The fantasy of unrestricted, imperial heroic mobility is reproduced very clearly in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn through the dynamic chase sequence in which the globe-trotting British protagonists race through the fictional Moroccan town, Bagghar, destroying buildings and part of a dam in pursuit of a scroll which identifies the location of a horde of treasure. (illustrations 1-6)

Imperial visuality. The depiction of North Africa in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn reproduces the Orientalist visual repertoire of nineteenth-century genre painting as with this image of Omar Ben Salaad’s palace.

Journeys through unfamiliar space, or journeys along all-too familiar routes? Bilbo Baggins navigates a cave system in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012).


imperial visuality in three dimensions

The striking similarities between these two films demonstrate the emergence of certain common thematic and stylistic features that extend from action films to “arthouse” documentaries. Of course, this is not to argue, as Eisenstein did in 1948, that

“the three-dimensional principle in the stereoscopic film fully and consecutively answers some inner urge, that it satisfies some inborn requirement of human nature” (Eisenstein, 2004, p. 78).

My intention here is not to make a case for the unrealized progressive potential of 3D cinema, nor to insist that 3D cinema is a commercial and aesthetic misjudgement, as Kristin Thompson and film critic Mark Kermode suggest (Kermode, 2010) (Thompson, 2011). Rather, my argument is that a close formal and thematic examination of contemporary 3D cinema reveals an insistent ideological substructure of contemporary cinema. The emergent thematic and stylistic features of 3D cinema discussed in this article are a consolidation and remediation of elements of 2D cinema, 3D cinema and other audio-visual media. The significance of 3D cinema here is in the way that it constitutes the material realization and reanimation of already existing fantasies. Thinking about 3D cinema involves thinking about a structural dimension of contemporary cinema (as it is situated within a complex media landscape) in a particularly clear way. In other words, 3D cinema is the material articulation of central fantasies of mainstream cinema: the capacity for unrestricted, imperial, heroic mobility and total visibility.

All of the films mentioned above were released in 2D as well as 3D formats. Importantly, the stylistic conventions of contemporary 3D film are shaped in part by the recognition that these films will be exhibited in both formats and probably watched most widely on 2D platforms. Thus, regardless of whether or not it comes to be adopted as a standard exhibition format,[18] [open endnote in new window] the eye-jabbing aesthetic of stereoscopic cinema “that suddenly 'swallows us up' and draws us into the inside-the-screen-space we never saw before, or 'pierces' us with unprecedented force” is not radically distinct from the dominant aesthetic of contemporary 2D cinema (Eisenstein, 2004, p. 80).[19] The long take or sequence shot, the staging of action across several planes of depth (and the concomitant production design decisions), the restlessly mobile camera, and the plunging travelling shot that characterize 3D cinema are all evident in conventional films. But it is the combination of these formal and optical elements in conjunction within certain thematic and narrative frameworks that distinguishes 3D cinema.

What is evident from example after example of digital stereoscopic cinema is that, although this cutting-edge or revolutionary technology offers us dynamic, baroquely detailed and immersive images of novel and exotic worlds, at the same time it shows us very little that is radically new. The actual and imagined worlds constructed by these films are displayed from shifting and multiple visual perspectives, but almost always from the ideological and conceptual perspective of an “imperial visuality.” This is the term Nicholas Mirzoeff uses to describe the conceptualization and normalization of colonial power from the nineteenth century onwards through material practices of representation. For Mirzoeff, visuality involves representing the world in terms that reinforce the symbolic sovereignty of the visualizer or visualizing subject position. Mirzoeff explains,

“Despite its name, this process is not composed simply of visual perceptions in the physical sense, but is formed by a set of relations combining information, imagination, and insight into a rendition of physical and psychic space” (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 3).

Visuality constitutes and describes power relations between observer and observed that are regulated through the variable distribution of the “right to look,” and these relations are reinforced discursively through material practices of representation and interpretation (such as the production and distribution of maps, prints, books, journals and newspapers, photographs and films). Struggles over ways of seeing the world are thus political struggles for agency and visibility so that, for example, in the modern period,

“the general strike creates countervisuality, a brief possibility of seeing things as they actually are, who is with you and who against” (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 228).

Mirzoeff is not invoking a naïve dichotomy between realism and misrepresentation here, but rather he proposes that reality is a contested term to which different groups claim privileged access and interpretative rights.

“Imperial visuality” is a world-view that frames and reproduces reality in terms of the interests of the nineteenth-century colonial powers. As conceptualized by Mirzoeff,

“It understood history to be arranged within and across time, meaning that the ‘civilized’ were at the leading edge of time, while their ‘primitive’ counterparts, although always in the same moment, were understood as living in the past. This hierarchy ordered space and set boundaries to the limits of the possible, intending to make commerce the prime activity of humans within a sphere organized by Christianity and under the authority of civilization. Imperial visuality imagined a transhistorical genealogy of authority marked by a caesura of incommensurability between the ‘indigenous’ and the ‘civilized’” (Mirzoeff, 2011, p. 196).

Although Mirzoeff describes a historically specific mode of visuality, it is striking how closely he describes the conceptual, formal and narrative structure of the case studies discussed here. Both films depict spaces in which a literal and symbolic transhistorical encounter between primitive and civilized cultures is the dramatic focus of narratives concerned with the mapping and ordering of primeval, incoherent and dangerous natural space. In their accounts of scientific and touristic journeys through this bounded, domesticated space, the films narrate the consumption of commodified space. But in their spectacular, exoticizing representation of these spaces as stereoscopic images, the films also repeat this commodification of space for the spectator. The emergence of these narrative and aesthetic norms is premised upon the classical commercial aesthetic of invisible style as outlined by Cameron above, which prioritizes the organic or normalized integration of visual spectacle. What is evident from these case studies, and in all of the films mentioned above, is that this normalized aesthetic comprises a colonialist world-view whether it is deployed in documentaries or fantasy epics. Regardless of the ironic self-reflexivity that characterizes numerous 3D films, this normalizing aesthetic also functions to naturalize its reactionary visuality through repetition and redundancy.

Not all digital 3D films necessarily reproduce this visuality, and of course there is no reason why, as 3D cameras and viewing platforms become cheaper and more widely available, that film-makers should not explore a wider range of narrative and non-narrative structures and thematic configurations, especially where they are freed from commercial constraints. However, what remains disappointing  and troubling about the current wave of digital stereoscopic cinema is the way in which, in spite of the most obvious capacity of the medium to take us on unexpected journeys[20] through time and space, these films leads us backwards again and again along well-trodden paths through spaces ordered around racialized, imperialist, and strictly gendered hierarchies.

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