The Great 3-D Debate

The Best Was Still To Come
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Aug. 27 2010 6:27 PM

The Great 3-D Debate

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Dana,

If 3-D went away, would I miss the outrageous vistas of Avatar or the off-the-screen antics of House of Wax? The explosion of balloons in Up, or the exploding eyeball from Friday the 13th, Part 3?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Of course I would.

Sure, some 3-D films—like the execrable remake of Piranha—exist only for the benefit of spewing CGI vomit into the audience. Others are content to dazzle us with unusual landscapes. But the best Hollywood stereography gives us more than an exploration of space or, as you put it, flying penises. It hints at the possibility of something deeper, more complicated, and more mind-bendingly awesome than anything we've seen so far.  I don't know whether the revival is really going to end, but I can tell you that I'm pre-emptively nostalgic: The best was still to come.

House of Wax DVD starring Vincint Price.
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In the spirit of somber reflection—think of Carl going through his photo album in Up—I'd like to share a few of my favorite 3-D scenes, past and present:

First, in the mineshaft at the end of My Bloody Valentine. (Yes, My Bloody Valentine.) The villain—a lunatic in a gasmask and wielding a pickax—drags himself along an underground passageway, smashing light bulbs one by one. He's scary, but the darkness is terrifying; it wells up from somewhere behind the screen and looks as if it's about to dribble onto the front row.

Second, Grace Kelly, as she's strangled in her nightgown in Dial M for Murder. At the crucial moment, she reaches out—for help, for her scissors—and her hand pops through the stereo window, fingers outstretched, right at the audience. It's a gimmick that works in reverse: Hitchcock draws us into the action, instead of making us duck to avoid it.

Third, at Daisy's window in Toy Story 3, when Lotso, the pink teddy bear, finds he's been replaced by another toy. Daisy's in the foreground; the abandoned playthings are watching from outside. If the scene were flat, they'd be right next to each other on the screen; in 3-D, they're spread across a lonely chasm, front to back, and separated by rain-streaked glass. Other studios are content with sight gags; Pixar uses depth to convey emotion.

Innovations like these don't get much notice, though. That's the tragedy of the revival: Its best qualities are hidden beneath a veneer of novelty. Three-dimensional cinema has been constrained, so far, by premium ticket prices and the need to give everyone their money's worth—that means more tricks, more fluorescent alien jungles, and fewer interesting experiments. But I remain convinced that 3-D could be, or should be, moving and weird and lovely.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we're all still figuring out how to think about the medium—or whether to think of it as a medium at all. In practice, 3-D sometimes feels like a glorified special effect, and other times like a new video format. The studios want us to view it as a luxury item, analogous to HD television: Pay a little extra, and you'll get the kind of immersive experience that's unavailable (for now) in your living room.

But to call 3-D "immersive" damns it with faint praise. 3-D could be—or could have been, sniffsniff—more of a paradigm shift than an upgrade, like the changeover from silent movies to talkies, or from black-and-white to color. Directors have taken only their first baby-steps down the mineshaft of new possibilities. What's the 3-D equivalent of Godard's formal experiments with red, yellow, and blue?

It's fun to think of visual effects that could only be created with binocular projection—like diaphanous objects constructed entirely from stereo depth cues or the shimmer that comes from showing an image to one eye but not the other. Directors could also test out stereoscopic glitter effects, and artful distortions of depth—things a filmmaker working in 2-D could never accomplish, no matter how big his f/x budget.

What else might we see if more aesthetically ambitious filmmakers start playing around with stereoscopic cinema? Dana, I love your idea for a 3-D version of the desert sequences from Lawrence of Arabia, or a 3-D Monument Valley from Stagecoach. How about 2001: A 3-D Space Odyssey? Just think of the monolith, in IMAX, or those prehistoric animal bones flying off the screen. And the psychedelic warp sequence—oh my God—it really would be full of stars!

Let's not be too nostalgic for the past that never was; I'd rather dream of the future that might never be. OK, thought experiment: Say you've got unlimited money to produce your own 3-D feature, scheduled for release sometime in 2014. You can have any director on the planet—whom do you choose? (Please don't say James Cameron.)

Comin' at ya,
Dan

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