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The rise of 3D cinema signals a triumph for those villains Ad Man and Mark Exec

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

You can fool all of the people for some of the time, then some more of the time, and then – even with the benefit of hindsight – they’ll have been fooled for so long that it will constitute, de facto, all of the time. This, at any rate, seems to be what’s happened with 3D movies, which any objective person will tell you are shit: the image of, for example, a skull on the screen bearing a closer relationship to the anamorphic one in Holbein’s The Ambassadors than anything deathlike rendered convincingly lifelike.

I thought it was me but having this week canvassed an extensive empirical sample (the kids, Mrs Self, Mohandra and Meena in the corner shop), I’ve discovered that I’m not alone. “Everything looks dark and fuzzy”; “The figures sort of fall out of the screen”; “They look like decomposing ghosts” – these are some of my interview subjects’ comments and that was before I even got on to the vexed business of those glasses. True, the first 3D movie I saw worked – if by working is meant that it did really appear as if figures and objects were protruding from the screen into the auditorium. The spectacle had a certain colourful novelty, although no more so than looking through a kaleidoscope, which still fills me with as much joy as it did when I was three. On the other hand, the sensation this intrusiveness provoked in me was nausea, pure and simple.

But that was IMAX 3D, which everyone agrees does the job more effectively than ordinary cinema 3D. In a standard multiplex screen I find that unless I can get a seat dead centre, the 3D images just look fuzzily double- exposed and give me a headache to look at – and it makes no difference if I wear the glasses or not. Trawling the web, I find scads of such kvetches and yet the numbers of 3D films being released, and the audiences attending them, keep on growing. Oft times, sitting with one whelp or the other and watching hordes of computer-generated humanoids flow over some impossiblist landscape like silverfish over a draining board, it occurs to me that we, “the aud” (which is how Variety refers to us the audience), may ourselves merely be a species of cloned and fundamentally illusory consumers.

The take-up of 3D certainly supports that chilling notion but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Rather, what’s at work here are our old adversaries Ad Man and his more prosaic sidekick, Mark Exec. The investment in 3D technology has been enormous – there’s not simply the equipment needed to shoot the movies, there’s also all those hugely expensive 3D projectors that have been installed in cinemas from São Paulo to Scunthorpe. Indeed, it’s these latter, which have entailed extensive and well-nigh irreversible structural alterations, that may mean 3D – like RBS – is simply TBTF.

And when something is too big to fail, as we taxpayers know to our cost, the money has to be found to ensure that we go on spending our money, so that the whole psychic Ponzi scheme misery-go-round keeps spinning.

It’s often said that advertising cannot create a demand for a wholly new product: it only transfers consumers’ attention to another brand of the same one. But 3D isn’t a new product – it’s only 2D repackaged. And as for the comforting, individualistic self-suasion, that says: ooh, y’know I never buy anything simply because I’ve seen it advertised . . . this is arrant nonsense. When it comes to Ad Man and Mark Exec, history is made by the great mass of the de-individuated. They take their lead from the ancient Chinese military theorist SunTzu, in whose The Art of War this hypothetical is posed: “You are fighting on the three fronts. On one you’re winning, on the second you’re holding your own, and on the third you’re losing – to which front should you send your reinforcements?”

The answer is: the winning front, because there the commitment of marginal numbers will have the greatest possible effect. Besides, once that battle has been won, all these forces can be recommitted to the other fronts. As I say, efficient capitalists have this strategy tattooed on their cerebellums – while we, life-size clay warriors that we are, simply sit in the stalls waiting to be buried by drifting popcorn as we watch the costly double exposures cavort on the silvery screen. “Eat shit,” we laugh, “100 billion flies can’t be wrong!” forgetting that on this matter – if no other – Freud was entirely right: there is no such thing as a joke.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland