Depth of field

After How to Train Your Dragon reclaimed the top box-office spot last weekend (with 67-percent of ticket sales for 3-D screenings), movie lovers have to wonder if the 3-D craze is really here to stay this time, or if it’s still a fad that will fade, like it did in the ’50s and the ’80s. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland had huge success in incorporating the technology, while Clash of the Titans has been declared an epic fail. Two months ago, another clash of the titans was taking shape. While Avatar was destroying box-office records and racking up Oscar nominations, movie giant Martin Scorsese scored a victory for traditional filmmaking with Shutter Island, a haunting and flawlessly acted psychological thriller. While the rest of the world was going crazy talking about how James Cameron had changed the future of cinema, anyone who (like me) thought Avatar was a lumbering dolt of a movie could take solace that Scorsese is still out there doing what he does better than anyone else in the business: mining the cinema’s past to come up with something far more valuable than “unobtanium.”

Which explains my adverse reaction to hearing that Scorsese will shoot his next feature-length project, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in 3-D. Based on the best-selling children’s book by Brian Selznick, Cabret tells the story of a 12-year-old orphan living in a train station in 1930s Paris. The choice is surprising, considering that Scorsese is known for two things: (1) gritty, violent movies for grown-ups and (2) his obsession with old-school cinema. But it’s a risk that reaffirms his vitality and versatility as a director.

Back in March, amid the frenzy over converting existing films into 3-D, Scorsese expressed keen interest in applying 3-D technology to all kinds of movies, not just action blockbusters. In an interview with Shortlist magazine, he said that he is “very excited by 3-D … but if the camera move is going to be a 3-D effect, it has to be for dramatic purposes — not just throwing spears at the audience.” (Hear that, Cameron?) This philosophy sounds perfectly suited to an adaptation of Cabret, which combines the text with double-spread illustrations that advance the story.

And as we’ve already seen in Scorsese’s career, sometimes venturing into a new dimension can help a director reconnect with audiences. Scorsese finally won his long-deserved Oscar in 2006 for The Departed, which was the first film he’d made in 21 years that was set in the present day. He built his reputation making movies about his native New York City, but taking on the equally mean streets of Boston reinvigorated his love for noir-ish crime dramas, and it transferred to the screen with bristling energy.

Cameron, on the other hand, made Avatar by holing up for more than a decade in his epic-action milieu – a realm where he became so myopic that he lost sight of how to tell a compelling, character-driven story. (Not unlike a certain other sci-fi magnate who’s forever stuck in galaxy far, far away.) Whereas Avatar’s filmmaking focuses on the technology of the future, Scorsese’s approach with Shutter Island was to draw on the techniques and motifs of the past. The irony of Avatar is that, in his efforts to take us to a place we’ve never been, Cameron re-treaded more movie clichés than a YouTube montage. Scorsese, by contrast, took an adapted story in a well-known genre and created something that seemed wholly fresh and original. What manner of movie magic was this? Simply an intelligent craftsman’s attention to character development, acting, and good old-fashioned cinematography.

We shouldn’t worry that our best cinematic storyteller is jumping on the bandwagon and abandoning his dedication to mature and complex themes. Shutter Island showed that Scorsese knows better than anyone that truly special effects are achieved when they flow from story and character, rather than the other way around. I can’t think of a better director to bring new depth to the field. •

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