Bright Lights Film Journal

On Dangerous Ground: Some Noteworthy “Moving Camera Movies” of 2010

Whether neo-noir or horror, underexposed or ignored, several films of 2010 employed devilishly motivated moving camera to disturbing effect.

Devil in the Details

Devil (John Erick Dowdle) is a genre picture with clout (M. Night Shyamalan produced), but, sensibly, no stars because no star could outshine cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's expressive moving camera.1 This camera-as-character-driven work starts with a mobile framing that would be cliché (we're floating over the skyline of a city) except that the camera is upside down. So is the one-word title. We hear a voiceover discussing the devil, how he will operate. A bit obvious, this is an outline for the rest of the movie. It's really neatly mapped for the viewer — after all, in Hollywood filmmaking it's either about confirming or confounding expectations. And either fulfills that basic human need for understanding, if executed with intention and skill. As a result of this equally skillful and unusual establishing tracking shot, we have been firmly uprooted.

Then something really interesting happens. The floating frame takes on a variety of trajectories. An unpredictable character fully unleashed, it enters a building, twists, drains into an elevator shaft, turns again, right-side up now, and we see the gloss of a fancy building's floor. This amazing tracking shot continues as we rise quickly, see a janitor in industrial headphones polishing the floor, and the voiceover concludes that the devil's arrival will be marked by a suicide; in that instant, we see someone splatter on a truck in the background, in cold, casual distant framing. Unknowing, the janitor looms in the foreground as if to imply this kind of stuff happens all the time; we merely aren't privy to it. Capturing everything by roaming where it needs to take the viewer, Devil changes this.

We then meet the cop lucky enough to answer the call, a man feebly trying to get over his family's death from a hit-and-run. Crosscut to the building again, and as the cinematically interested third party, Tak Fujimoto's ravenously roving camera again traps us in observer mode as we float over to the security desk. The guard gives a hasty young lady attitude as she (and the viewer) slides by; a sleazy young man parallelly floats by and enters the elevator. The security guard joins the group, and though we are fully established at this point, the camera keeps moving. We shift to the POV of the sleazy man, the one we have been led to assume might be the devil. The camera lowers as he (and we) eyeballs an attractive woman, and our eyes rise to see an older woman giving him an admonishing look. We cut to a reaction shot of the man shrugging, "Sorry, but who could blame me?" We then switch to reverse shots in the shaky hand-held camera that has (from Cloverfield to The Office) become cliché, but this is entirely motivated. We are trapped in close quarters to witness whatever horrible things await, Fujimoto merely helps us quiver at the fates the voiceover has told us will befall each passenger.

Maddening music plays (a Muzak "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree") while the lights flicker. More loss of control. Each character's past catches up. The guard has claustrophobia from being locked in the trunk by his brother for six hours. The lights go out and the young lady is bitten.2 When we are taken to the control room, and one frozen frame of the security footage of the elevator reveals to us what looks like a Rorschach of badness glowing orange (clear, though, that it is a scary face), it is at once relieving and also a bit disappointing. We get a breather from the box, the kammerspiel briefly interrupted to add texture. But, yeah, it looks kinda like a devil. We're taken back inside to another mobile POV shot of a woman's vision as she sees everyone dead. Shortly thereafter, the lights die again and the brash young man is stabbed by a mirror shard. Until then, he'd been the main suspect in the bite. His quick dispatching puts us back on that shaky ground.

The balance of Devil alternates between the cop in the control room's POV of the security monitor and inside shots of the elevator. A scam artist, a thief, liar, and a thug — these are all bad people seemingly getting what they deserve, each with a shock zoom to the victim post-blackout and murder.

The camera slowly draws away toward the end to create a reverse establishing shot. But by then, the (black) magic is over. We've drawn to our conclusion. And life, the film, and the wild style of this otherwise standard thriller have come to a close. The ellipsis of that helicopter establishing shot at the beginning is now right-side-up. With order restored, the film closes.

Steady, Now . . .

Unlike The Devil, a maligned genre picture that few took seriously, Australian neo-noir nail-biter The Square (2008) has won its champions. Earning comparisons to Chris Nolan and the Coens, it has popped up on some annual best-of lists due to a 2010 U.S. release. Directed by a former stuntman (truly named Nash Edgerton), it features visual derring-do that include a preponderance of moving camera.3 It shakes when it needs to, but cinematographer Brad Shield, a steadicam operator on many films such as Moulin Rouge!, is very fond of the grace (deeply, tragically ironic in this film's case) of a floating world as displayed through his camera's lens.

In this story about a man (Ray, played by the wonderfully sweaty David Roberts) losing control of his life, the almost constantly mobile frame guides both our feelings and our analysis of the story. Since Ray is on shaky ground, we certainly cannot expect to stand firm. The Square starts with an excruciatingly lengthy fade-in . . . ominous, the audience is coming-to . . . but into rather than out of a nightmare. The setting is gloomy, an industrial underpass where two cars are parked (visually harkening to the opening of David Fincher's 2005 Zodiac — this is an establishing shot meant not to disturb). A voyeur's creep provokes our journey to the car as we see a couple en flagrante or: what we already cinematically knew to be unromantic, tawdry, desperation itself in the face of a world that won't sit still for this.

Ray's mistress (Claire van der Boom) makes him an accomplice in stealing a bag of money from her lowlife brother. Sound noir? If it is a neo-noir, it's one with wildly expressionistic moving camera, but some twists . . . a femme fatale in soft-focus and a man every bit as much the sleepwalker, but far more simple than Walter Neff. The twist, the thing that makes this noir "neo," is while we've clearly got our doomed antihero archetype based on Neff, Ray adds confusion and uncertainty to this panting mix as he stumbles through The Square making sillier decisions and receiving even worse luck.

The camera shakes as we meet with our couple in the motel and he initially refuses her plan. Two smoothly moving, entrapping scenes later, we see a bit of cinematographic variety. The camera trembles in tightening reverse shots of the couple until it traps when he acquiesces — we (and Ray) are truly lost. That frame never still for long, directly afterwards, we pull away, both to capture Ray's grim visage and to make a desperate attempt to get away, to disengage. The objective viewer, now involved, wants nothing to do with this poor mug. The camera sympathizes.

Throughout, Shield's camera keeps us engaged (read: complicit) in the film. It often rises to meet Ray, a man on ground even shakier than the viewer's. Balletic twirls and painterly flourishes colonize the visual landscape. Nothing flashy, though — it is all deeply tied to meaning in a world depicted as well out of control. David is lost; as sympathizers we are also. When The Square ends as it inevitably must, a dazed Ray walks as the camera follows him in slow-motion and lifts slowly up and away, his back now to us. We've done all we could, and we might as well head home now and hope for the best.

The fact that we won't see The Square in theaters may not be a bad thing. This is a film well suited to the video age; you will need to occasionally pause and break in order to stop your world from spinning. As we watch Ray's life hurtle out of control and lead to its inexorable conclusion, we are suffused with a feeling of doomed uncertainty. This feeling colors the whole film and drags us into the paranoid uncertainty of this man's fracturing psyche.

Moving Pictures

With a barrage of information constantly thrown at us, with global warming accelerating the frequency of earthquakes and hurricanes, with exponentially reproducing people and their problems overpopulating the earth, the mania of a world captured by moving camera can be the only logic.

It is widely held that F. W. Murnau's Expressionist masterpiece Der Letzte Mann, with its unleashed establishing dolly shot of someone (anyone but that doorman protagonist) descending the elevator and crossing the lobby, began this whole moving camera business in 1924. Karl Freund and Gregg Toland met and made Mad Love (1935). Toland borrowed Freund's German mastery of deep focus and brought a still-stunning tracking shot into El Rancho in Citizen Kane. Then we hear about its use in bravura examples from Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) to The Player (Robert Altman, 1989). Then Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1999) did something interesting in having its capricious moving camera force us to follow different trajectories and conclusions of the story per where the camera decided to move from each of the film's beginning points.

It would be more common in the (web) pages of respectable film journalism to cite Fatih Akin's devouring restaurant swoops in Soul Kitchen or Chris Nolan's invisible, mind-action-following glides in Inception (both 2010) as indicative of the commonplace nature of expressionistic camera in artsy world and commercial films. But it does both the artists and lovers of film a service to expose the underexposed. With Devil and The Square brought to light, we now have what we can only hope is a new breed of fully motivated films that use moving camera to connote a world on shaky ground that is moving way too fast.

  1. Some of Fujimoto's achievements include Badlands (1973), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Breach (2007), and The Great Buck Howard (2008)the latter duo both hidden gems shot with the similar stylistic differences of the former two. To match its espionage subject matter, Breach is clinical while Buck Howard is warmly sentimental in both its tale of a washed-up magician and its rich golden hues. []
  2. In one of the cheeseriffic promotional videos that accompanies the DVD, the director states that the best scary movie would be something we could all relate to. Dario Argento once said that about a scene in Deep Red (1975) where a woman's head is smashed on a mantel. This is why we flinch when someone is cut. Also why we don't move much when someone is shot. First, we can't relate to the latter. Also, there is something literally and metaphorically visceral about a cut. []
  3. Since this fearlessness translates to a courageous visual style, it was unsurprising that Bill Hunter, veteran actor of more than 50 Australian films, refers to Edgerton as easy to work with since "he knows what he wants . . . more than you can say about many directors " (from the DVD's bonus features). []