Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Strung out

One of the great things about being a dad is that, every once and a while, you get a great stroke to your ego. There is nothing like an enquiring little face looking up at you and asking you to explain (for example) why the sky is blue or the grass is green or what makes clouds. It is amazing how those old science facts, learned long ago in primary school, come flooding back when needed and how much they impress. It makes you feel ten feet tall when that small person looks up and says something like, “Wow, Dad, you must be the smartest person in the whole world!”

Well, that’s all over for me. The other day my nine-year-old came to me and asked, “Dad, can you explain string theory to me?”

This, of course, is when you switch to the gambit of saying, it is important for you to learn how to look up answers to questions like that yourself. The implication, naturally, is that I could tell her all about string theory if I wanted to but choose not to so that she can develop her own researching skills. And, of course, it doesn’t work.

“If you don’t know, can you look it up for me?”

Thank goodness for the internet and Wikipedia and things like that. Anyway, I subsequently undertook a crash course in quantum mechanics and string theory, which I had actually read about once but the details of which I never quite managed to commit to memory. So now I am not exactly an expert on the topic, but at least I can give a quick layman’s summary of what it’s about. (Personally, I think it’s about physicists with too much time on their hands coming up with ways of justifying their government-funded salaries by thinking up things that can’t be tested or proved in the real world. But that’s just me being cynical.)

Anyway, I only bring this up on a movie web page because of one particularly disturbing aspect of the topic that I noticed. It is the part of the theory that says that there are more than the four dimensions we are generally familiar with (height, width, depth and time). That there may be around eleven, or even more.

Why is this disturbing? Because I am only recently getting my head around the raging debate over 3-D in movies. How am I to feel when I am still sorting out my feelings over that when the future may now hold 4-D, 5-D or maybe even 11-D? It’s all too much to absorb.

Basically, the question is whether 3-D is a gimmick or fad (like Sensurround or Smellorama) to get bums on seats for a while until the whole thing passes or is it something that will come to be seen as a standard part of cinema, like the way black and white films gave way to color ones. The current crop of 3-D movies is by no means the first. The earliest forays into the genre happened five decades ago. Indeed, movies and TV shows that want to illustrate how weird the 1950s were, regularly use an establishing shot of movie audiences wearing their 3-D glasses. The technology did not last back then, although it has made periodic returns since, sometimes for the benefit of children’s entertainment, sometimes for pornography.

The current rise of 3-D, however, more widespread and prolonged than before. As always, the basic goal of it seems to be to give audiences an experience that they cannot easily get in their own homes. Studios have always employed the strategy of making big-budget movies as events, which must be experienced in cinemas. It is no coincidence that the first rise of 3-D came about during the consolidation of television as a basic home appliance. The current wave may not be unrelated to home video advances such as large flat-screen TVs and Blu-ray.

So, is 3-D here to stay this time? Or will cinemas and movie-goers eventually get fed up with the hassle (and expense) of collecting and returning the eyewear? Will the technology become so pervasive that filmmakers will feel obliged to retrofit their existing movies to the technology or reshoot their movies with 3-D in mind? Will film purists cause uproar when someone like Ted Turner starts broadcasting 3-D versions of classic films on television?

The BBC’s Mark Kermode, who is always in the forefront of these cinematic causes célèbres, has come down on the side of 3-D being an annoying distraction. In particular, he resents being required to pay extra for 3-D movies (to cover the cost of lending patrons the glasses) and, aesthetically, he finds no movie is actually improved in any qualitative by way of the technology. As time goes on, he seems to be more and more annoyed by it all.

Personally, I am open-minded and undecided. The new 3-D movies are a lot slicker than the ones I remember from years ago and the glasses work much better. They are like real glasses (or, more precisely, like wrap-around sunglasses or even safety goggles) and less awkward than those old cardboard ones that used to be handed out. I suppose they do strain the eyes a bit after a while, but not so much that I really mind. And it is fun to see computer-generated extravaganzas like Coraline and Monsters vs. Aliens and get lost in the illusion that it is all happening in three-dimensional space.

But once the novelty has worn off, an interesting thing happens. When I asked my nine-year-old budding physicist whether she wanted to see Up in 3-D or 2-D, she opted for the flat version. She had gotten tired of having to wear the glasses. And in the end, we didn’t really feel that we had missed anything by seeing the movie in standard format.

Perhaps the real test for 3-D will be the very long-awaited arrival of James Cameron’s Avatar. The hype and anticipation over that movie seem destined to either change the way we look at movies forever or else make people see that the emperor really has no clothes after all.

Despite my blighted track record with predictions, I will dare to make one now. I predict that 3-D will be here to stay this time. But for some time it will be relegated to more or less the same niche as movies based on video games and computer animation. But someday it may well become standard, although by that point, we may not be calling them movies anymore because it will be seen to be a different medium—an immersive one that probably won’t require eyewear to experience. Or it might go the other way, and the eyewear will completely replace the movie screen—that is to say, a virtual reality experience. Either way, it is only a matter of time until the good old film projector is relegated to the scrap heap. Or consigned to boutique cinemas that offer the classic experience.

There will, of course, be many who will not like this brave new cinematic world. And, if they want to flee it, they might try abandoning this dimension and checking out the film technology in any of the various other dimensions contemplated by string theory.

-S.L., 3 December 2009

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