The Return (Again) of 'New' 3-D Technology

It seems a day doesn't go by without some sort of news about another 3-D development in the entertainment world. In addition to Panasonic, which sold out its first 3-D television shipment to retailers in the first week, Sony and Samsung are also introducing new 3-D TV models.

ESPN is adding a 3-D sports channel, and Avatardirector James Cameron has confirmed that he plans to bring Titanic 3-D to movie theaters by 2012, the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking. And on the heels of Avatar's 3-D megasuccess, the 3-D movie Alice in Wonderland crushed Green Zone at the box office. To be fair, it wasn't just because Alice was in 3-D.

Partly it's because Green Zone is a terrible, terrible movie full of lines similar to these: "There is no WMD here as we were told under false pretenses that there would be" and "I can't find the WMD that we have been told would be here by the bloodthirsty Republicans who run the Pentagon's relentless war machine" and "Where did they put the WMD that the evil Cheney-Bush regime specifically told us would be here at this location?"

OK, those might not be actual quotes from the movie, but the way I remember it, they might as well be. I felt like I was watching a remedial propaganda film written by Dora the Explorer as told to Nancy Pelosi.

But none of the blanket media coverage on and elsewhere has answered the most fundamental question about this snowballing 3-D phenomenon: how does it affect me, Steve Tuttle? I'm not sure I will ever be able to afford one of those fancy new televisions on my MSM salary, and the 3-D glasses don't fit particularly well on my freakishly huge head. But I still have a dog in this fight, because a little-known fact about me is that I am a trailblazing pioneer in the field of three-dimensional cinema. Back in about 1980, I did some groundbreaking research on this subject.

I was a freshman at William and Mary then, and I gathered up a few inquisitive student scientists for the two-hour drive up to Richmond, Va., to watch a midnight showing of a 3-D movie intended for mature audiences. This is a family Web site, so I can't really say much more, except that I ducked several times at critical moments in the plotline.

Anyway, the point is that everything old is new again, and I wonder about the staying power of this latest attempt to make 3-D the savior of Hollywood. The first 3-D feature film, The Power of Love, dates all the way back to the silent-picture era, in 1922. That's even before John McCain was born! The fad did not catch on then, but 3-D had a big heyday in the early 1950s, when titles like House of Waxand Spooks, starring the Three Stooges, wowed the parents of all of us baby boomers.

One of my favorite Life magazine photos is an iconic shot from that period. It shows a well-dressed audience—many wearing what look to be mink stoles—taking in a 3-D premiere starring matinee idol Robert Stack in 1952. In those halcyon days, we knew three things: America would always be No. 1, marriage would always be between a man and a woman, and Life magazine would be around forever.

After a few short years, the 3-D fad faded, as viewers complained of eye strain and headaches from the glasses used to watch the films, and television took a stronger hold on our leisure time. Three-D and its fans never went away totally, but it existed more on the margins of the movie industry. Andy Warhol used the effect when he produced Flesh for Frankensteinin 1973.

In the early '80s, the brilliant cast of SCTV parodied those corny old 3-D horror films on the mock TV show Monster Chiller Horror Theater, on which low-rent actors in titles like Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Stewardessesand Slinky ... Toy From Hell would make the 3-D effects by moving objects quickly back and forth toward the camera.

(If you can watch John Candy deliver the line: "Rip and tear, Bruno! Rip and tear!" without laughing, then I don't think we could ever be friends. In fact, if you're not laughing at the mere thought of John Candy saying that, please stop reading this and go click on some story about health-care reform.)

But I guess my bottom line is this: before I plunk down a few grand on a 3-D TV—which for me is about what I'd pay for a car—I want to be sure that it's not a fad and that there is plenty of product in the pipeline. I'm what you might call a late adopter. When I see them show up at Walmart for $300, I'll start considering it. Also, like my 1950s antecedents, I've suffered headaches watching the recent 3-D releases, and I wonder how much time I'd really spend at home watching if I had to wear those clunky eyeglasses all the time.

I mean, really, how far can I take my self-loathing? I already spend most nights slumped on the couch-that-used-to-be-white in my ratty T-shirt and sweatpants scarfing Cherry Garcia. I bet I'm the only columnist in America who writes about hunting and NASCAR and can also name all of Bravo's real housewives—well, at least New York and Orange County. (Gretchen is my favorite.)

Must I add to my shame the indignity of those giant Groucho Marx glasses? What if I forgot to take them off when the pizza man came with my Cheesy Bread? That would be embarrassing.

For now, unlike my colleague Dan Lyons, I'm betting the trend will whimper and die, like it did 60 years ago. And 90 years ago. If they don't solve the glasses problem, 3-D will return to the province of IMAX theaters and the occasional Pixar kiddie movie. I hope I'm wrong, because for all its problems, the 3-D movie experience is in a lot of ways more captivating than our workaday 2-D lives. Except for Green Zone. That would even stink in 4-D.