The language of lockdown 3.

5th June 2020

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.

Forcing Nathan Lucrezio to learn exhausting dances has become a crucial part of our relationship.

Posted by Katheryne Penny on Wednesday, 27 May 2020
All about image

Although music video as a form is now ubiquitous across the whole range of screens with which we engage, it began, at least in its modern incarnation (I know there are many film precursors) on television, crystallised by the cable channel MTV (Music Television) which was officially launched in 1981. In his book Visual Digital Culture, Andrew Darley argues that music video as a form is ‘constructed upon an intensification and augmentation of modes of image combination or montage’, and split-screening – facilitated by the potential of digital rather than analogue technologies – is just one of its hypervisual modes. There are countless examples, but here are three personal favourites, with the first being ‘Emotion’ by Destiny’s Child, released in 2001.

As a complement to vertical split-sceening above, this is the music video for Blink-182’s ‘Always’ directed in 2004 by Joseph Kahn, which splits the screen horizontally.

And a more recent, and more complex example is The Kills’ ‘Heart of a Dog’, released in 2016.

Perhaps it’s obvious, but for my argument I want to stress the self-reflexivity of music video as a form. Andrew Darley is among many critics who argue variants of this:

music videos make little or no pretence at hiding their eclectic media saturated dependence on other forms. They are definitively and conspicuously about image: about creating an image for a sound, a performer or performers, and (as often as not) for a performance [emphasis added].

Seeing it now

Rewind to 18 November 1951. Legendary war correspondent Edward R Murrow and producer Fred Friendly kick off their new television series See It Now. The programme would run until 1958 and be credited, among much else, with contributing in 1954 to the downfall of red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Here’s how it started:

(In passing, it’s worth noting that we have no comparable recording of a live television broadcast in Bitain from 1951. The BBC did not introduce tele-recording technology until 1953, and from before this we have only some fragments of film.)

There’s much that’s fascinating about this clip, including the remarkable self-reflexive foregrounding of television technology: Murrow explaining that he is seated at a control desk, studio director Don Hewitt vision mixing, (Hewitt would become even more central to television’s development than Murrow), the camera as a prop in the first frames, and more. And right here at the start of the medium we have a form of split-screen, facilitated by the side-by-side monitors (compared by Murrow to ‘loudspeakers’, referring back to the more familiar technology of radio) showing simultaneous images of the Atlantic and the Pacific. ‘For the first time,’ as Murrow says, ‘man has been able to sit at home and look at two oceans at the same time.’ We are seeing both on the same screen – and, as the series title stresses, we are seeing them now.

We get here a very early glimpse of how live (and much recorded) television production is grounded in the split-screen form, with multiple images offered to the director to be selected, but – unlike here – very rarely shared with the viewer.

Split-screen television in a more familiar form, with two or more images (rather than monitors) embedded on the screen at the same time, was only possible technically in the late 1960s, which is when producer Roone Arledge introduced the technique into sports broadcasting, including for ski-ing at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics and then for baseball and American football. Split-screen techniques have been a staple of sports programming ever since, including notably in Britain in 1970s darts coverage (as Simon Mahon’s BBC Genome blog details).

Split-screening is also very familiar in news broadcasts (and has become even more so in lockdown), with a studio presenter calling up a correspondent ‘on the spot’ who appears in separate frame. American news channels have refined this form so as to regularly feature four or even more contributors to a discussion in a split-screen frame (random example from 2013 below).

In sports broadcasts, the underlying idea is still, I think, that we are seeing two images from the same real world space – the darts champion throwing and the close-up of the Treble 60 on the board. News, however, is happy that these faces exist in an electronic mediaspace of connection which is the equivalent of Doris Day and Rock Hudson talking together on the phone (see my previous post for the clip) or indeed of a Zoom call. Which is why news and current affairs programmes in lockdown have so easily adjusted to displaying Zoom or its equivalents on screen – and also probably why, in reverse and because we are familiar with a version of it on television, we have all (more or less) comfortably accepted the metaphor of the Zoom interface for our meetings.

In both sports and news, it might also be noted, there is the expectation that – for most of the time at least – we are seeing what’s on the split screens now. Spectacle and self-reflexivity are key elements of both news and sport on television, but live-ness is at least as fundamental to both types of broadcasting. And both types are essentially developments of what was on show back in 1951 when Murrow demonstrated how we could see simultaneous views of the world now.

Performance and the single frame

If split-screen style has become familiar in sports and news on television, this is much less the case – I want to propose – in live and as-live performance. Here there is a much greater emphasis on the integrity of a stream of consecutive single frames, and a far more sparing use of simultaneous split screens, whether the broadcast is the Proms, Strictly… or Shakespeare.

Split screening in live broadcasts is challenging, but as sports directors demonstrate all the time, with the use of templates and more, it’s far from impossible. Rather, it seems that performance is content to conjure up drama and spectacle in other ways – with voting, say, for the former, and with shiny floors, sweeping camera movements, and fast-cutting for the latter. Performance on screen is visually conservative, and nowhere has this been more the case recently than in the Proms and other classical music broadcasts. The innovations in this context developed by the producer Barrie Gavin and others at the BBC in the 1960s and ’70s remain unexplored.

There is a sense, perhaps, that performance is best and most respectfully served by a visual language of conventional continuity editing. The performer and performance must be translated in as apparently an unmediated fashion as possible, and there is the worry that the self-reflexivity of split-screening would get in the way of the viewer’s experience of the art. In this framework the performance broadcast has to be all about a musician’s interpretation or an actor’s Iago, with never a hint that it might (also) be about the image.

Certainly that was the feeling I heard forcefully expressed at Clapham Picturehouse at the end of a Met Opera: Live in HD broadcast of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde back in 2008. Gavin Dixon, writing for bachtrack about the DVD release of this broadcast in 2013, noted:

The production (Dieter Dorn) is visually clear and well defined, the large sets (Jürgen Rose) making effective use of just a few pastel colours to set the scene. The video production makes imaginative use of split-screen effects, often presenting close-ups of the two lovers with an image of the full stage. The approach is similar to that taken by Bill Viola in his video projection designed for concert performances of Tristan from a few years earlier, but it is less conceptual, designed more to clarify than to interpret.  

Watching this great music drama on the big screen I was surprised by the use of inset close-ups in the long, largely static duets, and I thought that it was an effective interpretative technique. As the credits rolled, and the name of the screen director, Barbara Willis Sweete, came up on screen, several people in the row behind me started to boo. Loudly, forcefully. Aside from appreciating the novelty of such a protest, expected perhaps at La Scala or Covent Garden, but infrequent in a cinema, especially when its target was some four thousand miles away, I was curious about the reason. The boo-ers explained to me that they wanted ‘Wagner pure and simple’ and that they didn’t appreciate the performance being ‘messed about with’ with the inserts. They loved, as it were, seeing the New York stage now, but to hell with anything that smacked of self-reflexivity.

Only connecting

The use of similar techniques in screen version of theatre is vanishingly rare. In a richly interesting comment responding to my first post, Pascale Aebischer highlights the use of split screen techniques in the 2009 VPRO broadcast of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of The Taming of the Shrew/Temmen van de feeks. The use of split screening on stage in Julius Caesar, another Toneelgroep production by Ivo von Hove and part of their The Romans trilogy, has been discussed by Sarah Hatchuel in her book Shakespeare and the Cleopatra/Caesar Intertext: Sequel, Conflation, Remake.

Hatchuel notes that the presence of multiple screens in the theatre, the integration of CNN-type graphics, and what she describes as ‘the hyper-mediatization on the stage’ led French critics of performances at the Avignon Festival to compare the production to the Fox TV series 24 (2001-10). And 24, of course, is notable for each episode supposedly taking place in just a single hour of screen time and for the extensive use of split screen style. Should you need a nostalgic reminder:

And here’s a subtitled trailer for later performances of The Romans:

In her analysis Sarah Hatchuel continues:

Just as in 24, Ivo von Hove’s screen must not necessarily be seen as ‘split’, but rather, as Monica Michlin argues, as ‘a web of images, connected rather than separated by the lines that criss-cross the TV screen… While the split screen is reflective of TV network control rooms, it can also be linked to other traditions of multiple frames, from the medieval polyptych to comic books, reflexively commenting on the need for distance and perspective (pp. 54-5).

Pascale vividly describes a further production that engages, partially at least, with these ideas, Grzegorz Jarzyna’s 2007: Macbeth, and here is the (relatively restrained, at least in terms of visual style) trailer for this (which can be freely viewed in full at the Ninateka website):

The paradox, as I indicated above, is that while there are relatively few performances that employ split-screen style in the broadcast feed, the production process of multiple camera broadcasting and recording has multiple screens at its heart. In the control gallery the screen director and vision mixer select from six, seven or more simultaneous camera feeds that are on offer at any moment, which are displayed either in a line or a grid as a kind of real world split screen in front of the mixing desk, and that can be recorded for review as a complex split screen (with the live feed at any moment being shown in the larger box at top right, and the selected camera outlined in red; the image features Amber James, Gavin Fowler and Oliver Ford Davies in the RSC’s 2018 production of Troilus and Cressida).

Reflecting on all of this, I couldn’t agree more with Pascale who writes in her comment that

there is evidently a confluence of stage and screen work here and remediation in both directions: stage work that (like Katie Mitchell’s) uses ‘filmic’ language, conventions, set design and media, and now it’s new broadcast work that is responding to such work in a way that mirrors it and builds on it.

There’s a great deal more theatre working with these concerns, including two recent favourites of mine, the Kiss and Cry Collective from Belgium who were at the Barbican recently with their ‘live cinema’ production of Cold Blood, and Imitating the Dog’s Night of the Dead Remix. (Which is not to forget how fundamental to all of this the Wooster Group have been, as they remain.) What we have yet to see, however, is any engagement with these ideas from broadcasters or producers of screen performance (although, speaking personally, it’s not for the want of trying).

I very much hope there is the opportunity to explore all of this in discussions and further writing. For the moment, I want to hold on to Monica Michlin’s and Sarah Hatchuel’s important ideas about ‘split’ screens being about connections as much as separations, and about the way they engage with ideas of distance and perspective. Perhaps here, at this time of lockdown, when our awareness of connections and distance and perspectives has been so intensely heightened, is one of the reasons why split screen style has emerged as, in part at least, the language of that lockdown.

Comments

  1. Erin says:

    Ignore my question on part 2 about Sweete – you answered it here! I couldn’t agree more about the connectedness that can emerge from split screen, and I’m going to look up Hatchuel’s book once libraries open again… My favorite parts of Roman Tragedies were the moments in which split screens reconfigured/reconnected characters that were physically and/or emotionally distant — so, the Brutus/Portia and Caesar/Calpurnia scene and then, especially, the bringing together of Antony and Cleopatra right at the end. Thanks again for such an interesting series of posts!

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