The Textured Screen
One of the striking things about Steven Soderbergh’s new film, No Sudden Move, is the persistent use of a fisheye perspective. The very space of the film is concave, curved back on itself at its limits—as if someone were folding the ends just so. The screen is no longer a neutral site of representation, a blank slate that disappears into the background, making way for the images, character, ideas, action. The screen itself is now inflected and so, in turn, inflects the action, characters, and images as they elongate, stretch, fold. No longer content to fade into the darkness, the folds of the screen become constitutive of the action—indeed, they become action itself.
This is apropos for a film in which every character is a self-interested perspective on events. There are no bystanders in this film: everyone has something they want, everyone turns on everyone else. The film is a veritable, and relentless, wobbling as betrayals and twists are not just apogees within a narrative arc but are the very construction of the film. There is no hero, no good guys and bad guys, no neutral character conveying information. Everyone is part of the action, creating the action, even if no one is on the same page. So of course there is a squish of the screen.
But the screen will never have been neutral. The world is not a stage on which we act; the world is in on the action. We are as reactive as we are active, caught up in the shapes and shenanigans of the ground beneath our feet and before our eyes— all of us ebbing and flowing along with the push and pull of suns and moons. The terrain and weather are not extraneous elements added to the drama of human life: they are constitutive of human life. Everything everywhere, across all time, is a point of inflection, at once inflected and inflecting the bodies around it.
One day many years ago, I was suddenly struck by Matisse’s The Dance. The dancers all work so hard to stay in frame, even contorting themselves. The canvas—or screen—is not a silent backdrop. On the contrary, the limits of the frame help determine the shape of the dance itself, how the dancers move, what their bodies do. The screen is coercive—and not just by creating a hard and fast limit between outside and inside but by moving bodies themselves: the limit of the screen becomes a line of force, shaping the action.
Frank Stella famously refused the frame completely. His images and his frames are absolutely congruent. There is no container and no contained: it’s all image, from the middle to the limit and back. Funny, then, how orderly his universe is. You’d think that once there was no limit per se that the action would be wilder. Not for Stella, it seems.
For Kara Walker, the frame is the space of the gallery, her images unbound. In a sense, they share our space, moving among us at the limits, as shadows of figures we can’t see but that she sure can. This silhouettes are a negative space, a projection by the light of life itself illuminating our history, giving form to the ghosts of time. For Walker, the frame is not just the walls on which she creates her images; the frame utterly collapses as we, as viewers, find ourselves sharing space with these ghosts—even if we can only see their shadow. What makes Walker’s art so powerful is that, at some juncture, we realize there may be a frame—and that we’re milling about inside it.
Matthew Ritchie maps worlds, emergent, possible, and real. But, in a nifty move, his maps become the territory—his very act of diagramming, of mapping, becomes the space in which we dwell. Unlike the severe propriety of Stella, Ritchie’s worlds are unwieldy. They cannot be contained. But what’s odd is that there are still frames, these local forces of containment that maintain their local rule even as their constituents, his images, break free to the walls and floors around them.
In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze argues that the canvas will never have been blank. On the contrary, the canvas is always already inundated, saturated, with cliché, with images and gestures of every sort, from every source. The job of the artist, Deleuze maintains, is not to create something from nothing but to erase and break cliché in order to create something new from the cemetery of images. In this sense, the canvas/screen is never blank; it is always filled, always a set of images and forces to negotiate.
I want to extend this to include the materiality of the screen, its very extension in space. As screens have proliferated, so has the content to fill them—and they all, almost to a t, follow the same constraints and limits of the screen.
Sure, once we moved to flatscreens, we saw a dramatic shift in the architecture of moving images. All our moving images became landscape, cinematic rather than the square aspect ratio of tube TVs. Which is just to say, the form factor inevitably inflects how we create, watch, think, and experience images.
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon reoriented our usual screen experience. Rather than action always—always—moving horizontally, it introduced other axes of action that moved vertically as well as horizontally. It was dizzying as it recreated the architecture of the screen within the very same screen, a startling effect.
This no doubt got expanded by two 3D films—Avatar and then, a few years later, Gravity. Once again, the technologic form factor inflects the very possibility of how images could move and constitute themselves. And, in the process, fundamentally altered the perspective and spatial orientation of viewers. Rather than viewing from the sidelines, we become depositioned, reoriented in relationship to the images before us.
And then there are all those moves to displace the univocality of the screen. After all, why do we assume—as 99.99% of movies and TV shows do—that one screen means one site of action? Robert Altman usually kept to one screen but, within that frame, proliferated eddies of action, decentering the film, the mode of meaning making, and our experience of it all.
Other image makers exploded the screen by creating more screens within the limits of the known screen. We see it in the split screen of Woodstock and The Thomas Crown Affair. Vincent Gallo takes a more chaotic approach to shattering the presumed univocality of the screen. One character is seen across time and space in a torrent of screens within the screen as time and place are folded together, just as they are in life: we are always here and there, here and then. But the screen tends to assume there is a center, that whatever’s happening now is what’s in frame, a philosophical contention hardwired into the form factor of the screen. Gallo twisted the screen to show otherwise.
In his Permutations series, the artist and filmmaker, Marc Lafia, created a software based projector. Rather than the machine assuming there would only be one play of images, Lafia created a projector that always asks: How many screens? Of what size? In what relationship to each other? That is, Lafia fundamentally altered the very ground of the screen: rather than a fixed canvas, the screen itself becomes essentially plastic, as it asks the image maker: What architecture of screen do you want? For Lafia, the screen is no longer ever a neutral stage. It’s always and already of the action.