The 3-D explosion in Hollywood may add depth to the screen, but Armond White argues that it subtracts from the movies.
Out of real ideas, Hollywood is banking on 3-D, a gimmick last popularized in the 1950s to combat the first wave of television viewership, to help the industry catch up with video-game and viral competition. Essentially, it continues the chase after the youth market for reasons first extrapolated in a 1954 Robert Warshow essay on then burgeoning pop culture (specifically comic books) that identified the appearance of “newness” as the basic attraction for a targeted audience. But lately we are able to recognize Hollywood’s goal as simple gullibility. Young folks’ (or their coddling parents’) discretionary dollars are not spent indiscriminately but with an easy susceptibility that has become habitual in this brave new super-capitalist world of leisure.
Through 3-D technology, Hollywood disguises its paucity of coherent thought by presenting the illusion of a new aesthetic frontier—and increased ticket prices. You could call this an assault on our debit cards, and the necessity of wearing re-engineered glasses and housing special theater projectors (which together actually darken the screen images) could be called an assault on the senses. But it’s all, really, an assault on the subtlest aspects of cultural perception: our sensibilities. Hollywood doesn’t need fresh thinking, or any at all, if it only has to sell to impressionable children. The motivation behind hype for 3-D technology is to keep even grown-up audiences in a childlike, gee-whiz mode, constantly hankering for what is only superficially new.
That impetus has been growing lately as the possibilities of digital-video technology make fantasy violence a predictable commercial style. Remember when Universal Studios copyrighted Sensurround in the 1970s? It was another short-lived means of making movies like Earthquake, Rollercoaster, and Midway seem more immediate. To wit: the unsurprising box-office grosses of James Cameron’s state-of-the-art Avatar. (The same media that encouraged specious skepticism about the film’s box-office prospects is also the media that heralded its box-office triumph —“The highest-grossing film of all time!”—without ever accounting for inflation.)
Other recent movies that emphasize 3-D—from Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, the 2008 remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, this year’s Clash of the Titans remake, and the upcoming Shrek Forever After 3-D, and even Martin Scorsese is getting into the game with a 3-D version of the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret—are kid-marketed. Yet when their adult-oriented subjects (from antiquity to classic literature) get submitted to 3-D, they’re converted to the state of contemporary discernment—mindless escapism—that inveigles the entire mass audience. It has changed our relation to our foundational art. Scrutinizing images for meaning dissolves into mere “Lookit!” observation. Complexity gets reduced to irony—that subtly seductive mode of disregarding sincerity and meaning. Neither 3-D Beowulf nor 3-D Titans added to the world’s understanding of civilization or philosophy. Neither 3-D Verne nor 3-D Dickens improved modern thinking on the sciences or social/spiritual obligations. All were just passing fancies. In Zemeckis’ Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim no longer even wishes “God bless us, everyone.” This is where the very idea of 3-D—which supposedly adds the third dimension of depth to cinema’s traditional two-dimensions height and width—becomes a laughable or frightening ruse. Cameron came up with a term for this special lack of depth: He calls his updated gimmick “immersive 3-D,” as if putting audiences in the midst of his alien worlds and catastrophic battle scenes carried greater believability than any before in Western art. Cameron’s huckster label should set off alarms. It’s a literal-minded approach to media that forsakes the virtues of ingenious storytelling.
Developed from “thrill ride,” the idea that dominated Hollywood thinking in the 1980s (“thrill ride” was first used by critics to ridicule action-heavy movies as theme-park attractions, then soon was used to celebrate that same approach when it became the norm), “immersive 3-D” describes Hollywood’s current desperate rejection of narrative tradition in favor of the old carny, theme-park, nickelodeon origins.
Instead of advancing storytelling toward greater self-awareness (and self-examination), a 3-D spectacular like Avatar relies on the same naivete of once neo-genre movies like The Time Machine, Dances with Wolves, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and Rapa Nui, which took a nostalgic, unsophisticated view of industry and colonial expansion; this time Cameron pretends to introduce modernity and globalization to his naive audience. Avatar’s simplicity works only for childlike viewers whose fascination with its 3-D technology parallels the film’s one-dimensional, sentimental view of ecology, Third World patronization, Manifest Destiny, and its incongruous critique of the military. To be so thrilled by the technology of Avatar that we ignore its thematic inconsistency and lunacy means our capacities to think have been diminished. When that happens, Hollywood grips us by the shorthairs, robs us of a dimension.
Consider the significance of the current comic-book adaptation Kick-Ass, which is so up-to-date it emulates 3-D in a sequence that uses the style of comic-book panels when flashing back to two characters’ histories. It revives that adolescent comic-book connection Warshow so anxiously analyzed. By giving big-screen spatial dimension to the drawing style of comic-book panels, it roots Kick-Ass in the abstract narrative forms that first taught kids to substitute mechanical enthusiasm for moral response. Kick-Ass epitomizes our cultural dilemma with its opening thematic statement: “Be honest with yourself; at some point in life we all wanted to be superheroes.”
Presuming that such a jejune fantasy applies to general experience speaks to the untutored, envious—in fact, bullying—child in us, but this isn’t peculiar to Kick-Ass; it also happens to be a blatantly reductionist expression of 3-D Hollywood’s exploitation agenda. It assumes that the spectacle of teenage and pre-teen crime fighters wearing Day-Glo superhero costumes fits a universal dream of empowerment. This excessively violent conceit, where children slaughter adult criminals in graphic, emotionless, blood-drenched clarity, misrepresents ingenuousness; it is a corrupted view of innocence. Kick-Ass’ pubescent boy (Aaron Johnson) and prepubescent girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) represent teenager and tween demographics—the latter term purely a marketing contrivance. The film’s kiddie superheroes, trained in lethal combat, distort the educative moral experience. It manipulates the whimsy of fan-boy power that Jared Hess explicated in his fine but critically reviled Gentlemen Bronchos (a comedy about young, would-be sci-fi novelists) and that David Gordon Green’s 2000 George Washington, with its poor Southern boy wearing an old football helmet, basketball jersey, and kitchen-curtain-cape made poignant. By ignoring those realities, Kick-Ass emulates Avatar’s military-power fantasy but without credible skepticism, just the excitation of a seeming novelty. These pseudo three-dimensional extravaganzas pretend to be modern but their dishonest manipulations are unenlightening.
Avatar, Kick-Ass, and the convoy of upcoming 3-D features confuse childhood dreaming and adult imagination. In the process, Hollywood’s rush toward 3-D distances audiences from the moral and intellectual obligations that are at the heart of the underrated satirical writing-directing team Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who made the extraordinary cult series Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage and the viral satire Gamer. Neveldine–Taylor don’t yet work in 3-D, but they’ve mastered the previous standards of digital-era filmmaking as part of their constant critique of media overload and cultural excess and moral anarchy. They stand so lonely on the culture’s edge that their au courant ingenuity seems absolutely avant-garde when compared to the mainstream’s unethical 3-D gimmickry.
In the little-seen Gamer, a young man shares responsibility for the actions of his video-game alter-ego—an avatar (played by Gerard Butler) who is employed to act out the youth’s viral simulacrum in real-world situations where hedonistic consumers take on the identities and vices of video-game characters. This is an action-adventure film that forsakes 3-D trickery to dissect its delusions, its irrationality, its depersonalizing of art. It is no wonder that Avatar fans began to revere the film quasi-religiously—and Twentieth Century-Fox altered its ad campaign to promote visiting a new world. As proof of 3-D’s snake-oil, naive viewers responded to the film the same way autistic children embrace comic books as their universe.
Neveldine–Taylor’s movies move fast, but they slow down the bread-and-circuses parade that the 3-D bandwagon represents. Gamer contrasts youthful curiosity about sex, power, and violence with real-life consequences—an artful process that demands sophistication and maturity to appreciate. Complex pop art like Game and the Crank movies shun escapism to stylize and replicate real-life complications. Don’t believe the hype promoting 3-D; seek out the daring, witty confrontations of the oppositional satires of Neveldine–Taylor. They refuse to treat audiences like gimmick-hungry, daydreaming children. Their two-dimensional search for depth amid modern chaos proves 3-D may supply a temporary answer to Hollywood’s failing economy, but not to its dearth of ideas.
Armond White, film critic of the New York Press , is chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.