The 3D female body: Pompeii and Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Pompeii (2014) Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

 

The recent 3D Hollywood outputs haven’t exactly had inspiring narratives or complex plots. My first thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) were that it went something like: formulaic opening battle, bang bang explosion, complicated conspiracy plot, bang bang explosion, more bang bang, the end. It did, however, far exceed Pompeii’s (2014) rather limited combination of Spartacus (various versions) and the Horse Whisperer (1998). Both films combine some good stereoscopic depth of field with varying degrees of spectacular effects although neither uses 3D technology in a particularly innovative way. However, together, they helped me think through some recent ideas I have had concerning the presentation of bodies, particularly female bodies, in 3D cinema. These are still somewhat speculative and will most likely rely on secondary viewings of the films once they have been released on Blu-ray but I thought it was worth a first shot at articulating them.

For me, one of the defining effects of 3D cinema is the ability to present the curves and contours of objects, particularly human bodies, in greater depth. The potential this has for emphasising sexual female curves has already been drawn upon with great glee in exploitation-style 3D films such as Piranha 3D (2010) and the even more obviously titled Piranha 3DD (2012). At the same time, stereoscopy also has the potential to counteract the Photoshop induced drive towards reducing female bodies into slighter and slighter proportions. Stereoscopic depth is often most interesting and most present in its tactile invitation to audiences when depicting, full, rounded forms. There is no reason why female bodies cannot be celebrated within this context.

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Suffice to say, both 3D films reviewed here, Captain America and Pompeii eschew this possibility. This is not to say that they don’t give significant screen time and agency to their female protagonists, Black Widow and Cassia respectively. Rather, it is their visual development of these characters that lets down a thankful (although not yet fully complete) tendency in Hollywood towards rebalancing gender roles on screen.

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Emily Browning, as co-protagonist Cassia in Pompeii, offers an example of how the human form can be emphasised and/or distorted in stereoscopy. Browning’s distinctive facial features, particularly her high cheek bones, have long allowed her to have enigmatic screen appeal. However, in Pompeii, the attempt to emphasise her slim sinewy body frame while retaining sexualised curves (a seemingly Barbie inspired ideal for many Hollywood filmmakers) means that her body often has a type of elongated stereoscopic protrusion towards the cameras. When her face is shot in the same way, her cheekbones and other features take on an eerie sense of exaggeration that looks distorted in comparison to Milo’s (Kit Harrington) more proportioned composure (albeit with some extreme muscles). This is not simply a case of the filmmakers shooting a body the way it is (in this case a particularly slim body). Instead, control of the separation between the cameras as well as manipulation of the convergence angles means that the filmmakers are able to sculpt depth proportions the way they wish. In this case, it seems that an attempt to foreground the curves of Browning’s breasts and her distinctive cheekbones has led to an unnatural distortion of the rest of her body, an aspect that would not be apparent in the 2D version. While I am usually in favour of expressive uses of stereoscopy that aren’t caught up in concerns for naturalistic representation, questions have to be asked about how modifications and exaggerations of depth are played out in different ways across different gendered bodies.

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In a slightly different way, Black Widow is un-shot in Captain America in order to look particularly wispy. By this I mean that instead of distorting Scarlet Johansson’s body in stereoscopic depth, full shots of her body are avoided. In doing so, the impossible ideal of her super slim but equally voluptuous body is left as only a possibility. This is not to deny that Scarlet Johansson is naturally slim and curvy, but as the criticism directed to the poster of Black Widow prior to the film’s release made clear, certain attributes of her body have been enhanced for reasons that are beyond character development. In order to maintain the illusion of a figure that was clearly Photoshopped within the poster, Black Widow’s body is rarely presented in full on screen. She is frequently framed in head shots or at a distance, dashing between other objects, so that it is impossible to determine the full outline of her frame. When her whole body is displayed, it is either so rapidly that her tightly wrapped costume is not available for scrutiny or, in the case of her undercover trip through the mall with Captain America, the plot necessitates she wears a baggy hoodie. While some of the frequent cutaways and reluctance to display her whole body can be explained by the likelihood that a stunt double was employed for many shots, the depiction of her body is very different from that of Captain America and Sam Wilson who are often presented in tight t-shirts during lengthy shots where they face the camera. In Captain America, then, the difficulty of presenting Black Widow’s impossible body in stereoscopy is avoided while the ability to fully celebrate the muscular contours of Captain America and Sam Wilson is maintained.

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In each film the existence of male protagonists, who have bodies displayed in different ways in stereoscopic depth, points to the extent that this is an issue of gender and not simply an accidental turn. It is true that each film has male bodies that are presented in tight clothing and/or without clothing in a way that suggests the male body is as sexually exploited as the female body. However, my tentative thought process is that the 3D cameras are willing to emphasise the men’s existent features rather than distort their bodies into impossible ideals. It is only the female form that is being contorted into a twenty-first century desire for a super slim frame with bulging sexual parts.

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1 Comment

  1. Reading Week #4 – 19/04/14 | @robotnic

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