by Simon Apter
I used to rail against 3-D movies. Sure, I’d seen and loved Michael Jackson in Captain Eo at Disney World when I was nine, and I’d bought and enjoyed the 3-D version of Rad Racer, the classic 8-bit car-racing game for the original Nintendo. But the twenty-first-century version of three-dimensional entertainment seemed to represent something else, something divisive and undemocratic.
The new 3-D movies are classist, I’d tell anyone who would listen, insisting that 3-D turned the movies (as in, “I’m going the movies”)–that great egalitarian space where executives rub elbows with nine-year-olds, Republicans with Democrats, and rom-com lovers with action junkies–into a segregated, pay-for-play enterprise complete with First and Economy cabins. For a few dollars more, it seemed to me, you could upgrade your movie-watching experience from humdrum 2-D into mind-blowing 3-D. And that didn’t sit right. The movies were supposed to be about festival-seating, general admission, and getting there early so you wouldn’t have to crane your neck back because of a front-row seat. Mayor Bloomberg’s seat was the same as mine, and so was his price of admission.
So naturally, in typical inferiority-complex fashion, I took it upon myself to look down on the 3-D viewers–those gilded moviegoers among us, eyes slightly glazed as they blinked out of their 3-D theatre, special glasses in hand. Surely their visual experience had been incredible, but was it better than mine? With just height and width to worry about, wouldn’t my brain necessarily have had more capacity to enjoy plot, characters, dialogue? While the 3-Ders were busy cogitating the depth of the image in front of them, I was pondering the depth of the writing and acting, the talent of the above-the-line and below-the-line folks who’d made the film in the first place. I was closer, I’d think smugly, to the art.
After all, I reasoned in a wonderfully bombastic strawman, Alexander Calder never released two versions of his work: the actual mobiles themselves, for those who could pay to see them; and then 2-dimensional pictures of the mobiles, for the hoi polloi. The Sculpture Garden at MoMA doesn’t demand an extra entrance fee for its 3-D wonders.
But I’ve since gotten down from my high horse. Cultural criticism runs aground whenever it begins to parse the nature, definition and propriety of art, and my 2-D snobbishness was no exception. Because three-dimensional movies, at the end of the day, are neither better nor worse than their 2-D older brothers. Three-dimensional viewing is about the experience of watching the movie, not about the movie itself. Changing the manner in which an object is enjoyed doesn’t actually change the object. You’d probably pay more to hear a recording of Morgan Freeman reading Inferno than you would to hear me, but nevertheless, through all 34 cantos, Dante’s poetry remains unchanged regardless of its medium.
It’s easy to be a stick in the mud about progress, especially when it concerns entertainment. For me, going to the movies always evokes memories of Friday-night trips to the second-run State Theatre in downtown Corvallis, Oregon, where the dollar-fifty double-feature was the place to be if you thought of yourself as remotely cool. In April 1994, I had my first real make-out session during Cabin Boy/Sister Act 2. That night became the platonic ideal of movie-watching in my imagination, and I’m transported to the State for a few milliseconds every time the lights go dark.
A novelty like 3-D feels like a threat to the happy memories and warm associations that we’ve spent our lifetimes cultivating, a cold reminder that our world is no longer ours, that “fun” itself is passing us by and relegating all that we love to nostalgia and to memories of things past. We can feel like our old-fashioned enjoyment of something has been marginalized and is no longer valid, like we’re hanging on to things “the way they were meant to be.”
But I’ve come around. I see neither a fleeting golden age nor a decaying future. I just see the movies now, in however many dimensions to which my ticket has entitled me. Because regardless of the movie, and regardless of the projection, the lights still darken, and I’m still in eighth grade, still making out with Sarah Collins, if only for the blink of an eye.