Secret Gateways

Film can take you anywhere, but even film has its constraints. Four, to begin with: the borders of the frame. Space is fragmented into bite-size portions that fit within the film frame, and then that space is laid out again, one flat picture after the other in consecutive shots. Film flattens three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional image, then uses the third dimension of time to stitch these images together again.


This process is obvious in Buster Keaton’s 1921 comedy The High Sign. Much of the action takes place in a house filled with secret passages, leading from one room to another. These rooms are obviously designed and conceived for the boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio in which this short was filmed. As Keaton tries to evade a small army of pursuers, he tumbles through doors and windows, winding his way through the house. But our comprehension of the layout of the house remains sketchy. Even though the rules of continuity editing are followed, the exact blueprint of the house remains elusive.


Enter Davide Rapp. This Italian video maker and architect reassembles the house in this creative video essay. By laying out the separate shots next to each other in a mosaic, the respective positions of the different rooms become much clearer. Rapp’s imaginative patchwork destroys the tyranny of the film frame: he turns the discrete rooms into a coherent (doll’s) house. The subtle anaglyph effect that is added to the black and white footage is a visual play on this video’s effort to restore 3D to Buster Keaton’s house.

In a similar video, Rapp applies the same technique to Buster Keaton’s The Goat (1921). Here, he turns an elevator chase into a splitscreen montage that reveals the architecture of the apartment building Buster Keaton uses as an arena for his antics.