It was 1952 in Haddon Township, N.J., and 5-year-old Steven Spielberg was bummed about The Greatest Show on Earth, the first movie he saw in a theater. "I wanted to see three-dimensional characters, and all this was flat shadows, flat surfaces," he once told biographer Joseph McBride. Little Spielberg had expected a real circus, with live elephants and clowns. "I was disappointed in everything after that." A year later in Manhattan, 10-year-old Martin Scorsese got Spielberg's wish: He witnessed André de Toth's House of Wax in stereoscopic 3-D. "The sense of depth took me into another universe," he recently told the (British) Guardian.
Nearly 60 years later, both directors have finally released their first 3-D films (The Adventures of Tintin and Hugo, respectively), as have two German contemporaries: Wim Wenders (Pina) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Going in and out of fashion for decades, but always the domain of money-grubbing blockbusters and projectile-hurling genre pictures, 3-D came of age in 2011 thanks to these four artistically accomplished films. But more importantly, the format seems to have re-energized these auteurs to make what the besieged movie business might need most: impassioned and ambitiously personal movies.
Born within four years of one another — bracketing the beginning and ending of the Second World War — these four filmmakers discovered cinema in the 1950s, when postwar pop culture was exploding and diversifying, and television was threatening Hollywood's dominance (much as it's now threatened by the digital hydra). Spielberg, Scorsese, and Wenders all grew up with TV and never knew a time when the cinema had the only screen in town. Raised in rural Bavaria free of mass media, Herzog knew no loyalties, either. Theirs was an era of appropriation and possibility (yes to TV, 3-D, rock 'n' roll, and Disney), and each, in his own way, came to feel entitled to his ambitions, whether it was taking a bicycle ride across the moon in E.T. or tugging a steamship up the side of a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. All four came of age during the new waves of the 1960s, and in the '70s helped chart a course of cinema for a generation. Now established, bankable veterans in their late 60s, they're in a position to do it again, seizing the latest industry trend not as a gimmick but an opportunity.
In Hugo, Scorsese uses 21st-century technology to honor 19th-century innovation, evoking the magic of early cinema via 3-D sleight of hand. He depicts 1920s Paris as a city of bygone fantasy, where details are period-specific but the camera can seemingly do anything it wants, such as careen through a crowded train station at jet-speed, or place Ben Kingsley in a Georges Méliès film. (Contrast Scorsese's provocative and productive anachronisms with Michel Hazanavicius' dead-ended exercise in fidelity, The Artist.) Consistent with Scorsese's career (as both filmmaker and film preservationist), Hugo celebrates cinema's past, argues for its enduring relevance, and eagerly partakes of its evolving powers.
Although different in form and tone, Spielberg's Tintin also animates a fantastical past (vaguely 1930s) with contemporary tools. Like Scorsese's picture-book adaptation, Spielberg brings a two-dimensional source to three-dimensional life, yet Tintin retains its comic-strip look and feel. Clearly turned on by the elastic potential of motion-capture CGI, Spielberg outdoes his own live-action virtuosity (epitomized in several Raiders of the Lost Ark set pieces) without abandoning classic film framing or pacing. An epic long-take chase sequence through a winding Moroccan village is breathtaking because it mimics — rather than disregards — the daredevilry of physical action, craftily preserving a sense of danger even though, thanks to CGI, anything's technically possible. For all his intervening achievements — and despite Tintin's wearying relentlessness — it has been decades since a Spielberg film was this adventurous, this infectiously adolescent.
Of all four films, Wenders' Pina is most revelatory in its use of 3-D. Challenged to do justice to the late Pina Bausch's dance-theater choreography — to make a record of her intrinsically transient work and have it make sense as cinema — Wenders has created a documentary meditation on perception and sensation, reconsidering both physical and virtual/cinematic spaces by constantly reconfiguring our perspective on them. As the movement unfolds around us, sometimes we're on the floor, immersed and orbited; other times we're removed, peering at dancers in a cinematic doll's house.
As gifted as anyone of his generation at marrying form and feeling (Wings of Desire confidently combined a poetic elegy, a philosophical treatise, and a sappy love story), Wenders endured years of rough footing until this major revival. The same can be said of Herzog, whose condescending, self-serving, self-parodic (and yes, occasionally entertaining) stentorian narration had corrupted much of his recent nonfiction work (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World). Outside of an audacious Herzogian coda, he's comparatively restrained in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, seemingly and appropriately awed by the 30,000-year-old cave paintings he ventures to capture. Unlike his American counterparts, Herzog maintains the integrity of his 2-D source — there's no making these pictures "come to life" via CGI — instead using the extra dimension to insert the audience into the cramped space of the cave, letting us marvel at these rediscovered masterpieces through his camera's eye.
Yet all four films, excluding perhaps Pina at times, function just fine in two dimensions, making what came of the technology less crucial than what the technology inspired (which can't be said for, say, Shark Night 3D). Each film feels like a reboot, an unlikely renewal. Each is motivated by possibility, by wonder, by forms and effects unknown; each is a kind of adventure film. With the movie business as conservative and risk-averse as ever (or at least since 3-D was last a thing), it's gratifying to see these four directors — decorated vets who could easily rest on their good names or retire — spend Hollywood coin on passion projects. Even as the industry wrestles with anxieties old and new, they show how film can still revive itself and take us somewhere new.