9/11 motion sickness

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Reason's sphinxlike silence on the Path to 9/11 controversy is mainly a function of my own skepticism about the controversy itself. ABC is free to blame 9/11 on anybody the network chooses (including me if they're inclined). Clinton veterans are free to complain and try and get them to change show. Harvey Keitel's only interesting when he's doing primal-scream full-frontal nudity. And anything that embarrasses pocket-pool champion Sandy Berger, the Gale Gordon of the Clinton Administration, is probably good for America. I don't see any problems in anything that's gone down about the show, and as a Penny Johnson-Jerald fan, I'm more interested in seeing tonight's installment than the Clinton-era stuff anyway.

However, having checked out a few minutes of last night's episode, I do have one plangent cry from the mouth of madness: Please, God, please, let the era of the shakycam come to an end! What sinister plot, what hatred of the west, what terrorist conspiracy is it that subjects the world's greatest democracy to the stomach-churning effects of artsyfartsy handheld camerawork day after day, movie after movie?

Who is to blame for the shakycam? Is it Steven Soderbergh, master of jump-cutting self-importance? Was it Saving Private Ryan's widely imitated shell shock? Was it NYPD Blue's fast-zooming overdirection? And the biggest question of all: Why has this supposedly documentary-style technique hit the big time at the precise historical moment when lightweight cameras and steadicams eliminated the shakiness from documentaries themselves? If you made an actual documentary that looked like The Path to 9/11, people would think your cameraman was having a heart attack. Exactly what is the sense of realism that the shakycam is trying to imitate? At this point, I'm content to leave these questions unanswered, to let the shakycam trend be remembered, like 9/11 itself, as a tragedy we'll never fully understand. Just let it end. Please, Disney, ABC, whoever: Buy yourselves a tripod already.

NEXT: Milkshakes Brings All the Hedgehogs to the Yard?

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  1. “God, please, let the era of the shakycam come to an end! What sinister plot, what hatred of the west, what terrorist conspiracy is it that subjects the world’s greatest democracy to the stomach-churning effects of artsyfartsy handheld camerawork day after day, movie after movie?”

    Amen !!!

    Also the close-up to a third of a face !

  2. I caught about ten minutes of the Puke to 9/11 on ABC before watching Antonioni’s The Passenger on DVD — a great example of documentary realism without the damned shakycam.

  3. Well, I think the primary reason for the shaky-cam is you don’t need to pay money for stunt or fight choreography. A lame series of punches and throws, along with claustrophobic shaky-cam and jump editting has replaced real fight choreography.

    “The Bourne Supremacy” was the most egregious example of this. I almost puked in the theater during one of the fight sequences. It’s a shame too, because Matt Damon pulled off the fight sequences pretty well in “The Bourne Identity”.

  4. Shakycam was pioneered by the Levi’s 501 ads back in the day… late eighties, early nineties etc. It gave the spots a ‘documentary feel’ and made them seem more genuine instead of overly polished and produced. Now every producer who wants a documentary ‘feel’ dives for the shakycam entry in the playbook. Like so many things, it seemed cool at first… before anyone had seen it done ‘on purpose’, but now it’s freakin’ tired.

  5. I blame The Blair Witch Project. Crap movie, crap cinematography.

  6. Why does every battle scene in the universe have to have a shaky cam? Just whose view point are we seeing this from anyway? Wow, the cam is shaky, I feel like I’m right in the battle, looking through the eyes of some idiot who can’t fight, yet he still can’t focus on an object for more than a few seconds…
    Maddox 2004

    If I knew how to link I would.

    So, yeah, the above is about Bravehart, which I think brought on the bevy of shaky-cam battle scenes (Patriot, Saving Private Ryan, on and on). I think the other movie that we owe a swift-kick to for the shaky-cam is Blair Witch Project. God, what a terrible movie.

  7. Firefly and the new Battlestar Galactica both not only employ the shakycam, but they simulate it in their special-effects shots — to give an air of versimilitude to their unearthly scenarios.

  8. What Jacob Said! Which is what Tim said!

    I thought there was just something wrong with me and everyone else thought shaky cam was cool. Jesus Chrysler, makes my eyes ache and my stomach lurch.

  9. Commercial director Joe Pytka probably popularized shakycam more than anyone.

  10. Ditto…. I’m already having a hard time believing the shakycam once meant “realism”. All I see is “artsy”.

  11. I’m just glad that football season is here. Spares me from all the crap on tv.

  12. Pre-historic shakycam:

    The Enterprise is tossed to and fro by powerful aliens scenes on ST:TOS.

    The Villain’s Lair Tiltcam on the live action Batman TV show.

    Don’t forget how MTV picked off-balance quick cuts up and beat them into the ground. Remember how David Letterman would turn on the MTV Cam, or unleash the Monkeycam?

    Kevin

  13. Ya’ know…the cinema verite thing is good when done well. I have a small video production adjunt to my graphic design business and I have to echo Tim’s irritation.

    The thing that makes Path to 9/11 almost unwatchable – as opposed to BSG, Firefly (both great show by the way) is the crappy overuse of close shots, fast cuts and pointless composition.

    The filming of 9/11 looks and feels cramped and oppressive. And the lighting is terrible. Overall, it’s uncomfortable to watch…which is not what you want in a production.

    Watch BSG & Firefly and you’ll see those same things about 1/10 as much and combined with standard tried & true composition (only with handheld look & feel).

    9/11 is also filmed in standard television format as opposed to widescreen which also makes a tremendous difference.

  14. Don’t forget about Michael Bay’s help in popularizing shakycam, aka confusovision. Its purpose in action films (which is most of where I see it) is to sell the idea of action and excitement while not having to actually make things exciting; that is, it covers up for a lack of: spacial continuity; dynamic manipulation of space; dynamic use of characters and objects in space; tension resulting from believable movement and actions of antagonsitic elements in this established framework; reasonable acting; and much more.

    I wonder who the suckers are that are satisfied with the mere idea of excitement? The poor, sad souls.

    Also, I don’t remember hearing the word “shakycam” before griping about the phenomenon and calling it that in the late 90’s. Multiple independent invention?

  15. The Villain’s Lair Tiltcam on the live action Batman TV show.

    Trivia: Also known to cinema types as “Chinese angles” (unless that term is now considered offensive).

  16. No one has mentioned Earthquake (1974). I haven’t watched it in a long time, but there the point was to make the camera shake so that the sets didn’t have to. I’m not sure whose idea this was, but director of photography on that picture was Philip Lathrop, ASC (who should have insisted they credit him as Lathropschayansky…).

  17. kevrob’s paleo-observations notwithstanding, I trace the birth of “shakycam” to Hill Street Blues back in the early ’80s. As a novelty, it was used sparingly back then, but extensively supplemented with dynamic but relatively stable dolly and steadycam sequences moving around the chaos of the stationhouse and the streets.

    I think there’s a Liberal Arts Master’s thesis to be had here…

  18. Shakycam: Woody Allen, “Husbands and Wives“, 1992.

  19. Those of you not afraid to dive into a somewhat dense and academic book on the subject are advised to check out David Bordwell’s Figures Traced in Light, which sings a lament for the good old days of when directors would either 1) move the camera only when there was good reason to, or 2) move the actors within the static frame. Bordwell also touches on the subject of “shaky-cam aesthetics” (and possible alternatives to it in current world cinema) in his equally-brilliant books Planet Hong Kong and The Way Hollywood Tells It. Anyway.

  20. let the shakycam trend be remembered, like 9/11 itself, as a tragedy we’ll never fully understand.

    How dare you compare shakycam to 9/11! I lost seven uncles, sixteen cousins, and five grandparents at the WTC!

  21. I miss the monkeycam.

  22. “the passenger” is a great film.

  23. Blair Witch Project actually made me motion sick.

  24. Kubrick set the shaky hand-held 1st person POV docu-drama standard in the Strangelove scenes of the assault on Burpleson AFB.

    What does one expect from netwonk tee vee but schlock… it’s like going to tacobell then being letdown with acid reflux.

  25. Shakycam is the reason I’ve never watched more than three minutes of “The Shield.”

    Sam Raimi was the first person I heard use the term “shakycam.” He developed it for “Evil Dead”–a film camera mounted on a 2×4 and carried by a crewmember at each end–and the Coen Brothers borrowed the idea for “Blood Simple” (the scene where the camera runs right up to the actors fighting on the front lawn). Ironically, it wasn’t all that shaky.

  26. Yes, yes. But “9/11” was also a convoluted mess. Democrats had nothing to fear from its value as (perceived) propaganda. I suspect the folks who actually vote were vomiting in the bathroom well before Clinton was ever mentioned.

  27. Lotsa foreign war films like to use the shakycam too, most likely to cover up for weak explosions and special effects that they can’t afford to go whole hog on (check out Tae Guk Gi-The Brotherhood of War, or Downfall for overemployment of the shakycam to augment artillery explosions that look a step away from cheapo fireworks). Adding my $.02 on motion sickness…I almost hurled several times in the theater watching Narc, between the shakycam and that godawful blue-grey tint.

  28. As far as TV series go, handheld cameras were probably pioneered or at least legitimized by Homicide. At least that was a good show.

  29. Hill St. Blues started it all.

  30. “Just because it’s utterly invented doesn’t mean it’s not true.” Steven Colbert

  31. Tim Cavanaugh is dead wrong. And you’re all lemmings. There’s a reason you see so much shakycam: it’s awesome.

  32. When I saw it in “The Blair Witch Project” I thought it was just crap camera work. When I saw it in “The Bourne Supremacy” I was just pissed off – the shaky cam is nauseau-inducing and the quick cut technique made it impossible to follow not just the action sequences but the freaking PLOT.

    When used sparingly and effectively, they can be effective. But they are definitely the condiments, not the sandwich!

  33. I’m sort of surprised that the whole thread on “The Path to 9/11” has covered only the camera work. What about the terrible writing?

    And Tim, I’ll take shakycam over naked Harvey Keitel every time.

  34. I didn’t bother to tape or Tivo the 9/11 shows, so missed the brouhaha. But if the shakycam was used, I’m rather glad to have missed the spectacle. Its overuse in modern cinema is something of a scandal.

    MH is right to mention Woody Allen’s pre-Dogma shakycam in “Husbands and Wives.” If he had used it more discretely, I would’ve appreciated the film more. Nowadays, Allen’s experimental use has become almost a dogma unto its own: if “outer turmoil is being depicted, cinematic turmoil must be employed.”

    My response: nonsense. Use it sparingly, and I’ll be apprecitive. Not at all, and I’ll probably be overjoyed.

    What cinema buffs should wonder about is whether shakycam has been used, in the same work of art, for dialogue scenes, leaving fight scenes to be covered by one stationary camera position.

    This would be considered cinematic irony, perhaps.

    And perhaps be “the next dogma.”

    Currently, we’re in the “pre” period. The first film about 9/11, “United Whatever,” was all shakycam. I was annoyed by it, but still liked the movie. “Munich,” by Spielberg, was spoiled by shakycam and other “artless” artful techniques (as well as being too long . . . and silly at the end).

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