By Jason Anderson
In the five years since James Cameron’s Avatar conquered this planet, Hollywood has filled multiplex screens with a newly immersive breed of blockbuster. It was fun for a while, sure, but all the dim, blurry, cluttered imagery in these would-be thrill machines has gradually drained the wow factor that once inhabited 3D movies.
So, for anyone suffering from a case of 3D fatigue (or just the usual sore eyes and aching temples), the most audacious moments in Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage can seem even more dazzling. Making playful use of the additional dimension, the director eagerly upends conventions of framing, depth of field, and the layering of text and images. At one point, Godard even splits a scene in two and sends the parts in opposite directions.
Like much of the film, it’s a powerful demonstration of the artistic possibilities for a film technology that was dismissed as a cheesy gimmick in the days of red-and-green glasses and is now more typically used to amplify the bombast. Thankfully, Godard is not the only one who’s made braver, more surprising use of stereoscopic cinema than we might expect from Michael Bay or even SCTV’s Dr. Tongue. Here are more forays into the world of 3D that are just as idiosyncratic as Adieu au langage.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
The 1950s vogue for 3D had already waned by the time Alfred Hitchcock’s one stab at the fad hit theatres — indeed, it was released in 2D for its original run. Only later were audiences able to savour Hitch’s efforts to put viewers in the room with Grace Kelly and the would-be murderer lurking behind the curtains. The director even dug a pit to do the low-angle shots, most of which emphasize the stagy nature of the space. Unlike most play adaptations, Hitchcock’s take on Frederick Knott’s West End hit cares not a jot for naturalism — he’d rather have you in the front row looking up from the floorboards.
Flesh for Frankenstein 3D (1974)
A grisly and silly film that originally carried the imprimatur of producer Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey’s heretical spin on Mary Shelley’s horror classic was swiftly embraced as a cult favourite thanks to Udo Kier’s enthusiasm for waving bloody entrails in viewers’ faces. It was also the most memorable proof of 3D’s new popularity among the era’s exploitation movie-makers thanks to the advent of “Space-Vision,” a new technology by producer Arch Oboler that essentially stacked the two images one on top of the other, creating a fully synchronized 3D image (and on the cheap, too). The only shame is that Warhol himself never made his own Space-Vision movie, though his 1962 3D painting of the Statue of Liberty netted $40 million when last up for auction two years ago.
Capitalism: Slavery (2006) + Anaglyph Tom (2008)
In these eye-popping reworkings of archival photographs and film footage, American artist Ken Jacobs doesn’t so much explode the image as execute a meticulously controlled demolition job. Eschewing the methods of Hollywood filmmakers (and therefore the need for special glasses), Jacobs achieves something more stunning as he uses an arsenal of digital, photographic, and strobe effects to work over his source material. In the former, it’s a Victorian-era stereograph of cotton pickers; for the latter, it’s the same 1905 Biograph one-reeler that Jacobs previously deconstructed in his 1969 avant-garde landmark Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son.
American artist Ben Coonley’s cheeky “cover” of Michael Snow’s infamous slow-zoom classic (watch the original above) provides viewers with an inkling of what might happen if Canada’s greatest living artist ventured into the 3D realm. Then again, Snow’s La Region Centrale (1971) — which consists of three hours’ worth of 360-degree views of a Quebec mountaintop — feels more like a 3D movie than just about anything to ever claim that distinction.
Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work (2009)
Concocted by 20,000 Days on Earth directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, this installation work pays homage to the first stereoscopic cinematic spectacular: 1922’s The Man from M.A.R.S. This silent sci-fi sensation was made with Teleview, a short-lived system whose inventor, Laurens Hammond, would gain greater fame when he made the organ that bears his name. The artists’ contemporary refashioning features actors replaying scenes from the original, albeit now with modern 3D video and audio technologies replacing Hammond’s gizmo. Check out the full film on Vimeo.
Wim Wenders’ embrace of 3D has been ardent to say the least. When not pontificating about the format’s possibilities, he’s castigating Hollywood for nearly letting this new language “drown in a lack of imagination.” But rather than constitute another attempt to hop on the bandwagon, it marks a creative renewal for the German director. This fleet-footed tribute to the late dance legend Pina Bausch has since been followed by Cathedrals of Culture, an architecturally themed omnibus project that he exec-produced and features 3D views of some of the world’s greatest buildings as filmed by Wenders, Robert Redford the late Michael Glawogger, and others. Next up is Every Thing Will Be Fine, a fully fledged 3D drama — which remains a rarity despite the success of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby — starring James Franco, Rachel McAdams and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) + Hugo (2011) Though it remains to be seen which of the current cycle of 3D films will stand the test of time, two likely favourites are by directors who — like Godard — are old enough to have seen Creature of the Black Lagoon as impressionable adolescents. Curiously enough, both movies are explicitly concerned with the past. In his superb documentary, Werner Herzog uses 3D technology to imbue not just depth but movement to the prehistoric images on the walls of the Chauvet caves.
As for Martin Scorsese’s childhood adventure in 1930s Paris, the director employs every resource at his disposal to restore lustre and wonder to cinema’s earliest examples of special-effects wizardry courtesy of Georges Méliès. But maybe it’s not so strange to for 3D movies to share a preoccupation with times long gone, seeing as both films evoke an ambition that may be as old as humankind: to disregard the flat and frustrating surface of images and travel into the worlds they contain.