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“It’s like a magic carpet.” That’s how Stanley Kubrick described the Steadicam in an interview not long after the release of his horror film, The Shining, in 1980. The technology, developed by cameraman and inventor Garrett Brown, was still relatively new, but Kubrick had been introduced to it in 1974, via a demo reel containing two dozen mysterious shots from a camera moving smoothly through spaces where an ordinary dolly — with its cumbersome size, tracks, and crew — could never have fit. Ever the tech wonk, Kubrick was able to ascertain, thanks to telltale shadows in the images, that what he was watching was the result of some kind of body rig that allowed the camera operator to move freely while keeping the lens stable.
With its camera ominously gliding through the Overlook Hotel’s desolate, haunted corridors and demonic hedge maze, The Shining was probably the most revolutionary use of what Kubrick initially called the “mystery stabilizer,” and the movie will be featured prominently in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s extensive tribute, “Going Steadi: 40 Years of Steadicam.” (The garrulous, charismatic Brown himself will be in attendance.) But Kubrick was not the first major filmmaker to utilize the technology: That honor belongs to Hal Ashby and his lyrical young-Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound for Glory (1976), and to Haskell Wexler’s graceful, fluid (not to mention Oscar-winning) camerawork. And John G. Avildsen had used Steadicam effectively in the blockbuster Rocky, particularly during Sylvester Stallone’s unforgettable training scenes. But in Kubrick’s film, style became substance, the camera relentlessly stalking Danny Lloyd’s Big Wheel through halls and around corners like some force of destiny. Horror turns on helplessness, on inevitability; the Steadicam pulled and pushed us into places we did not want to go.
The technology was seized by many of the era’s great stylists. One of its most ingenious and best-known uses comes in a title not included in this retro, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). As troubled boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) finally gets his shot at the middleweight championship of the world, the camera follows him from the cramped locker room through a narrow hallway, up a flight of stairs, and into a massive, packed arena — whereupon the Steadicam operator actually hops onto a crane, pulling up and away. Scorsese is nevertheless well represented in “Going Steadi,” with his cult 1985 comedy, After Hours, in which the camera careens down the streets and through the apartments of a nighttime Soho alive with unseen menace and surreal possibility, and the epochal Goodfellas (1990), with its indelible scene of young mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) entering the Copacabana nightclub — an early moment of triumph-before-the-fall that echoes LaMotta’s from ten years earlier.
Brian De Palma, always a fan of fluid and expressive camera movement, was another enthusiastic convert. This retrospective features his surreal serial-killer flick Raising Cain (1992) and his gangland masterpiece Carlito’s Way (1993), in which we hurtle forward with Al Pacino’s brilliant, desperate ex-con as he tries to make his escape from New York to the Caribbean.
In its early years, the Steadicam was seen as a more convenient alternative to the dolly: Filmmakers could get similarly smooth movement, only with more flexibility and freedom. Watch a Steadi shot carefully, however, and you sense something else — a subtly unmoored quality. Handheld shots, with their jostling and roughness, often convey chaos. Tracking shots, with their almost mechanical movements, suggest control. But the Steadicam evokes drift. And while now ubiquitous in mainstream filmmaking, it has been best utilized by filmmakers who’ve embraced that quality of floating, both on an aesthetic and a conceptual level. In making the 2005 historical romance The New World, Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki began to perfect a style the director calls “walking down the garden path” — the sense of a character wandering through the world, uncertain of what may come next. That same quality of uncertainty haunts Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful Millennium Mambo (2001), which follows party girl and bar hostess Shu Qi as she drifts from relationship to relationship.
But perhaps the most dramatically discomfiting use of Steadicam in the past decade and a half can be found in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), loosely based on the Columbine mass shootings. In it, the camera follows different students as they roam their school’s halls and fields — sometimes with youthful aimlessness, sometimes with murderous purpose. Van Sant marries horror’s inevitable pull toward the monstrous with the coming-of-age tale’s sense of rootless uncertainty. The results are borderline unwatchable. They are also utterly captivating.
Going Steadi: 40 Years of Steadicam
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Through January 3
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