by Steven Boone
[Editor's note: Don't bother reading all this until you've watched both chapters of the Matthias Stork masterpiece Chaos Cinema: The Decline and Fall of Action Movies.]
"This is what happens when you lose your eyesight. Your other senses try to compensate."
Matthias Stork's thrilling two-part video essay Chaos Cinema tells us that the state of the art in modern action filmmaking is unsound. He blames a chaotic style of covering the action that has proliferated wildly over the past decade.
His presentation has had the effect of a schoolmarm busting in on a cocaine orgy to tell the half-naked, moaning participants that what they're engaging in isn't exactly healthy. No shit? You'd think they'd be grateful, but the reaction from those who happen to enjoy the action movies Stork trashed has been, essentially, "Shut up, nerd! And close the door!"
But I'll bet each of those cokeheads staggers home from the bacchanale only to lie awake in bed, wondering whether there was something to what the kid was whining about. After all, their nostrils are raw and bleeding, their mouths are dry and they have pounding headaches. What's worse, they can barely remember all the fun they had. Just a blur of dildos and Tasers. All they know is that they have to go for some more cocaine and erotic asphyxiation just as soon as they can sit upright again.
Stork's video is an intervention. The addict is any moviegoer who believes that what Stork calls Chaos Cinema (and which I refer to as Snatch bullshit) represents a mere stylistic preference or, even worse, an evolutionary leap in film storytelling. Or, even worse, base-level nutrition, in the manner of a ghetto child raised on Pizza Rolls and Skittles.
The backlash has been predictable but surprisingly passionate. "Styles change and cinema moves forward," writes somebody at The Week. Scott Nye hisses: "What's next, aim for people who turn away because of widescreen? Steadicam? Color? Sound?" Mr. Nye, I hope you can elaborate on how action sequences slapped together to convey nothing but shock and panic are drawing us closer to the Promised Land. After that, let's hear about how the robber barons of neo-3-D are actually living up to the innovative spirit of the French New Wave. (I picture a bunch of portly Disney executives running free like those kids in Jules and Jim.)
Over at PressPlay, Ian Grey scolds anti-chaos zealots by calling us Barry Goldwater:
It’s depressing that the ultra-conservative pro-classicists will not even consider that there might be something valuable occurring through these “chaos” films, planting the seeds of a new movement and establishing a new, valid way of seeing things for a new generation. Can it be possible that those young people born after the advent of 8-bit video games experience everything faster, harder, more intensely and more vaguely than the generations that came before it, on multiple levels, in both ecstatic and numbed-down ways? Whatever the explanation, classical cinema is not and never again will be their answer. It doesn’t match the experience of a generation of Facebookers, Tweeters and Call of Duty players. It just doesn’t. No amount of hectoring will change that.
Grey's rant (like most of the ones I've read that step forward in defense of a storytelling style born in the hectic control rooms of TV news companies and the editing suites of ad agencies) uses the children as a human shield. No, chaos cinema could not be helped. This is what the kids want, because they play video games and they can't sit still. Kids today are said not to have attention spans sufficient to engage with stories that unfold rather than crash down. But even hyperkinetic first-person shooter games are closer in effect to vintage Roman Polanski than to Shoot Em Up. Many of the most popular video games on the market are sprawling role-playing games that reward concentration and spatial awareness. An immersive RPG like Shadow of the Colossus? Pure cinema:
The kids didn't create--or ask for--Chaos Cinema, no more than little Johnny asked for the neighborhood pusher to move onto his block and offer him some new sneakers. Kids just want to escape boredom. They want to feel alive. Chaos Cinema came along at a time when young people and adults alike had learned to expect instant gratification from their DVD players and cable boxes. The kind of spontaneous montage I created as a child couch potato of the '80s, armed only with a cable dial and a slothful VCR, acquired exponentially greater firepower by the late '90s, with thousands of satellite channels and the random-access of DVD chapter stops to draw from.
Concurrently, AVID (and later, Final Cut Pro) non-linear editing systems gave professional film editors the same freedom to make instant selections from their pools of footage.
Meanwhile, the Internet went from a convenient tool for interpersonal and business correspondence to a direct telecommunication and commerce channel. This quickened the pace of everything. Once digital video became widely accessible, it was even easier to feed the beast, 24/7. Finally, cheap portable media devices and Internet screens of varying diminution reduced the amount of information we could be expected to retain in a single image, lending shots the quality of flash cards. Car. Man. Smile. Pile of shit.
In the movie business, this quickening became an opportunity: Storytelling in mainstream movies would get faster and more furious with each year of the last decade, in the style of product upgrades. Let's think of the movies in the aughts as Dell desktops. Each new movie packed more RAM (more footage to draw from, and from a wider variety of camera angles), faster processors (editing that obeys fight-or-flight impulses like a channel surfer) and bigger hard drives (more screen time devoted to densely-packed expository dialogue, like Wikipedia clippings in an undergrad's netbook). Except that, unlike computers, these increasingly tricked-out flicks narrowed our selection of applications (visual styles) to ones with cluttered, user-unfriendly interfaces. This phenomenon was sold as a sign of the times by Ho'wood's de facto publicity outlets and happily/resignedly indulged by consumers who came to think of movies as perishable items. Slurp, burp, next.
And so, corporate filmmakers have found a way to seize young people's attention with relentlessly jarring montage where beguiling storytelling has always done the job more effectively. Kids now get what corporations want them to want. In this scheme, a focus group or test screening functions as a kind of standardized test to confirm that audiences know how to panic. It's also quality control against movies that don't panic sufficiently.
Stork's essay arrives after the movie business has already established cocaine cutting as the new classical and is pushing neo-3-D as the next must-have product line. Oh, just wonderful. We are approaching a decade anniversary of imperial wars in the middle east. Violent flash mobs are storming American groceries, and tea party rednecks are keelhauling minorities from the backs of SUV's. Children are uploading their barbaric street crimes to YouTube. Shattered ex-soldiers are slaughtering their entire families before running onto the highway with samurai swords. Everybody is sucking down energy drinks and lattes to keep pace with this century's greedy, gossipy stock ticker, the Twitter feed. Katy Perry, Lil Wayne and Drake are providing the real-life soundtrack, jingles of vanity, sociopathy and Rolex watches. Panic and complacency bump uglies in every public space. To say that Chaos Cinema reflects the times we live in is accurate, but the times reflect the temperament of constant mania and caprice set by Chaos Cinema and her media cousins, a warped hall of mirrors.
This is not progress. It is the language of hard-sell advertising subsuming the movies. Stork is right to call it out and name names, especially those filmmakers whose intelligence and discernment supposedly exempt them from the anti-chaos firing squad. Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) are the worst offenders. Their films, whatever they are about textually, move through space and time with the inhuman ferocity of (to quote another rabid screed of mine) a Rwandan radio broadcast circa 1994. The editing of such films induces us to accept agitation as our default state.
The reason for this trend is clear, old as dirt, and anything but revolutionary. Chaos Cinema puts us in our place. In action movies, it makes the world unintelligible and morality actionable only by its implacable onscreen hero, who can plow through concrete walls without ever losing his soft-spoken Matt Damon-ness--his superficial connection to us civilian lambs. Chaos Cinema is not the New New Wave. It is John Wayne back from the dead, proclaiming liberal sympathies while hiding a bloody bowie knife behind his back. In other genres, CC draws our concern away from the principal business of human drama--namely, the humans--to stupid flash card theatrics: Frown. Retch. Shout. Flail. Cry.
This is the visual grammar of the Tea Party, Crips and terrorists.
What serves to keep movie audiences simultaneously docile and hostile also makes for voters who fail to see beyond the personal emergencies and must-buys that big business tailors for their demographic. The New Wavers spoke up for human frailty and the most delicate, evanescent of emotions. Their jump cuts and violations of the 180 rule were humanism standing up to inane certainties and conventions. They opposed the same shape-shifting corporate orthodoxy that now brings us Jay-Z and Kanye rapping about luxury products as if they were Anna Karina's smile.
Never mind what the screenplay says. Cinema lives by its flow of images onscreen, as experienced in the dark in real time. To dismiss the way a film moves as secondary to plot is akin to insisting that a Brother Theodore monologue would be just as mesmerizing if read verbatim by Michael Cera on club drugs. (Well, actually....) In a common dismissal that mocks this grievance as a mere peeve, Ian Grey misses the point by kilometers: "Another critic could include [as an example of Chaos Cinema] Black Hawk Down, which, instead of being despised for its racism, is despised because its missiles aren’t fired in sufficiently elegant fashion." Form can transform content, Mr. Grey. Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks contains eruptions of violence that positively gasp at the fact of brutality, of all tragic departures from this earth. It's a crime saga in which a simple dissolve from Kitano's frail, cancer-stricken wife gazing up at an explosion of fireworks blossoms with compassion.
When you watch a movie primarily with your eyes and heart rather than your fears, your social ambitions or your bank account, you might see that Chaos Cinema is neither a fad nor a spontaneous youth movement. It's a business decision. Those jumpy teenagers at the head of the march are child soldiers. They get their orders from the limos in the back, via the same technology that might free them.
To give an example of an anti-chaos classic, Stork's essay highlights a movie that John Wayne would have have enjoyed, the John McTiernan blockbuster Die Hard. One could go on forever dissing Chaos Cinema, but I will let my cheesy music video below express why a hyper-violent siege picture from 1988 expresses a love of light and life that today's lightest romantic comedies could learn from. Never mind the snarky, reactionary plot. Pay attention to the movement within--and of--the frame. Die Hard's camera nurses a schoolboy crush on life itself. In contrast, Chaos Cinema says it serves at your pleasure while, in truth, it would kill you for the insurance money.
For more on this phenom, go over to Jim Emerson's Scanners and Cinema Blend.