The curse of the zoom lens

There is a shot in Chinatown, as I remember it, a very long  and continuous shot, which does not trouble the eye so much as soothe it, by not altering the camera angles, but following the action. You don’t get this very much – not in an age in which Baz Luhrmann has taken over where Nic Roeg left off, and encouraged us to see cinema as snap, crackle, pop, snap, crackle, pop and so on – the Rice Krispie method of making a  movie, which ensures that you come out dizzy. And of course, we survivors of the 1960s were brought up on a diet of cameramen who had just been given some hand-held gadgets and a box of tricks. Music was imposible to watch in the 1960s. The camera men made the colour bleed from the screen, or turned it to silhouette or negative, or imposed on image on another, or turned the camera up and down – just because they could. A favourite trick was to target a lead singer and then to zoom in and out at frantic speed.

I’m mot arguing that they were trying to imitate the effects of LSD. I’m not arguing, because, in a cack-handed way, they were. The zoom lens was a kind of auto-hallucinogenic in the hands of the camera-happy. The lens would not sit still.

The trouble is that, as amateur photographers, we are roughly fifty years behind the professionals. I’ve been watching (part of the archiving project which is now taking over my life) a great deal of video taken by my brother, my sister, my sister-in-law, my son, and also, I admit, by me. We have one thing in common: at some point in the videoing, we get bored, and start zooming in and out, just like they did on the telly. The result is some tragically inept film, film which a future generation may not look on with the kindliness we might expect of them (‘that’s my great-grandfather as a baby!’). They are likely to think, ‘What did they think they were doing?’

Still, there’s nothing quite as tragic as the bit of video copied (without being watched, I would hazard) for me by my brother-in-law, in which he and my sister, who died in 2001, manage to leave the video-camera on, and pointing at a pile of towels. Just out of shot, apart from the odd elbow, you can hear my sister talking. I did not actually know I had this recording of her, so it is of course a hypnotic, distressing and wonderful experience. Her laugh is suddenly at the forefront of my memory. I feel I could reach out and touch her.

But all I can see is a tub of towels (and she nevr had very special taste in towels, either). Tantalising beyond belief …

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