Where is the cinema? Or, where do we watch the film? On a 3D screen, in IMAX, in UltraAVX, on a 2D screen, in a second-run theater with a 2D screen, on a plasma television, on a laptop, computer, tablet, or phone (and in any number of private and public locations for the last three in the list). We can also specify which non-theater format: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download (in a variety of sizes and compressions), illegal stream, legal stream through Netflix (not to mention the obsolete formats). I ask this question because I discovered something important about cinema-going and the film experience while watching Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). At home, on my plasma television, I discovered that I was not actually watching Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. What does it mean to watch the film yet not watch it?
Despite its theatrical release as a 2D film, the intention was to craft a 3D picture. Wong Kar-wai mentions, “We had originally planned to film The Grandmaster in 3D not only for the cinematic sensation, but also for the subtlety of the expression of this beautiful story.” A conversion to 3D is in the works.
I believe the film was so thoroughly shot for 3D, therefore it demands us to watch it in a 3D theater, and therefore on the big screen. This means that any lesser consumption of the film is simply not the film. The meticulously choreographed kung-fu, the careful design of the sets, the precise framing, each element of the mise-en-scene prepared for projection in three dimensions. The slow motion shots, the precipitation, the close-ups, all seemed absurd in the 2D format. None of it made sense nor did I have an experience of sense.
Baudry was onto something when he compared the cinema to Plato’s cave: locked in and locked up in our seats – not really, but you get the analogy – we are ready for the film. Directors prepare their films, when guaranteed theater runs, with the big screen in mind. Thus the development of color, widescreen, 3D, IMAX, and so on. (Similarly lower-budget films, without theater distribution but with a deal inked with Netflix, I imagine, produce their film according to the appropriate format.) The Grandmaster reinforced my views on cinematic purity. I think the film experience demands that we be fastened to our seats; the bodily sensations we receive from the medium are most intense when we allow ourselves to become inactive. We see the film as intended.
For instance, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy (2012-2013) was originally planned as one long film; after its completion and breaking off into three separate features, Seidl recommended watching them consecutively, with a short break in between. And Béla Tarr wanted spectators of Sátántangó (1994) to view the 9 hour feature without being able to hit pause. While such an experience is impossible, even if we were to view Tarr’s film in a theater, the restlessness, boredom, and physical pain of remaining immobile for hours is part of the experience. Whether 2D or 3D then, many films, I contend, demand the attentiveness, and often discomfort, of the cinema.
I don’t wish or want home-viewing to come to an end, but I wish that we took the theater more seriously, especially with the greater number of worthwhile 3D features coming out these days. Films like Wim Wender’s Pina (2011), Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), The Grandmaster, and most recently Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014), require a viewing in their proper space and with the necessary technology, silly-looking glasses and all. I tried to re-watch Gravity some weeks ago and, as expected, it simply felt flat in 2D. This affectless version of the film is unfortunately what spectators see if they missed Gravity in theaters. The Grandmaster was insufficient as well, but in a much different way: the whole picture, without the 3D, was simply ridiculous. I await the 3D conversion, although I will likely be unable to see it in its intended form.