Like millions of others, we went to see The Hunger Games this past weekend. I haven't subscribed to the phenomenon (the premise of kids forced to kill each other for food strikes me as a tad dark for the age group it's appealing to) but it's good to see a strong, brave and loyal heroine who isn't unrealistically pretty or overly unfeminine, or dependent on the obsessive love of an emo vampire. With that in mind, bravo to Katniss Everdeen, her creator Suzanne Collins and her performer Jennifer Lawrence. Congratulations are also in order for writer-director Gary Ross, who doesn't make movies very often but usually crafts a thought-provoking tale when he does (Dave, Pleasantville). And healthy kudos to all involved in putting together an entertaining if surprisingly low-key adventure. My only major complaint is, did the camera have to be so damn shaky throughout the whole thing?
Hand-held camera work has been popular among filmmakers for some time. I first became aware of it when NYPD Blue premiered in the early 90s -- couldn't figure out why the camera couldn't stay still! From a critical standpoint, letting the camera bounce around invokes the realism of documentaries, placing the audience member in the middle of gritty, cheap life and death, not in the safe, million dollar air-conditioned artifice of a soundstage. "Shakycam" in Saving Private Ryan helped to convey the rawness and bloodiness of the D-Day invasion the way the bolted-to-the-floor approach of the 60s John Wayne war epics didn't. And low-budget horror movies like The Blair Witch Project use shakycam to build tension so that those of us watching feel as unsettled as the characters wondering if the axe murderer is lurking beyond the doorway.
But there is a major difference between being creeped out by a movie and contracting motion sickness from it. The first hour of The Hunger Games had me longing for a barf bag -- which I'm certain wasn't the intention of Gary Ross or his director of photography. (Luckily once Katniss and Peeta reach The Capitol the camera settles down a bit.) I could not watch at least half of The Bourne Ultimatum in the theater -- I remember sitting there staring at the back of the seat in front of me hoping my stomach would calm down. And Blair Witch made me so ill I had to walk out of the theatre twice -- and I was 13 years younger then. As the sensory experience of movies intensifies via surround sound, digital projection and 3D, the more shakycam messes with our inner ears, and the more difficult it is to sit through a movie without tossing the candies you just scarfed down. My question is -- when the moviegoing experience has become miserable enough with phones going off and audience members yakking at each, do we have to add nausea to the reasons to stay home?
Shakycam even pops up where it's genre-inappropriate. One of the worst recent offenders was Public Enemies, Michael Mann's tale of the pursuit of John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Mann chose to shoot a 1930s period piece on digital video with plenty of 2000s shakycam. As a result, I never believed I was in the 1930s -- I was watching a reality show with a bunch of celebrities playing cops and gangsters. I can't imagine actors are very fond of it either, particularly if they're trying to convey nuanced emotional moments with the camera zipping around their face like a drunken mosquito. One of the most beautiful elements of The King's Speech was that the camera work was almost invisible, letting you focus on the words and actions and reactions of the characters. The anchor of a stable camera helps to immerse you in that world because you forget the camera is there. If the aim of a movie is to give the audience an escape, then directors should not erect barriers. Shakycam does exactly that, even if it doesn't make you physically sick, by reminding you of the camera present in the room with these characters, and that whoever is operating it probably should have eaten more protein with his breakfast.
My friends and I made a no-budget, feature-length action comedy in our last year of high school, using my family's video camera. Fortunately one of my pals was able to procure a tripod, which we considered a godsend, because the last thing we wanted for our epic was the unprofessional look of an unsteady camera. Even in Hollywood, an unsteady camera used to be lambasted as the shoddy workmanship of a bad director. Now, hacks jerk the camera around to up their artistic credibility and are praised for a "realistic" approach. Personally, I'm tired of just hoping I'm going to make it to the end of the movie without my stomach leaping out through my mouth. I think it's time we thanked the shakycam and packed it off to the realm of the intertitle and other cinematic techniques long since abandoned. Either that or start selling Gravol at the snack counter along with the Skittles.
Follow Graham Milne on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheGrahamMilne