3D – A Qualified Defense
Amongst cineastes, be they as famous as Roger Ebert, or we mere mortals on this website, it has become de rigueur to trash the new trend of 3D film. The industry is pushing everyone toward putting on sometimes unwieldy glasses while staring at a potentially headache-inducing flicker in the desperate hope of getting audiences back into the theaters. Meanwhile, the TV manufacturers are touting more and more 3D-enabled flat screens, trying to drive sales.
Production companies love this new model for a couple of reasons. They tack on exorbitant fees to tickets prices, making an evening at the movies cost a family of four up to $100. Blu-ray 3D DVDs with current technology are extremely difficult to copy, which cuts down on the rampant Internet piracy of video. Also, let’s face it, Hollywood will always be about business. Getting us to pay more money for anything is simply attractive to them.
Many vocal critics have pointed out the downsides of the medium itself. The 3D projection process produces a dimmer picture, making everything underlit and gloomy. Improper refresh rates on TVs create images that cause considerable eye strain. And multiple 3D standards (Digital 3D, IMAX 3D, Real 3D) cause consumer confusion.
I would agree and echo all of these complaints on a case by case basis. 3D movies are too damn expensive. And a bad movie in 3D is still a bad movie. No amount of high tech gloss is going to shine the turd that I assume is Yogi Bear (I haven’t actually seen it, but I’m making an educated guess here). However, even given all of that, as I was listening to Spencer and John’s recent podcast on the future of film, it evoked some of the same reactions I’ve had to articles by film critics slamming the newish technology outright. I felt motivated to make a case for 3D.
First off, the notion that 3D is a new idea is way off base. Anaglyph 3D, with those dorky red and blue paper glasses, has been around for decades. The results most of the time have been pretty awful using them. Our video shelves are littered the detritus of that technology. House of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, Jaws 3D, Comin’ At Ya, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone…these and many more were all exercises in things poking out of the screen at your face in an incredbly cheesy fashion. This was what Count Floyd was making fun of way back on SCTV (now there’s a dated reference). I get that that 3D is mainly a gimmick.
But here is where we find an example that bridges a couple of subjects: Hitchcock. Originally, Dial M for Murder was meant to be shown in 3D. I have never been fortunate enough to see this movie shown in 3D; screenings are extremely rare. But descriptions I’ve read of this movie suggest that he created some exciting tension just using those old red and blue glasses. The famous shot in the film where Grace Kelly reaches for the pair of scissors while being choked is supposed to have her reaching out into the audience for that weapon. Apparently audiences thrilled at that scene. Hitchcock was doing sophisticated things with this medium. Theoretically, the 3D vaults what is largely considered to be “okay” Hitchcock into being one of his best. His career really reflects the use of new technologies in an artfully entertaining way. He started in silent film. That’s all there was. Then the revolution of sound came along. I know as a fact that certain high-minded people complained about these new “talkies.” They were ruining film as an art form. Charlie Chaplin was a famous holdout when it came to not embracing sound pictures. He felt they were artistically untrue. Film critics today still talk about how pure silent films are. Movies are a visual medium. Silent film is all imagery, which means through shot selection, editing, and lighting they convey everything. For a comedic vision of what troubles the sound revolution caused Hollywood, look no further than the very plot of Singin’ in the Rain. I would never argue that silent films aren’t great or that this notion is incorrect. There’s something to be said for the skill and vision it takes to tell a story completely visually. But I also don’t now suggest that we should eliminate talkies. As is always the case, it takes skill to use the medium well.
Let’s go back to the Hitchcock example. His first talkie was Blackmail. What’s amazing when watching that movie is that, with this new technology, he was already using sound as skillfully as if he were born to it. There is a pivotal moment in the film where one character is having a conversation in a phone booth while another character is watching. Hitch tricks both the audience and the watcher in the scene by NOT letting us hear portions of what’s going on in the phone booth. We become aware of the sounds by their absence. Terrific.
Next, look at film’s relationship to color. Again, at first, black and white was all there was. But even in the early part of the 20th century there were early experiments with color. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was notable for the the Phantom showing up to a party as the “Red Death” from Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death,” where they hand-colored him a crude red. In the 30s, while most movies were black and white, we had Gone With The Wind in glorious color. And let’s not forget The Wizard of Oz, which uses color itself to delineate Oz from boring old Kansas. Hitchcock is useful in pointing out this technology as well for the way he used color in some of his films. Marnie is all about a color setting off the title character. Vertigo has all sorts of dynamic colors throughout as they emphasize Jimmy Stewart’s state of mind in the film.