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Blast From the Past

Film critic and author Mark Kermode explains why 3D filmmaking is nothing new, and how it is destined to remain part of cinema’s history rather than its future.

There are two great myths about 3D cinema: firstly, that it is a new and exciting development which somehow represents the ‘future of film’; secondly, that the artistry of this emergent art form is simply waiting for the technology to catch up. Neither of these statements is true—indeed both are pure baloney.

There is nothing new about 3D movies; in fact, stereoscopy is as old as cinema itself. As Ray Zone points out in his exhaustively researched tome Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952, the patent documents for Edison’s Kinetoscope issued way back in March 1893 had “several stereo claims [and] depicted an optical system with two lenses for stereoscopic viewing of moving object”. Apparently Edison never got round to actually using the system, but clearly the concept of 3D moving pictures actually predates the projection of film. Everyone knows about the Lumière brothers’ epochal short film showing a train coming into a station at La Ciotat, early screenings of which were reported (perhaps apocryphally) to have sent patrons scurrying from the screen in fear. Yet how many remember that Louis later remade this film in 3D, only to discover that its effects were in no way enhanced by the addition of stereoscopy? The 2D version of L’arrivee d’un train… is a milestone of cinema history; the 3D version remains nothing more than a peculiar footnote.

Early 3D movies were anaglyph productions, designed to be viewed through those red-green/blue glasses which turn everything on screen to a peculiar shade of mud. In 1936, the anaglyph short Audioscopiks was nominated for an Academy Award in the self-explanatorily entitled Best Short Subject: Novelty category (if only Avatar had been eligible for a ‘novelty’ award!) That same year, Edwin H. Land started demonstrating his version of the polarised 3D system with which we are now all depressingly familiar. Thus, by the time the great ‘golden age’ of 3D rolled around in the fifties, throwing up titles such as Bwana Devil (‘A Lion in Your Lap! A Lover in Your Arms!’), House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, 3D cinema had already had half a century to get its technical act together. Yet still audiences remained unconvinced that stereoscopy was an advancement on a par with the arrival of colour or the advent of sound. Indeed, it was the dawn of CinemaScope, with its wide panoramic picture, that became the real audience hit in the fifties, with Fox’s flagship ‘Scope production The Robe being marketed with the tagline ‘The miracle you can see without glasses!’

The truth is that the fifties 3D craze was driven not by audiences but by studios, who had become desperately worried that the rising popularity of television would cause potential punters to drift away from the movie houses. Similarly, in the early eighties, when titles such as Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D and (most memorably) Friday the 13th Part III in 3D hit the screens, it was in response to the explosion of home video which was giving movie lovers a good reason to stay home. And once again, it was not stereoscopy but another innovation altogether which proved the saviour of cinema, this time the emergence of reliably impressive cinema sound, spearheaded by George Lucas’ THX-certified systems, which finally put paid to the God-awful tinny whining which most people had come to expect from a disheartening trip to their local fleapit.

In the case of the most recent 3D fad, it’s hard not to conclude that the ongoing battle against movie piracy was the driving industrial force. Although James Cameron may have a genuine and passionate devotion to the format (he thought that The Hurt Locker would have worked better in 3D—really), the studio heads who forced slapdash stereoscopic conversions on movies like Clash of the Titans (against the wishes of its director) had no such high ideals. As with previous stereoscopic cycles, the pattern was all too familiar: a brief period of audience interest in the novelty factor spawning a few high-profile hits, followed by a growing irritation with both the price and the aesthetics of the format, resulting in such costly box-office bombs as Mars Needs Moms, from which punters stayed away in droves.

Despite the financial success of a 3D retrofitted re-release of The Lion King and the anticipation which awaits both Scorsese’s Hugo and Spielberg’s Tintin, industry pundits predict that stereoscopy is once again in decline—something which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows their cinema history. As for the home-entertainment industry, take up on 3D TVs has been sluggish at best. Not even the dream of ‘glasses-free’ 3D can save the day; the long-awaited Nintendo 3DS arrived with health warnings about eye strain for the young (the target market), reminding us that the Russians tested a glasses-free lenticular screen system in the first half of the twentieth century, but concluded that it had no future.

Ultimately, the problem with 3D is not the technology, but what director Christopher Nolan calls the parallax illusion itself. Contrary to Hollywood propaganda, 3D is not immersive; a century of cinema proves that it is in fact alienating. Think about it: when was the last time you watched a really good movie and thought; ‘That was great, but I couldn’t get immersed because the image was so flat?’ The answer is, never. That’s why, whatever the suits try to tell us, 3D is not the future. It is, was, and always will be the past.

Mark’s new book, The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex is available now from Random House.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 25 (Nov/Dec 2011)

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