PERMEATING SCREENS IN POPULAR CULTURE
Screens abound in our contemporary Western world. Phones, tablets, televisions, monitors; at bus stops, supermarket checkouts, in departure lounges, waiting rooms, elevators; movies, advertisements, directions, breaking news—the list goes on and on. As David Thomson writes, introducing his history of The Big Screen, “they were big once, as large as buildings, and now they may be thumbnail size—yet they are vast in their ubiquity and their constant use.” In Non-Places, anthropologist Marc Augé elucidates the mass mediation of reality through “the injunctions, advice, commentaries and ‘messages’ transmitted by the innumerable ‘supports’ (signboards, screens, posters) that form an integral part of the contemporary landscape.” That was in 1995; nowadays you can hardly turn around for want of a rectangle demanding your attention. Indeed, you’re looking at one right now.
Within fiction, the notion of a character physically passing through a screen is one we all know; be it a movie come alive or a viewer sucked into a television, the image is persistent across forms. It’s also core to what Sandbox is all about— involving as it does screen media and its consumption, representation, and fantasy.
Think of the 1993 movie Last Action Hero, which sees movement in both directions as a magical cinema ticket allows access to the film world. Then the trouble really starts, as characters from the film-within-the-film break out into ‘real life’. In Pleasantville, our protagonists warp into the world of a black and white soap opera. In Tron, in Brainscan, in Arcade we see players sucked into computers and video games. In The Neverending Story the boundary between reader and story is toyed with as the narrative unfolds. And siblings and cousins of the trope are to be found in Stay Tuned, Enchanted, The Pagemaster, Lost in Austen, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Stranger Than Fiction, World on a Wire and more.
There are many variant types, but the central metaphor is obvious: as a character moves back or forth, slipping or smashing through the screen, they refer to our own interaction with said medium, with the story itself, and to the ‘magic of fiction’. The ease with which the screen is permeated seeks to demonstrate how literally fiction can transport us; our attention, our mind, our hearts are elsewhere, engaged in a fantasy. In 1907, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a reading memoir entitled Through the Magic Door—expressly about the power of reading (and his preferred texts), the author described how one might
“PLUNGE BACK INTO THE SOOTHING COMPANY OF THE GREAT DEAD, AND THEN YOU ARE THROUGH THE MAGIC PORTAL INTO THAT FAIR LAND WHITHER WORRY AND VEXATION CAN FOLLOW YOU NO MORE.”
Where do we go when we watch a film, read a book, play a game? Are we ourselves or another? Do we return unchanged? All interesting questions, but none of which we’ll be answering today; rather we’ll be looking at some further, hopefully unanticipated examples of transgression, and assessing what a world of screens really implicates.
It’s perhaps strange that the screens populating our contemporary mediated world are seen as doorways, as tunnels, as access. Historically speaking, in fact, they were rather the opposite: both a noun and a verb, ‘screen’ meant protection, to shield, or a barrier. Like the screens that split rooms, the screens behind which we undress, or those that protect us as we drive our cars. So how did the term go from an obstruction to a ‘magic portal’?
Interestingly, there’s a short story from 1918 that examines this very opposition. In Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s horror Hell Screen (adapted to film as 1969’s Portrait of Hell), a devilish court painter is asked to depict hell on his Lord’s screen. As the artist becomes obsessed with his commission, he seeks visual reference by abusing his models in increasingly drastic ways. The painting seems to possess its creator, talking through him while he sleeps. As the screen is filled, the intricacy of its lurid details seems charged with an almost supernatural affect.
Paintings that come to life are plentiful in the cultural cache, from The Picture of Dorian Gray to Vigo in Ghostbusters II. But we don’t have to resort to the uncanny in order to project a world behind the canvas; there’s something much more fundamental, much more overlooked that does it for us: perspective. Representational art has long since established a space within the image—but it wasn’t until the advent of a more uniform, linear model during the Renaissance that paintings offered a consistent, projected expanse which appeared to mirror the physical space of the observer. Those familiar converging lines directly reflect the equally well-worn diagrams of how our eyes intake light beams, and how our field of vision emanates out from a central point to a wider horizon. Those lines can also be found in the wireframe worlds of cyberspace, of Tron Legacy and The Lawnmower Man, into which numerous characters have journeyed.
It’s important however to note that, while generally the orthodoxy of the vanishing point persists to this day, much of modern art has sought to remove linear perspective from its pedestal. As art historian Erwin Panofsky noted, “the structure of an infinite, unchanging and homogenous space —in short, a purely mathematical space—is quite unlike the structure of psychophysiological space”. Those converging train tracks are guidelines, an illusion, which may well offer a common language for how we represent our shared world, but do not convey the interior of the human mind or how we each perceive phenomena. David Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style seeks an aesthetic revision of cinema history in accordance with ‘staging in depth’—how directors utilise the ‘recessional’ space before the camera to dramatise the mis-en-scène. From the necessity dealt by early cinematic long takes and fixed cameras to the more recent introduction of telephoto lenses (and alternate staging options like camera motion and widescreen), Bordwell offers a whole new political economy of the frame. Disassembling prior theoretical arguments that the ‘visual pyramid’ of staging before the central point of the camera proceeds naturally from geometric perspective, and a supposedly ‘realist’ optics, Bordwell notes that “the sense of depth yielded by the movie image is not traceable only to perspective. Linear perspective, the organization of orthogonal planes and foreshortening according to an observer’s station point, is only one cue for depth.” And yet, discussing more recent hand- drawn and computer-generated moving image, he points out that
“ALTHOUGH ANIMATED FILMS COULD INVOKE OTHER REPRESENTATIONAL SYSTEMS, NEARLY ALL IN PRACTICE IMITATE MONOCULAR GEOMETRICAL PROJECTION. PROGRAMS FOR COMPUTER ANIMATION MAKE THE VISUAL PYRAMID THE BASIS OF CALCULATING THE SPATIAL ARRAY.”
Bordwell also describes instances of flatter, more obstructive foreground staging. Discussing a scene from The Godfather, in which we peer into the back of a car as a character is strangled, Bordwell notes how “The viewer is assaulted as Carlo helplessly kicks through the windshield.” The surrogacy the in-shot glass offers for the film camera, and the movie screen, is another example of how the permeation of the screen is represented—like those shots in films at sea in which the waves lap against the screen, or water droplets spatter onto the lens. It happens in knowing horrors, too, when blood appears to spurt or spray across the camera. And we might mention horror director Dario Argento’s recurrent, fetishistic image of a woman’s head breaking through a pane of glass.
In The Matrix, the camera passes through a CCTV screen and enters the subsequent scene; the protagonist also engages with a mirror as if it were a pool of water. This notion of a real, physicalized space beyond the screen is implicit in much of the ‘breaking and entering’ we’re looking at, but is crucially slightly different from the mere projection of space onto a 2D surface. Like Mike TV in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, or the killer in Shocker—both finding themselves ‘captured’ by cameras and occupying the three-dimensional space on the other side. In the other direction we might point to the horror movie Ring, in which an onscreen spirit crawls materially from a television set.
From the Lumière brothers’ 1895 Train Pulling into a Station, whose audience purportedly jumped up with shock at the approaching locomotive, cinematic technologies have sought to toy with the dividing screen. The kinetoscope required individual viewers to press their face against a peephole, and film historian Tom Gunning describes
“HALE’S TOURS, THE LARGEST CHAIN OF THEATRES EXCLUSIVELY SHOWING FILMS BEFORE 1906… THE THEATRE ITSELF WAS ARRANGED AS A TRAIN CAR, WITH A CONDUCTOR WHO TOOK TICKETS, AND SOUND EFFECTS SIMULATING THE CLICK-CLACK OF WHEELS AND HISS OF AIR BRAKES.”
We can also consider 3D as a technology aimed at ‘breaking the first wall’—as we don our special glasses, objects appear to lunge and whizz at us out of the screen. Of course, three-dimensional moving image is not new to the immediate past; from early stereoscopic imagery, to the 1950s craze, to the record-breaking success of Avatar, the technology seems to resurface periodically throughout film history. The Lumières even experimented with it, reshooting their confrontational train film via the process.
We might similarly mention virtual reality technologies, which have again gained currency in recent years through examples like the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. So too we could include the gargantuan field-of-vision screens of IMAX, ‘4D’ attractions, fairground rides and augmented reality. In other, more traditional media we might consider Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases, trompe l’oeil, pop-up books and more.
It becomes apparent that, throughout the long history of screens, technologies striving for physical engagement have been consistently present; indeed, they may well predate their more detached alternative. And yet today, those technologies that do play with the physical setup of spectation are sold as the exception—fads and follies, or cutting-edge inventions that command esoteric knowledge and/or a premium price—with the flat, one-directional screens that surround us as the norm.
In The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Anne Friedberg examines a history of framed attention that runs, as the subtitle suggests, from fifteenth-century art theory to Microsoft’s computer operating system. In its majority a narrative of access and virtuality, Friedberg’s book “took shape while the screens of cinema, television and computer began to converge… as beholders of multiple-screen ‘windows’,” she writes, “we now see the world in spatially and temporally fractured frames… that rely more on the multiple and simultaneous than on the singular and sequential.” In her final ‘postlogue’, looking out to potential future areas of interest, the author quotes novelist A. M. Homes who, recounting the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, wrote that “Seeing it with your own eyes, in real time—not on a screen, not protected by the frame of a television set, not in the communal darkness of a movie theatre—seeing it like this is irreconcilable, like a hallucination, a psychotic break.” Not unrelatedly, in Alone Together Sherry Turkle recalls an earlier subject in her research into online avatars, who “always had these worlds open as windows on his computer screen along with his schoolwork, e-mail program, and favourite games. He cycled easily through them. He told me that RL [real life] ‘is just one more window.’ And, he added, ‘it’s not usually my best one.’ ”
We live in a culture of screens. By far the vast majority are flat, impenetrable, visual—by their very definition, no less— principally engaging only with our vision, that least bodily of our senses. As we denaturalise this device that surrounds us it becomes apparent that, at least for now, the technology of the screen continues to be a separating device, an obstruction. Unlike those technologies that transcend the fiction-consumer divide, screens offer a removed experience, transport at a distance.
Like Conan Doyle’s magic door “into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more”, the images of breaking and entering that permeable divide are largely fantasies. And that may well be how we like it. The fantasy of trangression is often one of loss of self or transcendence, of toying with oblivion: characters leave their corporeal bodies and move into screen space, just as we attend the screen and deny our physical reality. Screens, then, offer us experience at a remove, at a safe distance.