I have despised 3d films since their resurgence in the mid-2000’s. This has always been one of the more unpopular of my opinions and I have been assured many times that I am wrong and that 3d is the way of the future whether I like it or not. And yet no one has ever been able to present me with a single compelling argument for what 3d actually brings to a movie (“a third dimension, duh”). From its inception it’s mostly been used as an obnoxious gimmick to make things come RIGHT OUT AT YOU FROM THE SCREEN!, a trick that gets very old very fast and tends to give me a headache when I try to watch such films (apparently I’m part of 15% of the population who has this problem). Many people have argued that 3d is a comparable evolution as the transition from black and white to color but with the difference that, if pressed, I can give many, many examples of color film to which the use of color is so essential to the meaning or style of the film that to watch it in black and white would make it a lesser film but I see nothing of the sort for 3d. However, I made a vow: if any director could make a film where the 3d was as essential to the meaning of the film as the use of color is to a film like Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or the Three Colors trilogy then I would publicly admit that I was wrong about 3d and that it does have artistic merit.
Many directors who I have the utmost respect and admiration for tried and none of them convinced me. James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron all made fine films in 3d but none of them were essential to watch in 3d. At the very least, I have to credit these directors for the fact that they were all able to resist the urge to make things come RIGHT OUT AT YOU FROM THE SCREEN! and instead tended to project their 3d images inward, which at the very least keeps me from getting headaches from the effect, so congratulations to all of these directors for making films that didn’t literally put me in physical pain while I watched them. But all of their movies were just as good in 2d as they were in 3d. The most I can say is that some effects were enhanced slightly by the use of 3d, such as the way Ang Lee liked to use water as a barrier between us and the action on screen in Life of Pi or the way Cuaron would use 3d focus to draw our attention to certain parts of the screen, but these are all effects that can be achieved in 2d as well and therefore the 3d is not actually essential to appreciating the technique meaning of these films.
There is one thing about all of these directors though: none of them are Jean-Luc Godard. I do not say this to suggest I hold Godard in higher esteem in any of them: Godard in fact has not made a film that I’ve liked since 1967, when he abandoned the New Wave movement and plunged deep into the realm of avant garde pretentiousness. Godard has spent the last fifty years actively subverting and undermining the conventions of cinematic art and form, usually resulting in films that are unwatchable to all but the most snobbish of cineastes. Godard is also the first such director who they gave a 3d camera to and let him go nuts with it.
When I learned that Godard was making a 3d film I declared that if Godard could not convince me that 3d had artistic merit, nobody could. The result of his experiments with a 3d camera: Goodbye to Language 3d, finally opened in Boston this week for one week only and, knowing that this would probably be my one opportunity to see this film, since Godard has been explicit that the film must only ever be screened in 3d and venues willing and able to show such a film are extremely limited, I made the seventy mile trek to see if someone had finally brought depth to 3d.
And I must say I have to concede defeat: Godard has finally made a film for which the 3d is essential to the experience of the film. The film is in fact shot in such a way that it would literally be impossible to screen the movie in 2d, so effectively does he make use of the 3d camera. However, my 3d advocating friends, don’t be so quick to rejoice for it is a Pyrrhic victory you have on your hands. Godard may have made a film that makes essential use of 3d but only because he also made a film that is maddening to the point of being nearly unwatchable.
Godard may have very well mapped out every single possible way to use a 3d camera in this film in such a way as to be disjointing, obfuscating and disorienting. Some of his favorite tricks include obstructing the screen with objects in the foreground (a technique he clearly couldn’t get enough of, as he uses it in over a dozen scenes), 3d images that are out of focus (which are surprisingly disorienting to look at), foreshortening, canted angles, dizzying twists (an effect enhanced far too well by the use of 3d) and, perhaps the one compelling technique he experimented with: projecting two completely different images into each eye, creating a rather novel superimposition effect (which also allows for the pleasure of switching back and forth between the two images by opening and closing one eye at a time). There are other shots still that are harder to describe: such as his love of shooting out of windshields but ensuring that either the windshield or the view beyond is out of focus or the way he would project two slightly different images at the same time, usually putting just one object on the screen out of focus.
Couple all of this with an array of audio distortions and a non-narrative that mostly consists of a couple engaged in long and meaningless philosophical discussions juxtaposed with whatever the hell Godard felt like throwing in and the result is a movie that most people would find unwatchable despite Godard mercifully keeping the running time quite short (at 70 minutes, the movie only barely outstays its welcome).
These then were the lengths that someone had to go to to make the “essential” 3d film and so, at the end of it, I still feel smug and righteous in my claims. The “art” of 3d has proven itself to be good for little more than rarified and nauseating exercises in avant garde experimentation, the possibilities for which I would say Godard has already completely exhausted (though, if my past experience with the avant garde is anything to go by, its practitioners will, for whatever reason beyond justification, feel the need to repeat the techniques used in Goodbye to Language again and again and again ad nauseam). At this point, I don’t know that there is any director left who could still prove the merits of 3d to me: all of my favorites have already either tried their hand at it or outright rejected any interest in using it. 3d as a gimmick has failed to impress me, 3d as a subtle component of a film has failed to impress me and 3d as a tool for pushing the boundaries of cinematic possibility has failed to impress me.
You all are certainly entitled to continue to debate its value amongst yourselves but as far as I’m concerned the matter is settled. I am bidding adieu to 3d.