I, Cyclops: Monocularity in a 3-D World

The future of cinema doesn’t look good for the 700 million people who can’t process 3-D films.

Michael Atkinson

Green Lantern's Ryan Reynolds always looks better in 3-D.

If you’re over 21, you’re probably irritated by 3-D movies and their ubiquity. The trend shows no sign of waning. Sure, there were media bleats this year in response to a report issued by the MPAA, which complained that 3-D movie receipts in the U.S. and Canada fell 18 percent from 2010. But this stat ignored the fact that 2011 saw more than twice as many 3-D films as 2009. (Some of those were re-releases with retroactive 3-D-ness plastered upon them.) Six of the top 10 highest-grossing films in 2011 were released with 3-D versions.

I am coming out of the closet to take a stand for the roughly 700 million humans like me -- one out of every 10 people, it's estimated -- who cannot physically process 3-D cinema.

Plus, the entertainment-media version of Moore’s law holds: Just as 3-D televisions are getting cheaper and selling faster, the 3-D process itself will be increasingly improved and made less expensive, lowering the barriers it faces to take over the world.

All of which has the ring of the apocalyptic to me. I am probably America’s only monocular film critic – meaning 3-D films (along with binoculars and View-Masters) have never worked for me. I was born 90-percent cross-eyed and now have – thanks to a series of eye operations beginning when I was 18-months-old – perfect vision in one eye and negligible vision in the other. The two eyes do not synch up to produce a single 3-D image.

So I am coming out of the closet to take a stand for the roughly 700 million humans like me – one out of every 10 people, it’s estimated – who cannot physically process 3-D cinema. That’s many more times the percentage of people who need wheelchair ramps to access a movie theater, which all theaters are legally bound to provide. Right now, we, the depthfully challenged, are completely ignored by modern Hollywood.

As things stand, 3-D gimmickry is merely an inconvenience, like pizza at a birthday party the lactose-intolerant kid can’t eat. But I had to drive 30 minutes out of my way through suburban Long Island, past half a dozen closer screens, in order to see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in old-fashioned flat-screen glory. In five years’ time I might have to travel across state lines, or see it in some illegal screening where the stereo-blind” underground secretly gather, or, worst of all, wait for it on home video – on DVD or some antiquated format, since all of the new audiovisual technology will then be catering to the bedazzled binocular masses. They’ll all enjoy having Ryan Reynolds’ pectorals jut out into the open air and slap them in the face, while we the monocular imagine the hyper-vivid experience they’re having, or simply stop watching movies altogether.

Even deaf people will have an easier time watching movies in the all-3-D future. (Their numbers are a fraction of ours, but they get closed-captioned titling.) Of course, all of this kvetching would be more salient if 3-D movies were worth watching. So far it seems like an agreement to go 3-D is all a filmmaker needs to start thinking of their audience as a crowd of impatient goats. Children, like small forest animals, always appreciate bright shiny objects, but most of the people past puberty I’ve spoken with come away from 3-D movies with the feeling of having been ripped off.

This doesn’t surprise me. To bank on 3-D as a fan or a critic is to assume that movies are primarily large, loud doses of visceral/​optical rollercoasterization – visual thrills and nothing more. This is like saying fiction is made up only of exclamation points, or should be. The reality is that movies are composed of humanity, stories, metaphors, ideas, social dynamics, moral questions, existential plights and emotional currents. Whether something thrusts out of the screen at you or not is a relatively minor and thoughtless ingredient in the mix.

I say this, of course, never having had the experience myself. I’m in no hurry – this year, amid a glut of retooled kids’ movies and superhero tripe, we can look forward to The Great Gatsby in 3-D. The mind boggles, but that boggling will doubtless be the extent of anyone’s thinking, as the Duesenberg fenders and flapper fashions protrude off the screen in strange and sudden spurts.

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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