Feu 3D: Misogynistic Stereoscopy

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Every once in a while it is possible to see something in your local movie-theatre that is so absurd and so out of context that you have no idea how it got there. For me, the previous such occasion was 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011) that, following huge box-office success in Hong Kong, made it to Wellington’s central multiplex. Its orgiastic sexual exploits set in the Ming Dynasty were barely threaded together by an incoherent plot and featured memorable moments such as a castrated penis flying through the auditorium towards the audience. Feu 3D (2013), a stereoscopic offering from the Parisian cabaret club Crazy Horse, is more coherent in its structure but offers a similarly bewildering display of sexualised body parts and unremitting nudity that would be better placed on an adult DVD. The film is a recreation of aspects of the stage show Feu and contains examples of Feu’s set numbers and conversations with the creator and dancers. Unlike Sex and Zen, it has not yet been given a general release but was instead brought to Wellington by the French Film Festival.

 

When my friend told a colleague, in jest, that we were going to see some 3D porn, he sneered slightly as he said ‘that’s not porn!’ His insinuation was that the burlesque nature of Crazy Horse’s stage acts would be tame in comparison to the hard-core acts of the current pornography industry. While Feu 3D does not contain any unsimulated sex or graphic sexual exploits, it is certainly pornographic. The film’s complete dehumanization of the female body into individual sexualised part and unrelenting emphasis on what the female dancers can do to pleasure the spectator is obscenity at its very purist.

 

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Between close-ups of pairs of legs topped by nothing more than g-string clad buttocks and tightly framed shots of always erect nipples, there are occasional words of wisdom from the fashion designer and director of Feu’s stage show, Christian Louboutin. Sitting fully clothed and by himself on a sofa, Louboutin first compares all women to exotic birds with no sense of irony. Later he praises the way the dancers at Crazy Horse are conditioned to fit a standardized mould; that they are displayed in such a way that their individuality is subordinate to the form created in the stage tableaus. A number of dances filmed within Feu 3D replicate this aspect, particularly when the women are put into wigs and make-up that makes it impossible to distinguish one from the other. The stereoscopic effects that emphasise the round, whole nature of the women’s body parts only increase the potential for these parts to be isolated as interchangeable objects of sexual fantasy with no relation to the women to whom they belong.

 

Christian Louboutin Presents 'Feu' At Le Crazy Horse - Showcase & Press Conference

 

Unlike, Louboutin, the girls are never allowed to talk to the camera. At the very most, they provide a disembodied voice-over to scenes of their bodies displayed in giant snowglobes. Although the tactile sensation produced by the snowflakes as they flutter towards the viewer in the auditorium is very engaging, it is hard to connect with the vapid looking woman placed, almost naked, within them. Throughout the film, there is no sense of the tease that operates in burlesque to allow the dancer control of her audience and there is very little chance to see the agency of the women who are filmed. Feu 3D makes it very clear that it, rather than the dancers, has chosen how to display their bodies.

 

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There are only a couple of moments that seem to break through this tendency. At one point five women are presented in an act called barcode. A white band of light scans their bodies up and down yet rather than conforming to the control of the light, they break free into radically different dance moves with uncontainable gestures. Nonetheless, towards the end of the act, they fall back into line and the band of light fixes them in place once again. At another point, their hands and arms appear over a black reflective surface. Although their limbs are disjointed from the rest of their body in a similar way to previous scenes, the doubling that occurs in the reflection means that their bodies become other and estranged in a way that is different from the fetishization that occurs throughout the rest of the film. There is just the slightest hint of radical subversion in this brief number.

 

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With regards to Louboutin’s insidious comments, the only element that undermines and destabilizes his opinions on the women he worked with is an element that is almost certainly erroneous: the subtitles. Feu 3D’s English language version has subtitles towards the bottom of the screen that seem to be have added on after completion of the stereoscopic effects. They always rest at zero parallax and, for this reason, often cut through the figure of Louboutin as he sits on the sofa. They make his image waver in and out of focus and the optical illusion inherent in 3D cinema is brought to the foreground. While it can be viewed as an unwelcome artefact in the otherwise smooth stereoscopic effects, it nicely subverts the importance of Louboutin and reminds us that the world of objectified women that he has created is only artifice.

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Oz the Great and the Powerful

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The first striking aspect of Oz the Great and the Powerful (2013) is that its opening images are in both black and white and the 4:3 aspect ratio that was common to Classical Hollywood cinema but rarely seen nowadays. Although anyone who has seen the trailers for this film will know to expect the black and white 4:3, there is still the uncanny feeling that the image is curtailed. This is made all the more obvious after the opening credits when we see the circus where central character Oscar/Oz is based. A fire-eater blows a large arc of flames across the border of the frame, which also comes slightly out towards the audience in stereoscopic depth. In a similar action, a dove flutters beyond the confines of the image. The overt and ostentatious display of how the film can play with its own borders recalls early cinema that operated as an attraction concerned with demonstrating its magical trickery. This delight in optical illusions is made clear within the film through the depiction of cinematic toys such as the zoetrope and a (albeit improbable) modified praxinoscope. The link to early cinema is similar to the one made in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) when the spectacular imaging of stereoscopic film was used to revitalise knowledge of film pioneer Georges Méliès’ magic effects in early French cinema. As a truly US production, Oz the Great and the Powerful, makes reference not to Méliès but to the American cinema and technology inventor Thomas Edison. Oscar speaks of his clear admiration for the inventor and the final battle in the film depends upon mechanical trickery inspired by the inventor.

 

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Whereas Hugo encouraged an enthusiastic return to and celebration of Méliès’ work, Oz the Great and the Powerful, has a slightly more troubled relationship with its cinematic past. Critics have noted that it does not have the same enchantment as The Wizard of Oz (1939) that it proposes to be a sequel to. In terms of acting as a reboot to The Wizard of Oz franchise, it is also disheartening that it sends its female characters back to the 1930s by depicting them as simplistic creatures driven by (white) purity and goodness or (black) hysteria and wickedness. While the film does a good job of celebrating some of the aesthetic qualities of Classical Hollywood Cinema (the shot of Michelle Williams turning to the camera after standing by the door, waiting for Oscar, recreates the stunning, enigmatic quality of Hollywood stars) its suggestion that female characters are made and broken by male heroes is more than slightly regressive. Perhaps one of the greatest missed opportunities is the film’s ability to elaborate its relationship with developing cinematic technology.

 

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The Wizard of Oz famously shifted from its sepia tinted black and white opening to full Technicolour display in order to make use of contemporary developments in cinema technology. The obvious choice for Oz the Great and the Powerful would be to shift from 2D images to stereoscopic display in order to showcase the latest in digital 3D cinema expertise. Instead, stereoscopic effects appear from the beginning of the film and Oz the Great and the Powerful expands the 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen and changes into colour in a way that more closely echoes the 1939 film. All of which is a shame because the stereoscopic effects are often stunning and there are moments that self-reflectively nod to developments and trends in stereoscopic cinema history. These could have been displayed more powerfully if the film had waited until Oscar’s journey to the Land of Oz to reveal them.

At various moments, Oz the Great and the Powerful recreates stereoscopic moments that are well known in public imagination. When the strongman chases Oscar out of the circus, the former’s arm reaches out into the auditorium as if grasping at the viewer. It is similar to the hand that famously stretched towards the audience in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). Shortly after, Oscar escapes in a hot air balloon but becomes entangled in the tornado that races through Kansas. Splintered wooden object caught up in the storm form into spears and dart towards Oscar. Because they dart at him, rather than the audience, it looks as if the film is avoiding the spear-at-the-viewer effect which is considered the epitome of the stereoscopic ‘gimmick,’ seen in Comin at Ya! (1981) and frequently derided by critics and filmmakers. However, towards the end of the film, a number of guards throw spears at the apparition of Oscar and in this case they fly directly towards the viewer in strong negative parallax.  Oz the Great and the Powerful unashamedly revels in this spectacular moment. When Oscar finally lands in the Technicolour Land of Oz, he is thrown almost immediately down a turbulent river. Shots that appear to be taken from the point of view of Oscar in his wooden basket create a type of rollercoaster ride through dynamic landscapes that was often seen in the spectacular 3D IMAX films of the 1980s and 90s and has been utilised in numerous recent films such as Prometheus (2012), Sanctum (2011), and Wrath of the Titans (2012).

 

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

 

There are also a number of other moments that are rendered particularly effective with stereoscopic depth. When Oscar enters a teacup house to comfort China Girl, the space becomes extremely tight and intimate, helped in part by the way 3D effects make the spatial configurations more obvious.  Later, when Oscar and the good witch Glinda travel inside large, floating, bubbles, the permeable surfaces of the bubbles protrude out into the auditorium. They create a tactile screen that is transparent enough to allow the action inside them to be seen but are substantial enough to exist in the auditorium space. As with other 3D films, the battle scenes allow stereoscopic debris, embers and other exploding material to cascade around the screen space.

 

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Nonetheless, as beautiful as the film may appear, its lengthy (130 minute) journey into Oz fails to capture the same excitement and enchantment as earlier experiments with visual technology such as the Edison shorts and The Wizard of Oz’s use of Technicolour. Most of this is due to a weak narrative and poor characterisation which detracts from the visual splendour of the film’s fantastical world.

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

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Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (2012) is another stereoscopic film brought to us by James Cameron and his PACE group’s 3D services.  Although the director is Adam Adamson, the Cameron brand has been heavily added to the film. It is a situation not dissimilar to the promotion of Sanctum (2011) which, even with all the fanfare about the film’s 3D technology, could not prevent a critical panning. Like Sanctum, Worlds Away would appear to offer the perfect subject matter for a stereoscopic film. While the former focused on a caving expedition and thus presented many opportunities to depict depth-rich cavernous spaces, the latter displays the Canadian Cirque du Soleil troupe performing spectacular movements in space. Nonetheless, neither film provides a viewing experience that is worthy of audience attention for the better part of two hours.

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As with many of the Cameron/PACE group films, the 3D effects in Worlds Away are conservative yet effective.  Although the stereoscopic effects are not particularly strong in one of the opening scenes in a circus tent (with very little content placed in negative parallax), they do help to position the male aerialist in space when he begins his trapeze routine. The contours of his body are clearly defined amongst a vast empty space towards the top of the circus tent. When he misses the second trapeze that is waiting for him, he falls to and then through the sandy floor, instigating a set of fantasy sequences during which the main female character, Mia, follows in his wake.  Many of these fantasy sequences are based in water, often by using a large pool at the bottom of the stage set that the performers occupy. This provides an effective basis for using negative parallax effects. On the one hand underwater shots are used, allowing the performers and the various streams of bubbles they create to float and drift around a thick, tactile auditorium space. On the other hand, slow motion sequences of the water cascading upward and outwards from the pool means that droplets and torrents of water are aimed directly towards the audience. The film also makes use of a shot set-up common in other 3D films whereby the top of the water is placed along the lower section of the screen space. This means that the viewer is given the sense of occupying the same liquid place as the bottom of the film. Other light/transparent materials such as dry ice, smoke, and fire occupy a similar place so that the audience often feels that there is a physical bridge between the auditorium and the screen content.

Cirque du Soleil : Worlds Away

One would hope that these stereoscopic effects would focus the audience and their position in relation to the film in order to help them feel close to the dynamic action of the circus performers. However, the effects more clearly highlight the cavernous stage set and leave the audience at a greater distance from the film’s action. This is not the case at the beginning of the film when basic titles are placed inside the film’s opening images of a train station and the outside of the circus space. When Mia first appears, she and the camera travel into the long passage between circus tents and stalls, beginning a journey into depth. For those who are familiar with Cirque du Soleil, the most striking part of this scene is the small-town travelling showman nature of the circus that is presented. Cirque du Soleil is famous world-wide for its extravagant, spectacular shows with residency in high-level sites such as Vegas and multiple troupes of circus artists who are top-ranking in international circles. Cirque is a far cry from the homely, slightly downtrodden circus community presented at the beginning of the film. Whereas the showman at the foot of the big-top in Worlds Away has to do his best to entice audiences in, Cirque rarely fails to fill its shows. The use of the small circus set-up creates an intimacy with the audience for the film and promises a tender, close-up view of the film’s circus acts. Nonetheless, the subsequent fantasy sequences depict large spaces barely filled by the performers no matter how expert their gymnastics.

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Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the heavy use of editing throughout. I am somewhat biased in this regard as I am a dedicated fan of aerial performances and come from a school of thought that suggests long takes are the most effective technique for showing bodily movement. Worlds Away frequently cuts between an array of angles so that is impossible to see how the performers execute their moves from start to finish. Instead of making the action more exciting, the editing dulls the magnitude of what the human bodies are achieving, as it seems that their moves could be down to commonplace cinematic trickery rather than skill and achievement on their part. All in all, it felt as if an excellent opportunity to show human movement was missed and the film is little more than an advert, asking audiences to see the live shows where their view will be both stereoscopic and uninterrupted by the filmmaker’s meddling.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D

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Although made independently of one another, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) can be taken as part of a new franchise in stereoscopic filmmaking. The formula is simple: take a well know historical/mythical figure(s), give them a gothic superhuman quality and allows them to fight evil with spectacular blood and guts made all the more impressive with 3D effects. The plots in each film are, of course, nonsense. In the latter, the young heroes of the German fairy tale have grown up since their initial defeat of a wicked witch and now work as a professional witch destruction team that moves from village to village. In this particular episode, their aim is to trounce an attempt by the region’s head witch to undertake a new power-building ritual which, in turn, leads them to realise the true identity of the mother who forsook them to the forest in their childhood years. In the former, Abraham Lincoln is far less concerned with the pesky task of eradicating slavery and much more interested in destroying an underground network of vampires that, coincidentally, took his mother’s life.

 

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Both films, along with a host of other recent 3D offerings play into the gimmick-adverse fears of contemporary critics (‘the obsession with the visual deters filmmakers from the complex plots and intriguing characters’). These films have no shame in throwing objects directly at the audience and no desire to keep their effects subtle in order for the storytelling to prevail. Most interestingly, at the time of writing, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was doing better at the overseas box office (US$ 79 million) than Spielberg’s 2012 rendition of the same historical figure in his film Lincoln (US$ 66 million). Although that will likely change, and Spielberg’s serious treatment of one of the US’s favourite leaders will catch up, it signals the significant audiences that are happy to pay for visceral stereoscopic imagery. This seemed the case when I watched Hansel and Gretel. There were only a small number of people in the auditorium but they chuckled their way through the slapstick violence and tawdry dialogue in a way that was clearly expected by the film. If the stereoscopic effects were gimmicky then the film was all the better for including them.

 

Worth noting is that Hansel and Gretel is also part of increasing sophistication in stereoscopic visual effects. Although the film has a lot of footage that was converted into 3D rather than shot in 3D , it produce strong depth configurations and manages to avoid many of the problems (strobing, uncomfortable editing) that the earlier generation of digital 3D films has been criticised for. Beyond producing a smooth visual experience, it also incorporates many elements and trends that the new generation of 3D filmmakers are working on.

 

The beginning shots in the forest where Hansel and Gretel live effectively emphasise the stereoscopic depth formations between trees and other foliage. When their father abandons the two young children in the forest, tree branches frame the shots and hang towards the audience.  The focus remains on the children in these shots yet the scale of the setting around them is keenly felt. While widescreen cinema is suited to expansive landscapes, 3D cinema is often better suited to settings full of multiple objects so that their spatial relationships can be emphasised. Forests, cluttered interiors and crown scenes are those that work particularly well.

 

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There are also effective uses of rounded objects. I’ve already noted that the tendency of CG animation to use bulging, curved features in their characters, makes it possible to highlight the depth dimensions of their bodies.  Although Hansel and Gretel does not contain any of this type of CG animation, it does emphasize curved lines in other ways. When Hansel and Gretel approach the witch’s cottage, the bulging, curved lines of the cottage’s facade are prominent. Its strange candy layers are palpable beneath the children’s fingertips. Similarly, numerous 3D films are incorporating water and other bodies of liquid (Life of Pi (2012) Bait 3D (2012) Piranha 3D (2010) Titanic 3D (2012). Scenes shot with liquid, particularly within the liquid, allow objects to flow around the screen space in a way that an effectively make the most of negative parallax effects. When at one point in the film a witch is dunked into a bucket of water, air bubbles stream away from her face and towards us. In this instance we are fully enveloped in the water as it seems to have spread out to saturate the whole of our viewing space. In a later scene, when a white witch immerses Hansel in a forest pool in order to heal his wounds, water is given further tactile use. The camera angle is placed so that the water flows around the bottom of the screen, creating an aquatic bridge between the viewer and the scene.

 

Another trend that occurs in 3D films with multiple action sequences is a ramping up of the action and, simultaneously, the stereoscopic effects, as the film progresses. This is particularly applicable to negative parallax effects. Rather than making full use of the auditorium space from the beginning, objects seem to come closer and closer to the audience as the film moves towards its spectacular climax. Although there is violence from the beginning of Hansel and Gretel, including the pre-credit shots of the witch torturing and then being overcome by the children, the potential for 3D effects to expand the violence are not fully utilised until a tracker’s head explodes much further into the film. He is framed in close-up as his mouth convulses, suggesting he might be about to vomit. As he looks at the audience, it seems likely that he will expel some type of hideous material directly at them. Yet, instead of an eruption from his mouth, his entire head detonates and sends thick globs of blood and flesh hurtling around in negative parallax. The vocal reactions from the audience made it clear that they were delighted by the spectacular display while simultaneously amused by the outrageous nature of the set-up. The use of negative parallax in the film increased further as it continued. In the second major battle scene with a witch, an arrow from a crossbow splinters directly into the auditorium. It is the image of a wooden weapon coming directly towards the audience that is most often cited by critics as one of 3D cinema’s gimmicks and thus this scene is apt in its brazen repetition of this trend. Another witch later firebomb the village’s houses and embers and further wooden splinters are directed straight towards the audience. All of these effects are utilised again, and in greater force, in the climatic last battle that involves the dissemination of witch body parts throughout the screening space.

 

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Although there is a lot to see in these sequences, there is often so much speed in the action and pace in the editing, that the full potential of the stereoscopic effects never fully develop.  As a friend who watched the film with me pointed out, some of the most dynamic scenes were in the opening and closing credits, a factor that often comes into play in other 3D films.  In Hansel and Gretel’s opening credits, an otherworldly set of images is displayed in burnt oranges and browns. An imaginary camera pans across medieval parchments and maps that are drowning in flickering flames. The transparent quality of the flames allows them to flash across the auditorium’s space while the (relatively) slow pans means there is time to fully absorb them.

 

Many critics are hoping that narrative storytelling will overcome the distraction provided by stereoscopic effects and 3D filmmaking will find its proper, subservient, place. Yet films such as Hansel and Gretel make it clear that there are still audiences fully enjoying this wondrous spectacular schlock of the silliest kind.