We went to see The Hunger Games yesterday. I haven’t subscribed to the phenomenon of this newest teen read-turned-franchise (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 the emergence of a strong, brave and loyal heroine who isn’t whiny, unrealistically pretty or overly unfeminine, or dependent on the obsessive love of an emo vampire for her self-worth. With that in mind, bravo to Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen and the actress who plays her, Jennifer Lawrence. Bravo too to writer-director Gary Ross, who doesn’t make movies very often but never fails to craft a thought provoking tale when he does (Dave, Pleasantville). And indeed, 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 truly aware of it when NYPD Blue premiered in the early 90′s – couldn’t figure out why the camera work was so sloppy! From a critical standpoint, taking the camera off its mount and letting it bounce around invokes the realism of documentaries, placing the audience member right in the middle of gritty, cheap life and death and not in the safe, million-dollar air-conditioned artifice of a soundstage. “Shakycam” in the opening sequence of 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 60′s 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. I’m not sure if the shakycam work is becoming more intense these days or I’m just getting old, but the first hour of The Hunger Games had me longing for a barf bag – a reaction 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.) As much as I loved The Grey, I had the same problem with it. I could not watch at least half of The Bourne Ultimatum in the theatre; 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, with surround sound, digital projection and 3-D, 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 – the moviegoing experience has become miserable enough with smartphones going off and other audience members yakking at each other and at the screen, do we have to keep adding nausea to the reasons to stay home?
Shakycam has become so ubiquitous that it pops up in movies where it’s completely inappropriate. One of the worst recent offenders was Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s story of the pursuit of John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Mann made the questionable artistic choice of shooting a 1930′s period piece on digital video with plenty of 2000′s shakycam, which pulled me out of the story. I never believed I was in the 1930′s – the camera work made me feel 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 while the camera is 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 fixed camera immerses 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 to losing oneself. 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 little 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, those same studio hacks jerk the camera around to up their artistic credibility and are summarily praised for their 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.