Three’s Company

Nick Pinkerton on “3D in the 21st Century” at BAMcinématek

Jeff Tremaine, Jackass 3D, 2010, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes. Johnny Knoxville.

THE ACADEMIC Tom Gunning coined the phrase “the cinema of attractions” to refer to a strain of filmmaking that popped up in the first decade of the invention’s life, which would later serve as an inspiration for the avant-garde. These are films belonging to what is sometimes called “the Méliès tradition,” named for the magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès, an “exhibitionist cinema” of “trick films,” in which narrative is of secondary importance to the realization of fabulous and impossible illusions. In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, is a forgotten man, running a toy shop in the Gare Montparnasse in 1930s Paris—as, indeed, he actually did. The film, as well as being the Goodfellas director’s first foray into the children’s movie, was his first shot in 3-D—a technique whose renascence was but one symbol of a latter-day return to the cinema of attractions.

The still-image stereopticon viewer was a craze in the latter half of the nineteenth century, while the idea of stereoscopic cinema goes back as far as Méliès’s day, and a variety of techniques involving dual-strip projection and anaglyph glasses (the kind with the red-and-green or red-and-blue lenses) were tinkered with before the original 3-D boom of 1952, which followed on the release of Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil. (Oboler’s 1966 “comeback” film The Bubble, shot on single-strip “SpaceVision 3D,” enjoyed a weeklong run at the Museum of Modern Art in January and has since been issued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.)

Bwana Devil and the films that immediately followed it were part of a larger strategy on the part of movies to push back against upstart television, then eating into what had been a captive audience for moving images. This occurred along with the appearance of CinemaScope, Todd-AO, and various bits of outlandish hoopla with which 3-D was often grouped—the Ping-Pong-paddle ballyhoo man in House of Wax (1953) was an unwitting symbol for the fad itself. BAMcinématek’s new program “3D in the 21st Century” looks at another moment in cinema’s century-long history of perpetual crisis—the immediate past-present, in which competition has come from both Internet and cable drama, the latter raiding the market for character-based middlebrow narrative. BAM’s selection of films, appropriately, offers an overview of two strands of cinema more or less unreliant on storytelling: multiplex spectacle and avant-garde cinema. (In the case of multimedia artist Trisha Baga’s twenty-four-minute Other Gravity, released contemporaneously with Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Gravity and playing on the same program at BAM, the short work seems to drolly address the megaproduction.)

While a variation of the single-strip “SpaceVision” technology predominated in the decades following The Bubble, lean years for stereoscopic cinema, there was a renewed interest in 3-D at the turn of the millennium, approximately coinciding with the digital changeover. James Cameron shot his 2003 Ghosts of the Abyss with a new “stereo” process that used two digital cameras, and he released it to IMAX theaters where, the following year, Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture animated The Polar Express would have its own 3-D run. Neither Ghosts nor Polar Express is on BAMcinématek’s bill of fare, but Cameron and Zemeckis’s boutique 3-D forays were really only dress rehearsals. In 2007, Zemeckis’s second motion-capture film, Beowulf, opened in over one thousand theaters—the largest day-and-date 3-D release ever. In the years since Polar Express, Beverly Hills–based RealD, founded in 2003, had beat out Dolby Laboratories to practically corner the US market installing new polarized digital projection systems. (No more colored lenses required!) Theaters were anticipating a 3-D groundswell. What they were looking forward to was Avatar.

An immersive journey to Pandora, a bioluminescent faerieland out of Coleridge’s most fragrant imaginings, Cameron’s megaproduction combined “Colors of the Wind” eco-sentimentality, New Agey let’s-go-native holism, endless shamanic yodeling, and synthetic storytelling—a hemp tote carrying a hunk of Styrofoam. The darkly glittering, scream-lashed Beowulf is by any measure the greater artwork, but Avatar was the more successful piece of multiplex triangulation—unadjusted for inflation, the top-grossing film of all-time—and the land rush began.

The majority of the multiplex material here comes from 3-D’s post-Avatar boom years, a heyday that scarcely lasted longer than the idea of Sam Worthington as a viable top-shelf leading man. In part a commemoration of a cash-in frenzy, BAM’s series showcases some of the most flagrantly commercial art of recent memory, including tween lunch money grabs Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011) and Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012), the highlight of which is the image of consolation tweets popping up over the Los Angeles skyline in response to news of Perry’s split from her husband, the awful Russell Brand. Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin (both late 2011) are here as the validity-conferring name-brand auteur experiments, while Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D (2010), which drops a severed male member right in the viewer’s lap, is certainly the greatest stereoscopic blockbuster exploitation film—though both My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009) and Drive Angry (2011) have their partisans, and it seems a grave oversight to have neither The Final Destination (2009) nor Final Destination 5 (2011) on the docket. (It is worth noting that Jean-Luc Godard, always the most promiscuous of borrowers, screened Piranha before setting out to shoot his own 3-D film, 2014’s Goodbye to Language.) There are also visits from the finest infinitely repeatable franchises of the young millennium, including Jackass 3D (2010), Step Up 3D (2010), and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), a work of posthuman humanism that features one of the most awe-striking overtures in recent memory. (Resident Evil series architect Paul W. S. Anderson is, aside from Ken Jacobs, the only filmmaker with more than one work here, also represented by his 2011 The Three Musketeers.)

Only two years after Avatar, the technology that had been prescribed as a panacea for dipping profits was being diagnosed as the cause of poor box-office health. In September 2011, a piece on Slate asked “Who Killed 3-D?”, offering such explanations as price gouging by theater chains and studios’ flooding of cinemas with movies retroactively “upgraded” to stereoscopic visuals to cash in on the trend. (This continues today, although mostly overseas, where the industry can depend on a moviegoing public that hasn’t yet wised up to its chicanery.) A BBC News item appearing shortly afterward wondered, “Can Martin Scorsese’s Hugo save 3D?”

It didn’t—not at the box office, at least—though Gravity came close to doing the job, proving that audiences would still pay top dollar for a 3-D experience that had been customized to really utilize the technology, here placing bodies in relief against the void of deep space. Elsewhere, filmmakers seemed to be running out of novel uses for 3-D, with 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) director Noam Murro reduced to continually pelting his audience with floating particulates. At the same time, experimental filmmakers were using 3-D to further pursue the “cinema of attractions” that they’d never abandoned—this work is to be seen in BAM’s selection of short film aperitifs. Johann Lurf’s Twelve Tales Told (2014), preceding Hugo, intercuts and extends a dozen different pre-film studio logos while creating a glitch, twitchy kind of music from their interrupted fanfare. Kerry Laitala’s Chromatic Frenzy (2009) is a lapidary shower of kaleidoscope, Spirograph, and compound eye imagery, while Timothy Geraghty’s Coming Up Threes (2013) overlays images from the Times Square subway platform, the news tickers from the street above, and the vitrine of a consumer electronics store, creating a veritable mudslide of information. (Both Laitala and Geraghty’s pieces were made to be watched with ChromaDepth glasses, which, as the name implies, assign different fixed levels of depth to different colors, and work best with a doctored image.)

While most of the experimental shorts here are programmed with a feature, Jacobs commands his own program—only appropriate, as his work with the stereoscopic image stretches back to the late 1960s, and in the last decade he has been devoted to it entirely. I was able to view a projection of Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), an aptly assaultive piece that marries a din of industrial noise to a twitchy stereograph view of a Victorian-era factory floor where bobbins of thread are manufactured by haunted-looking Dickensian waifs. (Idea for a sequel: a visit to see where RealD glasses are made?) For Jacobs, the only “novelty” in cinema is the flat image: “2-D is a remarkable invention, crazier than most anything that can happen in 3-D. Imagine the world flattened to a single insubstantial plane, a mere surface reflection! I must look into it. But can’t.”

“3D in the 21st Century” runs May 1–17 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.