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Hardcore POV: ‘Hardcore Henry’, the POV Shot, and ‘Let’s Watch’ Cinema

Is Hardcore Henry the start of something new or a repeat of failed past experiments?

The POV “Gimmick”

Ilya Naishuller’s unconventional action shoot-em-up film Hardcore Henry (2015) has polarized opinion. At the time of writing this, it has a 51 percent approval rating from 92 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The film won the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, yet here at PopMatters, we ceremoniously awarded the film a one out of ten score, with Bill Gibron finding the movie: “a gimmick. It’s not a movie since it doesn’t even pretend to offer the basics of the artform — story, character, drama, excitement, suspense, etc.”

The “gimmick”, according to Hardcore Henry’s own Indiegogo crowd-funding page is that it is “The First Ever Action POV Feature Film.” In the history of cinema, it appears to have taken over 120 years to get to this statement, which seems pretty significant, so I thought I would use my first Reaction Shot article to explore what this might mean.

To understand what the POV shot is, and why it isn’t usually used for the duration of entire films, let’s go back to film school for a moment. As Edward Branigan explains: “The POV shot is a shot in which the camera assumes the position of a subject in order to show us what the subject sees.”

This is usually established through two shots, which lend context to each other. A shot of Person A looking off camera at Person B might be followed by an eye-line match shot from Person A’s imagined POV perspective of Person B. In this instance, as they are edited together in sequence, we would understand more of the context of the second shot (the POV shot) from what we have seen in the first shot. This example would also work for a monkey looking at banana or a banana “looking” at a monkey: it’s a flexible system, but it’s quite easy to see how a lack of context could render the POV shot quite limited.

To understand how the POV isn’t necessarily the best way to convey information when used solely on its own, one only has to look at the DVD bonus content for season one of Daredevil (2015), where the “Daredevil P.O.V. Fight Scene” is one long sustained period of pitch blackness as the character is blind.

However, POVs set up with at least one other shot, or with variations for effect, are a common stylistic device. In action films, like Predator (1988) and Universal Soldier (2012); horror films, such as Halloween (1978) and Jaws; comedies, including The Gold Rush (1925), or The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); and as a part of a consistent stylistic repertoire from directors such as Hitchcock, Tarantino, or the Coen Brothers, as with any shot selection from the film-makers handbook, the POV shot is utilized in ways that both work with a viewer’s expectations and plays against them.

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The King’s Speech

One of the key motivations behind the POV shot is to represent the subjective view of a specific character in order to elicit an emotion in the viewer (even though this character’s viewpoint might only be imagined or hypothetical, like that belonging to the aforementioned seemingly sentient banana). Usually, if the shot “belongs” to the protagonist it’s often in an attempt to elicit sympathy, such as George VI fighting his stutter before a crowd in The King’s Speech (2010), or to stimulate fear if the shot “belongs” to the antagonist, such as the stalking serial killer from the Scream (1996-2011) franchise. In Hardcore Henry then, we might be supposed to feel sympathetic towards Henry.

Yet this intimacy can vary and become extremely complicated, as everything within a film and the way in which it has been presented is never interpreted in exactly the same way by any two people, who may have different star preferences, gender identification, cultural capital, positions on the social field, and so on. I mean, with Scream the kids don’t exactly help themselves do they?

Regarding Hardcore Henry, without context a huge number of critics actually found it difficult to feel empathy for a hyper-violent killer that they could barely relate to. According to The Ooh Tray, movies “offer us portraits of human beings that they hope we’ll inhabit. ‘Hardcore Henry’ asks you to stare at a blank canvas and see yourself. Well, most of us have a slightly more cultivated idealised self than that.”

The Intensity of Looking

Laura Mulvey, in her analysis of the “voyeuristic” look in cinema, contends that there are three different “looks”: “that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters looking at each other within the screen illusion.” The POV shot is distinctive in that it closely aligns all three of these looks, and the (potentially reflexive) intensity of vision can be astonishing.

In Being John Malkovich (1999) for example, the POV shot is used only when a character (played by a film star such as Cameron Diaz) has climbed into a tunnel, giving them the ability to see from the fictional John Malkovich’s perspective, literally, it’s insinuated with the POV, through his eyes. Later on, she controls him so that Malkovich doesn’t even “own” his own POV, becoming a passive viewer like the movie audience (who may also wish to “be” a film star, like Malkovich or Diaz). Of course, this Malkovich is being played by the real actor, John Malkovich, and the film becomes a reflexive commentary on stardom, sexual identity, and the Hollywood system itself. The tagline to the film is: “Ever wanted to be someone else? Now you can.” And the POV helps to sell it.

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Being John Malkovich

Similarly, Hardcore Henry attempts to offer the viewer the ability to become a Hardcore Malkovich. According to Naishuller: “I feel really confident about HARDCORE because it puts you in the place of the protagonist, and YOU BECOME HIM as you experience the journey together in a very personal way.”

Using a custom designed head rig with cameras attached to the unit worn by the stuntman, the camera angle in Hardcore Henry is from the perspective of the actor/character. We see Henry’s arms wave about before the lens, we see the camera move in relation to where one would imagine that Henry was looking, people talk directly to the camera when they are talking to Henry, and most of the action tends to emanate from around the center and near/middle distance of the POV, implying that the camera’s subjective viewpoint is both the center of the viewer’s connection with the film world and the center of the film world itself: everything else is peripheral.

Henry is the viewer’s portal, but the view is not exactly analogous to the reality of our own world. First of all, in using wide-angle lensed cameras, the image is constantly distorted to have a fisheye effect, whereby the horizontal and vertical lines of perspective take on an increasingly convex form towards the edges of the shot’s frame, resulting from a curvilinear perspective rather than the rectilinear one often used in standard narrative filmmaking to create film space. This is a limitation imposed from using the GoPro Hero3 camera (which offers other benefits such as size, weight, and cost), but the effect is a constant reminder that we, the viewers, are only voyeurs with our “peephole” perspective on distorted events. Not that I spend my days lingering around peepholes for research purposes you understand.

The POV is a shot selection that can also appear to come from a camera within the reality of the film world itself, such as in The Blair Witch Project (1999), [Rec] (2007), and Cloverfield (2008). In this respect, it can also offer different properties as the material properties of the recording object becomes a factor in the viewpoint. The use of a night vision scope in 28 Weeks Later, which only one character can use at a time, for example, is another way of playing with this format, as are recent films that use a web-cam gimmick, such as the Open Windows (2015) or Unfriended (2015).

In Hardcore Henry, the POV shot comes from Henry’s vision (as in “it puts you in the place of the protagonist”), but Henry is also a cyborg with eyeballs that seem to be attached to great balls of string coiled within his skull. On more than one occasion an eyeball is removed, giving rise to a split screen POV from more than one viewpoint, but by the same character. While it’s certainly a neat trick, offering new gross-out perspectives, or momentarily confusing the viewer’s understanding of the screen image, it’s also another way in which the relationship between the POV and the viewer is potentially challenged, reminding us of the cinematic form. In fact, in his utterly contemptuous review of Hardcore Henry for Empire, Jonathan Pile points out that “the filmmakers fundamentally seem to misunderstand how the human eye works, in that, it can move within its socket,” so the juddery camera work isn’t at all realistic.

It’s impossible for the POV within Hardcore Henry to be a faithful reproduction of visual acuity, but rather it’s a heightened approximation of the experience of doing what Henry does. So, as the action in his world becomes more frenetic, the camera mirrors that sensation, which isn’t more lifelike, but is arguably an attempt to be more emotionally suggestive.

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Cloverfield

Unfortunately, with the juddery lack of correlation between the FOV (or field of view — the amount of observable film world), the wide angle lens of the POV, and the fixed viewpoint of the audience member, motion sickness and nausea can occur. A similar thing happened with the restrictive camera POV of Cloverfield (2008), which made “some viewers so sick they are stumbling out of screenings before the end,” and some cinemas had to put up signs that warned audiences they might “experience side effects associated with motion sickness, similar to riding a rollercoaster.”

Not that Naishuller wasn’t prepared for such an effect, as he claims “We did HUNDREDS of tests for stabilization using our Go-Pro rigs. HARDCORE gently eases the audience into the POV style at the start of the film … so by the time the frantic scenes come on, the viewer has been comfortably ‘living’ in the shooting style for some time.”

Despite Naishuller’s prep work, among the din of groaning reviews, The Guardian asked “Do I have any aspirin in my bag?” and MTV, of all places, called it “nauseating, twice over.” The advantages of the low-cost, HD portable cameras are clear, but one might argue that the technology to replicate the experience on a cinema screen isn’t quite there yet. The Telegraph points out that the film “looks grubby and indistinct on a large cinema screen, and the unavoidable judder obscures most of the thrills behind a greeny-grey pixellated smear.” It might be that Hardcore Henry will benefit from a home video release, where the screen is smaller, and the reality of the film world becomes a little less nauseatingly intense.

POV Influences and False Starts

So, if Hardcore Henry is less bothered about trying to double-down on making “YOU BECOME HIM” in any realistic terms, then where else might it expect to forge this connection, or “experience [of] the journey together?”

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RoboCop

Looking at the film heritage that Hardcore Henry draws on for POV touchstones might be a good place to start. For example, Henry’s cyborg awakening and subsequent rebuilding, at the start of the film, is comparable to Alex Murphy’s POV shot from the original RoboCop (1987), and the 2014 remake. Henry’s shoot-out in the red soaked brothel is reminiscent of the red POV shots we see in The Terminator series (1984-2015), with the same moral ambiguity being dependent on which mass-murdering endoskeleton we are watching the action through.

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At times you might also feel like you’re in the middle of a Matrix (1999) style fight scene, which although enjoyable, also hinged on the fact that everything that was happening to Neo was not based in reality: it was digital violence. Not only were we not there, neither was the hero.

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Matrix

Although Hardcore Henry might want you to feel like you’re the protagonist of an action film, the cyborg POV shot and the referencing to other Hollywood tropes also works against that direct identification, because as with Being John Malkovich, the emphasis isn’t strictly on being Henry, but in sitting back and enjoying the impossibly computerized perspective as some form of passive thrill ride.

So far, we’ve looked at the POV shot when it is used in films that draw from a wide shot selection. Going back to Branigan, he explains that “Another simple variant of the POV structure is the continuing POV where one character looks at several objects or one object a number of times.” Which brings us to the real “gimmick” of Hardcore Henry: the film is claiming to be the first ever action POV feature film that is shot entirely from within the POV of the protagonist.

Consciously subjective shots were introduced into cinema as early as 1900, where George Albert Smith’s Grandma’s Reading Glass “was one of the first films to cut between medium shot and point-of-view close-up”. Surprisingly, this is one of the first renouncements of “the conventions of a theatrical perspective — the fixed view from the stalls — that had been the dominant model for film production.” Unsurprisingly, Smith’s follow up, As Seen Through a Telescope (1900), utilizes the groundbreaking technique of the POV shot to have an elderly gentleman perve on a woman’s ankle through a telescope. It would take only 60 years to get from here to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Well done, guys.

The history of full POV feature films almost began in 1939, when Orson Welles was toying with the idea of shooting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness entirely from the point-of-view of the main character as he travels up the river in search of Kurtz. According to Jason Bailey, in the film, Welles planned to “introduce and explain the notion of the subjective camera, by which the audience would take on the POV of a canary in a cage, a convict going to the electric chair, and an unfortunate somebody on the business end of a gunshot”, but the film failed to get made because “Welles and RKO couldn’t get the budget below $1,057,761, which was more than twice the $500K ceiling afforded by his deal with the studio.”

Except for a couple of fleeting scenes in which the viewer is directly addressed by the protagonist, Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake (1947) is widely credited as being the first full POV feature film. Aping the first person narrative from Raymond Chandler’s source novel, the POV shot seemed analogous and audacious enough to invest in for a full 105-minute movie.

Why hadn’t anybody tried this before? Well, according to Jake Hinkson, The Lady in the Lake “pulls off the trick of being both experimentally bold and crushingly boring at the same time.” I’m fairly sure that the film failed because it didn’t have enough POV shots of ankles. Classic mistake. On the other hand, Hinkson and contemporary critics at the time found that The Lady in the Lake contained a number of other critical flaws from its reliance on the POV shot.

First: “it actually robs us of a main character” because narration has to be kept to a minimum to avoid confusing the audience, and we can’t see the lead character to which we are supposedly bound. Second: “It also disproved the theory that by supposedly looking through the eyes of the character we would then assume the character’s identity” as “we seem to float through the air.” Third: the actors are “forced to do their scenes with the camera rather than each other” which can stifle their performances. Fourth, and finally: “it constricts the action onscreen” as “actors are constantly pinned to the center foreground so they can talk at the camera.”

The biggest differences between a film that is entirely within POV and one that only uses the technique sparingly is the duration of the POV viewpoint and the lack of the contextual shot. Every one of the outcomes listed above could be seen to rise from these two points. So, while Hardcore Henry may strive to be original, most of its reviews echo these exact same complaints.

Most of the critics enjoyed taking on the POV perspective for a brief while. Rolling Stone, for example, felt that the film is “all about the ride, the relentless wallop and whoosh. But, hey, sometimes that’s all a cine-junkie needs for a fix.” But almost across the board, critics tired of the viewpoint quickly. The Philadelphia Enquirer found that their honeymoon period lasted “for about 90 seconds” while Laramie Movie Scope discovered that “The relentless point of view videography is a visually restrictive technique” and as such, they “got tired of the boring repetition of so many shootings, stabbings, hackings and beatings, all seen from the exact same viewpoint.” Gibron’s complaints about Hardcore Henry having no “story, character, drama, excitement, suspense, etc.,” show that the flaws of The Lady in the Lake are the exact same things that are reoccurring 68 years later.

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Maniac

Since Montgomery’s effort, there have been other films shot (almost) entirely from the subjective POV shot, although these have been few and far between. Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 remake of Maniac (1980), for example, was created because according to the director, “no horror film had ever been entirely shot that way,” and as such he “wanted the audience to feel trapped in [the protagnist’s] body.” Instead of enjoying events, Khalfoun wanted his audience to feel “complicit and repulsed”. Comparable to Hardcore Henry, the Maniac remake has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 49 percent across 68 reviews, so not all critics were enamored with Khalfoun’s sentiments, but it does highlight one way in which the dynamics of the prolonged POV shot can serve a film: to actively encourage a disassociation between the viewer and the POV protagonist once a forced connection has been made.

Hardcore Henry’s use of POV seems to suffer from the same formal limitations as its cinematic predecessors; not that Naishuller didn’t anticipate this, as even in his campaign to secure funds for VFX through crowdsourcing, he initially turned down the offer to make the film, “believing that it was a gimmicky idea that couldn’t possibly work on the big screen.”

“Let’s Watch” Cinema

The full POV film is a rarity in the history of narrative feature film making, and with good reason. We’ve also had lightweight digital cameras for a while now, so it can’t just be down to the advancements of film technology. So one may ask: “What makes 2015/2016 a good time to try and make ‘The First Ever Action POV Feature Film’?”

If your answer is “videogames”, then you might be getting closer to some kind of truth.

Glancing over the reviews, there are numerous comments about the film being like a nauseating first-person game (although the FOV can be an issue, and many PC games have a slider to adjust it accordingly). Prior to watching Hardcore Henry, I had a self-entitled notion that these comments were being made by people that have never played a videogame and as such were merely helping to pass the torch of glib criticism from “It’s like a music video” to “It’s like a video game.” Slow hand-clap.

Yet, after experiencing Hardcore Henry, I made the following list: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Mirror’s Edge, Sleeping Dogs, Deus Ex, Grand Theft Auto V, Halo, Retro City Rampage, and the Rainbow 6 and Hitman franchises. You could probably toss a few more games into the blender of ghillie suits, silent protagonists, scoped sniping, tactical shields, convoy attacks, medicine cabinets with adrenaline shots, escort missions, heads in fan blades, NPC avatars with the same repeating face textures, and hardcore parkour, but the end result will still largely be Hardcore Henry.

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Call of Duty 4

These videogames are all from either a first-person or third person, over the shoulder, point-of-view. The influences of FPS (first person shooter) games such as Call of Duty 4, and Mirror’s Edge, with its first-person parkour, are most keenly evident (although, it must be noted, that you can actually complete Mirror’s Edge without taking any lives), but while I enjoyed playing a “spot the reference” game, in this regard Hardcore Henry is not exactly a huge leap forward from Freddie Wong’s brilliant live-action parody short, Time Crisis – Ft. Andy Whitfield, or his self-explanatory Future First Person Shooter, both from 2010.

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Mirror’s Edge

The most famous example of the FPS videogame experience infiltrating Hollywood cinema is in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Doom (2005), where sliding into the Hero’s POV for an extended and seamless sequence, the film emulates the eponymous videogame, as the hero slaughters countless enemies in graphically violent ways, bracketed off and entirely divorced from the tonality and reality of the rest of the film.

Yet, the same criticisms of Doom, such as: “If gaming is about playing, why would a gamer want to watch movies like this?” are also levelled at Hardcore Henry; namely, the lack of direct agency over the lead protagonist within the narrative. Or, as the New York Post puts it: “For the first time ever, a movie has actually done it. ‘Hardcore Henry’ has precisely replicated the experience of watching someone else play a video game.”

Given that the latest FPSs such as Destiny (2014) might cost somewhere around $140 million to make, why would anyone want to go to the cinema to watch an unplayable simulation that cost around $2 million to cobble together? All of the reviews I’ve read for Hardcore Henry don’t seem to attend to this financial discrepancy, seeing film as the more prestigious format.

Live streaming video platforms such as Twitch and Persiscope, and the “Let’s Play” (or LP) videos on YouTube could be one significant factor. When online content producers such as PewDiePie (Felix Kjelberg) have subscription bases of over 43 million users, and over ten billion video views, it’s not too hard to comprehend that some people actually like the idea of watching other people play videogames, and it’s maybe not quite the derisive label that the more “mainstream” media might perceive it to be. Had I the data, it might prove useful to compare the demographics of those that watch LP type videos online and those that actually enjoyed watching Hardcore Henry.

Furthermore, the idea, execution, and subsequent groundswell that lead directly up to Hardcore Henry took place entirely online. Hardcore Henry: the film evolved directly from the identical techniques used in Naishuller’s POV music videos for “The Stampede” (2011) and “Bad Motherfucker” (2013), which were shot for his own band, Biting Elbows. Timur Bekmambetov, director of the Night Watch (2004-2006) series and Wanted (2008), presumably contributed to the 40 million hits that the videos have cumulatively acquired, as he asked Naishuller to “make more of this please!”

Entirely POV music videos aren’t a new thing. For example, in 1997, Jonas Åkerlund created the controversial promo for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”; in 2006, Kim Gehrig directed Gomez’s “See the World”; and in 2009, Chris Milk directed Kanye West’s “All Falls Down”. There are others out on the wild west of YouTube. However, Naishuller’s videos stand out for how cinematically action packed they are. Although it might be that the popularity of striking POV music videos is another red-herring of sorts in determining why Naisuller’s work is so popular.

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When I type “POV_” into Google.co.uk I find that the top three recommended searches are for “pov camera”, “pov film”, and “pov characters”. So one might assume that these are the predominant interests of those that are seeking POV material on the internet, or rather: POV material that is not pornographic in nature, anyway. I made the mistake of lazily typing “Hardcore POV” into Google when I began writing this piece. I’ve seen things. However, Naisuller’s music videos have found fame through YouTube, and what I find interesting is that when one types “POV_” into YouTube’s search engine, the three top auto-complete entries are not for cinematic types of POV, which one might imagine, but are for “pov parkour”, “pov response” (as in police, dash-cam chase footage), and “pov roller coaster”.

Throughout this entire article, Hardcore Henry has been compared to all three of these elements, and it might be that Naishuller’s successes have come not from attempting to innovate with the cinematic action-film form and attempt to mirror reality through the rules of that medium, but rather they are a natural evolution of these three search topics: POV jump, run, and fall. When cross-referenced with the live streaming and the LP crowd, this might create a new type of audience that wants to see films such as Hardcore Henry, despite their obvious cinematic limitations.

The GoPro was originally designed to capture footage of extreme-action sports and to help “people capture and share their lives’ most meaningful experiences with others — to celebrate them together.” People broadcast on Twitch for comparable reasons, because: “It’s fun and represents a compelling new social network to connect with friends and fans over a shared love of games.” So, while it is tempting to see Hardcore Henry as some fad comparable to the recent rise of solitary VR (which also comes with its own warnings on nausea from excessive use), as some empty videogame experience for those that have accidentally wandered out of their home, or even as some alternative to the “Hardcore” pornographic POV indulgences which can be enjoyed in seclusion, I would disagree with all of those assessments.

Hardcore Henry might just represent a more sociable direction in modern (and for $2 million — largely disposable) cinema. The fact that the POV works to keep you from the protagonist is besides the point, because from the POV of some viewers, Hardcore Henry might just be one more point of contact in an increasingly expansive social network of communal commentary; the beginning of a new type of excess cinema that can freely disregard the “basics of the artform”, a cinema called: “Let’s Watch”.

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