Last weekend, I went down to Boston’s waterfront district to get lunch with my father and a family friend at the Institute of Contemporary Art, a vaguely Lego-like building that represents the modernist vanguard in a city that tends towards artistic conservatism. After lunch, we decided to wander around the museum; in so doing, I came, eventually, to video artist Isaac Julien’s “Ten Thousand Waves.”
“Waves” is an ambitious video project in which Julien interweaves three stories from Chinese history and mythology. Though the material was interesting, it was the medium that intrigued me more. Julien’s project is fully immersive, taking up a full room of the ICA and involving no fewer than nine screens: seven surrounding the circumference of the room, an additional two bisecting it across its diameter. Sometimes the screens show the same image, but usually they do not, instead establishing dialogues between images and encouraging the viewer to shift from one to the next to search out details. The result is that, although Julien’s product does not gladly yield up its meaning, it is engrossing rather than frustrating. The viewer takes a more active role in engaging the material than he would with an experimental film projected on a standard single screen, which makes the process of searching out meaning almost adventurous.
In an era when home entertainment and digital downloading have increasingly closed the gap between what and when you can get in your home as opposed to in the theater, “Ten Thousand Waves” suggested to me a potential new model for film creation and distribution. Of course, “Waves” was the work of a single artist who never intended it for commercial distribution, and the approach that Julien took, at least insofar as it involves nine screens and deliberately obstructed sightlines, could never be replicated on a mass scale. But might his technique nonetheless have something to say to contemporary filmmaking?
From an aesthetic standpoint, the answer to that question largely depends on whether or not multi-screen movies could offer something substantially different from what we consume every weekend at the local multiplex (for the purposes of this essay, let’s refer to them as ‘multiscreens’ and ‘singlescreens’). The fact that I’m writing about the idea should clue you in to the fact that I think the answer is yes. I’ve already mentioned how “Waves” managed to approximate how we interact with the world; this was because, in presenting multiple images, the audience had to choose where to focus its attention. Given the surfeit of visual options, we could jump from screen to screen taking in as many details as we could, in much the same way that we are always looking around our environments trying to register how things change and move.
Arguably, a differentiated product was the goal of Cinerama, a faddish three-camera widescreen process used in the 1950s and ‘60s, or any other let’s-make-the-screen bigger movement of the sort that resulted in IMAX screens and, before that, 70mm filmmaking. To me, the difference is that multiscreens are inherently built for a multiple image experience. Painting may offer a good analogy: Guernica is a massive 11 feet by 25 feet, while Girl with a Pearl Earring, at 17.5 by 15 inches, is about the size of a coffee table book. Both, though, speak in the same single-image idiom when compared with works like The Elevation of the Cross, a triptych depicting the raising of Christ on his crucifix. The latter has three images, but each is a part of the work as a whole, with the subsidiary side images adding layers of meaning to the dominant central panel. That’s the sort of power that multiscreens have compared with a single-image approach. Where Cinerama, despite its three-camera process, remained wedded to a single-screen idiom, having multiple separate screens opens up a far greater range of visual possibilities: focusing attention by only having one screen playing, for instance, or having the same image playing on multiple screens, or using the multiple images to create the overall impression of a setting.
Admittedly, the splitscreen attempts to achieve the same effect. The splitscreen, however, is almost always too crowded or too crude to be effective, which is why it is so rarely seen. The multiscreen gives each image equal weight and room to breathe. In so doing, I think it offers a qualitatively different moviegoing experience from what we’re used to. It wouldn’t be practical to have nine screens for a commercial venture, but with three or four you could achieve much of that same immersive effect that I found to be so singular about “Ten Thousand Waves.” At a time that the cinema has been looking for a way to differentiate itself again — why do you think 3-D is so in vogue right now? — the multiscreen offers both the promise of a thoroughly different experience and one that you can’t replicate at home. Could I re-create the experience of watching “Ten Thousand Waves” in my living room? With enough time and energy, I guess so — but, at the present moment at least, the effort wouldn’t be worth it.
In my critique of 3-D filmmaking back in June, I noted that a major problem of 3-D is that it is still “constrained by the screen” — that it, it can’t give us the immersive experience that it promises because it’s still bound by the conventions of being an object in a frame that we look at. Even though it extends the image towards us, it’s still operating within the same single-image idiom as Guernica and Girl With a Pearl Earring — and, crucially, as every movie that we watch on our home television screens. When you watch in 2-D a movie that was shot in 3-D, it doesn’t change your experience of it, except that you really notice how dumb a lot of shots are that were done to take advantage of the technology (this was my experience with The Three Musketeers). Ditto for when you watch it on a smaller screen instead of in a theatre — it might not be the same experience, but it approaches that experience enough that we feel like we’re still consuming the film in an adequate way.
Unless you wanted to buy additional displays and spend the time to sync them correctly, it would be hard to do that with a multiscreen. Would audiences accept it as a medium, though? I enjoyed my experience at the ICA, but I don’t know how I would react trying to watch a multiscreen movie that lasted for two hours. Before I could even test that theory, though, there’s the more significant question of how it would change the filmmaking process, which I think might be a bigger obstacle. Let’s say that a standard multiscreen format would be a triptych setup, three screens in some orientation. As a director, the very fact of the multiplicity of your visual options complicates the process of making the movie. First of all, there’s the fact that there’s three times as much editing to accomplish — after all, you have to cut motion pictures for three separate screens. Even more daunting, you now have to cut across screens as well as within them — that is, you’re trying to establish meaningful relationships between the content of Screen A, Screen B, and Screen C, as well as making sure that the timing of the whole thing holds together well and moves the story forward. You’re now also in the position of having to shoot a lot more footage, since in putting together a scene you have to be thinking about what’s going to show up on each of three screens rather than on one.
Yet however much more complicated filmmaking would become as a technical process, I think this is probably the smallest concern. Filmmakers, after all, are artists, and I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t quickly develop ways to work with the new idiom and make it work, just as they did with the massive canvases of the Cinerama features. Meanwhile, in a world where digital filmmaking has vastly reduced the cost of shooting movies, the cost of producing three times as much footage (actually, I suspect it would be even less than three times, but who knows until it’s been tried) is far less daunting than it would have been when everything was shot on 35mm, a trend that will only continue. Multiscreens might make it harder to produce an engrossing film; they would certainly heighten the importance of having a great editor on a production. But people would still find a way to get movies made.
Of course, the nature of distribution in the modern world would be a major obstacle as well. Every movie palace and multiplex in the country, after all, is built to carry single screen pictures, and the logistics of understanding how to project these multiscreen features would itself be a challenge apart from the infrastructural one. 3-D, on the other hand, can be quickly adjusted for by getting a certain kind of print and handing out 3-D glasses — overly darkened screens be damned. That makes it easy to experiment with the possibility of using 3-D, whereas, even if it had been dreamed of, the logistics of testing audience appetite for multiscreens may be prohibitive.
As far as my ‘possible future of the movies’ is concerned, then, we find ourselves in a catch-22: the infrastructure required to distribute and project multiscreens would almost certainly come into existence if multiscreens proved to appeal to audiences, but that appeal could only gauged if the infrastructure to show multiscreens existed. I feel like there should be a back door out of this problem — or at least I want there to be, because I want someone to test this idea out. Why should movies be confined to a single screen, after all? At the very least, the multi-screen medium is a different and largely unexplored way of telling stories. That’s why, while acknowledging these various obstacles to the process, I want to put the idea out into the world. A process can’t be tried, after all, if it hasn’t been conceived.