Welcome to the World of Motion Sicktures

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Motion sickness: an evolutionary hypothesis

M Treisman

Since the occurrence of vomiting as a response to motion is both widespread and apparently disadvantageous, it presents a problem for evolutionary theory. An hypothesis is proposed suggesting that motion sickness is triggered by difficulties which arise in the programming of movements of the eyes or head when the relations between the spatial frameworks defined by the visual, vestibular, or proprioceptive inputs are repeatedly and unpredictably perturbed. Such perturbations may be produced by certain types of motion, or by disturbances in sensory input or motor control produced by ingested toxins. The last would be the important cause in nature, the main function of the emesis being to rid the individual of ingested neurotoxins. Its occurrence in response to motion would be an accidental by product of this system.

In other words, movement that does not compute with the way we normally see, hear, or experience sensation will cause us to puke. If we’ve swallowed poison, its effects on these functions may help us to expel the poison, perhaps saving our life.

There are other theories of motion sickness, such as one postulated by University of Minnesota kinesiologist Tom Stoffregen. Stoffregen is investigating whether “weird” movements in his volunteer subjects—mostly young and vigorous students—make them get sicker than subjects who remain perfectly still when subjected to sickness-inducing motion. He is physically strapping people into chairs to help test this hypothesis. “We’re interested in how [motion sickness] begins, not how it ends,” Stoffregen says. “No one has ever thrown up in my lab. And that’s a record I’m proud to keep.”

I like to encourage new thinking about this eons-old problem of the human race, but I think Dr. Stoffregen is barfing up the wrong tree. People move when confronted with disorienting motion because we want to get away from it. How many times have I turned, put my head down, and tried to refocus my eyes in the so-called “queasicam” productions that are increasingly filling our larger-than-life movie screens? Doctor, you’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s like a ski-training method my ex-husband read about that has you close your eyes and stand on one leg to increase your sense of balance. Why do you think being able to balance with your balance centers closed will make your balance better overall? Do you ski with a blindfold? None of this particular reverse engineering makes sense to me.

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I remember when Martin Scorsese clucked in wonder at the perfection of the steadicam that made his tracking shot of Henry Hill’s backdoor entrance into a nightclub in Goodfellas so smooth; AMPAS even awarded a technical Oscar to its inventor, Garrett Brown. But as happens all the time, there was the inevitable backlash against the slick Hollywood movie, and with handheld DV technology, Filmmakers R Us has been fully launched.

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What has puzzled me lately is how some directors are employing handheld cameras. Although The Blair Witch Project is the only film so far that actually made me throw up, I can at least understand the motivation behind its use of a handheld—the camera was the POV of a character in the film. Same with Cloverfield, such a good movie that I found a way to endure the nausea and headache it caused so I could watch it beyond my usual 40-minute limit. But what was Jonathan Demme’s rationale for using a handheld in Rachel Getting Married or Michael Mann’s in Public Enemies?

In both cases, it seems as though these directors were attempting to give audiences “you are there” moments. For Rachel, I presume it was for a sense of intimacy, of being one of the guests at this personal occasion in the life of a family, though truthfully, it didn’t make a bit of sense to me; the camera seemed more like someone stalking Anne Hathaway, a guard from her rehab clinic or somesuch. Mann might have been trying for audience identification with John Dillinger’s in-the-moment approach to living, or maybe just for the adrenaline rush that comes from pretending we’re a bad guy whose life hangs in the balance. Whatever the motivation, the self-consciousness of the camera—a truly living machine when it moves—turns the movie-going experience into a virtual-reality carnival ride. And I can no longer go on carnival rides without physical distress.

I don’t expect directors or DPs to sacrifice their vision for the sake of people like me who can’t physically stand to watch their films. The regret must be mine that a film I really wanted to see, Public Enemies, will forever be unavailable to me, not because the master and very last print of the film have disintegrated the way so many of our early films have, but because a shooting technique that has come into vogue is bad for my health. Who’d ever have thunk that movies could be hazardous to anything but the status quo? l

  • Craig Kennedy spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 12:59 pm

    It’s funny you posted this because I’ve been thinking about it a lot since Public Enemies.
    If the filmmaker is going for a documentary-like reality, I think it can be effective because it simulates a small, low-budget documentary crew with small cameras and not a lot of equipment. I think that explains Rachel Getting Married to a point. Obviously as you say Cloverfield gets a pass because it was meant to seem as if it was filmed by the characters in the movie.
    In moments of action, I think it also helps to ratchet up the tension. It’s nerve wracking in limited doses. Any more than that and it starts to get annoying.
    Are they doing it in other movies because it’s perceived as being more “natural”? If so, I think it’s entirely wrong-headed. Even if I’m in a moving car that is bouncing around, my eyes act like steadicams and my vision is smooth. The herky jerky camera movements on the other hand are decidedly unnatural because they call attention to the presence of a camera.
    I think they were way overdone in PE and it was nothing but a stylistic choice. An annoying one.

  • Flickhead spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 1:08 pm

    For me, the worst offense is the first: Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. The hand-held shaky-cam vogue had yet to blossom, so I was in no way prepared… seeing that thing in 35mm on the big screen was horrifying… even worse, because I knew there was a good movie standing there, waiting for a frikkin’ tripod…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 1:32 pm

    Craig – The stylistic choice in PE kind of baffles me, too, although do think he was trying for an on-the-fly feeling. Overdone? Obviously, I can’t say because I only saw 40 minutes.
    Flickhead – I don’t remember the handheld in H&W. I wasn’t getting sick from it back then and remember enjoying the film a lot. I probably couldn’t watch it today. That must mean that I’ve had some kind of neural deterioration with age. That’s where the research ought to be.

  • Craig Kennedy spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 3:13 pm

    I guess I’m old fashioned (or just old) because I still tend to think the best cinematography (and editing and acting and everything else) is the kind that doesn’t call attention to itself for the most part.

  • Ryan Kelly spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 3:15 pm

    I’m surprised that the movie you chose to tough out was Cloverfield. I swear, I didn’t have any problems with The Blair Witch Project, but Cloverfield made me a little queasy. The worst offender I can think of, though, is The Bourne Ultimatum. No question about it. Not only is the handheld work nauseating in its own right, every single solitary cut (which there are a lot of) is incredibly jarring. That is the only time a movie literally made me ill.
    But if I may defend the last two movies you cited, I think that, you nailed it saying that Public Enemies‘ run-and-gun style is more to embody a kind of moment-to-moment existentialism. Truthfully, I don’t think the way the shots are put together is that disorienting— but then, I don’t want to be responsible for you getting sick. I love Rachel Getting Married, but I could see that movie making someone dizzy.
    Anyway, my experience with motion sickness came on a fishing boat. I spent the whole day hanging over the side. That was the day I gave up my dream of a life at sea.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 3:23 pm

    Craig – I don’t mind nontraditional camera movement in service of an idea, but naturally, the old Hollywood style of “invisible” cinematography is the easiest to watch and the one that helps with the suspension of disbelief the best. I guess it depends what you want out of a movie – some people like pretty pictures but don’t care about story. Who am I to say they’re wrong?
    Ryan – Believe it or not, The Bourne Ultimatum did not bother me at all – except that it was a shitty movie. That movie relied on quick cuts for its motion, as I recall. I would venture to say that physical perception of quick-cuts is quite different from reactions to a single POV handheld camera. I really would like to find more on the neuroscience of this phenomenon.
    Blair Witch was the first major queasicam production, and that may be why it made me the sickest. Also, as I said, my tolerance ends at about the 40-minute mark. BW, as I recall, was incredibly jerky in the beginning, which Cloverfield was not. That may have made the difference.

  • Patrick spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 10:32 pm

    I really dislike the shaky-cam approach to movie making, I’m hoping it is a fad that will soon run its course. Another director who overuses it is Peter Berg, I found Friday Night Lights to be unwatchable. That combined quick cuts, a moving camera, and rapid zooms. He got things a little more under control in The Kingdom, still too much. I get why they do it in Blair Witch and Cloverfield – it is supposed to be amateur video, therefore hand held and not polished looking. Cloverfield took it to an extreme, looked like it was shot by someone who had no concept of what to do with a camera, and anyone who has watched a movie or two in the last few years (that is, someone who has his own camera as the guy in Cloverfield did) would surely have some sense of trying to create shots that were more fluid than what they came up with(I did like the movie, but they should have reigned in that shaky approach considerably).
    Sorry to hear Public Enemies has some shaky-cam stuff, I’ll still see it, but not looking forward to those parts of the movie.

  • fox spoke:
    10th/07/2009 to 12:33 am

    Totally agree with you here, Marilyn. Although, the way you learned to deal with it in Cloverfield is what I did with Rachel.
    I saw Public Enemies last week. Well, I tried too. Along with the camera movement, the sound in the theater was awful and the projection seemed like it was coming through a 45 watt light bulb. Atrocious. I was so distracted that I’m gonna have to go see again in another theater just to give it a fair shake before deciding if I liked it.
    Also, I sympathize with your dizziness. I suffer from bouts of vertigo now and then. Let’s start a still frame revolution!!! Let’s get “OZU” tattooed on our arms!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/07/2009 to 7:34 am

    Ozu Ozu Ozu!!!

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/07/2009 to 10:41 am

    Wusses.

  • Rick spoke:
    13th/07/2009 to 4:53 pm

    I agree with Rod … what a bunch of wimps!
    Seriously, I’ve never felt the least bit queasy at any of these films (although I know a guy who got sick sitting near the front of the theater at “Bourne,” which, as you point out, Marilyn, is a shitty flick.) I guess its just an individual thing. And the shaky-cam in Public Enemies, I thought, fit the verite style Mann was going for.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    13th/07/2009 to 8:01 pm

    I went to see The Hurt Locker today with my girlfriend. We both enjoyed it, but she commented that the first 20 minutes made her stomach nervous with the shaking camera.
    I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn’t really notice how the movie was being shot. So I think the great shaky cam protest is a matter of whether a movie bores you enough to see at the camerawork.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/07/2009 to 8:38 pm

    Thanks for the warning, Joe. You just saved me a trip to the multiplex, but now another film I wanted to see has to be scratched off the list. Ebert gave it a rave review this week.

  • Piper spoke:
    22nd/07/2009 to 10:47 am

    Marilyn,
    I think the use of handheld in Rachel Getting Married was overdone. There were times where it was appropriate, like when there’s a fight in a room and it is shot on the shoulder from another room. To me, that’s the intimacy you’re talking about. But during the opening, there was a low end shot as Rachel walks through the hall of her home, revisiting old rooms. I referred to it as the dog cam because it was so low. It felt like an attempt from Demme to intrude upon the scene and put his touch (whatever that touch might have been) on it rather than let it play out emotionally.

  • Daniel spoke:
    27th/07/2009 to 2:02 pm

    COMPLETELY agree about Rachel Getting Married. It was one of many reasons I didn’t like the movie, despite the fact that, like Rick, I’ve never been queasy from any camerawork.
    One of the other techniques that really bothers me (and it usually goes hand in hand with shakiness) is quick zooming. I rarely watch TV but pretty much anytime I turn it on (even in something like “The Office”) I’m shocked at much zooming in and out there is, telling us, “HERE, watch this person’s reaction!”.

  • Ferdy on Films, etc. spoke:
    14th/12/2009 to 2:46 pm

    Cloverfield (2008)

    Cloverfield (2008) Director: Matt Reeves By Marilyn Ferdinand A strange unease has overtaken me in the waning days of 2009. Suddenly, the filmic hills are alive with lists and best-ofs not only of this year, but of the entire…

  • Laszlo spoke:
    5th/01/2010 to 9:04 pm

    I’m fed up wasting money on movies I have to abandon 5 mins in due to the distracting handheld camera work.
    There is definitely an opportunity for a site offering “hand held” warnings with movie general reviews.

  • Steven Brown spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 9:26 pm

    Hey mate, what theme is your blog using? It’s amazing

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