The Problem With 3-D

On this latest wave of mediocre movies (and the classics that put them to shame)

Is this the year? Are we finally witnessing Total Cinema, the first stirrings of Huxley's feelies, the apotheosis and—as suggested by the "Classic 3-D" show opening Friday at Film Forum—the Second Coming of Stereo Movies? (Or is it more like the third, the fourth, or the fifth coming?)

Last year's Avatar, of course, is the top-grossing movie in world history. Midway through summer, six of 2010's top 10 grossing movies—Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, Shrek Forever After, How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, and Clash of the Titans—were released in 3-D. Two, Alice and Titans, were shot flat and then converted to 3-D to catch the wave. Citing the lack of enthusiasm for last week's Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, some are predicting that wave has crested. Still, 60 3-D movies are currently in the works, including one by Martin Scorsese.

First the movies, then the talkies, now the 3-Dzies? As posited by the French film theorist André Bazin, all were imagined simultaneously (as "a re-creation of the world in its own image") in the aftermath of photography. Motion-picture pioneers Thomas Alva Edison and the Lumière brothers mulled the possibility of 3-D; Edwin Porter developed an anaglyphic system based on superimposed green and orange images. D.W. Griffith defended 3-D. So did Russian montage-master Sergei Eisenstein, in an essay celebrating the 1946 color Stereokino production Robinzon Kruzo.

Rita Hayworth in 3-D sure beats Woody.
Film Forum
Rita Hayworth in 3-D sure beats Woody.


Classic 3-D
August 13 through 26
Film Forum

Eisenstein deemed 3-D inherently progressive ("Mankind has for centuries been moving toward stereoscopic cinema") and hence naturally Soviet: "The bourgeois West is either indifferent or even hostilely ironical toward the problems of stereoscopic cinema." Indeed, when bourgeois Hollywood turned its attention to stereoscopic cinema—along with wide-screen formats and enhanced sound—it was not for art's sake but following the logic of the capitalist system, an effort to reverse declining market share in the post-TV era.

The independent jungle adventure Bwana Devil (1952) led the way, and, before the craze fizzled in 1954, two of Hollywood's greatest artists—Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk—made 3-D features, while one-eyed directors Raoul Walsh and André De Toth demonstrated that stereo vision was unnecessary to grasp the essence of stereo cinema, and, using extensive underwater photography, Jack Arnold's two Creature films gave early evidence of 3-D's affinity for thick, viscous space. (Since negative space is recorded on film to the same degree as positive, aerial and aquatic landscapes take on a tangible emptiness in 3-D.)

The boom was international, including Hungary (which actually preceded Hollywood with two 3-D features in 1952), Spain (one feature), Mexico (two features), and Italy (five 3-D features in 1953 and 1954). Mysteriously dormant during 3-D's brief efflorescence, the U.S.S.R. proletarian stereoscopic cinema returned in the late '50s, averaging one production every other year for the next three decades. But then, 3-D itself came back as regularly as Halley's Comet: The Stewardesses triggered an early-'70s porn cycle; a dozen years later, the stereo spaghetti western Comin' at Ya inspired a number of Hollywood 3-D-quels (Amity 3-D, Jaws 3-D); and a decade after that, IMAX 3-D added the dimension of size.

Film artist Ken Jacobs, whose 3-D projections (movies, slideshows, shadow plays) date back to the late '60s, praised IMAX 3-D's Wings of Courage in these pages for its capacity to promote perceptual reorientation: "Instead of caring about the fate of the crashed airman pulling himself up from the snow, I'm enraptured with the thick planes of his greatcoat and the thin sheathing of snow clinging to it. Atmospheres steal the show." In other words, 3-D is an attraction that has little to do with, and may even detract from, narrative.

This was especially true of the most powerful IMAX production, James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss (2003). But Cameron's voyage to the bottom of the sea was also something else—namely, the avatar of Avatar in announcing the advent of digital 3-D. The only thing that distinguishes this current wave of stereo cinema from that of 1953, 1970, and 1982 is the technology. The profit motive is a constant. Just as in the '50s, Hollywood must again compete with new forms of home entertainment, and there's no 3-D YouTube or TV (yet). But box office grosses are not the only revenue stream. As pointed out by Dave Kehr in Film Comment and vigorously reiterated in Roger Ebert's manifesto "Why I Hate 3-D (And You Should Too)," the studios are acting like 3-Dzies are the new talkies, using 3-D to sell exhibitors an expensive new delivery system and, not coincidentally, slapping a hefty surcharge on ticket prices. Crass, for sure, but there's another issue—the underwhelming, mediocre quality of most current 3-D.

In part, this has to do with the listlessness of retrofitted 3-D, but mainly it's an issue rooted in the distinction between photographic and CGI imagery. The images in Toy Story 3 and Shrek Forever After are computer-generated. For these movies, the physical world need not exist—at least, it need not exist to be photographed. But the beauty of photographically produced 3-D arises from its novel stylization of that world. That is why, however digitally sweetened, Henry Selick's uncanny puppet animation Coraline has a tension beyond that of even the most visually dynamic computer animations. Something actually happened in depth, in the world, in front of the camera—3-D restores the dimension that Selick's puppets actually possessed.

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