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This article was updated on 12 Apr 2013, and is filed under Research Provocations.

William Brown Research Provocation, 3D cinema is really a 4D cinema

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Various scholars seem recently to have argued that 2D cinema has always been a 3D cinema. Thomas Elsaesser, for example, suggests that the current wave of 3D cinema is simply the image track catching up with the sound track, in that cinema has long since been 3D as a result of surround sound systems that place the viewer within the action of the film (Elsaesser 2013).

Stephen Prince also argues that cinema has ‘always been 3D’ because ‘monocular cues create 3D depth’ – an argument affirmed by the fact that after six feet or so, humans do not see in 3D dimensions, but instead use other 2D cues in order to determine the relative distance of objects from the observer (see Prince 2012: 206).

Finally, William Paul indirectly seems to affirm this argument when he suggests that the 1940s was ‘a period strongly concerned with defining through staging, lighting and camera placement a kind of three-dimensionality in its images’ and that ‘the sense of moving into a space’ via camera movement and deep focus was a key feature of the era: ‘Even without camera movement… deep focus implies a movement in’ (Paul 1993: 333).

To add my own thoughts on the matter, I might say that the three dimensionality of 2D cinema is forcefully brought to the fore in Marcel Duchamp’s experimental masterpiece, Anémic Cinéma (1926), with Thomas Elsaesser making a similar link to between Duchamp and 3D (Elsaesser 2013: 232).*

The point of this opening gambit is to suggest that the real dimension that 3D cinema opens up is not depth, which is commonly presumed to be the case. As has been suggested, depth has always been there, even in 2D cinema. Rather, the dimension that 3D cinema opens up for exploration is the fourth dimension of time, as Elsaesser has also posited (Elsaesser 2013: 217 and 232-233).*

This is demonstrated by the displeasure that many viewers allegedly feel when watching mainstream 3D cinema in its current format. What David Bordwell identifies as the ‘intensified continuity’ of contemporary cinema (put bluntly, its fast cutting rate; see Bordwell 2006: 117-189) does not work well in 3D, as Philip Sandifer makes clear when he says that the cut is ‘problematic in 3D film… [because] cuts within 3D films are much more jarring and difficult to follow’ (Sandifer 2011: 73-74).

In other words, the perceived failure of 3D cinema is not because 3D is inferior, but because too often filmmakers apply the ‘intensified continuity’ aesthetic that is so successful for 2D cinema to a 3D cinema to which it is not suited. In favouring the long take, 3D cinema is instead a cinema that works well, or which is best suited to, a slower rhythm of cutting, or a cinema that allows time to come to the fore.

Now, Gilles Deleuze argues that even 2D cinema can show us direct images of time. It does this in films that blur the distinction between what is supposedly real in the film world and what may or may not be imagined by one or more of the characters. And it also does this in neorealist films that show us real spaces in real time via a move away from montage and a move towards what Deleuze terms ‘montrage’ – or a cinema of showing (see Deleuze 2005, especially 40).

With regard to 3D cinema, there are two points to make. Firstly, 3D cinema is, like neorealist cinema, a cinema that rejects the cut and therefore which allows the dimension of time to come to the fore (whether or not this aesthetic is applied to ‘real’ or ‘computer generated’ spaces). Secondly, because 3D cinema makes invisible the screen and instead emerges into and extends away from the auditorium, such that 3D cinema functions not just on the flat 2D plane of the screen but on multiple, maybe infinite, planes of depth, 3D cinema also has the capacity to extend from the fictional world and into the so-called ‘real’ world. As such, 3D cinema has the potential to blur the boundary between the real and the imagined, not just within the diegesis of a film, but for film viewers themselves. As such, 3D cinema is perhaps best suited to time-image aesthetics rather than to the 2D and movement-image aesthetic that currently dominates 3D production (and disappoints 3D audiences).

Finally, then, while 3D cinema has often been perceived as a device to lure audiences away from their homes and back into cinemas, it is equally a tool for justifying the slower, ‘art house’ aesthetic of films that reject the cut and which challenge our understanding of what is or is not real. Whether 3D cinema can acclimatise new audiences to ‘art house’ aesthetics, or whether it will in fact function as a means to further distance art house cinephiles from ‘normal’ film viewers by closing the theatrical space of the cinema off to mainstream audiences remains to be seen.

*The following sentences were amended on request from the author on the 17th of July 2013.

Works cited

Bordwell, David (2006) The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Deleuze, Giles (2005) Cinema 2: The Time-Image (trans. H. Tomlinson and R. Galeta), London: Continuum.

Elsaesser, Thomas (2013) ‘The “Return” of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century’ in Critical Inquiry, 39 (Winter), pp. 227-244.

Paul, William (1993) ‘The Aesthetics of Emergence’ in Film History, 5:3, pp. 321-355.

Prince, Stephen (2012) Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Sandifer, Philip (2011) ‘Out of the Screen and into the Theater: 3D Film as Demo’ in Cinema Journal, 50:3, pp. 62-78.

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