Saturday, August 27, 2011

BLIND FURY: NOTES ON CHAOS CINEMA

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.


26 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Boone: Well written, as always. But you haven't convinced me.

I'm no fan of snatch-and-grab on general aesthetic value, and certainly Stork's video essay includes clips that make me nauseous (in particular, Battle: Los Angeles). But while this piece includes several compelling arguments for why chaos cinema isn't inherently virtuous, I'm still not moved by the (ahem, snatch-and-grab) arguments that suggest its an unequivocal evil.

Cinema has always been dominated by the attempt to entertain audiences by any means necessary. Usually with profits in mind. A great many GREAT films have been made by those designs. And as cinema ages, and cinematic storytellers run out of unclaimed real estate on which to make their statements, the potential for originality is found in architecture -- whether that's the shuffling of narratives, or Tarantino-esque sampling, or visual reinvention.

Personally, I am thoroughly puzzled by the increasing camera gimmickry found in film and television. (In fact, it's probably worse in the latter: Want to get overloaded on random zooms and shakycam? Watch ESPN's news-magazine E:60.) So much of it feels meaningless: not driven to intentionally disorient the audience (a potentially valid goal) so much as driven by fear that an attention deficient society will automatically reject an image we have time to process.

In that respect, chaos cinema is fast-food: slowly we are being filled with artificial sweeteners and, yes, certainly too many moviegoers now need to be put into a salty, sugary, super-sized coma to feel sated. There's danger in chaos cinema, no doubt.

But it's too easy to jump on Nolan and Greengrass for following the "faster and more intense" blueprint of George Lucas that led to some highly profitable, highly celebrated and highly worthy pictures (and some shitty ones, too).

To play off your cokeheads metaphor, George Lucas might as well be the father in this video, and Nolan, Greengrass and so many others are the son in the headphones:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-Elr5K2Vuo

What we're seeing now has been a long time in coming.

Scott Nye said...

Of all the lines in my piece you could have pulled to burn me, you chose that one?

Kidding aside (and really, I'll be as kind about all this as one can after being likened to a cokehead), all that was meant by that was pointing out that publishing any piece of criticism primarily for the people who already agree with it isn't terribly productive. I'm sure everyone in question felt that there was much to be gained by Matthias' essay, but the whole thing (and the response from the choir that has followed) just read as an attempt to reaffirm rather than enlighten.

Jason really nailed it when he said, "Cinema has always been dominated by the attempt to entertain audiences by any means necessary. Usually with profits in mind. A great many GREAT films have been made by those designs." The idea that this somehow started with (or is even perpetuated by) handheld cameras and digital editing is...well, it's just wrong, I'm sorry. I mean, Tron: Legacy is as steadily-shot a movie as you're likely to find, in this or any era, and that's pure product, through and through.

It's a cliche at this point to point out that color, sound, and widescreen were all viewed as cheap gimmicks when they first emerged, but it's only a cliche because it's true. I am automatically skeptical of those who publish these kinds of fire-and-brimstone pieces because a set of filmmakers are exploring a new way of making films, especially when every complaint that is made could be lodged against directors we're all okay with liking (Terrence Malick's my go-to on this, especially because his whole process is the purest form of snatch-and-grab).

Are there awful films made using the "chaos cinema" technique. You bet. But there are tens of thousands of awful films that had to keep there cameras steady because they were too bulky to carry, and edited cautiously because they couldn't try new things using AVID or FCP. The idea that all of them made conscious, artistic choices in these regards and not because of technological or logistical considerations displays a blatant disregard for the production process. You can argue that such limitations are good for a filmmaker, but I'm much more interested in what comes out of a free art than a restricted one.

This whole argument in general presupposes two things - that quick-cutting is always bad, and that filmmakers should not find their films in the edit bay. I find both to be didactic and extremely limiting, two things that go poorly with art.

As for 3-D, well, I still say if we got Coraline out of it, it can't be all bad. But I find the automatic rejection of 3-D equally distasteful, and for the same reasons listed above. I haven't dug too deep around your blog, Steven, but I have to ask - have these production techniques (chaos or 3-D) ever resulted in a great film for you? Could they? If not, I really wonder what the point is of even writing about it, or even film in general.

Steven Boone said...

What the hell did Blogger do with the other two comments that were on here? If they don't return, I guess I will paste them into the thread from my email notification.

Jason, great points. And, yes, let's keep the drug metaphors flowing, hahaha.

I agree 100% that it's been a long time coming. We are living in the age that George Lucas and media execs dreamed of 30 years ago.

As for convincing you, I didn't have any hope that this piece would sway anyone. It was quick a purging of frustration and a call to arms for those who are already with me on this.

I do think that there isn't one experiment in Quentin Tarantino's work that isn't fundamentally "classical." My definition of classical is as broad as the world, but it basically encompasses any film that sticks to Dmytryk's dusty, trusty old rules of film editing.

I don't attribute evil to a style of filmmaking but to how it's been deployed. The same chemical process that fires projectile weapons can be used to power vehicles and cities. Guns don't kill people, etc.

In this post I probably don't do enough to place Stork's Chaos Cinema argument in the context of my larger point that we have spent the past ten years learning to live without film editing. To coin yet another Bordwellian term, what professional FCP and AVID editors practice nowadays should be called Accelerated Rough Assembly and Compression®. (hahaha)

Practitioners of ARAC don't really give much consideration to where the eye sits before and after a cut, or its relationship with movement within the frame for a shot's duration. They just show you something that the director (or whoever) wants you to see at that moment, then show you something else. The guiding principle seems to be to get all the story data into the allotted running time, with marginal consideration for setting a mood or allowing narrative tension to accumulate of its own power.

It just isn't necessary to know anything about film editing to become a master at ARAC. I even do some ARAC myself, on youtube and other places. All you have to do to gain mastery is be proficient with software interfaces and file retrieval. (This is really gonna go over well with my filmmaker friends, hahah).

Yep, television is where it came from. Remember all those newsmagazine shows and talk shows in the '90s that featured dutch angles, sepia tone, posterization and handheld in a simple talking heads interview? Well, that was the best they could do to disorient us at the time. Add FCP and various motion graphics/effects suites and you get ramping, blurring, lens flares, fake film grain, vignetting, whatever, whenever.

I have no illusion that, 20 years into Chaos, we will suddenly come to our senses and boycott horrible and dehumanizing filmcraft, but I do know that there are filmmakers out there who might respond by doing what even the great John Carpenter refused to do on his latest picture: Get their editors into rehab.

Scott Nye said...

Forgot to mention...

"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.

I didn't respond to that because I don't believe it. Particularly in those terms.

Steven Boone said...

Scott:"...have these production techniques (chaos or 3-D) ever resulted in a great film for you? Could they? If not, I really wonder what the point is of even writing about it, or even film in general."

Scott, I've seen great films in every style and format known to man, including 3-D (Jaws 3-D, of course :-)). But Chaos Cinema is just a symptom of the real problem. And the real problem is something that industry professional and paid film critics are not prepared to take seriously.

Since I made up a term on the last comment, let me press my fool luck with it. Accelerated Assembly and Compression (ARAC™) is the visual language of selling and coercion, and even in the most seemingly benign context, it serves a social and political function. It keeps even the most placid, barefoot vegan progressive pacifist among us in a state of emergency. It sets not only the pace of life but the way we interact with each other out in the world. ARAC is standoffish and largely disinterested in faces that aren't busy delivering information verbally or through a set of familiar expressions and gestures. It has no idea what Stork means by this: "We hear important plot information being communicated, but the camerawork and cutting deny us other pleasures, such as seeing a subtle change in facial expression or a revealing bit of body language." ARAC is disingenuous, like Tom Cruise giving a "candid" interview.

Chaos Cinema is only an extreme manifestation of ARAC. It's the milder form of ARAC that we are forced to live with in our homes via cable, satellite and other streaming services. Ten years of callous cutting has really been like corn syrup and hydrogenated oils in our system.

I stopped subscribing to cable TV about ten years ago. It made it so much easier to see from the outside how the media landscape was "evolving." To be clear: I am not emphasizing content. I'm not singling out "trash" reality TV or Pimp My Horse or whatever. I link to TMZ in this piece primarily because the way it delivers utter nonsense, with Natural Born Killers snap-zoom serrated-knife cuts, is the killer. There is a way to deliver mindless gossip with, on the visual plane, a lust for life and an appreciation for the beautiful, crazy faces delivering it.

Ever see Boogie Nights? For a movie about sleaze and lowlifes, it absolutely adores its people. PT Anderson even shot (but deleted) a scene where he lingered on each of his cast members applauding Dirk Diggler's award triumph in slo-mo, just to show off what vibrant examples of humanity they were.

Could you imagine a Boogie Nights made today, by practioners of ARAC and Chaos Cinema? Not only would the visual mash note to the characters be removed; it would never even be shot.

I have more to say on this effort to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids, but I gotta run for now...

Jason Bellamy said...

Practitioners of ARAC don't really give much consideration to where the eye sits before and after a cut, or its relationship with movement within the frame for a shot's duration. They just show you something that the director (or whoever) wants you to see at that moment, then show you something else. The guiding principle seems to be to get all the story data into the allotted running time, with marginal consideration for setting a mood or allowing narrative tension to accumulate of its own power.

It just isn't necessary to know anything about film editing to become a master at ARAC. I even do some ARAC myself, on youtube and other places. All you have to do to gain mastery is be proficient with software interfaces and file retrieval.


Boone: Very well said! And yet ...

As Scott keeps mentioning, this mentality suggests the following formula: If it looks like snatch-and-grab, it's ARAC, and if it's ARAC it's unthoughtful, unskilled, undignified amateurism. And that right there is a kind of cinematic xenophobia, which is troubling, to say the least. An argument could be made that the purest cinema comes from giving people the equipment they need to make a film and allowing them the space to discover how to do it, rather than holding to preconceived notions. (I'm not saying I completely buy that. But it's there to be made.)

Too often I think we praise cinema not based solely on the end product (which is all that should matter) but on the perceived effort that went into it. We value old epics over modern ones because they choreographed the actions of thousands of flesh-and-blood extras, rather than painting them in via CGI. We praise long uncut takes because we know the difficulty required in pulling them off. We praise De Niro for his real weight fluctuations in Raging Bull. We praise directors who do more with less. And so on. I'm by no means immune to this. But I wonder: If snatch-and-grab techniques were more difficult than old-school formulas, might we feel different about this growing trend?

The counter, of course, is to point out the reality: snatch-and-grab is less precise by nature. Still, sometimes it seems our feelings about the talent of a director shapes our feelings about the validity of their techniques, when it should be the other way around, no?

Scott Nye said...

Jason - YES. I don't know if this is where everyone is coming from, but I've always been uncomfortable with the notion that because it's harder, it's more valuable. It's the same mindset that rejects minimalist art with the old "my kid could do that!" or the even more self-loathing "oh, well I could do that" without realizing that it's the inspiration, the idea that's valuable (if it's well-executed, of course), and not everyone can do that.

And Steven, yes, Boogie Nights would still be made the same way, because P.T. Anderson is still at heart the same kind of director. It's the artist that dictates the product, not the current modes of production (though many of Anderson's detractors would probably argue that Anderson only ever ripped off current trends with his first few films, but that's a different matter altogether). You're setting up a false paradigm, assuming that every movie could be made by anybody, as though every director just pulls his next project from a hat.

Some directors adore their characters, and that's great. Some make movies where the people and their humanity is incidental. That's fine too. There can be all of these things. It's not like if everyone used a tripod and shots had to last at least five seconds, people still wouldn't make shallow, worthless films. That's the same line of thinking that says that if George Lucas never made Star Wars, everyone would still be making movies like Nashville.

"ARAC is standoffish and largely disinterested in faces that aren't busy delivering information verbally or through a set of familiar expressions and gestures. It has no idea what Stork means by this: 'We hear important plot information being communicated, but the camerawork and cutting deny us other pleasures, such as seeing a subtle change in facial expression or a revealing bit of body language.'"

Okay, but I say again - does every film need to have these elements? Should every film deal in subtlety? Can't there be room for Kelly Reichardt (a director I adore) AND Tony Scott? I think Eisenstein (a quick-cutter himself, who made some pretty good films that "keeps even the most placid, barefoot vegan progressive pacifist among us in a state of emergency") wouldn't agree with that sentiment. Nor F.W. Murnau, in his own way (less the emergency, sure, but certainly not one for subtlety).

I understand your concerns in terms of the grand industrial entertainment complex, but I still think we'd be assaulted with imagery even without the advent of AVID (and I've read more than my share of articles from the 1980s decrying exactly that trend).

But I would totally watch Pimp My Horse.

Scott Nye said...

A slight error in editing the above - meant to say that Eisenstein probably wouldn't agree that all films need to be subtle, but I added a sentence that changed the meaning.

Steven Santos said...

(Part 1 of 2)

Now it's my turn. I think many have turned this into an argument as to what is the right way to make a film, which I don't necessarily feel what Stork's essay does. In fact, he brings up several examples of quick-cutting films that have either a purpose or simply do not sacrifice spatial coherence. With all due respect, although I wasn't vocal about it, this was an argument that I felt had more nuance than Jim Emerson's multiple pieces on Christopher Nolan, which I think often employed a flawed logic. For example, when he took all those scenes of people falling in movies out of context and compared it to a scene in "The Dark Knight", I was positively baffled as to what that was supposed to prove.

I believe Stork's essay was trying to get us to think about why filmmakers make these choices. Thus, there was what I felt a believable defense of the filmmaking in "The Hurt Locker". As an editor, I found it refreshing that someone was discussing this as opposed to simply saying there were too many cuts in modern films and leaving it at that, which is what I call the Jeffrey Jones in "Amadeus" argument of Too Many Notes. Unlike Boone, I don't think Nolan or Greengrass represent the evils of filmmaking. Greengrass, in particular, used a slightly more restrained version of his "Bourne" aesthetic in "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93", which I think both succeed on an emotional level. And I genuinely feel the Bourne films are using a cutting style that reflects the character's fractured mindset, disagree with that if you will. I genuinely feel Nolan has a level of ambition that most other Hollywood filmmakers lack, though I think both "The Prestige" and "Inception" are quite failed ambitions. Just because the fans of Nolan's films are annoying, I'm not going to treat his films with complete disdain, something I'm also not going to do with Terrence Malick, whose fans have become equally obnoxious this past summer in my personal opinion. And, to be honest, I find some of the anti-Nolan brigade a bit obnoxious as well. The problem with Nolan is that he is not much of an action director, pretty much the same problem that plagued original "Batman" director Tim Burton, whose action scenes are just as clumsily executed. It is not a surprise their best films, "Memento" and "Ed Wood" are both low budget and have exactly zero grand Hollywood action set pieces.

Now knowing I'm not as dogmatic about how filmmakers make films, I am a bit surprised that the reaction to these pieces seems to border on the idea that "Well, this is what modern filmmaking style is like, so we should just accept it" and not ask questions about spatial coherence and whether the camera angles or number of cuts are motivated by story, emotion and theme. I'm not leveling this accusation against Scott and Jason in this thread, though the defense by Ian Grey I thought was spectacularly lacking in substance and didn't even seem to approach backing up an argument of any kind beyond "You're Either With Us or Against Us".

Steven Santos said...

(Part 2 of 2)

Now, while I only edit shows for basic cable, I am often asked to amp things up simply just to make sure the audience out there doesn't tune out. Though, for goofy insubstantial shows that I work on I'm not going to exactly do handwringing over the aesthetics. Those are jobs to me. While an amped up style can serve a purpose, in general, most of the time, I don't believe it does. I don't think the aesthetic I practice for television makes a whole lot of sense when employed in feature films, which should have something more emotionally invested in them.

I do believe this style often comes out of filmmaker indecision and insecurity. Why invest meaning and emotion into a shot when they simply cover the scene from multiple angles and try to invest the scene with purpose in the cutting room? Or, as I call it, kicking the can into the editing room. That's what I think is the central problem with what Stork calls "Chaos Cinema", in that I don't there seems to be a vision or even a choice made in the filmmaking. Which is why Chaos Cinema is often boring to me, as it is often a bunch of uninspired shots composition-wise slapped gracelessly together.

And if the argument is that people process information faster thus requiring faster cutting to keep up with them, that doesn't explain why modern action movies are more laborious in plot and story exposition in between hacked-up action sequences. And, despite all that laborious explanation, you can take a trip to an IMDB board and watch people ask confused questions about the plot that were explained ad nauseum in the film. I am a proponent of visual storytelling which is incredibly hard to do these days because between test screenings and the insecurity of movie execs and filmmakers, everything has to get explained several times over in order for people to get it.

If my feelings are dogmatic, fine. But this is the prevailing style of action filmmaking today and many people buy tickets to these movies, so I don't see any harm in people challenging the notions of what these films represent. I say this, disagreeing with both Boone and Stork on some of their examples. Now, more than ever, when I have skipped every single summer action movie this past season and even had problems with a film like "Tree of Life" for not letting moments breathe, then I think this is important to discuss because I do think this filmmaking is a bit bankrupt in emotion and technique. This kind of filmmaking has been particularly prevalent the last decade and is often defended as if it were a religion, i.e. drink the Kool-Aid or else. And if anyone knows how I feel about religion, perhaps we should expand our minds beyond the mindset that's helping to create a more depressing slate of films being released each year.

Steven Boone said...

Okay, the following was written before I read the Steven Santos comments, so I'll address those later. This is for Bellamy and Scott Nye:

I think in some areas we're talking past each other just a hair.

The misunderstanding is mostly my fault, though. I never do enough to make it clear outright that I'm not pitching these observations in defense of either professional "standards" or some kind of ascetic extreme. I'm not trying to impose a pre-fab style upon every movie that comes off the conveyor belt. I'm saying that film editing no longer exists, and I miss the shit out of it.

That's not a casual observation or conversation fodder. That's a lament for a visual language that died-- and not of natural causes.

I agree that PT Anderson would make Boogie Nights today with the same generous eye and talent that he employed in 1997. There Will Be Blood shows me that he's still "there." I never said that he wouldn't, but implied that whatever bankable ARAC specialist inevitably hired to do a reboot would turn it into a glib series of ARAC bacon bits.

And I believe that Christopher Nolan and Paul Greengrass are very talented (Following and Memento are crackerjack; United 93 is heart-stopping). My concern is with how their most wildly popular films applied those talents within the ARAC system.

And it is a system, based upon the complete dismantling of editorial craft over the past decade. The Dark Knight and The Bourne sequels use Chaos techniques in covering scenes and make selections from the footage using ARAC (I'm starting to feel like jargony L. Ron Hubbard here. If I keep going, I will have a book, and maybe a religion.)

You can't just brush past this point on the way to defending filmmakers' right to choose styles that fit their visions (or lack thereof). It's like providing security for shoppers in a post-apocalyptic boutique. It misses the point.

That's why I often my compare my argument to warning the people that Soylent Green is made out of people or that the pods are taking over the earth.

There is no conflating this argument with such relatively picayune concerns as whether this or that director has "talent." We can debate editorial talent in mainstream commercial cinema when film editing returns. Apart from the work of a few blue ribbon auteurs, there is hardly any film editing going on, just ARAC. Pre-2000's, even the most uninspired hack could be counted on to deliver a film that was covered and edited according to basic editorial principles. Now, roughly the reverse is true. As I mentioned, even an old hand like John Carpenter now allows his editors to employ accelerated rough assembly instead of the techniques that made him legendary (and make his films endure).

And there is no disentangling the argument from my political stance, which is very unfriendly to mainstream media--the same companies, yes, that gave me Die Hard and E.T. and so many other cherished goodies.

Scott Nye said, "I understand your concerns in terms of the grand industrial entertainment complex, but I still think we'd be assaulted with imagery even without the advent of AVID."

Agreed. The big question is, why? And it is a big question, as big as the economy, government and 30 years of corporations consolidating their power and their reach into our most private thoughts and impulses.

At this point you're wondering, Now, who's the cokehead here?

Craig said...

Steven (Santos) expressed my own take on this so well that I'm left with little to add. Except this: The hostile reaction to Stork's vid-essay sort of slapped me out of a certain willful naivete. Here all this time I thought that audiences were going to movies from Bay, Scott, Abrams et al just because they wanted to go to a movie (any movie), yet it appears a sizable number of folks actually enjoy this shit. You're welcome to it, if that's your poison. But like Steven, and for the reasons he and Boone mention, I've been staying away from current releases more and more with each passing year. And I'm having a great difficulty buying into the notion that they're making anything substantial that will stand the test of time.

Even with the films I've liked from Greengrass and Nolan, part of me wishes that they were better made. I also have to part ways somewhat with admirers of "The Hurt Locker." While there is much to admire about that film, I can't help but wonder, as I think Stephanie Zacharek mused in her original review, if the movie wouldn't have been even more effective with visual stillness rather than the jitters.

Craig said...

One more thing: I'd love to see Matthias, Santos, Boone or someone else expand on the notion of "chaos cinema" (or whatever you want to call it) as it applies to genres besides action movies. Screwball comedies, for instance, have been all but killed by sloppy editing, tedious exposition, and, as others have pointed out, a near complete lack of actual "jokes." I remember watching a Blake Edwards movie once and trying to remember the last contemporary farce that even bothered setting up a sight gag. This does not imply that Edwards hit it out of the park every time. But at least he tried.

Steven Boone said...

You chaps are giving up a lot of tangy food for thought. Santos, your statements are so clear and eloquent, I can only tip my cap at you.

You are right that my argument is not Stork's. I think the last comment I posted above distinguishes mine from his. His video describes what I consider just an extreme manifestation of a crisis.

It's the "crisis" point that I believe separates me from everybody who has joined this argument thus far. Oh, I am so special.

But I hope everybody here at least reads over my last comment carefully and considers whether it has a grain of merit. It's an outrageous supposition, so outrageous that it seems some folks are just looking right past it to argue against far less controversial points I'm not even making.

Craig, you edge closer to what I'm getting at, by zooming out wider than the action genre. ARAC (I'm not really expecting this term to catch on, but it's coming in handy, haha) is now the standard language of film and television.

That some of the acclaimed HBO series and brave experiments like Louie depart from these editorial practices is encouraging, but why can't we find much of this brave defiance at the multiplex?

I'll give you one comedy that broke ranks radically four years ago: Lars and the Real Girl.

Of all people, commercial-turned-movie-director Craig Gillespie struck a blow against ARAC with that keenly observed, delicately cut film.

Scott Nye said...

I will say right off the bat that I love that Santos sauntered in and let out a casual, "Now it's my turn."

We will have to set aside differences on The Tree of Life right up front, because though I think I've restrained myself fairly well this summer, I could very easily become one of those Terrence Malick fans.

I'm kind of surprised that you didn't take a very certain directive from Matthias' essay. And honestly, I love Jim Emerson's writing, but it doesn't take much to get more nuanced than his Dark Knight work. He would later make some fine points about Inception, but I'm with you, that Dark Knight stuff was poor form all around.

But I've had my piece to say about what Matthias said, so let's continue.

I've always meant to say, but I don't care much for Nolan's action work either, aside from the hallway fight in Inception and, honestly, the car chase/road battle in Dark Knight. It's not perfect, granted, but its placement in the film is so perfectly structurally, and he drops in the right moments at the right time (the Joker opening the van door is a perfect "oh, shit, really?" moment, and Batman physically restraining himself from running the Joker over is the best bit of psychology the film gets off). But it does often feel like he needs those hooks (be they bits of audacious energy or big expressions of character) to even raise his interest, as so much of the rest of it is unbelievably dull.

I can see how you'd take the "this is what modern filmmaking is like, so we should accept it" message from my replies, but that's not at all what I meant. I don't know if you've read my post (Boone linked to it above if not), but I've certainly made an effort to illustrate how Bay, Greengrass, and Scott each used the "chaos cinema" technique to very different, but equally valid, ends. And no, they don't all have great concern for coherence or story (Greengrass succeeds best here, and I liked what you had to say about his work on the Bourne series), but I found distinct purpose in all of them. My whole point is that this is a mode of production, a prevalent one, and it's worth seriously considering (on this we can agree); my complaint is that I don't see a lot of serious consideration in these pieces, just the fairly obvious observation that things have gotten faster, shakier, and louder.

I certainly don't mean to take a "drink the Kool-Aid" approach - if by the end of all this you don't see things my way, that's all well and good (and Matthias and I have certainly made peace with our differences). I've just been reading a lot of this sort of criticism over the past five, six years, and it doesn't seem like many who reject Chaos Cinema even considered that there COULD be choices made in the filmmaking, let alone that there obviously are (and here I do agree with Jim Emerson - everything you see onscreen represents a choice).

But I, too, could do without laborious exposition. I was a big fan of Transformers 3, but oh boy, was there a lot of talking about nothing. In one arena, I will agree with the "they don't make 'em like they used to" crowd - give me a simple set-up, and a clear goal (and Die Hard really is the perfect example of this).

Jason Bellamy said...

This discussion has been great. Props to everyone, and to Santos in particular, who weighs in with tremendous convincing clarity (as usual).

Now that the conversation has moved ever so slightly away from action-based films to ARAC in all genres (if Ebert puts ARAC in his glossary, does that make it official?), I'd like to move us back to something I suggested at the end of my first comment, as I think the two line up:

I'm curious what people think: Is ARAC (Accelerated Rough Assembly and Compression, if anyone's forgotten) the principle enemy here, or is it George Lucas' "Faster and More Intense" model (FMI)? In other words, is ARAC really the product of "filmmaker indecision and insecurity," to quote Santos, or is it based on a fundamental misunderstanding: the assumption that faster always means more intense? Yes, I know it's possible the answer is "both." But what's the root? Or is that a meaningless question?

Thoughts?

Steven Boone said...

Side note to Scott and Santos: I think you both have taken some cheap shots at Jim Emerson, whose obsessive, painstaking pieces about The Dark Knight deserve more than a quick hit-and-run dismissal. I hope you at least engage with him on these points over at Scanners.

(^This from the guy that called you all cokeheads.)

Bellamy, your last question isn't meaningless, but maybe your multiple choices are incomplete. I choose D.) A concentration of power and political will that make every upwardly mobile professional deeply insecure. If you want to see desperation, watch the behind-the-scenes clip of George Lucas obsessing over beating Titanic's box office record.

It's like Jay-Z expressing that his sole interest is in being #1 on every chart, all the time, rather than in any meaningful artistic creed. It trickles down to the male enhancement products, energy drinks, status symbols and arbitrary performance targets that the mass of working people pursue to "enhance" their lives, move up, feel empowered.

That impulse is probably as old as modernity, but a much more recent global economic agenda returns us to the kind of near-24/7 work schedule last seen in early 20th century factories. Desperate to escape this fate, we will do anything to move up and stay up.

It's the same for professional filmmakers. So their work reflects their haste and desperation. You could argue that no filmmaking system moved faster than Golden Era Hollywood, but those guys didn't have the technology to translate impatience and insecurity into hapless montage.

The linear, mechanical nature of 35mm shooting and editing forced directors to figure out coverage usually with a single camera, setup-by-setup. Editors had to break down and assemble footage by running it through a Moviola in real time. In this climate, Dmytryk's indispensable "rules" developed.

Dailies and screenings of rough cuts happened in screening rooms. There was testing and consultation with preview audiences at times, but it was mostly supervised by a few anxious moguls and functionaries, not a whole army of market research experts anxious to predict the box office weather.

Again, nothing here that hasn't been said a trillion times since the late '60s, but the past decade has been about filmmakers taking on the anxiety of their bosses and the Madison Ave/Wall Street-driven world they experience on every screen outside the movie theater.

There was a possibility early last decade that filmmakers could have held the line. They could have refused to let salesmen take over the editing room, no matter how efficient the new tools.

But they didn't. And they kept their jobs. And American commercial cinema died. [Inception horn.] There is no more telling scene in any American movie this year than the one of Shia LeBeouf in Transformers 3, bowing, scraping and babbling through a job interview, more afraid of being left out than of the Deceptagons. Each jump cut was Michael Bay telling you he will do what it takes to stay in the executive class of this new Third World country.

Steven Boone said...

^BTW, this last esoteric tangent grew out of Santos' reference to insecure filmmakers and execs--just so you know I'm not just talking with the voices in my head. Not just.

Craig said...

To continue expanding the discussion outside of action flicks, I encourage everyone to take a look at Steve Vineberg's great 1990s piece, "Swing Shift: A Tale of Hollywood," which compares the butchered studio release of that movie to Jonathan Demme's original cut (which survived in bootleg videocassette format). Excerpt:

"The first thing you notice is the difference Demme's impeccable film sense makes. Stiff and static, the studio cut of Swing Shift seems embalmed in the creamy, sunlit haze of Tak Fujimoto's cinematography; the movie dawdles, and the characters (especially Kay) have no apparent forward movement. Demme's cut is the same length but seems to move much faster: his editing gives it a flying density."

Just an interesting point on the impact that these choices we're talking about make (not that anyone's disagreeing on that point).

Steven Boone said...

Oh, man, Craig, this is the best possible link that could go here, right now. Among other things, it shows that the ARAC War has nothing to do with speed (of the onscreen proceedings) but with intelligibility, purpose and selection. It says that Demme's cut was "faster" than the studio cut yet more intimate and "casual."

I will abduct this article into my "desperation" argument above, in the sense that Goldie Hawn and the studio were so desperate to have a movie that didn't confuse, bore or alienate audiences that they ended up with flat product doomed to do all three. Imagine how much more frantic their pandering would have been with today's zippy post-production workflow. Slow movies devoid of texture/fast movies devoid of thrills. That's what happens when publicist/salesman agendas commandeer the editing room.

"Worse, the commercial print feels impersonal, with a slickness that reminds you of awful big-studio products of the 40s - only without their gleaming conviction."

It's funny how things change. Back when this article was written 20 years ago, I remember feeling this way about some of the more impersonal studio quickies of the '40s, by nondescript house directors on the assembly line. After a decade of ARAC and Chaos, I am now grateful for Charley Chan movies and episodes of the Annie Oakley TV series for their basic sense of craft.

Steven Santos said...

I may have more to add later, though I do want to clarify the "cheap shot" I took at Jim Emerson. First, I cannot express enough that I think Emerson is a smart and intelligent writer about film, one of the best on the web. However, I do believe his articles on "Dark Knight" seems to fundamentally misunderstand editing. As in my previous example, how do you take scenes out of context from different films and reduce each to the act of falling to make a statement on editing? As an editor, I just find that too simplistic.

I am more than willing to engage with Emerson on his blog, as I have in the past. Though, in one of those early "Dark Knight" threads, my not even-enthusiastic defense, as well as some others, of that film often resulted in several rabid Nolan haters personally insulting me and others. I thought the atmosphere was rather ugly and felt it disproved the notion that the anger was only on one side of that debate. I generally stayed away from subsequent posts on "Dark Knight" on his site from that point on.

I don't care whether Emerson wants to prove Nolan is a bad filmmakers, but I objected to the method and logic he used.

Steven Boone said...

((Santos, I hear you. Sorry. Forget I said "cheap shot." That suggests a petty insult, which you did not say. The phrase I was looking for was "played his essays cheap." I thought you gave his pieces a glancing dismissal, but I stand corrected. Now I remember that you were one of the folks who surfed those turbulent Scanners comments threads. Anyway, I'm not about to start policing behavior in here.))

Steven Santos said...

No offense taken. I can see how it got taken as that, as I squeezed a lot into my earlier comments to give everything its due. That film in particular is a pretty touchy subject for everyone, but, at this point, for a debate on Chaos Cinema in particular, I don't see how any of us can avoid it. In some ways, I felt I needed to something about Emerson's take on the subject that I didn't feel was properly brought up when he made those arguments. (Let's just say that the counterarguments to Emerson at the time were kind of lacking/weak.)

Scott Nye said...

Well...I had a long-form reply in the ready, but the server went ahead and ate it, apparently. I'll reply to some of the other points made later, but real quick on the Emerson bit - what Santos said. I cannot possibly communicate my admiration for Emerson's work, and it's arguable that no other single person had as great an impact on my appreciation and understanding of cinema. But nobody gets it right every time. As for contributing to the discussion, I wouldn't have dared wade into those threads. It's not that I can't take the heat, but any attempt at reasonable discussion was being misinterpreted several times an hour, and I just didn't have the time to keep up. In the end, I didn't feel like any reasonable contributions were making much headway in that mess.

Steven Santos said...

Now that I'm out of the editing room myself, I wanted to tackle Jason's question though I think Boone's response hits the nail on the head. My feeling is that the process of making films, as well as a lot of entertainment, has been corporatized. Yes, it's always a business about making money, but I feel this past decade, in particular, has rewarded filmmakers who tow the company line.

I could already tell you from my experience in film school in the early 90's that the new generation of filmmakers weren't ordered to sell out, they mostly volunteered. Movies were not as much about expressing themselves or even learning a craft, as much as a series of calculated career moves. In many ways, I think the current generation doesn't have a whole lot to say or lack the introspection to present more daring ideas and put themselves out there more as artists nor did they think craft was much beyond what they regularly watched on television. I've brought up on my own blog the lack of new interesting American filmmakers in the 00's.

This may suggest why filmmaking styles are indistinctive, indecisive and insecure. Filmmaking in this past decade has been devoted to second-guessing what they feel audiences want. We don't have many new directors with an innovative eye, so filmmaking choices have become conservative, shooting basic coverage from many angles and creating what I feel is a false sense of "faster and more intense" through editing.

As the article Craig brings up, it is not always necessarily about speed as it's about making uninspired choices or, in terms of filmmaking craft, non-choices, that will appeal to a wider audience, make things more clear to them, as well as hold their short attention spans. Though I haven't seen "Swing Shift", I wonder if the pacing of that film was thrown off once Hawn and the producers meddled and wanted the film to be all things to all people making their cut seem bloated in comparison to accommodate that.

Craig said...

Though I haven't seen "Swing Shift", I wonder if the pacing of that film was thrown off once Hawn and the producers meddled and wanted the film to be all things to all people making their cut seem bloated in comparison to accommodate that.

The studio release, with the exception of Lahti's performance, is bland, timid, and forgettable: it's "chaos cinema" in the sense of making chaotic a director's singular vision. I haven't seen Demme's cut, but it's long been a Holy Grail for me. It's my hope that somebody had enough foresight to donate one of those bootleg tapes to an archives somewhere to be preserved.