Film: 3D in 4D

As fascinating as Avatar is – as a purely, purely audiovisual experience – my fear is that its success underscores the limitations of the 3D format.  The process, when it works, is unbelievably absorbing, destroying the two-dimensional barrier between real and screen life and blasting open a sense of how we operate in physical space.  Some of James Cameron’s best shots are in the live action sequences.  No more is a commander addressing his soldiers a simple question of imagery; in Cameron’s world, it’s an impasto of spatial orientation – the commander’s back, turned to us, a textured and implacable wall before his troops.  The effect is not lost in two-dimensional representation, but in 3D it functions less on our capacity to comprehend pictography – cartoons, essentially – and far more on our innate responses to depth and motion.  It makes a sequence involving a giant jungle critter attack stunningly visceral; our brains tell us this thing is about to bite us, and order us to recoil.  Suddenly we’re not watching a movie in order to react to its story elements, but to be held absolute captive by its sensual stimuli.

As an extraordinarily powerful Hollywood filmmaker, as well as an aficionado of science and kineticism, Cameron is uniquely able to allow this stuff to play out.  Other recent 3D films – Coraline and Up, say – have also used the process to amusing effect, but inevitably feel more allegiance to their stories than to 3D’s inherent dynamism; it winds up being a gimmick instead of a part of these films’ operating systems.  Anyway, to the extent that we are used to digesting motion pictures as animated stories, it’s entirely irrelevant (it’s almost easy to forget that it’s been around in movies since the ’50s, and that its popularity has surged and receded in more or less equal measure).  Cameron’s productive patience with HD technology has allowed 3D to flourish to a degree that it has never seen; Avatar contains more convincing, more immersive, 3D in its CGI sequences than Up did last spring, and it does it almost entirely without hurling objects through the screen at your face (something the preview for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland couldn’t resist for all of three minutes).

And yet…and yet.  Dropping $237,000,000 doesn’t exactly inspire the sort of dramatic invention or piercing focus that allows a film like The Hurt Locker to work its way under your skin, or A Serious Man to embroil you in its tragicomic bravura.  And it’s not out of line to question whether the script or its preposterous scale came first in Cameron’s mind; he’s never shown much interest in crafting anything but efficient stereotypes for characters, human vehicles to enact his setpieces.  Somehow these have generally worked: Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991), True Lies (1994), and even Titanic (1997) are all masterfully paced action films of virtually no diluting complexity – nothing complicates his stunning virtuoso visual flow.  He’s the only filmmaker in history to consistently outspend and outreap.  He’s never had a flop, and not even Spielberg has been able to pull off such consistently expensive blockbusters – and at this point that has as much to do with the film’s own hype as with Cameron’s, the cinematic magician who can do no fiscal wrong.  But what he gains in visceral amusement he loses in everything else, and his films are airtight Pez dispensers of no greater ambition than the sugar contained therein.  Avatar is merely a Dances with Wolves ripoff with aliens and bigger guns.

Which leaves the advancement of 3D in question.  It’s still a vastly cumbersome process, full of technical pitfalls and optical shortcomings that limit certain frames and lighting effects (cinematographer Mauro Fiore discusses some of them at length in American Cinematographer, in case you were wondering why the live action scenes tended to look a little smoky).  To film with 3D takes time and money that most productions don’t have, and that most filmmakers won’t commit, and until the cost and ease of use both improve, it will be limited to the kinds of projects studios don’t want to take narrative chances with.  To make it more than a gimmick and less than an insult to a producer’s checkbook demands a specific breed of filmmaker, perhaps a new breed entirely: with Cameron’s patience and an artist’s sensitivity, and a businessman’s commercial acumen.

Step it up, Coens.  Bring Fincher.

One Response to “Film: 3D in 4D”

  1. Really Great Posting. Sorry English is not so good please accept my apology. I am from Turkey and don’t type English so well. I’ve bookmarked this posting. Thanks!

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