Last week, esteemed film writers Anne Thompson, Leonard Maltin and Eric Kohn posted the transcript of a conversation in which the trio discuss the relevance, artistry and bankability of 3D cinema. It’s definitely worth a read, especially given the unique perspectives of Thompson as industry insider, Maltin as historian and Kohn as cinephile (I’m oversimplifying, each one fills all of those roles at varying points, but the transcript makes it clear whose strengths lie where.) I’d like to throw my opinion into the mix on the subject of 3D as it stands today.[pullquote]
3D, like any other visual technology, is only as good as its output.
Most of their conversation is well-trodden ground, the predictable tropes we’ve been hearing all year. Maltin opens “3-D alone isn’t enough anymore. We’ve had several 3-D flops. Take Clash of the Titans. Say you’re at Warner Bros. and you have, on the one hand, a guy saying, ‘This 3-D quality sucks,’ but then another says, ‘Yes, but look at how much money we made this weekend with it anyway.’” The accepted wisdom is that 3D is a gimmick that exists only to squeeze extra pennies out of movie-goers. True, but not really true.
3D, like any other visual technology, is only as good as its output. A movie camera is no good without someone to work it, preferably someone with a vision of how to advance cinema. Whatever you think about Avatar, James Cameron is that person, he is the artist who has the drive and determination to see 3D flourish as a legitimate art form not just today, but for its next century. The film isn’t a talking point because it found a new way to press audiences for revenue, it’s a part of history because when we look at the timeline of cinema, we can point to the 2009 release of Avatar and say “something changed here”.
But, and this is a big but, James Cameron is not the artist who will break down the barriers between Big Hollywood and indie visionaries. As much of a technological wiz as he is, his evangelism goes only so far as the most basic, plastic issues of filmmaking. What we need is someone who can take the technology, take the buzz and wrangle it into a viable artistic movement. We need someone to save 3D from being destroyed by the Hollywood money machine.
I have heard chatter that Gaspar Noe wanted to make his psychedelic Enter the Void in 3D, a pronouncement that sounds like a self-serving bit of braggadocio. (It also elicits giggles from the peanut gallery given the film’s literal climax.) Wracking my brain, I couldn’t think of a film that could have done more for the format than Void. The camera bobs, weaves, floats and devolves into light-soaked wormholes, spindly arms reaching out to the audience and taking hold. As an experience, it is wildly immersive. For some, it may be unwatchable, but the folks who can make it through all the way and laud it are exactly the sort of people who need to be jolted into 3D acceptance.
Finally, I would like to address the argument that 3D is a gimmick. It should be noted that the same argument was made for CGI, CinemaScope, color film, sync sound and cinema itself in each of their respective infancies. We grow and we learn over time. It is an offensive, classist argument akin to “animation is only for kids”. No crossover filmmaker has yet come along to embrace 3D strongly enough to make it artistically interesting, but give it time to grow. 3D will only be here to stay if the indie, arthouse community embraces it. Time to wait and see.