When 3-D is the only way to see a movie (even for those who hate 3-D)
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I don’t like 3-D. Even in the hands of a virtuoso like Scorsese, it feels like a superfluous distraction, emphasizing depth perception in a way that doesn’t even vaguely resemble how I perceive spatial relationships in the real world. Maybe someday there’ll be a technical leap that’ll make it genuinely immersive (though I’m skeptical). For now, the process only succeeds in transforming movies into museum dioramas, artificial-looking enough to merit the dread phrase “amazingly lifelike.” The sooner this idiotic fad goes away, the better, as far as I’m concerned. So when a movie I’m eager to see opens at the nearby multiplex, playing in both 2-D and 3-D, with a hefty surcharge for the latter, I naturally heave a big sigh, pay the extra money, put on the dorky glasses, and sit back to have my eyeballs assaulted.
(For best results, make a really loud “WAIT, WHAT?” record-scratch sound effect at this point.)
Most people watch movies strictly for their own pleasure, and they should obviously do whatever makes them happy. I’m talking here to the fellow obsessives—people who wouldn’t dream of watching a movie that’s been edited for TV (unless we’ve seen it before), who are concerned about correct aspect ratios, who would run out to catch a 35mm print of a movie they own on DVD or Blu-ray. If you care about seeing a film the way it was ideally meant to be seen, ignoring 3-D just because you don’t like it is in some small sense a dereliction of duty. By watching the 2-D version, you’re deliberately turning your back on the experience you were fundamentally intended to have. I wouldn’t claim it’s as deleterious as watching a color film in black and white, but the basic principle is identical. The film is incomplete.
You may think that analogy imprecise. And it is, in one significant way: Movies aren’t theatrically released in both color and black and white. But just because we’re given the choice between 2-D and 3-D versions of Brave doesn’t mean that both are equally valid. Studios would love to release their 3-D movies exclusively in that format, but they can’t—there just aren’t enough 3-D screens in the country, still, even though more are added every month. Any film released solely in 3-D would have no shot at being No. 1 for the weekend, which has become the most important thing in the world due to people being sad sheep. So the fact that there’s also a 2-D version of these movies is really just historical accident, in the same way that some widescreen movies back in the ’50s had to be shown full-frame in theaters that didn’t yet have the right aperture plates. It’s not as if both versions are accorded equal creative energy.
Granted, there’s not a whole lot of creative energy going into most big-studio movies to begin with. I have some friends, also 3-D-phobes, who feel the sense of obligation I’m talking about when it comes to Scorsese’s Hugo or Werner Herzog’s Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, but sneer at the idea that one should give the same respect and consideration to, say, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. That seems unduly snobbish to me. A pure popcorn movie might be stupid, but that doesn’t mean that a great deal of care and technical expertise didn’t go into its making. Hell, technical expertise is all that some of them offer. And if it was shot using 3-D cameras, you can be fairly confident that every major aesthetic decision was made to optimize the movie for 3-D. The creators will make the 2-D version as effective as they can (sometimes even digitally removing certain foreground objects), but it’s still essentially an afterthought. If you care about seeing the movie as it was meant to beseen (and I’m not saying you have to), 3-D is the way to go.
For a while, I thought I’d found a loophole to this exercise in masochistic fidelity: If the film was shot in 3-D, that’s one thing, but I’d be damned if I’d support the conversion of films that were actually shot in 2-D—which is rather a lot of them, including The Avengers, John Carter, the final Harry Potter movie, etc. Alas, it turns out to be not quite so clear-cut. Ancient conversion jobs like Titanic and The Lion King can certainly be dismissed, as not even the vaguest thought was expended on 3-D when they were originally made. More and more, however, new movies shot in 2-D have their ultimate 3-D destination in mind from the get-go. When Barry Sonnenfeld talked to The A.V. Club about Men in Black 3, he noted that he’d tested various 3-D cameras and decided that 2-D conversion would give him more control over depth, which suggests that his decisions on set were all made with an eye toward stereo. Given that extensive post-production tweaking is now commonplace, it’s tough to argue that some forms are artistry and others mere gimmickry. And if what matters is how a film was shot, most of the black-and-white movies made over the past couple of decades should be considered color films—including the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, which is available on DVD in color in some countries.
I can’t go there. So now I see everything in 3-D, and just grit my teeth. But there’s a dark side to that resolution as well, I’ve discovered. Because while I’m concerned enough about honoring the filmmakers’ intentions to endure a process I strongly dislike, I’m not actually fanatical about it. I don’t own a 3-D TV, so if I miss the movie in theaters and catch up with it on video, it’s going to be 2-D no matter what my convictions are. I recently watched Thor that way, for example, in preparation for The Avengers. (Not being able to watch a movie until I’ve seen any previous related movies is another sickness of mine.) But I still haven’t seen The Avengers, and the other day I consciously realized why I’m putting it off: because if I wait until it leaves the multiplexes, I don’t have to see it in 3-D. Which is beyond moronic. Unless I adopt a hardline “see it in 3-D or not at all” policy—in which case, to be consistent, I should also stop watching movies on video, never see 2001: A Space Odyssey again unless it’s in 70mm, etc.—my good intentions will only result in passive-aggressive scheming (against myself!) to get the result I really want.
And yet I still feel deep down that 3-D movies are meant to be seen in 3-D, and that buying a ticket for the movie in 2-D is somehow “wrong.” (This also applies to IMAX, by the way. I saw Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol in both formats; if you didn’t see that film in true IMAX, you didn’t really see it.) And I can only imagine how this inner war will intensify when Peter Jackson unleashes 48fps on the world in December. Judging from the description of folks who saw the Hobbit demo—many of whom complained that it was so vivid that it looked paradoxically unreal—it’s going to make 3-D seem innocuous by comparison. No matter how much I may hate it, though, it’s what Jackson wants to show us. How do I reject that?
Well, like this: