The Great 3-D Debate

If 3-D's Just a Fad, Will We Miss It When It's Gone?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Aug. 26 2010 6:10 PM

The Great 3-D Debate

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Hi, Dan,

In the wake of your persuasive number-crunching demonstration of the declining box-office returns for 3-D movies, I'd love to engage you in a conversation on the aesthetic future of the medium. You make a pretty strong case that the 3-D format as a business model is failing, but you don't say much about whether you think it should, and whether the capability of rendering an image in three dimensions has anything to offer the art of cinema. If 3-D does turn out to be nothing but a fad, will we miss it?

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

This week, New York's Film Forum has been hosting a "Classic 3-D" festival, featuring films from the first, brief heyday of the technology in 1952-53. Many of these titles— Gorilla at Large, Those Redheads From Seattle—speak for themselves; they're unapologetic exploitation flicks, excuses to hurl paddle balls and Tabasco sauce and torpedo-bra'd beauties at the camera lens. But that early wave of 3-D also saw an interest in formal experimentation, with directors such as Hitchcock ( Dial M for Murder) and Raoul Walsh ( Gun Fury) testing the possibilities of the new technology. These two motives for using 3-D have persisted to the present day: My Bloody Valentine is a good example of a Gorilla at Large-style cheapo screamer, while Avatar—whatever its shortcomings—makes ambitious and innovative use of the form.

Yesterday, in the space of a few hours, I saw both one of the best 3-D movies I've ever seen—a grim, bare-bones 1953 thriller called Inferno—and quite conceivably the worst: Piranha 3D. I'll get to the second—and to my bafflement about why this icky little movie is being received as a charming retro romp—in a minute, but let me just say something about what made Inferno so good. First of all, it had a strong script and a story that would have been compelling in any dimension. Robert Ryan plays an unpleasant millionaire who, when he breaks his leg on a trip through the Mojave Desert, is left to die by his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover (William Lundigan). But, against all odds, Ryan manages to improvise a splint for his leg and to drag himself toward civilization. Will the cops close in on the scheming couple before their victim runs out of water?

Still from Inferno in 3D trailer.
Inferno

Without 3-D, Inferno would have been a taut film noir about one set of rat finks betraying another, like Double Indemnity with cacti. With 3-D, it's a grand Hollywood Western. The format is perfectly suited to capturing the terrain of the American Southwest, with its immense, disappearing vistas and weirdly sudden rock outcroppings. And something about the isolating effect of 3-D—the way it makes figures pop out against a background—makes Ryan's body look even more tiny and helpless as he limps through the endlessly receding desert.

Imagine Lawrence of Arabia's vast, almost sickeningly wide vistas rendered with dimensional effects. Or John Ford's Monument Valley movies made with a sense of physical perspective. It's not that I'd want to see these classics converted into 3-D—that would be as violent as colorizing them after the fact. But wouldn't it have been interesting to see what epic filmmakers like Ford or David Lean might have done with the format if they'd had it?

On the other end of the spectrum we have Piranha 3D, one of the best excuses I can think of to scrap all of the 3-D-ready theaters in existence. After scamming me for $5 above the regular ticket price, this movie spent an hour and half pelting me with crap—fake breasts, dismembered bodies, prehistoric fish, a bad guy's severed penis, and, worst of all, a lot of really atrocious dialogue. The 3-D effects were added in postproduction, and, as in other recent movies using this technique ( Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans), the corner-cutting shows. A major plotline in Piranha hinges on the making of a Girls Gone Wild-style soft-core-porn video aboard a boat. The sleazy pornographer (Jerry O'Connell) is the movie's villain, but, in fact, he might as well be a stand-in for Piranha's director, Alexandre Aja.

What most bothers me about the marketing and reception of this movie is how it gets to use 3-D as an excuse for its nastiness. The technology provides a pretext to dangle naked female bodies in our faces and then encourage us to laugh as they're ripped apart alive. (Spoiler alert: No female in this movie can both express the desire to have sex and continue breathing.) I'm a great fan of goofy exploitation flicks like the 1978 Joe Dante Piranha this movie ostensibly pays tribute to (or the Roger Corman Z-movies that Dante was celebrating in his turn). But Piranha 3D's sensibility has more in common with the snuff-style horror of Hostel and Saw. (Indeed, Eli Roth, the director of Hostel, has a cameo as a wet-T-shirt-contest host.) If it weren't for the novelty gimmick of 3-D, Piranha would have no reason to exist, and that would be just fine by me.

What about you, Dan? If 3-D sputters out this time as it did in 1953, will you miss either of the genre's venerable traditions, which for our purposes we can think of as "Let's explore the possibilities of this new cinematic space" and "Duck, here comes a penis!"?

Yours,
Dana

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