In 1960, Nixon’s sweaty upper-lip squared-off against Kennedy’s impeccable hair. For all intents and purposes, the merciless gaze of the TV cameras swung the presidential election. The popular vote was razor-thin on Election Day. Conceivably, any number of missteps or appeals could be cited, but TV seems to be history’s choice as judge, jury, and executioner. Nixon, what with his face-for-radio, has been firmly positioned as the outmoded scion of a less telegenic era (soon to return with a vengeance), and Kennedy the pretty face of mediated neo-populism, especially at this advent of the ’60s—it being an oft-cited-if-nebulous cultural moment dividing line for the modern era. Following suit, the disparity between ocular and auditory reception was starkest at this dawn—that Dick’s demo was reared in the radio heyday doesn’t totally bridge the gap, but it does help explain the distinction some. Still, just as conservative vied against liberal, youth battled experience, and photogenic juxtaposed weathered, so too was old-world mediation pitted against contemporary, in-your-face transmission.
The mash of conflicts continues on, intensified in 56 years, now in abstracted, fragmented, mutant form—more handlers, more manicured perception, incessant trash talk, more anticipation. Between the prize-fights of then and now, a fluid televisual construction of space has calcified into a conscious reduction of variables. In the superficial aesthetic reductionism, a clear, anxiety-ridden effort is afoot to weed out bias. 68 million watched the first tubed debate in ’60—as the medium came into its own a decade-and-a-half-max in on a large-scale. Counter-programming choices were limited to nil then, but’re infinite now, and yet, 84 million was last Monday’s Neilson number. Factoring in “unfavorability,” and extreme polarization, and online streams, this was as a pure and as grand a hatewatch communion as exists in the modern world. Credit the networks: In the effort to delimit partiality with a sustained, equipoised tableau, they forced viewers to confront the schadenfreude at length.
For our convenience: the split-screen—a handy metaphor for the current political climate, an impenetrable division and harbinger of the future. This space-mashing graphical-cum-composition tactic brings together simultaneous images, two hemispheres separated and joined by a branded membrane down the middle. In style alone, Monday’s debate combined the sickly symbiosis of Requiem for a Dream and the taboo, subliminal, uneasy bedfellow insinuations of Indiscreet. The screen’s frame suggests a seamless view of reality, similar to that of the human eye, but, at the same time, the illusion is ruptured by the gulf, like depth-of-field ripped apart.
The juxtaposed static images emphasize the flat surface of the screen, limiting depth and deemphasizing the choreography of the space, like multiple open browser windows open, competing for attention. Or, if you prefer, two frames in a comic with the punch line withheld. Modern modes of viewing are approximated within the frame of a TV screen, designed to fit comfortably within a desktop or the mini-panorama of a smartphone. The fragmented mind of modern creatures is appeased while endurance is tested. Real-time is augmented and embraced simultaneously, multiple, related actions are pieced-together in a single space to fill out a story and to stoke the tension of action and reaction: a balance between minimalism—a deemphasized network hand guiding this showcase—and nigh-uncut density—multiple planes of visual information within a stitched frame, captured in successive long takes.
Space is stretched to accommodate separated title-fight combatants; the in-house audience is blackened out in reverse-shot. An unsettling Frankenstein symmetry combats deep-seated perceptions of asymmetry. At the same time, the arena is claustrophobic and tightened, amplifying the tension and combativeness through the uncomfortably close-quarters of meme-ready aesthetic constriction. A technique devised to pull together characters separated by a great distance, often joined by telephony—a long-standing convention dating back to early silents, like Lois Weber’s triangular frames in Suspense (1913), through the peak of Doris Day and Rock Hudson—is spun and translated to encapsulate the gaping ideological divide between people in the same room, forced together in conversation, their edgy proximity expressed in a visual composite.
No one person gets to dominate the screen space, a de facto visual democracy. The bitter rebukes crossing the central tissue travel a shorter distance, the vacuum between the players folded over by the mini-wormhole rift. A non-real real space is cut-and-pasted together, everything extraneous extracted from the visual field. As with Abel Gance and his Napoléon “Polyvision,” the split-screen technique opens up the limitations of the canvas, and yet, the broadcasters seem intent to reduce grandiosity to size; it’s a strange accordion paradox at work. Before the modern TV era, small sets demanded clear points of focus. In a big-screen-dominant, fragmented viewer-verse, blowing up TV separates the modern era from the tube’s modest forebear iterations. A classic three-camera sitcom setup overlaps, intermingles, and pools into a fragile composition; the classic shot-reverse-shot set-up is spliced together into a two-shot. An eye-track would leave two irradiated circles floating equidistant. If only our eyeballs operated independently from one another.
Each side of the screen or the other can function as negative space and point-of-emphasis simultaneously. De Palma would be proud/disgusted with the viewer manipulation potentials and queries unearthed. Does this give more or less leeway for the viewer to form an opinion? Is it important to emphasize action and reaction in the same image? Or, does this too thoroughly, linearly guide our reading, entrenching the populace deeper? What’s more important, what is said or the reaction to the statement? Is the diptych a depressing reminder of limitation? Or a concise aide-mémoire of the importance of choice and complex information processing in modern times? Is the visual information boiled-down to too-simple syrup? Or, is the frame too densely-packed, irreparably gnarling interpretation and feeding a closed-circuit confirmation bias loop? Editing and deduction are transposed to the mind of the viewer, like cerebral cortex motion control photography, two independent actions subjectively conjoined. Your bisected perception is tasked with finding resonance in the platitudes, cattle prods, voodoo economics, and word salads.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.