Shooting a dramatic feature film with jittery, handheld shaky cam – for that imitation-documentary, this isn’t just a movie, it’s reality! feeling – isn’t new, and neither is the complaint that so often gets heard in response to it: “I couldn’t watch that movie – it made me sick!” Personally, I have to say that I’ve never once had the experience of sitting through a film shot in the aggressively off-kilter, wavery-cam style only to have it make me sick to my stomach. When you see as many movies as I do, it may be an occupational hazard to become immune to that sort of quease-inducing kinesthetic-visceral fake-out. (If it makes the afflicted feel less jealous, I can’t go on twirly carnival rides.)
The first time that I really began to hear the nausea complaint was back in 1992, in response to Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. A lot of people, it seemed, sat through that movie and ended up feeling shaken and stirred, emerging from the theater in a cold sweat, like James Stewart after one of his rooftop-dread encounters in Vertigo. At the time, it became almost trendy to say that Husbands and Wives gave your intestines the willies. Given that the movie was released just after the Woody Allen/Soon-Yi scandal broke, I always wondered if that had a little something to do with it. At least part of the explanation, though, may have been that Woody Allen, a classicist, seemed to be trying on jitter-cam as an aesthetic affectation – sort of like his prestige-actor-of-the-moment casting decisions. It didn’t seem to me that he really felt the handheld style from the inside out; it was more like watching Eric Rohmer trying to be Scorsese. The result was that, in Husbands and Wives, you experienced the dislocating oddity of that shaky camera almost more than you should have. Every shot of the movie practically shouted: “Reality alert! Buckle your seatbelts!”
The fake-doc hand-held movie that most famously got to people in that way – I would venture to call it the Citizen Kane of bobbing-image viewer nausea – was The Blair Witch Project, in 1999. In that one, the visuals really were off balance, and all that running-with-the-camera stuff surely didn’t help. At the time, of course, everything about Blair Witch, including its home-movie visual style, was an undeniable novelty, an anomaly in the world of glossy mounted corporate-industrial Hollywood camera movement; when Cloverfield aped that novelty, the very scale of it – giant monster meets tiny cameras! – made it just as novel. And that’s the way it has been ever since. The all-jitter-all-the-time style, which came up through the indie world, has always stood out, at least in popular movies, as an eye-catching if not quite radical alternative to the “normal” way that a movie is shot. Until now.
When I went to see The Fighter, I noticed, as probably most viewers did, that it was made in the full-on, faux-vérité whiplash-handheld mode. It was director David O. Russell, a contempo classicist himself (that’s him in the photo up top, framing Mark Wahlberg), going all raw and real. Except that here was the true novelty of it all: For reasons that I couldn’t entirely fathom, it no longer seemed novel. Just two years ago, in The Wrestler (a movie not unrelated to The Fighter in subject and tone), director Darren Aronofsky had gone all-out hand-held, and though I wasn’t alone in thinking that the movie that resulted was marvelous – seeing the professional wrestling world depicted with that grainy close-up flavor was like having a curtain pulled back on a hidden carnival side of America – Aronofsky’s visual strategy came off as powerfully fluky and personal and idiosyncratic. Many critics noted all the visual tropes that he had borrowed from those masters of arid French social-protest realism the Dardennes brothers (the camera relentlessly following the protagonist, as if it were connected to him via a coiled spring, is a Dardennes specialty). As recently as 2008, doing a hand-held movie like The Wrestler signified a certain unusual, even Euro-fied purity. But now, in Black Swan, when Aronofsky employs the same technique, with the camera weaving and bobbing up the steps of Lincoln Center as it trails Natalie Portman’s overwrought bunhead ballerina, there’s nothing especially novel or precious about it. It’s an idiosyncratic style nudged, via a high-gloss horror movie, into the mainstream.
In The Fighter (on which Aronofsky was one of the producers), the handheld mode, potent and effective as it is, starts to become something even more standard: the cornerstone of a new Hollywood house style. For one thing, the technique has simply been around long enough that people have gotten used to it. A few of them may still feel sick, but now, at least, they’ll expect to feel sick. For another, reality TV has accustomed people to the rhythm and sight and spirit of cameras trailing people in authentic yet highly charged dramatic contexts, be those subjects real housewives or the party-hookup masters of Jersey Shore.
Beyond all that, though, I realized, watching The Fighter, that the urgently raw look and feel of a handheld camera drama, with its roots in the New Hollywood of Easy Rider, the cathartic realism of early Scorsese, and the eye-catching poetry-in-motion of Breaking the Waves, is a style whose time has come because it’s a style that has finally connected to its time. It speaks to the tensions of our fraught and threadbare economic realities, to a newly stripped-down and utilitarian middle-class society that is still figuring out how to cut through the clutter of consumerism and hold onto something real. The gritty, imperfect, unsteady, what-you-see-is-what-you-get images that power a film like The Fighter really do feel essential. And that’s why, I suspect, we’re all going to be seeing a lot more of them.
So what do you think of the newly prominent shaky-cam style? Does it make you sick – or thrill you with its everyday artistry? What’s your all-time favorite handheld camera movie? And how about the one that most drove you nuts?