Media @ McGill

Caroline Bem | From Writing Tablets to System Reboots: The Diptych in Contemporary Cinema

Submitted by hive on


Last January, I was awarded a Media@McGill research fellowship in order to 1) complete my thesis proposal and 2) rework a paper which I had presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in June 2010. My goal was to develop this into a thesis chapter, and my supervisor had also advised me to submit a version of it as an article for publication. I am pleased to report that I have recently completed my thesis proposal and that Professor Straw has accepted it—the defence will be held on November 22nd with Cecily Hilsdale (Art History, McGill) and Bernard Perron (Cinema Studies, Université de Montréal) serving on my examination committee. I was also able to rework my presentation into an article which I submitted to Screen (Oxford Journals) this June (currently under peer-review) and significant parts of it will enter into the composition of both my introduction and the first chapter of my thesis.

The hypotheses outlined in this article, titled “From Writing Tablets to System Reboots: The Diptych in Contemporary Cinema,” take their roots in the accounts of a variety of instances of formal repetition, variation, mirroring and doubling across a range of media and disciplines. By drawing on approaches from art history, narrative theory and film studies, as well as new media and game theory, I seek, on the one hand, to establish the foundations for a definition of the cinematic diptych while, on the other hand, reflecting on the implications of such a category for theoretical writing on contemporary film. After introducing a range of theoretical tools, the article focuses on Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof and seeks to point out a number of ways in which the concept of the cinematic diptych might offer a useful conceptual tool for the analysis of contemporary narrative film.

In the first part of the article, I begin by outlining the foundation for a brief theory of twoness and repetition, grounded largely in the early writings of Gilles Deleuze in Différence et répétition (1967). I then provide a short outline of the history of the diptych in art history which begins with the consular diptychs, or writing tablets, of Antiquity and continues through the Middle Ages and Renaissance in both religious and secular art. By way of concepts borrowed from structuralist theory—such as, most importantly perhaps, the mechanism of mise-en-abyme (Jacques Derrida, Lucien Dällenbach)—I then strive to connect this historical account of the diptych as a visual form to a range of more recently theorized forms within modern and contemporary art, such as the grid (Rosalind Krauss), the window (Anne Friedberg) and the frame or parergon (Derrida). Thereby, I propose that the diptych form’s uniqueness resides in its simultaneous capacity to signify closure (the two halves of the writing tablet or codex, the limitations of the frame) and utter openness (two as the smallest instance of a series, the grid or parergon as that which explodes its own frame). In the second part of the article, I turn to my object of analysis, the film Death Proof, which I seek to approach, first and foremost, from a narratological perspective. Here, my main argument posits that the film’s central plot might best be likened to a system reboot, or to the action of replaying a level in a computer game. By drawing on more recent writings in game theory and videogame studies, and focusing on the concept of uchronia (Edmond Couchot) as the time, not only of digital media at large, but of the system reboot in particular, I ask whether, if there are now more and more films being made in terms of computer games, we can still consider them, strictly speaking, as films. This question, naturally, surpasses Death Proof to potentially include all those films, such as Lola rennt (1998, Germany) or  Source Code (2011, US), which are obviously indebted to the genre of the video game and have been widely theorized as such.