From 'The Fighter' to 'Black Swan,' jittery nausea-inducing shaky cam is the new normal. Can you handle it?

the-fighter-steadycamImage Credit: Jojo WhildenShooting 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?

Comments (85 total) Add your comment
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  • Suzanne

    I loved The Fighter. Best movie of the year for me.

    • Liz

      In Rocky Balboa, Stallone used a shaky camera technique when Rocky was petitioning for his license to fight. I was deeply impressed by his commentary about that scene and why he chose to have the camera shaky for that scene. It was made better because it was only that one scene though.

    • stephen

      Rachel Getting Married was ruined because of the shaky camera. You’re at a freaking wedding! Stop moving!

      • Emilio

        I hated that camera too. If a director wants to give us a feeling of reality, then also use unknow actos. Seeing a superstar in a shaky camera gives me E! or TMZ and I hate those things.

      • Radzinsky

        You’re at a freaking wedding, which is why the camera IS moving. It’s supposed to be filmed like an amateur home video someone really WOULD shoot at a family party.

  • waya

    I won’t watch “shaky” films or TV shows anymore. It doesn’t make me sick, but it is infuriating. I want to reach out and hold the damn camera still! It is a distraction and takes away from the film/TV show. Some films work – Blair Witch, Cloverfield, for example, but its just headache inducing and I’m on a personal boycott of shakiness.

    • Will

      Saving Private Ryan?

      • Emilio

        That’s an interesting case. SPR does not only rely on the camera work to get the sense or urge and reality, but in the acting and script too. The camera work is not the principal thing but a well thought recurse supported among others.

    • J

      I agree. It doesn’t make me sick, but I find it really annoying. I too want to reach in the film and hold the cameraman’s hand steady.

      • LOL

        Same here. Doesn’t make me sick, but it distracts. I’d enjoy films more if I could focus on the action.

  • Mr. Holloway

    Excellent point about reality TV helping make this style seem more commonplace so that it doesn’t stand out as much in today’s feature films.

    Like you, I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve never been physically affected by the shaky cam style.

    I’d probably add the “Bourne” films (and Paul Greengrass movies in general) to the list of films I’ve heard people complain about being too shaky. (I think it makes the action look fantastic, but I can admit that it’s a bit distracting when that style is happening in a scene when two characters are sitting in an office talking.)

  • Zach

    Usually I’m affected if it’s obvious. I hate when small indie movies use it for the sake of using it. But I didn’t even think about it in Black Swan or The Fighter, so it was clearly fine there! Subtle and appropriate for the films.

    • REASON

      I didn’t notice it in the Fighter or Black Swan either, it has become commonplace but I don’t have any strong feelings for or against it.

  • R

    I loved Rachel Getting Married, but I will probably never watch it again in its entirety because I left the theatre nauseous and with a splitting headache from the shaky camera. It’s a shame because I think it can really spoil what would otherwise be spectacular films.

    • Drea

      I agree completely. I actually got physically sick while watching Rachel Getting Married. I had to watch the rest of it with my head down or my eyes closed.

      • Jim

        But how do you watch it if your eyes are closed?

      • Alia

        You listen, Jim.

      • Lilly

        I got so sick during Rachel Getting Married that I thought I was going to have to call 911. I just saw Black Swan, and the same thing happened again. I love movies, so if the trend is to be more hand-held cameras, I’m doomed.

  • Stacy

    I definitely had motion sick issues watching Paranormal Activity. I could handle the parts that were supposed to be scary because they were at night when the camera was on a tripod. It was the shaky day shots I couldn’t watch.

  • Kirsten

    It depends on how shaky it is. I didn’t mind it in the Bourne movies, and I didn’t mind it in The Fighter, but in Public Enemies it drove me nuts. Too shaky can be too much.

    • Emilee

      Yes! I hated the shaky-cam in Public Enemies!

    • Amy

      Yeah, I hated it in Public Enemies. I really felt like for that movie, the cinematography should be more sleek and fluid, not you-are-there. Also agree about The Fighter and the Bourne movies. It felt so organic to The Fighter, and I think Paul Greengrass usually does it well, not only in the Bourne movies, but also in United 93.

      • m1

        I thought the camera in Green Zone was headache-inducing.

  • Ken

    it’s a great technique when done right and in the proper content and tone. With shows like The Shield it worked perfectly with. Half Nelson, also, and it seems Blue Valentine does the same, big surprise. But it’s being used too much now when it doesn’t need to be. Shows like The Shield needed it. A lot of movies and shows don’t, but just use it to make an obvious distinction between hollywood and what’s now “indie.” or to force the “realistic” tone of a movie.

  • sunrise

    Adding to your list, I wanted to watch Friday Night Lights very much when it began but turned it off in ten minutes when I got seasick. I don’t think a steadily filmed product is too much to ask.

  • M

    I get it when it adds to the film-when it reflects a character’s inner turmoil, battle scenes, etc.

    But anymore than that and I get a migraine and throw up.

  • Praveen

    I have nothing against hand held stuff. It was used fine in Wrestler. But Paul Greengas overdoes it. While it worked well in some scenes of the final Bourne, it was way overused in the second installment of Bourne. The way Darren A. uses it in the Wrestler is with supreme confidence and it translates well on screen.

  • chris

    I didn’t notice it much in Black Swan or the Fighter and I’m pretty sensitive. The movie that I had to shut my eyes for was “Rachel Getting Married”. It was just too shakey- so much that I couldn’t watch it

    • Liz

      I just watched Rachel Getting Married, I never really noticed the shaky camera. I’ll have to take a second look.

    • Shelly

      I’m extremely sensitive to motion, and I almost always get a headache from shaky movies. I’ve never gotten sick from one, though, until Black Swan. One minute I was headachy and annoyed with the movement of the camera, and the next I was spewing vomit on the theater stairs while running for the ladies room. I had about 3 seconds of warning, and no stomach nausea. I missed the last half our of the movie, which I would still like to see. Someday.

      • Shelly

        Last half *hour* of the movie.

    • orianis

      I honestly didn’t mind it so much with Rachel Getting Married but whenever there were shots of Natalie Portman going up the stairs in Black Swan it seemed like she was galloping or something. It was just too much.

  • hillary l.

    I don’t tend to be a fan, much of the shaky camera style, but I thought it was very effective in “Black Swan” to keep it from looking too precise, too classical, too “look at the pretty ballerinas.” I noted it during the film and appreciated Aronofsky’s decision.

    However, I didn’t appreciate Paul Greengrass’s camera work in the latter Bourne films. Between the shaky cam and the quick cutting, it was difficult to appreciate the subject matter of the scene.

    The shaky cam is a risky aesthetic choice that doesn’t work for every film.

  • Winona

    Thanks for this – now I know I won’t be seeing either of these films in the theater. I really think there should be some sort of warnings about this, seeing as it does affect so many people.
    After getting motion sickness from seeing the second Bourne film, I’m wary of seeing action films in theaters – apparently it’s also the case for dramas as well now. If Nora Ephron starts using a handheld cam, I’m completely screwed!

  • Hobbes

    The effect can add to certain movies, but I think there should be some sort of warning. Some individuals (like myself) have specific medical conditions that are especially effected by the movement. It makes me very ill. I don’t want to pay $10 for a movie I have to look at the floor through large portions of it.

    • joesmom

      That’s what I hate. You can’t focus your eyes on anything on the screen with all the movement. I sometimes feel directors use it to take your attention away from a really bad script.

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