Problems With Split Screens

FrameupThere are two reasons that I don’t understand anonymous blogging and both of them act as reasons for blogging anonymously. First, I’m a narcissist. Writing is an extension of me and I can’t imagine doing it without getting credit for it, even though I mostly do it to please myself. Second, I’m an idiot who allowed my privacy to be so compromised that I just don’t think anything is still available to be used against me. It’s this second thing that seems to bother most anonymous bloggers. They are afraid that what they write might hurt them at work. That is a sad commentary on life in America.

Let’s think about that for a moment. One of my biggest problems with libertarians is that they have this ridiculous idea that it is only the government who can limit your liberty, “Because only the government has a military.” Or some variant. It’s ridiculous on its own terms. The great innovation in chess over the last many decades have been the hypermodern openings. You see, standard chess theory dictates that you must control the center of the board. But hypermodern theory shows that it is not necessary to occupy the center of the board in order to control it. We’ve seen this with American imperialism where we don’t have to officially own a country to control it. And Walmart doesn’t have to have its own army to control your life.

So I think anonymous blogging is great. But I do wish that anonymous bloggers would provide some information about themselves. And if not that, at least a way to contact them. And if not that, at least a way to comment on their blogging. And this brings to an active little blog, Technology as Nature. I came upon the blog because there were a couple of click-throughs to an article over here. So I went over and checked it out. I assume the author is a man, and he is a pretentious little punk—much like me, but probably a couple of decades younger. But he seems to know what he’s talking about—he agrees with me. In discussing Maya Angelou, he correctly noted that her poetry isn’t very good, but her prose is.

But he asked a question, which cannot be answered because there are no comments on the blog:

Why is 24 the only recent show to have used split screen frequently and successfully?

I don’t know how 24 uses the split screen because I haven’t seen it. I don’t see much television and I’ve specifically avoided that show because I believe it to be torture porn, and as well made as it may be, I don’t want to encourage that. Also, it seems to push the idea that torture works, and that doesn’t seem to be true in the real world. It does, however, say a lot about how we have changed as a culture that in my youth, the fact that a character tortured someone was a bad thing. But let’s put that aside for now.

The split screen is in general a bad thing because it calls attention to itself. It pulls the viewer out of the narrative. And I don’t know of a situation in which it is necessary to tell a story. So it is, as the writer noted in the article, a “stylistic tool.” And as such, a director needs a really good reason to use it. Otherwise, it seems flashy for no good reason. I still see it used, but in more experimental films. Jon Jost used it to great effect in Frameup. In one scene, we see Ricky Lee performing a monologue in front of one of those mugshot backgrounds. On the left, he is looking directly into the camera and on the right, he is seen from the side. I don’t know exactly what Jost was trying to “say” with it, but the effect was electrifying.

Another is Mike Figgis’ Timecode, which I think kind of makes the case for why people should not use split screens. Figgis used the sound editing to clue in the viewer about what is the most important panel to be watching. It raises the question, “Given that cross-cutting has been standard film syntax for a hundred years, why not just cross cut and not inundate me with a lot of narrative that I don’t need?” It’s the equivalent of novels that jump back and forth, chapter by chapter, between two periods. It can be justified at times, but mostly it is just authorial laziness.

The rule should be that you tell the story in the most straightforward way possible. If you use something as flashy as a split-screen it had better be either (1) essential to telling the story or (2) visually stunning. As I said, I don’t see the first condition ever being met. And only people as brilliant as Jon Jost had better try for the second.

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