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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

“The Great Gatsby” in 3D

It is difficult for us mere mortals to take a step back and view the wider trajectory that we are on. It is much easier to relate today’s innovation back to the status quo and pat ourselves on the back amid all the excitement over the new toy. I content that this is the case in cinema.

I was enthralled in viewing Avatar, the film in which James Cameron pushed the envelope on 3D technology on Pandora even as he added the rather down-to-earth element of a biologist who smokes cigarettes. Three years later, his other epic film, Titanic, would be re-released in 3D a century to the month after the actual sinking. As if a publicity stunt choreographed by Cameron himself, the Costa Concordia had conveniently hit a reef about twenty feet from an island off the coast of Tuscany three months before the re-release. “It was like a scene out of Titanic,” one passenger said once on dry land—perhaps a stone’s throw from the boat.

The question of whether a serious drama without a fictional planet or a huge accident can support an audience’s tolerance for 3D glasses was very much on the mind of Baz Luhrmann as he was filming his 3D rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in 2011. As put by Michael Cieply of the New York Times, Luhrmann’s film “will tell whether 3-D can actually serve actors as they struggle through a complex story set squarely inside the natural world.” According to Cieply, the director spoke to him of using 3D to find a new intimacy in film. “How do you make it feel like you’re inside the room?” Luhrmann asked. This is indeed 3D coming into a state of maturity, past the rush of thrilling vistas and coming-at-you threats. Indeed, for the viewer to feel more like he or she is “inside the room” places the technology on a longer trajectory.

“The Great Gatsby,” for instance, was first on the screen as “Gatsby,” a silent film in 1926—just a year after the novel had been published. Being in black and white and without even talking, the film could hardly give the viewers the sense of being “inside the room.” Then came the 1949 version directed by Elliott Nugent. A review in the New York Times referred to Alan Ladd’s reversion to “that stock character he usually plays” and to the “completely artificial and stiff” direction. So much for being “inside the room.” Even the 1974 version starring Robert Redford left Luhrmann wondering just who the Gatsby character is. More than 3D would presumably be needed for the viewers to feel like they are “inside the room.” Even so, 3D could help as long as the other factors, such as good screenwriting, acting, and directing, are in line.

So Luhrmann and his troupe viewed Hitchcock’s 3D version of “Dial M for Murder” (1954)—this date itself hinting that 3D is not as novel as viewers of “Avatar” might have thought. Watching “Dial M” was, according to Luhrmann, “like theater”—that is, like really being there. Ironically, 3D may proffer “realism” most where films are set like (i.e., could be) plays. Polanski’s “Carnage” is another case in point, being almost entirely set in an apartment and hallway. With such a set, a film could even be made to be viewed as virtual reality (i.e., by wearing those game head-sets). In contrast, moving from an apartment living room one minute to the top of a skyscraper the next might be a bit awkward viewed in virtual reality. In that new medium, the viewer could establish his or her own perspective to the action and even select from alternative endings (assuming repeat viewings).

In short, 3D can be viewed as “one step closer” to being “inside the room.” As such, the technology can be viewed as a temporary stop in the larger trajectory that potentially includes virtual reality—really having the sense of being inside the room, but for direct involvement with the characters and being able to move things. Contrasting “Avatar” with “Gatsby” is mere child’s play compared to this. The most significant obstacle, which may be leapt over eventually as newer technology arrives, is perhaps the price-point for 3D. In my view, it is artificially high, and too uniform.

Luhrmann’s budget of $125 million before government rebates is hardly more than conventional releases. Even if theatres charge $3 more for 3D films because of the cheap glasses and special projectors, it might be in the distributors’ interest to see to it that the films wind up costing consumers the same as a conventional one shown at a theatre. As an aside, it is odd that films with vastly different budgets have the same ticket price (which suggests windfalls for some productions, which belie claims of competitive market). In other words, a film of $125 million distributed widely could be treated as a conventional film in terms of the final pricing, and it need not be assumed that theatres would be taking a hit. Adding more to already-high ticket prices is a model that does not bode well for 3D as a way-station on the road to virtual reality. Of course, technology could leap over 3D if greed artificially choke off demand for 3D glasses. I for one am looking forward to virtual reality. Interestingly, the filmmakers shooting on the cheap with digital cameras then distributing via the internet may tell us more about how films in virtual reality might be distributed and viewed than how 3D films are being distributed and priced. People have a way of voting with their wallets (and purses), and other candidates have a way of popping up unless kept out by a pushy oligarch. So perhaps it can be said that, assuming a competitive marketplace, 3D may become a viable way-station on our way to virtual reality on Pandora.

Michael Cieply, “The Rich Are Different: They’re in 3-D,” The New York Times, January 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/movies/baz-luhrmann-puts-the-great-gatsby-into-3-d.html