Yes, it turns out that MGM, who currently owns the rights to The Wizard of Oz, an inarguably great film and an undisputed classic (not to mention a film I am personally very familiar with, and watched numerous times as a youth), has decided to rerelease the film on Blu-ray… newly retrofitted for 3-D. I am a proponent of high-profile rereleases of classic movies (even if they’ve had a previous home video edition), and often look for super-crunchy Criterion editions when I can. Occasionally I’ll even cry to the gods of Hollywood for the rerelease of classics in theaters, and evidently, they’ve been listening, as films like Titanic and Raiders of the Lost Ark have already been rereleased, and John Carpenter’s amazing Halloween is slated for a rerelease in a few weeks. I encourage you to go. Take friends. Expose your boyfriend to these movies.
But rereleasing a film like The Wizard of Oz in 3-D… I dunno, that feels wrong to me. The Wizard of Oz is such a clean, crisp, wonderful flick without any of the benefits of high-tech digital 3-D technology in the mix. In my mind, the sticky-outey, deep-vision effects provided by 3-D glasses can only stand as a visual impediment to the clear, bold Technicolor marvels of the 1939 classic. 3-D technology has been around for over a century and a half, but the notion of 3-D studio feature films didn’t really begin in earnest until after The Wizard of Oz was released. I would declare, then, that The Wizard of Oz escaped the statute of limitations, and should never rub elbows with 3-D in any regard. But what do I know? I’m not a studio head. I’m just a critic and a lover of movies. William “Bibbs” and I likened it to Ted Turner’s unfortunate trend of colorizing movies in a misguided effort to appeal to new audiences.
And while I’m pretty much tired of the current ubiquity of 3-D feature films (it seems like any film that’s rated PG these days is being released in 3-D, complete with inflated ticket prices and no additional aesthetic value), I am still an advocate of the process. I like that certain films are being shot and released in 3-D. But note that I said certain films. 3-D glasses are perhaps not the aesthetic revolution that studios are claiming they are. They are, at least in my mind, a mere gimmick. Like the pranskertish showmanlike hooks of William Castle, the 3-D process entire is a little extra bauble of chintzy opulence. It’s the shiny wax on an apple. It makes the apple glint in the sunlight, but doesn’t make the apple taste any better, and, if done poorly, can actually rob the apple of flavor.
The films that work best with the added sheen of 3-D are, of course, exploitation movies. Horror flicks, violent movies, movies that are already plenty cheesy in their own right. I realize that Hollywood has spent the last three or four years trying to make 3-D into a complex and high-tech process that warrants serious scrutiny, but no matter how big they make the glasses, or how convincing they make the process, 3-D will still be – perhaps thanks only to its decades of tradition associated with monster movies – an add-on attachment. If you want your films to resemble theme park rides, then 3-D is for you. But Ikiru isn’t going to be “more immersive” in 3-D. No, what you want to do is take a movie that is already clearly milking you for your buck through outrageous content, and enhance that further into camp territory. It’s the only way 3-D will ever work.
As such, I have thought of a few classic movies that would actually be well suited to the 3-D process. There are many that would fit, of course. And this way we can avoid future releases of Casablanca, Citizen Kane, All About Eve, and Shoah in 3-D.
Godzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1954)
Ishiro Honda’s 1954 kaiju classic seems like the most obvious choice for 3-D retrofitting. Sure, the film does have some heady and ponderous ideas about the repercussions left by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but, at its heart, Godzilla is a monster movie through-and-through. We don’t watch Godzilla movies for their heavy political and philosophical notions. We watch them to see a sweaty actor in a heavy rubber monster suit stomping on a miniature Toho set, setting it on fire with his monster breath. If it’s the cheap spectacle we’re looking for, then marry Godzilla to 3-D and we can behold it in all its glory. It would be big, bold and brassy.
Any "Santo" Movie
The wrestler Santo is a legend in his native Mexico, and has starred in over fifty feature films, wherein he played himself – always wearing his luchador mask – often doing bodily battle with creepy creatures like mummies, banshees, and vampires. The films were always very low-budget, and the drunken dream-logic writing is pleasantly baffling throughout. Watching a Mexican wrestler body slamming Frankenstein’s monster is something I want to see in 3-D. Not to explore the visual space of a wrestling ring or anything like that, but to exploit that image for all its worth. The camera already made love to the smooth, sweaty barrel chest of Santo, why not have that chest stick out at us? Why not have vampires creeping out into the audience? The 3-D process may also make these cheap movies (which notoriously look a little crappy) look a little better.
Starcrash (dir. Luigi Cozzi, 1978)
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw literally hundreds of sci-fi fantasy films that were all attempting to bank in on the Star Wars craze. The bulk of these films are kind of forgettable, although there are the occasional minor classics in the bunch. In my mind, the best of the Star Wars ripoffs is the 1978 bizarro space adventure Starcrash. There is an evil count, a bland hero, an intelligent robot (which looks a lot like Dark Helmet from Spaceballs), and a foxy half-naked model named Stella Star as the damsel in distress. Sure, the amazing visuals of Star Wars are not nearly matched in this Italian Euroschlock version of what essentially amounts to the same material, but there’s a visual panache to it nonetheless, and the film is possessed of a chintzy charm all its own. There’s a scrappy earnestness to Starcrash that is absent from its more professional peers. That earnestness could actually be enhanced by the addition of 3-D. Plus it would allow Starcrash to perhaps earn a larger audience, a boon in itself.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (dir. Ngai Choi Lam, 1991)
Fans of kung-fu movies know about this notorious 1991 violence fest well. Based on a manga (and what isn’t these days?), Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is about a near-invincible kung-fu expert named Ricky who finds himself locked up in a futuristic prison in a dystopian future. Ricky must them do spectacular bloody battle with the prison’s corrupt warden (who keeps mints in his glass eye!), and his army of gimmick-laced super-fighters. The film is fast-paced, weird, fun, and should not be viewed by the easily-queased, as it contains more blood than most zombie movies. An example: a guy gets his face shaved off by a plane early in the film. Later on, a giant guy is strangled by his own intestine. This is one of the more spectacular exploitation movies out there. And what better way to make blood look good than to fling it in your lap?
Batman (dir. Leslie H. Martinson, 1966)
Still one of my favorite superhero movies, Leslie H. Martinson’s 1966 classic is a film for the ages. Many younger audiences reject this colorful, fun version of Batman, preferring a broody and tortured figure that dwells in shadows. What they forget is just how awesomely enjoyable this film is. Bright, simple colors, pointedly strange dialogue (“What weigh six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?” “A sparrow with a machine gun!”), and broad slapstick action punctuate this boldly broad homage to comic books of the 1950s. The visuals in this movie are all stagey and square, the villains all filmed at Dutch angles, these are visuals that would be enhanced by the 3-D effect. I know this one may not be a success, especially now that Christopher Nolan has done his number on the character. But I can dream, right?
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
I’ve been writing that header for a while now, “From the Desk of William Bibbiani,” and while I have previously admitted that I don’t actually write from a desk, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned that I only write while wearing penguin pajama pants. There. Now you know everything about me. Onto 3D!
I’m so tired of writing about 3D. I worry sometimes that I’ve developed a somewhat fatalistic viewpoint on the movie industry. We’re getting what we’re getting, whether we want Hungry Hungry Hippos or not, and it’s just my job to write about it. I’m not making too many value judgments about whether we “should” have a Hungry Hungry Hippos movie because if I were in those development executives’ shoes, and the rights were available, I might consider it myself. It’s something that would probably never make a good movie, but it could make a financially successful one that little, little kids would enjoy and would keep thousands of artisans employed in these harsh economic times. There are worse sins.
Worse sins like, say, converting The Wizard of Oz to 3D.
Again, a part of my brain is saying that they’re not doing any permanent harm, that the original movie will still be available, and that it might even be done tastefully, but the fact of the matter is they’re doing it without the artists’ consent. If James Cameron wants to do a version of Titanic in 3D, that’s fine, it’s his baby. The Star Wars special editions are treading into murkier territory, since Lucas seems to be suppressing the original versions of the trilogy, but at least he has the excuse of saying “I made them myself.” The filmmakers of The Wizard of Oz aren’t really here to defend their film. Maybe they’d agree with the retrofitting if they were, and if so, that would be fair. Maybe they signed contracts giving the studio license to do with the film what they wanted (it’s entirely plausible in the heyday of the studios, and even now), but they probably couldn’t have anticipated 3D filmmaking, and even if they could, they probably didn’t foresee a day when their film could be retroactively transformed into something you could only watch with special glasses.
I joked on this week’s podcast that if Warner Bros. is converting The Wizard of Oz to 3D, they might as well colorize those pesky scenes at the beginning and ending of the film, a gag I first heard on the comic strip “The Dinette Set” at least ten years ago. (Full disclosure.) But like all the best jokes, the metaphor is basically sound: changing a film without the filmmakers’ consent, many years after the fact, as if you know better than they do is pretty insulting. Their creative decisions were made for the technology they had at hand. If 3D was available, and they wanted to make The Wizard of Oz in 3D in the first place, they almost definitely would have filmed it differently. Maybe instead of going from black & white to color when they arrived in Oz, they would have gone from 2D to 3D. Or maybe they’d have scrapped that plan altogether and done something completely different. There’s no way of knowing, and that’s the essential problem.
In the spirit of being productive, I’m forced to admit that converting certain films to 3D would not be too detrimental either to their quality or their spirit. Witney Seibold already pointed out some old genre favorites that might benefit from, or at least retain their spirit thanks to this process. I will now swallow my disdain and attempt to come up with a few old “classics” from one stripe or another that I’d probably make a point of seeing in a 3D theater or on a 3D television.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (dirs. The Lumière Bros., 1896)
One of the first motion pictures ever made was also, for all intents and purposes, the first 3D movie. The Lumière Bros., Auguste and Louis, are often credited with inventing the motion picture with their homemade cameras, which held approximately 50 seconds of footage, and released a large number of films in that brief running time that were essentially documentaries: people leaving a factory after work, a child walking around in the backyard, and perhaps most famously a train coming into a station. The brothers set their camera up very near the track and watched as the train came ever closer to the frame. Urban legends tell us that the contemporary audiences were so ill-prepared for the sense of depth that Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat created that they actually screamed in terror that a train was actually about to hit the theater. Whether or not it was their intention, the 3D effect of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat is now the most famous aspect of the production, so if someone wanted to convert the film to 3D there’s no way I could complain.
Invaders from Mars (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953)
One of a relatively small number of filmmakers who got their start as a famous production designer, William Cameron Menzies directed one of my favorite horror movies, the 1953 version of Invaders from Mars. The story follows a young boy (Jimmy Hunt) who spies a U.F.O. landing over the hill in his backyard. His father goes to check it out, but comes back… different. Soon, all the adults in town are being taken over by an alien intelligence and our poor young hero is a pariah, unable to convince the uninfected about the true horror befalling his community, and punished for even trying. It’s the ultimate pre-teen paranoia fable, and Menzies directs the film with a combination of sensitivity and wild imagination, particularly in his monster designs (purely mad, in some cases, like above) and the production design that reflects the hero’s persecution. A 3D conversion might not necessarily help Invaders from Mars, but it could contribute to the hallucinatory aspect of the film. Or it could ruin everything. I can’t say, but it would be an intriguing experiment.
Manos: The Hands of Fate (dir. Harold P. Warren, 1966)
Although Manos: The Hands of Fate was technically a film by an auteur (Harold P. Warren, who wrote, produced, directed and starred in the cult classic), converting it to 3D really couldn’t hurt the film because, well, it already sucks. Really, truly, abysmally sucks. That, of course, is its charm. Manos: The Hands of Fate (“manos” meaning “hands,” making the title technically “Hands: The Hands of Fate”), is the story of a barely functioning urban family on vacation who mistake the mouth of Hell for a motel, and order the gatekeeper around like he’s a bellhop. I could wax philosophical a bit about the film’s perhaps noble attempts to illustrate the dissolution of the American family, or its lofty ambition to condemn the self-absorption of the middle-class by depicting their entitlement as dangerous ignorance to the influence of Hell, but instead I point you to the massive catfight between Manos’s brides. That’s probably a big reason why it was made in the first place. Convert it to 3D, release it in theaters, and watch young audiences pile in to mock it mercilessly. Heck, the fact that anyone would take the time to make Manos: The Hands of Fate 3D is, in itself, potentially one of the funniest jokes ever told.
Yellow Submarine (dir. George Dunning, 1968)
Yellow Submarineis a sweet little movie, about The Beatles traveling to “Pepperland” to save the populace from “The Blue Meanies” (who hate music), but more than anything else it’s a psychedelic experience. The trailer itself offers “landscapes painted with Beatles sound,” and the film certainly follows suit with a seemingly endless stream of fanciful imagery that feels like what you’d see if you listened to the Beatles’ entire songbook on acid. So putting it in 3D, while potentially difficult given the frequent flatness of the animation, could seriously kick ass. I’m serious, I’d actually be excited about this one. You could create a whole marketing campaign a la Psycho, which famously stated that, “No one will be admitted after the start of for the performance,” except for Yellow Submarine, “No one will be admitted sober.” Oh, like you wouldn’t go…