Berlinale Dispatch: Wim Wenders Takes His Place in the 3-D Vanguard

Now that everyone has grown tired of touting the allegedly thrilling promise of 3-D, we may have some chance of figuring out exactly what its future might be. While I still think 3-D is almost less than a gimmick (I'm even skeptical about what Martin Scorsese might do with it), I'm beginning to think that its real promise, whatever that might be, lies not in big-budget filmmaking like the lame-brain Sanctum but in the hands of directors working on a more modest scale who simply have a good idea and a spark of enthusiasm for the medium.

I wouldn't have written that yesterday, before I saw two -- two! -- terrific 3-D features back-to-back here at the Berlinale, one animated and one live-action, both more pleasurable than I ever would have imagined. I kicked the morning off with Michel Ocelot's Tales of the Night, a collection of six odd little fairy-tales connected by a sweet framing device: Two actors and a no-nonsense veteran producer sit at desks in their headquarters in an old theater, spinning out ideas and plans for their next production. We see their planning sketched out in quick, clever jots: A screengrab of an illustration of medieval French ladies is part of the trio's costuming research; they chatter with excitement about where their next story might be set (how about Tibet, or Africa?) and what the color palette might be ("Better bring your sunglasses!" says one, in reference to the sea, sky and fruit colors he has in mind for a tale set in the Caribbean).

Except these characters aren't drawn in any great detail: They're flat, black silhouettes, a cross between Indonesian shadow puppets and Victorian paper cutouts. Ocelot, the animator behind pictures like the 1998 Kirikou and the Sorceress, has been thinking about this project for some 20 years; the seeds for it were sown with a few shorts he made for French television in the early 1990s.

Ocelot's idea of 3-D is more like a diorama: His black figures stand apart from their magnificent polychrome backgrounds (which might be a pop-art swirl of oranges or yellows, or an art-deco-style wallpaper repeat). The effect is more that of a charming paper toy theater than an elaborate $15-per-ticket extravaganza, and it's wholly modern and alive, a simple way of marrying new technology with age-old storytelling techniques.

And Ocelot doesn't fall down on the storytelling. These six tales are fanciful and strange, involving deceitful princesses and werewolves, adventuresome lads who must fulfill impossible quests, cities of gold whose fortunes lie in the citizens' ability to appease a giant monster with virgin sacrifices. Ocelot shows us lots of wonders: Potentates wearing helmets suggesting the nobility of the eagles on the Chrysler Building, princesses in tulle veils and rustling skirts whose details we can't see but can easily imagine, a parade of little turtles with gleaming gold shells. (Their turtle toenails make a gentle clickety-clack sound as they move across the screen in unison.) Tales of the Night is in French, and I found it a little difficult to process the subtitles and absorb all the movie's textural beauty at the same time. Still, if American audiences get to see the film (and I hope they do), it would be wonderful if they had the opportunity to opt for subtitles rather than dubbing. That way they'd have the pleasure of hearing a character refer to a "giant iguana" as "iguane géant!" It sounds so much better in French.

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  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Your friend Laura Miller (kinda) wrote recently that precise prose and careful delineations are also tiring to the eyes and mind -- slows down reading speed, sometimes to a crawl, when you know you've got a whole book ahead: I'm wondering if some people have to prepare for your reviews akin to how you did this double-feature: in this case, a bit of "Oh God! Another load of particulars and careful delineations about some film I haven't any sense of!," to gird for themselves some countering camaraderie within the melee of stimulation they may soon be treated to? I'll wait 'til I've seen what you've seen to make reading your review more an immediate experience of compare and contrast -- "look, sister, I take your point, but this is what you didn't see ..." For now it's the reality-possibilities ... like is it true that what is jarring can also be compelling? You seem sure of it, for how else last time would "the land look menacing and alluring at once." Mind you, "menacing" already has something of the alluring within it -- you're wanted-enough to be wholly devoured; "compelling" here is a smart wink, and a hinted-at better path ahead, after having had a door slammed in your face: it's harder to see how you'd ever after let yourself just be drawn along, when all the time you're surely mostly thinking how you can knife the f*cker back in return.