BY STEPHANIE ZACHAREK
When audiences first saw Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives in 1992 almost everyone came away shaken. Some by the emotional turmoil they'd just seen onscreen, and others just by the look of the film. Allen and his cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, had filmed key scenes with a handheld camera, and watching the characters' trauma play out within that shivery, shaky frame had a disquieting, claustrophobic effect.
It wasn't that moviegoers hadn't seen the shaky-camera thing before. Handheld cameras had been in use, sporadically, since the days of silent film. They featured prominently in the guerrilla filmmaking of the French New Wave, and John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick used them in the 1960s. But Husbands and Wives made the use of handheld cameras a topic of conversation among mainstream moviegoers. You could love the effect or hate it, but it represented a clear and conscious choice on Allen's part; it was a technique chosen specifically for the story he wanted to tell.
Nowadays, handheld cameras are used in movies all the time, and not just in action pictures, where they might be employed—either lazily or well—to impart a sense of speed and immediacy, but in comedies and dramas. I've given up counting the number of times I've seen two characters in a film just talking and the frame around them is drifting and jiggling for no discernible reason. It's gotten to the point where I breathe a sigh of relief when I notice the camera is stationary, when I can see that a director has taken some time to really think about the way objects or characters occupy the space within a shot. The use of the handheld camera has become a trend, a fallback position, rather than a thought-out choice. It's as if filmmakers, consciously or otherwise, have come to fear that audiences won't stay awake if the camera isn't in motion every second.
The handheld camera—used even more frequently in television than in movies—ostensibly lends a sense of urgency to visual storytelling. Supposedly, it's a more realistic way of mimicking the way we see people, objects and events in everyday life.
But our eyes don't jiggle and bob around in our heads; they're fixed in position—or at least they're more like Steadicams in their ability and eagerness to follow movement. I'm beginning to fear that the prevalence of the handheld camera is changing—and not for the better—the way filmmakers think about composition and lighting. And certain skills and approaches to filmmaking are in danger of being completely lost. In old Hollywood, sets were lit carefully to make stars of both sexes look as luminous as possible. That lighting was often so painstakingly precise that an actor might not be able to move much; shifting off the mark might mean drifting into a murky shadow or a less-than-flattering camera angle.
You could use that as an argument against clinging too strictly to old-school ideas about the fixed frame. On the other hand, when we think of Ava Gardner in The Killers, or Gary Cooper in Morocco, do we dismiss their images as being not particularly dynamic or memorable because the camera wasn't drifting and vibrating around them? Maybe the very stillness of the fixed camera is part of what fixes these images in our memory. We're given the time and space to drink in their beauty; they need no additional animation.
It's certainly possible to use a handheld camera and still maintain a sense of composition. But too often, the constant movement erodes any sense of place within the frame: Its borders are mutable and transient to the point that actors sometimes seem lost within it. On the other hand, a camera in a fixed position isn't necessarily static. In fact, it's better poised to capture subtle movement within the frame, so our responses are heightened gradually. It's the difference between being stroked instead of just overstimulated. In a world where everything is moving faster and faster, maybe stillness, and the intensity that comes with it, is the next frontier.
I'm not calling for an across-the-board return to classicism. I don't expect, and wouldn't want, everyone to be George Stevens or David Lean. There are times when a handheld camera is just the thing: If you're shooting from the point of view of a journalist in a war zone, for example, or as a way of working a kind of hypnosis on your audience, of luring them into a drowsy swoon. But maybe it's time to rethink the idea that a shaky camera is always the best way to bring movement, energy, and excitement to a picture. As a technique, it's just one arrow in the quiver. Sometimes the best way to hit the mark is to hold steady.
Stephanie Zacharek is a film critic and senior writer for Salon.com.