The concept of split-screen is simple, but no less dangerous. Typically, a line cuts through the middle of the screen to convey simultaneous action. But like all gimmicky narrative devices, split-screen is frequently abused and over stylized. At its most lazy, the technique is used as a fallback for sports or music montages. At its most effective, filmmakers implore the device to tell various stories at the same time, create tension from multiple points of view, show the effect the past has on the present, and so on. Perhaps what’s most interesting about the split-screen technique is that it forces the viewer to become the editor. We choose which story we watch, and for how long. That level of interactivity can be dangerous (by taking the viewer out of the film), but, as the examples below prove, it can also be thrilling.
The X-Files – Triangle (1998)
“Triangle” is a standalone episode of The X-Files in which present day Mulder (David Duchovny) is stuck on a ship, the Queen Anne, in 1939. Present day Scully (Gillian Anderson) boards the abandon Queen Anne in 1998 in an attempt to find Mulder, who has run into a past version of Scully in 1939.
The episode is memorable for several reasons: its unique plot structure, its hidden editing cuts, but, most notably, “Triangle” is worth mention for the extended split-screen sequences near the end of the episode. At one point, as a screen follows present day Scully in 1998 down a hallway, and the other screen follows present day Mulder and past life Scully in 1939 down the same hallway, the two Scullys cross paths, and the respective split-screens jump to the other side of the frame. A wondrous example of television becoming pure filmmaking.
10. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
I’ll be the first to admit that Norman Jewison has a little too much fun with split-screens in The Thomas Crown Affair. Like a kid playing with a toy for the first time, Jewison occasionally doesn’t know when enough is enough. However, there’s a manic overtness to the split-screens in this film that I do find appealing. They fit so well within the fuckitall anti-establishment mentality of the late ‘60s. I’m not sure all of them are necessary (believe me, you’ve never seen a polo match covered so thoroughly), but by and large, I dig what Jewison was doing.
9. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
The use of split-screen is an essential component to the unique energy of Requiem for a Dream. Most people recall the film imploring the technique during its many frenzied drug sequences, but the one I love most is far more subtle. There’s something so oddly sensual about watching Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto gently caress each other in extreme close-up split-screens. No one would fault Darren Aronofsky for shooting the scene with both of them in the frame. But by splitting them apart, he heightened the distinct tension within the film. Basically, this scene is another reminder that you never knew what the hell Requiem for a Dream was going to do.
8. Sisters (1973)
Split-screen is Brian De Palma’s thing. He’s used it effectively in many of his films, my favorite example of which is the brutal murder early in Sisters. It isn’t as extended a split-screen as De Palma typically goes for, but it remains wholly effective. As a man with mere seconds to live struggles to get the attention of anyone who might be looking, our hearts sink knowing that, ultimately, the knife will get the better of him.
7. (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Within (500) Days of Summer’s gimmicky narrative is an ingenious sequence that measures a young man’s expectations about being invited to a party, with the reality of what actually happens. When Summer (Zooey Deschanel) invites her ex, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to her house party, Tom sees it as a final chance. The left side of the screen displays how Tom expects the evening to go: hugs, chats, smiles and hookups. But on the right side, we watch as Tom’s evening unfolds into a few torturous hours of forced smiles, awkward laughs, slight insults, and, of course, shattered expectations.
6. The Rules of Attraction (2002)
Initially, the extended split-screen in Roger Avary’s kind-of brilliant, The Rules of Attraction, succeeds because of plainness. Very few movies take the time to show the mundane, but here, Avary shows how two would-be lovers spend a boring Saturday morning apart, before their lives intersect. They smoke, use the bathroom, pick their nose – plain, ordinary, simple. It isn’t until they meet by chance in a hallway that Avary changes the game. As Sean (James Van Der Beek) and Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) end their conversation, the cameras pan away from their individual faces and seamlessly form into one cohesive shot. Trust me, even with the advent of digital filmmaking and motion control, this shot would be insanely difficult to pull off.
5. Timecode (2000)
Timecode is a film experiment like no other. Maddening to some, certainly, but for the purposes of this list, it cannot be overlooked. The concept: the screen is split into four separate screens, each displaying different stories. The audio occasionally highlights one box in particular, but for the most part, you decide which story you want to watch at any given time. To push it further: every screen was shot simultaneously, with its own camera crew, all in one 90 minute-long take. Director Mike Figgis and his team shot a total of 15 takes over two weeks, ultimately settling on the take that best represents his story. Again, Timecode is nothing if not infuriating, but I promise you’ve never seen anything like it.
4. Napoléon (1927)
At four hours long and 90 years old, Abel Gance’s Napoléon remains an iconic staple of the cinematic art form. Gance used several revelatory techniques to implement his vision, including widescreen, color, super imposed images, and extensive split-screen. For the split-screen sequences, Gance filmed using three different cameras, and projected the footage side by side in the theater. Now, of course a filmmaker can achieve split-screen with a few clicks of their mouse, but back in the day, Gance literally had to build a giant, wide screen for audiences so they could experience the film the way he intended. A visionary if there ever was one.
3. Indiscreet (1958)
In 1958, per the Motion Picture Production Code, it was illegal to show a man and woman resting sensually in bed together. To work around this, director Stanley Donen shot Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman with separate cameras, and split their footage together to make it look like they were lying right next to one another. It’s a marvelous little cheat that numerous films –Pillow Talk (in which Rock Hudson and Doris Day appear to be taking a bath together), Annie Hall, and When Harry Met Sally chief among them – owe credit to.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
One side of the screen is unbearably tense, while the other is mysteriously out of place. It isn’t until everything clicks into place that we are privy to the genius behind Tarantino’s madness.
1. Conversations with Other Women (2005)
Much like Timecode, the full duration of Hans Canosa’s Conversations with Other Women takes place in split-screen, but instead of just using single long takes, Canosa’s film utilizes rapid editing, flashbacks and even reverse motion to achieve his desired effect. The film is about former lovers (Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter) who run into each other at a wedding they each attended without their current partners. Each actor always has a camera on them, letting the audience choose which actor to watch from scene to scene. To heighten the material, Conversations with Other Women routinely cuts to flashback, showing the lovers at the peak of their teenage romance. Many will disagree with me concerning the film’s overall greatness, but Conversations with Other Women is a consistently fascinating experiment in action vs. reaction. Now and then. What was, and what could be.