Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Disagreeing with Roger Ebert about 3-D

(apologies for the gap in service - I've been finishing off my book, Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction - due at all good bookshops in late 2011)

I've been planning on blogging about 3-D for a while now, but could never find the best route into the debate. I recently re-read Roger Ebert's piece from Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/2010/04/30/why-i-hate-3-d-and-you-should-too.html) and thought that might be a useful jumping off point.

Unlike Ebert, I don't hate 3-D films. In fact, I first viewed Monsters vs. Aliens, Streetdance 3-D and Coraline in 3-D, and think it added something to the experience of the film: it was used sparingly as a gimmick (though the 3-D CGI cucumber in the food fight scene in Streetdance 3-D may have been a step too far) and gave, for want of a better word, depth to emotional as well as spectacular scenes (the use of spatial layering between characters in both Streetdance and Monsters vs. Aliens was effective in suggesting isolation and/or estrangement, and recalled earlier 1950s 3-D work in It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon).

I don't want all my films in 3-D, and I've yet to be convinced that I need television in 3-D (my brief experience of a Sony 3-D TV did not sell me on it as a home technology - and Sky's claim to be adding 6 hours of unique 3-D content every week from September seems to be mainly limited to 3-D football and Hollywood movies) but I think it is too early to reject the technology entirely.

But then, if you read Ebert's article, he doesn't hate 3-D films either, but hates the idea of it as a 'way of life for Hollywood, where it seems to be skewing major studio output away from the kinds of films we think of as Oscar-worthy. Scorsese and Herzog make films for grown-ups. Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market.'

And here, of course, is the meat of the argument - 3-D is simply the latest technological whipping boy for a standard critical (and cultural) distinction between good movies and bad movies. To Ebert, directors make adult 'proper' filmic fare, while studios produce juvenilia that will rot your brain. This is a well-rehearsed argument that most critics fall victim to at various points, often when faced with something that they cannot reconcile with their particular worldview. Personally, I don't object to a world where there are fewer films that aim for 'Oscar-worthy' and have the loftier goal of visual and aural entertainment. I think the world would be a better place if there were more Monsters vs. Aliens and fewer Oscar-bait bio-pics...

Ebert's rant (and he's not alone) returns us to previous debates about Hollywood's cultural dominance of the 'mass' audience, and the impact of other 'new' technologies. Ebert rails against the fact that classic films didn't need 3-D, because they engaged our imagination. Yet Avatar engaged people's imaginations and produced debates around environmentalism, the Iraq war, gender issues, or the colonial mindset (Ebert does see Avatar as an exception here, but I think it inaccurate to say that all other 3-D films are mindless and cannot stimulate discussion).

But picking at the details is less important than realising that what Ebert is railing against is the 'younger Hollywood' that has lost 'the instinctive feeling for story and quality that generations of executives possessed.' This smacks of Ebert rejecting the shock of the new for the safety of the old and reliable, but with the proviso that if an established 'artist/auteur' (Scorcese, Herzog) joins in with this 3-D thing, then they might be able to wrestle something worthwhile from this base cultural form. Proper films have something to say, and don't need technical trickery to say it.

Everyone else is doomed to have spears jabbed in their faces, or have to duck to avoid CGI cucumbers.


  1. I think there are a few, probably very few, occasions where 3D adds something to a film. It's a bit like an exploding helicopter. For those films where an exploding helicopter seems appropriate, go ahead and add one. But what worries me is that most of the studios seem to be planning for 3D, certainly in the bulk of its summer blockbuster output. On those occasions where a big movie is not presented in 3D, interviews with the production crew seem to indicate that 3D was at least considered. (http://www.collider.com/2010/06/12/christopher-nolan-inception-3d-batman-3-hero-complex-film-festival/) (http://www.slashfilm.com/2009/09/01/marvel-tinkering-with-iron-man-2-3d-conversion/). It's as though 3D is now the default, and one has to justify NOT using it.

    Not every film is improved by the addition of an exploding helicopter. I don't want to see Toy Story 3 in 3D. I never saw Up in 3D, and can't imagine that it was improved at all by the process.

  2. I will admit that my examples are all films that have been 'composed' for 3-D, rather than converted afterwards - but I don't think the 'exploding helicopter' metaphor works here, because 3-D films feature depth photography throughout, not just at specific moments in the film (although the CG cucumber I mention in Streetdance is an example of that tendency).

    I don't think 3-D works for every movie, but it doesn't have to be an 'exploding helicopter'-esque gimmick. I'm not ready to dismiss it just because there have been some bad movies. You're right that many blockbuster films are now discussing 3-D in their pre-prod stages (and some post-prod), but that could be seen as a sign that someone will find better ways to compose FOR the 3-D process.

  3. This is why I'm against films in color. B&W films have something to say, and don't need technical color trickery to say it.

    Back to the scotch...