In the midst of cinema's significant technological and industrial changes of the late 1920s, Sergei Eisenstein delivered a speech to the American film industry.1 In his address, he advocated a new standard shape for the film screen. A different screen ratio than the one then common would better suit cinema's unique capacities, he claimed. Rather than support the continuation of the American industry standard, which he referred to as "the static rectangle," Eisenstein playfully hyped the virtues of the "dynamic square," a screen that was exactly as high as it was wide. He did so in part because to him the square was modern, charged with productive machine force. This more purely cinematic screen was, according to Eisenstein, necessary for properly showcasing the energies, conflicts, and collisions germane to the moving image arts. It would also, at least in theory, be the most accommodating frame, capable of hosting images composed for planes that were either horizontal or vertical. Eisenstein proclaimed that previous industry standards (4:3), as well as contemporaneous calls for wider screens, were nostalgic, calling forth a dated viewing regime dictated by traditional art forms. Cinema deserved something better and more specific, a screen that could best accommodate its rapidly developing languages and its expanding sociopolitical functions.
In advocating for the dynamic square, Eisenstein confronted the intense technological standardization required for the growing empire of screens, though he sought not to entirely dismantle it, but merely to influence its directions. His call to engage the question of screen dimensions came during a period of intense discussions about technologies of cinema more generally. With the rise of synchronized sound and the media convergences that characterized this period, the whole apparatus of cinema was being unsettled and rearranged. If cinema's [End Page 141] sounds were to become electrical and its spaces highly acoustic, why couldn't its screen also adapt and transform? And, of course, it did.
We know from Anne Friedberg's wonderful book The Virtual Window that Eisenstein was not entirely alone in his meditations on the film screen.2 Following her we can observe a persistently transforming screen—Cinerama, drive-ins, and multisurface installation works—which reminds us that even this one piece of the complex technological puzzle that we call "cinema" has not uniformly marched through history, blandly reflecting a singular or simple cinematic ideal. Rather, the film screen has long functioned as a productive technology and site, actively shaping the ways in which all variety of films have been made, presented, and viewed, and then recirculated, presented, and viewed again. Discussions about screen size, shape, reflectivity, and function are a persistent thread throughout the twentieth century, long explored by theorists and critics, but also by a tremendous number of engineers, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, institutional authorities, hobbyists, and consumers.
This In Focus charts an emergent thread in film and media research, one that seeks to open up our understanding of cinema's past, in part by breaking apart the idea of a singular technological apparatus. The essays here are written by scholars working across conventional fields of film and media study: industry, special effects and 3-D, technology, exhibition, film institutions, experimental film, and sound. Yet each contribution is linked by a commitment to highlighting the screen as but one persistent element of cinema's complex and multifaceted legacy. Each demonstrates that in the digital age, when screens link phones, cameras, televisions, and cinema into an expanded network of display, the film screen, with its seemingly quaint use of projected light, amplified sound, and spatial magnitude, still has something to tell us. The history of the film screen helps to expand histories of cinema; such histories make a case for coming to grips with cinema's long-standing and persistent links to other media forms, to varied audiences, and to a surprising functional diversity. For these authors, the film screen has long been defiantly dynamic. The fact of this dynamic screen improves our understanding of cinema's place in media cultures past and present.
The essays collected here consider the film screen in its varied permutations throughout the twentieth century. Some authors examine a generalizable film screen, others...