What do Pedro Sánchez have in common presiding over a Council of Ministers turned into The Brady Tribe, Meryl Streep paying tribute to Stephen Sondheim in a bathrobe and the members of a centennial institution such as the Orfeón Donostiarra, Mick Jagger singing that one does not always get what you want and the breakthrough online programmingof the Abbey Theater? All have starred in memorable images during these seven weeks of confinement, which perhaps will be remembered for their unusual format: the split screen. A good part of our interactions have taken place thanks to a formal solution related to that old tool of film montage, almost as old as cinema itself, which re-entered visual culture when the coronavirus appeared in our lives. As platforms like Zoom gained supporters - in April it exceeded 300 million users, when at the end of 2019 there were no more than 10 million worldwide - the split screen has become the almost normative way of communicating, but also to create and consume culture.
The split screen is the perfect visual metaphor for the beginning era. Thanks to it we are together but separate, connected but isolated, united at a prudential distance. “It has become our gateway to the world, the main structure of the experience. The split screen is the time and space of the pandemic, ”says philosopher Peter Szendy, during a video call conversation from Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches at Brown University. Theorist of the multiplication of images in contemporary society, Szendy says he feels "trapped inside The Thomas Crown case ", by the copious use of the split screen that characterized that remembered 1968 film. The French philosopher observes an ambivalence of this device, similar to the one you have had in the cinema. The split screen served to put the protagonists of the modest Doris Day comedies to bed in separate beds, but also to symbolize the free movement of fluids typical of sexual liberation in the poisonous films of Brian de Palma, which he used in 10 of his Titles. "Today the split screen continues to be used as a prophylactic way to separate us, although its use also reflects a Dionysiac thirst for contact with others," says Szendy before turning off his computer.
Meanwhile, another great theorist of the image, Jordi Balló, lights his in Barcelona. For the professor at the Pompeu Fabra University and dean of its Faculty of Communication Sciences, any iconographic analysis of the pandemic must begin by underlining the use of this figure. “It has been an intense enough experience to imagine that nothing will return to its place. I am sure that many artistic practices will adopt it, ”says Balló. Not necessarily as a new genre, but as a comparative resource. “It is an idea that many filmmakers of the last century have formulated: an image does not reveal its deepest characteristics until you compare it with another. In the same way, it is as if a single screen was no longer enough to reflect all the complexity of the present ”, Balló responds. "It has gone from being a mere trick, a disruptive element in a film that flowed linearly, to becoming a representation of the world." At the media level, the split screen has meant "a new staging of the conversation, hitherto so marked by the television talk show ", as a telematic update of the eighteenth-century room in which the apparent horizontality camouflages the usual dynamics of power. In politics it has served to establish shaky powers. “Representing a leader by directing the Council of Ministers by video call is a very effective way to indicate his prominence. It is going to be difficult for the communication offices to stop using this image, because it is practically perfect: it transmits the will to dialogue, but it covers up hierarchy pure and simple, ”Balló points out.
The desire to juxtapose different times and spaces is not exclusive to audiovisual language, as demonstrated by the tradition of triptychs and polyptychs in Flemish painting of the 15th and 16th centuries. In the case of cinema, however, specialists relate this technique to the influence of other fields. “For me, its origin is literary. Before moving to sound, the cinema wanted to reflect on the visual plane the multiplicity of narratives, perspectives and motives that the avant-garde in literature was capable of, "says Rajendra Roy, chief curator of the film department at New York's MoMA. He describes this resurgence of the broken screen, not without a certain sarcasm, as “a new cubism”, for managing to superimpose multiple points of view on the same plane. He also says it because he suspects that his reign will be as brief as that of Picasso and Braque. "It is not an anomaly, nor will it disappear as soon as all this is over, but I do not think it will replace the previous model either," says Roy. Despite his rooting during confinement, he doesn't think the video call is going to infiltrate creative language, despite the first experiments seen in recent weeks. "A lot of people will try, but I would be surprised if they were victorious. You have to have very good ideas to make it work. Rather, I predict a return to the physical, a nostalgia for face-to-face methods. Zoom will be more present in our lives, but I don't think anyone wants that to become our standard interaction with others ”, concludes Roy (who, significantly, preferred to answer the interview by phone).
The earliest examples of split screen date back to the times of silent cinema. The film The Lady of Spades , an adaptation of Pushkin's short story shot a few months before the Russian revolution, was already used in 1916. In the 1920s, Abel Gance invented poly-vision , projection of three simultaneous actions on a large horizontal screen format, which he used for the final sequence of his movie Napoleon (1927). That visionary French filmmaker prophesied a multi-screen future. He was only half wrong. In Hollywood, the fragmented image became popular after Indiscreta (1958), in which Stanley Donen used it to avoid the restrictions of censorship and to put Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to bed. Then the split screen was amplified in films such as The Boston Strangler or the documentary Woodstock , the work of a team of editors that included Martin Scorsese. They would mark the high point of the invention and also the beginning of its decline, probably due to satiety.
Rooted in languages such as comics, video art and video games, the split screen never disappeared from the cinema, but it became a relic that only once in a while some directors thought about dusting. Since the turn of the millennium, directors such as Darren Aronofsky ( Requiem for a Dream ) or, in Spanish cinema, Jaime Rosales ( La soledad ) reinvented the split screen from the author's cinema, without resorting to nostalgia or pastiche. “I used it out of pure instinct, not knowing how the viewer would perceive it. It allowed me to establish a visual barrier, a rupture that brought an extra expressiveness, ”recalls Rosales of his film, starring a woman who loses her son in a terrorist attack. Despite the specific similarity of certain visual codes, the director considers that this new broken screen does not have much to do with the previous one. "It is a mosaic image in which isolated people are found, a communication system such as the stenographer or the telephone, which in no case is comparable to an artistic image because it is not transformed with an intention," says Rosales. In spite of everything, he used it to highlight feelings as current as that current and paradoxical lack of communication in an era as hyperconnected as ours.
From her bright home in Amsterdam, video artist and literature theorist Mieke Bal brings a different point of view. The multiplication of screens within other screens could be the eloquent reflection of a hypertrophic and cacophonic visual model, where it is difficult to decode an increasingly pixelated and unintelligible image. "It is the most realistic artistic way to do justice to the madness of the world," responds Bal. Precisely for this reason, he does not see a great future as an art form. “From a narrative point of view it is not easy for the viewer. I'm not sure there are a lot of people interested in observing time and linearity altered by chaos. To see that, it may be enough to go outside, "says the artist. More optimistic sounds the experimental director Julie Talen, who in her film Pretend (2003) made a poetic and somewhat overwhelming use of the multiscreen to inspect the inner lives of the members of a family. His film was both acclaimed and misunderstood. "I have had to wait many years, but finally we are living the visually complex moment that I longed for so much," he replies from New York. It comes now because technology has made it possible, but also for other reasons. “We live in a culture of quick glance and not of contemplation. Now our brains are ready to process these stimuli. The pandemic has been a terrible time, but it has made us adopt a richer visual culture. ”
At times, one discovers a somewhat more disturbing face: these image grids can refer to the imagery of surveillance, that of security cameras and Big Brother. "We are making changes in the name of alertness that we would never have accepted six months ago. We incorporate the split screen into our lives with the same naturalness with which we accept these new rules, ”said Szendy. Something like a volunteer panopticon, for taking up Bentham's terminology and its literary reflection in the work of George Orwell: a screen in each home, lit by its own volition, that stores data that can be supplied to third parties in the midst of somewhat uncertain security regulations. Although Balló also provides a counterpoint in this: “It is not just the surveillance camera, but something else. I see a tension between the screen as a control element and the screen as a release factor and, if necessary, resistance ”.
A visual solution as old as cinema
Napoleon (1927), by Abel Gance. The French director invented the so-called poly-vision, the sum of three simultaneous projections on a large-format screen, to shoot this silent film. "Please do me the belief that your eyes may not have the necessary visual education," Gance said after its premiere, predicting that it would become "a universal language."
Indiscreta (1958), by Stanley Donen. The master of cinema made a malicious use of the split screen to avoid the iron rules of the Hays code. To put the protagonists of this adultery story together, Donen used this visual device, turned into a trope of sentimental comedy: it was also used by Annie Hall , When Harry Met Sally or (500) days together .
Carrie (1976), by Brian De Palma. The American filmmaker used the split screen as a brand, which he reproduced throughout 10 of his films. In its use there has been an early denunciation of the surveillance society and the usual will to break with the previous generation that characterized New Hollywood.
La soledad (2008), by Jaime Rosales. The director surprised by reinventing the split screen when it was only used ironically, in the context of pastiches, video clips or commercials. Solitude, which won the Goya for best film in 2008, took advantage of it to underline the lack of communication between its protagonists.