The Crossroad of the Screen

Towards the end of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995) there is a sudden cut to another film. Those who know Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) quickly recognize Scottie (James Stewart) and Madeleine (Kim Novak) as they approach the cross-section of a giant redwood tree. Then we see Madeleine’s black-gloved hand pointing to the rings of a felled tree, where labels show dates and historical events. ‘Here I was born,’ she says. ‘And here I died.’

12monk-theater1Abruptly we cut to the auditorium of a cinema and realize we are watching this old film with James Cole (Bruce Willis), the time-travelling protagonist of Twelve Monkeys, who is on the run from the authorities and hiding out in a cinema. Cole turns to his accomplice, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and says, ‘I think I’ve seen this movie before. When I was a kid it was on TV.’ Of course, this is where most viewers of Twelve Monkeys probably saw Vertigo. ‘I did see it before,’ Cole continues as, on-screen, Stewart seems to ask both the on-screen Madeleine and Cole in the auditorium: ‘Have you been here before?’

maxresdefaultFor a moment the two films merge and Cole sits, puzzled at the crossroad of screen worlds. ‘I recognize this,’ he says, ‘but … it’s just like what’s happening to us. Like the past. The movie never changes. It … can’t change, but … every time you see it, it seems to be different because you’re different. You see different things.’

On a literal level this praises Hitchcock’s film for rewarding many viewings, but Cole’s revelation is not a review of Vertigo. His observations stand outside the text of both Hitchcock’s and his own film, for they address the big question about the moving picture apparatus: what is cinema? This is the title of a two volume selection of 1946 essays by French theorist, André Bazin, who claims that the moving image satisfies a deep human desire: ‘At the origin of painting and sculpture,’ says Bazin, ‘there lies a mummy complex’.[1]

The mummy complex is not about mothers but (at least the illusion of) evading death. Photography, for example, by preserving a visual record of the body, addressed a need to fend off death and the passage of time – as did the ancient Egyptian practice of embalming. The moving image had the potential to do this more scrupulously, says Bazin, by being (as Cole notes in Twelve Monkeys) a sort of time machine that tele-ports us to another time and place. Modern studies of its effects imply that its ’emanation of images on two dimensional surfaces’ stimulates both a reflection and a psychological projection. [2]

imageBazin’s observation was radical at a time when the established art world barely considered film an art. Indeed there was no definition in the Oxford English Dictionary of a cinema screen even three decades after the first moving picture appeared. By 1933 it offered six definitions of the word ‘screen’, which defined a guard or barrier (like those in the fireplace) that divides or hides, rather than a display. And yet the screen tends to make us reflect or project our emotions. It has become a psychological space, which we experience as if it is a spatio-temporal reality.

Indeed we sometimes feel we can pass through it into a virtual domain. Anyone who has seen the recent film version of Paddington  will remember how the little bear experiences his first moving picture. The old definition of a barrier screen is retained, however, if we consider how restricted the screen’s view is in comparison to the other arts. A painting, for example, can be can be looked at from different positions; up close or far away: a sculpture can be walked around to get different perspectives or interpretations. But the camera always and only gives one perspective – that of the film-maker, who dictates to us how we should see, screening out all other possible viewing positions.

IMAGE007Our fixed point in the auditorium corresponds to being inside film-making technology (the original meaning of the word ‘camera’ is ‘room’). This contrasts with the ‘free’ gaze of traditional arts and perhaps this spatial inflexibility was the reason the moving image was quick to offer travelogues films, called ‘phantom rides’ in the early days (see picture, right). In addition to this compensation, the temporal structures of story films that soon followed took attention away from – and partly alleviated – its technological dictatorship of our gaze.

The austerity of vision in film has been largely forgotten, perhaps because the illusion of life that twenty-four frames per second affects is unusually engaging. In his history of big screen movies ‘and what they did to us’, critic and biographer David Thomson observes that our immersion in screens enchants us and provides us with an escape from our humdrum life.[3] It took more than twenty years for the moving image, after its slow emergence in the late 19th century, to transform itself from a fairground novelty or a filler between vaudeville acts into a separate entertainment with its own venue, eventually coalescing as a commodity that captivated audiences in its own purpose-built structure.

Our way of looking at the world has never recovered, despite the ‘incredible shrinking screen’ that now sits in our pocket. Thompson fears that, as it dwindles to a pocket-sized distraction, the screen will lose its capacity for aesthetic experience. And yet, when Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City in November, 2012, eye-witnesses on news reports were falling over each other to describe their encounter with nature’s power as ‘like being in a movie’.

We now draw on screen worlds to authenticate our experience of such extra-ordinary events. And to some extent the screen has absorbed life itself. In ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’ (1946) Bazin argued that, because technology is always evolving, film would become infinitely more real. Fifty years later, Neal Gabler conceded in his book, Life the Movie (1998), that Bazin had been only ‘almost right’ in that ‘movies did come to approximate reality more closely than any previous medium, but the process would not be impelled by our desire for immortality … Rather, total cinema would be the result of the entertainment cosmology leaping tracks from screen to life.’[4]

Whatever we think of the entertainments on offer in modern cinema, the screen affects a sense of time travel just as it does for Bruce Willis’ character in Twelve Monkeys. The screen simulates places that may be far-away and times that are long past, frozen in a form that survives the demise of those it records; it induces in the spectator a state of rapture by linking to a dimension where life-like, yet fantastical stories can take place; it enchants or alarms us as we become immersed in its affect, affording a conceptual and metaphorical, two-way portal through which we gain access to other dimensions.

[1] Bazin, André. (1946) 1967. What is Cinema? Volume I. Trans. Hugh Gray. University of California Press.: 9

[2] Uricchio, William. 2009. Transformations in Screen Culture. The JMK Seminar Series.  Spring Uploaded to YouTube by screenculture09 Feb 2, 2009.   Accessed 7 August 2011.

[3] Thomson, David. 2012, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us. Allen Lane.

[4] Gabler, Neal: 1998. Life the Movie: how entertainment conquered reality. Alfred Knopf: 58

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