3-D daze

Is the next wave in TV and movies actually taking our motion out of the picture?

Twenty-seven billion people, give or take a few million (and obviously most of that number are repeat offenders), will make the 2010 World Cup the single most-watched event in world history, but this year some are seeing the tournament as never before: 25 out of 64 matches are being shot on a twin-camera system, one recording the action for the left eye and the other recording the action for the right eye for a viewer looking through LCD shutter glasses (each lens' shutter opens and closes rapidly to ensure which eye is seeing which image). Bring the two together and you get three: 3-D soccer for 3-D televisions, available since March, from $2000 to $7000 and beyond (not always including the glasses, and not including the new 3-D Blu-Ray player needed for 3-D Blu-Ray). In the startlingly near, in-your-face future, this depth-adding extra dimension, given its illusion of thrusting you among the action, may add the most depth to the pockets of sports networks, video-game makers and porn producers.

Still, it's Hollywood that triggered the tsunami. At least 21 major-release films will be in 3-D this year (there were 17 in 2009, 11 in 2008 and eight in 2007). By next summer, a menagerie of franchises—Alvin and the Chipmunks, Jackass, Piranha, Madagascar, Saw, Smurfs—will have been reborn in 3-D. And the movie that launched this extra-dimensional surge, Avatar, will have two sequels.
But 3-D isn't new. It's antique. As New Yorker critic Anthony Lane explicated a few months ago (just before the Oscars saw James Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow edge out his military blockbuster with her 2-D war film The Hurt Locker), 3-D came before movies. Twenty years after its invention, Oliver Wendell Holmes perfected the stereoscope device in 1860, bringing two stereo-photographed images together into a picture that seems to have depth, and "you sense that impatient souls like Holmes," Lane writes, "were willing the cinema into being."

Cinema's long sold the illusion of novelty, and the static cling of the new being spun for 3-D is thrilling consumers this time around, much to the cha-ching-ing benefit of filmmakers and studios. 3-D films can't yet be burned, ripped, or otherwise pirated, while some movies are converting images to 3-D in post-production (which, critic Mark Kermode observes, "just makes a load of 'flat' elements look like they're floating around on opposing planes of flatness"). Plans are in the works to convert old 2-D movies into 3-D, so Bogey may soon be very, very closely "looking at you, kid."

But what will the effect of 3-D be on moviegoing, moviewatching and how motion pictures move us?

In 1960, as he eyed the bloody shocking, midway turn of Psycho in a London cinema, The Observer's Philip French recently recalled, as "Janet Leigh stared out at us from the floor, a man sitting in front of me staggered into the aisle and vomited: testimony to the sensitive stomachs of the time, or (as several other people I know witnessed a similar incident at the Plaza that week) evidence that Paramount's publicity department had hired a method actor for the film's opening run?" Until sound-films arrived for good in the 1930s, in-house orchestras would often provide the score. In the '50s, William Castle installed skeletons that came out of the theatre's walls to dance above the audience and electric seats that jolted them. From the '20s through the '60s, journals, exhibitions, lectures and cine-clubs sprang up to promote, discuss and even disseminate films. And at least until TV became widely accessible, some groups would often talk back to the screen, urging her to reject him or warning the hero not to enter that dark alley. Carnival gimmickry? Pretentious discussion? Naïve imagination? Some of that, but viewers were also getting involved, not just sitting back.
And viewers today seem far less involved in and less active—certainly not activist—about film. A screening was once an event (especially in towns without a theatre, awaiting travelling projectionists and their outdoor light-show) but it's now a commonplace. We usually drive to a cineplex, buy concessions, sit quietly in a darkened space, then go our separate ways afterwards, only united for a few hours in apathetic silence. (Even this recent moviegoing ritual may fade, since the US Federal Communications Commission approved, in May, a request from the Motion Pictures Association of America to send first-run HD films directly into homes via cable or satellite.)

3-D takes the inaction further by pretending to bring the action even closer to us. As we sit still, the world seems to pop out at us, objects whiz near and the background perspective deepens. But we don't move any more than before. We wait, and watch and hope for wonder.

3-D doesn't seem to be sharpening our critical eye, to be provoking or jolting our sensibilities or making us participate. It's more bombarding than immersive, more interested in trying to astound and surround instead of engage us. This is what happens when technology becomes a film's selling and talking point, not the film itself—what the film has is more important than what the film is about. With 3-D, what's coming out to get you from the screen is made more interesting than what's on screen for you to get at.

Of course, it's just technology—technique and content are up to directors. But if the hyped technology flattens critical depth rather than rounding a film's subtexts and tangled emotions into focus, that technology becomes the message and it can only make the medium less artistic and the viewer a mere spectator on the sidelines—more passive, more uncritical and less, well, multi-dimensional. V

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