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?

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underrated halloween movie picks

[This was actually supposed to be posted on Wednesday October 29.  Then on Thursday… and then Halloween came around and it still wasn’t up.  Now it’s November 2 and well… Halloween really is every day for those who love horror and the macabre.

You love horror movies and want to host a marathon of them for Halloween… only problem is: you’ve seen everything!  What to do?  You’ve seen all of the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies, you’ve had your fill of zombies, you’ve worn out your discs of Argento, Bava, and you want something a little edgier than your beloved Universal monsters, Hammer horrors, and wispy Val Lewtons.  What to do?  Here are my picks for some underrated horror films sure to scare, disturb, or freak you out.

Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil are a married couple in peril.  She wants a divorce and her emotionally detached husband doesn’t.  So she does what any person would do in her situation… she has an affair with a monster.  Or something like that.  Crazy, brutal, surreal, bloody, and did I mention… crazy?  This is the trailer for the shorter American cut of the film, thankfully no longer available.

The Keep (1983)

Not a great movie by any means.  In fact, the second half is downright unintentionally hilarious, hideous, and memorable in all the wrong ways.  Up to that point, though, Michael Mann’s one foray into the eldritch regions of cosmic horror is pretty damn good and is a faithful interpretation of F. Paul Wilson’s Lovecraftian-styled vampire novel.  I think this film’s unavailibility on DVD has helped it generate a cult appeal that… well, would wear off pretty quickly if people actually watched it.

Having said that… there are some amazingly hypnotic scenes early on–e.g. the opening few minutes, the discovery by the two Wehrmacht soldiers of the hidden tomb, Scott Glenn’s “awakening” and his subsequent journey to the Keep–that easily separated this from the glut of slasher and gore films flooding the screens around the same time.  Hopefully, Paramount will unleash Mann’s “director’s cut” (rumored to be 180 mins) onto BluRay and DVD soon and I’ll be pleasantly surprised by how wrong I am about that second half.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

This is one of director John Carpenter’s lesser known movies, but one that has always had its share of supporters… me being one of them, though I didn’t come on board until the mid-1990s.  It has two terrible lead performances by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, some hilarious unintentionally funny scenes, and yet… yet… it scares me.  In fact, it contains one of the scariest moments that I’ve ever seen in film.  And no, it has nothing to do with Jameson Parker.  My gods, what was Carpenter thinking when he hired him?  Guess he came cheap.

Santa Sangre (1989)

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky, no stranger to surrealism and provocative subject matter (see the cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain), here conjures up what is arguably his most cohesive and overall best film.  It’s also a strangely moving film, while never abandoning the grotesqueness and violence that frequently shape Jodorowsky’s films.

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

The nightmare of childhood indeed.  Plenty of great films have been made about the loneliness, pain, and horrors of adolescence–Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, Robert Mulligan’s The Other, Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Leolo, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to name just a few–and though I don’t think Philip Ridley’s feature debut deserves to be placed in the pantheon, it sure does pull you down into its dark undercurrents, leaving you unsettled and lost afterward.  I haven’t seen it since 1990, so my recollection of it may be a bit foggy.  But I often think back upon the film’s American gothic sensibility and surrealistic touches… and that awful moment with the frog.  And then there’s that thing in the barn… and those greasers in the car… and that vampire….

Here’s the trailer.  Also look out for the great Viggo Mortensen in an early role.  Mortensen would team up again with Ridley for the director’s second film, The Passion of Darkly Noon.

Dust Devil (1992)

When South African director Richard Stanley’s post-modernist science fiction/horror Hardware was released in 1990, it seemed like the work of a true stylist and pessimistic visionary… a long fetid industrial howl in complete opposition to the overblown escapist fantasies that the Hollywood studies churn out and have perfected.  Hardware felt like a true cinematic comrade to the so-called cyberpunk literary sub-genre that was already burning out around that time.

Hardware wasn’t a hit when it came out and it quickly disappeared from theater screens in the US.  I managed to see it three times at the cinema and eagerly wanted to know where this Richard Stanley was going to lure us next.

But when Dust Devil was finally released a few years later, it arrived straight to video from Paramount as an 87 minute mess (courtesy of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax) and I was left frustrated by its incoherence. Then I read a review in Sight & Sound where a longer cut of it had been released, fleshing out the film’s more mythic ideas as well as the storyline involving Zakes Mokae as cop on the hunt of the supernatural serial killer played by Robert Burke.  Thankfully, the “Final Cut” and an even longer workprint are readily available on DVD, giving us an opportunity to reevaluate it.  Now, if only Stanley would direct a new feature.

Here’s the video trailer for the “Final Cut.”  Warning: graphic violence.

Dark Waters (1993)

The 1990s were not a great time for the supernatural horror film, especially of the European variety.  But for lovers of Argento and Fulci, Mariano Baino’s feature-length debut is a hot shot of sinister atmosphere and monstrous evil.  While pretty much ignored in the years after its release, the film has garnered a much deserved cult audience since its stellar US DVD release a few years back from NoShame.  A minor classic to be sure.

Cemetery Man (1994)

Here’s another brilliant, inspired Euro cult classic from around the same time as Baino’s film.  Although most serious horror aficionados were familiar with director Michele Soavi from his numerous supporting roles in films like Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, Lamberto Bava’s Demons, and many others, as well as his own directoral work with StageFright and The Church, it was Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man that made many of us realize how brilliant Soavi truly was.  Based on the long-running Italian fumetti (comic book) Dylan Dog, the film was unavailable legally for years in the US before finally being given a disastrous theatrical run a couple of years later.  The best Italian horror film of the 1990s, without a doubt.  And a zombie film to boot… when zombies were far from being hip.

Dead Birds (2004)

Now for one of the best American horror films from this decade, the supernatural Western Dead Birds.  Starting off like The Wild Bunch when a group of AWOL Confederate soldiers rob and shoot up a bank, the film careens into Lovecraftian cosmic horror when the bandits retreat to an abandoned plantation mansion.  Strong performances, especially from Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, and Isaiah Washington, and a deliberate pace help draw us into the creeping inevitable doom these characters face.  Highly recommended.  Why this wasn’t given a proper theatrical release from Columbia Pictures is beyond me.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Premiering at the 2005 HP Lovecraft Film Festival in my hometown Portland, Oregon (where I first saw it and reviewed it for VideoScope magazine), this short is a true labor of love.  Based on Lovecraft’s tale of eldritch terror and madness from beyond the stars, the film is a black and white homage to silent film (think Guy Maddin mixed with Weird Tales) and is surprisingly faithful as well.  Until Guillermo Del Toro finally makes the long rumored At the Mountains of Madness… this is the supreme Lovecraft adaptation around.  And there’s even a stop-motion sequence too!

and it’s a battered old suitcase…

kissmescream.jpg

Living abroad, basically out of a backpack, prevents one from maintaining the lifestyle of a pack rat. Before splitting from Portland for European lands, my comrade in mischief and I sold off hundreds of books to Powell’s Books. And what they wouldn’t take, we gave away. Although we started packing and getting rid of items a month in advance, the pressure to clear out our cluttered yet pleasantly comfortable apartment was cranked up pretty high those last two weeks. So plenty of books and VHS tapes went to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. What we chose to keep–still a good, solid library–got packed up and is supposedly safe and sound in some climate controlled wonderland waiting for us to return one day. My DVDs all went to a friend for safe keeping. No doubt they will be put to good use.

But some of my discs managed to escape being orphaned and are currently accompanying me on my journeys. In the past, when I had traveled “close to the ground,” the thought of having immediate access to films was absurd. And though I would occasionally dream of having films at my disposal, the idea was completely within the realm of science fiction. In the early 1990s, during my first lengthy trip to Europe, I was basically living in a cave. No, seriously. Well, it was a small, unheated one room flat with stone walls and only a wood stove to heat the place. I craved movies, but I craved heat even more. The last time that I was overseas for an extended period of time was 1996, DVDs were still a year away from entering the forum of mainstream acceptability, and therefore the idea of packing a bunch of them with me was ridiculous. I might as well have had access to a jet pack.

Not that I would want to take a traveling case of discs with me anyhow. Traveling, at least the way I’ve always done it, has been about surrendering the comforts of home, relinquishing the familiar, and attempting to reconnect with the alleyways of life.

Anyway, books were more transportable.

Things are different now. Because of work, I have to have access to films, or at least access to the machine that can bring them to life: a laptop. So I brought some with me and it ended up being a perfect opportunity to test out the “desert island” theory of film watching. You’re on a desert island and you can only bring twenty-five films. What films do you bring?

I stowed away a fair bit. Films that would inspire, would sharpen the intellectual batteries, would amuse, would withstand the repeat factor, and would continue to charge the imagination when nothing else would. There was also “homework” to consider, so a few of those ended up with me as well, though most of the required viewing is still back in Oregon awaiting orders to re-enlist for duty.

So what did make the cut? Obvious favorites, to be sure: Seven Samurai, Blade Runner (in all its permutations), Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Le Samurai, Heart of Glass, The Conformist, Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, Suspiria, the Sergio Leone westerns, Bad Timing, The Thin Red Line, The Searchers and some other Ford/Wayne westerns, The Wild Bunch, a whole lot of Mario Bava and other European horror films from the 1960s, Barry Lyndon, some Godard, some Truffaut, a couple of Japanese horror films, a couple of samurai films, all of the Val Lewton films, and Lifeforce. Yes, Lifeforce, the craptacular 1985 Tobe Hooper movie. I also tossed in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise because I’ve never seen it (an embarrassing admission) and what better time to watch it than when abroad and more likely to have a little time to spare for a 190 minute masterpiece. I’d received the Criterion Collection disc for a review that never panned out and was always waiting for that appropriate rainy day. Well, it took a few years and me having to leave my abode to do it, but I plan on watching it soon.

When planning my exile, I’d expected to watch plenty of films. I purchased a good, compact traveling case and stuffed it with digital goodies. Much to my surprise, my old ways have sort of kicked in again. I haven’t watched much. The first month we were too much on the go, getting acclimated to traveling again. But this last month we’ve been stationary, so we managed to watch The Devil’s Backbone, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 Robin Hardy film not the LaBute/Cage carnival of guffaws) and a couple of nights ago I settled into the Lewton/Robson film The Ghost Ship. More about that last one in a near-future post.

This new, more accommodating style of traveling is weird. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it’s still weird to have the luxury of being seemingly so far from “home,” so far from the familiar and yet be so connected. It’s not exactly like I’m in some mountain retreat at the moment, so I’m not too worked up about it. But it does make me wonder that if I was on a real desert island, I think watching a movie would be the last thing on my “to-do” list.