To judge from the 3D movies I’ve seen lately, I think it’s fair to say that the purported 50% increase in dimensions is in fact a reduction, if you factor in the fourth dimension of time. As Gilles Deleuze puts it in Cinema 1: The Movement Image
The more the image is spatially closed, even reduced to two dimensions, the greater is its capacity to open itself on to a fourth dimension which is time, and on to a fifth which is Spirit. (Cinema 1, 17)
Through their high-tech trompe l’oeil, 3D action blockbusters reach into the space between the viewer and the screen, occupying—we might even say “reterritorializing”—what Deleuze calls the “out-of-field.” Rather than opening up the frame of the film, this space-invasion actually represents an attempt to close off the frame to what Deleuze calls “a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogeneous space and time” (17). As Jacque Rancière tells us, this “radical Elsewhere” may be understood not only as time but also as Spirit, understood in the Hegelian sense:
It is this other power – the power of that which, coextensive with the sensible, knows without knowing – that may be named the spirit, or as Deleuze named it, the “spiritual.” It is impossible to give it determinations more precise than the following: the idea of a zone of the sensible qualified by the action of a heterogeneous power that changes its regime, that makes it so that the sensible is more than the sensible, so that it belongs to thought.
(Jacques Rancière, “Is there a Deleuzian Aesthetics,” 10)
All of which can be intuited by the popcorn-chomping viewer of the action movie: the ideal of the genre, one might say, is to erase time and thought completely. Between the nonstop kinetics of the stunts and the technological spectacle of the 3D image, time flies. The viewer is in the position of Benjamin’s Angelus Novus. Rather than a temporally distinct chain of events,
he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin’s description of the angel’s helplessness ties in neatly to what Deleuze calls the “crisis of the action image” in postwar cinema:
We hardly believe any longer that a global situation can give rise to an action which is capable of modifying it – no more than we believe that an action can force a situation to disclose itself, even partially (206).
Which helps to account for the prevalence of comic-book-inspired movies these days. If a hero can’t modify the world, maybe a superhero can do it. And indeed, the superhero can “modify” things, even if s/he can’t “make whole what has been smashed” (quite the opposite!). But then the superhero has to do it again and again in an endless series of sequels and spinoffs. “Here we go again,” is the motto, and eventually “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
Where the Angelus Novus is propelled by a “storm… blowing from Paradise,” the superhero—and his/her audience—is blown ahead on the winds of technological progress. The point is precisely to “hurl wreckage at [the viewer’s] feet”—because how better to show off the capabilities of 3D technology?
Pericles Lewis points out that Benjamin’s reading of the Angelus Novus is reminiscent of the vision of modernity presented by F. Scott Fitzgerald at the end of The Great Gatsby.
I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him …
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
As we know, almost everyone in Hollywood believes in the green light, and will do just about anything to get it (including F. Scott Fitzgerald himself). But that’s not why Baz Luhrmann made The Great Gatsby in 3D. Luhrmann is, to repurpose Blake’s phrase, “of [Gatsby’s] party,” although, unlike Milton, he probably knows it. Gatsby’s magnificent parties are, after all, the only possible justification for filming The Great Gatsby in 3D.
To understand why Luhrmann is of Gatsby’s party, we can compare the final scene of the 1974 Gatsby (with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) with the 2013 version.
In the 1974 version, Carraway’s voice-over describes Gatsby’s unfulfilled dream of the green light with fairly straightforward melancholy, while the “boats against the current” line is intimated by the giddy boating party and the jarring rendition of “Ain’t We Got Fun”—these clueless revelers are no more aware of the great Gatsby’s passing than they are of the Great Depression that awaits them. The discrepancy between Carraway’s mood and that of the boating party represents the unbridgeable gap between the angel of history and the catastrophe piling up before him.
In Baz Luhrmann’s version, the novel’s entire final scene is quoted verbatim, a point driven home by the typewriter font that appears toward the end. Here, though, the content of the scene has been completely reinterpreted. When Carraway says “He did not know that [his dream] was already behind him,” we see the phantasmal Gatsby turn and look at Carraway behind him on the dock. Luhrmann has replaced the temporal preposition “behind” with its spatial meaning, suggesting that Gatsby has just chosen the wrong love object (Daisy over Nick), rather than the wrong telos, in his single-minded pursuit of the happily-ever-after of heterosexual romantic love.
With this fairly bold (but not unwarranted) reading of the Gatsby-Carraway relationship, Luhrmann rescues love from becoming an elusive, even illusory “green light” and places it at the heart of the movie. Gatsby’s self-deception lies not in overestimating the love in front of him, but in overlooking the love behind him.
Baz Luhrmann’s entire career has been a test of the locomotive power of the romantic plot. From Romeo + Juliet and La Boheme to Moulin Rouge, he shovels on the clichés to see how far they can take us. In fact, I would argue, we can reverse the previous statement. Luhrmann piles on romance to test the power of cliché. Because cliché, as Deleuze reminds us, is at the core of movie-making, at least within the idiom of the sensory-motor action image.
Now this is what a cliché is. A cliché is a sensory-motor image of the thing. As Bergson says, we do not perceive the thing or the image in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what it is in our interest to perceive, by virtue of our economic interests, ideological beliefs and psychological demands. We therefore normally perceive only clichés.
Gatsby’s green light is a cliché, and in the movie theater, we’re all Gatsby. The cliché seems “so close that [we] could hardly fail to grasp it.” Especially in 3D.
Luhrmann’s film, like Gatsby’s house, might be a “huge incoherent failure.” But as the song says: “In the meantime,/ In between time/ Ain’t we got fun?”