Has the use of the handheld camera lost its meaning?
I think it has. Instead of being reserved as a Sunday punch – for moments that contrast with the established visual structure – it seems to have become an all-purpose go-to for filmmakers who don’t understand its aesthetic.
Most productions today display a number of out-of-context shaky-cam sequences, often recording two people sitting opposite from or next to each other. Granted, there are instances in which this choice is appropriate, but its constant repetition in uncalled for situations has drained its meaning. In the majority of cases, handheld now comes across as lazy, false or desperate. I often find myself thinking, “Is that the only thing they could think of to jazz up a poorly written scene?” By calling attention to itself in such a way, the cure ironically feeds the disease. Even if the audience is not conscious of it, on some level they can’t help but become aware of the device – and in that moment are taken out of the story.
Despite popular opinion, handheld camera does not speed up production (anymore than the use of Steadicam does), nor does it automatically add energy to a scene or impart a “you are there” feeling of intimacy or immediacy. Without a solid visual foundation – and a surrounding narrative that supports it – it’s just another tool that can be too easily misused.
So, in the interest of bringing some intelligence back to motion pictures, I’d suggest that everyone give it a rest for awhile. In time, it’s possible that the technique will experience a re-set. Then, what we now see as shallow and overused might just become new again.