A bit of background: Why the screen should be the star

Eyes Wide Shut screen

Eyes Wide Shut

Whenever I see a screen used properly in a movie, I want to jump up and down while doing the Macarena.

OK, maybe that verges on the impossible. But it speaks to my love of this lowly, oft-used tool – which usually takes the form of a flat surface on which images are projected behind actors to give the appearance in flicks that “you’re actually there.” And one of my favorite applications of the screen is also one of the unlikeliest: the otherwise not-very-good Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Yes, that movie. Why’d I pick it? Because there’s one perfect shot amid all the seedy sex and tiresome dialogue, and it involves Tom Cruise’s character, Dr. William Harford, pictured against a screen while walking down the street.

That’s right. While walking down the street. Not riding a dragon or jumping out of a flying plane. Just walking. And you know what? It was brilliant. While watching it, I forgot that the rest of the film was mediocre. All I felt – briefly, wonderfully – was euphoria. I was happy that a simple activity could be conveyed through a simple cinematic utility. The joy in realising that this character, as flawed as he was, was set against a background of unreality, a background that wasn’t actually there, which provided some much-needed insight into his state of mind.

Nice job, Stanley.

A Clockwork Orange screen

A Clockwork Orange

This application wasn’t anathema to Kubrick; he used a screen superbly in a greater film, A Clockwork Orange (1971), during a scene in which the violence-happy Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is driving a car wildly at night with his brutish droogs. At a time when films such as Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971) were showing car chases “realistically” – with the vehicles actually moving through the streets – this was an audacious move. Perhaps it was also done out of need; after all, necessity is the mother of invention, and using a screen probably was a lot cheaper and less logistically challenging than filming a true-to-life destructive joyride. But aesthetics had to be involved here too, as the screen conveyed the idea that we were still watching a movie, that the characters were fictitious, that the multicolored, comic-book feel of the film was made complete via the addition of extra unreality. The screen breaks the fourth wall. It’s generally so obvious to our moviegoing eyes that when we do spot it, it’s jolting, problematic, a break in the story.

Yet when it’s used deliberately to convey that break, it can be delicious.

Screens often have been used to show action that might otherwise be impossible (financially or otherwise) to reveal. And they haven’t always been successful – even in great films. One such use in François Truffaut’s excellent Fahrenheit 451 (1966) still bothers me to this day: the policemen searching for their victim while flying through a not-actually-there sky. Yes, in 1966, this might not have been feasible to reproduce realistically, and budgetary concerns probably were in the mix as well. Still, it looked off, as if Truffaut was trying something that couldn’t be done and not succeeding, despite the high quality of the movie overall. It’s one of the great director’s few missteps.

Fahrenheit 451 screen

Fahrenheit 451

So how should the screen be used? Judiciously, of course, like any other tool. Nowadays, special effects and computer-generated imagery have come so far as to make screens nearly invisible … though you can still spot them in, say, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), in a scene where Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) try to get to the other side of a stone staircase that’s quickly falling apart. Whoops, there’s that screen behind them in one shot as they fall toward us. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does suggest an unreality that probably shouldn’t be there, given the tenseness of the action that’s trying to be conveyed. The screen can definitely bite you in the tuckus.

Speaking of falling, that’s one of the places where screens have been used most frequently in the cinema. In those cases, it’s often necessary, though stuntmen over the years have made literal leaps without the use of such utilities (the set-piece ski jump toward the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me [1977] initially comes to mind). But I’m not too perturbed by the bad guy falling off Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959); it’s an old trick and completely justified from a cinematic standpoint within the film’s context. Also, these shots generally only appear for a couple of seconds, so the realism factor is moot. We don’t often need a screen to display itself for more than that.

Unless it’s being used aesthetically to make a point about moviemaking in general.

North by Northwest screen

North by Northwest

I’d like to see more of that in the cinema today. Shots using screens in creative ways, where they’re only necessary from an aesthetic perspective. Where they provide insight into the characters by breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. Hey, it might be more financially prudent to today’s filmmakers, too – instead of filming on location, you could use a screen to convey the background of the action … and justify it from an artistic standpoint as well as a monetary one. And now I’m wondering: Why not make a full-length, mainstream feature film entirely on a screen? A rom-com or a drama? No special effects, no lasers or Ringwraiths. Just an average, contemporary, well-scripted movie with screens behind the actors.

Like that’ll happen. Still, as Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged says in Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything, “A man can dream, can’t he?”

Sure, he can. And screens are the stuff dreams are made of. At least, when you’re not expecting anything real in your fiction.

I don’t. Should I?

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

6 thoughts on “A bit of background: Why the screen should be the star

  1. This took me back to something that I had almost forgotten about Simon. Very interesting, to recall how it ‘used to be’, before green screen, and computers. I am not sure that I miss it that much, but I appreciate your fondness for this ‘lost art’, and it definitely has a place in cinema history. Who knows, perhaps it will enjoy a ‘retro resurgence’?

    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. Strangely, the screen still appears to be used today in some cases, particularly in films using special effects. I remember a great scene in Singin’ in the Rain where you actually see one way it was used–a rolling panorama behind a train, as I recall. Perhaps it’s a not-so-lost lost art? 😀

  2. Martin Balsam, falling backwards down the stairs in Psycho, is the shot I most associate with out of control chaos, with the real world being pulled away, as we grasp for purchase on something that isn’t there. Kind of like the flickering light on a screen. Thanks Simon. Many excellent examples.

    • Thanks, Jon! that’s a great scene–it seems to go on forever, too, in a deliberately awkward way. I’m trying to think of more where the screen is used brilliantly; of course, there’s always the spoof in the driving scene in Airplane! 😀

  3. Nice article, Simon. I’ve always had an affection for the visible artifice of pre-CGI cinema. There is something tangible, appealing, and warm about the old ways to me, that I find absent in CGI. I don’t think this is a problem with modern cinema necessarily, just a shift of which I am not a part.

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