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.

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear