Budgets and Artistic Choices

Over the years, I’m always running into directors or producers who want to shoot something on a low budget. Inevitably, they come to the conclusion that the way to do this is to shoot it handheld, or the worse, “Mike Leigh-style” or even “Cassavetes-style”. This seems to me to be a lazy decision that is based either entirely on saving money, or on the idea that preparation is unnecessary because things like scripts and storyboards are just another barrier put up by the man, like the need to raise money, which just get in the way of the artist trying to make art. The best part is that they then go on to rationalize the decision to shoot in this style because they want it to be realistic, or gritty, down and dirty.

What’s been most surprising to me is that this “style” of shooting has now, apparently, been embraced by the mainstream. I can’t help thinking that it has something to do with the fact that budgets are getting smaller, and also that people are paying for these smaller budget films themselves.

Now, people think that the indie film is in trouble because of the financing and distribution of these films. That’s the truth. But no one seems to care that the art of the film is suffering because of the financing.  Films don’t have to cost a lot of money, but they do need some money, and they need to replace the gaps in the budget with imaginative solutions.  Shooting handheld is not an imaginative solution.

It can be an interesting thing when handheld camera is adopted as a real artistic choice. I love Husbands and Wives, one of the films I blame for this trend.  Woody Allen abandoned his style completely.  The whole thing is handheld, justified with a sort of documentary within the film.  It was so different at the time that people complained about getting dizzy in the theater.  (A complaint that was used in the marketing of Blair Witch to prove that it was so scary that it made people throw up.)

I have yet to see any handheld film of the past ten years have the powerful realism of, say, a Michael Ritchie film from the 70’s, which had scenes that were handheld, but they didn’t make a point of it.

There are definitely budgetary advantages when you choose handheld and embrace that “guerilla” film making style. But artistically, it always seems like a cop out.

That handheld style has no worked its way all the way through the system. Handheld was the style on District 9, and it’s the style on CSI and many other TV shows huffing and puffing to be gritty. What is “mumblecore” except the embrace of this aesthetic: it doesn’t matter that there’s no script, that you can’t hear the actors, that the film looks like shit because that’s the intention?

Styleless films may seem cutting edge, but this is a fad and one that, when one sees how prevalent it is, must be near its end. There were plenty of low budget films from the past that weren’t handheld, and the ones you remember had good scripts, were planned out and, most importantly, had someone put some imagination into it.


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