Sensual Vision: 3-D, Medieval Art, and the Cinematic Imaginary

By Griffiths, Alison | Film Criticism, Spring-Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Sensual Vision: 3-D, Medieval Art, and the Cinematic Imaginary


Griffiths, Alison, Film Criticism


Today's moviegoers have the option of watching an effects-driven Hollywood blockbuster in a variety of 2-D and 3-D domestic and theatrical formats, from conventional Blu-ray and 2-D cinemas to 3-D Blu-ray, theatrical Real 3D, Imax 3-D, and even 48-frame rate Imax 3-D. (1) Paying more money for the 3-D experience, audiences are presumably getting more, even if some spectators might be hard pressed to pinpoint the nature of 3-D's special appeal. My two youngest children recently went to a 3-D movie in Brooklyn, and the usher forgot to give them the Real 3D glasses. With mom and dad already ensconced watching another film in an adjacent theater, the oldest went in search of glasses but returned empty handed. When we discovered the oversight at the end of the film and asked them how they had been able to watch the film without the glasses, they informed us that despite being a bit blurry in parts, it wasn't that bad. What this anecdote reveals about my children's fairly low threshold of image quality is less interesting than what the "3-D-withoutthe-3-D glasses" experience says about contemporary 3-D cinema (Engber 2001). (2) As 3-D releases reach industry standard status, with 3-D sequences scripted to maximize the effect of depth through layering effects and objects flying toward the spectator (Cubitt 2005 43), (3) this is a propitious moment to ask whether certain aspects of the "3-D experience" can be traced to previous art works and modes of spectatorship (Griffiths 2010 163-88).

My argument has less to do with technical features of stereoptical perception (associated with Charles Wheatstone's 1838 discovery of stereopsis, the brain's ability to create an impression of a third dimension as a result of a fusion of images seen slightly differently in the right and left eyes) than in a heightened sensory engagement with images identified with medieval viewing practices. Notwithstanding differences in scale and movement, 3-D cinema and medieval art are by no means unrelated; on the question of how they engage the senses, similarities far outweigh differences. Medieval visual theory helps explain this long fascination with the sensorial plentitude of 3-D in three ways: in both cases, the power ascribed to images, which in relation to 3-D has links to the idea of the screen as a permeable membrane; second, 3-D and medieval image-making as adornment; and third, the tactile quality of 3-D cinema and medieval art, which seems to tease the spectator with the promise of a multi-sensory encounter. The sense of touch, traditionally associated in philosophy and medicine with temperature, is a defining feature of both 3-D cinema and medieval aesthetic objects (Boyle 1988 7). Reaching out and touching images that seem to come alive and enter the viewing space invokes an ancient belief in the importance of the hands in the sensory experience of the world. Advertisements for 3-D Imax depicting spectators with their hands in front of their faces remind us of "speaking reliquaries" from the Middle Ages, life size arms containing bone fragments that were used by clerics to bless congregants (and which congregants strained to reach with their hands). I also draw upon neuroesthetics to juxtapose the study of medieval art production and 3-D film, reminding us that empathetic responses to works of art have a "precise and definable material basis in the brain" (Freedberg and Gallese 2007 197).

Linking cinema to medieval art is not an original idea. As medievalist Bettina Bildhauer observes, several early theorists of film compared silent cinema to medieval art, including Hugo Munsterberg's 1916 The Photoplay (Bildhauer 2009 40-59). The connection, what Bildhauer calls a "regeneration of medieval aesthetics," hinges on the assertion that both film and medieval art represent new ways of seeing the world. Silent film theorist Bela Balazs describes it this way: "The many millions of people who sit every night and watch images, wordless images . …

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