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Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets a harsh reality check in a superb split-screen sequence

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Resolved: Split screen is an underutilized cinematic device.

That’s how I would have phrased it back in my high-school debating days. Which seems appropriate, because—as was often the case with debate resolutions—I’m not 100 percent certain that I believe it, even though coming up with arguments that support it isn’t terribly difficult. For one thing, split screen is employed so infrequently that I associate it almost exclusively with Brian De Palma, who loves to construct elaborate, suspenseful set pieces that show two or more events unfolding simultaneously. And it’s easy to wonder, after being thrilled by one of De Palma’s dual orchestrations, why he’s long enjoyed a near-monopoly on this approach, which takes such striking advantage of the medium’s intrinsic qualities—that is, of the ability to manipulate time and/or space. I still haven’t seen Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which I believe is split screen from start to finish… but I have seen Forty Deuce, a 1982 drama directed by Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, in which, throughout the film’s very stagy second half, the frame constantly offers two separate angles of the same action, side by side. It’s mostly a distraction—as I said, I’m not entirely convinced of my own thesis here—but I’ve always sensed untapped potential in the idea.

My favorite recent use of split screen, though, involves the manipulation not of time or space, exactly, but of the protagonist’s consciousness. (500) Days Of Summer is a gimmicky movie in a lot of ways, starting with the parenthesis in its title; it has an omniscient narrator, jumps all over the place chronologically, and at one point sees its hero, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perform an impromptu musical number, accompanied by dancing extras and animated birds. Most of this quirkiness can be filed under “cutesy,” and will either delight or irritate, according to taste. But the movie does have a more downbeat side, which comes most strongly to the fore during a brief sequence toward the end, when Gordon-Levitt’s Tom shows up at a party being thrown by ex-girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber want to show us how what happens at the party deviates from what Tom imagined would happen, and either they or director Marc Webb decided to do so by splitting the frame down the middle, with “Expectations” on the left and “Reality” on the right. Take a look:

Okay, nitpicking complaint first: Those two words being onscreen for the entire sequence bugs me. (I’m not in love with this particular Regina Spektor song, either, but I let that go.) Granted, not everyone necessarily derives as much intense pleasure from temporary confusion as I do (key word there being “temporary”). All the same, I feel like this scene would be even more powerful were we obliged to gradually figure out for ourselves that one of the two versions of the party is unfolding solely in Tom’s head. Tumbling to that wouldn’t have taken most people very long, I don’t think. Even if you disagree, though, surely it’s more than sufficient for the narrator to explain the conceit up front, as he does: “Tom walked to her apartment, intoxicated by the promise of the evening. He believed that this time, his expectations would align with reality.” (The second sentence explains, I suppose, why “Expectations” is plural, even though “Expectation” and “Reality” would be the proper parallel construction. But the grammar purist in me scowls.) Each side of the frame even fades up on cue with its description, so that nobody could possibly fail to get the idea. The textual assistance takes spoon-feeding to an insulting extreme.

Focus on the images rather than the words, though, and it’s almost impossible not to feel a twinge of recognition. Everyone has been in Tom’s situation, imagining idealized circumstances and then helplessly watching as they fail to take shape; in your mind, you inevitably ascribe thoughts and actions to other people that bear little or no relation to what those people might actually say or do. The conventional way to depict such a discrepancy would be to show the scene, reveal it as a fantasy, and then show it again, for real. (Often, that’s played for comedy—one example that springs to mind is the moment in High Fidelity when John Cusack meets his ex-girlfriend’s new lover, played by Tim Robbins.) Placing both versions side by side, however, creates a much more poignant effect. It’s as if the Tom on the right is being taunted by the Tom on the left—as if all right-hand Tom needs to do is somehow cross the impermeable barrier that divides the frame and usurp the role of his happier self. Everything he desires is right there. A consecutive juxtaposition just wouldn’t drive the pain home in the same way. It’s the visual concurrence that stings.

Because I’ve developed a strong allergy to superhero movies, I haven’t kept up with Webb, who somehow leapt from this small romantic dramedy into the rebooted Spider-Man franchise (which seems to have now been rebooted again? It’s hard to keep up). He does something very savvy here, though—a decision that seems unlikely to have been crafted in screenplay form. My own instinct, I suspect, would have been to start out shooting Expectation(s) and Reality identically, then slowly have them diverge. Webb doesn’t do that. From the very first shot, the two versions are out of sync: Expectations begins with Tom walking up close to the camera, while Reality begins with Tom in the same hallway, but at a great distance. All he’s doing at this point is walking to Summer’s door; there’s been no opportunity as yet for anything to go “wrong,” relative to what Tom anticipates. But the discrepancy reinforces the sense of a “butterfly effect” in which tiny changes lead to radically different outcomes. Every so often, the two sides of the frame do get precisely synchronized (the shot of Tom entering the apartment is exactly the same on both sides, I’m pretty sure), which ultimately results in the piercing sight of Tom and Summer opposite Tom and a beer.

What finally makes this sequence so effective, though, is how credibly mundane both Expectation(s) and Reality are—a choice that the use of split screen enables. Had the two versions of the party been presented one after the other, it probably would have been necessary to exaggerate them slightly, in order to highlight the differences (especially since that almost surely would have meant discovering that the initial version is Tom’s fantasy only after the fact). Showing them simultaneously lets the viewer’s darting eyes, rather than memory, do all the work, allowing each side of the frame to be unremarkable in and of itself. Tom’s romantic expectation(s) of Summer on the left are entirely consistent with what we’ve seen of their relationship earlier in the movie, and real-life Summer on the right doesn’t ignore or belittle him. What we get is a vision of bland sweetness opposite the sort of friendly awkwardness and moderate avoidance that you’d expect of two people not long out of a failed relationship. Only when Tom sees that Summer has gotten engaged to someone else does the hammer truly fall… at which point the Reality half of the frame pushes the Expectation(s) half (in which Tom and Summer are making out) entirely offscreen. And only one Tom descends the stairs.