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Discovering Cinematic Space

Brian De Palma and Nicolas Cage on the set of 'Snake Eyes' (Brian De Palma, 1998)



Although the Steadicam earned its early fame through such movies as Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, 1976), Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), it can be argued that its most prolific use during the first decade of its existence is linked to only a handful of directors. Among those, Brian De Palma is probably the most important. No other director — save maybe for Martin Scorsese, with whom De Palma famously had an ongoing rivalry as to who could pull off the most elaborate Steadicam shot — has made the typically gliding movement of Garret Brown’s milestone invention as much his signature as De Palma has. We all remember the bravura ‘restaurant shot’ from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), but when it comes to De Palma, a whole plethora of brilliant Steadicam shots is engraved in the collective memory of the world’s cinephiles: the murder of Malone (Sean Connery) in The Untouchables (1987), the long walk and talk in Raising Cain (1992), the virtuoso long take shots in The Bonfire of Vanities (1990) and Snake Eyes (1998)… the list goes on and on.
Interestingly, in her 2001 study on the history and use of the Steadicam, Serena Ferrara states that it is probably not a coincidence that a director such as De Palma, whose main body of work consists of entries in the thriller genre, has made such extensive use of the device, since the movements of the Steadicam are supposedly best suited for use in thrillers. Ferrara illustrates her point with a few examples, but is rather vague on how this idea is supposed to function from a theoretical point of view.

Still, the argument is tantalizing enough (and on an intuitive level, one has the feeling there’s definitely a point to be made there) to be granted a closer look. To do so, I will focus on some of De Palma’s films, while returning to the lectures on the definition of genres Adrian Martin gave at the Summer Film School 2017 and incorporating the recent research by Torben Grodal, which links the embodied experience of film to the idea of genre.

Garrett Brown on the set of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980),

From ‘Brown Stabilizer’ to ‘Steadicam’

Before taking a closer look at the use of Steadicam (SC) in the films of Brian De Palma, it is necessary to quickly outline the history and specifics of the device. The long version can be found in Ferrara’s Steadicam: Techniques & Aesthetics; I will limit myself here to the relevant details only.

Steadicam was introduced to the world in 1974, in a TV-commercial for Keds running shoes. At the time the device was still named ‘The Brown Stabilizer’ after its inventor Garrett Brown, a cameraman who was looking to solve some problems with tracking shots that could not be executed with conventional dollies and demanded a smoother imagery than the shaky footage from a handheld camera. The new technical development was the product of years of research by Brown, who previously experimented with an early version of his invention, but managed to improve on the original design. The device allowed the cameraman, through the use of a stabilizing harness fitted with springs, to operate the usually heavyweight camera by hand, without the inevitable ‘shaky’ movements in the image and thus follow any person or object by freely walking (or running, or flying) with it or around it, all this without the camera being hampered by the instability caused by the movements of its operator.

The SC was put into production by Tiffen (later Arriflex) and caught the attention of a few filmmakers who were impressed by its potential. Brown himself operated the Steadicam for Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s 1976 biopic on Woody Guthrie. The movie promptly won an Academy Award for the impressive camerawork and when Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976) and Marathon Man used the device to great effect, the SC took its first steps towards becoming a mainstay in the arsenal of movie techniques. The real breakthrough is due to Stanley Kubrick, who was so impressed by a demonstration reel that he asked Brown to operate his own invention for the — now famous — tracking shots in The Shining. The menacing shots of little Danny’s bike rides through the long corridors of the Overlook Hotel and the harrowing chase through the snowy maze at the end of the film cemented the Steadicam’s reputation as being what Jakob Nielsen in his 2006 study on the history of camera movement called “arguably the most important technical invention for cinema since the advent of the crab dolly”Nielsen, Jakob Isak & Raskin, Richard & Kau, Edvin (2007), Camera Movement in Narrative Cinema: Towards a Taxonomy of Functions, University of Aarhus.

‘New’ and ‘New New’ Hollywood directors such as Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Walter Hill, James Cameron, De Palma (obviously) and many others, started to make extensive use of the device and by the second part of the eighties, the SC had developed into a standard piece of equipment in film logistics.

The Language of Steadicam

While it is not too difficult to find some work on the technical history of the SC (see e.g. Jean-Pierre Geuens and Barry Salt), literature investigating the way the SC shaped the cinematic language since its introduction in the movie world in 1976, is far scarcer. Ferrara spends a mere 20 pages on the subject, but still manages to put forward some intriguing ideas. She claims that the smooth, floating imagery of the Steadicam and the almost ‘curious’ way it makes the viewer explore the scene together with the camera’s eye, is put to its best use in the thriller genre. She supports her argument by analyzing some scenes, but does not offer a theoretical approach for her claim.

Before arriving at De Palma’s oeuvre and using it as a test case for this claim, it might be useful to quickly look into the defining characteristic of the SC image. The way the camera is attached to the operator’s body and the fact that it is used in a mobile way, definitely creates a sense of ‘floating’ (although some of the most famous SC operators claim they dislike it when the ‘floating’ becomes too predominant). Brown argues that it is precisely this sensation of moving along with the operator that marks his invention as the ‘ultimate embodied camera’. When we walk, the muscles in our neck function much in the same way as the springs and the harness on the SC, compensating for the (jerky) movement of our body. We do not notice the ‘shocks’ caused by walking or moving, because our muscular system and our brain compensate for these. The SC works in much the same way and thus offers — according to Brown — a viewing experience that is as close as possible to the ‘natural’ human experience of looking at the world while in movement. I would like to explore the intriguing link between a technical piece of equipment and the way it shapes or embodies viewing experience, and I’ll turn to De Palma to provide the necessary examples to do so.

De Palma’s Steadicam

When talking about De Palma’s specific use of SC and the way (as I will argue) this can indeed be linked to a specific genre, one has no choice but to tackle the auteurist nature (or lack thereof) of camera movement in cinema. Sometimes you get lucky and you have a director of photography (DOP) or camera operator who likes to create the same kind of shot over and over again, or there is the chemistry of a long-time collaboration between a director and a DOP (think Martin Scorsese and Michael Ballhaus or Walter Hill and Andrew Laszlo) but in the case of Brian De Palma, there’s no such shortcut to be found. De Palma rarely hires the same DOP or camera operator twice, with only Vilmos Zsigmond and Stephen H. Burum returning a few times as DOP and Larry McConkey as main camera operator. McConkey supervised the SC shots between (roughly) 1989 and 1999, while Burum served as the DOP on some the director’s most famous films such as Body Double (1984), The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way (1993) and Mission Impossible (1996). While it would be a huge mistake to ignore the importance of Larry McConkey — one of the SC’s most prolific operators — I think it is reasonable to assume for the purpose of this text, that the plethora of SC shots used by De Palma and the way they tend to be executed and functionally used, is certainly eligible for an auteurist approach, that gives the director credit for the repeated use and specific character of the SC shots in his films.

The Point of View-shot and the thriller genre

When arguing that the Steadicam is best suited for use in thrillers, Serena Ferrara singles out the ‘Point of View’ shot (POV) as a prime example of the way the SC feels like a natural tool to be used in the suspense building techniques of the thriller genre. Not only do directors who do not have access to a SCe.g. John Carpenter, who used the ill-fated competing device of the ‘Panaglide’ for the POV shots in Halloween (1978), or Sam Raimi resorting to mimicking a SC-like signature use of a gliding camera due to budget restrictions in The Evil Dead (1981) like to mimic the SC POV shot, Ferrara also claims that the device offers a unique embodied POV that almost seems to have been invented for use in thrillers. To illustrate this, she analyses the scene from The Untouchables that turns the viewer into a prime witness of the murder of Jimmy Malone. The camera sneaks around the building before entering through a window — even capturing the killer’s gloved hand, firmly emphasizing the POV experience and the identification of the viewer with the intruder. Wandering through the house, eventually halting its movement when confronted with Malone who suddenly turns around, the camera reverses its forward thrust, still offering the POV of the killer that is now dominated by the imposing presence of the man he planned to kill.

The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987)

It is undeniably true that this fluent, uninterrupted shot, that so closely resembles the movement of a human being through (cinematic) space, creates a unique form of suspense, that the SC enhances due to its special characteristics. Larry McConkey (who did not supervise this specific shot) talks about this kind of use of the SC in an interview with Ferrara. In constructing a POV shot that closely resembles the natural movement of a person, McConkey tries to simulate the ‘gathering of visual information’ a person goes through when moving through a space like the SC does: “As you walk, you tend to glance quickly around at a number of things and your mind constructs an apparently seamless presentation of the visual reality […] So, to represent this complicated process with a SC POV, I use a technique of presenting one clearly defined visual idea after another, allowing the audience to construct their own sense of the overall visual reality from this series of ideas.”Ferrara, Serena (2001), Steadicam: Techniques & Aesthetics, Oxford Focal Press Ferrara claims that this technique — so closely related to the SC — suits thrillers more than any other genre and refers to the fact that Brian De Palma uses this kind of shot repeatedly. Ferrara argues that even if there are — what Edward Braningan labelled — ‘false POV shots’Braningan, Edward (2006), Projecting a Camera – Language Games in Film Theory, Routledge that lure the viewer into thinking he sees what a character sees, they still serve the same function. The SC POV can also easily be used for other entities, e.g. a snake in Mamba (Mario Orfini, 1988) or extra-terrestrial beings in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), while the functional result (building suspense within the thriller genre) is the same. Ferrara further illustrates her point by analyzing three relevant De Palma scenes: the finale of Carlito’s Way and the opening scenes of both Bonfire of the Vanities and Snake Eyes. The latter two are indeed typical examples of the ‘De Palma SC shot’ in which a character walks through an environment in an extend long take and we travel along in an embodied fashion. Still, while one can argue that in case of Carlito’s Way this builds suspense (Carlito — Al Pacino — is frantically looking for the hitmen that are chasing him), in the other two films the scenes might as well have come from any other genre. In fact, Ferrara’s argument is kind of circular: Steadicam POV shots as these are intrinsically linked to the thriller genre and to illustrate this, she resorts to the fact that De Palma uses this kind of technique in his thrillers. It is clear that there is an element lacking here, that links the SC directly to the thriller genre. As it turns out, Ferrara touches upon it herself, but does not further explore the potential in what she states: when talking about POV shots, she emphasizes the way the camera explores and discovers a cinematic space, an element that is part of some of the defining embodied characteristics of the thriller genre.

As an aside it is worth noting that Ferrara also links this discovery of space to the specific way the SC uses filmic time. She makes the rather dubious claim that “[the] Steadicam is the only tool which can shoot a scene in real time,” while there is actually no reason why a dolly couldn’t do the same. It is not because Garrett Brown used his SC in Fame (Alan Parker, 1980) to rush down a flight of stairs, turn a corner and go through a subway door, which would be nigh impossible to pull off with a dolly, that — if somehow the necessary tracks were laid out — the temporal experience would be any different if a skilled operator were to execute the movement with a dolly. Nevertheless, it is true that the experience of crossing a space along with the ‘body’ of the operator, offers a temporal experience that is very closely linked to our own sense of bodily movement. While Ferrara sees a Bazinian purity of cinematic time here, one might also argue that the way the SC ‘leads’ the spectator’s eye through the cinematic space, is actually the antithesis of Bazin’s ‘democracy of vision’, that champions depth-staging without resorting to cuts, in order to give the viewer free reign of the image to explore it. I am in no way attempting to defend a position in this discussion, but the point testifies to the amount of theorizing that is left to be done in exploring the exact impact of camera techniques on the viewing experience.

The Definition of Genre

As argued, it is not sufficient to single out a few typical shots (such as the POV shot) that benefit from the use of the SC and link them to the thriller genre, in order to claim that the SC is therefor intrinsically linked to this genre. In order to support this claim, it will thus be necessary to find some more conclusive arguments.

To do so, let’s first have a look at a few possible definitions of the broad term that is ‘genre’ in cinema, before applying these definitions to De Palma’s oeuvre and linking them to the SC.

In painting, ‘genre’ is easily defined: paintings that do not have a religious subject or theme, are considered genre. Thus, Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi is not a genre piece, while Caravaggio’s Cardsharps is. This division by subject can also be linked to formal language, but it suffices here to claim that in painting, ‘genre’ is a well-defined term based on the choice of subject.
‘Genre’ is a lot harder to define when it comes to films. While every critic loosely applies the term ‘genre’ to a broad variety of films, it is not easy to exactly establish what makes a genre. Why is Raising Cain considered a thriller, while Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) is considered to be a horror movie? What are the defining elements of a genre?

I would like to have a closer look at three different takes on this problem: the first by film historian Mark Cousins, the second taken from a lecture by Adrian Martin at the 2017 Summer Film School in Antwerp and the third by Torben Grodal, who approaches the subject within the field of neuro art sciences.

Mark Cousins defines genre as a different way of using space in movies. He sees road movies as linear spaces, westerns as geographically defined spaces, experimental cinema as fragmented space etc… An interesting approach, but still very vague. What exactly is a linear space? If Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) is defined as a western based on geographical elements, what about the thrillers Heat (1995) or Collateral (1994) by Michel Mann, thrillers that are just as well defined by geographical elements? It is clear that other factors are needed to form a definition of a genre besides an interpretative use of cinematic space.

Adrian Martin — when talking about the comedy genre — proposed a different way of looking at genre definitions, incorporating not one defining element, but a set of varying factors that is different for each genre. Martin states that every other genre emphasizes a different set of elements and that it is not possible to label a genre based on elements that actually belong to a completely different genre. In this way westerns are defined by their setting in time and space, war films by their subject matter, while musicals are defined by form and style. Bringing all these together, Martin claims that a genre label is based on a “possible configuration of elements of content, style & tone/mood.”

A third approach does not exclude the ideas above, but tries to give them a solid neurobiological basis, that offers a more empirically testable set of parameters and — as we will see — is able to link the movement of the SC to the thriller, a theory that can subsequently be tested against some of Brian De Palma’s films.

In his 2017 article ‘How film genres are a product of biology, evolution and culture – an embodied approach’, Torben Grodal analyses the way different genres impact the viewer in a different (embodied) way and how each genre consists of a well-defined pattern that can be found in all films within that certain genre, even though not all of them will incorporate the pattern to an equal extent. (This last element echoes some of the remarks Adrian Martin made during his lecture and is outlined by Grodal through a quote from Lakoff: “This means that some members of a given genre are more central for the category, that is, possess more of those elements that are typical for a given genre, and others are less typical.”)

Without getting into too much detail, Grodal’s approach comes down to this: there is a strong link between perception and action, and vision cannot be severed from muscled action cues (there are strong echoes of Gilles Deleuze’s film theory in here). This link can be summed up in the so-called PECMA flow (Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Motor Action) that forms the basis for certain schematics that have survived in our basic brain functions. For example, the HTTOF scenario’s (Hiding, Tracking, to Trap, being Trapped, Observing, Fighting and Fleeing) are fundamental survival tools engraved in the basic ‘wiring’ of our brains. These schemes also find their way into artistic expression such as filmmaking (I am shortcutting Grodal’s article here) and specifically in the way these embodied schemes translate into different genres. Grodal cites Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) as a prototypical example of the action-oriented HTTOF scheme and offers different schemes for different genres. It is important to note that it is also possible that the same scheme can be translated through ‘higher’ brain functions (morality, problem solving … etc) to function in a different way in another genre (e.g. basic emotions can be found in different incarnations — horror or romance — but belong to a genre-group that functions around emotions, rather than hunter-gatherer schemes).

As to ‘why’ these genres formed and survived throughout human cultural evolution, Grodal references Richard Dawkins’ ‘meme’ theory in which cultural ideas and products (memes) follow the same pattern of development and evolution as biological genes. In the case of film, Randall Collins’ idea of rituals that produce group cohesion may be an explanation of why genres survive as a meme. In short: film is a group experience that is the late cultural equivalent of a group cohesion enhancing ritual, even if this is in an abstract form, like belonging to a ‘group of fans’ of a certain film or series.

It is not necessary to dive into all the different genres and schemes Grodal talks about (although it would be interesting to analyse his take on the musical as a formal ritual, which is an observation that lines up nicely with Martin’s view on the genre). What is of interest here, however, is the thriller genre, that also happens to be the genre that is most closely linked to De Palma’s oeuvre.

According to Grodal, thrillers follow two basic schemes, the HTTOF and a very old hunter-gatherer scheme that translates best into ‘scouting a space for clues’. It is noteworthy that the HTTOF scheme is also at the heart of action/adventure movies, movies that tend to mix easily with the thriller genre which almost always incorporates some form of action. Thrillers that avoid this, lean more towards the sets of comedy, melodrama or romance, which are focussed around channelling basic emotions rather than the mammalian behaviors to be found in the HTTOF scheme. Another example, according to Grodal, is ‘crime fiction’, which is a genre that is almost completely focussed on the hunter-gatherer scheme and ignores most of the HTTOF scheme. Using these factors, Grodal arrives a grouping of genres that use some of each other’s schemes in different combinations.

An important factor in the two schemes at the basis of the thriller genre, is the ‘discovery of a space’. Scouting a space for clues of whatever kind (food, mating, danger, satisfaction …) thus turns out to be one of the basic functions of the thriller genre. Take for example, the famous opening of De Palma’s Snake Eyes, that shows how Nicolas Cage gets involved in an assassination plot without realizing it. The whole scene (a 12,5-minute uninterrupted SC shot, brilliantly executed by Larry McConkey) reads like an illustration of Grodal’s theory: every movement and every framing will turn out to be a piece of a puzzle filled with clues, a pattern that is repeated throughout the whole film and that lines up perfectly with the idea of the mammalian hunter-gatherer scheme at the heart of the thriller genre. It is exactly this kind of shot that the SC facilitates and injects with a unique flow of movement that makes the act of moving through these kinds of filmic spaces an experience that is not easily duplicated by another device. This means that the SC seems to be the ultimate tool for the kind of scene (not surprisingly, as Brown invented it precisely to solve the issues linked to such scenes) closely linked to the neurobiological foundations that define the thriller genre.
We now have an theoretical starting point that links the SC to the thriller genre. It should now be possible to find examples of the genre-defining schemes in De Palma’s work, as well as of the way the SC plays its role in this process.

De Palma and the Discovery of Space

Having arrived at the link between the basic components of the thriller genre and the sort of shots the SC is best used for (and was actually designed for in the first place), it is interesting to offer one more element that supports Grodal’s claims: Michele Guera and Vittorio Gallese conducted a neurological experiment on camera movement that shows how the viewer’s brain reacts differently to different types of shots (they used a SC, a dolly and a zoom lens for the same forward movement). As it turns out, the fact that the brain reacts differently depending on the device used, is completely unrelated to whether the viewer is technically skilled enough to tell the difference between the devices when looking at the images. This underscores the fact that certain (camera)movements are indeed linked to fundamental brain patterns that tend to be more present in one genre then another. Put differently: our brain tends to recognize basic movement patterns, the very movements based on which genres can be categorized. This is one possible factor in explaining why directors resort less to the use of the SC in, say, comedies or melodramas: the kind of (movement) schemes that form the basis of the genre do not demand this kind of device, while action movies or thrillers do. It is obvious that the neurobiological data that can fully shed light on these theories are still very scarce and that a lot more research is required to prove or disprove all or parts of these theories, but at least they offer an interesting new way of looking at the link between genres and the use of the camera.

Turning to De Palma now, his oeuvre reads almost as an illustration of these claims, since he uses exactly these kind of SC shots over and over again as the formal basis for his thrillers. I already talked about two of these moments in The Untouchables and Snake Eyes and would like to wrap things up by looking at two specific scenes. The first is the museum scene from 1980’s Dressed to Kill, another virtuoso SC shot (filming took place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, even though we’re supposed to be inside the Met in New York) that aligns perfectly with Grodal’s take on the thriller genre. The second is the night-time raid into the Vietnamese village in Casualties of War (1989), one of De Palma’s most underrated films. I chose this scene because it illustrates Grodal’s point that some of the schemes get functionally ‘transformed’ when used in a different genre (Casualties of War is foremost a war film, rather than a thriller) and that we should also be able to ‘read’ this in the formal language that the director uses (consciously or unconsciously).

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)

The scene from Dressed to Kill starts with regular tracking shots that show how the female protagonist (Angie Dickinson) enters the museum and observes the people around her. Once she notices a mysterious stranger, a game of hide and seek ensues within the museum while De Palma switches to fluent SC shots that follow the characters through the hallways and rooms. In his commentary for the Criterion release of the film, De Palma emphasized that the geographical discovery of the space is one of the most important elements of this kind of scene — echoing both Ferrara and Grodal — in claiming that “you’ve got to know where things are for this kind of suspense scene.” The museum sequence very aptly achieves this: what is unfolding before us is indeed a discovery of a (cinematic) space that only exists in order to provide clues, both to Angie Dickinson’s character and to the viewer (a combination De Palma likes to use over and over again, as scenes from Blow-Out, Raising Cain or Femme Fatale also focus on the gathering of information for both character and viewer, through the movement within a space-to-be-discovered).

Around the halfway point of Casualties of War, there is a scene that also uses the SC to explore a space (in this case a Vietnamese village at night). While on the surface it may look as if the two scenes are functionally alike (the SC probing the space), a more thorough viewing highlights a set of differences that illustrate Grodal’s point. First, the spatial lay-out of the scene is remarkably different. Unlike the suspense scenes that adhere to the HTTOF scheme, there is little or no attention to ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ the space here. It is of no importance to ‘map’ the space we are crossing, as this time the hunting and gathering of clues is absent. The camera does not so much discover the space (as in making it comprehensible) here, but simply penetrates it with little or no regard to mapping it. That difference is enhanced by the way the SC moves: as mentioned earlier, most SC operators tend to avoid stressing the presence of the SC device in a shot. By not exaggerating the ‘floating’ movement of the camera, the focus of the shot is on what we are seeing, rather than on the recording device itself. Here Larry McConkey (who cannot be accused of doing this by mistake because of a lack of experience with the SC) clearly works towards emphasizing exactly the ‘floating’ of his camera, thus using a radically different approach than the way he handles e.g. the scene in Snake Eyes.

Grodal claims that in war movies the moral element (or immoral, as in Casualties of War) is more important than the HTOFF scheme and therefor the discovery of a space is a lot less present in these films than in an action-thriller such as Die Hard.

Casualties of War (Brian De Palma, 1989)

It is indeed remarkable how De Palma always manages to choose the correct camera movement or device to underscore a scene’s fundamental meaning: just watch the way the geometric camera patterns from the criminally underrated Mission to Mars (2000) differ greatly from his usual style. If we accept Grodal’s take on the issue of genre, one could state that the true genre master (or master tout court) instinctively knows how to set up the scene in such a way that it fits within the (unconsciously present) demands of a particular genre pattern. Contrary to what De Palma’s detractors claim, this makes his repeated use of certain staging techniques, signature camera movements and a preference for Steadicam shots not a matter of ‘style for style’s sake’, but testimonials to a cinematic vision that seems to grasp the essence of the thriller genre (and cinema in general) in a much more profound way than meets the eye.