I finally saw the much hyped, wildly-acclaimed independent fictional film Once last weekend. Once, which follows an Irish musician and a Czech immigrant around Dublin as they meet, make music, record an album and maybe fall in love, was one of the hot tickets of Sundance ’07, and ended up on many best-of lists at the year’s end. Though I was at Sundance in ’07, I didn’t make it to a single screening of this or any other narrative film. Now, I can finally watch it on my own couch! Another reason why I love Netflix.
I liked the film. I liked the characters and the scenes where the female lead pulls a Hoover vacuum around the streets of Dublin, but it took me a while to get into the film. I spent the first thirty minutes begging the DP to keep the camera steady.
I’m not the first to take note of the shooting style of Once, and it has been noted by many critics that the film was shot in “documentary style.” I suppose “documentary style” refers to uber-handheld shooting and shaky framing. In Once, I found this shooting style very distracting — especially when the two lead characters are singing together for the first time in a music store. The camera is in constant motion around the piano, and when the camera finally keeps still and fixes on lead actor Glen Hansard’s face, I shouted “Finally – a tripod!”
The scene in the music store is crucial to the film: it reveals the electricity between the two characters, and it also shows off their musical chemistry in a great jam session. Unfortunately, the shakiness of the camera and its constant movement felt self-conscious; in this case, what the critics called “documentary style” shooting stood unwelcome between me and the substance of the scene. This type of obtrusive camera movement has become somewhat pervasive in recent fictional films. My critique isn’t limited to Once, I can point out similar scenes in The Last King of Scotland that detracted from that film.
So, I have a suggestion to fictional filmmakers and critics alike: Let’s update the definition of “documentary style” shooting. Let’s leave the shaky, frenetic framing in the past and take a fresh look at documentaries for stylistic inspiration.
Gimmie Shelter by the legendary Maysles brothers, which follows the Rolling Stones on tour, is one of my favorite films, documentary or narrative. Using that film as inspiration, how about we redefine “documentary style” to mean emulating the watchful probing eye of the Maysles? One of the many breathtaking scenes in the film comes when the Maysles’ camera follows Mick Jagger’s legs — slowly — down their length and lingers on his tapping snake-skin boots. It is the stability and the timing of this shot — the lingering look — that makes it so amazing to me. The camerawork shows the value of deliberate observation versus random shifts in framing. The Maysles understood that you often see more about a character by observing small movements or facial expressions than you do by searching the frame for something that is right in front of you.
Other documentaries like Arctic Son (POV 2007), Salesman, Four Little Girls, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), Kurt Cobain Without A Son or When We Were Kings could also provide a new definition of “documentary style” shooting. Each of these films is as good as it is in large part because of its confident visual observation. It’s about time that fictional films take a look at them for inspiration. The shake-rattle-and-roll of the current definition of “documentary style” shooting has grown stale. Let’s look to these films and others for a new definition.