Thursday, October 07, 2004

Split (Screen) Decision

The New York Times
October 7, 2004

Split Decision

San Francisco

In the spin that followed the first presidential debate, many commentators referred to the "split screen" effect, when the cameras would show one candidate's reaction as the other spoke. It was when President Bush was huffing, blinking and scowling at John Kerry's answers that he looked most petulant. In the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday, both speakers appeared to have learned from Mr. Bush's antics, and so they generally looked at each other as if they were auditioning for the job of bodyguard.

But it is vital for viewers to see how the candidates react to each other's remarks, and the networks were right to ignore the party rules that restricted what could be shown during the debates. Still, the networks used different techniques to break the rules. A true split screen was employed only by some networks, like ABC and C-Span, whereas others, like PBS, honored what might be called a spatial relationship between the two contestants.

A split screen is two or more separate images put together in one image, or one screen. Thus it was a split screen on ABC when similar images of Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry were set side-by-side with a clear dividing line. But on PBS the shots were actually what are called two-shots: a single image in which we see two people at the same time with the space between them. Such a shot may not accommodate the full figures, but as the first debate revealed, an ingenious director with a good camera angle could show one person speaking, with another (in the background, or to one side) listening, reacting and generally behaving like a natural idiot.

In film studies, and once upon a time in filmmaking, the two-shot was a staple. Indeed, the shot of two or more people, not quite full length, but conversing and interacting, was often called "the American shot" in French film commentary. That is because it used to be a staple of good American movie-making. It can be found everywhere in the films of Howard Hawks, for example, a director whose work includes "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday," "To Have and Have Not," "The Big Sleep" and "Red River," among others. I could praise him at length. Let me just say here that he is both "cool" and "neat," and on both accounts because of his skill with the group shot.

I realize that we live in an age when many in the news media, to say nothing of the audience, take it for granted that film and television require nothing but the close-up. And I don't want to knock the close-up. It is a splendid and lovely thing, even when it shows a linebacker spitting out a few of his own teeth.

But the two-shot and the group shot teach us another lesson: that there are spatial relationships in life. People in conversation look at each other; they listen or try not to. The variety of body language and posture is enormous and beautiful, and there was once a way of making movies that thrived on those bonds. If you care to check this out, I would recommend just about anything by Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophüls, Otto Preminger, Orson Welles, Yasujiro Ozu - and all of these guys are O.K., too.

I'll go a step further, if I may. There was once a set of theories on film direction, or mise en scène, that attested to the aesthetics and the ethics of using spatial relationships in movies. You can find this spelled out beautifully in the work of André Bazin.

I will simplify the matter here, but Bazin (and others) believed that the cinema (and why not television?) had (or has?) a natural affinity for showing people together and people in places so that we understand both better. The close-up (vital as it may be to storytelling) tends to emphasize the glamour, drama (or melodrama?) of lone people; it has the seed of dictatorship in it. The cinema was based for decades on the notion that all people are equal, alike but different, and it found glory in the group shot that allowed us to look from one person to another, and feel the kinship and the difference.

I have sometimes heard elections described in the same way. And it is worth stressing that the effort before the debate to restrict the way of showing the speakers was a gross intrusion on a kind of free speech integral to film and the society that uses it. I congratulate the networks for ignoring it and for sometimes using two shots in which the spatial bond trembled with animosity and the two men involved behaved naturally - i.e., they let us see how much they dislike each other, and they gave us the opportunity to look into their inner nature.

The vice-presidential debate was awkward in its rare two-shots. Why were the two men sitting down? I'd guess that many viewers felt that Mr. Cheney's crouch and lowered glance spoke for themselves. And tomorrow night is the great test the famous "town hall setting" - a real spatial arena, with onlookers and questioners sharing the debaters' space. Watch to see if George Bush isn't as ingratiating and mobile as Gene Kelly. But pray for directors who know their cinema, and who can view the town hall with the comprehensive gaze of a Jean Renoir.

David Thomson is the author of the forthcoming book "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood."