- Extensions of Our Body Moving, Dancing:The American Avant-Garde's Theories of Handheld Subjectivity
Introduction: Rhetorics of Presence
Film history is littered with casual assertions about the meaning and merits of handheld cinematography. In its current usage, the technique is perhaps most frequently described as "intimate" or "immediate" or, more vaguely, "realistic," while it sometimes is understood to be conveying a sense of "presence" within the world of the film or to be asserting an urgency or present-tense temporality: you, the viewer, are there in the world of the film, following the events as they unfold. These are all valid and valuable observations, often explicitly borne out by the rhetoric of directors and cinematographers. But there have been specific historical meanings to handheld camerawork developing out of specific cinematic contexts, each evolving different inflections and associations as new filmmakers adapt it within their own styles. This essay chronicles one of the founding discourses of handheld camerawork: that of the post–World War II American avantgarde in which handheld's registrations of the camera operator [End Page 37] within the image makes it a privileged vehicle for conveying—and expanding—subjectivity.
Handheld cinematography made sporadic appearances in the 1920s in France, the Soviet Union, and even Hollywood but remained a minority practice, one that was further relegated to the margins of even nonprofessional cinema once feature film-making transitioned to sound. In the 1940s wartime newsreels and documentaries as well as Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945) introduced shaky camerawork to global audiences within the rigidly delimited context of the battlefield but with little immediate influence. In the subsequent decade, handheld camerawork made marginal inroads into independent, documentary, and low-budget feature filmmaking around the world until, at the end of the 1950s, documentary filmmakers in Canada, France, and the United States began to develop new technology and new techniques. These new techniques inaugurated an observational style of documentary, following aspects of the films of Robert Flaherty, Italian Neo-Realism, and a variety of docufiction hybrids of the 1950s, that was dependent on the flexibility and unobtrusiveness of handheld filming. From there, those techniques became more visible not only through their gradual adoption by feature filmmakers but also through the dissemination of TV news programs.1 By the mid-1970s, these new techniques largely redefined the norms of documentary form and function away from a more instructional mode toward one characterized more by observation.
In the 1940s, however, handheld camerawork off the battle field was not just unprofessional or "amateur." A shaky camera was, within the professional and amateur cinematographic discourse, antiaesthetic, an indicator of limited or nonexistent artistic aspiration. Shakiness of any kind supposedly betrayed a lack of technical proficiency or a lack of care. A shaky camera betrayed limited resources, a poverty of means and effort that moviemaking guides advised amateur filmmakers to cover up. Or, more simply, shakiness indicated that a film was no more than a "home movie,"2 suitable only for living room screenings among close friends and family (and, as the amateur filmmaking guidebooks never tired of relating, its shakiness placed an unwanted burden on its viewers).
So, the handheld camera's widespread embrace by the avantgardes, documentarians, and new wave filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the most drastic aesthetic shifts in postwar cinema, an emblem of the overturning of Hollywood and the norms of other classical cinemas. This embrace also initiated a major shift in the function of style. Whereas the classical ethic had preached invisibility, handheld insistently gestured toward the presence of [End Page 38] both camera and cameraperson, and that literal notion of presence became the source of its authenticity and its power as a technique.3 Contrary to conventional notions of cinematographic function, filmmakers began using handheld cameras because they wanted to draw viewers' attention to the cinematography. As viewers, we need to identify a shaky camera as a reference to its camera operator in order to understand its full significance, and no tradition relies more on that recognition than that of the postwar American avant-garde.
As battlefield footage introduced one handheld discourse to audiences in the 1940s, Maya...