Apparently, we’re in the midst of a 3D revolution. What do you mean you hadn’t noticed? It’s mostly confined to cartoons and kids stuff, being a gimmicky plaything: at the far end of my cynicism scale, 3D is the most expensive game of peek-a-boo in history. I’ll sit this one out until the novelty wears off and we can see if it’ll have any staying power in the long run. Many attempts have been made to revive it as a crowd-pulling tactic, often to refresh a stale franchise or genre, sometimes to reassert the primacy of a big-screen cinema experience in response to competition from television or digital piracy. Louis Lumière even showed a stereoscopic remake of L’Arrivee d’un Train to the French Academy of Science in 1935 showcasing the “new technology” (stereoscopy itself predates cinema) by referring back to the first moments when films amazed audience with a purported illusion of depth and presence. It might be interesting if 3D could get over the hurdle of novelty and become just another part of the filmic furniture (I have a lazy eye and wear glasses, so the effect is sometimes wasted on me anyway, so I won’t mind if it disappears altogether again); 3D films so far have mostly been “fun” or spectacular. Who will dare to use it for a harrowing drama or discomfiting, miserabilist horror?
I didn’t come here to bury or to praise 3D. Actually, I came with the humble intention of a quick post about Jackie Chan’s 1978 vehicle Magnificent Bodyguards. Jackie Chan starred in five films in 1978, one of which was Drunken Master, a film which would show the successful formula of mixing martial arts and physical comedy and end forever the attempts to turn him into the new Bruce Lee, but you can tell that this early effort, dates from a time when his handlers were shopping around for a consistent persona for their gifted young star. I hadn’t previously been aware that it had been shot in 3D, but the evidence was unmistakable. Objects are thrust towards the camera during combat scenes, suddenly popping into sharp focus a couple of inches from the camera. If 3D is supposed to be used to spatialise an environment, Magnificent Bodyguards uses it for jolting effect. The close-up shots are never held for more than a second, making for a rhythmically impactful use of the technology, as if you’re supposed to forget about the 3D until it pokes you in the retina. Of course, I was watching this on a 2D DVD, and inferring most of these effects from the ways in which the apparent 3D shots are incorporated into the action.
As objects lunge out towards you, usually in a shot where the combatant looks directly into the camera, they come into privileged focus – they take on a singular objectness for a fleeting instant. It might be overused to the point where that specialness is depleted, though. The problem with 3D is that it makes literal or hyperbolic some of the effects which action films are trying to achieve anyway – they want you to feel closely involved in the action, physically engaged as you flinch in your seat. That usually has to be achieved with expert performance and rhymthic editing. Look at these two sequential shots from the film, in which Jackie Chan ends one shot by punching towards the camera, before the reverse shot shows the punchee falling away from the camera:
The shot/reverse shot technique normally suggests a spectatorial space around which the action can occur: you might seem to be sat around a table with a group of people, without actuallg being the table, if you get what I mean. In this case, the “gap” between the two shots is compressed so that the spectator’s position is crunched between them. Are you expected to become both the head being punched and the fist punching it? Maybe the martial arts film is one of the few genres where 3D makes sense, since it aims to reduce the distance between viewer and drama, to make you react bodily to the performers on screen (even if it’s to note the contrast between their activity and your passivity), so it’s only a matter of time before somebody gives it a try in a non-Panda-based film.