It was over thirty years ago that the Hollywood Blockbuster Season gave us “Odorama.” Yup, 1981’s version of 3-D was a scratch and sniff card with numbered aromas. When a number flashed on the screen, we in the audience would scratch. It was a John Waters gimmick for his film, “Polyester,” which has been used only sparingly since. I saw the film, but all I recall are the ovals on the scratch and sniff card – and one “aroma:” stinky shoes.
We are now once more in the midst of the Hollywood Blockbuster Season, which is kind of like hurricane season except all of the mayhem is digitally rendered and the only casualty is the nation’s collective hearing. I shudder when I think of how many hearing hair cells in my ears have been pummeled by Cineplex explosions, engines, and screams. As a middle-aged man, I may actually have more hair in my ears than I have hair cells. It makes a guy miss “Odorama.”
Nevertheless, I like this season. I really do. When it comes to movies, I have the emotional depth of a thirteen-year-old. A new Batman movie? I’m there. A new Jackass movie? My wife and I are there together. (Diligent readers will recall that my wife and I did not merely stand in line for a recent Jackass film, we were among the first in line on opening night. We were also – by far – the oldest people there. When it comes to movies, apparently neither of us has a whole lot of pride.)
These days a summer blockbuster is likely to come at us – quite literally – in 3-D. We have the technology and so we use it. Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D “The Great Gatsby” opened earlier this month. J.J. Abrams’s 3-D “Star Trek into Darkness” opened this weekend.
Historically, this has been the case with most technologies: When we can do it, we will do it. Among the rare cases when we have not leveraged an invention are the nuclear bomb – at least so far, thank heavens – and supersonic passenger flight. The Concorde allowed people to fly between North America and Europe in less than half the time that it took a traditional passenger jet, but in its nearly three decades of operation, there were relatively few takers. Saving a few hours wasn’t worth the extra cost.
But filmmakers are using 3-D a lot, especially for the movies that premiere in the summer. As anyone who has seen Luhrmann’s 3-D “Gatsby” knows, we don’t merely don the plastic glasses now for the likes of Iron Man, Superman, and Thor. We don them for James Gatz and Daisy Buchanan. Meanwhile, consumers are starting to spend serious scratch to bring 3-D TVs and home theatres into their living rooms.
And while 3-D is not a bad thing and it’s certainly not a gimmick thing, I wonder if it is quite so necessary. Is it as critical a cinematic breakthrough as sound – as talking pictures? As replacing black and white film with color film? As, for that matter, transitioning from film to digital technologies? To computer generated imagery and special effects?
The short answer? No. The truth is, we had 3-D in the 1950s. Who could possibly forget the 1953 3-D science fiction classic, “Robot Monster?” Okay, that’s a bad example. But you see my point. And while 3-D is better now and has the benefits of being married to CGI technology, I’m still not sure it’s essential for most movies. My favorite moment in Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” was that riveting, climactic scene toward the end when Daisy must choose between her husband and her lover. And that was all about writing and screenwriting and acting and directing.
Am I a dinosaur? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I just prefer my 3-D to be in the service of James Kirk — rather than James Gatz.
(This article appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 19, 2013. Chris’s new novel, The Light in the Ruins, arrives on July 8.)