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3D in the 21st Century. True Starts and Second Truths: "Katy Perry: Part of Me" (3D)

A trip on Katy Perry's glittering human highway and/or a promotional concert video of the world's largest pop star cum feminist manifesto.
gina telaroli
"Dance, dance,
feel it all around you
Dance, dance, dance,
Never thought love
had a rainbow on it
See the girl dance
See the girl dance."
- Neil Young, "Dance, Dance, Dance"
When I watched Katy Perry’s recent Super Bowl performance I got very excited. There was a lot of shrieking. So much so that my roommate, who had been diligently watching screeners of important art films one floor below, came up to see what was happening.  A friend who was over to watch the game, who I often go to repertory movies with, later told another friend he had never seen me so excited.
The third friend watching it with us, she’s a writer, was also excited. In her excitement she sent all of her twitter friends a picture. In my own excitement I sent yet a fourth friend a text message. 
My text message may have been sent off haphazardly, an instinctual response conditioned to and heightened by the flurry of how we live (online and IRL) today, but the comparison is an apt one, especially where her 2012 concert documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me is concerned. Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz’s film is in many ways straight out of Cecil B. DeMille’s playbook: it is deeply concerned with labor, it’s an origin story of a religious nature, it emphasizes overcoming obstacles, it is inventive with color, it has fun with itself, and it is, of course, as a 3D document of her massively successful California Dreams Tour, a spectacle of epic proportions.
Perry’s specific spectacle came about at a time when the excitement surrounding the recent 3D wave was quickly dissipating. By 2011/2012 it had exceeded the stage wherein studios thought they had a magic formula to success: tack on some 3D in post, a higher ticket price at the box office, and make bucket loads of money.  Whereas once cinema in the third dimension was heralded as a formal frontier and the economic future of Hollywood, many now saw it as a money-grubbing gimmick. The same aesthetic profiteering spirit, not surprisingly, seems to be creeping into the independent and art world market in the form of 16mm. Both scenarios present an easily digestible idea of beauty or appearance, regardless of the format being appropriate to the picture(s) at hand or utilized completely and correctly. Just as the widespread application of 3D came into play mostly as a money motivated afterthought, 16mm, more and more, seems to be thought of only beforehand, with very few filmmakers taking the time to budget for the appropriate post process and eventual projection.  The system is of course rigged against celluloid transfers and projection but the mere shooting of film seems to garner a certain kind of praise, acceptance, film festival tour, and post-film Q&A, without much thought or reflection as to what that shooting process and the eventual end object mean. 
Never one to give 50 percent, Perry has been an active supporter and user of 3D, giving viewers who paid the requisite higher ticket price more bang than just added images for their buck. She custom designed her own 3D glasses, in a variety of shape and color patterns, that were distributed at screenings and that fans were able to, and meant to, keep. And since Part of Me’s release, Perry not only named her next album "Prism" and her tour “Prismatic” (a type of 3D most recently used by the avant-garde filmmaker Jodie Mack) but her show also makes use of 3D printed head pieces worn by her back-up dancers to give the actual show a 3D element.
Perry’s relationship to the medium makes a lot sense as a kind of cinematic extension of her well-founded and ever-evolving aesthetic and in turn Part of Me wears its 3D the same way Henry Fonda wore the jeans he was outfitted in for The Ox-Bow Incident (he lived in them for the duration of the shoot until they were undeniably his). She’s a massive pop star in the poppiest sense and 3D literally makes her and her costumes, colors, and choreography pop. Her show, in an equal opportunity effort to play for both those fans that are very close to the stage and the ones that are more akin to Marius Goring in the opening of The Red Shoes, exhibits a command of light, depth, and speed, the very ingredients of 3D, not often seen.  What the movie, as a movie, does so well is take the already 3D-approved stage compositions, use the frame to integrate them directly into the performance and storytelling, and then play with fast and slow editing to work through the narrative.
When photographed, Perry is often set on the edge of the frame, and when projected in 3D, the effect bears a striking resemblance to silent cinema, with a unique convergence of technology and time-period centered on visuals. The 3D moves people and objects through the frame, highlighting them, and then hiding them as the fits the scene. Perry is not an accomplished dancer (she has bad knees) but she still bravely commands the space with her presence, with how she moves, what she wears, and where into the light she steps. She uses her body, and how she presents it, to evoke emotion—to add a visceral definition to the words she is singing.  The generic nature of her songs, the lyrics and the pleasurable melodies, allows her visuals to roar, for the words to almost melt into a barrage of lavish images.  
When the movie cuts away from larger, set-focused expositional shots and focuses on Perry herself, her face, while on or back stage, it’s hard not to recall silent era divas, with her pale skin, emphasized eyes, and carefully coiffed hair.  When she is shot in her most personal moments, without any make-up, her natural hair dirty and up, the juxtaposition recalls the bare-faced simplicity and vulnerability of a Lillian Gish. Taken out of the context of the arena, on stage or off, and put into a frame, what emerges is a modern cinema of gestures that most closely echoes a time when actors weren’t able to speak.
On the surface it might be easy to miss or dismiss the movie’s epic nature due to its glossy promotional packaging and bookended fan testimonials. Perry is an artist but she is also most certainly a brand. The ultimate tragedy of the movie, funny in its punnyness but devastating in its outcome and implications, is that by the end of Part of Me, Perry is literally no longer a Brand, the final and most integral thread of the documentary being the dissolution of her marriage to the messiah-complex comedian.  What starts out as a portrait of a women who got it all slowly transitions and eventually collapses onto itself, her personal life plummeting as her artistic career continues to skyrocket. It takes the DeMille-esque spectacle and twists it into a classical tragedy of Sirkian simplicity and complexity, of raw emotions and social critique. The fantastic begets normality to showcase her isolation—the life of a pop star being everything or nothing, everyone or no one. It’s fitting for our times, this time, a time when people easily share their pictures with everyone who uses the Internet or no one at all, the in-between presenting an awkward alternative that no one wants to contend with. Perry owns her pop star status and commits fully, her work being of the moment, of a moment or emotion, with little regard for how it might last or look when tomorrow comes. She consoles herself in an interview as she tries to put her difficult situation intro perspective while at the same time (all the time actually—Perry has more followers on Twitter than any other user) fans tweet their support for her over a virtual city. Even if it means people might laugh in the future (now, as it were) it’s that fierce commitment (“on lock”) that allows her and the film, like Douglas Sirk’s work in the 1950s, to uniquely capture a present moment, in all its glory and horror. 
It’s that glory and horror that gives birth to a movie that makes one want to dance while it simultaneously and subversively fashions a damning statement on the present day status of gender relations, of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century who wants both a career and to be in a relationship where she is an equal partner—equality being just as (if not more so) important in the bedroom as it is amongst the classes.  Perry’s specific spectacle may not include a giant sign of lights outwardly proclaiming her a feminist but with Part of Me she has created her own feminist object, the completed movie itself (alongside her divorce) serving as evidence of what Perry believes in (her career, her art, herself) and how she has chosen to live her life, or, that she has chosen to live her life. Katy Perry’s vision, no matter how profitable, is uniquely hers, and her songs, of which she has a writing credit on each, are her expression of her experience, of herself in all her goofy, girly, colorful, sexual, and self-help glory. In an Internet age where self-presentation amounts to self-preservation, it's an act of pure courage. 
She doesn't write a regular column for The Guardian or have Michael Winterbottom’s name gracing her documentary but Perry, in not hiding her sadness or her confusion, is doing something quite revolutionary.  In discussing them openly and honestly, all the while being on a massively successful world tour where screaming fans chant their love night after night (again, everyone or no one) she allows herself, in this hot and cold, positive-centric, and image conscious world, to be shown at her most vulnerable while at the same time actively owning and exercising her power and her voice. She exists in the contradiction, in that awkward alternative space. 
Where the second half of the movie focuses on Perry’s marriage and it’s eventual decline, the first half of the narrative is primarily concerned with Perry’s career and her eventual ascension. The crux of that ascension, and on Perry’s eventual process, is deeply tied together with her community—her managers, assistants, hair people, make-up people, sister, brother, and all of her fans—the group of people she depends on and in turn depend on her. It’s a portrait of mutual aid not often seen, with each and every person committing their life to Perry, and she in turn, when necessary, putting aside her own needs to make sure she upholds her end of the bargain and performs and in turn provides.  It’s a house of pleasures but one where a woman is actually and fully in charge--just not apparently so. The hierarchy both begins and ends with Perry, she sits at the bottom and the top and after years of struggle, she commands her destiny. 
Destiny, or a Gchat as it were, led me to the IFC Center a few weeks ago for a screening of Neil Young’s Human Highway, where it was playing in a Bernard Shakey retrospective. Young’s pseudonym ringing true as an effervescent Booji Boy, followed by Young and Russ Tamblyn’s opening tribute to Hollywood or Bust’s Lewis and Martin, almost immediately shook non-stop laughter and a continual exchange of smiles and excited nudges out of my friends.  After the movie the excitement continued to appropriately radiate out of us in the form of conversation about how inspiring it was to watch a group of people having fun, creating a movie out of their unique rhythms, weird jokes, and colorful aesthetic. And more so, to have that movie’s main focus be on the joy of creation and camaraderie among a group of people, while of course including the prerequisite gags about gas and eating gross food.
It was a needed reminder that sometimes art can also be fun and a document of said fun, something you share with friends that makes you feel good about life. 
Images from:
Katy Perry: Part of Me (Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, 2012)
Human Highway (Bernard Shakey and Dean Stockwell, 1982)
Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1949)
Joan the Woman (Cecil B. DeMille, 1916)
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927)
Sangue blu (Nino Oxilla, 1914)
Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
L'apollonide (Bertrand Bonello, 2011)

Part of the Notebook's critical supplement to BAMcinématek's "3D in the 21st Century" series, running May 1 - 17, 2015. Katy Perry: Part of Me plays on May 14.


3D in the 21st CenturyBAMNew YoriNew YorkKaty PerryDan CutforthJane LipsitzCecil B. DeMille
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