The desire to couple movies most likely derives from the Depression-era gimmick of the double feature. The imperative, though, is much more than more-for-your-money—it’s yin-yang, thesis-antithesis, right brain versus left brain. That’s why it’s fertile to write about movie pairs, and natural to program or teach them. Juxtaposed, films cross- pollinate; they talk to each other, especially when screened simultaneously.
Ken Jacobs has been treating movies as objects for years, inventing multiple forms of multi-film projection; Andy Warhol favored double images, shown side by side. James Benning has matched one movie’s soundtrack with another’s images. More recently, Luis Recoder developed a method for projecting two movies through the same projector. The season’s most elegant double bill, however, is the star installation of Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s current MOMA show—an empty room where The Song of Bernadette (1943) and The Exorcist (1973) are shown together on a centrally suspended translucent surface.
Gordon calls this piece Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake)
, and it’s hard to imagine a more Manichaean bill. It’s a Hollywood vision of Catholic good and evil, a match made in heaven or hell: A black-and-white inspirational, starring Jennifer Jones as the simple-minded God-intoxicated peasant girl of Lourdes, shares the screen with the once-notorious color horror flick featuring little Linda Blair possessed by Satan. It’s all happening at once, although, depending on which side of the room you choose, the sound from one movie will be slightly dominant.
Simultaneous projection creates a ghostly, ambiguously flattened pictorial space (Rauschenberg depth with a Rosenquist scale). Certain effects are generated automatically—the bizarrely (in)appropriate reaction shots, the strange face grotesquely attached to foreign shoulders. From a narrative point of view, such mutually haunted movies naturally break down into isolated phrases, gestures, and free-floating symbols. Double projecting is inherently experimental. As with human couples, paired movies can mutually liberate repressed aspects and unconscious desires. (I recently had the good luck to simul-show Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ—the latter imbued the former some cosmic gravitas, the former gave the latter a bit of documentary grit, the suffering Gold Star mothers complemented each other.)
However much The Song of Bernadette and The Exorcist may crash each other’s parties, they emerge as essentially the same movie—lit by candles, filled with crosses, endlessly talking about God and faith. Bernadette will never exorcize The Exorcist, but united as Between Darkness and Light, they constitute a pageant: Anxious mothers fuss over their divine daughters, who take their orders from invisible presences and are regularly harassed by unsympathetic clusters of mainly male unbelievers. Agitated priests discuss faith as miracles erupt into daily life with the force of projectile green vomit.
Because Bernadette is half an hour longer than The Exorcist, Between Darkness and Light is not a simple loop but a relationship—maybe even an altar piece— that changes over the course of a single day’s several projections. During the hour I spent in rapt contemplation, I witnessed Bernadette’s humble mother sweep out Regan’s suburban palace and a grime- encrusted subway rattle through the streets of Bernadette’s village. I saw one possessed child undergo a brutal hospital examination while the other was interrogated by an exceptionally nasty Vincent Price.
Between Darkness and Light is only one of Gordon’s cine-manipulations. His famous 24 Hour Psycho slows down Hitchcock’s thriller to a majestic, pulsating crawl. The visceral and disorienting left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right projects alternate frames of Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool simultaneously side by side, with one image flipped, to create a kaleidoscopic action flicker film. (Whirlpool is a melodrama about hypnosis; left is right is an installation designed to induce a hypnotic state.)
Unlike 24 Hour Psycho and left is right, both of which are currently installed at MOMA, Between Darkness and Light invites sustained viewing—at least in its current form. (Gordon premiered the piece some years ago in the dank, if not foul, precincts of a pedestrian underpass beneath a busy intersection in Münster, Germany—an environment bound to evoke the spiritual ambience of The Exorcist as well as the garbage dump where Bernadette saw the Mother of God.)
Watch any simultaneous projection and, at a certain point, another miracle will occur. The two movies will begin to flow in chaotic sync—everything will make sense. Between Darkness and Light has no beginning or end, only an eternal cycle spinning off stray phrases: “She’s an angel of God . . . How do you go about getting an exorcism . . . To think that such a thing could happen in the middle of the 19th century . . . Your mother sucks cocks in hell . . . You’re playing with fire, Bernadette!”