Thursday, January 3, 2013

Less is more: If 3D is more 2D than 2D (and 48fps is even less truth per second than Godard's 24) then how much more 2D will 4D be than 3D?

Being a post occasioned by a scarcely coherent ad for “4D Dynamic cinema” stumbled upon in the Melbourne CBD, opposite that city's sole remaining Brutalist multiplex fleapit, albeit one still offering 35mm projection, to Greater Union's credit. And becoming in part a reflection upon one gal's cinephilia, as cultivated in a Wellington backwater, home once also to a certain Peter Jackson, whose early works she remains greatly enamoured of, at odds with her attitudes towards the latter-day Tolkien trilogies.

Melbourne's Russell Street has taken quite the turn for the Pythonesque of late. On the north side of the unglamorous Bourke Street intersection, any number of fringe-dwelling Chinatown restaurants' menus, atop their already literally hundreds-of-items-strong offerings, now tout a wide range of Spam dishes. As in, “I'll have the Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam in black bean sauce, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam”.

Ad for 4D Dynamic cinema
And now, a few doors up, just along the south side of that same unlovely crossroads, the impish forces behind that same Flying Circus episode's celebrated “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch seem to have tried their hand at pitching the charms of 4D cinema to undoubtedly bemused passers-by.

A few choice excerpts from the text in the image to the right:

“The elderly people are prohibited from watching.”

“Please be prudent before purchasing a ticket for timorous people.”

“So close as if it was tangible.”

And then there's the agreeably equivocal “Based on 3D films, 4D films could bring audiences personally to scenes by adding physical stimulations...:”

I'm not, however, convinced I'd especially like to experience “falling down” during a film, to pick on just one other of this technology's ill-pitched attractions.

I couldn't in fact discern whether this ad was trying to solicit my custom of the technology as a whole, or rather, just a film or two presented in demonstration of it – but if the latter, why not pitch them as well, and by name? Ah, were that I were not myself so timorous and prudent the day I wandered past (New Year's Eve), to find out for myself!

And were that the address promoted on this banner – found perched on the steps outside this very location – wasn't the same as that of the Melbourne Theosophical Society (along, natch, with the Theosophical Society Bookshop). Alas, keeping such company doesn't exactly inspire (in me, at least) a very great deal of confidence in the wares being flouted within (presumably within – but surely there's not really been a cinema constructed somewhere in that building just recently – has there?)

Now, I gather the resurgence of so-called 4D cinema has already taken audiences in certain other parts of the world by storm – or perhaps that ought instead to read “has already submitted audiences in certain other parts of the world to 'smoking, storming, thunder, snowing and bubble-blowing'” (on top, of course, of the already vaunted heady thrills of falling down). The Sydney Morning Herald, as far back as July 12 of last year, ran with a story from Richard Verrier, “Are 4D movies the next big thing?”, noting that cinemas in South Korea, Thailand and Mexico were packing them in by tacking onto blockbuster titles an array of 4D sensations,  which is to say that audience members there were subjected to various sorts of bodily interference at key points during The Avengers, Prometheus, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and other major box office attractions. Things shook, foul smells wafted through auditoria, and thems as might (only might!) otherwise have enjoyed watching Prometheus got additionally to enjoy having goop flung at them in the dark by strangers.

William Castle has surely risen from the grave! (Perhaps following 4D Disney theme park attraction, and Michael Jackson vehicle, Captain EO's lead (director a certain Francis Ford Coppola, no less!, ca. 1986)). *
* Actually, the exhumed Captain EO is being presented in a mere three dimensions.

Hopefully Peter Jackson, champion of all that is (old that is) new (again), will not catch wind of this with his next Hobbit instalments. For it'd be an ill wind then that'd blow indeed, mark my words, one awaft with the meady, meaty smells of beardy, leathery dwarven goings-on, and worse...

A segue, if inelegant: Onto the question Jackson!

Well, here we are at the outset of 2013, still trying to come to terms with another putatively brand spanking new technological development slated to change cinema and cinema-going as we know it. Only, it, just like 4D, has been tried and tested before (and by no less a luminary in the industry as 2001's special FX whiz Douglas Trumbull, even!) I refer – no surprises, here – to Peter Jackson's box office record-breaking The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first (third of a) film to be shot at, and projected (in some cinemas) in 48fps, a frame rate double the long-time standard of 24fps, presumably selected on that neat, readily digestible and saleable numerical basis alone (rather than, say, 40fps. Or 36. Or 42.578142 recurring.)

For mine, a big screen presentation of The Hobbit in 48fps often resembles nothing so much as an outsize HDTV Blu-Ray shop demo playing Lord of the Rings easter eggs. It's all same same, only different. Everything is crystal clear, hyper-real – or, should I say, hyper-unreal? For as much as 48fps bestows upon everything within the frame an extraordinary steely crispness, it is also extremely unforgiving and betraying of flaws and seams. It's not so very much a worry during action scenes – indeed, it is then even something of an asset, ensuring a liquid, judder-free smoothness to the marriage of a soaring camera (whether real or virtual) with a screen teeming with flailing bodies (likewise real and/or virtual). But when the camera is relatively still, and the action more pared back, everything takes on the sickly hue of a glossy reality TV show, and all that is artificial, but which is purpose-built to look real, instead looks as fake as it really, truly is. That can even extend to principal characters' make-up and costuming, which rather impinges upon one's ability to take those characters, and the film as a whole, seriously.

The Hobbit - in 'RealD 3D', HFR 3D and IMAX 3D
So many flavours of 3D:
"RealD 3D", HFR 3D and IMAX 3D.
We don't know how lucky we are...
And then there's the matter of Jackson having adopted 3D as well, an apparently necessary tagalong to the adoption of 48fps to reinforce An Unexpected Journey's position in the marketplace as being at the very forefront of the contemporary motion picture-going experience. Yet it too deceives to flatter, and its effect is reductive more than it is expansive; rather than adding another dimension to the film it is gracing, it in fact takes one away.

There seems to have been decreed an unwritten law that for anything in a 21st century film to jump off the screen towards the audience is tacky and gimmicky in the extreme; yet, without utilising the (suggestion of) space off-screen, of the space between the screen and the audience, then why really even bother with 3D? 2D has always been abundantly effective in suggesting depth within an image and, furthermore, allows for play with depth of field within the filmed image that 3D simply doesn't

3D, to make sense as 3D, demands that everything on screen presents just as if we were negotiating our own off-screen, real world environment. Binocular vision is the order of the day, and utilising it, we expect things to be in focus as soon as we cast our eyes upon them. When filmmakers forget this – whether wilfully, or otherwise – and present to us only part of any given 3D image in focus, they are making a fundamental mistake. Never mind when they start racking the focus, to bring into focus, for example, an object in the foreground when only just previously something in the background had been in focus instead, thus “pulling” focus from it. This happens on one especially egregious occasion in An Unexpected Journey, which manoeuvre alone may have been responsible for the unpleasant headache I had when I wearily emerged from the cinema at film's end, my perceptual faculties scrambled.

Will seeing An Unexpected Journey in 2D – and at 24fps – make for a better experience? Possibly, but probably not dramatically better a one. For to have shot in 48fps, and especially in 3D, in the first place, is to unavoidably transmit most of those approaches' shortcomings to a 2D projection. The resultant 2D experience simply cannot, of course, be enlivened or enriched by play with the depth of field which wasn't a part of the original captured image. The sins of the parent image are communicated to the children.

And oh that bloaty narrative!

There has already been plenty of carping about the decision to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit, which, on the evidence of the first instalment, will feature three films each too long in isolation, let alone as part of a whole.

That said, I have to say I didn't find part one of The Hobbit any more overlong than any one instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I did, however, find it much more narratively preposterous. More cartoonish, even.

And it's not all the exposition and backgrounding, the tying in of the Hobbit and LOTR universes, that some say needlessly occupies the first half of the film, that troubles me, like it has so many impatient others. It's in fact the action-packed second half I take exception to.


Because An Unexpected Journey in no way throughout its second half conveys any sense of the passage of time. How long is the party questing for? How much time passes between one fight scene and the next?

Because it in no way throughout that second half conveys any sense of the party's passage through space. How much ground does the party cover between one chase sequence and the next? What distance did those bloody giant birds cover when they retrieved all the do-gooders from those perilous cliff-hanging treetops? (And why didn't Jackson have the good sense to treat that cliff-hanging scene as an actual cliffhanger and end the fucking film there, for fuck's sake!)

All the good guys appear to be invulnerable. They can all of them fall and tumble any distance – or even be squashed en masse by a corpulent plummeting Goblin King – and obtain nary even a mild contusion or concussion for their troubles.

The bad guys get what's coming to them, but without any blood shed. What the fuck's with this? The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, obtained, and presumably was produced aforethought for, an M rating, surely voiding any concerns about on-screen violence in the adaptation of a book considered, I'm told by Tolkien aficionadi, as much more a “children's book'” than its sequel. So where then is all the blood and ichor one would expect in a film from the director who made, in the form of the magnificent Braindead (1992), far and away the (fake, but not CG) bloodiest film of all time! The absence of bodily fluids from An Unexpected Journey is just perverse.

And because, just when the good guys are poised to get a good, sound, lethal drubbing, Gandalf can evidently simply cast a deus ex machina spell in order to miraculously appear and save the day FFS.

Of technological advancements that ain't necessarily so, and a gal's first auteur love

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is doing colossal box office. I guess the greater film-going public couldn't give a tinker's cuss for arguments raging in the critosphere, about the harm done to it by its adoption of technological albatrosses in 48fps and 3D, before they've seen it for themselves.

Much as I would love to give Peter Jackson the benefit of the doubt, and declare 48fps' betrayal of his film's artifice knowingly Brechtian, and that particularly egregious racking of focus in 3D mentioned above as some sort of deconstructive avant-garde manoeuvre, and thus make a claim for An Unexpected Journey as the most expensive – and remunerative – experimental film ever made, I, of course, cannot. Oh, I wish I could understand why Jackson has become such an evangelist for technologies which I wish could have been experimented with and honed first elsewhere, over several years even, rather than having him unleashing them wholesale on The Hobbit. It smacks of hubris, and, why, lookee here – is this not another sad case of a man becoming one of his own satirical (co-)creations – is not Jackson becoming none other than Colin McKenzie? At this rate, will not an overgrown Hobbiton one day be un(Middle)earthed by a mockumentary film crew of the future, who'll marvel that the wilds of Matamata could ever have housed a film set on the Griffithian order of the Salome set of Colin McKenzie's that Jackson uncovered in Forgotten Silver (1995)?

Hobbiton today...
The Salome set discovered in Forgotten Silver
The Salome set discovered in Forgotten Silver. Or is this Hobbiton in 75 years' time?

It hurts; Jackson was my first director crush. Back in the late '80s, when I was of late high school-going age, I, like PJ, lived in the outlying hicksville seaside Wellington 'burb of Pukerua Bay (2006 population: 1722), where I became fascinated that someone local had actually done something interesting. A man, name of Peter Jackson, had apparently made a film, name of Bad Taste (1987), which concerned an invading alien horde looking to make human beings the next intergalactic taste sensation, on a shoestring over three or four years of Sundays. It screened late on Friday nights at Wellington's not-yet glorious-again Embassy Theatre, and I, hard-pressed to find anyone game enough to come along to see it with me (A New Zealand film? Worth seeing? As if!), headed there alone several times to marvel at it, to tentatively, at first, join in in the communal crying out of “Get the chainsaw, Derek!” at the appropriate moment, to relish the scene in which Derek (Jackson) somersaults down the cliffs at my local beach, to land in a bloody heap upon the rocks far below, there to have seagulls peck out his brains. And thus, ingloriously but joyously, was my cinephilia born!

Clipping on Peter Jackson from the Kapiti Observer, 1987
A clipping I took from the local paper, the Kapiti Observer,
some time in 1987, it must have been.
(The Embassy these days still has a strong connection with Jackson; refurbished for the 2003 world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, it's where An Unexpected Journey premiered too.)

Not terribly long after, I moved to Melbourne. Jackson's next two flicks, the gleefully offensive “spluppet” film Meet the Feebles (1989) and the zombie comedy splatterfest, by-way-of satire on the stuffy mores of '50s New Zealand, Braindead, both won a theatrical season at Melbourne's bygone Carlton Moviehouse. I adored them both and saw them multiple times too, firstly at the cinema and later on VHS.

Chase those down with the revelation that was 1994's Heavenly Creatures – still his best film – and the brilliant, made-for-TV mocko Forgotten Silver (co-director: Costa Botes, through whom you can acquire a DVD), and Jackson seemed like he could do no wrong. My admiration for him, even as I started to become more learned and worldly about this thing called “cinema”, was in the ascendancy.

Still, I had to forgive him for The Frighteners (1996) and, rather than dwell on it overlong – and, let's be clear, it wasn't terrible by any stretch, just a bit... Hollywood – I instead looked forward to a King Kong that rumour had it he would shoot in Auckland, an agreeably absurd proposition that was doing the rounds in the mid- to late '90s...

And even though nothing surfaced of his Kong project in any hurry, I remained one of his staunchest fans, and followed, upon its announcement, the development of his LOTR trilogy with great interest, applauding his canniness in engaging online with those books' millions of hardcore fans throughout the trilogy's production. When finally the films emerged to be seen, I was as amazed as any other. The sheer bloodymindedness and ingenuity he'd tapped all those years prior in making Bad Taste against all odds, including well-documented widespread domestic industry indifference, he'd now harnessed to make these awesome epic spectacles, on his own terms and in his own backyard. Which is to say, in my own old backyard too. I was awestruck by these De Millean achievements, albeit principally, it must be said, in an industrial sense. I have to confess the films – the stories being told by the films – really didn't much connect with me. But I nonetheless thought them Herculean accomplishments.

His return to a more personal order of filmmaking, The Lovely Bones (2009), unfortunately didn't do much for me, although I feel it has some very strong sequences.

But here we are now in 2013 with another bloaty great behemothic Tolkien trilogy hitting our screens, only, it's one where the films have become far more in thrall to the technology, rather than the other way around, as was the case with, and even part of the pitch for the production of, LOTR. Jackson had been able, back then, to get the go-ahead to produce that first trilogy because he could persuasively argue that the technology had developed to the point where a cinematic adaptation, using his own cost-cutting proprietary hardware and software, and his own backyard locations, could do the beloved books justice. With that point long proven, through the production and great critical and commercial reception of the first trilogy, he's now gone and got that whole equation completely arse-about with the second.

A real test for 48fps will be whether the second Hobbit instalment will match the first's takings when it hits cinemas in just under a year's time. I'm far from convinced folks catching An Unexpected Journey in 48fps will necessarily want to see The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again at that frame rate as well. (Let alone at 60! Back off, James Cameron, you've done enough damage already with Avatar and its concomitant fostering of a cult of 3D, you smug bastard, you.)

My serious misgivings about 48fps, as introduced to us in An Unexpected Journey, aside, I'm prepared nonetheless to assert that there is a future for it. My feeling is that rather than 48, or another number there or thereabouts arbitrarily arrived at, becoming a new standard for frames per second, variable frame rate projection will be the way of the future. Variable, that is, within the course of any given single projection. Now that would seem much more sensible than trying to push any one frame rate to rule them all...