Sisters (Excerpt) (QuickTime)
Finally, a post on a Brian De Palma film. Sisters is one of many movies by a director famous for his use of split screens. Although they may not feel as striking as they might have in 1973, the film's two extended split-screen segments are superb. They feature subtle touches that go beyond the goal of showing two scenes simultaneously. In the excerpt above, for example, I noticed two details. One, the pacing of the cuts is clearly contrasted, and the longer shots on the right heighten the tension as the bloody cleanup on the left progresses at a hurried pace. Two, when Margot Kidder's character is facing the bathroom mirror, the sliding mirror splits her face into a jarring composition, alluding to the psychological state of her character.
Below is a portion of De Palma's 1973 interview with Filmmakers Newsletter on the making of Sisters.
Richard Rubinstein: I think some of your uses of split-screen ranks with the best I've ever seen. For instance, when the police get off the elevator and barely miss Emil but you see how they miss him via split-screen instead of cutting. Or certain real-time aspects like Danielle and Emil cleaning up after the murder and Grace waiting for and then delayed by the police, which gives the others time to clean up after the murder -- but you are watching both simultaneously.
Brian De Palma: First of all, I am interested in the medium of film itself, and I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film. At the same time I am evolving it. In HI, MOM!, for instance, there is a sequence where you are obviously watching a ridiculous documentary and you are told that and you are aware of it, but it still sucks you in. There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved in it.
RR: Had you planned at the outset to use split-screen, or was that something that evolved as you faced the problem of cutting?
BDP: I get strong visual ideas and then I try to develop the story around them. Hitchcock makes drawings for all his films before he shoots them, and that is why his movies are so precise: he has incredible visual ideas and everything is worked out like a Swiss watch. Unfortunately most movies derive from a literary rather than a visual intent. But I always think in terms of what is on the screen, not what is on the paper. I am not primarily a writer, and I always have very precise visual ideas and then try to construct a story around them as opposed to writing a story and then trying to figure out how I'm going to shoot it. But most people write stories and forget how they are going to shoot it.
The video excerpt was taken from the Criterion DVD of Sisters.
Thanks to readers who recommended this film.