incredible 17-screen "Think" for the IBM pavilion at the New York World's Fair of 1964.

Superimposition became -- and remains -- the quintessential way to show an LSD trip. Andy Warhol's films began to split in 1965; the most famous of these was "Chelsea Girls," where he paired up reels -- some color, some black-and-white -- he'd been shooting of his friends in New York. That became the first commercially released double-screen film.

This visual adventuring culminated in the screen-drenched pavilions of another World's Fair, Montreal's Expo '67: One pavilion had two 70-foot screens placed vertically facing each other, Francis Thompson's six-screen "We Are Young" played in another and the Czechoslovak pavilion featured 130 continuously changing images. Both Fleischer, a studio veteran by that time, and Jewison went to Expo '67 and were inspired by the visual vocabulary they encountered there. Which is why the two greatest split-screen movies -- theirs -- came out in 1968. (And why the fracturing frames of "24" can trace their lineage from Hopkins' love of "The Boston Strangler" straight back to expanded cinema.)

Mysteriously, while video and film artists continued to use multiple projectors and monitors from that point on, in Hollywood, split screen went from cutting edge -- in movies like "Charley" and "The Andromeda Strain" -- to passé in about two minutes. "Wicked, Wicked," a 1973 film directed by Richard L. Bare, used split screen -- dubbed "Duovision" -- in its entirety. Deemed a bomb, it never made it to video. But despite its clumsy writing and acting, "Wicked, Wicked" is well worth watching for its exploration of reasons to divide a story's screen: fantasy vs. reality, memory vs. present, truth vs. lies, hope vs. fear and -- since it's the story of a peeping Tom -- watcher vs. watched, stalker vs. stalked.

By 1979, split screens were being used in "More American Graffiti," another bomb, to convey a dated '60s look. When I interviewed Fleischer, director of "The Boston Strangler," in 1998, he said, "I think what happened when directors got into that stuff was, it was too difficult, you had to plan it, and they didn't want to take the trouble."

In the days of optical printing, a huge amount of trouble, time and expense went into those multiple on-screen images. Each image in each box had to be resized and refilmed on an optical printer using a matte screen. Pablo Ferra, who designed the multiple boxes for the original "Thomas Crown Affair," says the process took months. (The lowly status of split-screen movies is reflected in the fact that "The Boston Strangler" is also unavailable on video. AMC airs it occasionally, along with an interesting back-story documentary, which is the only way you'll see it until Fox sees fit to release it. Fleischer is still alive, as is star Tony Curtis; they could make a great audio commentary. The original "Thomas Crown Affair," however, is available in a new DVD, on which Jewison discusses the influence of Expo '67 and describes the design of the multiple boxes in detail.)

None of the greatest directors working in the '60s, such as Alfred Hitchcock or David Lean, ever ventured near a split screen, and among name American filmmakers only Brian De Palma has continued, Quixote-like, to use split screen as part of his arsenal: in "Sisters," "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill" and even 1998's "Snake Eyes."

The arrival of nonlinear -- that is, computer-based -- editing systems like Avid, the low-priced Final Cut Pro and After Effects is perhaps the biggest reason why divided frames are back. For the first time, it's easy. Even the lowest-end computers can juggle several images with tremendous precision, if not always speed. (Peter Greenaway had Avid make up a special software program just for his 1996 multiscreen film "The Pillow Book.")

The Avid has been the mother of multichannel work in another sense: When you edit on the Avid, two images appear in side-by-side rectangles at the same time in a function called "Trim Edit." Figgis shot his film of the Strindberg play "Miss Julie" on two cameras and thus found himself looking at these side-by-side images in the editing room all day long. He found the effect so pleasing that he decided to make the film's crucial central love scene in two channels. He made the leap to "Timecode," an entire movie split into four sections, from there.

Moisés Kaufman, director of "The Laramie Project," was also inspired by Trim Edit mode as he and his editors struggled to put together hundreds of hours of footage. "The playfulness of the '60s split screens has ideology behind it," says "Laramie" editor Brian Kates. "Now it's more because the Avid lets me do it."

The single biggest question when the screen divides is: where is now? Which panel is the single shared moment in time that heretofore defined single-channel movies? And when are the other panels happening: earlier, later or at the same time? Cutting up the screen unmoors the images in time. Clearly the simplest answer is to say that the frames are all now, all the same moment. You've divided up the screen but not the time. In "Timecode," we're always at the exact same time on all four screens. "24" uses cuts and shifting angles, but the screens depict the same moment, often showing the precise seconds ticking by. Music videos like "Emotions" or Semisonic's "Closing Time" do the same thing: The joy is in simultaneity, disparate events and angles divided in place but not in time.

But "The Laramie Project" uses multiple screens to navigate several simultaneous strands of time. There is the "now" of the New York actors visiting Laramie juxtaposed with the "then" of their earlier visits to the town. There's the "now" of the town's inhabitants -- a Laramie bartender, say, talking to the visitors -- and the "then" of his remembering Matthew Shepard at a table with his tormentors. You might call this "speaker and subject"; it's one of the basic multichannel divisions, and you see it every night on the TV news. Jewison's "Thomas Crown Affair" has one wonderful moment near the end when Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen stare pensively into their bonfire on the beach, while -- in another panel -- the second bank robbery that will destroy their relationship begins the next day.

The world of Hollywood and prime-time TV seldom overlaps with experimental film or art installations, but remarkably, wherever multichannel is tried, its users invariably rely on the same vocabulary. There's the technique we might call "close and closer"; no matter how pragmatic the reason for dividing the screen may be, sooner or later everyone simply puts two lenses on the same thing at the same time just for sheer visual pleasure. You can see this at work in "24," in the ads for Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio" and in Jean-Luc Godard's 1979 "Numero Deux," a film made from video that includes a beautiful scene of a couple arguing while the dishes are being washed, shot from two angles, one in silhouette.

"In effect, you do your own editing, as you look from one [image] to the other," says Fleischer, and this is as true of Warhol's "Chelsea Girls" as it is of "The Boston Strangler." At Expo '67, Fleischer says, he saw a full figure next to a close-up: "It opened a whole new vista; this is very interesting, to see things from more than one point of view simultaneously." The contrast can be between locations, between film stocks -- "Laramie" pairs actual news footage with filmed scenes -- or between film speeds, as in Dougherty's "Gone," which pairs (among other combinations) the sped-up rectangular fracturing of digital fast-forward on one side of the screen and regular time on another.

Sometimes a split screen tells us more than we could know with just one, something at which "The Boston Strangler" excels. A camera waits, poised, over the foot of a murdered woman while, in another panel, her roommates chat about her as they climb the stairs. We wait for the door to open and the two screens to become one, front and back of the same horrific moment, as they invariably do.

There's also simultaneous montage: The elegance of "Thomas Crown" is in the title character's brilliant planning -- five men who never meet will pull off a bank heist, and we watch all five at once. Sound is crucial in telling us where we are: What you see is what you hear. Both "The Laramie Project" and "The Boston Strangler" use multiple images to convey a sense of a city as a character in the movie (Boston and Laramie themselves being multichannel experiences). "Laramie" also interweaves news footage with its fictional filmed scenes to capture a sense of the media frenzy surrounding the Shepard case.

Once you put the lens on this particular focal length, you not only have a new vocabulary for telling stories, you start to see multichannel everywhere. The Oscars telecast was relentlessly multichannel this year; nearly every category had some kind of divided imagery, not least on the five screens behind the podium. On MTV, a group of guys in one frame comment on their favorite sexy videos, which are shown at the same time on another. ("If Tupac was a white woman, he'd be Madonna," comments one guy. "Of course, we're talking about a pretty big if.") A VH1 multichannel show plays a Janet Jackson video while fans talk about why they love it or sing along. "Dismissed" interrupts its blind dates to have little instant replays and commentary play at the same time.

Acura has multiple angles on cars; Fidelity Investments has two and three screens of broker and confused client, and Microsoft has a four-channel commercial that is a study of close and closer. Interstitial material (the promotional material that plays between ads) -- for South Park or MTV's music awards or the Cartoon Network -- are almost invariably multichannel.

Other recent movies dip into and out of split-screen moments without missing a beat. Watching my nieces' and nephews' favorite movies over the holidays, I noticed random split-screen moments in movies from "Remember the Titans" to "Selena" and "The Princess Diaries." Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" opens with the split screen of a mother locked in a closet by her drug addict son, and has some compelling six-panel sections in its deleted scenes on its DVD (and an awesome menu, by the way). In Alison Maclean's "Jesus' Son," two junkies overdose on the same heroin in split screens: One is discovered and saved, the other dies. The French import "Amélie" features a Fotomat-style picture with all four images speaking at once -- and saying different things. The climactic scene of Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" splits three ways, with one image the second hand of a clock.

There will only be more. Actor and director Alan Cummings' talk show, due soon on Oxygen, will often use four simultaneous cameras on his interviews (the first is with Gwyneth Paltrow). Figgis has already made a second multiscreen film, the as-yet-unreleased "Hotel." "24" has taken prime-time TV far beyond the convention of splitting the screen for a telephone conversation (a tradition that actually goes back to a 1913 silent film by pioneer Lois Weber). We are destined to watch more than one image at a time, to connect them and have them connected for us, spelling out stories with the alphabet of our eyes.

By Julie Talen

Julie Talen is a writer and director living in New York.

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