"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

3D: A Study in Depth

Film Forum is in the midst of a Classic 3D film series that is eye-bulgingly essential for anyone who cares about the past and future of cinema. I dragged a friend to see KIss Me Kate on Sunday and we were transported to such a state of euphoria (spinning diamonds! saucy lyrics! silly outfits! jazz hands! gangsters spouting Shakespeare!) that leaving the theater was like coming out from under ether. (Admittedly this experience was augmented by some ‘50s-era wax soda bottles from Economy Candy that gave us both a suitable sugar high.) According to the trailer, Kiss Me Kate was the greatest event in the history of our times:

Kate is that great, and those who delight in the golden era of 3D will be knocked out by Film Forum’s pristine dual projection. Moreover, cinephiles who are sickened by the success of the behemoth Avatard and the bumper crop of unnecessary 3D titles that it has spawned will get a much better sense of the untapped potential of “depthies,” then and now.

First things first: all filmmaking is three-dimensional in the sense that motion pictures provide many depth cues that we also use on a daily basis to perceive the visual world. However, stereoscopic cinema maintains the illusion of extending into the space of the audience, going boldly where no movie had gone before.

One could make the argument that three-dimensional cinema is inherently more realistic, because it locates objects in space, rather than on a flat, two-dimensional plane. And it certainly expands the visual field, bringing the spectator seemingly closer to the image. However, it is more accurate to say that three-dimensional is hyper-realistic, or radically exhibitionist, because instead of the spectator’s vision directed “inward” towards the screen, the image is literally directed “outward” towards the spectator. The 3D film, in essence, does the work of perception for the spectator—it commands us to focus on this character or that part of the mise-en-scène, simply by the jutting out of certain pictorial elements over others.

3D cinema, therefore does the finger-pointing for us — look at this here, right now! A 3D model of spetatorship is inherently anti-Bazinian because it rejects any notion of the interior life of the screen image — and infantilizes the spectator who prefers to let his eye roam over the image. I think this explains why die-hard cinephiles dismiss these films as passing novelties, films in which objects were hurled at the spectator and film art was nary a concern — the cinematic equivalent to a paintball game. However, a surprising number of prestigious and high-budget features were shot using 3-D (but not necessarily released that way). The list is impressive: it includes Kiss Me Kate, along with House of Wax, The Charge at Feather River, Miss Sadie Thompson, Creature from a Black Lagoon, and Dial M for Murder.

Dial M for Murder is a example of how three dimensional processes can be used to create effects that transcend mere gimmicks; Hitchcock shows admirable restraint and allows for the action of the film to dictate 3-D movement along the Z-axis. The film is based on a stage-play, and most of the action takes place in the living room of a London apartment. (As a director, Hitchcock had a definite techno-fetish, exploring rear-screen projection, matte, and other unconventional techniques. 3D was no exception, though Hitchcock was a late adopter, coming around to the process in 1954.) In Dial M for Murder, composition and movement are carefully controlled: the first half of the film is static and consists only of subtle maneuvering between lamps, chair arms, and other household items jutting out in front of the actors. Every shot was masterfully executed with proper camera movement and very precise convergence.

Dial M for Murder contains three outstanding examples of 3-D virtuosity. First are the tight, extreme close-ups on wristwatches; second, the suspenseful shot of a telephone dial as the murderer pokes his finger into the number six hole, the titular “M.” Both shots were faked using a giant prop technique, making it possible to manage extreme close-ups without inflicting eyestrain, and demonstrating Hitchcock’s ingeniousness for outwitting the limitations of 3D.

Hitchcock’s most obvious and effective three-dimensional moment comes during the murder itself: As the murderer attempts to strangle poor gorgeous Grace Kelly, she is forced back across her desk, and her grasping hand is thrust out at the audience as she reaches for scissors to stab the murderer. Even here Hitchcock demonstrates restraint, as the movement of the stabbing goes away from the camera rather than toward the camera and audience. I saw a 3D projection of Dial M for Murder a number of years ago and I’ve never forgotten this scene. It’s playing Aug 21 and 22 at Film Forum — don’t miss this!

Category: art + video, film reviews

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One Response

  1. Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

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