Deeper and deeper into the movies

Posted on November 26, 2011


Every other release these days seems to be in 3-D, even if the imagination behind it all is strictly unidimensional.

A flood of 3-D movies has awakened us to the aspect of depth, in addition to length and breadth, but the presence of a third dimension in cinema is as unsurprising as colour. The world around us, as we see it, juts out in three dimensions, just like it is painted in swaths of colour – and the good cinematographers, even the black-and-white cinematographers, never let us forget that. In an early conversation between the hero and his folksy mentor in the recently released Rockstar, the two actors are seated across a table, at nearly opposite ends of the screen, and we see extras milling in the background behind them, and there are people milling behind these extras, and even beyond. The screen’s flatness does not stave off the illusion of depth, just as we sense colour in the black-and-white movies. Even without 3-D glasses, this scene from Rockstar is a scene from three-dimensional life, where things and people exist in spatial relation to each other – behind, in front, to the left, to the right, above, below. In reality, we don’t gasp with delight when the branches of a tree slice towards us. We’ve lived long enough with branches to know that that is what branches do.

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But inside the contained space of a movie theatre, when we are confined to our seats, a 3-D branch can leap out and poke us in the eye – and we gasp with delight. Is that what explains the freshly resurgent 3-D mania, the innocent rapture with which each new 3-D release is greeted? With every second film, we are asked to pay extra and rent these spectacles that promise to shape the world on the cinema screen into a simulacrum of the world outside the cinema screen – except that this world is a lot murkier, dimmed by the dark glasses. When I get impatient with a 3-D movie, I find myself lifting the spectacles and looking at the two-dimensional image on screen, and it’s like daybreak, as if the sun were coming out slowly and chasing the darkness away. With most movies, I find I’m not missing anything by dismissing the extra dimension. The image is perhaps a little blurred, like the fuzzy sights that greet you as you open your eyes in the morning, as though the objects in your bedroom were brushed with a light coat of Vaseline, but nothing more. Put the glasses back on, and you’ve reached the other end of the day. Everything seems to be unfolding in twilight.

But the problem isn’t the dimmed image or the extra cash for the glasses, in addition to the price of the ticket, or even the additional burden on the bridge of the nose. It’s that most 3-D films simply don’t need to be in 3-D. When Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, a generic concert movie, advertises itself as a 3-D spectacle, we wonder why an unremarkable audiovisual experience demands this fuss. So that screaming teenaged girls can reach out and touch their idol at least in theatres? But what explains Jackass 3-D? Even animation films and visual effects-driven spectacles, which come bearing the license to dispense with the realities of our world, do not use the extra dimension to their advantage. The one moment that stopped my breath in recent times was when the hero and heroine on a boat, in Tangled, are illuminated by thousands of floating lanterns. There was magic in this air that a mere two-dimensional image could not have conjured up – the lanterns seemed to be floating out towards us. But do you recall a single visual from Cars 2 or Thor that wouldn’t have played equally well in 2-D?

These outpourings arrive in the aftermath of Tarsem Singh’s Immortals, an eccentric and exquisitely imagined film, where each frame isn’t so much directed as art directed. The director’s guiding principle is that a story situated in Greece in 1228 BC, with gods swooping down from Olympus at the drop of a winged helmet, is but an excuse to wash your hands off reality. And he’s right – these are images plucked from our deepest dreams. An overhead shot takes in the warm glow from parallel rows of chandeliers, and at the far end, a man is swallowed up by flames. The abode of the gods looks over a distant golden river that snakes into the sun. A barge knifes through oily water like a cracked-open cocoon being borne away by industrial effluent. A disembodied leg angles out from behind a wall during a scene of torture, and later, the body of a leaping warrior is sliced in half and spins in mid-air, still married to its momentum. And all the while, a silvery bull snorts steam through its nostrils.

But these extraordinary images, the film’s selling point, are unforgivably dulled by the glasses. That leaves us with just the narrative, which is itself a dull affair, forecasting its ponderousness at the very beginning, with a Socrates quote: “All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.” If the visuals weren’t so breathtakingly conceived, we’d be hooting with laughter at the silent-movie matinee-idol moustache that sits on Zeus’ upper lip, and the six-pack he flaunts so flawlessly, like everyone else in ancient Greece. It’s impossible not to think of a time a portly Charles Laughton, in Spartacus, was allowed to embody, through his corpulence, the excesses of Rome – but then this is Greece, and perhaps its citizens were more likely to cleave to Spartan habits. It’s equally impossible not to think of David Lean, who, in just two dimensions, could yank us into a train plodding beneath the snow-capped Urals or immerse us in the shimmer of a desert, where a mirage transformed into a man on horseback. The spectacles were on screen, not on the nose.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: English