Gilbey on Film: 3-D is a con

The movie industry is trying to fleece ordinary cinema-goers.

Now is not the time to debate whether 3-D is a good or a bad thing. Frankly, that ship has sailed. It must go without saying that the format is cumbersome, imperfect (am I the only person who sees a slight shadow or discord on some of the 3-D images?) and an all-round impediment to the immersive properties of cinema.

Movies shot in 3-D tend to favour visual wizardry at the expense of other aspects of film-making – imagine how good Avatar would have been, for instance, if the characters and emotions had felt as real as the shrubbery. Those pictures that undergo the conversion process in post-production (Alice in Wonderland, The Last Airbender) invariably have all the optical depth of ashtrays.

But it's about to get much worse: 3-D is as transparent a way to squeeze more money out of audiences as forcing them to buy their popcorn in gold-plated buckets. That much we know. (And if you object to paying a surcharge for 3-D glasses on top of the extra cost for a 3-D film, it's no good bringing your own – the unlovable Vue cinema chain, at least, charges you for specs whether you need them or not.)

Now the industry has hit on a way to not only make us stump up an extra couple of pounds for a 3-D film, but to get us to pay all over again for films we've already seen. Directors including James Cameron, Peter Jackson and George Lucas are busily feeding their past blockbusters into the 3-D Movie Maker. I see it as a kind of mincing machine, like the one into which the teacher stuffs children in the video for Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2", only in this one you cram film stock into one end, and billions of dollars emerge from the other.

This is some kind of evil genius at work. You might compare the drive to get us to pay repeatedly for the same product to the rise of the CD or DVD industries, except that at least in those cases there was a noticeable change in quality, even if vinyl or VHS junkies would argue that this change represented nothing so much as a homogenisation.

The prospect of watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Titanic in 3-D causes not joy in my soul, but a severe pre-emptive ache on the bridge of my nose from the weight of all those unwieldy pairs of glasses.

It is only on hearing the recent news that Lucas is converting his Star Wars series to 3-D, for a one-episode-per-year rerelease campaign beginning in 2012, that you learn precisely how low your heart can sink.

"Lucasfilm Ltd has announced that the live-action Star Wars Saga will be converted to 3-D!" trumpeted a 20th Century Fox press release two weeks ago. You would think the news couldn't be any more depressing, and then you notice the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence. Is it meant to convey a jaunty, excitable sense of anticipation? Or an incredulous sentiment along the lines of: "Can-you-even-believe-what-they'll-do-to-fleece-you-suckers?" Take your pick.

"Getting good results on a stereo conversion is a matter of taking the time and getting it right," says John Knoll, visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic. "It takes a critical and artistic eye along with an incredible attention to detail to be successful. It is not something that you can rush if you want to expect good results.

"For Star Wars we will take our time, applying everything we know both aesthetically and technically to bring audiences a fantastic new Star Wars experience." Early reports, however, suggest that the series will still be shit.

Exempt from this, naturally, is the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back (yes, I know it's fifth in chronological terms), a wonderfully alive and searching picture which is all the more remarkable for being a fluke part of this moribund series. But even that won't be altered by 3-D. No film was ever improved by the process.

A good film is a good film; a bad one is beyond saving. Even those pictures that use the process judiciously, such as Up and Coraline, or the ones that mine its trashiest potential (the recent Piranha remake, which rose in my estimation once Cameron had denounced it for "cheapening" 3-D), would not have been affected one way or the other, had they been released in 2-D only.

That's why I would urge Harry Potter fans not to fret over last week's announcement that the upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, due to open on 19 November, will not be in 3-D as expected. "Despite everyone's best efforts, we were unable to convert the film in its entirety and meet the highest standards of quality," Warner Bros said.

Deathly Hallows: Part II, which arrives next July, is still on course for a 3-D release, so it's not all good news. But we should at least be grateful that this particular mass raid, on family budgets already threatened with depletion by the child benefit catastrophe, has been averted.

Then again, cynics would say it's merely a deferral. Next year brings the last Harry Potter film, and it can't be long before Warner Bros announces that the entire saga will be "converted to 3-D!". Flogging a dead horse somehow looks even more unsightly with that extra dimension.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism