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Beyond Real: Wim Wenders and 3-D Film’s New Day

By Matt Levine and Jeremy Meckler

Since its inception, film has been trying to find ways to emulate (or even transcend) real life, whether through sound, color, 3-D, or even Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama. In its infancy, this art form strove for a semblance of realism despite the fact that its ghostly tableaux looked and felt nothing like the real world. Maxim Gorky recognized this unsettling real/unreal duality; after the first public film screening in Paris in 1896, the author famously wrote:

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.

If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there—the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air—is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre.

Ever since then, representational film has been grasping, perhaps ineffectually, for a true approximation of reality. Movies have conquered sound, they’ve assimilated color and widescreen formats, so we now are left to wonder: is 3-D the final frontier for cinematic “reality”? Or is it pleasurable precisely as spectacle, as a striking departure from reality?

Wim Wenders’ film Pina, which had its Twin Cities premiere at the Walker on February 1, has us pontificating about the evolution of three-dimensional filmmaking. Filmed in high-definition digital 3-D, and screened via the Walker’s new Dolby 3-D projection system, Pina is an enthralling celebration of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch, one of the foremost innovators in modern dance (she died in 2009, two days before shooting the film was set to commence). In 1985, Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal wowed Wenders, the New German Cinema legend, with a live performance. Wenders (Wings of Desire) and Bausch quickly became close friends and, for more than 20 years, dreamed of collaborating on a film project together. It wasn’t until Wenders considered using 3-D technology, however, that the project really became feasible.

“I was just stalling for time and I found myself at a loss how to film her work,” Wenders said in a recent interview with the Walker’s Film/Video department, “because my tools and my craft didn’t seem to have what it took to really do justice to Pina’s art and to the magic and to the contagious energy of it. I only finally saw myself able to say ‘now I can do it’ when I saw my first 3-D film and realized that was the answer and that’s what we had been missing. Space, for the first time, was a tool for filmmakers.”

Indeed, fans of Bausch and her Tanztheater won’t be surprised to discover that three-dimensional film is the only cinematic form that could truly do justice to her distinct vision, and dance buffs and neophytes alike may recognize, by the end of Pina, how vividly the technology intensifies the movement, beauty, mystery, and dynamism that distinguish modern dance. Wenders, in fact, concludes that cinema never really did the art of dance justice, and related an anecdote to prove his point: “I had a screening of Pina in Los Angeles when I showed it at the AFI [American Film Institute]. There was this lady coming up to me afterward, this older lady, and she said, ‘My husband would have really embraced this film and he would have really understood why you needed 3-D to do this.’ And I said ‘Oh that’s very nice,’ and she said ‘My husband’s name was Gene Kelly,’ and of course that really made my day.”

Seeing 3-D cinematic images is hardly a revolution, considering that the long histories of both that technology and the movies themselves have always been closely entangled. The first anaglyph 3-D images came around at the same time as the first films. (Wenders noted that the Lumière brothers experimented with 3-D cameras as early as the 1890s, but abandoned them for being too expensive and unwieldy.) In the late 19th century, some magic lantern operators discovered that they could create the illusion of depth by emulating the way the human eye sees. This is the basis of all 3-D imaging so far—using the physiological placement of two eyes to create an illusion of depth—and all of the 3-D variations to date are just different ways of providing two slightly different images to each eye. For early anaglyph magic lantern shows, two slides of such images would be projected simultaneously onto the same screen, each dyed a different color. Glasses would then block the spectrum provided to each eye, working in just the same way as the red and green anaglyph 3-D movies of the 1940s.

Different methods of theatrical 3-D display continued to develop through the 20th century. The 1940s and ’50s were full of anaglyph 3-D presentations (which used those familiar red and green glasses), but most films screened in the ’60s actually used a new method called Interlocking Polarized 3D. In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock shot one of his features, Dial M for Murder, using this method.

The resurgence of the technology in the 2000s started with an adaptation of this system. RealD, which is now the most popular method of three-dimensional projection, uses interlocking polarized images that are rotationally polarized either clockwise or counterclockwise. In a RealD screening, the viewer actually sees images for each eye at separate times; it is just all happening so fast—144 frames per second—that the brain doesn’t have time to realize it’s only seeing with one eye at any one time. The Walker uses the new Dolby 3-D system, which employs an interference filter that constructs the two images on different color palettes. Because both images are complete and colorful, the final picture does not lose sharpness or color the way it would in an anaglyph system. These kinds of technological advancements have led Wim Wenders to conclude that “3-D is the greatest revolution ever since the talkies, only most people [don’t] realize it because we [think it is] just a gimmick for national blockbusters. Now some movies come out that show the true potential of 3-D, which is really a whole different way of seeing the world.”

Now that 3-D has reached such a technically immaculate stage, perhaps the late French critic Andre Bazin would agree with Wenders’ claim. In his 1953 essay “Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?,” Bazin addressed attempts by Hollywood movies to achieve either a dutiful recreation of reality or mind-boggling spectacle via technological advances in special effects. He claimed that “the evolution of film (even in America) has been toward the interiorization of the mise en scène at the expense of spectacle”—in other words, pushing away from the cinema of attractions that dominated the early silent era, toward a narrative form with remarkable fluidity and verisimilitude.

What’s interesting is that 3-D, which became increasingly prevalent in Hollywood movies of the early 1950s, denoted both a fuller representation of reality (obviously, real life provides us with three dimensions) and a brand of movie-magic spectacle employed to draw audiences to science-fiction films and special-effects-laden B-movies. This is why, as of 1953, Bazin bemoaned the gimmicky use of 3-D that “does indeed give the impression that objects exist in space, but in a ghastly or impalpable state. The internal contradiction of this relief is that it creates the impression of an unreal, unapproachable world far more than does the flatness of black-and-white film.” For Bazin, the technological imperfections of 3-D of the era, not to mention its application to silly horror and fantasy movies, meant that movies were made less immersive and realistic, not more so, by the introduction of the third dimension.

Bazin makes the significant point that the use of 3-D in Hollywood movies of the early 1950s was an economic decision more than a technological or aesthetic one. Bazin’s essay, in fact, is concerned with the economic crisis that plagued Hollywood around mid-century: the avalanching popularity of televisions and the Supreme Court’s landmark Paramount Decision of 1948 (which disbanded Hollywood studios’ vertical integration of production, distribution, and exhibition outlets) meant that the studios were quickly losing audiences and, even worse, revenue. Hollywood’s attempt to lure moviegoers back into theaters (and away from the convenience and wonder of the television set) revolved around spectacular gimmicks and technological advances like new widescreen formats (Cinerama, CinemaScope) and, of course, 3-D. Although experiments in and refinements of such technology had existed since the birth of film, it wasn’t widely seen on movie theater screens until economic demands necessitated it around the middle of the century. In Bazin’s words, “normal aesthetic progress in the cinema is difficult, for this art form is at the mercy of technological disturbances that may interrupt its course for purely economic reasons.”

There are, of course, parallels between early-1950s Hollywood and early-2000s Hollywood. The American film capital’s crisis in the 1950s may have been more severe, but again, 50 years later—thanks in part to proliferating home-viewing options and Internet streaming of movies—box office receipts are flagging and audiences are diminishing. Little surprise that, once again, 3-D is used to remind audiences that going to a movie theater is an immersive, spectacular experience that can’t be rivaled by a laptop’s screen or even, in most cases, a television set.

But something seems different now, too. Over the past two years, it seems, both the technological advances and the aesthetic decisions regarding 3-D formats have caught up with those pressing economic concerns. Many audiences may still view it as a special-effects gimmick designed to lure audiences, but movies like Pina, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo point toward a cinematic near-future where 3-D is as valid and expressive a tool for filmmakers as sound, color, or the widescreen format.

Economic concerns and advancing technology are doubtlessly instrumental in the burgeoning use of 3-D, but talented directors’ creative decisions now seem to be pushing the form even further, recognizing the wealth of visual and spatial opportunities that this format offers (especially in its most up-to-date, pristine incarnations). Wenders perfectly encapsulates this enterprising creative spirit when he notes, “For about a good 110 years, movies have invented all sorts of tricks and all sorts of fancy and sometimes very charming means to make us believe that films were conquering space indeed. The camera was put on tracks and on shoulders and on Steadicams and on cranes, and you can put it into automobiles and planes and—God knows, you could even throw it out of the window. But it always ended up on a two-dimensional screen, so space was really always fake. It was always a simulation.” Maybe it no longer has to be.

The question over reality versus spectacle, and which of these 3-D technologies can achieve more fully, may be a question best left for future consideration. In the case of Pina, at least, we arrive at a paradox of sorts: the movie seems both overwhelmingly real and jaw-droppingly hyperreal, so immediate and immersive in its movements, its colors, its human figures, and its operatic emotions that it somehow seems to transcend the reality we know. And isn’t that ultimately what cinema should achieve?

In the digital age, “films” tend to arrive on hard drives in Pelican cases, photographed here to be viewed with 3-D glasses

Photo: Gene Pittman

Wim Wenders, Pina, 2011

Anaglyph stereograph made from digital images of a pair of stereograph negatives by George N. Barnard in March 1862

Source: Library of Congress

William Friese-Greene’s 1909 Stereoscopic Kinetamographic Apparatus

Source: Google Patents

Poster from the 1952 film Bwana Devil, considered America’s first color 3-D feature

Source: Wikipedia