Thursday, January 24, 2008

Passive Viewing and Movies That Make You Woozy

A few years ago a little movie called The Blair Witch Project busted onto the scene and changed the way we look at independent cinema. You couldn't have had a lower tech, or lower budget, recipe for a an exciting flick: Take three actors, give them a camera and a plot, and have them record and ad lib the rest. Many loved the movie; the unique and literal first-person perspective offered the viewer direct entry into the experience of the characters on screen. What could be more exciting? Add to the mix a classic, spooky, campfire-style plot and you have the perfect witches brew for a thrilling experience. But for many, the thrill-ride was a little too bumpy. All that thumpy-jumpy handheld camera work was a little more than the average viewer could take. Even many of the people I spoke with who loved the adrenaline rush the movie gave them, complained afterward of headaches, nausea, and vertigo. I had no problem viewing the movie. And I realized that my film school, hell-bent on convincing us that avant garde film is the epitome of art, had given me lots of training for this experience. All those weird little shorts I had to watch* with choppy/jolting action, swooping/swishing camera movements, and everything from moth wings to paint applied directly to the film (causing indistinguishable, flashing "images") taught me how to watch absolutely anything without any eye strain or wooziness. The secret? A little thing I like to call "Passive Viewing."

A shaky shot from Blair Witch.

Once I realized my trick for making it through the movie without incident, I began schooling others I met who hadn't had the benefit of my education (glad to know it was good for something!) I think it may have made a difference for some, but did it matter? Blair Witch isn't the kind of movie you watch again, is it? And would there be many more movies that employ this technique? Enter Cloverfield.

Cloverfield brings first-person camera back again.

Think of Cloverfield as a loud, explosive, big-budget, Hollywood version of our quiet little flashlight-spook-tale from 1999. Everything is bigger. Take the group of friends out of the remote woods, and place them in the city of cities: New York. Take the unknown, unseen, menacing little witch and her hoard of spooky children's voices and replace them with a godzilla-esque sea/space creature and lots of deadly little Giger-inspired spawn. Take your little tree-hung stick figures and children's handprints and replace them with tumbling sky-scrapers and a headless Statue of Liberty. It's not so much scary this time as it is seat-clutchingly tense. It works though. At least, for me it does. But what about the rest of you?

Seems after nine years (wow, can't believe it's been that long!) and despite a bunch of other handheld (albeit tamer) films, TV shows, and those darn music videos that older generations like to complain about so much, audiences still haven't learned how to handle the manic camera that both Blair and Cloverfield employ. CNN offers some tips to watching Cloverfield without becoming sick:

-Take some Dramamine. (seriously!)
-Take the occasional viewing break and close your eyes.
-Watch it at home instead.

Their "experts" say that the motion-sickness is felt by only those who are "more susceptible" than the rest of us. Hogwash. It's felt by people who are trying to actively view the movie. Here's what I mean. Imagine you are watching a typical handheld shot of an on-foot police chase down alleys (I'm thinking cop shows, I'm thinking Point Break, and I'm thinking The Bourne Ultimatum). Imagine that the camera is moving so frantically that it is difficult to make out the action in the frame. So, you strain yourself; you work extra hard to focus on a character and track his motion across the screen, even as the camera bounces around. You may actually succeed in catching some interesting details along the way, but you start to suffer. Your eyes were so engaged in fighting through this chaotic motion that it hurts, and your body has no idea whether you are on stable ground or not.

Now try this instead: Watch the same scene over again (preferably not in the same session, you already feel sick for goodness sakes) but this time, sit back and try to watch the image as a whole. Try to perceive it as a unit. Look at the Gestalt. Let it wash over you and reveal it's contents to you instead of working hard to wrench it out of the screen yourself. You may miss some of the details, but your head and your stomach will thank you.

Cloverfield: Which way is up?

Even with all my experience, I still was a little disoriented at the movie's end when I saw it. My perspective was so altered that, when the lights came up, the movie theater appeared a sort of distorted fun house. It was a little like getting off a treadmill and the room still feels like it's moving. But I didn't get sick. My husband, didn't fare quite as well as I did, but he did reasonably well; I taught him passive viewing years ago.

It's funny that the CNN article also mentions that some people are more susceptible to sea-sickness. I'm not sure I fully agree. Ok maybe there really are some of you out there with inner ear issues that make it impossible to ever get the hang of the motion of the ocean. But for the majority (unless you're in the middle of a terrible sea storm) I think it's a matter of not fighting it, getting used to the movement (aka getting those sea legs), and, if necessary, checking out the horizon every once in a while.

*Don't get me wrong. I know avant garde film is weird, but I don't mean to say I don't like it. It's visual poetry and, in film school, it was my heart.

1 comment:

Elisabeth said...

Can someone please tell me why my line spacing keeps getting messed up? I tried to clean up the html code, but to no avail.


blogger templates 3 columns | Tech Blog