When two worlds become one
By Tom Nixon
In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, a trio of hormonal cinephiles shack up together during the 1968 Paris Student Riots and indulge their cinematic and erotic fantasies, until reality “finally bursts through the screen”. Eva Green’s Isabelle is in the process of gassing herself and her blissfully unaware companions as they are cacooned within an Eden of their own making, imagining herself as Bresson’s Mouchette rolling down the bank to her death, when suddenly a brick comes flying through the window, puncturing her deathly fantasies and forcing her to turn towards the changing world. Bertolucci is something of a film buff himself, and he empathises with his characters’ habit of processing their lives through cinematic reference points, but he understands too that one cannot live inside the cinema forever.
Traditionally, the movie theatre is a place where audiences go to escape into more exciting lives or minds, but ever since Buster Keaton’s “moving picture operator” dreamed himself a part of the movie he was projecting in Sherlock Jr., the relationship has slowly become more complicated. Keaton’s masterpiece — in which, among other things, he is launched out of the silver screen into the audience, and later mimics behaviour he views on-screen to woo a girl — was a catalyst for movies becoming introspective and aware of their own movie-ness, refusing to function merely as immersive fictions. That evolution is still ongoing, and “escapism” has even, rightly or wrongly, become something of a dirty word in certain critical circles, implying a passive audience concerned solely with narrative at the expense of ideas or self-reflection.
A notable way of tackling these subjects has been the visual motif of breached or broken screens, repeated again and again throughout movie history. Generally, this is intended to dissolve the barrier between fiction and reality, preventing us from disappearing into the fabric of a separate onscreen universe. We are shocked into remembering that we’re sat in a movie theatre, forced to consider the film in relation to ourselves and our world, rather than slipping away into the headspace of a fictional character.
One cannot begin a discussion of screens without referring to Rear Window. Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1954 thriller — about an incapacitated photographer called Jefferies who through a combination of boredom, insecurity and voyeuristic urges starts snooping through the rear window into his neighbours’ business, happening across the suspected murder of a jewellery-salesman’s wife – doesn’t contain any broken screens, but during its course open windows are invaded, penetrated and clearly delineated as projections of Jefferies psyche. By drawing attention to the anxieties and repressed desires underlying an experience openly analogous to moviegoing, Hitchcock prevents the audience from forgetting who they are and why they’re here, even once the answers prove quite disconcerting.
Stanley completes his usurpation by raping Blanche, and while this may confirm her earlier accusations that Stanley is a common, vulgar “ape”, there is also truth in his insistence that Blanche is hardly a queen herself – after all, she rode the “streetcar named desire” to get here. Rather than showing the rape, Kazan cuts to a mirror above the bed just before it’s smashed in the struggle, a screen in which we see Blanche’s limp posture and distorted face. Her illusions have been shattered, she can no longer cast a veil over her mortality, and as actresses and characters like hers slip away into history, it’s clear that from now on neither can we. No longer can the movies provide an innocent, romantic escape from the cruellest truths of our existence; they’ve started to loom just a little too large.
Hollywood’s descent into cynicism arguably peaked in the seventies, and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs proved a cornerstone. The stuffy, near-asexual David Summer (Dustin Hoffman) is civilised to the point of fascism, thinking himself superior to the boorish townspeople with whom his oppressed wife flirts, but when those same people besiege his new home, he proves crueller than any of them. Peckinpah presents Summer’s house as an idyllic escape from the distractions of urban life, where Summer can disconnect from his animal instincts and immerse himself in laughably obscure academic interests, but this is a fantasy in which he can’t stay sealed forever, and soon every window in the house will be smashed to pieces by outside threats. Peckinpah films most of the siege from inside the house, placing the audience within a safe haven so that each breach feels like it’s coming directly through the screen and into our consciousness, crumbling the illusions of moral superiority we construct for ourselves and revealing the beast within. It’s clear that we can no longer secretly indulge our most uncivilised impulses in the movie theatre without being forced to confront those impulses.
One of Hitchcock’s greatest successors is David Lynch, whose films Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me expose the seedy underbelly beneath the white picket fences and neatly-trimmed gardens of small-town American communities, dragging ostensibly innocent or vulnerable protagonists into the murk and by extension the audience. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me begins with a TV exploding, and the image repeats again later just as Laura Palmer, our surrogate of sorts, is violated. The most horrific scene in Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey walks into his masochistic lover’s apartment to find two freshly killed corpses, contains a broken TV sitting ominously in the corner. Werner Herzog once said that “civilization is a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness”, but Lynch figures it may just as well be a thin layer of glass. With these images he not only allows that foulness to bleed through the screen into our minds, but indicates that it was inside us all along, dormant until the darkness of a movie theatre allowed it to run rampant across the screen. It’s difficult to watch movies the same way again.
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome goes a step further, suggesting that when we continually expose ourselves to audiovisual media we are in fact escaping ourselves in a quite literal way, becoming something inhuman, something monstrous. Cronenberg’s film is full of screens — many of them warped, penetrated or exploded — and with that comes the warning that we are starting to merge with the technology and media we so worship, losing our identity and our humanity in the process. Cronenberg makes the very process of moviegoing uncomfortable, demonstrating how fluid the relationship between film and audience, perception and reality, really is. What once was harmless fantasy is now something like disease.
Three recent arthouse films, rather different in their methods and goals, have each used the motif of a broken screen to complicate the notion of cinematic escapism. Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love evokes a claustrophobic Tokyo metropolis, full of cramped interiors and reflective surfaces. His protagonist Akiko is juggling identities as she tries to please her family, a volatile boyfriend, and her clients as she moonlights as a prostitute. The film’s title alludes to Akiko’s roleplaying, her need to be “like someone” other than herself in this oppressive environment. When Akiko’s boyfriend finally sees through her lies, he approaches the house in which she is hiding and we see a missile come through a screen-like window, framed by curtains. This is a film which dreams of a world that no longer requires cinema, a world where we’re no longer pressured by external forces to escape into the theatre’s array of delusions and facades. What is moviegoing if not the desire to fleetingly become someone who can experience the world without it being filtered through a prism of defence mechanisms? Of course, once the window shatters the movie ends; the viewer’s identity is, in a moment both frightening and liberating, unified once again.
In Giorgios Lanthimos’ Alps, a company of actors impersonate the deceased in order to help mourning family members through the grieving process. Aggeliki Papoulia’s character in Lanthimos’ acclaimed previous film Dogtooth escaped out of her dysfunctional family at the tragicomic conclusion, but in this film she tries to escape into a family, adopting the identity of a family’s deceased to the point where reality and roleplay start to blur. At one point she quite literally breaks into the family’s house, and as in Like Someone in Love the camera is placed inside the window looking out. The interiors are dark like a theatre, stressing the analogy. She is doing what each of us, in a sense, longs to do when we watch our favourite movies; breaking into a different world and becoming a different person. But in the film it comes across as the ultimate symptom of the character’s madness, different worlds crumbling together in her mind, identities and perceptions in flux. The viewer is disturbed into considering the abnormality of the impulses fueling their own escapism.
In A Touch of Sin, an angry film about a modern China suffering through a difficult transition from communism to capitalism, Jia Zhangke presents a series of oppressed, alienated characters who scramble desperately to escape their circumstances, only to be swallowed up by violence. Jia frames these events as though acts in a contemporised Wuxia, not only utilising near-cartoonish genre tropes but also images of shattered doors and guns poking through screen-shaped holes — there is even a moment when a woman is abused as spectators stand around eating what may as well be popcorn. This consciously cinematic presentation juxtaposes reality against traditional Chinese cinema, emphasising how insufficient the latter’s notions of heroism and glorified vengeance have become for a broken society falling further and further into pointless, destructive cycles of violence. The screen must be shattered, lest a generation of moviegoers sit idly by as their country devours itself whole.
Tom Nixon is Senior Film Critic for the magazine.