By Marilyn Ferdinand
Motion sickness: an evolutionary hypothesis
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.
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.
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