Julie Talen’s Pretend, which I saw tonight at the Seattle artspace Consolidated Works, is a powerful and formally innovative no-budget film (actually shot on digital video, not film).

Julie Talen’s Pretend, which I saw tonight at the Seattle artspace Consolidated Works, is a powerful and formally innovative no-budget film (actually shot on digital video, not film). Pretend tells an emotionally wrenching story, about a nine-year-old girl who stages the fake kidnapping of her six-year-old sister, as a ploy to prevent their parents from breaking up. Children spend a lot of time playing make-believe, but what happens when their fantasies cross over into actuality? With its unreliable narrator and presentation of multiple possibilities, the film offers no easy answers.
But what really makes Pretend a remarkable film is its use of multiple frames and screens-within-screens. Split screens are used now and again in Hollywood films; Andy Warhol experimented with multiple images projected at once in the 1960s; Mike Figgis’ Timecode divided the screen into four quadrants, projecting the simultaneous output from four synchronized cameras; and Peter Greenaway has done a lot with frames-within-frames. (Talen herself gives a detailed history of the use of multiple frames in an article that appeared last year in Salon).
But no narrative film (and probably no avant-garde film either) has ever done anything on the order of what Talen accomplishes in Pretend. The screen is continually being divided into three, five, nine, twelve, or as many as forty-two frames; sometimes there is a checkerboard pattern, other times the screen is split top and bottom, or left and right; still other times, frames of different sizes appear as boxes floating in front of an image that would otherwise cover the entire screen. Sometimes the various frames show different but simultaneous scenes; sometimes they show the same scene from different angles; sometimes they depict variations, or metaphorically associated scenes, or fantasies that somehow relate to the action in other frames. The movements and arrangements of the multiple frames often seem to be organized according to musical principles; speaking about the film, the director spoke of some of these sequences as “fugues” of images. Other times, the visual arrangement of the frames seems more directly motivated by the narrative.
Of course, none of this could have been done before the arrival of digital video, and programs like Final Cut Pro. In addition, Talen makes much of the visual properties (and limitations) of digital video. Sometimes different frames are given different color balances; sometimes some of the frames are blurry, or shot with a slow shutter speed, or blown up so much that individual pixels appear on the screen.
While the effect is sometimes close to abstract, the film as a whole never loses sight of the narrative in which it is anchored. The result of all this is extraordinary: at times, while I was watching Pretend, I felt that I was perceiving things in an entirely new way, as if the very process of vision had been reinvented. (But it’s important to note that Talen’s radical visuals never interfered with the narrative, but made total sense as a way of conveying it, just as more familiar cinematographic and editing techniques do).
The sort of fragmentation of the visual field that is evident in Pretend is really just a way of moving cinema, that quintessential 20th-century art form, fully into the 21st century. Marshall McLuhan said that technological changes, the invention and dissemination of new media, results in changes in the “ratio of the senses,” mutations in the human sensorium itself. McLuhan , writing in the 1960s,was concerned with the way that television was different from movies. Today, under the impact of computers, and more generally the information and communications revolutions of the last thirty years, our minds have become more accustomed to multi-tasking, and our visual experience has become ever more heterogeneous and fragmented. Think of the multiple windows on our computer screens, or for that matter of the multiple windows, with text ticker at the bottom, of a station like CNN Headline News. Pretend is the first film I have seen that does full justice to these changes in our everyday visual experience; what’s more, it doesn’t just mimic these changes as a formal exercise, but deploys them in a way that is intellectually challenging and emotionally resonant.

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