The Problem With 3-D

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

Whereas 3-D digital animation normalizes the fantastic, the "unreal" depth of photographic 3-D defamiliarizes the ordinary. (The great lost 3-D films are documentaries like Paramount's feature-length Korean War newsreel Cease Fire and Albert Zugsmith's straightforward recording of the Phil Silvers Broadway musical Top Banana.) A succession of paper-thin, pop-out book planes, stereo-photographic depth is a thing in itself. Bazin was disappointed, writing that "stereoscopic relief" created not a heightened sense of reality, but its opposite, "the impression of an unreal, unapproachable world." But in fact, stereo photography created a new sort of naturalism.

Another issue arises out of 3-D's alliance with Pixar-style CGI "solid animation." It's the dialectic between actual flatness and reconstituted depth (which one is more "real"?) that underwrites 3-D's visual drama. But, unlike flat, cel animation, solid animation already provides the illusion of deep space. Day & Night, the short Pixar released with Toy Story 3, made more engaging use of the third dimension than the main feature by creating the illusion of depth in a cartoonishly flat universe. Toy Story 3 imbues virtual depth with virtual depth. It's redundant.

Eisenstein noted stereo's two most evident tendencies—its capacity to pierce "the depth of the screen," and, alternately, its ability to create a "palpably three-dimensional" image that "'pours out of the screen." He naturally thought the latter was stereo's "most devastating effect." But it's the deep focus that allows for the more rarefied spacial experience. Wide-screen action and CGI extras tend to squeeze out the third dimension and mitigate this effect, as in Avatar's final blowout, when an overabundance of visual information serves to flatten the space. The most primitive 3-D can be the most powerful. The little-known Man in the Dark, which opens "Classic 3-D," is truly classical.

Cheapness works. For all its comin'-atcha antics, Man in the Dark gets far more from simply drawing attention into the deep space created by its compact frame and accentuated with black-and-white photography. Nondescript locations become impossibly exotic: A shabby barroom seems as monumental as the Parthenon; tracking past flat shop-window reflections on a 3-D street creates a cubist wonderland. The movie's climactic roller coaster fight, scaffolding popping out against bargain basement back projection, is an even more kinetic riot of flatness and depth. (Roller coasters are good 3-D, as demonstrated by the sequence in the digital Despicable Me.)

With 3-D, less is often more. As in the first motion pictures, small sensations dominate. In the three decades since its first Film Forum revival in its original format, Dial M for Murder has garnered a deserved reputation for its restrained use of stereo. (The movie's lone example of proscenium-breaking projectile effect is reserved for the attempted murder—as she's being throttled, Grace Kelly pelts the camera with one shapely, supplicating arm.) And when 3-D is based on photography, nature speaks for itself. Inferno—another Film Forum find—is a survival story set in the Mojave's desert void, where every ordinary object seems like an asteroid lost in space. The vista in Raoul Walsh's Gun Fury, also at Film Forum, is deep rather than wide, and the perspective is continually forced, encouraging one to savor each piece of sagebrush in the canyon or marvel at the spectacle of horses kicking up clouds of 3-D dust.

Movies privilege action; 3-Dzies induce optical awareness. The purest examples serve to remind us that our eye-brains create the stereoscopic world. The best thing about Wings of Courage, Jacobs thought, could be the "free show" the viewer encountered upon leaving the theater, passing through ordinary surroundings "with depth perception turned blazingly on."

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