3-D Was Supposed to Be the Future of Porn—What Happened?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 14 2014 8:22 AM

The Failed Promise of 3-D Porn

There are some things we don’t want to see flying at us.

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Thirty years ago, trash auteurs were already lamenting the medium’s starchy fate. The 3-D revival in early-’80s horror and sci-fi was disastrously annoying, wrote John Waters in a 1983 cri de coeur for American Film. The gimmick would be much better used for smut, as it had been in Andy Warhol’s sex-filled Flesh for Frankenstein and the hard-core 3-D pictures of the ’60s and ’70s. “Porno, finally, is the only genre to demand the third dimension,” Waters argued. “Remember The Stewardesses? Huge breasts spilling out from the screen. Or Heavy Equipment? Gay male porno with, well, life itself gushing into the audience’s lap.”

3-D porn had begun much earlier, though. As the late Ray Zone describes in his book 3-D Revolution: The History of Modern Stereoscopic Cinema, naughty stereographs were common in the 19th century, and their popularity lasted for 100 years. In the 1890s a gentleman could look at 3-D scenes of women falling off of bicycles, their skirts scandalously aflutter. In the 1940s former silent film star Harold Lloyd started taking thousands of 3-D photos, some nude, of stars like Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, and Bettie Paige. (These were finally published in 2004.) And as 3-D films took off in the early 1950s, so too did randy 3-D shorts. A sleazy 1952 feature, A Virgin in Hollywood, had two 3-D inserts—“The Blonde Slave’s Revenge” and “Madonna and Her Bubbles.” The latter is more engaging: A blonde in black knickers and a diaphanous skirt blows bubbles in the air and bats them girlishly toward the camera so they’re popping off the screen. Even Francis Ford Coppola shot some 3-D “nudie-cutie” color inserts in the 1960s.

The Stewardesses, an erotic 3-D meditation on the subject of stewardesses, was a major hit when it came out in 1969. More explicit 3-D productions followed, notably from a pair of filmmakers, Steve Gibson and Arnold Herr, who’d been doing soft-core stuff till then. “There was this moment where everything kind of shifted,” they told Ray Zone in 2010. The porno theaters in Times Square started showing hard-core films, so they changed their style to meet demand. Since they were shooting in 3-D, they exploited the effect as much as possible. “Things would just hang out of the screen. They would hang there, legs, arms, genitals,” said Herr. They also used the pop-out for the culmination of a scene, what they called the “wet shot.”

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Could that be the place where 3-D porn went wrong? According to the eww-theory of its recent failure, no one wants to see negative parallax in a sex scene. At a porn industry event in 2012, one executive worried that “the things that can come at you are the things that a male viewer does not want coming at them.” Indeed, the major 3-D porn releases of recent years have been somewhat conservative in their use of the technology. There’s very little pop-out in This Ain’t Ghostbusters or This Ain’t Avatar, in fact. “They’re mainly using 3-D to increase the depth of field, kind of like the real Avatar,” says Gram Ponante. “It’s being done in a non-exploitative way, which is strange for porn.”

Or maybe it’s just an extension of the problem that has afflicted all kinds of 3-D from the very start. If the medium is slowly dying, it’s because no one’s yet decided what it is or where it fits. As a schlocky gimmick, 3-D is too hard to implement and too expensive to produce. As something less obtrusive, like a better version of HD, it’s not been distinct enough to win an audience. 3-D porn is caught between these two extremes, self-conscious and uncertain of its own identity. You can see this hesitation in the 1977 3-D hard-core film The Starlets, where a young actress pays a visit to a casting director. He’s got a pair of red-blue glasses on, and he’s watching 3-D porn when she arrives—a 3-D-porn-within-a-3-D-porn. “That’s one of our new training films,” he tells her. “It’s pretty far out, isn’t it?”

“Very impressive,” she says, reaching for his fly. “Can we go on watching while we rehearse?”

“We’ll just start easy, towards the screen,” he says. They’ll have to do this very carefully. 3-D sex can be confusing.

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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