The big event film of the moment is Gravity and ‘film’ is always an aspect of our contemporary visual culture that offers rich source material for those of us who are a bit opinionated (oops). This film is a mainstream Hollywood offering with two big ‘A’ listers, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, playing second fiddle to the 3D imagery of our beautiful planet. ‘Gravity’ is not an art installation, but the first 20 minutes or more are so compelling visually that you almost disengage with the narrative of the film and just soak up the shots in a floating, mesmerized trance. The British film critic, Mark Kermode, who is not a fan of 3D, said that this was one film you really should see in 3D. Furthermore, the general view of the professional critics is to see it on the biggest screen possible. That said, ‘film’ is so much more than a series of shots. It was fascinating to see the 3D shuttle and the weightless astronauts and viscerally thrilling to glimpse the Earth from the enormity of space, but once this waned, the rest of the film was disappointingly formulaic.
This now brings me to the point of Titian. Titian you are thinking, what? Well, not just Titian, but artists like Dürer, Vermeer and Hockney too, and all the artists who consciously experiment and play with perspective. Because as we know we do not see our real life world in lens-photographic-cinematic focus. The human eye is rapidly adjusting and re-adjusting as we look around ourselves. Our attention and our eyes focus and re-focus as we register and respond to our visual environment. And, this all happens as our outrageously, sophisticated brains process the raw visual data supplied from the optic nerve – looking and seeing is so much more than registering light. When we watch a 3D film and the objects come out of the screen at us it is more like Titian’s depiction of the sleeve in the painting ‘Portrait of a Man in Blue’ than looking at someone in real life. The artist chooses to draw our attention to the magnificent, costly silk sleeve by making it appear slightly larger than we would expect. Another striking example showing a heightened three dimensional form in a two dimensional representation is ‘Portrait of a Woman’ by Palma Vecchio. As we look at each painting in its entirety we see realistic looking people in attention-grabbing fine robes, but if we deliberately move our focus around each image we see that the proportion of the nearest sleeve is exaggerated. It looks more as if the sleeve might break out of the surface of the canvas. Although the representations are not quite 3D, neither are they how we would see the sitter in reality.
In the 21st century with the luxury of affordable digital photography, photographic images are everywhere and by a process of osmosis we are accustomed to seeing our 3D world rendered into a lens mediated 2D version. It’s normal, we take it for granted unless the lens distortion is so extreme it makes the subject look bizarre. And, this is the point where I return to ‘Gravity’ where the level of the 3D special effects is so good that we accept it as a near truthful account of what astronauts see and experience. I think perhaps this is why most viewers have been enthralled by the spectacular visuals, and they are beautiful, but in the end for a whole film to be outstanding there needs to be a strong script, believable characters, hopefully an unpredictable narrative and a sympathetic score, not just great 3D wizardry used effectively.