chaos cinema and the sorry state of the modern action movie

Action movies have been undergoing a major transformation over the last decade or so, altering how physicality is captured on screen, and deviating dramatically from the conventions of what we commonly understand as classical Hollywood filmmaking. The way audiences absorb these images is arguably changing as well–our eyes are adapting. We can’t see fast enough. But what is it that we’re seeing? Anything beyond the surface?

What is at issue here is the idea that through the use of random staccato cutting, jarring and seemingly mindless use of close-ups and shaky camera movements, and a bullying manipulation of sound to stranglehold the senses, the modern day action movie less resembles a motion picture than it does a commercial—sensory overload with only a superficial acknowledgement of dramatic conflict and resolution to stitch the brawny money shots together.

The directors who are consistently castigated for the use of these techniques are Michael Bay (Armageddon, Bad Boys, and the Transformers movies), Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Domino, and Unstoppable), and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Green Zone). However, the trend is far-reaching and the list of culprits long and growing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fast cuts or the use of handheld camera to convey disorientation or verisimilitude. All filmmaking is manipulative, whether we’re talking about the modest yet profound grace of a naturalistic movie like The Bicycle Thieves or the orgy of furious pixels and aural cacophony that fuels most big budget commercial action movies. But while the technological advancements have juiced up the surface pleasures of movies like never before, offering audiences a mainline of numbing thrills to help distract one from thinking about how poorly written and constructed the dramatic elements truly are, they become more and more irrelevant in terms of story and emotional resonance. The over-the-top cartoon violence of the sugar pop Shoot ‘em Up looks childish and stupid in a way that Oldboy–a movie that contains one of the most kinetically exaggerated yet impressive action sequences of the last decade–never does. Oldboy, which is pure melodrama, is invested in its characters’ plights in such a manner that it resonates deeply with emotional depth. Its slick style is not intended to alienate the viewer, but force us to engage deeper with it, something that Bay or Scott or the director of Shoot ‘em Up, Michael Davis, aren’t capable of. At least, they’ve not yet shown that they can connect with an audience in a genuine way. But they’re masters of visual obfuscation and jazzing about. They seduce you with over-amped imagery that only registers surface stimulation, if even that. They’re cinematic cosmeticians, bred on the techniques of advertising and bad television shows more than they are on the masters of action cinema like Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Leone, Sturges, Hill, and so many others.

For some people, I guess, that’s enough. They just want to see shit blowed up real good. But for someone like myself, who wants their action narratives grounded in character, emotion, and real physicality—it’s a bore and I anticipate the tide turning, because this trend won’t last. It may be irritating, but it won’t last. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is real storytelling and the ability of a director to generate genuine emotional investment in his characters. It’s the fundamentals of drama. And you can pit your hero up against the most ass-kicking robotic giant we’ve ever seen on screen, but if the hero isn’t worth our emotional investment, why should we care? Plenty of people obviously do enjoy being lulled into waking sleep week after week, since these movies are astoundingly popular. I’ve yet, though, to hear anyone talk about them as great stories; I’ve yet to hear anyone tell me they actually cared about what happened in a Michael Bay movie.

Film writer and academic Matthias Stork has labelled this new form of dissociative action filmmaking “Chaos Cinema.” Over at Press Play you can view Stork’s two-part video essay and judge for yourself. Then head over to Big Media Vandalism and read Steven Boone’s thoughts on the subject, “Blind Fury: Notes on Chaos Cinema,” and take in some of the rather hostile reactions in response to Stork’s criticisms.

A part of me is rather dispirited in seeing such unthinking, reactionary support of directors like Bay and others. It’s like hearing someone mount an enthusiastic argument for the virtues of Hamburger Helper over that of a perfectly grilled steak or even a good old fashioned delicious cheeseburger. The argument becomes a bit embarrassing after awhile and displays a shocking lack of taste. Okay, you like eating shit. But you do know that you are eating shit, right? There’s nothing wrong with championing undervalued or critically-loathed filmmakers. You do, though, have to establish sound reasons why they’re worthy of taking seriously. Just saying you like them a whole bunch isn’t enough, I’m afraid.

I’m also encouraged by all of this, however, because what essentially people are arguing about is… editing. Aesthetics. Movies. Entertainment. Criticism. Art. And there’s something oddly beautiful about that, especially at a time when supposedly dialogues like this are things of the past or confined to academia. Is anyone really convincing anyone to his or her side? I don’t know. But I’m glad people feel passionate about… editing rhythms.

I should make it again clear that I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the techniques utilized in these so-called Chaos Cinema movies. Commercial films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch both shocked audiences out of their apathy with jarring editing schemes during their apocalyptic finales. Violence had never been represented on screen with such savagery and graphicness before. Exit wounds exploded, blood spurted, and the agony of death could be felt in every frame. It was an assault on the senses, but the directors of those two milestones ultimately wanted you to feel. Audiences were shocked by the carnage, but it was the way those scenes had been filmed, edited, and designed that greatly contributed to their disorientation as well. And when they walked out of the theater they felt something.

This was old school Chaos Cinema.

This was a time when commercial feature film directors like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, as well as editors like Dede Allen, pilfered the techniques of the Nouvelle Vague for their own uses, manipulating space and time within the frame to a degree that many viewed what they were doing as incoherent and artsy-fartsy. It pissed people off, but eventually our eyes adapted to this new way of viewing action. I’m sure many moviegoers who were more comfortable watching John Wayne in True Grit wanted to rip their eyes out after seeing The Wild Bunch. True Grit, released the same year as Peckinpah’s masterpiece, feels old and wheezy in comparison. It’s plenty good, but it feels old. Now, The Wild Bunch looks like a relic to some kid jonesing for his next digital hot shot. I’m sure even films like John Woo’s The Killer or Hard Boiled–two films that were evolutionary leaps in terms of how action was conveyed on screen in their day–are considered slow to that zapped-out kid sucking out droplets of pixelated joy from the latest Michael Bay or Tony Scott release. But the major difference in what Peckinpah and Penn did in their work and what the directors of Chaos Cinema are doing, is that the former filmmakers never lost sight of character and emotion. They never surrendered their humanity.

Hyper-kinetic cutting, handheld camera usage, and attempts to displace our sense of space within a scene can theoretically be useful tools for a filmmaker if used judiciously and with thought. Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan–a film that I don’t particularly care for overall–effectively overwhelms the viewer with a virtuosic opening D-Day sequence that uses many of the techniques later bastardized in the lesser films that followed. But Steven Spielberg is a master craftsman and, working with the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, was able to immerse us within the physical combat experience in a way we’d never experienced before in a movie. There was physicality in the images–an awareness of bone, blood, and suffering. There was also an awareness to know when to draw back, to let a semblance of “real life” intrude into the otherwise melodramatic WWII clichés. Arguably, some of Saving Private Ryan‘s most indelible imagery comes from the quiet moments, such as the scene of raindrops pelting a leaf or a procession of soldiers walking across a field at night, their silhouettes visible whenever bombs light up the night sky in the distance.

But directors like Michael Bay and others seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of storytelling, hence why they’re so afraid of boring the hell out of you, hence why they have to overload your senses at all times, even in non-action domestic sequences when characters dribble out useless plot exposition or backstory.

It’s a con. They know it. Do you?