Sunday, August 21, 2011

What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 8: The Real Problem with 3-D (and Surround Sound)

You hear lots of complaints about 3-D these days: it’s headache-inducing, it’s muddy, it’s dark, it’s not worth the mark-up, etc… and those are all true, but they’ve been discussed in depth elsewhere. I’d like to talk about the fundamental misconception behind the whole idea.

It’s easy to dislike 3-D, because it simply doesn’t work. But I’m a true stick-in-the-mud: I don’t even like Surround Sound. Surround Sound, unlike 3-D, works just fine. It’s unobtrusive and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. But it represents a failure to understand the way we process movies.

Most people, when they go to the movies, don’t want to think about the abstract nature of moviegoing. Movie theorists, however, love to ponder questions like these: What is the relationship of the viewer to the character? The character acts as our figurative “point of view”, leading us through the story, but when the camera actually takes on their literal POV (in movies like Lady in the Lake), the identification process fails. For some reason we identify with a characters “point of view” far more when we look at that person than we do when we look through that characters eyes.

The magic of cinema is that we can look at the hero and with the hero at the same time, ignoring the actual position of the cameraman. Our perspective on the hero and the perspective of the hero merge.

“So what,” you say. You just want to go to the movies, you don’t want to think about theory! Well, neither do I! But processes like 3-D and Surround Sound force us to think about the position of the camera, short-circuiting our ability to identify with the protagonist and killing the magic of the movies. They call attention to the disconnect between our figurative point of view and the camera’s literal point of view.This is most obvious to me in shots like this one from Confession of a Dangerous Mind. Drew Barrymore is listening to sounds made by Sam Rockwell on the other side of the door. The sound mixer puts all the sound on the left, so that we in the audience are hearing it only through our left ear. But Barrymore, facing the door, is going to hear the sound equally in both ears. When we hear it differently than she would, we’re suddenly reminded that we are not the character.

3-D also privileges the point of view of the cameraman, not the character, which forces the viewer to think about which is which, if only on a subconscious level. It may not instantly ruin your movie-going experience, but it is going to cause cognitive dissonance, and that dissonance is going to subtly poison your enjoyment.

But wait, it gets worse: such gimmicks also deny the nature of art! Come back tomorrow...


Jonathan Auxier said...

Your observation about facing the door is brilliant.

On another level, I've always disliked 3d surround sound for the simple fact that it upstages the other elements of the story. It is the jazz hands of audio technology. Even when surround sound is "effective" (i.e. it succeeds in making me think an element from the movie is actually in the theatre with me), the result is distracting -- I often quite literally turn around to see if someone's whispering/approaching/breathing/exploding behind me. Anything that takes my eyes off the screen is probably bad for the immersive moviegoing experience.

Teddy Pasternak said...

The surround sound issue has bothered me for years. Thank you for expressing it so succinctly.

j.s. said...

I imagine some of what you're after in this series is a reaffirmation of the single most immersive aspect of any film: the story.

No amount of superficial spectacle or poorly done technical magic can overcome a story that doesn't hold the viewer on its own. Conversely, if the story's good enough many viewers will forgive technical faux pas and even post-modern distancing devices (say, in a film like PULP FICTION).

By the way, since you're always in the market for a good everyman thriller you may want to check out the French film A BOUT PORTANT (POINT BLANK).