The double feature-maybe you've heard of them but have you ever been to one? I can think back to my boyhood when there were still double bills but they weren't the same as were the standard fare of Hollywood's classic era. Then the major studios had A-units who produced the quality products with stars, beautiful sets and stories we remember so well, but they also had the B-units, where everything was cheaper, the actors weren't stars (although these films helped the studio discover their talent and develop them into stars) and the stories were more formulaic. The B-picture helped round out the bill of a normal theater that, along with the studios' short features like travelogues, cartoons, and trailers, could make a typical trip to the movies last for four or five hours and offer a greater value for your 25 cent admission. After the classic era ended in the late 40s and studios sold off their theater chains, the studios got rid of their B-units as they sought to survive by making more expensive films that attracted a dwindling audience.

By the 1960's, the double-feature, like the animated short, was almost extinct, but a few appeared whenever the rare blockbuster appeared, such as Clint Eastwood's star-making spaghetti westerns, like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I saw the latter film, paired with Clint's American western, Hang ‘Em High one night as a teen. My other memorable double feature was my introduction to James Bond, when Dr. No and Goldfinger were re-released to Bond-crazy fans to see again.

Although the term has endured, the experience of a double feature is likely one not known for generations by most who, in the age of home video, can watch triple features of the Star Wars films, or Star Trek, or the Terminator installments anytime they like. So when Pixar set aside two weeks, starting last Friday, to screen their modern classics Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in Disney Digital 3-D, it's a real cultural event. I went today with my fifteen year old son who recalled seeing the sequel film in theaters as one of his first movies at around 6 years old. We watched the clear, clean digitally projected image as films we'd seen several times came alive in a fresh way with the marvelous digital 3-D images that, though not originally designed for the process, of course, still looked very good in conversion to it.

The process does, as has been noted, darken the image somewhat in exchange for the three-dimensional illusion. A few times I lifted the special glasses I'd gotten with my ticket to notice how bright (and blurred with the stereoscopic effect) the screen was. A theater manager told me afterward that it was a digitally projected image, not a film reel that was being shown and it was fed from a hard-drive system which made each screening as pristine as the first. This, or something like it, is the future of theatrical film as exhibitors add digital projectors in the next few years.

Part of the growth of 3-D in theaters is the search for something that will attract audiences to theaters that they can't get elsewhere-and though this was tried in the fifties, it meant wearing the famous green and red lensed cardboard glasses which strained eye muscles as it fooled them into the three-dimensional illusion, but it became associated with gimmicky onscreen actions aimed at the camera. It wasn't worth the trouble and studios stopped soon stopped.

Historically, this is part of the ongoing imperative to make the film experience ever more realistic-starting with fuzzy black and white and improving the image with better technology, then sound, color and so on, what French critic Andre Bazin called "the myth of total cinema," the idealistic notion of a perfected moving image. 3-D of course adds the third dimension of depth but everyone knows that a good film doesn't really require it if you care about the characters and story. It's just a little something extra to add value to the theatrical experience. But with the coming of new digital projectors which will eliminate reels of film, 3-D is an added bonus and it's a better process than the old days-for certain mainstream audience-leasers, like Disney's upcoming CGI version of A Christmas Carol with (shudder) Jim Carrey, it should prove a nice addition, but most other films won't need or benefit by it.

I don't know how long it will be before the new 3-D either loses its novelty, or on the other hand, some smart director figures out how to actually incorporate it into an artistic element of the story that truly deepens the aesthetic experience beyond the declining thrill of objects flying at the audience. But I'll take anything by Pixar in two or three dimensions because story and character are core and anything else is icing.

Posted by: Alex Wainer