Thursday, 6 March 2008

Split Screens and Frames

A few weeks ago, in response to my comments about the effectiveness of split screen use in "The Tracey Fragments", Ed from Shoot The Projectionist left a comment mentioning that it was also used effectively in the film "More American Graffiti". So I figured I'd rent it and give it a spin.

Of course, if you're going to watch "More American Graffiti", you really should watch "American Graffiti" first. I hadn't seen it in years and it was great fun revisiting the characters, the music and just the entire feeling of its overly romanticized environment. So, you know, at least that was worth it...

The sequel, however, loses pretty much all the warmth and good will Lucas' 1973 film built up. Unfortunately, all the characters from the original are missing. Oh sure, the same actors are back and they are playing people with the same names and they look the same, but all the interesting aspects of the previous characters have been brought to cliche heights - Steve Bolander's (Ron Howard) less charming qualities in the first are ballooned into full chauvinist unlikeability, the awkward Terry 'Toad' Fields (Charles Martin Smith) becomes a buffoonish complainer, Laurie (Cindy Williams) is now simply whiny, Debbie (Candy Clark) is...ah nevermind. You won't care about any of them anyway (actually, John Milner as the hot rod driver turned drag racer remains pretty consistent) because they don't really do anything interesting. Though the film spans 3 years in the middle part of the sixties and tries to pull in larger cultural touchstones (Vietnam, student demonstrations, hippies), it reduces everyone to the same standard stereotypes. The stories and characters were simply boring.

But as much as I didn't like the film due to story and characters, it did have some interesting aspects - namely that each of the 4 storylines takes place on a different New Year's Eve and uses different aspect ratios.

New Year's Eve 1964

New Year's Eve 1965

New Year's Eve 1966

New Year's Eve 1967

Ed's right about the split screens in Debbie's section of the film - they are effective and make the very dull hippie story watchable. The concurrent view of different angles helps make the action scenes slightly more exciting and also works at establishing relationships between characters (e.g. Debbie and her boyfriend being in different frames while she talks about them getting married). I must admit, I was most happy when this section of the film came back simply because I wanted to see how they would use the various frames at once to move the story forward - even though I just didn't care a wit about Debbie. The 4:3 ratio worked to a certain extent in the Vietnam story since you end up getting a bit of a documentary feel to the footage (after all it was really the first TV war), but just nowhere near enough to cover the poor qualities of the story and writing. So overall, an interesting use of film techniques that just can't overcome very weak material.

Coincidentally, later in the week I watched for the first time the 1955 musical "It's Always Fair Weather" starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It also used split screens, though only in two specific sections of the film:

The first use of it helps differentiate the paths taken by all three of the former war buddies as they integrate themselves back into society after VE Day. It's handled quite well and you get a nice summation of their lives over the last decade in a matter of a couple of minutes. The focus is always determined for the viewer since each frame comes into view after the other has frozen.

Later in the film (after the three have departed from their reunion), we get a dance routine of the three of them synched across three different locations. It's not a particularly dazzling showpiece of dancing, but having the three of them in different frames matching their moves is great fun to watch.

The film certainly has its slow spots and there are some odd choices. There's only a single dance routine with Cyd Charisse (only one!), so you have to wonder what the hell they were thinking there - you have Cyd Charisse and her legs...Use them! Also, one of the three main male characters goes missing for an entire stretch of the middle section of the film. We follow two of the characters through their day leading up to the climactic TV show at the end of the picture (being kept busy by others to ensure they show up later on) and though we know how the remaining member of the trio is being kept busy we just never see him until he walks into the TV show taping. It feels like they just decided to cut out whatever scenes they shot because they didn't work.

After the three friends have reunited and agreed on a lunch spot there's a bit more playing around with frames within the film. As each of the three starts to think that the reunion was a bad idea, the camera locks on their faces and the frame shrinks a bit to emphasize that the voiceover is their own thoughts.

It doesn't work perfectly as there's some mugging going on here, but that's quibbling...Overall, it's an immensely entertaining film. And if you want dancing showpieces, there are two in particular that are just fabulous, hugely energetic and terrific fun - the trash can lid sequence and the roller skating through city streets sequence:

But my favourite use of split screen is probably John Frakenheimer's "Grand Prix". Throughout the beginning of the 3 hour film's titles, we're treated to numerous frames of wheels, cars, road surfaces, etc.

This really helps set the tone at an F1 race course during preparations by all the crews - in particular when the screen shows a single item (say a spinning wrench on a nut) and then shows two and then four and then sixteen...In quick succession it gives off the feeling of many teams and mechanics all bustling around.

After the race starts, the split screens continue from within the race as we see (all at once) a driver's feet on the pedals, the driver's hand on the gear shift and the driver behind the wheel:

...or perhaps the hands, the feet and the road surface speeding along:

...or different angles on the exit of a tunnel:

It sets up the film beautifully and creates added tension and excitement along with the feeling that so much is happening at once.

Of course there's many other films that play with split screens and framing. Notably "Timecode" (which sectioned the screen into four single takes for the duration of the film - not a great story, but a cool experiment), "Woodstock", "Sisters", "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Pillow Talk". And of course early innovators like Dziga Vertov ("The Man With The Movie Camera") and Buster Keaton (whose short film "The Playhouse" was an obvious inspiration for the "It's Always Fair Weather" split screen dance number).

Used well, it's another film technique that can add a great deal to the telling of a story.


Anonymous said...

Excellent. You're so good at this type of thing. I'm such a story and character type of guy that I really appreciate when someone can explain film's visual language in a way that I can understand.

Adam Ross said...

Great screengrabs from "Grand Prix," it was the movie I thought of when I saw you were writing about split screens. I also like how Frankenheimer zoomed in to the mechanics of the racing engine, showing the throttle body, where all this fury begins.

Ang Lee's "Hulk" is another recent example of split screen used effectively.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi gents...

You're far too kind James. I think there's a lot more to be said for the effective use of split screens, but I wanted to get the post out this year sometime...B-) I struggle sometimes to translate what I perceive into actual verbage.

Yeah that opening section of Grand Prix (it's almost half an hour I think if you include the whole first race) is pretty terrific. "Hulk" has been on my list for awhile, but I hadn't realized Lee employed split screens at some points. I'll have to check it out.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic and a fun read too. I second Adam's praise about the Grand Prix screengrabs. It's remarkable how well the gear shift/road surface/foot on pedal images together suggest sound--of a roaring engine of course.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Thom,

Thanks for the comment and sorry for the delay in responding...I've been neglecting the blog of late and will get back to it soon I hope.

I'm starting to see the split screens everywhere all of a sudden. Most recently in "Royal Wedding" (with the twin Keenan Wynn brothers) and then in Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Face Of Another" (which makes sense considering his use of doubling and of course the specific subject matter of that film).

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