Big Ears Stereo Visions, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Third Dimension
Festival Coverage by Michael O’Malley
3D movies hold a contentious place in filmgoing. Long regarded as a cheap gimmick to put butts in seats, 3D technology shares cultural space with bargain-bin creature features, exploitative slashers, and irritating movies about Minions. Roger Ebert once wrote that “3-D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension.” I myself have complained of the headaches and the added ticket cost. I get it.
But tell that to the Big Ears festival and Knoxville’s own The Public Cinema. In the midst of something of a critical reappraisal of the format within academia (or at least a begrudging acknowledgement that this wave of 3D seems here to stay a bit longer than previous waves in the 1950s and ’80s), the two have made a surprising case for 3D as particularly essential for film culture in the digital era.
The festival started on Thursday, March 22, and wrapped up on the evening of Sunday, March 25. As in previous years, Big Ears 2018 teamed up with The Public Cinema to curate a number of film programs to screen alongside the more traditional musical performances of the festival, but this year, The Public Cinema notably devoted one of its four programs entirely to 3D. Called Stereo Visions, the program consisted of ten different film events of impressive diversity, spanning narrative and avant-garde forms, contemporary and classic time periods, as well as short and feature-length works. It was a wild, sometimes confounding, and often exhilarating experience to bounce from purely abstract films like Simon Payne’s NOT AND OR to classically Hollywood flicks like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, all the more so knowing that these movies are, at least in the modern context, essentially unavailable to most viewers at home.
The reason for this unavailability is pretty straightforward: 3D simply requires a lot of stuff to pull off, stuff that viewers at home are unlikely to have. For the more conventionally dimensioned movie, televisions and laptop screens have become a reasonable (if significantly scaled down) facsimile of what you would see from a movie projected in 16mm, 35mm, or today’s Digital 4K. However, adding that third dimension means that viewers are going to need glasses and more specialized projection equipment, and although there are 3D TVs on the market, they are extremely underrepresented in American households. I certainly don’t know anyone with a 3D television. Which means that what I saw at Big Ears’s Stereo Visions was a truly rare experience in an era when entire catalogs of used-to-be-hard-to-find movies being ready at the click of a mouse has made rare experiences, well… rarer.
Moreover, the Big Ears program leaned into this added equipment that 3D necessitates; in fact, it was a point of pride--at multiple points throughout the weekend, the film programmers (familiar Public Cinema faces Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes, as well as filmmaker Blake Williams, whose film PROTOTYPE opened the entire Big Ears festival Thursday afternoon) actually bragged that the festival would require not one, not two, but five different kinds of 3D glasses. The majority of the movies were screened in the now industry-standard polarized 3D glasses, but a not-insignificant minority of the program involved a handful of other styles of eyewear, including Anaglyph (your classic blue-and-red glasses), ChromaDepth (after which Big Ears named an entire short-film event), Pulfrich (which use a dark lens and a light lens to create a spiraling effect), and (my personal favorite) Diffraction--i.e. the same glasses that Katy Perry used for her Part of Me tour/documentary, which turn all light sources into rainbows.
The result is that a major part of the experience of Big Ears’s Stereo Visions involved being handed equipment that you had to juggle and switch out from movie to movie or even sometimes in the middle of a show (in the case of the CHROMA_DEPTH and EXTRA_TERRESTRIAL short film showcases), and the interactions with the glasses didn’t end there. For me, someone who doesn’t wear glasses in everyday life, the plastic frames began to weigh heavy on the nose and ears over the extended lengths of time that feature films span, causing me to never quite forget the fact that I was viewing movies through a lens, and I observed people who normally do wear glasses outside the theater struggle to fit the 3D glasses over their optic lenses. Beyond that, I never quite became used to the way that I could see the frames of the glasses in my peripheral vision like the edges of a window through which I had to look to see the movie itself; furthermore, I could never shake the habit of periodically sliding the glasses to the end of my nose and peeking over them to observe the strange doubled visions of the raw movie sans 3D. Basically, I spent the entire four-day program fidgeting with the apparatus for 3D movies, which in some ways means that the whole program became about that apparatus itself, or at least an awareness of that apparatus. I just couldn’t stop focusing on the piece of plastic perched on my nose. And that’s what was fascinating and kind of brilliant about Stereo Visions--its tactility.
The modern movie is abstract. Take a non-3D example: Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 tour-de-wtf, Persona (this ties in, I promise). About halfway through the movie, we hear a clatter. Vertical lines skitter across Bibi Andersson’s face until the frame freezes and then melts away entirely, leaving nothing but a blank white screen. For 1960s audiences, this was a familiar, disheartening sound and vision--that of a film projector breaking--and thus a clever illusion: Bergman was using the audience’s awareness of the physical apparatus of a movie, the projector and film, against them, tricking them (if only momentarily) into believing that their movie had broken. But that original effect is lost on modern audiences; when we watch Persona now, we’re probably viewing it on DVD or Blu-ray or streaming it on FilmStruck or (if we’re really lucky) watching it projected in Digital HD in a theater--all contexts in which there is no possibility of a broken projector burning a hole through the film stock. Even if you’re going really old school and watching it on that warbly MGM VHS, the worst you’re at risk of is your VCR eating the delicious magnetic tape. Our interaction with Persona has been digitized, and so our reaction to one of cinema’s most boldly deconstructive visions has been abstracted. We understand what it’s going for, but we no longer have access to that direct experience.
But it’s not just impenetrable European arthouse; abstraction is what digitization does to the movies in general. The film object has transitioned from celluloid, which contains literal physical images, to VHS tape, which keeps the basic mechanisms of celluloid but abstracts the images into digital data, to DVD and Blu-ray discs that abstract the traditional film paraphernalia of reels and tape, to digital download and streaming that abstracts any physicality at all--and this alongside the exclusively digital projection in most American theaters, which has condensed nearly all the movie-screening equipment down to lots of transistors and a really powerful light bulb. The fact that we even call our movies “films” anymore is just a relic of those bygone physical pieces of equipment, since for most movie viewers, gone are the reels and the clattering projectors and the film stock itself--all that’s left is computer-code metaphor. And that’s to say nothing of what’s happened outside the realm of cinema--“files” and “folders” on your PC, “albums” in your iTunes library (or for that matter, the “library” itself). Please don’t take this for doom prophecy; this abstraction has led to an unprecedented amount of democratization in media distribution, which is awesome. But it also distances us from the physicality that has been a major component of movie viewing for the majority of film history.
Which brings us back to Stereo Visions and Big Ears in 2018.
What this year’s film program did was invite viewers to contemplate the role of physicality in cinema. The glasses juggling and ever-present awareness of the viewing equipment self-consciously recall movie-watching’s more tactile age--sometimes literally in the case of Dial M for Murder, a movie that’s actually an artifact from another era (even more so screened in 3D, extremely uncommon outside of its 1954 premiere) and features two famous uses of 3D in which a woman’s hand and a latchkey, respectively, are thrust out of the screen, as if to invite the audience to reach up and touch them. The same is true for Jackass 3D, screened Saturday night, a movie that revels in making the physical tangible--in this case, penises and bodily fluids. Both of these movies used the physical film object of the glasses as a way of forcing viewers into closer proximity to the physicality of what is filmed, whether it’s Grace Kelly’s fingers or Steve-O’s vomit. For these movies, the 3D apparatus was an accentuation of tactility.
Other films heightened that effect, such as Paul Kaiser and Marc Downey’s 2012 short All Sides of the Road, which is comprised entirely of close-up shots of asphalt roads rushing by, or even more so by the sections of Williams’s PROTOTYPE that present 3D footage of waves in such alien ways that it becomes raw texture. And then there were movies like Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the aforementioned Dial M for Murder that use 3D to depict the multi-dimensional components of interior spaces typically lost in traditionally 2D movie watching, such as the curvature of cave walls (in Herzog’s case) and the Euclidean precision of a London flat (in Hitchcock’s case). Ken and Flo Jacobs’s Ulysses in the Subway, on the other hand, stood out for playfully inverting this idea, taking the physical space of the New York City subway and converting its sounds into abstract designs rendered in three dimensions--in this case, we viewers are so used to this space being depicting physically that the lack of physicality magnified our awareness of that physicality.
But perhaps the most telling example was Paul Sharits’s short 3D Movie; that movie’s eight minutes exploit the Anaglyph glasses to turn the 16mm film grain itself into a swirl of particles--3D’s paraphernalia used to plunge eyeballs right into the physical grain of the most basic of movie-making apparatus. With this movie, Stereo Visions’s premise becomes obvious: that 3D is not empty or a waste; it is a dimension (however artificially) full of the here-and-now-ness, the touch, the texture, the presence, the physicality of the cinema. Also relevant is Jodie Mack’s Let Your Light Shine, the movie that used the Katy Perry glasses; these prismatic lenses draw all the room’s light into the film’s text, making the line between what is the film and what is our own space porous. An added bonus is the fact that these glasses work anywhere, not just in the context of the cinema--I can personally vouch for their usefulness in enhancing a Jaga Jazzist show: the physicality of the filmic experience loose in the world at large.
These films preserve the consciousness of filmmaking’s making. They put us back into that mindset that could conceivably have been fooled by Bergman’s Persona antics, that feeling of sharing the same air with the film object itself.
In a way, this idea could be considered the thesis of Big Ears as a whole. Elsewhere, in the non-3D film programs, the festival brought us John Waters’s Polyester (1981), a movie that comes with its very own scratch-and-sniff card to be utilized during the feature. Though the technology leaves a little to be desired (hopefully Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World, the only film since to have used Odorama, did better than Polyester’s muddle of ten vaguely petroleum-ish scents), there’s no denying the way that, like 3D glasses, the physical device of the scratch-and-sniff card gives a heightened presence to the materiality of the movie experience. Outside of the realm of movies entirely, there was also Kid Koala’s “Satellite Turntable Orchestra,” a DJ set that required audience members to manipulate vinyl records on a fleet of turntables dispersed throughout the room in a way that harmonized with Koala’s own record scratching--again, audiences participating in the material reality of a media object often abstracted through digital distribution. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to extend the idea to music festivals in general--what is the appeal of a music festival (even one as strange and experimental as Big Ears) but the opportunity to experience in flesh and blood something usually experienced as portable but ultimately metaphorical ether?
And that’s 3D in a nutshell: paradoxically using modern technology to give us access to what’s inaccessible through modern technology. Call it nostalgia or affectation or gimmickry or a headache. Just don’t call it a waste of a dimension.