A couple of years back I volunteered to write monthly film, book and music reviews for my local village paper. Consequently, once every few weeks I start to experience a creeping sense of despair as movie-viewing time comes around; having access only to a hideous cineplex in a nearby town, I am faced with a choice of things like The Hunger Games, Battleship, The Avengers, Hugo, and so on. It’s like having to eat a meal of garbage once a month.
As an experiment I once wrote a review of the film 2012 on the basis of just seeing the trailer. The only thing I got wrong was that I unfortunately underestimated the film’s amazing and putrid awfulness. After viewing the trailer my Putrid-O-Meter clocked 2012 at 9 out of 10, when 15 out of 10 would have been closer to the mark.
But big dumb Hollywood blockbusters are easy targets. There’s a kind of weird schadenfreude to be found in the act of reviewing them. Among the 3D films I’ve reviewed so far this year are The Avengers, Prometheus, Dark Knight Rises, The Phantom Menace, Battleship and Hugo. It’s carnage really. It’s wearing me out. Of The Phantom Menace 3D I wrote:
The Phantom Menace is like a road crash staged by Cecil De Mille. It is like making public all your psychoses and turning them into an Andrew Lloyd Webber stage show. It is like being invited to a Beverly Hills party and being served squirrel vomit. This is a film that probably ruined the career of Ewan McGregor, destroyed the life of the child who played Anakin Skywalker, revealed George Lucas to have the emotional sophistication of Rupert Murdoch and took the Star Wars franchise from a kind of comic-book naivety to weird depths of grandiosity, misogyny, racism and creepiness. And that’s just the backstory. Joke: What’s the only film worse than The Phantom Menace? The Phantom Menace 3D.
And so on and so forth. You get the picture. So to speak.
After making his clumsy and sinister 3D tale of the genesis of film, Hugo, Martin Scorsese said that if he were starting over again he’d make all his films in 3D. I always thought Scorsese an overrated filmmaker, and now I’m convinced of it. Like the creepy films of Steven Spielberg, it seems to me that Scorsese’s films gets so much praise because 99.9 per cent of Hollywood movies are so dreadful that anyone who can tell a story that isn’t utterly incoherent and dumbed down to a level that even George W Bush might lose patience with seems like a genius with god-like powers of comprehension.
Why do 3D films even exist? They’re not even really 3D. The depth of field is flattened out so that things up close have the thickness of a sheet of paper and things distant look like trompe l’oeil. The scale of a 3D film is often so concussive that it rapidly escalates into levels of mind-numbing tedium you didn’t know existed. And in fact as a style of filmmaking, 3D lends itself perfectly to films with a lot of high-decibel shouting, repetitive bone-crunching violence and special effects the size of the pyramids. It’s like being conned into going to the Nuremburg Rally: I feel as though I’ve been exposed to a crime I can’t do anything about.
The gargantuan, superhuman image of reality that 3D films inhabit is like grandiose fascist architecture. In the 1980s the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensburger went to post-Franco Spain where he saw The Caudillo’s vast war memorial ‘Valley of the Fallen’, built over a period of two decades with forced labour. Enzensburger wrote:
It’s as if the Pharaohs had hired Walt Disney; as if Stalin had become pious; as if the Mafia had decided to build a necropolis for the Honourable Society; as if Albert Speer had planned a Vatican without the Pope; as if Paul Getty had commissioned a gang of forgers to build a Renaissance fallout shelter.
That’s a near perfect description of the 3D aesthetic.
3D films are always fused in my mind with the activities of James Cameron. James Cameron is not just the director of Avatar and Titanic. You may not be aware that he is also the man who claims to have discovered the tomb of Jesus Christ. And Mary Magdalene.
The politics of the tomb of Jesus Christ being found by a Hollywood mogul with the same initials is one of those things that are just too weird to get one’s head around, but perhaps it points to the vast Titanic-sized gap between the grasp on reality of the denizens of Hollywood and everyone else on the planet.
There is now nothing that James Cameron has not done – made the biggest movies in history, discovered the tomb of Christ and descended to the Marianas Trench. He stands astride the continents like the Colossus of Rhodes. Only bigger. If plans are not already underway to posthumously preserve his brain and attach it to a giant super-cyborg warrior that will live on a hi-tech moonbase and protect us from alien invasion, I’ll be very surprised.
Of course 3D films tend to line up on a certain side of the political spectrum.
It’s in the nature of the aesthetic: The Dark Knight Rises, a parable about how dangerous it is to give power to the proles, and how we’d all be lost without battalions of cops; Prometheus, in which we learn that Chariots of the Gods is actually true and now the basis of archaeological science; Battleship, a blatant recruitment and propaganda vehicle for the US Navy.
The filmmaker who would really go for 3D would be Leni Riefenstahl. In fact, believe it or not, the Nazis actually invented 3D film technology but used it to make films of sausages cooking. Nazi rallies would match the modern aesthetic of 3D films to a T. Twenty-first-century 3D would make Riefenstahl drool and one imagines she would definitely have been a fan of Titanic, a film that could very easily be tweaked as a narrative of the decadence of Western civilisation and the redemptive courage and self-sacrifice of simple Aryan youth.
3D films are also a concrete manifestation of the contempt of cinema culture for its audience. You are ripped off to the tune of twenty bucks for the privilege of sitting in a cramped and uncomfortable chair in a cinema with all the design characteristics of a shoebox and the acoustics of an AC/DC live set in a basketball stadium. As a reward for submitting to this degrading and insulting experience you are then exposed to the narcissistic and – frankly – delusional visions of people like James Cameron.
After the release of The Matrix – a film that would undoubtedly have been made in 3D if it were released today – the US critic David Edelstein said that the film ‘changed not only the way we look at movies but movies themselves’, and also ‘cuts us loose from the laws of physics in ways that no live-action film had ever done, exploding our ideas of time and space on screen’. These insane and hyperbolic statements about movies – that they change the laws of physics, or the nature of the art, or restore magic to the world – are Hollywood tropes that 3D feverishly trades on. In this way of thinking, film is always better than actual reality, and in fact replaces it. The film actors who are the most lauded are those who say they ‘become’ the characters they play. Rather than being seen as an indicator of a kind of mental illness, this is praised as a transcendental act of artistic imagination.
But it’s the very fact that film is a representation of reality that has made it interesting. A couple of months ago I ran into someone I know locally, who revealed that he had recently re-started an old trade as a film projectionist in the nearby village of Kyogle, at one of the last cinemas in Australia to be using reel-to-reel film.
The projectionist invited me to come and check out his ancient tech, so later that same day I drove over to Kyogle Cinema and went up into the projection room. I felt that I had walked into a European film about the making of a film, like a version of Cinema Paradiso that I was making up as I went along. The projectors were massive relics of the space-age, made in Italy in the 1950s, encased in green panels of steel and each braced by what appeared to be a small crane. They looked as if they’d been put together by highly skilled blacksmiths who moonlighted as plumbers working from blueprints drawn up by 50s sci-fi writers. Each projector threw a spool of film in a long strand several metres long across open space where it was gathered onto the receiving reel like industrially produced spaghetti extruded onto a plate. Fitted to the top of each projector was a huge exhaust pipe that disappeared into the ceiling.
Each film comes in several reels, and behind the projectors was a long cluttered workbench where the reels are spliced together by hand. The cinema was screening The Descendants and I rummaged around among cans of film and equipment and work practices sixty years old, and watched bits of the movie through the projectionist’s window. The only equivalent for a writer would be climbing inside his or her pen, and watching the images and signifiers unfold on the surface of a giant page, listening to the slow smooth running of the ink down the barrel.
When I first started teaching preschool children, I managed to get hold of an old 16mm film projector. It was about the size of a small car engine. I also located a source of old children’s films on 16mm. They were all picture books that had been turned into short films; Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers, Pat Hutchins’ Rosie’s Walk, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Quentin Blake’s Patrick, and Don Freeman’s Corduroy.
The projector clanked away like Howl’s Moving Castle, throwing images onto a blank wall. What was amazing to me was how enraptured and affected the children were by the films. They literally screamed with laughter during Corduroy, and hid their faces in their hands during The Three Robbers. It was like being at the screening of Lumiere’s film L’arrivee d’un train en gare de La Choat in 1896.
I was astounded. These were children who would watch Disney blockbusters on video with no more show of emotion than if they were picking their nose. I showed the 16mm films for months. They were a source of enduring excitement, and the responses never diminished in intensity. One could argue, if one weren’t thinking too clearly, that children watch films over and over for a sense of comfort. I don’t think the children repeatedly watched Corduroy or The Three Robbers for reassurance. I think they watched them just in case they turned out differently.
But there were a couple of other things going on as well. The films were short, which meant that the children only needed to be strung out for a brief period. If Ponyo were around then and on 16mm they’d probably all have collapsed before the halfway mark from emotional exhaustion. The children were also watching the films together, generating a shared culture of anxiety, the experience of which I think paradoxically made them feel safer rather more isolated. The thing about contemporary film is that even in a crowded cinema one is an isolated subject, with isolated subjective states.
Anyway, as a result of that shared anxiety, there seemed to be an imaginative engagement with reality, something I saw as both a reflection of the children’s capacity to symbolise an unbearable interior experience and their knowledge that realities could be multiple. The children were not deluded. They knew they were watching a film. That was the whole point. The projector was cranking away right next to them. What James Cameron doesn’t seem to understand is that filming something in 3D with massive SFX doesn’t make it more real. In fact it dumbs reality down, flattens it out and attempts to map it definitively according to a set of principles nobody on the board of Barclays bank could object to. But you can’t be spoon-fed reality. You can only be spoon-fed versions of it, and the Cameron 3D version of reality is both sinister and ludicrous.
Some years after the 16mm film experience, I was working in a different children’s centre with some children who were dedicated Dr Who fans, a show that was then beginning its current revival. They asked me if they could watch an episode of the David Tennant incarnation that one of the children had on DVD. The Tennant episodes were slick, hour-long, predictable wound-up narratives of hysteria with expensive FX, bloodthirsty aliens and a pounding Hollywood-style soundtrack. Anyway a large group of children sat together and watched an entire episode placidly and without comment.
I suggested that they might want to watch a much older Dr Who episode with an earlier incarnation of the Doctor, and gave them a DVD of Tom Baker’s late 70s Doctor who battles people dressed in papier-mache monster costumes on cardboard sets. Things jump out of cupboards, every 25-minute episode ends with a cliffhanger and the soundtrack is reducible to a few dramatic chords on a Casio keyboard. The children watched one episode in increasing states of terror, and begged me never to show it to them again.
It wasn’t the superreal they were afraid of – i.e. the real of hyper-SFX and 3D. It was the half-real, the imagined. What if reality is uncertain, and what if all the things we thought were merely ordinary, concealed all the terrors we try to keep hidden in our hearts? What if the cliffhanger could never be resolved?
The capacity to tolerate having an imagination might be a sane response to the anxiety that it is very hard to be utterly sure about anything. Perhaps when we are pathologically certain about reality, or identities, is when we start queuing up for Nuremburg rallies, or 3D movies.
*Many thanks to Gerry from Kyogle’s Richmond Cinema for taking the time to explain the minutiae of the projectionist’s job to me. It made my day.