Roger Ebert has an intriguing blog post discussing the new wave of 3-D movies hitting theaters in recent months. Reflecting on a missed press screening of Fly Me to the Moon, Ebert sardonically imagines a film featuring flies buzzing straight towards the audience, reminding us just how little is truly novel about digital 3-D. Ebert goes on to add that 3-D is essentially distancing, that rather than proving viewers with a “realistic” visual experience, it actually defies conventions of visual perception. I haven’t seen Fly Me to the Moon yet–chalk that up to some last-minute scrambling as I get ready for a new semester–but I’ve been thinking about 3-D quite a bit lately (especially in my response to Beowulf), and while my initial impulse is to agree with Ebert, I want to tweak his argument just a little.
When I first saw Beowulf a few months ago, I remarked that I could never quite forget that I was watching a movie, that I never felt immersed in the world of the film. Part of my reaction is due to the discomfort of wearing the 3-D glasses, which were a little too tight, but I think a secondary cause has to be attributed to the possibility that 3-D remains a medium tied to spectacle. I’m thinking here of Tom Gunning’s discussion of the “aesthetic of astonishment,” in which Gunning challenges the myth of early cinema audiences fleeing from theaters in fear of trains rushing towards them and explains that while early cinema audiences may have been amazed by the technology of motion pictures, they were not duped by the illusion of motion presented in these early films.
I think something similar may be going on with 3-D. We’re not necessarily meant to experience these films as realistic. In fact, many of them are animated. Instead, we are supposed to be “astonished” by the technology itself. For me, I was acutely aware of the 3-D technology even while I was ostensibly watching a sixth century epic. Like Ebert, I don’t really regard myself as a fan of 3-D (although I’d like to see as many of these films as I can in the coming months), but I’m not quite convinced that realism or classic forms of identification–I never identified with Beowulf, for example–are the goals that motivate storytelling in 3-D. On one level, of course, the goals are commerce (3-D films are harder to pirate and, for some, they are a novelty), but I think they are also an attempt to theorize the limits of film as a representational medium, of finding new ways to tell stories using images projected on a giant screen in a darkened theater.