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August 22, 2011 5:41 PM   Subscribe

Chaos Cinema (Part 1, Part 2). The decline of extreme action in movies and the rise of overindulgent chaos.

"The video essay Chaos Cinema, administered by Indiewire's journalistic blog PRESS PLAY, examines the extreme aesthetic principles of 21st century action films. These films operate on techniques that, while derived from classical cinema, threaten to shatter the established continuity formula. Chaos reigns in image and sound. Part 2 takes a look at the chaotic style in dialogue scenes, musicals, "shaky-cam" extravaganzas and mourns the rich history of early cinema."
posted by blue_beetle (92 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Transcript/blog post here.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:45 PM on August 22, 2011


Nice, now I can intellectually hate Michael Bay.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:56 PM on August 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Ironically, as the visuals in action films have become sloppier, shallower and blurrier, the sound design has become more creative, dense and exact.

This is totally right on, and not something I had ever articulated before. Cool post.
posted by brundlefly at 6:01 PM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also, kudos for singling out Ronin as a counter-example.
posted by brundlefly at 6:03 PM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


Nice, now I can intellectually hate Michael Bay.


Meanwhile, Michael Bay cries himself to sleep on a huge pile of money, weepily blowing shit up as he dreams of a brighter day when his movies will finally accepted by the world.
posted by Doleful Creature at 6:04 PM on August 22, 2011


Really liked this. The thing is, chaos cinema is a better approximation of our experience of reality, whereas the crisp narrative of classic film is less authentic. In the real world of fast action, we don't know wtf is going on, everything is a blur. It's like watching football live in person -vs- on TV with commentary and slow mow ie. narrative.
posted by stbalbach at 6:07 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this is well-done.

But can you imagine how long Inception would be if Nolan actually cared enough to answer all the, "Where the fuck are they in space/time?!" questions. I'd still be watching and hating that fucking thing.
posted by dobbs at 6:15 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Reminds me of Outlaw Vern calling modern action cinema 'post-action' (in that you can't tell whats going on).
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:15 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


There is a parallel here between action movies in the last 15 years and music production in the past 30 years. CGI and fast cuts to both 'intensify' the scene and to a smaller degree cover any flaws in the CGI itself have a similar drawback to the overuse of compression and saturation of dynamic range in music recording since the 80s.

Too much of the 'immersive' experience sometimes just ends up drowning the viewer's mind. There are more times than not these days I just fast forward through the fight/chase scenes when watching new films. It's just not worth it. It's like a commercial break I have to wade through to get back to the story. There is frequently a point in current fight scenes where I tune out. The characters are fighting just to fight, and it no longer seems like it means anything to the story or the participating characters. My adrenaline that the filmmakers are so eagerly trying to get flowing, and have spent so much money on eliciting, won't be released if I've already stopped caring about what's happening.

In the end, it all comes back to story. Without it, I have no interest in what I am seeing. It could be the biggest, most intricate special effects and CGI in history, but it's of no interest to me if the story sucks. All this chaos is like beheading a chicken: the brain has been separated from the body and discarded, and all this chaotic action is just the body running around not knowing it's dead.

One day it will balance out, and story will be an equal partner, but until then, I've got lean pickings when it comes to a rewarding film experience.
posted by chambers at 6:18 PM on August 22, 2011 [15 favorites]


Hobo With A Shotgun is a great counterexample - it illustrates why the movies we really enjoyed in the late '70s and '80s were, in fact, terrible, and it's only nostalgia that colors our opinions of them. This is a movie meant to be terrible, casting Ricky from the Trailer Park Boys and Stanley Tweedle from Lexx in iconoclast roles... and Rutger Hauer putting in his usual work - way above the source material, yet never resenting his role... and a soundtrack peeled directly from John Carpenter's brain... and it's awful. It's also oh, so watchable, but only because it brings to mind They Live, Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors, Robocop, Scanners and the other standard bearers of terrible ultra-violent schlock we now insist on being Nerd Canon.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:24 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


They Live, Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors, Robocop, Scanners and the other standard bearers of terrible ultra-violent schlock we now insist on being Nerd Canon.

In what world is They Live, The Warriors and Robocop 'terrible'?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:39 PM on August 22, 2011 [29 favorites]


This was great - I don't know though whether a general laziness is to blame or if maybe it comes from the availability of cameras and the way that has changed audience's visual literacy. I think the observations about it forcing the viewer into a kind of passive acceptance were pretty spot on - I watched Transformers 2 at the cinema and there was a point where I completely disengaged because I didn't know which shiny bit of metal I was supposed to be routing for.

The thing is, as a stylistic trope this has become the norm in way too many arenas. Masterchef in the UK uses these techniques to very cheaply give it an exciting feel, I don't think this is the shakey cam of yoof TV but chaos cookery. By the end of each show I feel dizzy from watching a shakey barrage of knives, chewing faces and raised eyebrows. Seriously, it's like Paul Sharits or something - I'm surprised there haven't been complaints from epileptics about the speed at which they cut from a carrot jus to an pea foam.
posted by pmcp at 6:39 PM on August 22, 2011


Outlaw Vern calling modern action cinema 'post-action' (in that you can't tell whats going on)

Or as in 'post-modern'; post-modern is difficult to define, but it can mean disjointed narrative where time doesn't follow chronologically for example.
posted by stbalbach at 6:42 PM on August 22, 2011


Considering all the deliberate insanity occurring onscreen, these movies should be totally unintelligible. Yet we still have a faint sense of what’s going on.

Why?

Because of the soundtrack.

That was the clever bit of the article. We can't see goon #4 stagger after one punch too many but we can hear a ragged edge in his breathing. Bad directors can get away with throwing random stills on the screen because sound design standards are higher than ever. Sound alone is holding a lot of action movies together.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:58 PM on August 22, 2011


It's a shame that he spends the whole thing describing the phenomenon rather than analyzing it, because I think this has everything to do with the change in filmmaking technologies from physical, film-based shooting and editing to abstracted, digital-based shooting and editing, and there's a lot of interesteing stuff to say about the subject that hasn't really been said yet. It seems a strangely neglected topic, perhaps because film scholars are usually so much more interested in content than in the history of technology (you're not supposed to think about the cameras and the projectors when you watch a film, after all).

Walter Murch has some interesting things to say about the transition in this 1999 essay, particularly about the ease with which a single person (or fewer people) can take control of the style and content of a film using simpler digital technologies. (I wonder if decision fatigue contributes to the problem?)

The sound thing, too, is all about technology. Image quality is no better in current digital formats than on 35mm - but digital sound is much, much better. (Which puts me in mind of a cranky old film guy I know who prefers to watch all films without sound, because to him the art is about moving images and color, goddamnit. Perhaps now we're far enough away from the birth of cinema that the argument about whether sound matters as much as image is finished...)
posted by bubukaba at 6:59 PM on August 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


Which puts me in mind of a cranky old film guy I know who prefers to watch all films without sound, because to him the art is about moving images and color, goddamnit.

Wow, that's hardcore. I bet his family never let him use the remote though (which is making the huge assumption that this guy doesn't live alone with just his laser disks for company.)
posted by pmcp at 7:08 PM on August 22, 2011


The thing is, as a stylistic trope this has become the norm in way too many arenas.

This may not be entirely bad:

(Zombie) Sam Peckinpah's Jersey Shore

Where what I would really like to see happen to the people in that show actually happens.

Michael Bay's The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
Where issues are tackled during mind-blowing car chases, from the helicopters in war zones, and after their segments, guests and pundits each have a dramatic scene where they are each blown up in new and exciting ways every episode. The controversial series finale would actually cause your own TV to explode.

Roland Emmerich directs all 24 hours of Weatherscan
,
the Weather channel's information summary page.
When real weather information is not bringing in the ratings, Roland Emmerich is called in to 'punch up' boring weather information by showing the most apocalyptic horrors the natural world, outer space, and his imagination can provide as the current weather. Looping easy listening soundtrack replaced by looping the entire catalog of Mötorhead and Slayer. Cancelled after only three days when it causes waves of panic and riots among viewers.
posted by chambers at 7:09 PM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's nice to have this point articulated. I remember going to see Batman Begins at the cinema, despite being slightly hungover and tired, and wondering to myself whether the fight scenes were unintelligible because of my own state or because that was how they were being presented. Seeing the film later on DVD it became obvious that it was the latter. Which is shit.
posted by MUD at 7:11 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]



It's nice to have this point articulated. I remember going to see Batman Begins at the cinema, despite being slightly hungover and tired, and wondering to myself whether the fight scenes were unintelligible because of my own state or because that was how they were being presented. Seeing the film later on DVD it became obvious that it was the latter. Which is shit.


This is actually justified in Batman Begins, as Chris Sims points out today. Batman is a guy who fights using fear, disorientation, and quick attacks. The shaky-cam reflects that.

If you play Arkham Asylum you realize that Batman is outnumbered in a fair fight. But if you strike from the shadows, punch somebody, retreat, Batarang another one... then the enemies are scared, and you can win easily.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:16 PM on August 22, 2011


Lovecraft In Brooklyn: "They Live, Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors, Robocop, Scanners and the other standard bearers of terrible ultra-violent schlock we now insist on being Nerd Canon.

In what world is They Live, The Warriors and Robocop 'terrible'?
"

And what do you have against Assault on Precinct 13 and Scanners?!
posted by brundlefly at 7:22 PM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


I haven't seen them yet.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:28 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Zombie) Sam Peckinpah's Jersey Shore
Where what I would really like to see happen to the people in that show actually happens.


The irony is, they had to import Rhode Islanders, as the Jersey Shore isn't Jersey Shore enough. So, what happens is the Italian, excuse me, Sicilian people have to fight the ethnic people, excuse me, Irish (and/or Greek) people, so it's Orange versus Green (and/or Greek), and then there are bombings, excuse me, intensely divided pubs in Newport where the tourists just don't know it's bad to wear a "Bass Beer" and/or "Guiness" t-shirt or to order an ouzo on St. Paddy's Day...
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:30 PM on August 22, 2011


It could be argued that the chaos and disorientation of "Blackhawk Down" was entirely the point. (although if you read the book and/or the original written piece about the events, the narrative is perfectly clear.)
posted by ShutterBun at 7:31 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


YES. To all of this. Yes to the videos that were posted that did an excellent job of articulating the incomprehensible editing that (what feels like) all contemporary action movies are plagued with.

If I had to theorize, I would say a contributing factor is the ever-decreasing need for special effects (manual, on-set effects) in favor of visual effects (CGI). It's just easier, more time-efficient, cheaper, and less dangerous for effects and "stunts" to be born in 'post.' The filmmakers then utilize hyper-kynetic editing to cover up not only their insecurities about CGI, but to do a service to the animators, who would much, much rather animate 1.5 second shots ECU rather than a 10 second wide shot. CGI's first ever legit incarnation, (IMHO) Terminator 2, came out 20 years ago, so, relatively speaking, I would say it's a rather new concept for CGI to be as rock-solid on the believability factor as SFX are.

I have to say, though, I recently saw 'Captain America' and what I actually really liked about it was that it was shot in this more "classical" style, which I was not expecting at all. It was a box-office smash blockbuster action movie and it was very fluid with beautifully choreographed action scenes... So maybe there is hope. Let's not forget that we're seeing movies like Children of Men that are receiving accolades for completing long, well planned-out takes. Yes, they do use CGI, but you can follow the action, and that's what the problem is here.
posted by staticscreen at 7:32 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


A similar thing happened with fiction writing, though I wouldn't be able to name the dates. But, basically, at some point it wasn't just language, aesthetics, character, and/or story that made a novel good. It was sprawl: expansive stories, five- and six- and seven-hundred page behemoths of books, with narratives crossing decades and centuries, and scores of characters. And the worst thing was that they didn't have to be written very well. In movies, the semi-equivalent would be the shoot-em-up or macho genre film, where the (yes) chaos of so much stuff exploding or so many things crashing into each other, distracts you from the fact that the thing is terribly written, acted, and produced.
posted by anothermug at 7:36 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just started watching, and I'm really distracted by the fact that the narrator sounds like Toby Radloff from "American Splendor".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:42 PM on August 22, 2011


The thing is, chaos cinema is a better approximation of our experience of reality, whereas the crisp narrative of classic film is less authentic. In the real world of fast action, we don't know wtf is going on, everything is a blur.

stbalbach, you must live a much more exciting life than I do.
posted by Max Udargo at 8:14 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I agree with the previous poster that this video has way too much description and not enough analysis.

Having seen the Bourne movies and Christopher Nolan's movies, I'm familiar with this aesthetic, but I have to say that scene from Domino, a movie which I hadn't seen, surpasses all of those in terms of incomprehensibility as well as with its egregiously poor choice in soundtrack.

What I find particularly annoying with the super close, super fast style of editing with both musicals and kung-fu movies is that it's impossible to see the skill (or lack thereof) of the performers. This hyperkinetic style in, say, Chicago hides the fact that Catherine Zeta-Jones or Renee Zellweger can't dance. Or in the two recent Ip Man movies, it was impossible to admire Donnie Yen's Wing Chun, since you can't make out any of the punches, blocks, or dodges.

It would have been nice to see that sequence of cars falling off a trailer in Bad Boys II directed in the style of Spielberg doing Indiana Jones, where you could see each car dropping and anticipate how Will Smith would dodge.
posted by alidarbac at 8:15 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's a fair point that he makes, but I also think that Chaos Cinema has more benefits than he gives it credit for. Bourne and the new Bonds, for example, are supposed to be more lifelike, and the more frantic observer-like camera plays in to that.

Another good counter example is Children of Men, which mixes Chaos Cinema with more traditional long takes, shaking the viewer up, and then letting them bask in a scene. Maybe that's one of the reasons I liked that movie so much.

It does account for how I felt after being dragged to Transformers 1, however, which was tired and pissed off. Thinking back on it, I actually feel tired after watching a lot of movies these days, mostly just because this style of cinema is so fucking exhausting.

It's an interesting idea, I'll give him that, even if it seems like he's lawn-defending.
posted by codacorolla at 8:21 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm going to go ahead and say it. This guy is full of shit.

It's not that he doesn't have a point, although it's a slight one, but he goes to enormous lengths to try to justify what's essentially an aestetic judgment call on his part.

First of all, his examples of good vs. bad aren't really all that different. Shaky-cam in The Hurt Locker is good, but pretty much the same thing in Black Hawk Down is bad. It seems to me he's just going with this because The Hurt Locker won a bunch of prizes, so he's obligated to like it, while Black Hawk Down is fair game.

There are some examples here that are really bad (the Domino one is probably the worst), but he chooses Michael Bay sequences that are not really amongst his worst, especially the Transformers sequence seems pretty easy to follow. The Quantum of Solace one is incredibly jumpy, as are some of the Bourne ones, but the interesting thing is that they're not really hard to follow, they're chaotic and very shaky, but you can still get a good sense of where things are in relation to each other.

And his theory of the soundtrack making up for it is weak too. Yeah, the sound makes it clear that the sequence is a car chase, but is he seriously suggesting that if you saw the sequence without it, you would fail to understand that it's a car chase?

And then there's the insufferable nerdy overbearing tone, and the attempt at using technical language to make it seem like he's an expert on the subject. I especially liked "in post production using After Effects software" line. After Effects is the name of one software package out of many used for post work, and it's not all that common in motion picture work, it's more common for TV and motion graphics.

So, it just seems like a guy desperately trying to make a coherent theory with a lot of superfluous words, just to justify what's essentially his personal taste. The endless references to "no beauty or elegance", etc. just prove the point.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:23 PM on August 22, 2011 [14 favorites]


staticscreen: "CGI's first ever legit incarnation, (IMHO) Terminator 2, came out 20 years ago, so, relatively speaking, I would say it's a rather new concept for CGI to be as rock-solid on the believability factor as SFX are. "

You know, I don't buy this. Good CGI today is vastly more believable than the best practical effects ever were. Just look at the creature effects and prostetics stuff being done in the Nineties, which even in high-budget movies just looked fake. I love me some Total Recall, but the various facial prostetics (Arnold stuffing the metal probe up his nose, the old lady mask, the grimacing choking faces at the end) look so fake and bad that I end up slightly embarrassed for the movie every time I see it.

On the other hand, Terminator 2's CGI is relatively limited, but mostly holds its own even today, and is mostly done in longer-duration shots.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:27 PM on August 22, 2011


(I have nothing to say in defense of Bad Boys 2, though, a movie it seems I'm unable to watch more than a few minutes of before I am filled with rage.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:27 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not that he doesn't have a point, although it's a slight one, but he goes to enormous lengths to try to justify what's essentially an aesthetic judgment call on his part.

I feel like I agree with his taste in action movies but have to acknowledge that it is just our personal taste and not an absolute indicator of quality. I'm really not a fan of Greengrass's style but he is very good at it and it's not like it's an accidental thing, he's making the movies that he wants to. Personally, I'm sick to death of shakey-cam and rapid-fire editing but I assume that it'll fade after a while since there's only so far you can go with it before it becomes completely abstract.
posted by octothorpe at 8:31 PM on August 22, 2011


art imitates life...
posted by sfts2 at 8:39 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


My hope is the reality of cutting for 3d will force films to slow down and be a bit more conservative with camera movements.
posted by jade east at 8:41 PM on August 22, 2011


I'm sick to death of shakey-cam and rapid-fire editing but I assume that it'll fade after a while since there's only so far you can go with it before it becomes completely abstract.

Yeah, I feel the same way. I don't love this type of cinema, but I also don't think it's as bad as the video essay gives it credit for. I wouldn't mind a return to shots that actually let us see stuff, however.
posted by codacorolla at 8:43 PM on August 22, 2011


I think this is just part and parcel of the new style of action hero: someone who isn't stronger or braver, but better. Matt Damon and Daniel Craig are shrimps compared to Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger; but what they bring to the table is not brawn but competence. That's why the action sequences are fast and bewildering. A long, drawn out scene where the hero finally overcomes the bad guys through pure strength and grimacing wouldn't make sense; instead we essentially watch the fight scenes from the bad guy's point of a view, as a blur of action that we can't understand because we're not Jason Bourne. It may be overdone nowadays but it's certainly a refreshing change from the way they used to make action movies.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 8:47 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I’m with the narrator 100%. I rarely watch action films like the ones shown, and even in the ones I like (like Batman) I end up tuning out most of the action sequences. I often find myself totally drifting off and unable to pay attention to the random, shaky "action" sequences because I don’t know what going on, at some point don’t care, and frankly it’s boring.
posted by bongo_x at 8:49 PM on August 22, 2011


While the style the narrator is railing against is not usually my cup of tea, he's missing the point and the basis for its appeal.

Viewers familiar with immersive video games (and even, to a certain extent, immersive real-life gaming situations like pain pall or laser tag or even LARPing or war reenactment) are used to engaging in action scenarios where not all information is readily available. Sensory overload and missing info are < strong>very real aspects of violent situations and also work thematically to conceptualize myriad of viewpoints inherent to conflict.

The best action sequences may employ a mixture of these two techniques, as scenes from the Matrix, Saving Private Ryan or Children of Men sometimes did. I would certainly agree that, given the choice between the two, I'd opt to err on the side of clarity. Still, there is certainly a place for confusing chaos in the depiction of heightened violence.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:05 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Has anyone researched the effect videogames have had on action movies? Unless an action movie is AMAZING, I'd rather just play a videogame because it lets me do what's in the movie. Cowboys vs Aliens was $20 for two hours of bad plot and bad-alien shooting. That $20 can easily buy me a used copy of Gears of War, which is longer and better.

I've noticed some of the best action is in cartoons like Batman: Brave & The Bold or Avatar.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:19 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Quantum of Solace one is incredibly jumpy, as are some of the Bourne ones, but the interesting thing is that they're not really hard to follow, they're chaotic and very shaky, but you can still get a good sense of where things are in relation to each other.

If anything, I'd argue that making films in this style is actually more difficult than working with clean, staged compositions. Editing footage this kinetic into something easily swallowed is no small feat.
posted by reductiondesign at 9:22 PM on August 22, 2011


Good CGI today is vastly more believable than the best practical effects ever were.

Bull. Does the world you live in have 1,000 times more lens flare in it than mine does?

CGI is sometimes better at getting creatures to look more 'real,' but there are tons of other situations where it just looks as silly as a guy in a rubber suit with a visible zipper was in the 60s.

Take spaceships, for example.

Any 30 seconds from any Star Wars film (you pick)
vs.
Star Trek Reboot Trailer - all cgi
vs.
Aliens - 'real' models
vs. (for reference)
In space with an actual spaceship.

Which one looks more like a 'real' spaceship?

Real models, when used properly, come closer to looking 'real' and make CG look like a 13 year old's first infatuation with HDR and Photoshop. Modern CGI can make amazing looking images, but it's a rarity when it actually makes things look 'real.'

It's just a tool. It can be used well so that you don't notice it, or to such an extreme that people will call the CG world 'real' not because it looks like the world outside, but it creates a new world designed to be tasty candy to the eyes that it's 'better' than real.

It all doesn't matter in the end. What makes a great film is not decided by the CGI budget. In a decade all of these hollow but "visually mind-blowing" kind of movies will be mocked for being just as cheesy as 'The Attack of the the Eye Creatures' looks now (note the extra 'the.' Actually appears that way in the title screen). So enjoy the fancy wrapper, because that's all special effects are. I'm looking for something good from in what's inside it. I'll take bad special effects and a good story any day over a lame story with the most amazing special effects the world has ever seen.

Cookie monster now has to say cookies are a just a 'sometimes' food. In 10 years, hopefully CGI will become a 'sometimes' tool, and story and character development come back to the forefront.
posted by chambers at 9:23 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised Saving Private Ryan hasn't come up at all in this discussions. It was released in 1998, and I remember all the critics going nuts for the Normandy invasion sequence at the beginning. Can't blame Spielberg for what came after, of course, but it does seem to be (in my memory) the first popular instance of this sort of filmmaking, good or bad.
posted by HeroZero at 9:30 PM on August 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


he seriously suggesting that if you saw the sequence without it, you would fail to understand that it's a car chase?

Actually he's pretty much right. It's not that you would fail to understand, it just makes it much more difficult, and the chances of losing your reference point as a viewer for an instant is much, much higher without audio. I did a ton of research, both using human subjects and text research, on things like this over 10 years ago for my thesis, albeit my focus was more aimed at how the brain reacts and causes involuntary physical responses to first-person perspective gaming. When it comes to the brain trying to figure out 'where' it is when watching, audio information is critical to support the viewers 'imaginary' position when viewing a screen. Add to that fast edits, of multiple perspectives from different cameras and takes, and the brain needs every bit of information it can get.
posted by chambers at 9:33 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


alidarbac: "Having seen the Bourne movies and Christopher Nolan's movies, I'm familiar with this aesthetic, but I have to say that scene from Domino, a movie which I hadn't seen, surpasses all of those in terms of incomprehensibility as well as with its egregiously poor choice in soundtrack."

I'd like to take this moment to observe that Tony Scott, the director of that godawful scene from Domino, wants to remake The Wild Bunch.

Tony Scott. The Wild Bunch.

I give up.
posted by brundlefly at 9:48 PM on August 22, 2011


Joakim Ziegler, I'm going to go ahead and say it: The main reason these techniques have evolved is because of the lack of talent in front of the camera. Look at the scene he chose from Singin' in the Rain. Do you think there is anybody performing today with half the talent Donald O'Conner displayed in that clip? Who could you point a camera at today and just watch them sing, dance, and perform with such perfect skill and grace?

I remember really getting into the car chase through the streets of Nice(?) in Ronin, and I remember why. Yes, it had to do with skilled stunt work and good editing, but it stood out because of the characters and how they were reacting to the ever-increasing chaos they were themselves creating. Natasha McElhone's character grew steadily and increasingly frantic until she seemed almost about to pass out at the wheel. DeNiro was doing a wonderful "I can't believe that just happened... Okay, now I really can't believe that just happened" routine, looking like a man on a run-away train who just wants to get off of it but knows he can't, and Reno looked like a man who had decided to stay focused on avoiding any embarrassing bowel movements. The actors generated the suspense and tension by responding to the insanity in ways that seemed real and gave the action a sense of urgency and danger. The Ronin chase is almost as ludicrous and cartoonish as the chase from Bad Boys 2, but the acting isn't, and it makes all the difference. The difference between watching Michael Bay flaunt a bunch of money in front of you and Frankenheimer create an emotionally gripping sequence. The difference between watching a fireworks display and riding a roller coaster.

The problem is the talent you find in someone like DeNiro isn't common, cheap, or necessarily interested in displaying itself in a car chase. So if you don't have Donald O'Connor, Gene Kelly, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Lee, a young Jackie Chan, or anybody who can make you believe they are really there, experiencing this amazing event, then you have to cheat. You have to cut, cut, cut to make them look faster, more intense, and more physical. And you have to pour on the silly sound effects - all those knife-being-drawn-from-scabbard sounds even though the blade is not in contact with anything but the air, and the constant click/snap of a gun being cocked even if the gun isn't the type that has a hammer to be cocked, even if it is just being raised menacingly, and even if we just heard it being "cocked" three seconds ago.

And then lots of explosions and sparks and muzzle flashes and random debris spinning around in the frame - all of that stuff you do in After Effects or whatever.

It's all a desperate attempt to create energy in an emotional void. It's a substitute for drama. It's cinematic Auto-Tune.
posted by Max Udargo at 9:50 PM on August 22, 2011 [11 favorites]


stbalbach, you must live a much more exciting life than I do.

Well I just finished The Black Swan and now see everything I thought was simple and predictable as random and unknowable. Hopefully in a few weeks I'll forget it all and get back to the old business of being happily ignorant of the randomness of reality.
posted by stbalbach at 9:50 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Remember how there was that period in the late 60s/early 70s when it seemed like certain directors just could not get enough of zooming? In and out, endlessly... and it looks so dated now, and we laugh when we see it.

This is a lot like that: new tools create new possibilities. You can ignore those tools, use them a bit, be sparing, experiment, or go totally overboard. Some folks will attack the changes the tools allow, others will love them. Some see societal changes reflected in the cinematic visual changes, or argue it makes cinema more realistic (your attention zooms in on things, after all).

It depends ultimately on why you see movies - to be told a story, to be entertained, to be wowed and overwhelmed, shocked and awed? I am hopeful that more conventional action will see a comeback in popular Western film (I watched that car chase in QoS in slow motion several times and I still didn't feel like I really understood exactly what was going on). Like zooms, blue screens, and other technological innovations, this too shall become tired and stop being the hot new toy... eventually.

In the meantime, there's plenty of understandable movies being made elsewhere (13 Assassins was a recent action film I'd rate very highly), and plenty of pre-Chaos Cinema films to seek out and enjoy.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:12 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I'm with the narrator about 75-80%, but it wasn't a fully cogent analysis, either.

I used to use the phrase action logic to describe what he calls "classical" style. Thing was, it wasn't always there -- bad directors (and actors and production designers) have always been with us, and many of them never did understand how to make a scene hang together other than by dialog. He does pick particularly good counterexamples such as Bullitt and Ronin, and certainly found a real rotten apple in Domino. It probably is the case that some of this is to cover up failings of the on-screen talent, but I wouldn't discount the fact that these guys just fail at being directors. You're in charge, man! You can bend them to your will! You can do multiple takes! You can change the camera angle, the timing, the blocking, the almost anything! Something like what Olivier is rumored to have said to Hoffman, have they ever tried directing? You wonder if they know how.

The Bond movies used to have a really good sense of action logic, right up until, I would say, Tomorrow Never Dies, which turned in a piss-poor imitation when it bothered. I could look and perhaps find the personnel changes that helped prompt this (aside from directorial choice, Roger Spottiswoode in that case). I would say that the abandonment of action logic in Quantum of Solace really annoyed me. Truly, movies today like Unstoppable that rely heavily on the chaotic approach end up being utterly disposable and unmemorable. It's junk food cinema.

That said, it does have antecedents. Probably as far back as the Psycho shower scene, for example. It's not impossible to combine this technique with intelligent filmmaking. I think it boils down to incompetence and laziness.

The recent discussion about The Thing relies heavily on the assumption that the director intended certain things to be unremarked yet visible to the audience, and conversely on an engaged audience. The chaos approach completely betrays that relationship. You can end up with the visceral thrills of the monster attacking, but how do you really recreate the utter, intellectual dread of knowing one of the two of you is (almost) certainly an alien? I don't see how you can.

In post-processing this comment was made more confusing than intended. We blew half our budget on it, to be honest.
posted by dhartung at 10:13 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wasn't Saving Private Ryan the film that invented this BS? At the time I remember it getting all these accolades for "making you feel like you were on Omaha Beach".

I watched Transformers 2 at the cinema and there was a point where I completely disengaged because I didn't know which shiny bit of metal I was supposed to be routing for.

Contrast that with the 1986 version. Visually, fucking masterful artwork.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:20 PM on August 22, 2011


Thing is, even a badly directed movie with competent action scenes can be fun to watch. Pick a random kung-fu or 80s action film and even if the plot and acting stink the pure pleasure of watching skilled people fight/shoot makes them worthwhile. This jerky post-action bullshit means that only the best directors make watchable movies, and the mid-range ones that would usually have dependable thrills are just crap.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:23 PM on August 22, 2011


In my opinion, Aliens was the last good straight-up hollywood action film.
posted by Mister_A at 10:41 PM on August 22, 2011


Really liked this. The thing is, chaos cinema is a better approximation of our experience of reality, whereas the crisp narrative of classic film is less authentic.

I disagree. In the occasions where I've been in (or watched) accidents, time seemed to slow down and images became sharper. Not all violence is chaotic. There are people who have spoken about the odd aesthetic pleasure of war, for example. And there are multiple ways of representing what is, for us, a subjective reality. There is no reason why shakycam should be the standard mode of depiction. Saving Private Ryan is no "realer" than an older war film it's just another type of pov.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:44 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


The chaos approach completely betrays that relationship. You can end up with the visceral thrills of the monster attacking, but how do you really recreate the utter, intellectual dread of knowing one of the two of you is (almost) certainly an alien? I don't see how you can.

This, this, a thousand times this. Dread needs patience to build right, with only isolated, intense moments of chaos to keep it growing. Maybe that patient approach appears to be a risky move when trying to sell a film to studio execs, when chaos all around appears to be a safer bet.

Wasn't Saving Private Ryan the film that invented this BS?

At least in that film it was intended as a storytelling tool to shock the viewer and really contrast the insanity of combat with the unease that comes during the long spaces between fighting. Now, it's just a another tool that is sometimes lazily applied to get that an isolated visceral shock reaction, without making the shock mean anything to the rest of the story. It's not the the style that's to blame, its when it is used for cheap reasons is the problem. Chaos is such a all or nothing thing, its just become a go to method of not having to spend time developing a nuanced, well thought out action scene.

Bruce Lee said it best:
A good fight should be like a small play...but played seriously. When the opponent expands, l contract. When he contracts, l expand. And when there is an opportunity... l do not hit...it hits all by itself (shows his fist).
posted by chambers at 10:44 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Really liked this. The thing is, chaos cinema is a better approximation of our experience of reality, whereas the crisp narrative of classic film is less authentic.

My experience of reality is pretty much Garden State, starring a pathetic combination of Micheal Cera and Paul Giammati. Screw reality.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:45 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


The chaos of combat depicted in Saving Private Ryan was effective and appropriate for the film. The Normandy invasion involved tens of thousands of combatants on either side, and can have been nothing other than chaotic. Two robots fighting in LA ought to feel a little different.

And listen, I've been in fistfights, I've had weapons pulled on me, and it's true, images are extremely vivid when that stuff's going on. Nothing is blurry. Here's a wrenching, horrible, awesome fight scene.
posted by Mister_A at 10:58 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I see your Deadwood, and raise you one Rob Roy.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:10 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised Saving Private Ryan hasn't come up at all in this discussions.

For what it's worth, I was all set to give a comparison of the hyperkinetic chaos of the opening scenes of "Moulin Rouge" with the Omaha Beach segment of "Saving Private Ryan," and how they were both very similar, in terms of cinematic objectives. Didn't have time, though.

Saving Private Ryan did seem to popularize the high-speed shutter, however, as seen later in "Gladiator" as well as "Blackhawk Down" (both by Ridley Scott) I was never a fan, previously, but the effect did seem to lend a certain sense of the action being "not blurry like movies usually are."
posted by ShutterBun at 11:29 PM on August 22, 2011


My experience of reality is pretty much Garden State, starring a pathetic combination of Micheal Cera and Paul Giammati.

Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl is Paul Giammati? No wonder your life sucks.
posted by jonp72 at 11:57 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


And listen, I've been in fistfights, I've had weapons pulled on me, and it's true, images are extremely vivid when that stuff's going on. Nothing is blurry.

It's interesting that this idea, too, was taken to a creative extreme with bullet time in The Matrix.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:05 AM on August 23, 2011


It's not surprising. Movies in the comic book style still need to be made with skill, lest they end up being shit.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:12 AM on August 23, 2011


The kid's got some points, but he still sounds like a pretentious windbag. He summarizes the potential root causes of his theory as a bunch of bullet points within the last two minutes, without any further analysis. It reads like a B-grade high school essay.

/Needs more insight.
posted by hamandcheese at 12:20 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Indeed, Hamandcheese. Coulda summed his whole point by saying "movies in the old days were much more like filmed plays / live action events."

Let's face it, the wide-angle, long takes were essentially a by-product of the fact that cinematography and editing had not become established areas of artistic expression, for better or worse.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:47 AM on August 23, 2011


Let's face it, the wide-angle, long takes were essentially a by-product of the fact that cinematography and editing had not become established areas of artistic expression, for better or worse.

I disagree. I tend to agree with Outlaw Vern that when I see an action movie I want to SEE THE ACTION. I went to see the punches and kicks or the gunshots and car chases.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 12:53 AM on August 23, 2011


ShutterBun, are you seriously saying there is no artistic expression in the cinematography and editing of, say, Stanley Kubrick?
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:54 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd carry chambers's idea one step further.

If you're going to make a massive alien invasion / monster attack / global warming apocalypse movie, just skip paying the big name actors and have the big cgi moments hung together with a series of newscasts which could create tension via a very unreliable narrator, throw in moments of pathos and comedy relief via man-on-the-street interviews and heartwarming segments about the dog who survived the destruction of NYC while leading a couple of orphans to safety.

This way you could have your chaotic cgi and jerky cameraman-running-in-circles action and the audience will still have some idea as to what's going on.

Of course, as I'm typing this, I realize this isn't an original idea. Orson Wells beat me to it. But, I'd love to see a more modern version of that sort of thing.
posted by honestcoyote at 1:45 AM on August 23, 2011


ShutterBun, are you seriously saying there is no artistic expression in the cinematography and editing of, say, Stanley Kubrick

Kinda depends on what era you're talking about.

Compare a film like "Spartacus" to "Gladiator." Each had great examples of both large-scale battles and 2-on-2 gladiator fights. But really, can you honestly say that Kubrick's scenes hold up against the more modern? Granted, his 1-on-1 fights were as guilty of today's films of over-using subjective cameras, but the payoff simply wasn't there. It fulfilled its needs for the story, but come on, Gladiator took it to a whole new level.

Spartacus set a standard for large-scale epic battles at the time, and indeed the setups for the confrontation between the slaves and the Romans still impresses, (though, perhaps, moreso because we *know* they are real people) But look again at the wide shots. Plenty of "soldiers fighting nobody" etc. Compare that to a "new school" battlefield, such as the Pellenor Fields of "Return of the King" for example. There can be no doubt that advancements have been made. But once again, it's all a matter of taste (both our own, and that of the filmmakers')

Certainly Kubrick eventually mastered his craft, and was able to tell a story visually (with VERY long takes, etc.) But not so much with an "action" movie. "Full Metal Jacket" was probably as close as he came to an action movie, but compare the hunt for the sniper in that film with the same scenario in Saving Private Ryan. The former was, let's face it: not the film's strong point, while the latter provided both character development and a sense of urgency.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:19 AM on August 23, 2011


Film critic Leslie Halliwell's 1978 essay Decline and Fall of the Movie is worth a read, if you never had Halliwell's Film Guide on your bookshelf.
This happy state of affairs was reached thirty-five years ago by unpretentious and slick productions of the studio system such as The Maltese Falcon and Stagecoach, which used every camera trick in the book without blinding the audience to the characters and the plot. Nowadays one has to fight one’s way through the thick showy surface in order to get to a story which all too often is not worth following...

Cinemascope was then seized upon by Hollywood: twice as wide as the ordinary image and capable of the most spectacular effects... The new shape was impossible to compose for; as Fritz Lang said, it was fine for funerals, but what painter through the ages had ever selected it unless to cut up into a triptych? Editing was cut to a minimum because on an image so large each cut made the audience jump. Instead, and cheaper, the camera stayed still while the cast roved around the empty spaces in front of it, and there was an absurd number of shots in which the leading actors reclined so as better to fit the frame. Close-ups and subtle nuances were forgotten: no longer did the camera direct you to the drama, you had to look around and find it yourself.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:19 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Orson Wells beat me to it. But, I'd love to see a more modern version of that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, they already tried that with "Cloverfield."
posted by ShutterBun at 2:21 AM on August 23, 2011


Really liked this. The thing is, chaos cinema is a better approximation of our experience of reality, whereas the crisp narrative of classic film is less authentic.

I think it has more to do with the media - Saving Private Ryan was updating our image of the second world war to look like the gulf conflict as we had seen it on TV. I think the reason this is accelerating and becoming more pervasive has to do with us expecting action to look like action in real life, that we may only have seen on TV, or on the internet. It's not mirroring our own perception of reality but a mediated one (that is rapidly becoming our reality.)

Funnily enough the last thread I got involved in was this about Andy Denzler's paintings. There is kind of a parallel in that he uses the distortion and interruption of an image to somehow make it more 'real'. The discussion went briefly into the ideas about painting after the advent of the camera and this comment by shakespherian seems particularly relevant. And there is a part of me that want's to say that there is something futurist about Michael Bay's inscrutable metal on metal clashing. It maybe asks the question is our perception of reality now so disjointed and fragmented that Bay's frame fucking technique does feel real to many people? Or maybe reality has always looked this way - this Gino Severini painting captures a lot of the kineticness and disorientation Moulin Rouge film for example.
posted by pmcp at 4:55 AM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


*in the Moulin Rouge film for example.
posted by pmcp at 4:59 AM on August 23, 2011


Let's face it, the wide-angle, long takes were essentially a by-product of the fact that cinematography and editing had not become established areas of artistic expression, for better or worse.

Unless you're talking about movies made before 1910, you're very wrong. Editing style choices were very deliberate and varied. Look at that Donald O'Connor clip from Singing in the Rain, that's not the same editing style that they use in other parts of the picture. Those long takes are there because they've paid a lot of money for one of the best dancers in the business and they want you to be able to see that it's really him. They could have much more easily done the scene with long shots, medium shots, closeups and inserts but the audience has paid to see Donald Fucking O'Connor and they wanted to show that it was really him on the screen.
posted by octothorpe at 5:14 AM on August 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


Take spaceships, for example.

Any 30 seconds from any Star Wars film (you pick)
vs.
Star Trek Reboot Trailer - all cgi
vs.
Aliens - 'real' models
vs. (for reference)
In space with an actual spaceship.

Which one looks more like a 'real' spaceship?


That's easy: Star Trek, because it's the only one that respects the three-dimesional, unoriented space that spaceships inhabit.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:31 AM on August 23, 2011


A long, drawn out scene where the hero finally overcomes the bad guys through pure strength and grimacing wouldn't make sense; instead we essentially watch the fight scenes from the bad guy's point of a view, as a blur of action that we can't understand because we're not Jason Bourne.

For Hanna, Joe Wright couldn't get hold of Paul Greengrass for advice on shooting action sequences, so he decided to shoot them the same way he did the country dance in Pride & Prejudice.

One of those action scenes sees superspy Erik fight half a dozen CIA agents in some kind of underground subway entrance. It's pure magic. In one long, slow, circling shot, you see, in the precise movements that leave every one of those CIA agents disabled on the floor, exactly why this guy is so dangerous.

Like this video of a man riding a bicycle along a rope, it's amazing because it's hard to do, not because it's hard to see.

In the Bourne films you just get the sense that someone is hitting someone else and then the winner is the one who didn't fall out the window. It isn't amazing or even interesting. The alternative is so much better!
posted by ffrinch at 6:36 AM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Natasha McElhone's character grew steadily and increasingly frantic until she seemed almost about to pass out at the wheel. DeNiro was doing a wonderful "I can't believe that just happened... Okay, now I really can't believe that just happened" routine, looking like a man on a run-away train who just wants to get off of it but knows he can't, and Reno looked like a man who had decided to stay focused on avoiding any embarrassing bowel movements. The actors generated the suspense and tension by responding to the insanity in ways that seemed real and gave the action a sense of urgency and danger.

Not to diminish the talents of these actors, but some of this is down to Frankenheimer's stunt/sfx technique. From what I recall of the commentary track, they used two primary techniques to get the shots of what looks like the actors driving at very high speeds through the crowded streets of Paris.

Sometimes, they would strap the actor into the left-hand seat of a right-hand-drive car that had been outfitted with nonfunctional controls on the left side. Then that car would be actually driven at very high speed through the crowded streets of Paris. Other times, they would strap the actors into a car-shell or half-car. And then actually tow them at very high speeds through the crowded streets of Paris using a very powerful tow-car. A third technique, not used for DeNiro, McElhone, or Reno, was to just let Skip Sudduth drive the car at very high speeds and photograph him while he was doing it.

Point is, some of their reactions aren't acting. Pure sincere scared-shitlessness.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:41 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is actually justified in Batman Begins, as Chris Sims points out today. Batman is a guy who fights using fear, disorientation, and quick attacks. The shaky-cam reflects that.

But I've paid to see a Batman flick; I want to see the action from a viewpoint that is sympathetic to Batman, not the people that he is fighting. Maybe I'm too influenced by the Frank Miller & Grant Morrison takes on Batman but I tend to think that at the centre of the violent chaos is the calm that is Batman. And we do see him in training for such situations earlier in the film so it seems reasonable to assume that he would be much more deliberate in his thoughts than those he is fighting.

A contrasting character for me would be Jason Bourne. The chaotic approach works better for him because he is constantly being put off balance and having his world turned upside down. He reacts mostly on instinct and sometimes doesn't even know how he's doing what he's doing. So there seems to be a better fit between the character and the directing style.
posted by MUD at 7:09 AM on August 23, 2011


This thread just makes me want to watch Stalker again.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:17 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to second the great action scenes of Hanna. Also the first Bourne movie was far less jumpy and had some great non-jumpy scenes such as the Paris car chase and the 1vs1 in the field. A much better action movie than the sequels.
posted by Authorized User at 8:48 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with a Miller or Morrison Batgod approach is that unless you want to handle it like a Zach Snyder film where the movement and time expand and contract so that individual moments in a scene look like still frames from a comic book it's really hard to accomplish the dynamic action and hyper-competence found in comic books.

Christian Bale is a talented actor but he's not necessarily a skilled martial artist. The solution Nolan takes is to hide the lack of accomplishment behind layers of obfuscation. We see a fist, a cape, a flash of movement, etc and that represents Bruce Wayne being able to fight at a pace that regular mooks can't follow.

Despite Captain America being at least a Batman class badass in comics the new marvel film didn't use the same narrative techniques. His competency was revealed through a mixture of montage sequences and more traditionally choreographed fight scenes. For a period piece that seemed to work pretty well. It will be interesting to see if Whedon uses it for Avengers.

I think the new style works to a degree. For Bourne movies it's disorienting and frantic and it helps conceal the lack of competence in the lead actor. Used sparingly it seems to allow you to use a good actor rather than an action badass that can't act (Stallone and Company). It can also be used for ill such as the awful Domino and many of the Bayspoiltation flicks.

A blend of older action styles and newer narrative techniques could really help the action movies get out of the current cookie cutter style that they seemed to be trapped in.
posted by vuron at 9:31 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like this style because I like being hypnotized, overwhelmed, or even "bludgeoned" by a movie from time to time. In fact that's most of why I'm willing to pay to see something in a theater. Moulin Rouge, the Dark Knight, Hurt Locker, even (uh oh) Avatar -- I still remember the experience of first seeing those movies, because of their intensity. If that's "perversion," then call me a pervert.

Sure, 90% of it is crap, but if he's cherry-picking the best films of 1920-2000 to make his point, I think I'm allowed to ignore the failures of the last decade too.

Here's an interesting connection, though -- the "every scene is a climax" bit reminds me of Grandmaster Flash's story of inventing modern DJing. At some point (decades ago) he started noticing that everyone started dancing at the same point in songs, and came up with techniques to only play those parts of songs (kind of like modern film editing), which in turn led to the need for MCs to rap over the mix to provide continuity (kind of like modern soundtracks), which provided the basic ingredients for hiphop as we know it.

So maybe what we're seeing is the emergence of a hiphop style of filmmaking. And if you find that tiring or poorly realized, then I sympathize, but we still make other kinds of music and I bet we'll still make other kinds of movies too.
posted by Honorable John at 9:43 AM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


TheophileEscargot - This kind of talk goes back even further than 1978. Here's Margaret Farrand Thorp (one of America's great forgotten film scholars) raising similar apprehensions about the use of color in 1939:

"Eventually we must probably expect to see all our pictures in color but that may mean either a sharpening or a blurring of the color sense of the nation. Technicolor is still in a primitive state. Only its most earnest students are aware that it ought not to be used casually, as it is now generally used, merely to heighten reality by reproducing tints of nature. Actually, the experts say, technicolor in regulating the emotion in a scene, in making contrasts and climaxes, has a power even greater than that of the camera, and, like music, color, if not skillfully regulated, may work clean contrary to the photographic effects. Certainly many of the things that are now being done with color are bad for the artistic taste of the eighty-five million."

To go back to theme my first comment waaay back near the beginning of the thread - the changes wrought by the adoption of CinemaScope and Technicolor were so visible on the screen that they were much easier for critics to make sense of. They could look at a Technicolor or CinemaScope image and have a rough understanding of the tools the director/editor/cinematographer was using and how they'd influenced the image on the screen - it's easy to see how CinemaScope changes shot composition, or how being able to do scenes in color changes the effects of lighting. It's harder to see the some of the effects of digital technologies on filmmaking. The shaky-cam stuff and the different ways that color registers on digital cameras/projectors - sure, critics have a handle on that, usually. But there's a sense in this piece and in most of the other criticism I've read on digital cinema that critics are mostly still thinking as if film shooting and film editing still works in essentially the same ways as it always has. I'm not a filmmaker, so I don't know for sure - but I suspect that digital technologies have had a much more expansive effect on film style than any previous technical change or addition simply because of how they have changed and replaced the most basic building blocks of the movies - and I think that's what's behind the phenomenon that's being looked at in this essay.

(And I wish critics were more interestested in explainingthings like this than in doing boring tear-downs of stuff that doesn't speak to them).
posted by bubukaba at 10:05 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


These films operate on techniques that, while derived from classical cinema, threaten to shatter the established continuity formula. Chaos reigns in image and sound.

In terms of immersion, action films are losing out to video games in a big way.

In the face of this competition they could focus on doing all the things games aren't very good at - story is always tough to put in games, but instead they try and out ACTION. Movies can't win that fight. I/We just watched a dude kicken some ass is just not nearly as cool as I/We just kicked some ass. For srs.

Chaotic cinema is just trying to be relevant to a new audience but I don't think what they are trying to do is even possible at 24fps. Perhaps this is why James Cameron is pushing for 3D and 60fps as the new standard in blockbuster cinema. 3D and 60fps is pretty much the standard for games now anyway.
posted by vicx at 10:07 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think part of it is that audiences today just have a much better ability to construct situational awareness. Watching the video, I could see the difference between old and new movies, but most of the new movies didn't seem unintelligible. I was able to follow, for example the bad boys,Bourn and Inception movie clips without any trouble at all. The Blackhawk Down Battle for LA clips were confusing, but they were intended to replicate the feeling of confusion on the battlefield. The lack of visual context didn't bother me. though.

This seems like a bunch of get-off-my-lawnism to me.
posted by delmoi at 8:36 PM on August 23, 2011


I thought his second video was even more ridiculous. Dialog in "Green Zone", Dance numbers in Glee and Moulin Rouge as chaotic? Seriously? I didn't find those clips hard to follow at all. It makes me think this guy just lacks the ability to process visuals as quickly as most people these days. Yeah Domino was bad but most of the stuff was fine.

In fact, to be honest I find the examples of the old-style cinema kind of boring to watch.
And listen, I've been in fistfights, I've had weapons pulled on me, and it's true, images are extremely vivid when that stuff's going on. Nothing is blurry. Here's a wrenching, horrible, awesome fight scene.
Yeah, but there are plenty of quick cuts in that clip. And shaky cams. I bet you anything that the author would consider that an example of "Chaos cinema" I counted like 80 cuts between about 0:30 and 2:30, and the longest ones were reaction shots. I actually watched it without my headphones in and didn't have any trouble following what was going on.

That clips is actually an example of why the narrator is wrong.

Also his correct pronunciation of French names just makes him sound even more pretentious.
For Hanna, Joe Wright couldn't get hold of Paul Greengrass for advice on shooting action sequences, so he decided to shoot them the same way he did the country dance in Pride & Prejudice.
Actually those scenes took me out of the film. They seemed so odd and cheesy in what was otherwise a 'serious' movie. The seemed like something that belonged in a more silly, brainless action movie.
posted by delmoi at 9:31 PM on August 23, 2011


So a guy named Bordwell writes up an article that looks pretty great and does some in-depth analysis of why films have come to this point and calls it Intensified Continuity. This guy basically calls bullshit and goes back to same old argument of the grass was greener before they made the talkies.
His cherry picking specific scenes for examples doesn't help his argument. Here's the second part of the warehouse scene from Hard Boiled Overuse of slow-mo deaths and neverending bullets aside, it's just as chaotic as his other examples. It's also a shame more people don't see the departure between the first Bourne movie and it's sequels. You can see this in the realistic Bourne Identity car chase scene, no rocket launchers or guns included.
Anyway, I don't see anything wrong with the way most films are shot these days. Sometimes there is a bit too much going on but the way action is shot these days is much better than disassociated far and away shots that was the norm. Faster cuts, such as smash cuts and jump cuts, allow more layers of the subject matter to be shown. They're not always the best choice but they are effective. The last bit where he talks about shaky cam and shows clips of Cloverfield is kind of odd. The Hurt Locker has more than enough shaky cam included but he seems to think is perfect. Add to the fact that Cloverfield was shot in first person perspective, it goes with the territory and you can't get around that. First person filming is a distinct narrative choice and you have to accept that before you critique parts of it for it's failings as something seperate.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:15 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm reminded of the recent truncation of information in electronic communication. When email became big, people's exchanges became less conversational in general than when writing snail mail letters, less formal, more 'on topic' (heck, you even had a subject heading). That seemed extreme enough.

Then texting comes along and makes emails seem wordy and boring - "u come 2nite?" suffices just fine, what need is there for more? The intent is clear, we understand what's being communicated...

Film, just like the spoken word, is a language. It has its own grammar. Breaking the rules of that grammar can be enlightening or thrilling (Goddard's Breathless is the classic example of this) or it can be unwatchable dreck. Intensified continuity/Chaos Cinema can be useful to convey a mood or a circumstance, as the author readily admits, but too often in the last decade it's been used like txt - bah, these kids have ADD, more cuts, more cuts, more cuts...

I wouldn't make the mistake of thinking that, just because you are able to understand what action is taking place in a scene, the action is well presented, any more than I'd say I can understand what my toddler is saying just fine, therefore she must be well spoken.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:49 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Meh. Reductive analogies about baby babble and texting not only are missing the point here but are just wrong.

Bordwell, a published film theorist, believes that much of the current state of cinema uses what he calls Intensive Continuity. He asserts that the current aesthetic of film is an evolutionary or rather gradation of what American cinema used to rely upon, continuity editing. It is the same thing, only intensified.
Stork, a film student at UCLA, believes the current aesthetic is a nothing less than a perversion.
One of these is a well studied and thoughtful critique of how American cinema has reached this point and how coherence has not been lost through the use of this technique. The other is a opinion piece with a mish-mash of bad examples, with one counterpoint that sound intrinsically ties the aesthetic together.

The thing is there are a plenty of shitty action movies, and it usually isn't due to the editing.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:05 PM on August 25, 2011


Critic/Blogger Jim Emerson's comments on these videos.
posted by octothorpe at 5:05 AM on August 26, 2011


The most interesting aspect of what Stork is saying is how he's basically just reframing the subject matter.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:55 PM on August 26, 2011


One of these is a well studied and thoughtful critique of how American cinema has reached this point and how coherence has not been lost through the use of this technique. The other is a opinion piece with a mish-mash of bad examples, with one counterpoint that sound intrinsically ties the aesthetic together.

I thought *I* was a film snob, but Jesus - do you weigh your opinions by the relative credentials of the people taking positions on every issue? Or just movies? You don't need to be a published film theorist to see coherence has been lost. Even the dullest rube could watch a John Ford western and understand what was going on at any point in the action - and in more detail than, "it's a bar fight" or "they're robbing the stagecoach".

You insult my comment, and then your entire rebuttal is just an appeal to authority.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:41 PM on August 26, 2011


Your analogies were simplified though (like most analogies) and they were wrong, but If I came off harsh to you then I apologize.

do you weigh your opinions by the relative credentials of the people taking positions on every issue?

Yes, this is good habit for anyone to follow. Just to be clear an appeal to authority isn't necessarily wrong, but is a fallacy if the assertion is that a person is wrong due to lack of credentials. I didn't say that, I was merely pointing out their relevant credentials. That's what credentials are for.

In any case, If you google around on this subject you will end up finding tons of info about average shot lengths. I ended up reading a few here. It's kind of a fascinating discussion that's been around for awhile. The big problem I have with Stork's argument is that he managed to oversimplify and reframe this whole discussion into a word: "chaos". Which is kind of a BS thing to do when there is years and layers of discussion that already exists with other terminology. But, hey, this isn't an argument about abortion or something, so whatevs.

I've already said why I think his examples are bad, so I won't go into that unless you have some examples you think are good representatives.

So what is he really left with? Sound ties the scenes together? How does sound increase coherence other than keeping us aware that action is happening? If sound isn't tied to something onscreen, we still don't have a context for it.

I mean, he really doesn't say anything here other than a summation of "I don't like more cuts because it's chaotic." Alright, here's my rebuttal: "I think more cuts offers increased visual data to account for onscreen action." Aside from less adjectives and a couple of random non-supportive examples we have the same amount of facts backing up our statements. Heck, I could take the Bourne films and show how they're better than most films through their choice of editing. It couldn't be that hard, Bourne Ultimatum won an Academy Award for Editing.

Off to make my video called Action-Packed Cinema!
posted by P.o.B. at 9:17 AM on August 27, 2011


I think even with the worst examples, it's subjective about how hard it is to follow what's happening.

With the first Transformers movie, I couldn't work out what the hell was going on in the fight scenes, it was just big shiny metal robots punching each other. Then afterwards, I was told the goodie-robots have blue eyes, and the baddie-robots have red eyes. Knowing that, I was able to follow what was going on in the second movie.

The new-style directors rely on the audience picking up visual cues like that. If you're too old and slow, they don't care, you're not their target audience. But it doesn't mean that their target audience can't follow what's going on.

I don't really buy the lack of attention span thing either, given that these action movies are often about two and half hours long. Given that it's old people like me who find themselves fidgeting at the two hour mark, and who can't even spot who the goodie robots are, is it really the young people who have the attention problem?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:26 AM on August 27, 2011


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