Trendier than ever (or at least easier to actualize, thanks to advances in digital shooting and editing), the split-screen device often retains the tinny flavor of a gimmick. While it can add a conceptual frisson to a music video (Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” Destiny’s Child’s “Emotions”) or joltingly effect a narrative rupture (from De Palma to In My Skin) and is practically de rigueur for the film/video installation artist, the fractured frame is an altogether trickier proposition when sustained throughout a feature-length story—Mike Figgis’s quadrantal real-time stunt, Time Code, being perhaps the worst-case scenario. But despite their flaws, two new films—Julie Talen’s meta-caper Pretend (which played at the New York Video Festival and screens at MOMA next month) and British director Duncan Roy’s AKA—acknowledge the paradox of the split-screen (more information but lower absorption ratio) and attempt a meaningful match between content and fissured form.
Roy’s film, an autobiographical tale of identity theft in late-’70s London and Paris, divides the frame into vertical thirds—variously suggesting a triptych altarpiece, the pioneering Polyvision climax of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, and (with the three cameras often merely splintering a single scene’s perspective) the faux omniscience of a surveillance monitor. Dean (Matthew Leitch) is a working-class Essex lad who wheedles his way into the ranks of the posh and permanently cocained; not long after finding work at a society dame’s gallery, he’s posing as her son and falling in with assorted (mostly gay) aristocrats and hangers-on. The upwardly mobile extreme makeover is not a novel scenario, and AKA doesn’t pinpoint any resonances that can’t also be found in the Ripley books or Six Degrees of Separation. But the period specificity of the pre-AIDS, pre-Thatcher years is piquant, and Roy boldly allows Dean’s sexuality to be the most complicated—and opaque—aspect of his shifting self. There’s no real logic to the multi-channel effect—sometimes one screen offers a reverse angle, sometimes one flashes back or goes in for a close-up, sometimes the temporal alignment is ever so slightly off. Cumulatively, the echo-chamber syntax achieves a kind of atonal harmony, meshing with the themes of reinvention and self-presentation: The disjunction between the panels is tantamount to the gap between image and reality.