3-D vs Flatties: Overview of 3-D’s History in “The New Yorker”

4 March 2010

There’s an entertaining and informative overview of the 3-D in the movies in The New Yorker (by Anthony Lane). The history of the effect goes back to the stereoscope of the 19th century. One enthusiast was Oliver Wendell Holmes:

…around 1860, he designed his own stereoscope—an elegant viewing tool, carved in wood with glass lenses, which could be held in the hand for the convenient scrutiny of the dual images. He was not the inventor of the stereoscope; that honor belongs to Charles Wheatstone, a British scientist who had built a more cumbersome device twenty years earlier. But Holmes’s lighter version sold en masse, and, in an even more fervid article from 1861, he guided stereoscopists on a grand verbal tour of the world, and promised them a trance—“a dream-like exaltation of the faculties, a kind of clairvoyance, in which we seem to leave the body behind us and sail away into one strange scene after another.”


Those for whom 3-D is, by definition, doomed to frippery tend to claim that no one of any distinction or sensibility would touch the stuff; yet a trawl through the record reveals any number of first-rate stars and directors who reached into the third dimension. There was “Dial M for Murder,” which Hitchcock shot in 3-D, although he was annoyed by the bulk of the camera. There was Curtis Bernhardt’s “Miss Sadie Thompson,” with Rita Hayworth, which proffered, among other delights, “special clip-ons for those who already wear glasses.” John Farrow directed John Wayne in “Hondo,” and Rudolph Maté, who, as a cinematographer, had shot masterpieces such as “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Gilda,” directed Robert Mitchum and Jack Palance in “Second Chance.”


Lane quotes

Bernard Mendiburu, writing in “3D Movie Making: Stereoscopic Digital Cinema from Script to Screen” (2009)…. as a book of prophecy, it will scare the pixellated daylights out of anyone over forty. Once the newfangled 3-D is up and running, Mendiburu proposes,

‘it will be unavoidable and ubiquitous, to the point that the very mention of “3D” will disappear from posters. At some point in the near future, you will go to see a “flattie” for nostalgia’s sake, just as you sometimes watch black-and-white movies on TV today.’

I hate to break it to Mendiburu, but there are film lovers who still go to the cinema to watch flatties that are not merely in black-and-white but are sometimes silent, too. And we do so not out of nostalgia but precisely because those films are anything but period pieces.



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