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Agents of chaos

Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Matthias Stork, a German film scholar now based in Los Angeles, has created a most stimulating two-part video essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: "Chaos Cinema." At Press Play, it's given the sub-head "The decline and fall of action filmmaking," while an analysis at FILMdetail considers it from the angle of technology: "Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid." Stork, who also narrates his essay, describes his premise this way:

Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking.... Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.

Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It's a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren't interested in spatial clarity. It doesn't matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what's happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones. [...]

Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It's an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.

It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.

Chaos Cinema Part 2 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Stork uses frenetic scenes from movies by Michael Bay ("Bad Boys II") and Marc Forster ("Quantum of Solace"), among others, as examples of chaos cinema's deliberate obliteration of spatial integrity; other pieces from Peter Yates ("Bullitt"), John Woo ("Hard Boiled"), John McTiernan ("Die Hard"), John Frankenheimer ("Ronin") and Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") show how various techniques of chaos cinema (rapid cutting, handheld shaky-cam) can be used effectively to immerse the viewer in a more dimensional rendering of the scene. (Ironic that at a time in which films are shoving 3D effects at us -- and failing -- editing patterns should be destroying illusions of inhabiting three-dimensional space in favor of flat -- two-dimensional -- action-painting. But remember: these stylistic devices are either the result of aesthetic choice, or incompetence, or some measure of both. Their use has been a trend, or a fad, at least since "Top Gun." The key question is: What is the aim of any particular sequence? To create suspense, emotional involvement, astonishment at a physical feat? Or to simply buzz the retinas, zap the nervous reflexes, regardless of anything else?)

In a piece called "Sound and fury" in The Australian last October, critic Lynden Barber quotes Karen Pearlman, president of the Australian Screen Editors Guild and author of "Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit" on Phillip Noyce's Angelina Jolie thriller "Salt," a film I cited as a salutary example of how to use chaos cinema techniques effectively. In "Salt," she says,

"we are treated to the sight of Angelina jumping from the roof of one moving truck to another, a trick no real human, not even a Russian-trained evil super spy, could possibly ever do. So, either the fantastical nature of the trick gives the filmmakers a license to be fast and loose with factors of realism such as time, space and gravity, or the filmmakers are thinking that to pull this off they will have to dazzle our eyes with movement from all directions and cut very fast so we can't get our bearings: they are deliberately disorienting us.

"For a chase to be well cut, in my view, it needs to move elegantly and dynamically: there actually have to be rises and falls in the pace and energy, otherwise I just get numbed to the action. The other thing they need is to keep the stakes firmly planted in my thoughts and emotions. This is accomplished by sufficient use of the shots that show me what is at stake."

Good point, but a bad example, I'd say. More about that later. Barber, too, writes:

Noyce is an enthusiastic proponent of the new aesthetic, adapting its methods in "Salt," although in this writer's view he still makes it possible to follow what's happening throughout the action scenes. Asked if incoherence is now a problem in Hollywood action thrillers, he replies: "Not to me, but then I'm not necessarily looking as an audience member -- and I don't necessarily think the audience member is looking for coherence; they are looking for a visceral experience. If they want coherence they can watch television."

Noyce may well be right, given the box-office success of what David Bordwell has called "blur-o-vision," and Steven Boone has dubbed "snatch-and-grab" aesthetics. We've had many a discussion here at Scanners about whether action sequences in movies like "The Dark Knight," "The Hurt Locker," "Speed Racer," Salt" J. J. Abrams' "Star Trek" and the Bourne movies hang together or fly apart in all directions.

What Karen Pearlman talks about -- playing "fast and loose with factors of realism such as time, space and gravity" -- does not necessarily result in chaotic incoherence. I'm a hardcore Keatonian, and while most of Buster's stunts obey the laws of physics, some are far crazier (like the ride on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle in "Sherlock, Jr.," for example) than the truck jumps in "Salt," which are not unlike things Keaton or Yakima Canutt might have done for real. (Probably they did, jumping between trains or stagecoaches; I just can't locate the precise scenes in my memory right now. Take a look at my video essay, "The Architecture of Gravity, in which Alan Ladd jumps from a bridge onto a moving train in "This Gun for Hire" (1935 1942).¹ In "Unsteadicam chronicles," David Bordwell details how the run-and-gun techniques of "Late Tony Scott Rococo" style can be used to cover a multitude of cinematic sins, from plot holes to bad acting. In "Chaos Cinema," Stork demonstrates how sound is used to create the illusion of continuous action between shots, even when there is none:

Chaos films may not offer concrete visual information, but they insist that we hear what is happening onscreen. 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 what happens when you lose your eyesight: your other senses try to compensate. Consider how relentless machine-gun fire, roaring engines and bursting metal dominate the opening of Marc Forster's James Bond entry, "Quantum of Solace." The scene's dense sound effects track fills in the gaps left by its vague and hyperactive visuals. But the image-sound relationship is still off-kilter. What we hear is definitely a car chase--period. But what we see is a "car chase."

This is something than merits further exploration. We're so visually oriented, I don't think we pay enough heed to sound in movies. It can really tie the room together. And while I concur with David Lynch about watching movies on tiny screens, I also know that if the sound is big and detailed enough, the image feels that way, too. (It's just as much a sadness to watch a movie on a big screen with tiny sound -- even a picture from the 1930s.)

Barber quotes Lee Smith and John Lee, who edited Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" and "Inception" -- movies I feel suffered from incoherently edited action sequences. (Stork takes his title from The Joker in "TDK.") And yet they say all the right things:

They stress that while editing elaborate scenes they have lots of private screenings for small groups -- friends and family -- and then quiz them to check they've understood exactly what going on. "It's very important to film the action scene so it has some meaning," Smith says. "It sounds simple but it's not really. It's quite easy to over-cut a sequence: make it visually exciting and lose track of what is happening and who the characters are. Sometimes the logical ability of the audience to know what's going on is lessened."

"Inception," with its ultra-byzantine narrative about dreams within dreams, presented a special challenge. "The action has to be exciting but we didn't want to make it any more complicated than it needed to be," says Smith. "The action has to have cause and effect, to make the audience stay with us and not to wonder why something was happening.

"Where you can't follow action, it's not just action, it's the whole movie you can't follow. Action is very difficult, it has to be very carefully planned and conceived," Smith says, adding that he and Lee work hard to avoid "pointless cuts" or try to give a scene "colour and movement using shots of camera-waggle and blurring. It's a trick, and I'm guilty of using it [on other movies] where the action hasn't been planned as well. Those are never as good as a well-conceived sequence."

Once again, I certainly don't take issue with those statements... and yet (as anybody who's visited Scanners since 1998 knows) I don't find Nolan's action particularly well put-together. (What's happening in "TDK," I'd argue, is that the audience is kept a few beats behind the action, constantly filling in the gaps in the action in retrospect during the lower-level highway chase -- you put it together by the process of elimination: when a vehicle blows up or crashes you know it isn't one of the ones they're still cutting to -- which is a theoretically interesting approach even if the result is a mess.) So, the funny thing is, many of us would agree that "chaos cinema" techniques are commonplace in American commercial cinema, but we don't necessarily agree on which individual movies use them incoherently and which use them effectively. (Except we mostly all know that Michael Bay is bad.)

I quoted something Steven Spielberg said a few years ago:

I go for geography. I want the audience to know not only which side the good guy's on and the bad guy's on, but which side of the screen they're in, and I want the audience to be able to edit as quickly as they want in a shot that I am loath to cut away from. And that's been my style with all four of these Indiana Jones pictures. Quick-cutting is very effective in some movies, like the Bourne pictures, but you sacrifice geography when you go for quick-cutting. Which is fine, because audiences get a huge adrenaline rush from a cut every second and a half on "The Bourne Ultimatum," and there's just enough geography for the audience never to be lost, especially in the last Bourne film, which I thought was the best of the three. But, by the same token, Indy is a little more old-fashioned than the modern-day action adventure.

So, where does this leave us -- or, more precisely, me? I find myself in disagreement with the words (but not the filmmaking) of a director I admire, Phillip Noyce, while agreeing with the words of Nolan's editors, even if I don't think their work lives up to their ideals. Not only that, but I think "The Bourne Supremacy" is superior in action terms to "The Bourne Ultimatum," both of which were directed by Paul Greengrass, and that you can't get a "huge adrenaline rush" when the cuts are coming every second and a half (more like several times a second) because those rhythms are unsustainable and quickly become monotonous simply because no crescendos are possible. (Which is the way I feel about the high bpms of hardcore techno, too, but some people can dance to the stuff all night long, with the aid of the right drugs.)

Your turn. Which films do you think are the worst offenders when it comes to chaotic style? Which work for you? Please give us some solid examples of where you got lost, or how a particular sequence generated excitement.

- - - - -

¹ I'm not sure which jump Pearlman is talking about in "Salt," because there are three of them more or less in a row. The sequence is structured like an escalating slapstick gag (which is how it plays), each jump outdoing the previous one: 1) Salt tumbles off an overpass onto the back of a container truck; 2) she jumps from that truck onto the top of a tanker truck in the next lane; 3) she jumps from the tanker to a smaller truck on a lower parallel highway ramp. It's hard to convey the sense of velocity in these moving shots, and in the cutting; the camera is in motion in many of the shots, each of which which may last for only a fraction of a second, but each shot has a clear purpose in the way it conveys visual information.

The first jump is in three shots: 1) from the overpass, we see Salt roll over the railing;

salt1a.jpg

2) an overhead shot shows her falling toward the top of the moving container;

salt1b.jpg

3) from the top of the truck, she lands and bounces/rolls into the foreground. This is classical filmmaking style -- with, perhaps some green screen instead of old-fashioned back-projection in the second shot, and CGI (to remove safety cables).

salt1c.jpg

salt1d.jpg

The second jump is set up with a view from behind a stopped police car, looking down on a curved underpass. The tanker truck becomes visible on the other side of the container truck Salt is on as they come through the curve.

salt2a.jpg

Then: 1) medium shot of Salt preparing to jump;

salt2b.jpg

2) high angle from the container truck's side, where we can see both truck tops and Salt starts running away from the camera toward the tanker;

salt2c.jpg

3) moving shot from above, behind and between the two trucks as she actually jumps from one to the other;

salt2d.jpg

4) quick reverse-angle shot from below and between the trucks as she passes over;

salt2e.jpg

5) high angle from the tanker truck's side, beginning with Salt in mid-air and ending after she lands on the tanker and nearly slides off the side facing the camera;

salt2f.jpg

6) close on her landing, grabbing a pipe and pulling herself up.

salt2g.jpg

Again: no cheating -- in shots 2 through 5 we see both trucks, and in shots 3-5 we can clearly see she has both feet in the air. This is emphatically not "blur-o-vision." Also, shots 3 and 4 cleverly take us from one side of the road to the other.

The third and most desperate jump is likewise set up by establishing three agents in the foreground on an overpass as the tanker approaches them on the road below while another, smaller, truck is on another ramp below it and to the right. It's a Keatonesque thing of beauty, actually. On the far left, an agent points his gun at the oncoming Salt. Next to him is Salt's colleague, played by Liev Schreiber. The truck is in center screen, and in the right foreground, the agent played by Chiwetel Ejiofor also has his gun trained on Salt. To his right is the smaller truck on the offramp. They start shooting.

salt3a.jpg

A reverse-angle from the top of the truck shows the agents on the overpass as Salt turns away. Then:

salt3b.jpg

1) a moving shot follows Salt as she runs away from the gunmen along the back of the tanker (note national monuments in the distance) and flings herself into the air toward the truck below and to the right;

salt3c.jpg

salt3d.jpg

2) low angle, looking up at airborne Salt between the two moving trucks;

salt3e.jpg

3) high angle as she falls toward the smaller truck (I dig the shadow);

salt3f.jpg

4) low angle of the rear and side of the truck as she lands, then crane up as she rolls off the top and dangles from the side.

salt3g.jpg

salt3h.jpg

We can assume that straps, harnesses and CGI-removal were used, but these are not the weightless trapeze flights of Sam Raimi's Spidey. Chances are a regular ol' person would not have made the landings or would have rolled right off and splatted on the roadway. But an action movie's job is rarely to show you what an ordinary driver could do with a commercially available vehicle. (You think Steve McQueen's 1968 Mustang fastback in "Bullitt" was a standard factory-equipped model?)

You could make the argument that it was equally unlikely that Batman in "The Dark Knight" could attach a cable to a semi truck, thread it through the train station while on the back of his Batcycle, and cause the truck to flip over backwards, but that's not the point. It's a cool stunt, and plausible enough because we see it happen. Never mind that it was actually done with a hydraulic piston: we see that truck flip, and we can tell it's a real-world stunt, not a computer-generated effect.

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