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Intelligent Machines

3-D Opera Glasses

Over the years, 3-D movies have tended toward the cheesy. What can you expect from an entertainment medium requiring a room full of viewers to watch through cheap cardboard-and-mylar glasses just to get some illusory sense of depth? As a medium for art, might as well try playing classical theater to an audience wearing funny hats.

Then again, Monsters of Grace, a self-styled “digital opera in three dimensions,” does make use of those goofy cardboard polarizing specs, albeit designer ones donated by l.a. Eyeworks, combining them with the latest in computer animation technology to create a distinctly high-art multimedia event. This historic production-now concluding a 28-city tour of North America-reunites designer-director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, whose 1976 collaboration Einstein on the Beach is a cultural landmark.

Though much praised abroad, Robert Wilson’s theatrical meditations on space and time have seldom been seen by American audiences-partly because of the huge expense of mounting them. Producer Jedediah Wheeler suggested a 3-D digital animated film as a more portable means of disseminating Wilson’s vision. Live performances by Glass and his musical and vocal ensemble accompany the 78 minutes of visuals, which constitute the first ever feature-length movie using stereoscopic, 3-D animation.

This story is part of our March/April 1999 Issue
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Why work with something as gimmicky as 3-D? Attending a performance of Monsters of Grace at the beginning of its current tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (an incomplete version made its debut last April in Los Angeles) provides the answer. The procession of surreal imagery in 13 tableaux-which this April will be seen again in Los Angeles and then in Portland, Sacramento, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and finally Toronto-is positively Wilsonian. Still, the high-resolution, 70 mm film provides a reach even grander than the stage-front-to-stage-rear palette of lighting effects and dream-like pantomimes for which Wilson is known.

A computer-generated child pedals a bicycle seemingly out among the glasses-wearers at an impossibly slow pace. A pure white ball of texture hovers above the audience and mutates into a dozing polar bear. A giant synthetic hand juts out beyond the proscenium, appearing to originate just a few rows ahead of the viewer. In this truly remarkable piece based on the 13th century mystical poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, the fingers floating this side of the theatrical arch are digitally transcendent, in every sense.

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