A commentary on the promotion of 3-D video at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, featuring a panoramic glimpse at the history of 3-D movies and a skeptical suggestion that 3-D in its new incarnation might be just a costly exercise in planned obsolescence.
LAS VEGAS -- The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has barely begun, but everyone agrees that the big news at this year's CES was the advent of 3-D television.
Every major consumer electronics company, except Toshiba, is committing major resources into refining the technology that will make possible the TV version of 1953's "Bwana Devil" (the first ever full-length feature 3-D movie) (Remember?).
There are still a few technical challenges. For example, those two-toned glasses you have to wear? You still have to wear them, unless you're watching the new "no dorky spectacles" version of 3-D -- which means you CAN'T MOVE YOUR HEAD.
But it keeps occurring to me that the real objection to 3-D, either in the movies or on TV, is that it's so completely ordinary.
Gadget makers and film producers are apparently the only ones who don't fully appreciate the fact that everybody on earth has binocular vision. We see every ordinary quotidian thing in our lives in 3-D.
We look in the fridge; it's 3-D. We look in the mirror; it's 3-D. We look in the toilet. Ew -- 3-D! What's the big deal?
As I anticipate the second (or third?) great wave of 3-D video, it seems to me that the quality that always distinguishes the moving pictures from real life is their arresting, hypnotic, irresistible two-dimensionality.
When I was a kid first experiencing the movies at the old Erwin Theater in Tomah, I realized immediately that I was in the presence of something special, something even "artistic," because -- like Millet's painting of "The Angelus" on my grandmother's living-room wall -- it was both irreparably flat and infinitely deep in ways that transcended the mundane experience of seeing the ordinary world (in 3-D).
In the book that remains my guide to understanding film,"The Liveliest Art," Arthur Knight points out that -- beyond its flatness -- motion pictures suffer a constraint equally significant.
Until the 1950's, all movies occurred within a cramped and demanding square, a box from which they could not break free or expand. The first great directors -- Murnau, Eisenstein, Griffith, Charlie Chaplin -- became the conquerors of that box, and in doing so became geniuses.
A generation of successors, from Orson Welles to John Ford, found new ways to beat the box and -- working within the movies' other terrible handicap, black and white film -- to lend startling grandeur to their creations.
They even, somehow, lent to their movies a sense of visual depth that implied 3-D.