I submit that the ability to distance viewers from cinema, that both cinema-as-window and cinema-as-frame have, is fast being lost as technology advances.
Windows within film present a view into a character’s mindset, allowing us to see their reactions to events that are happening that they have the distance to observe rather than take part in. When a significant other walks into the room some form of interaction must take place. However, when said partner is in the garden on the far side of a window a character’s reactions are far more telling. Do they watch with adoration? Fear? Contempt? What do they show us when the ability to observe but not necessarily be observed arises? Windows can act as a protective barrier, such as keeping Lavender from reaching Ron on the Hogwarts Express, or an obstructive one, such as when Shrek is forced to watch Charming take his place from Fiona’s room. Whether they are protected or obstructed, willingly or unwillingly separated, rarely is a character content when they look through a window and thus windows are a useful tool for illustrating emotional conflicts or, at least foreshadowing their arrival. By extension, opening or breaking the window destroys the distance between character and event, allowing them to enter the scene and directly engage with the action.
Consider now the film itself as a window through which the audience is able to observe the events of a film without interacting or influencing them (beyond turning off the screen). Whether this distance protects the viewer (from say, being horribly murdered) or obstructs them (who hasn’t wished they could step into the world on screen at some point or another?), film invites the audience to view the unfolding story, but always holds them at arms length. So how might we break our window?
3D cinema was perhaps the first step in moving beyond the window. It allows viewers to cross the threshold visually, the action reaching out to surround them rather than playing out at a distance. Of course the rectangular screen limits what can be seen at any one time, and the audience is still unable to physically experience events unfolding or influence them in any way.
4D cinema takes the 3D experience a step further by adding certain physical sensations to the film experience. Chairs that rock and tilt as the film travels, breezes and water that correspond to winds and ocean spray, 4D cinema takes the audience even closer to the action by allowing them to physically experience events. Again, however, the audience is still held at arms length by the inability to do anything or look beyond whatever the camera is pointed at.
Virtual Reality (VR) loses 4D cinema’s physicality, but bounds ahead in attempts to break the window, allowing 360º vision and sometimes even the ability to move within the film itself. When coupled with gaming technology VR often places the viewer in the middle of events and allows them limited freedom to act out story or events. Interestingly, some games go beyond simply allowing the player to engage in the 360º view and forces them to use this aspect. Rush of Blood features a sequence that doesn’t allow the character to progress until they turn to confront the spectre that is singing beside them. Once the torchlight lands on the spectre it vanishes, only for the singing to indicate that it has reappeared directly behind the player. The player must physically turn and face it in order to move forward. This is an especially effective technique for horror games (which Rush of Blood is, I have lost years of my life and my cousin’s respect because of this game) because engaging in action closes the distance between player and action.
With the ability to completely visually immerse players as they play, VR probably comes the closest to breaking through the window of current cinema, although it doesn’t yet have the ability to replicate physical sensation (given the content of some games, that’s probably a good thing). Perhaps in future VR will look to combine with aspects of 4D cinema to kick through the last shards of window separating audience from action (and we will get to write the barely intelligible readings instead of reading them).