The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
In the Cut: Piecing together the action sequencePart I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)Part II: A Dash of Salt
The third part of my series of video essays about action sequences is called "I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco," because it delves into two great car chases shot on the twisted streets and roller-coaster hills of the City by the Bay -- one famous (Peter Yates' 1968 "Bullitt") and one not-so-famous (Don Siegel's 1958 "The Lineup"). There's also a taste of the celebrated chase from William Friedkin's 1971 "The French Connection" -- and a very brief recap of the techniques examined in Part I ("The Dark Knight") and Part II ("Salt").
As I say in my intro over at Press Play:
In response to the first two parts, some have complained that "nobody looks at movies this way" -- which is demonstrably untrue, since the evidence is right here in front of you. What they are really saying is that they don't want to look at how action sequences are put together this way, and that's fine. Nobody is forcing them to. (In addition to pressing PLAY, you can press PAUSE or go to another page.) Far worse are the movie-nannies who are saying: "I don't want to look at filmmaking this way and neither should you," an attitude that's as insufferably arrogant as it is absurd.
To reverse the old "forest-for-the-trees" metaphor, if you always looked at the forest from a distance, you'd never discover all the different kinds of trees it's composed of. You don't examine the individual trees exclusively, or every single time you behold the forest, but you can learn from examining the elements up close. As I've said before, studying film is like studying literature or music or painting: it's helpful to look at words, sentences, paragraphs; notes, bars, passages, movements; brush strokes, colors, compositions... and how the pieces relate to one another.
Can a bad movie have some good filmmaking in it -- or vice-versa? If you have to ask that question, you haven't seen very many movies. In the Cut focuses on one thing and one thing only: the construction of action sequences. Those sequences were chosen not because these are the greatest (or worst) movies ever made, but because these specific sequences offer opportunities for illustration and discussion.
Fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy and exhilarating ride....
"In the Cut" is presented by Press Play, Scanners and RogerEbert.com. Part I (on "The Dark Knight") is here. Part II (on "Salt") is here.
Click here to watch larger video on Vimeo.
In the Cut: Piecing together the action sequencePart I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)Part III: I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco (Bullitt, The Lineup, The French Connection)
From the introduction to my latest deconstruction of a modern action sequence over at Press Play:
In Part I of In the Cut we looked at part of an action sequence from "The Dark Knight" and examined many questions, ambiguities and incongruities raised by the ways shots were composed and cut together. In Part II, we delve into a chase sequence from Phillip Noyce's Salt (2010) that uses a lot of today's trendy "snatch-and-grab" techniques (quick cutting, shaky-cam, but very few abstract-action cutaways -- I spotted one doozy, but I didn't mention it; see if you notice it). And yet, there's very little that isn't perfectly understandable in the moment.
There are certain directors I think of as "one-thing-at-a-time" filmmakers. That is, they seem to be incapable of composing shots that have more than one piece of information in them at a time. This makes for a very flat, rather plodding style. You see what the camera is pointed at in each shot, but you get very little sense of perspective when it comes to relating it to other elements in the scene. Noyce's technique is much more fluid, organic and sophisticated. He keeps things from one shot visible in the next, even when shifting perspective -- whether it's only a few feet or clear across several lanes of traffic.
In Part I: A Shot in the Dark (Knight) I asked (rhetorically) whether the techniques used made the action more exciting or just more confusing. I left the question unanswered because it's something viewers are going to have to decide for themselves. And, as usual in criticism, the goal is not to find the "right" answers but to raise the relevant questions. Noyce himself raised a good one when he said he thinks viewers are not looking for coherence but for visceral experiences. And yet, his filmmaking is quite coherent (grammatically, if not "realistically"). "Visceral," like "realism," is in the eye of the beholder....
"In the Cut" is presented by Press Play, Scanners and RogerEbert.com. Part I is here. Part III will examine a classic San Francisco car chase from "The Lineup" (1958), directed by Don Siegel ("Dirty Harry," "Escape from Alcatraz," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Charley Varrick"...).
Click here to watch larger video on Vimeo.
Annotated full transcript of the video here, for easy reference.
In the Cut: Piecing together the action sequencePart II: A Dash of SaltPart III: I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco (Bullitt, The Lineup, The French Connection)
The first of a three-part video series on action sequences at Press Play is a really detailed, shot-by-shot analysis of a famous chase in "The Dark Knight" that has always confused me. Others told me they had no problems following it, but the closer I looked at it, the better I understood what puzzled me.
As I say in the introduction over at Press Play:
When, for example, we're shown someone gazing intently offscreen and there's a cutaway to something else (that appears to be in the vicinity), we assume (having familiarized ourselves with basic cinematic grammar over the years) that we are seeing what they are looking at. But that's not always the case. Why? I don't know. I find many directorial choices in contemporary commercial movies to be sloppy, random, incomprehensible--and indefensible.
This essay takes a long, hard look at roughly the first half of the big car and truck chase sequence from Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," set on the lower level streets by the Chicago River. It stops, starts, reverses, repeats, slows down... taking the sequence apart (and putting it back together) shot by shot. The idea is to look at it the way an editor would--but also as a moviegoer does. We notice lapses in visual logic whether our brains register them consciously or not. I found this sequence utterly baffling the first time I saw it, and every subsequent time. At last, I now know exactly why.
"In the Cut" is presented by Press Play, Scanners and RogerEbert.com.
UPDATE: 9/12/11): Part II is now here. This quotation comes near the beginning:
Realism, as usual, is simply a fig leaf for doing what you want. Virtually any technique can be justified as realistic according to some conception of what's important in the scene. If you shoot the action cogently, with all the moves evident, that's realistic because it shows you what's 'really' happening. If you shoot it awkwardly, that presentation is 'realistically' reflecting what a participant perceives or feels. If you shoot it as 'chaos' (another description that Nobles applies to the Expendables action scenes)--well, action feels chaotic when you're in it, right? Forget the realist alibi. What do you want your sequence to do to the viewer?
--David Bordwell, Observations on film art (September 15, 2010)
Each of these astonishing "cinematoGIFs" (animated .GIF files) by Gusaf Mantel distills the essence of a cinematic moment into a living, breathing "movie still" -- an indelible moment preserved in time. Once you start gazing into them, you'll find it hard to stop...
Above: The apes and the monolith: "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).
Below: The tension of Travis Bickle, keeping his television perpetually balanced on the edge of smashing to the floor: "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1976).
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.
You've probably read that Sean Penn, in an interview with Le Figaro, said this about working with Terrence Malick on "The Tree of Life": "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly."
What you probably didn't read was what else he said, which was translated and posted as a comment by Guy Lodge in response to an article at InContention.com headlined "Sean Penn bitch-slaps 'Tree of Life'": "But it's a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It's up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved." (InContention.com followed up with "Penn on Malick, part deux.")
Back in May, the great production designer Jack Fisk, who has known Malick for many years, told Dennis Lim in the New York Times: "I was shocked by how personal the story was when I first read it. But when I watched the film I just think how universal it is." Or, as Richard Brody, who writes "The Front Row" for The New Yorker, aptly quotes Fritz Lang in Godard's "Contempt": "In the script it is written, and on the screen it's pictures."
I've never understood the pleasure (or the disappointment) some people seem to get out of trying to spot continuity errors in movies. Such a waste of time and attention. But I've seen this 30-second TV spot for "The Debt" starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds and Jessica Chastain several times this week (during "Louie," "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report") and this one's so obvious it throws me for a loop.
One of the first things you notice is a nasty scar on the leading lady's face. And in the TV spot it switches from cheek to cheek within seconds. We're talking about Helen Mirren, people. This is not some minor detail like the level of liquid in a glass or a scarf shifting positions. It's Helen Mirren's face. In every shot but one the scar appears on her right side (our left). Did they flop the other shot for some reason? Just for the ad? Or is it shot in a mirror? I don't know, but it's... disconcerting.
UPDATE: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known as the "West Memphis Three," were freed from prison Friday, August 19, 2011. They were incarcerated for 18 years for the murders of three young boys in 1993. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made two HBO documentaries about their case -- "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" (1996) and "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" (2000). A third film, "Paradise Lost: Purgatory," is due to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. It will need a new ending. HBO will be presenting the first two films, on cable and through its mobile app HBO GO, in the next two weeks.
John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims who demonized the West Memphis Three in the earlier films, today believes that they are innocent:
Watching Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones concert movie "Shine a Light" (2008) for the first time the other night, it struck me that Scorsese has always been extremely good at shooting and cutting musical sequences not only as if they were action set-pieces, but as narratives. Whether it's the big-band saxes and brass blowing the camera across the ballroom like a balloon in "New York, New York," or Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire" feeding the coke-fueled paranoia of Henry Hill in "Goodfellas," or the opening beats of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (cut, cut-cut) launching us into Charlie's troubled psyche at the start of "Mean Streets," Scorsese uses the instruments of cinema the way a musician would.
Music videos are typically cut to the rhythm (which quickly becomes tedious) and are designed to tease the viewer/listener with frustratingly brief glimpses of tantalizing images. Space and time are deliberately fractured. This has the effect of keeping the viewer hooked, always looking for that next feel-good visual fillip. In contrast, watch (and listen to) what Scorsese does in "Shine a Light." He'll pick a moment -- the strum of a guitar or a glance from one of the players -- as punctuation, to get from one shot to the next. (Also, the sound is mixed like a movie: Whoever's on the screen is usually brought forward in the mix for the duration of the shot.)
A horror or science-fiction movie without subtext is like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory without electricity. The inner metaphor is what gives it life and resonance. Otherwise, it's just a story about stitched-together people parts. Or take David Cronenberg's "The Fly," a riveting, poignant horror/science-fiction/romance about an ambitious scientist who accidentally gets his DNA mixed up with that of a housefly. Everything about the movie is first-rate, from the direction to the performances to the effects. But what really grabs hold of you is the universal theme: We are all Brundlefly, sentient, self-aware beings whose bodies are going to decay and die. In 1986, a lot of people assumed the subtext was AIDS; Cronenberg later said he was thinking in more general terms about the process of aging. It doesn't matter. The movie works on those levels.
Cronenberg is particularly ingenious at making the word flesh, and the ways he develops his ideas are often even scarier than the explicit horrors: "The Brood" is a masterpiece about the psychosomatic effects of rage turned inward, and about the legacy of emotional abuse passed down from one generation to the next; "Videodrome" is about technology as an extension of the body and the brain; "Dead Ringers" is about mutant forms of psychological and sexual intimacy; "Naked Lunch" is about a writer who has to internalize his own sexuality before he can create art.... Cronenberg is an organic, visionary thinker, storyteller, filmmaker. His movies have meat on their bones. Other filmmakers whose work strikes me as insubstantial lack this ability to flesh-out their pictures with compelling, animating ideas. Their plots are meticulously plotted, but they're skin-deep and there's nothing to sink your imaginative teeth into.
Which brings me to this summer's hits, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," neither of which I have much interest in seeing. Instead I'm intrigued by a few things I've read about them -- specifically about their subtext, or lack thereof. In a piece about the racial themes of "The Help" ("Why Can't Critics Just Get Along?"), David Poland writes: