Dimensional Musings

Jackass 3D had a gigantic opening weekend, bringing in $50 million, almost twice as much as its predecessor. Two weeks previously I watched Joe Dante’s The Hole 3D at the New York Film Festival, which is still without a distributor. The bump in the Jackass money is not only attributable to the 3D premium pricing, it attracted more admissions than its first two entries as well, as Ben Fritz reported in the L.A. Times.  Regardless of the flak the technology receives from critics like Roger Ebert, it draws crowds, and thus will be a part of the cinematic landscape for some time to come. And while muddy-looking 3D conversions will surely mar theaters in the future, there are plenty of productions that are producing fascinating depth effects with the new technology.

Let’s start with Jackass 3D and The Hole. I enjoyed both films, although they approached the technology from vastly differing positions. Jackass, a non-narrative parade of scatalogical slapstick, is a return to early silent filmmaking and the “cinema of attractions” that Tom Gunning identified. Gunning:

Rather than early approximations of the later practices of the style of classical film narration, aspects of early cinema are best understood if a purpose other than storytelling is factored in. Cinema as an attraction is that other purpose. By its reference to the curiosity-arousing devices of the fairground, the term denoted early cinema’s fascination with novelty and its foregrounding of the act of display.

All of Jackass 3D is the act of display pushed to its perverse limit, vaudeville huckster versions of Marina Abramovic. Both work at exposing the limits of our bodies, Jackass through shots to the groin, Abramovic through exchanged slaps with her lover, among endless other examples. I tend to think her humor and the Jackass crew’s intelligence are both underrated. In another echo, Abromovich had a smashingly successful retrospective at MoMA this year, which is where Jackass 3D held its premiere. MoMA curator Josh Siegel says that Johnny Knoxville and company’s work is, “merely the climax — or the lowest depths, if you prefer — of a tradition that dates back to 1895, when the Lumière brothers drenched a poor sap with a garden hose and filmed it.” (from Dennis Lim’s primer in the NY Times). My favorite bits involved fun with a harrier jet’s exhaust and a delightfully revolting stunt involving a sweat cocktail.

3D is the shiniest new weapon in their toolbox, and so they gleefully push the technology to purely presentational ends. Gunning again, “The attraction directly addresses the spectator, acknowledging the viewer’s presence and seeking to quickly satisfy a curiosity.” 3D is another delivery system in satisfying this curiosity, of how a tooth could be pulled by a Lamborghini, or what a “poop cocktail supreme” could possibly entail. For most of the film, the technology is cheaply utilized. The crew used their normal prosumer cameras for their mixture of planned/improvised shenanigans. Then it was processed into 3D in post. For these sections, it is just a gimmick. However, in the beginning and closing minutes there are sequences filmed stereoscopically in super slow motion with Phantom HD Gold Cameras. As the men are knocked down by dildos and other implements, their skin ripples like plasticene waves, and the split-second fear before the blows are noticeable in these aging stunt-men’s eyes.

The Hole is another story, a family-oriented horror movie that was entirely filmed in stereoscopic 3D, using the Dolby process. Joe Dante is a student of the form, having watched almost every 3D film ever made during the previous boom in the 1950s and 60s (his lifetime of research can be watched at his fiendishly entertaining site Trailers From Hell). The film’s title implies physical depth, and Dante takes advantage of the narrative device at every turn. The top-lining photo gives an impression of his work here, with constant use of entrances and exits, with the kids grouped and choreographed so there is constant motion back and forth from background to foreground. The film is an eyeful. In the Q&A following the screening at the NYFF, Dante said he thought the Dolby process was too dark, preferring the RealD system which most big-budget releases use. But RealD needs a special silver screen to be projected on, and for a low-budget film in which theater space would at a minimum, the Dolby process was necessary, as it can be projected onto regular screens.

Dante also discussed 3D dos and dont’s including avoiding cuts on quick motion, because the level of eyestrain involved. The film flew along, a combination of classic Dantaen elements like a suffocating suburbia, coming-of-age subtexts, a Dick Miller sighting, and a rich intertextual conversation with film history. The major touchstone here seems to be German Expressionism, from the hat tip to Hands of Orlac in the cheekily named “Gloves of Orlac” factory, to the vertiginous, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired set design in the finale.

It’s unbelievable that the film, about kids who discover a portal into their own subconscious in their basement, has no distributor. It’s wildly entertaining and reliably scary (a harlequin puppet had my wife gripping my arm), and contains some of the most imaginative uses of 3D that I’ve seen all year.

The other great 3D film this year, is, believe it or not, Resident Evil: Afterlife. I am an admirer of Paul W.S. Anderson’s genre chops (I did an overview of his career for IFC News), and I think it’s his best film. There is a superb use of depth effects throughout. From the start it was shot in 3D, with Anderson saying that, ”I wrote things into this script that I knew would work well in 3D, like lots of sets with depth-like tunnels, elevator shafts, and big wide landscapes.” That alone gives him more awareness  of how to shoot in depth than the botched 3D conversions on Piranha 3D (which I enjoyed regardless) and Clash of the Titans (read this interview with James Cameron for some interesting notes about that conversion). Along with the simple, effective use of locations, there is a sense of choreography that utilized 3D to its fullest extent. In the opening sequence, clones of Milla Jovovich are fighting their way through an underground lab, making their way to the villain. As he barks orders in the foreground, in the extreme background the brawling Jovoviches tear their way through a lower floor, creeping their way higher. Anderson dispenses with parallel editing, marking her progress by cutting back and forth, and presents it in one economical and incredibly tense 3D image. It’s a marvel of narrative economy and speaks to the ingenuity possible with the technology.

Although to be honest, the finest 3D film I saw this year was still Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury, from 1953. Nothing has effected me more than the simple use of dust kicking up in the foreground as Rock Hudson plots his revenge behind it. Maybe such simple pleasures would come back to the current 3D wave if The Hole found some success, and encouraged more mid-budgeted, modest 3D productions to get made. Here’s hoping.

10 Responses Dimensional Musings
Posted By Thomas Krul : October 19, 2010 2:42 pm

I always get a little anxious when true film critics/cinephiles review contemporary work (especially the low-brow variety) and I get doubly anxious when they get into contemporary or trendy technologies. Usually it ends up in some serious dismissal of the work and technology as “juvenile” and wasteful and ocasionally includes an admission of secret enjoyment.

So, to that end, I gotta say that this article threw me for a loop: anti dogme95 if you will, but nevertheless gives strong and positive feedback on what the technology can do for the art.

Posted By Thomas Krul : October 19, 2010 2:42 pm

I always get a little anxious when true film critics/cinephiles review contemporary work (especially the low-brow variety) and I get doubly anxious when they get into contemporary or trendy technologies. Usually it ends up in some serious dismissal of the work and technology as “juvenile” and wasteful and ocasionally includes an admission of secret enjoyment.

So, to that end, I gotta say that this article threw me for a loop: anti dogme95 if you will, but nevertheless gives strong and positive feedback on what the technology can do for the art.

Posted By suzidoll : October 19, 2010 3:21 pm

Variety reported that overall the summer 3-D movies were box office disappointments to their studios, suggesting (without saying) that this could be the beginning of the end. Horror seems the genre best suited to 3-D, which made me want to see Piranha 3-D, though I blinked and it was already gone from theaters. I am skeptical of kids movies of all types, but I respect Joe Dante, so if this movie ever does get distributed, I will try to catch it. What makes 3-D unbearable to watch in most cases is that filmmakers tend to be wooed by the technology, which makes its use a gimmick, instead of controlling 3D like a technique that services the material.

Posted By suzidoll : October 19, 2010 3:21 pm

Variety reported that overall the summer 3-D movies were box office disappointments to their studios, suggesting (without saying) that this could be the beginning of the end. Horror seems the genre best suited to 3-D, which made me want to see Piranha 3-D, though I blinked and it was already gone from theaters. I am skeptical of kids movies of all types, but I respect Joe Dante, so if this movie ever does get distributed, I will try to catch it. What makes 3-D unbearable to watch in most cases is that filmmakers tend to be wooed by the technology, which makes its use a gimmick, instead of controlling 3D like a technique that services the material.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 19, 2010 3:42 pm

Suzi, I think Hollywood is still figuring out how to use these new 3D technologies, and that we’re at the beginning of the wave. Cameron’s comments in the interview I linked to are instructive on how this will play out:

“I think there was a rush, a gold rush, and some mistakes were made and some bad 3-D reached the marketplace. And then there was a little pushback from the audience, that we don’t want to pay extra for something that’s not a great experience. And I think that the studios have been somewhat chastened by that, and they’re now attempting to do 3-D at a higher quality.”

Also, I don’t see why horror is best suited for 3D. Wouldn’t that be limiting it to the gimmickry you decry? I think the real breakthrough will come when it’s used to thoughtfully push forward the story in something like a romantic comedy.

And Frank, I think think 3D has great possibilities beyond the spectacle of having knives flung at the screen. Lots to explore there in terms of visual narration, which I think Anderson shows in the new RESIDENT EVIL. I’m always amazed how people still draw high/low distinctions in the arts. Don’t people remember how Hawks and Hitchcock were marginalized as mere entertainers? Everything should be approached as a work of art until it proves otherwise.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 19, 2010 3:42 pm

Suzi, I think Hollywood is still figuring out how to use these new 3D technologies, and that we’re at the beginning of the wave. Cameron’s comments in the interview I linked to are instructive on how this will play out:

“I think there was a rush, a gold rush, and some mistakes were made and some bad 3-D reached the marketplace. And then there was a little pushback from the audience, that we don’t want to pay extra for something that’s not a great experience. And I think that the studios have been somewhat chastened by that, and they’re now attempting to do 3-D at a higher quality.”

Also, I don’t see why horror is best suited for 3D. Wouldn’t that be limiting it to the gimmickry you decry? I think the real breakthrough will come when it’s used to thoughtfully push forward the story in something like a romantic comedy.

And Frank, I think think 3D has great possibilities beyond the spectacle of having knives flung at the screen. Lots to explore there in terms of visual narration, which I think Anderson shows in the new RESIDENT EVIL. I’m always amazed how people still draw high/low distinctions in the arts. Don’t people remember how Hawks and Hitchcock were marginalized as mere entertainers? Everything should be approached as a work of art until it proves otherwise.

Posted By Heidi : October 20, 2010 12:23 pm

If they could just make it without giving me a headache and nausea, I would be all for it. 3D in the 80′s did it to me, but I thought maybe there would be some improvement in the “system”. I was wrong. Won’t catch me in another 3D movie for a long time.

Posted By Heidi : October 20, 2010 12:23 pm

If they could just make it without giving me a headache and nausea, I would be all for it. 3D in the 80′s did it to me, but I thought maybe there would be some improvement in the “system”. I was wrong. Won’t catch me in another 3D movie for a long time.

Posted By skizziks : October 24, 2010 5:07 pm

Great post Mr. Sweeney, and I second Mr. Krul’s comments. However, I do think you’re letting post-production conversion off a little lightly. I have a big, big problem with this technology; I’m yet to see an instance in which it is half as effective or enjoyable as films that are filmed in 3D. Went to see Piranha 3D unaware that it was converted, but it soon became obvious by the way foreground and background objects often blurred together, and many “comin’ at ya” effects didn’t come off at all. It’s a cheap, inferior shortcut, and I think marketing films that have been produced this way as being in “3D” is, in a way, false advertising. Can we get a law on the books where movie studios have to divulge in their advertising whether a film is in real 3D or not? Considering how they jack up ticket prices, I think a little consumer protection is in order.

Posted By skizziks : October 24, 2010 5:07 pm

Great post Mr. Sweeney, and I second Mr. Krul’s comments. However, I do think you’re letting post-production conversion off a little lightly. I have a big, big problem with this technology; I’m yet to see an instance in which it is half as effective or enjoyable as films that are filmed in 3D. Went to see Piranha 3D unaware that it was converted, but it soon became obvious by the way foreground and background objects often blurred together, and many “comin’ at ya” effects didn’t come off at all. It’s a cheap, inferior shortcut, and I think marketing films that have been produced this way as being in “3D” is, in a way, false advertising. Can we get a law on the books where movie studios have to divulge in their advertising whether a film is in real 3D or not? Considering how they jack up ticket prices, I think a little consumer protection is in order.

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