NOWADAYS ONE meets very many people who ask: “Do you believe in stereoscopic cinema?”
To me this question sounds as absurd as if I were asked: “Do you believe that in nought hours it will be night, that the snow will disappear from the streets of Moscow, that there will be green trees in the summer and apples in the autumn?”
To doubt that stereoscopic cinema has its tomorrow is as naïve as doubting whether there will be tomorrows at all.
However, what makes us so certain of this?
After all, what we see on the screen at present are no more than single “Robinsonades.”*
And it is almost symbolical that the best of what we have seen is precisely the screen description of Robinson Crusoe’s life.
But what we have seen here is, in its turn, still no more than that raft of Robinson’s, in the film itself, trying to slip through the overgrowth (one of the most convincing stereoscopic shots in Andreevsky’s film) which represents the myriad difficulties that still have to be surmounted in the destiny of stereoscopic cinema.
Yet the day is not far distant when not only rafts, but galleys, frigates, galleons, cruisers, battleships and dreadnoughts will sail into the harbors of stereoscopic cinema.
But why are we so certain of this?
Because, in my view, the only vital varieties of art are those which, of their very nature, are an embodiment of the hidden urges existing in the depths of human nature itself. What matters is not only which subject is incorporated in a work of art, but also which of the means peculiar to a given art form are employed.
In the problems connected with the extinction of one or another art form, there probably exists the same law of natural selection as in everything else.
And the forms which survive are those which are so composed as to embody the deep, inner, organic tendencies and needs of both the spectator and the creator.
The deeper the questions and the fuller the answers, the greater is the reason for an art form to become realized, the firmer the foundation for its development.
Is not the so-called aimless art perishing inexorably and hopelessly before our eyes because it does not contain an answer to the latent need for enlightenment existing in every progressive-minded person?
It came into being and could linger on for awhile, as a reflection of the sterility of the expiring class which gave it birth.
But it could not, of course, become an independent branch or variation capable of standing on its own among the other arts, capable of developing in its own way, of changing and growing.
At the same time, has not there existed through the centuries, and hardly evolving at all, a branch of art equally barren of content—the circus?
And the reason for this is that without touching the sphere of enlightenment (which is much more perfect and expressive in the other arts), the perfection of skill, strength, self-control, will-power and daring which gives brilliance to the circus will always be an expression of the natural urge for the fullest development of the qualities which are the essence of our physical nature.
For the same reason sport is unchangingly popular—both as an occupation and as a spectacle—for here the powers inherent in us are given the possibility to develop in the most perfect forms and on the widest scale, not only as a commonly shared intuitive experience, but in our own actions and behavior.
Can it be said that the principle of three-dimensional cinematography responds as fully and as consistently to certain of our deeper needs, to some kind of latent urges?
Further, can it be affirmed that, in its striving for the realization of these latent needs, mankind has for centuries been moving towards stereoscopic cinema, as to one of the most complete and immediate expressions of such strivings—strivings which, at different stages of social development and of the developments in the means of artistic expression, in different and incomplete ways, yet invariably and persistently—were attempts to realize some such latent need?
It seems to me that it was precisely so.
And I should like to try to reveal the nature of this striving, glancing at the historical modifications through which the arts of former times realized these tendencies, before discovering the most admirable and complete form for its incarnation in the technical wonder of stereoscopic cinema.
Let us try to define for which of the spectator’s latent urges the technical phenomenon of steoroscopic cinematography can serve as an expression, just as the phenomenon of cinematography has in its very nature the independent, absolute attraction of the fundamental sign of developing vitality in the universe, mankind and progress—movement!
In order to do this, let us first establish the nature of the phenomenon itself.
Let us note in a few words what it is that strikes the spectator on his first acquaintance with stereoscopic cinema.
Stereoscopic cinema gives a complete illusion of the three-dimensional character of the object represented.
And this illusion is completely convincing, as free from the slightest shadow of a doubt, as is the fact in ordinary cinematography that the objects depicted on the screen are actually moving. And the illusion of space in one instance and of movement in the other is as unfailing for those who know perfectly well that, in one case, we are looking at a rapid succession of separate, motionless phases which represent a complete process of movement, and in the other, at nothing more than a cunningly devised process of superimposing one upon the other of two normal flat photographic records of the same object, which were taken simultaneously at two slightly different, independent angles.
In each case the space and the movement is compellingly convincing, just as the personages in a film seem undeniably authentic and living, though we know quite well that they are no more than pale shadows, aifixed by photochemical means on to kilometers of gelatine ribbon which, rolled on to separate reels, and packed into flat tins, travels from one end of the globe to another, giving spectators everywhere the same compelling illusion of their vitality.
The stereoscopic effect can be of three kinds :
Either the image remains within the limitations of the ordinary cinema—resembling a flat alto-relievo, balanced somewhere in the plane of the mirror-screen.
Or else it pierces through to the depth of the screen, taking the spectator into previously unseen distance.
Or, finally (and this is its most devastating effect), the image, palpably three-dimensional, “pours” out of the screen into the auditorium.
A cobweb with a gigantic spider hangs somewhere between the screen and the spectator.
Birds fly out of the auditorium into the depths of the screen, or perch submissively over the very heads of the spectators on a wire palpably extending from the area which used once to be the surface of the screen up to . .. the projection booth.
Branches of trees are suspended all around, overhanging the auditorium.
Panthers and pumas leap out of the screen into the arms of the spectators, and so on.
Different calculations during the filming force the image either into Space, endlessly extended to the sides and in depth, or into three-dimensional Volume, moving in materially towards the spectator and positively palpable.
And that which we have been accustomed to see as an image on the flat screen suddenly “swallows” us into a formerly invisible distance beyond the screen, or “pierces” into us, with a drive never before so powerfully experienced.
As in color—this new stage of color expressiveness in relation to the former pictures restricted by the white-gray-black palette—so here, in the first instance, there only occurs a more perfect, continuing development of the tendencies towards the realization of which cinematography was striving already in the “two-dimensional” period of its existence.
Incidentally, one of my favorite types of exterior (in particular) shots was composed quite distinctly in the spirit of these tendencies.
It used to be composed (and continues to be) by means of exceedingly sharp emphasis on the foreground, very much enlarged, while keeping the background almost completely in focus, and toning it down only to the extent required by the air perspective in order to obtain the maximum distinction between depth and foreground.
By creating a feeling of a vast interval in scale between the foreground and the background, the maximum illusion of space was achieved.
The distorting powers of the 28-lens contributed in creating this effect, sharply accentuating the perspective, diminishing in depth—the only lens which is technically capable of giving clarity to the enlarged detail in the foreground and depth to the entire background in the same composition by retaining one and the other in distinct focus.
The attraction of such a composition is equally great both in the case of a thematic juxtaposition of both these planes, and in the case of blending them according to the unity of the material.
In the first instance, such a construction, juxtaposing volume—space, creates the maximum conflict imaginable within a single composition.
In the second case, it creates the most plastic and distinctly expressed feeling of unity between the general and the particular.
But such a composition is most expressive dramatically in those cases where it combines both these possibilities, and the thematic unity, say, both planes is achieved concurrently with their sharply accentuated plastic (scale and color) incommensurability.
That is how, for instance, one of the final scenes in Ivan the Terrible, Part I, was treated. The most memorable montage piece in this scene shows the boundless snow-covered space in the background of the composition, the general view of the Moscow peasants’ procession moving across it, and, in the foreground, the greatly enlarged profile of the Czar’s head bowing to them.
This shot, establishing the thematic unity between the people, imploring the Czar to return, and the Czar himself giving his consent, was composed with the maximum plastic “disunity” imaginable between these two “objects.”
... It is interesting to note that all these examples from “flat” cinematography are, so far, superior by virtue of the power of their pictorial composition to that which is being achieved by purely technical means in stereoscopic cinema.
And the simple reason for this is that the technical possibilities of stereoscopic filming are at present restricted by the necessity to use only one lens, and the least expressive one at that—the 50.
But at the same time, from the anticipated potentialties of stereoscopic cinema, we can foresee developments that will enable us to achieve a hitherto undreamed-of quality, using the selfsame means.
One way or the other, though not yet creating a complete impression, these, precisely, are the two equal possibilities for depicting space as a physically palpable reality that the stereoscopic cinema has given us. The capability to “draw” the spectators with unprecedented intensity towards that which was once the plane of the screen, and, with no less reality, to “hurl” at the spectators that which formerly remained flattened out on its mirrored surface.
Well, what of it? you may ask. And why should these two “astounding possibilities” of the stereoscopic screen have something so hugely attractive for the spectator?
... Of course, not in any other art—throughout the whole of its history—can there be an instance so dynamic and so perfect of volume being transfused into space, and space into volume, both penetrating into each other, existing simultaneously, and this within the process of real movement.
In this sense stereoscopic cinema is superior also to architecture where, at times, the mighty symphony of the interplay between massives and the delineations of space is hampered in its dynamics and alternations by the tempo and sequence in which the architectural ensemble may chance to be traversed by the spectator, who has no other means of “penetrating” this architectural ensemble—dynamically.
. . . Belonging to the category histrionic arts, stereoscopic cinema should, of course, be regarded not only as the grand-nephew of Edison’s and Lumière’s inventions, but also as something like the great-grandson of theatre, appearing, in its present form, as the youngest and newest stage in the theatre’s development.
And the riddle concerning the validity of the principle of stereoscopic cinema (if one exists) must, of course, be sought here, in theatrical history, in one of its fundamental tendencies which threaded its way through practically every stage of this history.
But of all the diverse questions concerning theatre, the one which interests me most at the moment is this same problem of analyzing the relationships and connections between the spectator and the spectacle.
. . . And the remarkable thing is that, almost at once, from the moment there’s a “parting of the ways” between the spectator and a participant, a “longing” sets in for the two severed halves to be rejoined.
Not only in the intelligent writings which flourished in the epoch coinciding with the most extreme and acute individualism, not only in the countless practical experiments which were particularly characteristic of the newest times—not only in these endeavors to realize the tendency towards the renaissance of the original collective “entity” of a spectacle, but also during the entire course of theatrical history, which, in the innumerable examples of past theatrical techniques, through the centuries, at practically every step, unfailingly and consistently reveals the self-same tendency—distinct in its forms, yet single in purpose—to “cover” the breach, to “throw a bridge” across the gulf separating the spectators and the actor.
These attempts fall into various categories, from the most “crudely material” external devices, such as the layout of the auditorium and of the area of action and the stage manners of the actors, to the most subtle forms of a “metaphorical” incarnation of this dream of unity between spectator and actor.
Furthermore, the tendency to “penetrate” into the midst of the spectators, no less than the tendency to draw them towards the actors, invariably and of equal right, either compete, take turns, or try to move hand in hand, as if to presage those two peculiar possibilities which represent the essential signs of the technical nature of that which we have noted as the fundamental plastic characteristic (the fundamental optical phenomenon) of stereoscopic cinema!
. . . The bourgeois West is either indifferent or even hostilely ironical towards the problems of stereoscopic cinema—problems to which the researching and inventive thought of the country of Soviets, its Government, and the directorate of its cinematography devote so much attention.
Does not the musty conservatism, with which news of work on the stereoscopic front is met in the West, sound absurd and, in its way, insulting to the eternally developing tendencies of a genuinely vital art?
Do not these lines about stereoscopic cinema, for instance, written by Louis Chavance in 1946 ( ! ), sound like sacrilege and obscurantism:
“. .. In what is the dramatism of a situation enriched by means of this new technical discovery?
“Does a three-dimensionally represented comedian find some additional means of expressiveness in this stereoscopy?
“A physical roundness?
“Will this be the triumph of fat people?
“What can anger, jealousy, hatred gain from the fact that they will occur in three dimensions?
“And laughter. ... I cannot believe that one could induce more laughter than is induced by a custard pie hitting Mack Sennett’s flat personages. And intrigue? Comedy? ...
“Is there any need of further proof that stereoscopic cinema is a fruitless, sterile instrument?
“Of course, other hypotheses could be put forward, and I could speak of the purely visual aspect. But we should not become analogous with the plastic arts, and quote the sculptors after having talked of painters. Of course, Michelangelo’s life could be filmed in relief and Titian’s in color. . . . Charming result! But what pleasure for the eye? Sculpture evokes the idea of tactility, but, in any event, we do not touch the screen.. . .”
In what is Chavance mistaken?
His mistake, of course, lies in the fact that while making a pose of his contempt for the analogies, he is entirely their captive, completely encircled by the limits and conceptions of former arts, the norms of theatrical drama, the actors’ functions and “sculpture evoking the idea of tactility.”
But is it possible that Chavance does not think with us that there is bound to be an explosion and a complete revision of the relationships between the traditional arts in their encounter with the new ideologies of new times, the new possibilities of new people, the new means of controlling nature possessed by these people?
Is not the eye capable of seeing in the dark with the aid of the infra-red spectacles of “night-sight”?
The hand capable of directing shells and aeroplanes in the distant spheres of other skies by means of radio?
The brain, by means of electronic calculating machines, capable of completing within a few seconds calculations on which, formerly, armies of accountants worked for months on end?
Is not consciousness, in the tireless, postwar struggle, hammering out a more distinct and concrete form of a genuinely democratic international ideal?
Will all this not call for absolutely new arts, unheard-of forms and dimensions ranging far beyond the scope of the traditional theatre, traditional sculpture and traditional . . . cinema, which, in the course of such development, must needs become mere palliatives?
And will not the new dynamic stereoscopic sculpture cast out beyond the confines of dimensions and peculiarities the former, static sculpture, according to which Chavance would set his standards?
There is no need to fear the advance of this new era.
Still less—to laugh in its face, as our ancestors laughed, throwing lumps of mud at the first umbrellas.
A place must be prepared in consciousness for the arrival of new themes which, multiplied by the possibilities of new techniques, will demand new esthetics for the expression of these new themes in the marvelous creations of the future.
To open the way for them is a great and sacred task, and all those who dare to designate themselves as artists are called upon to contribute to its accomplishment.
This essay, translated by Catherine de la Roche, is the last written by Eisenstein and was originally published in Penguin Film Review, no. 8, January 1949, pp. 35-44.
* Eisenstein is referring to Semyon Ivanov’s Robinson Crusoe, the first feature-length stereoscopic movie made in the Soviet Union.