John Wyver writes: These are some of the things that have engaged me over the past extraordinary, historic week. The selection starts with four essential analyses, and with a powerful video made by actors who have worked with the RSC in recent years. Above, the Planet Labs image from an orbiting satellite of the centre of Washington DC with the glorious two-blocks-long mural ordered by Mayor Bowser on the street leading up to the White House.
John Wyver writes: Following on from my two earlier posts, here and here, this one develops my tentative thoughts about screen performance in lockdown and the prevalence – and seeming appropriateness — of split-screen styles for this moment. I introduced the argument in the first post and developed it further in the second, which looked more specifically at feature films, narrative and split-screen styles. Here, I want to muse more about split-screen and television today, and to get to that by looking at some engaging examples of historical split-screen performance, including in music videos, and by considering a sequence from the first broadcast of the CBS current affairs series See It Now in 1951, from which the above screen grab is taken.
First, here’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ from MGM’s It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), with Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and choreographer Michael Kidd. The direction of film is credited to Kelly and Stanley Donen.
As a very good Dissolve roundtable explores, the tri-part split-screen, which is also employed elsewhere in the film, expresses brilliantly the separate but parallel lives of three former soldiers trying to adjust to the harsh climate of post-war America. But the sequence is also a response to the what was then perceived as the threat of television to the movies — as is the film’s more explicit satirical approach to the new medium. The big guns of CinemaScope and Eastmancolor spectacle aid the special effects split-screening to demonstrate exactly what the low-res, mostly monochrome domestic medium can never hope to deliver.
That was then, and now of course, as is shown by this recent delightful split-screen dance from Broadway stars Katheryne Penny and Nathan Lucrezio , posted a few days ago to Facebook, you can shoot and edit this at home, and distribute it freely to hand-held screens around the world.
John Wyver writes: In the first post in this series I suggested that the lockdown has prompted the proliferation of the performance of music, dance and drama in split-screen media spaces. The prominence of work that employs what, following the scholar Lev Manovich, we can call ‘spatial montage’ (that is, juxtaposed shots in the same frame, rather than in a sequence) suggests – perhaps – a distinctive challenge to the dominant screen language of performance.
The overwhelmingly familiar language, which is common across screen stories of many kinds, privileges single frame shots and employs them to construct, through techniques like continuity editing, convincing suggestions of real world spaces. (I’m aware that here and elsewhere my own language lacks appropriate analytical rigour; that may come if I get to write up these jottings in a more formal way.)
What I want to do in this post is to highlight some examples of split-screen story-telling in film history and to reference elements of reading that I’m finding useful in thinking about all this. A key source for me is a 2009 paper by Jim Bizzocchi, ‘The fragmented frame: the poetics of the split-screen’, a draft of which is available via the link. Additional reading can be accessed via a decade-old post, ‘Split screen studies’ on the invaluable-as-ever Film Studies for Free resource created by Catherine Grant. The post was compiled by Catherine Grant to complement her elegant (and early) video essay exploring the narrative and psychological dimensions of a split-screen sequence near the start of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) – and this is well worth (re-)visiting now.
John Wyver writes: Two months or so into lockdown I wonder if, along with so much else, we are seeing a fundamental shift in the screen language of our moving image media. So do I have your attention now?
I am struck by how quickly so much online performance, entertainment and drama has moved away from forms in which single screen images are predominant and on-screen space is constructed through sequential editing of supposedly contiguous shots. Instead, we are seeing the blossoming of innovative screen spaces with multiple images from separate real world or abstract environments proliferating within single frames.
As I’ll go on to explore in what I intend to be a series of posts, key influences here are our enforced use in professional and personal contexts of Zoom and the like, as well as the mainstreaming of super-smart Tik Tok videos. Another contributing factor, of course, are the constraints on conventional media production. Out of this nexus of challenges and opportunities is emerging what we might think of as the screen language of lockdown.
John Wyver writes: another list of links from lockdown, with my thanks once more to those on my Twitter timeline who have prompted many of them. These are some of the articles and videos and more that I have enjoyed and been engaged by over the past week.
• Taking lessons from a bloody masterpiece: I was very taken by this New York Times interactive essay by Jason Farago and producers Gabriel Gianordoli and Alicia DeSantis – combining commentary with an innovative exploration of Thomas Eakins’ great 1875 painting ‘The Gross Clinic’ (Philadelphia Museum of Art, detail above, full painting below), it offers both stimulating ideas and a revelatory form of online close looking.
John Wyver writes: welcome to the weekly round-up of bits and pieces that have engaged and informed me over the past week. One little change: I’ve experimented by making (most of) the links open a new tab, which is not how I’ve organised the page before – good idea?
Unusually, the header image is not linked to any of the specific links but is simply something that I saw Tweeted by @OSaumarezSmith and which I think is all kinds of wonderful: a 1937 map by MacDonald Gill showing the location of the GPO’s radio masts. I know little about Gill, Mac (brother of Eric, apparently) but I’m now keen to know more, and ‘MacDonald Gill (1884-1947)’ from The British Postal Museum & Archive blog in 2012 is one place to start.
• The British Library simulator: let’s begin with something silly but in its way, sublime — a simulator of the building in Euston Road that so many of us are missing, built by the BL’s Curator of Digital Publications Giulia Carla Rossi using the Bitsy game engine; background and intro here.
• Initial lockdown meeting: of course, I had to include this, even though you (and 170K others to date) have already watched it:
John Wyver writes: you have until Thursday evening to witness online, thanks to today’s Berliner Ensemble, a truly astonishing as-live recording made in 1957 of Bertolt Brecht’s landmark production of Mother Courage and Her Children. Directed by Brecht in 1949 in Berlin, by then of course in the GDR, this was the founding presentation of the Berliner Ensemble, the company established that year by the playwright and his second wife Helene Weigel, who plays Mother Courage.
And this is the main production brought by the Berliner Ensemble to London’s Palace Theatre in the summer of 1956, a visit that profoundly influenced numerous strands of British drama across the following decades. Shot with multiple electronic cameras from the stage of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, the Ensemble’s home from 1954, this screen version is vivid, vital and immediate (and even without subtitles strikingly accessible to non-German speakers), and it offers a unique opportunity to get as close as is possible to being there, whether in Berlin or London, in the mid-1950s.
I am in no sense a Brecht scholar, and there are many writers who are better qualified to write about this revelatory recording, including Holger Syme, who as @literasyme Tweeted an informative thread about it over the weekend (and who I hope is going to discuss it online in more detail).
John Wyver writes: another selection of articles and videos, plus a Twitter feed, that have engaged me over the past week. Many of these come from my Twitter timeline, and I remain immensely grateful to all those who I follow for their recommendations.
• Four coronavirus futures: I found this very useful for trying to think about The After – Ravi Gurumurthy and Charles Leadbetter for Nesta lay out four possible scenarios.
• Igor Levit is like no other pianist: do you need any other recommendation for this excellent essay than knowing that it is an Alex Ross profile for The New Yorker? And if you do, try this, which is Levit in lockdown playing Brahms’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor…
John Wyver writes: another group of articles, along with three videos and even a Twitter thread, that have engaged me, and just occasionally enraged me too, over the past week.
• We are witnessing a national catastrophe: Alastair Campbell writing for Tortoise Media; he offers a strong historical framework for what’s happening, and I have found – especially in the last week because of the VE Day anniversary – but also more generally, that I have been reading some excellent writing by historians, including…
• Must we mention the war?: … Chris Grey’s The Brexit Blog (he’s based at Royal Holloway University of London) is essential reading every Friday, and this week’s post offered a new intro to a newly topical contribution from September 2018, and…
John Wyver writes: Welcome to my weekly list of links to articles and videos that have engaged me over the past week. Covid-19 is key, of course, but further down you’ll find pieces that have little or nothing to do with the virus. I’m aware that, as so often, there’s something of a bias towards writing from the States (and this week especially, The New York Times). In part, this reflects my belief that pieces from British publications will already be more familiar, but it is also a recognition that magazine culture in the USA is simply richer, deeper and more innovative than here…
• April 15: A Corona Virus chronicle: … a case in point being this remarkable dossier of text and images that took up almost all of the 4 May issue of The New Yorker: a historic account of ‘Twenty-four hours at the epicenter of the pandemic’.
Economics is a system for optimizing resources, and, if it were trying to calculate ways to optimize a sustainable civilization in balance with the biosphere, it could be a helpful tool. When it’s used to optimize profit, however, it encourages us to live within a system of destructive falsehoods. We need a new political economy by which to make our calculations. Now, acutely, we feel that need.
• Pointing the finger: Jacqueline Rose is fearsomely good on Albert Camus’s The Plague for LRB, ending like this:
On the last page, the narrator tells his readers that he wrote the story so as to leave behind a memory of the injustice and violence undergone, and in order to state ‘quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise’. There is still everything to play for. A thought for the aftermath, when there will be so much to be done.
• Bolero Julliard: on Twitter my friend Kirk McElhearn dubbed this online performance ‘genre-defining’, and that’s about right – it’s also utterly joyful and more than occasionally jaw-dropping: