Widescreen and its potential

Just been given an article by David Thomson, “Widescreen Aesthetics and Mise en Scene Criticism” (Velvet Light Trap No.21, date?), which could be very helpful for ECHO.

Basically covers arguments between Bazin and the mise-en-scene critics, and includes discussion of Charles Barr’s famous article on Widescreen.  Talks about the “metaphysical and epistemological” arguments of Bazin having been a bit ignored and replaced by stylistic ones from the mise-en-scene critics.  Bazin’s awareness of the gaps in perceiving reality, replaced by an organising and unifying aesthetic in the auteur critics.  However, mise-en-scene critics really didn’t take into account a) the narration of films and how films organise information to create point of view and the absorption of important narrative material, and b) the “genuis of the system” whereby Hollywood film syntax (historically changing and in flux) actually organises this, rather than it being totally determined by auteurs.  However, there is then a tacitly interesting possibility of an argument about the psychology/neurology of widescreen and montage, and how the brain processes information from the eye.  Finally, Thomson talks very interestingly about technology enabling and restricting choice (adding and subtracting, rather than multiplying). how could we use his insight that  ”the dialectic of technological choice and constraint will still take place within the norms of practice shared by filmmakers and audiences” to look at ECHO and the practice of 5 screens. 

Pluses and minuses:

1.  multi screens preserves temporality in an even stronger way than widescreen.   Conversations between characters on different screens have to have both the conversations and the reaction preserved.  Technically, this is quite difficult, as they may have been filmed in different locations, so unlike the aesthetic of the long take, this is a constructed aesthetic, and hasn’t got the ontological reality.  Also, we’re used to the “montage” of film cutting out the extraneous or boring reactions and preserving the interesting bits. Unlike widescreen, we don’t have the choice of the panorama or the close ups to focus upon, but have to choose between screens at certain times (this isn’t absolute as screens may be adjacent – but they may also be opposite).  The choice of opposite, adjacent or ceiling screens has to be in concert with the narration in order to inform audience expectation.  However, it’s quite possible that neurologically/optically, editing is just as much a metaphor for vision, sharing its mechanisms, as the long take, as we frequently cut out the “garbage” of processing between views, and therefore multi screen installations uses this aspect of vision, and spectators have the Bazinian choice of watching between screens.

The choice of screen viewing is also determined by “norms of practice” and narration in classical film making. In ECHO, sound (especially dialogue or narration) will lead the spectator to their choice of screen, and may well be important when solving narrational or attentional problems in the editing. This could be very useful in Echo, where the narrator, Tiresias, is on the back screen.  I’ve kept him/her deliberately simple, so that all the narrative information is delivered through his/her narration, and very little change happens on the visual track (although the background changes occasionally).  Once planted, Tiresias is only an optional visual track, as long as the audience listen, they won’t get shocked.  Also reduncancy – Thomson refers to this in the Widescreen article, particularly about River of No Return, where we are cued to see objects as important through narrative planting, and also withholding of information.  In ECHO, this is true of Tiresias (see above). There’s very little withholding/suspense (although there is some with the Gods’ adultery, and we must make sure that the audience are geared to see Hera leave the top screen and enter the front screen to chase and catch Zeus, before he sees her). However, there’s plenty of planting, for example, ECHO’s songs, and the use of the installation, flashback structure of the beginning, with Echo and Narcissus’s death, letting the audience know what will happen, so they are looking at “How”.  There’s also a pure aesthetic effect of multi-screen, both in the musical bits, where all screens come into operation not as narrative, but as spectacle.

The aesthetic aspect of the multi-screen is also important.  The gaps between screens should (if small enough) act as the kind of barriers that windows/verticals had for Ophuls, Sirk, and the classic metteurs-en-scene, separating characters emotionally (a key scene for this is where Echo follows Narcissus and is rejected by him), or unified by multiple repetition of the same screen on other screens.

There’s also the theatrical use of space which relates to the spectator.  The ceiling screen, in particular produce the effect of power – their oppression of the humans being spatial and also relating to the audience.  This is a new deployment of a very traditional device (the medieval mystery play, and the Sistine Chapel Ceiling), but it combines them and implicates the viewer.  The Gods eventually come to earth, which also creates in mise-en-scene, the narrative meaning of their ”human” fragilities.

 Please add to this, as I’d welcome comments, and I’ll try and expand.



Coral Houtman © 2012-2022