Exploding helicopters and man-eating fish: 3D is threatening to take over our cinemas—but there’s no need to panicby Sam Leith / January 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
“Baz Luhrmann, I will punch you in the face so hard, I swear your great-grandchildren will still feel the pain.” That, apparently, is how one amateur film critic on Twitter greeted the news that Luhrmann’s forthcoming film of The Great Gatsby may be in 3D.
At the other end of the cultural scale, we learned almost simultaneously that a new cinematic release in the Lovers’ Guide sex-education series—Igniting Desire—is coming out in 3D. Visitors to an early screening report that nine minutes in, the audience finds itself ducking to avoid a 13-foot erection sproinging out of the screen at them. Eek! (The question of who would go to the cinema to watch such a film is moot: but there it is.) So we have an erotic-cum-educational film produced in a format that on the face of it will kill its audience’s sex life for all time; and a literary classic given the same treatment as Piranha. Three-dimensional film-making, it’s fair to say, has gone wall-to-wall.
As you’d expect, the person quoted is not the only one to have reacted to the possibility of a 3D Gatsby like an onlooker in a Bateman cartoon. “If you’re spending time worrying about how to make Gatsby’s hat poke out of the screen,” Time Out’s film editor Dave Calhoun asked, “What else are you spending time not worrying about. Story? Dialogue? Pace? Acting? Character?”
Well, perhaps. But it seems only fair to give Baz Luhrmann the chance to prove he can walk and chew gum, or attend to visuals and dialogue, at the same time. Personally, I rather love the idea of the all-seeing eyes of TJ Eckleburg looming out of the screen as if directing their pitiless glare at me personally. And there is no reason to believe that, in and of itself, filming something in 3D is Kryptonite to seriousness.
It’s a technique that feels like a novelty; but in fact it’s just novel. When moving pictures first appeared it would have been hard for an audience to do much more than simply gawp at the fact that Holy Crap I Swear That Picture Is Actually Freaking MOVING. We got over that moment and we’ll get over this one.
Contra the school of thought that regards 3D as the unstoppable equivalent of a Japanese knotweed invasion strangling all worthwhile cinema, there’s another that’s confident 3D has jumped the shark and will shortly retreat into the black museum of redundant cinematic gimmicks to take its place alongside Smell-O-Vision, Percepto, Illusion-O, Sensurround and, er, the first coming of 3D. I don’t think that’s right either.
This time round, 3D is much nearer to being established. Manufacturers are investing in a hardware infrastructure. They are churning out 3D TVs and pushing them aggressively (relax, chaps, that protuberance will be a less intimidating 13cm on the plasma in the living room, and by the time it reaches your next-gen 3D iPhone will be the size of a mouse’s knob). They are clearly confident that there will be programmes to show on them, and that confidence is likely part of a virtuous circle.
Let’s—excuse the figure of speech—pull focus and look at the issue in the round. How does the history of inventions seem to go? Generally, we think things up before we figure out exactly what they are for. Then we enter a phase of being massively overexcited about this incredibly cool thing we’ve just thought up, and run around using it for absolutely everything. Remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer buys a gun? So infatuated with his new toy is he that he uses it to turn the television on, eliminate dirty dishes, retrieve Lisa’s ball from the roof, open beer cans etc etc. That’s where we are now.
It was the same during the honeymoon periods following the inventions of the synthesiser, the microwave and Dairylea Lunchables. The former—used with indiscriminate glee—was responsible for the 1980s in general and John Hughes films in particular sounding like they did. We now know that less is more with synth noise. When it first appeared, the microwave, too, was hailed as the answer to everything: cookbooks appeared telling you how to prepare elaborate multi-course meals, and a new culinary era was said to be dawning. Now we recognise that it’s useful for defrosting things and reheating yesterday’s coffee, but not much else. And quaint though it seems to us now, people used to think Dairylea Lunchables were for eating.
What the Gatsby/Lovers’ Guide pile-up tells us, if it tells us anything, it is that we are at the applying-it-to-everything-and-finding-out-if-it-works stage with 3D. At the end of this stage—not far off at all, I’d guess—we will probably settle down and decide it’s best for exploding helicopters, prehistoric man-eating fish, and girls in bikinis. But it’s not beyond the realms of the possible that something else—maybe even a Gatsby—will work. And that will make all this nonsense worthwhile.