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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.

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.

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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