In the Guardian, Dave Eggers described Terrence Malick’s films as ‘3-D without being actually 3-D’. It’s not too difficult to imagine what Eggers meant by this throwaway line. Just recall that indelible image from Days of Heaven of workers watching a storm of locusts rise from the wheat fields – the relative sizes of the men as they recede into the background; the way the magic-hour light hits their bodies; how the camera captures the atmosphere, rendering the house in the background as a hazy silhouette. Eggers is right; it’s already 3D.
But even if the 2D cinema seems to have already gotten a handle on expressing visual depth, it’s hard to deny that stereoscope offers some unique possibilities for cinematic expression. That I’m about to suggest five films to convert to 3D will surely have film purists in a rage, but please don’t think of this as an exercise in speculatively remaking films but, rather, of remixing them; a way to appreciate our past and look to the future.
#1: CITIZEN KANE (ORSON WELLES, 1941)
The current trend of retrofitting old films for 3D in some ways mirrors the abominable fad of film colourisation in the 1980s. The thought of TNT colourising Citizen Kane prompted Orson Welles, just weeks before he died, to implore fellow filmmaker Henry Jaglom, ‘Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons!’ But even if Citizen Kane seems unthinkable in colour, it seems particularly well suited to a 3D conversion.
One of 3D’s main effects is to convince the audience of their presence at the pro-filmic event (the stuff happening in front of the camera). Shallow focus (blurry foreground or background), traditionally used to direct the audience towards the important part of the frame, mainly works to destroy this illusion, which is why Citizen Kane’s use of deep focus, famously championed by the film critic André Bazin, would work so well in 3D. As Bazin argued, deep focus gives spectators the freedom to read a filmic space in an analogous way to the way we freely perceive our direct surroundings, focusing on whatever we like. What is an ideal for Bazin becomes something the audience directly desires with 3D, though even films designed for 3D, such as Avatar, haven’t quite cottoned on to this.
#2: SUSPICION (ALFRED HITCHCOCK, 1941)
Film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has observed that 3D tends to miniaturise space:
Everything looks fine in medium shot, but as soon as you go wide, a sort of tilt-shift effect occurs – 3D’s spliced-up planes of depth make large sets look like models […] Everything goes out of whack. Panoramas turn into dioramas.
If Vishnevetsky is right, then the choices that Hollywood is making with regard to 3D conversion – large spectacles (Titanic) and big blockbuster action (Jurassic Park) – are entirely wrongheaded. The likely outcome is a comical shrinkage of phallic imagery. Spielberg’s dinosaurs will appear like Rex from Toy Story. The Titanic will become a rubber ducky in a bathtub. The 3D effect is really much more convincing when dealing with small things: part objects and fetishes. This is why Hitchcock was so well suited to 3D; even before he made the designed-for-stereoscope Dial M for Murder (1954), with its tale of scissors and latchkeys and hands grasping out at the audience, he was populating his films with ropes and wine bottles and sinister glasses of milk.
#3: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (DOUGLAS SIRK, 1955)
While being, at the most obvious level, about a romance torn apart by social obligations, Sirk’s film is, in a vital way, also about architecture. The choreography of lovers getting to know one another, the chasms that develop between the generations – in All That Heaven Allows, these events are articulated through the social spaces that constitute 1950s American suburbia: the social club, the street, the family home. 3D relishes such architecture films. It abhors the standard dialogue scene banally presented in interchanging close-ups. 3D thrives from an expressive use of mise en scène, with more attention paid to how the environment shapes a scene — that is, people talking in space rather than just people talking.
#4: CHILDREN OF MEN (ALFONSO CUARÓN, 2006)
A free-spirited moment of horsing around, an inexplicable ambush, death, despair, then contemplation – so much happens in this one scene that on first viewing it’s easy not to notice that the scene is filmed in one take (or at least appears to be, thanks to the magic of visual effects). Yet it is the absence of cuts that renders this sequence all the more immediate to the audience.
Again, we are dealing with 3D’s desire to place us in a world. 3D works better with long shots, for each time the film cuts we are torn out of the reality of that world. The problem with filmmakers making 3D films today, to my mind, is that they are editing 3D films like they would a traditional 2D, and the effect is a bit like simulating the experience of being Nightcrawler from the X-Men films, schizophrenically teleporting around a space.
#5: LA LUNA (BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI, 1979)
3D cinema can’t help but elicit an element of spatial egoism, the audience’s hyper-awareness of the distance between themselves and the things on screen. Maybe this explains 3D’s particular effectiveness in the horror genre – when a knife plunges out of the screen in a horror film, we thrillingly experience it as a threat to our very being. It is this intersubjective space – between the screen and the audience – that may well define 3D’s future significance as an artistic medium. Consider the last image of Bertolucci’s La Luna: a close up of a woman’s face, the return of the mother’s symbolic authority, sublime and unsettling because it’s so intimate, almost too intimate, and asks so much of us. This is the kind of image that 3D should create, a truth so close it feels like it’s almost touching us.