3D at the New Zealand International Film Festival

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This is likely to be one of only a few posts over the coming months. Since the recent birth of my baby it is, unsurprisingly, tricky to get to the cinema for new 3D releases. I originally thought I would miss the 3D films that the New Zealand International Film Festival was showing this year but thanks to the support of my amazing partner, I managed to see all but Enchanted Kingdom 3D. However, the result of sleep deprived parenthood is that I’ve not got the same resources to write about the films in depth. Instead, what follows are more initial impressions of four dynamically different films that are markedly distinct from the Hollywood blockbusters that normally warrant 3D glasses

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Iraq Odyssey 3D (2014) Directed by Samir

Charting the extended family of filmmaker Samir as his numerous relatives live in, leave and return to different countries around the globe, Iraq Odyssey nonetheless always negotiates their relationship with an Iraqi homeland. In this way the film is the very epitome of diaspora filmmaking. From the beginning, there are various titles, in different fonts, appearing on different depth planes. When these layer on top of various still and moving images there is a particular palimpsest effect as each plane builds on to and obscures what has gone before it without fully managing to erase the lingering impression of the previous layer. Some of the layers are historical footage from Iraq, others are personal images recorded by Samir’s family members and then there are shots created by Samir specifically for this film. Often moving image sequences are placed within relatively small frames, taking up rectangular portions of the upper left side of the screen space rather than seeming to fill the entire space in front of the viewer. This prevents the window like view so often associated with 3D cinema and instead emphasises the snapshot glimpses that individual layers offer. The way in which they seem confined and fleeting rather than expansive and consuming reflects the overall theme of Samir’s work: that he struggles to find out the family secrets and can only build partial pictures of how his family members once operated, particularly in their revolutionary political behaviour. Although many documentaries create a layered effect, most often when they overlap titles and different aspect ratios within the screen space, the stereoscopic layers in this film give a unique textured quality in which it feels as if our hands could reach in and feel their way through and around the different qualities of the images much as one might do with a family scrap book. One of the layers within this palimpsest is a series of shots of Samir’s relatives. They sit as if in a portrait studio, surrounded by black, their bodies often protruding into our space. While the sharp focus of the body against the empty black background is emphatic, these shots contain ghosting which shows the ephemeral nature of their place in front of us. They also sometimes have a distended quality, giving a slightly uncanny feel to the family members. Although these artefacts are often considered errors in the Hollywood textbook of how to do 3D filmmaking, they fit with the roughly hewn together nature of the different sequences. Together the various layers of titles and still and moving images form a personal bricolage that is a display of the rich history created amongst Samir’s 6 aunts and uncles and 20 cousins. The different layers show how the family members have extended out in separate directions but also compound together again at different points over multiple decades. Through stereoscopic processes, these connections are more textured and tactile than they might otherwise have been.

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10,000 Years Later 3D (2015) Directed by Yi Li

Billed as China’s first fully CGI animated feature film, 10,000 Years Later 3D begins with a phantom ride: virtual cameras seeming to carry us through a rocky landscape. In this way it is able to make the most of stereoscopic depth to showcase the fantastical CG landscapes that it has created. Dust comes towards us in negative parallax space, signalling the beginning of a film that will use multiple opportunities to assault the viewer with materials bombarding them in the auditorium. Even though characters take great lengths to explain the backstory, the visual assault and the ever mobile viewpoints traversing layers upon layers of landscapes, mean that the chaotic plot and its history are barely discernible. Even after a few days of reflection the best I can glean is that in a post-apocalyptic Earth, new tribes of fantastical creatures have emerged but they are in danger of being wiped out by an evil spirit who is trying to exploit ‘the old magic.’ Although steeped in myth like battles and journeys at the beginning of the film, the second half sees a visual treatise on the legacy of Hitler, the evil of cigarettes and the dangers of the iPhone. These aspects are, however, rattled though as the film continues at a breakneck pace in which visual excess is the defining feature. Each sequence introduces a different landscape where it feels as if a new team of digital artists have been tasked with filling it to the brim with graphic elements. And each of these elements is hyperbolic. Stereoscopic depth allows caverns to be ginormously cavernous, rocky landscapes to be filled with humongous boulders, starscapes to be emphatically saturated. Monsters are not only monstrous but frequently open their mouths so that a whole new horrific head shoots out and jumps into the auditorium. These sequences are strung together by hyperactive editing and camera movement in which viewpoints are very rarely calm and stable. Although the CGI means that many of the characters have the somewhat awkward and uncanny movement so often seen in videogames, they don’t have the smooth plastic feel that many other CGI characters, such as those in Pixar films, often have. Instead, there is a textured quality to the characters as well as the landscapes and objects around them, an aspect that is heightened by stereoscopic depth. Unlike Iraq Odyssey, this is not a ragged textured quality but rather seems carefully controlled, albeit amongst a surreal, excessive film in which our eyes are never allowed to linger for too long.

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Kiss Me Kate (1953) Directed by George Sydney

Kiss Me Kate is the hardest film for me to evaluate because, on the one hand, it is one of the 1950s classic 3D films that I have desperately been waiting to see on the big screen and, on the other hand, it comes in the wake of the restoration of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) (also screened at various festivals) which is arguably a far more sophisticated 3D film. Trying to understand Kiss Me Kate on its own terms and not as a direct comparison to the latter is a difficult task, particularly when there are so few other 1950s 3D films available for viewing. Adding to this, my ability to focus on the aesthetic uses of stereoscopy was somewhat derailed by the off putting misogynistic humiliation of central character Lilli Vanessi, the stand in for, and actress playing the role of, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. While scholars might argue that Shakespeare was ironic in his treatment of Katherina in his play, Kiss Me Kate seems to ignore any potential irony and delights in using bullying slapstick (co-lead Fred Graham physically spanks Lilli on stage until she is demonstrably in pain, straps her to the side of a mule and allows her to be forced onto stage at gunpoint). That a few soppy love songs and a desire to be in the limelight allow Lilli to accept this treatment and ultimately reunite with Fred is a hard narrative to accept and cannot be easily consigned to the 1950s when we see the ongoing humiliation of strong women in our contemporary social media. So where does the added depth provided by stereoscopy fit in? As I said, a comparison with Dial M for Murder is hard to ignore, particularly as Kiss Me Kate opens with the interior of an apartment that, while bigger in size than the apartment in Dial M for Murder, has a similar 1950s feel. Whereas Dial M for Murder carefully staged the depth relations between characters and introduced different aspects of the apartment from opportune angles so that spatial placement was clear, Kiss Me Kate very much leaves the apartment as a backdrop and its roving cameras track character movement with little time to focus on the placement between them. The result is that there is a lot of strobing and, while artefacts such as strobing can be used for artistic effect, it is far from intentional in this opening. Keeping with the theatrical themes of the film, there is often a type of proscenium arch staging in which characters are lined up in front of the cameras, as if playing to an audience, rather than grouped in more natural formations. Although it makes sense in the context of a theatre-based film it diminishes the opportunity to use stereoscopy to show how characters physically relate to one another in interesting ways. After we leave the apartment and enter the theatre where Fred is staging The Taming of the Shrew, we are now specifically given a viewpoint that suggests we are placed in the auditorium of the theatre, a type of shot that occurs repeatedly throughout the film. The irony is that while these shots remind us of the proscenium arch staging, many of the other shots of the play occur in sets that could not physically take place on the stage. The sets are far bigger and more dynamic than could possibly fit in the theatre. There is thus a strange juxtaposition between the showy, theatrical roots of the film and a nod towards cinematic strategies to show 360 degree angles on space. The juxtaposition also occurs in the mix of traditional cinematic sequences, in which the cameras are unseen onlookers, and sequences in which the fourth wall seems to disappear and the characters perform directly for us (a type of ‘cinema of attractions’ display). When Lilli’s rival Bianca turns up at the apartment and starts a dance sequence, it is mainly positive parallax space that is used, with only occasional limbs entering into audience space. That is until Bianca throws a scarf at the audience. Even though a subsequent shot shows it landing on Fred, there is the sense that this is a direct address towards us. It occurs at the peak of her excessive exuberance as she twirls around the room singing ‘too damn hot.’ Later, when Bianca’s partner Bill has his own exuberant dance sequence on the roof above the theatre, he jumps on a rope and swings towards us, again emphasising that the dance is really for the film’s audience rather than its characters. This type of direct address reaches a peak with the opening of The Taming of the Shrew when a variety of circus performers take the opportunity to throw various objects – water, confetti, juggling clubs, their own bodies and a jet of flames from a fire breather – into negative parallax space. Although they have their own diegetic audience, this performance is received differently by us as we are far closer than that audience could possibly be and we feel the sensation of near miss with these objects in a way that the diegetic audience could not. While I am personally in favour of using 3D for this type of direct address when it fits the overall aesthetic of the film, it feels as if Kiss Me Kate couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a showy stereoscopic display that made use of 3D cinema’s various ‘tricks’ or a more nuanced approach along the lines of Dial M for Murder.

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Love 3D (2015) Directed by Gaspar Noé

Unfortunately baby commitments meant I was only able to see the first hour of Love 3D so these notes are very much just initial impressions and I’m keen to see the rest of the film at a later stage to see how it continued. The film starts with a title that says ‘put your glasses on.’ In this way it references older 3D films such as some of the 1950s Festival of Britain shorts that revelled in the novelty of the 3D glasses and the embodied process of engaging with a 3D film. This is a little different from contemporary Hollywood that often tries to hide 3D cinema’s uniqueness in favour of pretending that stereoscopic viewing is a natural process. It’s not the only reference to older 3D moments. Central character, Murphy, has an old fashioned stereoscopic viewer that he uses to view naked stereoviews of ex-girlfriend Electra. He also views a 3D image of one of his posters that advertises Andy Warhol’s 1973 Frankenstein 3D. At one point, another title appears, stating Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong it will go wrong. With its stark white letters on a red filter, it is not unlike the titles in Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D, a film that also debuted at Cannes. These various references make it clear that Noé knows his 3D history and 3D technology, and that the use of stereoscopy is not a flippant addition. They also allow the explicit content of this film to sit within a long standing, hundred year plus, history of pornographic stereoscopy but one that is updated from the more recent exploitation fare of the 1970s into an arthouse cinema mode. The first shot shows Murphy and Electra mutually masturbating each other on a bed in a static two shot. While their movements and facial expressions wouldn’t be amiss in heterosexual porn videos, the arty music and careful lighting to sculpt the bodies suggests this is more high class imagery. In this shot, as with similar sex shots throughout the film, stereoscopy allows the curves and contours of their bodies to become clear. Their bodies are set mostly in positive parallax space although there seems to be a floating window that makes it appear as if the limbs are within the frame (no window violation) even when they come slightly towards us. Unlike the skin flick 3D films of the past, the opportunity for the money shot to eject semen towards us in negative parallax space is overlooked and instead Murphy ejaculates deep within the screen space (although I have been told a later money shot towards the audience does occur). There are good depth relations throughout, either through deep focus in the carefully sculpted spaces of Murphy’s clean, white, European apartment or through effective use of focus to allow elements in the foreground to stand out. In many of the flashbacks to when Murphy previous lived in the apartment, red tones are used, sometimes with green counterpoints. The receding planes stay out of focus and, combined with this colour scheme and the stereoscopy, there is a thick tactile and impenetrable space that remains out of reach. Through the use of relatively static shots, the audience is given time to visually explore the stereoscopic depth in each scene. In this way, Love 3D, has the smoothest and most visually pleasurable use of stereoscopy in the films that I saw at the festival. Although it doesn’t throw objects towards the audience, it does allow careful foregrounding to allow elements to come close to us in a way not dissimilar to the use of stereoscopy in Dial M for Murder. Often the foreground element is Murphy and the 3D depth allows his features to become more tactile. Door frames and hallways are used to position him at the front of receding v-shapes. This framing combines with stereoscopy and a constant voice-over on his part to demonstrate his egoism, keeping him always in the centre of things. While I want to believe that the film provides a critique of Murphy’s immature attitude towards his relationship with Electra and then later with the mother of his child, Omi, I’m not entirely sure. That Omi is only 16 when she and Murphy meet and that Murphy, on finding out (as he is about to have sex with her and Electra at the same time) declares ‘I love Europe’ either speaks to the juvenile tendencies of Murphy – such a clichéd fantasy – or that of the director. This moment, along with Murphy’s decision to name his son Gaspar, are perhaps ironic but it isn’t clear. I imagine the rest of the film will be revealing but credit has to go to the filmmaking team for exceptional use of stereoscopy.

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