Hailed a little over 18 months ago as the saviour of a declining film industry, the inevitable next stage in the medium's evolution, 3D currently languishes at a crossroads, tolerated but not loved by an increasingly skeptical public.
“A year ago, if you read any of the trade papers or the common press,” said John Fithian, President of the US National Association of Theatre Owners a few days ago, in an interview with Kim Masters on KCRW's 'The Business', “you would have thought that 3D was the saviour of the exhibition industry, the best thing that ever happened to us. And if you read anything in the trades in the past few months, you'd think 3D is dying and it's never going to survive.
“The truth,” he added, “is somewhere in the middle. 3D will not be as important as everyone thought a year ago. 3D will be much more important than everyone thinks right now.”
It's not hard to see why the bloom came off this particular rose. A string of disappointing, supposedly showcase releases. Substantial hikes in ticket prices. The discomfort of those pesky, headache-inducing glasses. By the time respected editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient) contributed a scholarly rebuttal of the technology, claiming it was physically incompatible with the human brain, many viewers were wondering whether simple 2D might not do just fine, thank you very much.
Yet ironically, for a technology that was supposed to signal the arrival of a new generation of storytellers, by far the most compelling uses of the format to date have come from filmmakers well into their fourth decade of activity. Premiering at last February's Berlin Film Festival, Wim Wenders' documentary Pina, about the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, was acclaimed for creating the illusion of a theatrical space, through which the dancers moved. And Martin Scorsese's forthcoming Hugo (pictured) is a love-letter to the medium, taking the director's signature style (those labyrinthine tracking shots, for example) into a whole new realm of spectacle.
In both cases, this is something of a surprise. By common consent, Wenders hasn't made a good film in well over a decade—since another documentary, in fact: 1999's Buena Vista Social Club. And Scorsese is a proud member of the old guard, who a few years ago declared that, despite startling advances in digital image technology, he would continue to shoot on old-fashioned 35mm celluloid until the day he retires. (Tellingly, however, Hugo was shot on an Arri Alexa HD camera.)
So why have these filmmakers succeeded where others have not?
For a start, the projects were conceived from the outset as 3D movies, an occurrence rather less common than you might think. Part of the technology's problem, thus far, has been the distinctly ad hoc nature of its application. Louis Leterrier's remake of Clash of the Titans, for example, is generally acknowledged to be the nadir of the form to date—but how could it be otherwise, considering that the decision to make it 3D only occurred to studio executives during production, as a way of cashing-in on the fashion for 'immersive' moviemaking?
Thus, the 'extra dimension' was hurriedly and cheaply added in during post-production—making the film look like one of those old-fashioned stereoscopic photographs you'd stare at through your Viewfinder, with successive flat 'planes' of action, rather than actual depth. To compare this with something like Pina, is like comparing one of Francis Bacon's preliminary sketches to the 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.'
But there's something else, too. 3D, as John Fithian noted in his KCRW interview, can't improve the experience of a movie in and of itself. It cannot make a lousy film into an adequate one. That—in two dimensions or three—requires something rarer and more ineffable: a certain conceptual brilliance; the ability to conceive interesting visual images and choreograph action through the frame (and also, in the case of 3D, outside of it). It demands, as well as technical proficiency, a fluent visual imagination, combined with a deep knowledge of the medium: its history, as well as its potential. In a word? It takes talent.