If any movie could finally get me into a pair of 3D glasses, here it is. I admit to groaning a little upon hearing that Werner Herzog had begun production on a 3D movie. Not that I’ve actually seen the likes of Avatar, Thor, The Nutcracker in 3D, or The Last Airbender, but how could he avoid debasing his craft in that company? Broad, CGI-intensive (or CGI-only) spectacles make up most of the current generation of 3D cinema, and the additional expense of the that third dimension at least doubles the bite of the Inverse Cost and Quality Law, which David Foster Wallace defines as follows:
The Inverse Cost and Quality Law [ … ] states very simply that the larger a movie's budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be. The case of [Terminator 2] shows that much of the ICQL's force derives from simple financial logic. A film that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make is going to get financial backing if and only if its investors can be maximally — maximally — sure that at the very least they will get their hundreds of millions of dollars back — i.e. a megabudget movie must not fail (and "failure" here means anything less than a runaway box-office hit) and must thus adhere to certain reliable formulae that have been shown by precedent to maximally ensure a runaway hit.
[ … ]
The point is that head-clutchingly insipid stuff like this puts an ever heavier burden of importance on T2s digital effects, which now must be stunning enough to distract us from the formulaic void at the story's center, which in turn means that even more money and directional attention must be lavished on the film's F/X. [ … ] The more lavish and spectacular a movie's special effects, the shittier that movie is going to be in all non-F/X respects.
And today’s 3D blockbusters, pressured by their even larger budgets to prostrate themselves before the vast and powerful juvenile audience, make Terminator 2 look like The Decalogue. On top of that, we have a serious form-and-substance problem: what sort of material best fits a form like the 3D movie? The Bwana Devils of the world set the precedent that, if your technology mainly offers the advantage of stuff seeming to come out of the screen, then you should probably stick to stories involving spear-throwing or its modern and/or futuristic equivalents. Many filmmakers, to their credit, seem to have learned a valuable cautionary lesson from this, although the footage I’ve seen from even the most acclaimed new 3D movies tends to lean heavily on... stuff going around. Sometimes real fast.
So while Werner Herzog’s name will always draw me to the nearest theater — even, in this case, the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Fiesta Five, or, as I call it, “Big Crappy” — his chosen subject convinced me that he might have momentarily legitimized 3D. As the enormous swirl of press has no doubt let you know, Herzog shot Cave of Forgotten Dreams in Chauvet Cave, whose walls feature the earliest paintings known to man. Already the stuff of an intriguing documentary, to be sure, but it gets a lot more interesting when you introduce the fact that these ancient cave painters made use of the undulation of the rock, strategically choosing the sections of wall canvas to most evocatively enhance their beast imagery. The French government opens the climate-controlled doors to Chauvet rarely enough that the likes of us will never, ever get a chance to enter. Thus we have not just the only documentary material that demands 3D, but the only cinematic material of any kind that demands 3D.
But should we think of this as cinema? I heard Herzog himself, appearing on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s BBC film show, insist that he doesn’t. You often hear spectacle-type films, especially the newer 3D ones, called “rides,” as in, “‘What a ride!’ - Joe Junket, Nowheresville Morning News.” This gets at my objection to most of those films: if you want to go on a ride, do you know what would give you a good ride? A ride. Films, by comparison, can’t provide much of a ride at all. If you don’t want to call effects-laden blockbusters and rides works of art, you still have to call them experiences.
3D film, at least as I know it through Cave of Forgotten Dreams strikes me as just that: a non-cinematic experience. Herzog says he has no plans to work in it again, and unless he wanted to make another cave-painting movie, why would he need to? (But I wouldn’t deny other filmmakers the chance to try their equivalents; perhaps Peter Greenaway could reveal the intrigue hidden in the surface textures of Dutch Golden Age canvasses.) The visual results remain iffy — the illusion of depth combined with a fixed focus pains me — but, even if they perfect it, this sort of thing seems like a fad at worst or an evolutionary branch away from cinema at best. But damn, aren’t those cave paintings impressive?