I recently sat down with glasses atop my glasses to watch Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Previews of money-grubbing re-releases zoomed out at me: Titanic 3D, Star Wars 3D, Halloween 3D, Lion King 3D, Raiders of the Lost Ark 3D—as well as some fresher products of Hollywood’s imagination: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3D and Frankenweenie 3D. What’s with this sudden 3D craze?
First of all, it’s nothing new. The earliest known 3D film, The Power of Love, premiered not in the ’50s, not in the ’40s, not even in the ’30s, but in 1922. The relatively expensive technology sent 3D movies out of style in the Depression, though in the ’30s the Nazis made some films using all three dimensions to insinuate their propaganda.
The so-called Golden Era of 3D was the 1950s. Stereoscopic effects enhanced the creepy horror of movies like House of Wax, supplied thrills to film-noirs like Man in the Dark and deepened the claustrophobia in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Dial M for Murder. One of the taglines for the 1954 3D musical The French Line, starring the famously-busty Jane Russell (Bob Hope used to introduce her as “the two and only”), was, “It’ll knock both your eyes out!” Another was, “JR3D: Need we say more?” Now there’s a smart use of the technology!
3D reached out to audiences again in the early 1980s, with such beauties as Friday the 13th Part III and Jaws 3D. IMAX theaters, already designed to make people queasy, had their own 3D boom running from the late ’80s to the early 2000s—surely you haven’t forgotten Honey, I Shrunk the Audience?
We seem to have entered another bewildering era of 3D movie-making, inaugurated in 2003 by James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss, shot with the new Reality Camera System for IMAX, and then brought into the mainstream in 2009 with Avatar.
As with any technology, there are the technophobes, who in this case claim that 3D continues to be a cheap thrill and adds nothing to cinematic art, and the technophiles, who claim that the new 3D technology is as serious a development as talkies and Technicolor. When Martin Scorsese was asked if after Hugo he’d prefer to shoot all his movies in 3D, he said, “Quite honestly, I would. I don’t think there’s a subject matter that can’t absorb 3D, that can’t tolerate the addition of depth as a storytelling technique. We view everyday life with depth.” He even wished that he could have used 3D for Taxi Driver!
As lovely as certain scenes in Hugo are, I think Scorsese is off the mark. 3D doesn’t make a movie feel more life-like. We already have enough visual cues in a 2D movie to register all the depth we need. If anything, the added depth, which only really hits you once in a while, makes a movie feel otherworldly.
Moreover, to my eyes a color transformation occurs during the 3D process that either dims the hues or washes them with a sheen of artificiality. Thus, the new 3D movies that I’ve been most impressed by have nothing to do with deepening reality; they all take me into a disorienting world with its own colors and depth. My favorite of all, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings, uses the technology to evoke the weird, fire-lit nooks of our earliest ancestors. Wim Wenders’ documentary Pina employs 3D to acclimatize us to the theatrical choreography of Pina Bausch. Avatar literally takes us to another, bluer world. And Scorsese’s Hugo wonderfully evokes the clockwork of memory.
Then, of course, there are the money-grubbing re-releases, where movies never intended to be seen in 3D are jerry-rigged so that fans pay double to see a few cool effects. If these movies help the industry continue to limp along, great. I myself have always wished that more movies were re-released. I’d rather re-watch The Godfather on the big screen, even if I had to endure it in 3D (come to think of it, just imagine Michael shooting Sollozo!), than shell out twelve bucks for Frankenweenie.
As rich as 3D has become, the movies are still far removed from the earthly atmosphere in which we’re immersed. The fantasist in me imagines movie technology improving to the point where smells waft in, solid images surround us and our flesh prickles with their contact. Then I remember that such absolute fidelity to reality is exactly what I buy my movie ticket to flee.
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College and blogs about music with his son at billyanddad.wordpress.com.