Thursday, August 25, 2011

Chaos Cinema, Abstract Painting, and Sforzandos

I should've seen the warning signs when I read the introduction at the otherwise stellar new blog, Press Play:

EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is proud to premiere a new video essay by Los Angeles scholar and filmmaker Matthias Stork. His video essay, Chaos Cinema, should be a welcome sight to anyone who's ever turned away from a movie because of a director's shaky camera.

What's next, aim for people who turn away because of widescreen? Steadicam? Color? Sound? A good policy when publishing (or even reading) criticism is to stay away from something that promises up front to simply reaffirm a theory - not argue persuasively, provide deeper insight, or explore an issue. Just be a small comfort for those who think likewise.

I've linked to the essay in question above in case anyone wants to hear (or read) the prosecution's position, but here's a brief recap. In, "Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths, and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking." We understand that these are bad things because in his introduction, he praised such films as Hard Boiled, Die Hard, and Bullit for their "classical" style, noting that "the default style of commercial cinema was...meticulous and patient," and that "in the past decade, that bit of received wisdom went right out the window."

Leaving aside the idea that there is anything "classical" about Die Hard's form (the clip he uses to illustrate this point is hardly exemplary for restraint in cutting), has Stork even been going to the movies? The past decade has been loaded with films that employed this so-called "classical" style. A quick perusal of just the films I've seen in the last few years, I came up with Matrix films, Speed Racer, Kill Bill, Death Proof, Punisher: War Zone, The International, the Iron Man films, Captain America, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 2012, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 300, Knight and Day, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Children of MenSuperman Returns, Avatar, and Tron: Legacy. Never mind brief flashes of action in such films as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. These are films in which the primary goal is "keeping you the viewer well-oriented because they wanted to make sure you always knew where you were and what was happening," to use Stork's explanation of the style he prefers. Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men even used a extended tracking shots to ensure success in that area (of which Stork, in citing Hard Boiled's incredible achievement of doing the exact same thing, should be fond).

Okay, but let's pretend he didn't mean that whole business of "they don't make 'em like they used to!" and intended only to point out that a lot of movies are hard to follow, that cinema (a visual medium) should only be employed to communicate facts (this person does this, this person says this, etc.), and that any film that fails in this mission isn't worthwhile. To this end, he says, "Trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here in the art of confusion." There are too many qualifiers here to possibly orient myself in this sentence ("no you guys, I know Jackson Pollock was important, don't worry!"), but essentially it's saying that all cinema has to be straightforward, linear, coherent, and literal (which instantly removes Terrence Malick, a favorite director of myself and Mr. Stork, from his own definition of what makes a good movie). And that Jackson Pollock should have buckled down and drawn maps, apparently.

No, honestly, I know what he's getting at here, but he also answered his own concern - Pollock wasn't trying to depict anything literal, instead creating works that produce emotional, visceral responses that come from the thrill of the abstract. How is that any different from Michael Bay's "explosive mixture of out-of-control editing, intrusive snatch-and-grab shots and a hyperactive camera" (I see we're also not fond of the Oxford comma), or the whole of Tony Scott's Domino and Neveldine/Taylor's Crank? Wasn't Pollock's whole point the release of control, and the invitation of the element of chaos into art?

Number 1 by Jackson Pollock

A frame from Bad Boys II by Michael Bay

Two frames from Domino by Tony Scott

I wrote a longer piece centering around Domino, but addressing what Stork terms "chaos cinema" in general, in a piece back in 2009. An excerpt (emphasis added now):
There's a fantastic featurette on the Domino DVD that deals solely with the visual style of the film. Basically, they used six hand-cranked cameras for all of the "manipulated" shots [those in which figures blurred, the contrast was cranked up, etc.]. All of those cameras were loaded with high-speed reversal film, which increases the grain and pumps the reds, greens, and yellows. They would crank the cameras forward and backward to get images to layer over each other, something shooting at different frame rates. The film would then be processed on machines not meant for that stock, and transferred at a high speed, creating streaking and trails. The ultimate goal was to create a texture you can touch, reach, and smell, and to let the mistakes that would happen with reverse-cranking inspire them. Thankfully, the DVD shows some of the dailies, which aren't so different from the final product, indicating relatively little postproduction work on the individual image.
It's fine if you reject Domino on narrative grounds or whatever similarly-ill-suited definition of cinema you employ, but I've never read a convincing argument against it artistically. And there are plenty who try, including Mr. Stork. Look at the frames above, or better yet, skip ahead to the 2:10 mark in the clip below (just after the helicopter crashes, and forgive the subtitles), and tell me if this at all seems like a movie that is worried about telling a straightforward, linear story and communicating its action clearly. Because that's not what I see. I see a full-on sensory assault dedicated to visual abstraction and the destruction of our notions of what cinema should be. Which seems like a pretty decent purpose for art to have (Lord knows that art lovers lose their shit whenever MOMA highlights a painter who did just that).

"A film is not about what it's about, but how it's about it." - Roger Ebert's famous maxim, though I remember reading he actually got it from someplace else.

I also don't know how Domino is even mentioned in the same breath as Paul Greengrass' work (which we'll get to in a minute). The two styles could not possibly be more dissimilar, or used to more different ends, though apparently "cutting a lot" is enough. By that measure, there's really nothing to distinguish Terrence Malick from Wes Anderson - according to the Cinematrics Database, they have comparable average shot lengths, so what's the difference, right? You could argue that Stork is only examining editing patterns, which is true, but he also dismisses the notion that they could ever be used for a purpose.

Unless, of course, the film wins an Oscar. And not one of those crummy "technical" ones.

Predictably, Stork excuses Kathryn Bigelow's work in The Hurt Locker, because that's the movie we're all supposed to line-up and appreciate, right? Never mind thinking about why we all love it so much and if those applications of style could possibly be used in other pictures. His mild-mannered shrug of an admission reveals the fallacy upon which his entire essay is based. He writes:
To be fair, the techniques of chaos cinema can be used intelligently and with a sense of purpose. Case in point: Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. The film uses chaotic style pointedly and sparingly, to suggest the hyper-intensity of the characters' combat experience and the professional warrior's live-wire awareness of the lethal world that surrounds him. Bigelow immerses viewers in the protagonists' perspectives, yet equally grants them a detached point of view. The film achieves a perfect harmony of story, action, and viewer involvement.
So it's okay for Bielow to create a visceral piece "to suggest the hyper-intensity of the characters' combat experience and the professional warrior's live-wire awareness of the lethal world that surrounds him," but when Paul Greengrass uses that same style to immerse us in Jason Bourne's world, it's an abomination? The style isn't always used equally, to be fair (and he's right, Quantum of Solace is a mess), but if there is a marked difference between the way Greengrass employs it and the way Bigelow does, Stork doesn't find it. For him, it's simple - Greengrass is bad, Bigelow is good.

Watch the clip below, particularly the beginning. Here, Greengrass uses rapid-fire editing to follow Bourne (Matt Damon) as he searches for Nicky (Julia Stiles), both of them well aware that Desh (Joey Ansah) is trying to kill her. The shots of Nicky, while hardly up there with Bela Tarr (or even Alfoso Cuaron), are much more patient, quiet, and focused. For Bourne, it's all about what's in front of him, noticing every detail and fast as possible, and barreling forward. For Nicky, it's about keeping quiet and out of harm's way. Different approaches for different intentions, effectively contrasted to create tension.

As for the fistfight that follows, I've heard those complaints too, and all I'll say is that every shot is there to communicate what's happening in that scene. Feel free to go through it frame-by-frame and tell me I'm wrong, but I'll tell you right now, that's a road to nowhere my friends. Directors such as Greengrass (and, yes you bastards, Michael Bay) do assault you with their images, which are - wait for it - sometimes devoid of thematic import - but so did Stan Brakhage, and that worked out okay for him now didn't it. But while Greengrass used his assault to communicate unstoppable force (suitable for super-soldier Jason Bourne), Bay's set pieces are more like classical music, with crescendos, diminuendos, and certainly sforzandos.

Watch - and I mean really watch - the car chase from Bad Boys II. Watch the way Bay punctuates the smaller movements within the larger piece ("Now show 'em your badge!" denotes the transition into stationary firefight, which comes to an end when the track rams into the water tanks), maintains continuity of movement (staying in the cars' perspectives when taking the ramp out of the garage, creating a consistent downward spiral), and allows for an accident to create the perfect abstract expression of destruction (a cop car knocking over the camera, creating a crazy, split-second spiral). Once he's on the freeway, it's build, build, build, build, build, then the car flies over Martin Lawrence's head, followed by a brief respite, until the boat comes and the piece reaches its fiery conclusions. Movements. Crescendos. Pause. Builds. More crescendo. Finale.

"But such exceptions do not disprove the rule," Stork continues, in his line of don't-worry-I-liked-The-Hurt-Locker reasoning, "Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact, and largely devoid of beauty or judgment." Yes, absolutely. So is most cinema, of any kind, from any era. Stork front-loads his argument by citing movies everyone loves (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, Bullit) and comparing them against movies most people agree aren't very good (Quantum of Solace, the first Transformers film, Bad Boys II, Domino, Battle Los Angeles). Even when citing films with great action scenes (Inception, Shoot 'Em Up), Stork only points out the ones that don't work, and he refuses to acknowledge the idea that cinema could be used for pure expression or narrative abstraction. I take issue with his argument, certainly, but he could have at least made it well.

There are other points in his essay that I take issue with, but they're mostly nitpicks (I do wish he would have gone further into dialogue scenes, which are nearly an across-the-board abomination these days, and a subject into which I may dive in the coming weeks).

On his blog, he features a quote from Eric Rohmer that reads, "Every auteur possesses his own style, his own vision of the world, his own poetry," but I see little evidence here that he's ever thought about what that idea really means, and the infinite possibilities it reveals in cinema.


Matthias Stork said...

Scott, congratulations on this well-argued post, and I mean it in all sincerity. Some of the points you raise are solid and interesting. But I still take issue with a few remarks.

You refer to the characteristics of "intensified continuity" I mentioned at the onset of the essay as "bad things". In fact, I enumerated these techniques to delineate the overarching aesthetic mode of most commercial films. I hold no grudge against these stylistic devices. What I object to is their, what I consider, perverse exaggeration.

You continue to list a number of films of which some, in my opinion, display remarkable action sequences (and yes, I am fond of Cuaron's CHILDREN OF MEN sequence). Hence, I did not include them in the essay.
You confuse classicism with a restraint in cutting. I defined it as precision. DIE HARD's cutting rate may be increased but every cuts serves to orient the viewer, bring us into the action and experience it along with the character.

No, not every film has to be linear, straightforward, coherent and literal. Action scenes should be, in my opinion. You are right. I love Terrence Malick precisely because of his idiosyncratic style. But there is a difference between a Malick film and an actioner. The video essay purposefully referred to action cinema (+ the dialogue and musical segments). But it equally referred to commercial filmmaking, not arthouse endeavors.

The difference between painting and cinema is movement. A still image versus moving images. I can enjoy a Jackson Pollock painting. I have time to absorb it, watch every detail. It is an onslaught at my senses but I am given the opportunity to impose sense on itt. In CHAOS CINEMA, the overwrought aesthetic does not grant me this option. It intentionally seeks to overwhelm me, refuses to let me recognize the action space. Editorial action is the point, not physical action. Cinema as a medium is put on display, not the action the characters experience. This is not a fault in general. It is in an action scene, though.

(And the Oxford comma...are you not accusing me of pedanticism?)

My argument against DOMINO is based on its aesthetic choice for its action scenes. They look impressive but they do not draw me into the action onscreen. I marvel at the colors, the lighting, but I cringe at the overall presentation of the onscreen action.

You pointed out that my argument is biased and too simple. Your argument, though well-argued, may fall into the same trap. "I see a full-on sensory assault dedicated to visual abstraction and the destruction of our notions of what cinema should be." This is truly an honorable effort. And I agree with you. But if I frame it in terms of legible and affective action, it loses its critical foundation. Overgeneralization is a polemic we all have recourse to, for a specific purpose of course, to stimulate response.

The essay is not only focused on editing patterns. But I specifically emphasize that cutting ideally should have a purpose. In chaos cinema, I find the only purpose is to overstimulate.

Greengrass and Scott are not mentioned as equal. They serve as illustrations of chaos cinema. They execute it very differently but to me the result in terms of action geography is the same.
THE HURT LOCKER won an Oscar, yes. But it is still a great film, right? I did not choose it because of its award prestige. I chose it because Bigelow uses chaotic style to build suspense, the crescendo you attribute to Michael Bay. Furthermore, Bigelow treats every combat scene as an evolving narrative. In BOURNE, many fight scenes appear monotonous to me. This is not to say that certain parts of these films aren't better than others. The scenes I included, though, I find deficient.

Matthias Stork said...


As for your not too polite conclusion, I reject your argument that I do not believe in cinema as a versatile medium. Action, in my view, is stronger if it is explicitly staged. As for the BAD BOYS 2 car chase, I acknowledged that the action is cool to look at (that is the entire point!). It is just immposible (and intentionally so) to feel the action. And while I grant that the prelude to Bay's highway car chase is superior (clearly laid out space, almost every shot serves to communicate the action and make us feel the blows), the chase I referenced is hardly varied in its narrative conceptualization (the so called pauses are actually interesting displays of overwrought chaotic technique, shaking the camera wildly into the actors' faces).
And if THE HURT LOCKER is a cliché, so is "the perfect abstract expression of destruction (a cop car knocking over the camera, creating a crazy, split-second spiral)."

Yes, the dialogue scenes are intriguing and I would have liked to spend more time on them (I am looking forward to your piece, though). But there is a time limit for a video essay, unfortunately :)

As for your comment upon the Rohmer quote: I do not consider Michael Bay an auteur. I know that some people define auteurism as idiosyncratic elements a director displays in his work. I personally add a certain quality to that list. And according to your text, the infinite possibilities in cinema should only be used to overwhelm us, to express the abstract in as many ways as possible. I do not object to that. I could by putting words in your mouth, claiming that you hate films that do not pursue this effort. But I am not going to do that. I just find that there should be room for intelligible, pleasurable and physically exciting action. There certainly is room for arthouse experiments in cinema, room for ingenuity, innovation, transgression, even in chaos cinema.


P.S. Great work on Battleship Pretension, seriously!

Ken Cancelosi said...

Ok, if your argument is "art is what it is and it's all valid." Then, no one can rebut your points. I suppose you're right in that regard. But, you can't dismiss the whole of Quantum of Solace as "a mess" and turn around and cherry pick a scene from Bourne Ultimatum. If you want to cherry pick, here's a clip from The Bourne Supremacy - the Moscow car chase:

It is just as utterly chaotic and incomprehensible as Stork describes. It dulls the senses. It relies on the soundtrack to tell us how to feel. Watching it on the big screen is nauseating and it can't be understood without watching it at least 5 times. It is incompetent in that it doesn't consider the audience that is watching it. Stork describes a lazy trend in filmmaking and you and I can cherry pick all day — trading scenes, both competent and incompetent direction barbs that use this style.

Scott Nye said...

Well, you guys have definitely ensured I'll be busy today! Let's dive in, Matthias first...

I apologize for any affront, but honestly, your essay was very dismissive of modern action films, and hardly left room for the possibility of greatness by any standard, which, judging from your comments now, gave off a false impression. You wrote that in the 20th century, "Action was always intelligible, no matter how frenetic the scenario," but that in the 21st, "film style changed profoundly," and "that bit of received wisdom [classical, coherent cinema] went right out the window." That, to me, doesn't sound like you think anyone is making films like they used to, so to speak, when it now seems like we both agree that they do. If it was a simple mistake in phrasing, that's totally fine, but all I could work with at the time of writing was the essay at hand.

"And if THE HURT LOCKER is a cliché, so is 'the perfect abstract expression of destruction (a cop car knocking over the camera, creating a crazy, split-second spiral).'"

Haha, touche! Though to be fair, is that not a great abstract expression of destruction? I mean, things are so crazy, they're spilling out onto the cinema itself (though I suppose your "crashing it through the screen" line means that's not your bag, but that's cool).

Mostly, I am very intrigued about how you define an auteur. For me, it's always been about those idiosyncratic elements, which leaves room for there to be "bad auteurs" or simply "bad authors." All the auteur theory ever meant to me was the idea that a director authors his film, and it sought to celebrate those who really push their artistic vision on us. But hey, as they say, to each his own cinema.

Scott Nye said...

I honestly don't object to less abstract forms of cinema (Wendy and Lucy was my favorite film of 2008). I'll admit a preference for abstraction, but more than anything, I try to take in the movie on its own terms. Wendy and Lucy announces right away that it's going to be about a woman and her dog struggling to survive. Domino announces that it's going to be about light and colors and editing and the way film moves through the camera.

"Greengrass and Scott are not mentioned as equal. They serve as illustrations of chaos cinema. They execute it very differently but to me the result in terms of action geography is the same."

Fair, and I'm sure we can debate around the mulberry bush all day and never reach and consensus on Greengrass, but I'll restate that Tony Scott is not interested in action geography.

"It intentionally seeks to overwhelm me, refuses to let me recognize the action space. Editorial action is the point, not physical action. Cinema as a medium is put on display, not the action the characters experience. This is not a fault in general. It is in an action scene, though...
"My argument against DOMINO is based on its aesthetic choice for its action scenes. They look impressive but they do not draw me into the action onscreen. I marvel at the colors, the lighting, but I cringe at the overall presentation of the onscreen action."

But that's the whole point. You're SUPPOSED to marvel at the colors and lighting - sussing out what's specifically happening isn't important. I object strongly to the notion that cinema as a medium shouldn't be put on display. I don't think the movie ever set out to put "the action the characters experience" at the forefront, and the film is very direct about its intentions up front. And if that's a problem, well...Why can't a movie be abstract in its presentation of action scenes? Why should those types of scenes specifically be clear and focused?

I have no problem with you focusing on films that try to present action logically and coherently and just flat-out fail (which is certainly something that happens with chaos cinema - again, Quantum of Solace), but in the process, you've dragged down films that were never trying for that in the first place. That's like blaming Dumb & Dumber for not dwelling on mortality - it's criticizing a film that was never made.

As for the Oxford comma, I'm just sore that the Oxford folks are phasing that out, and the comment to that end was meant as a witty aside.

Scott Nye said...

Ken - I saw The Bourne Supremacy in the theater with no preconceived notions other than that I liked the first one a whole lot more than I expected. I didn't know Greengrass' work, I didn't know what to expect at all. I had no problem following the Moscow car chase, and was exhilarated by what I saw. I'll admit that the soundtrack aids it admirably in this achievement, I don't really see what's so bad about that.

Oddly, I almost cited it myself in the essay.

In the end, short of recording a commentary track, all I can do is cherry-pick scenes that best prove my thesis. That's what essay writing is (though my English teachers would probably object to some of my phrasing here).

Scott Nye said...

I forgot to add this, Matthias, but thanks for the long, considered response. Far more than I was expecting!

Matthias Stork said...

Scott, thank you for this considerate response. I am glad we can politely debate this issue. At this point, I am weary of cul-de-sac discussions.

As for the phrasing in the essay's prologue, it is indubitably polemical. And I understand your offense. I should have phrased it more pointedly. It outright neglects modern filmmakers operating in a classical style. I apologize for that. Nevertheless, the trend 'chaos cinema' is still existent.

We may actually not disagree on the definition of auteur. I just prefer not apply the term to filmmakers I do not admire. But you can certainly make a case for bad auteurs.

I agree that Tony Scott is not interested in action geography. And if I use your judgement, his films are indeed very intriguing. I appreciate his stylistic gusto. But DOMINO is still an action film, particularly in terms of its narrative structure. And as such, I can criticize it for not delivering the thrills I wish for. As a piece of rococo design, DOMINO is intriguing. As an action film, it is not - talking about double standards, huh :-)

But I must add that while your reading of DOMINO is solid, I personally cannot appreciate the film in terms of abstract expressionism. After a while, the style devolves into sheer monotony and overwrought excess. If it seeks to wow us with technique, why bother constructing a narrative at all? And the wow factor, ultimately, is not enough to invest me emotionally (even though I harbor an affinity for formalism). But it is unfair to continue this argument. It works for you. I just hope you can understand my objection.

I like the DUMB&DUMBER reference :-) But I still hold that certain films, though not intended to be traditional action films, can be faulted for the excessive employment of chaotic technique, precisely because the emotional effect is inferior to classically staged action. Again, you make a great case for your reception mode. I just have qualms about intentionalism.

What I like about Ken's response is his mentioning of the audience. Obviously, there are different audience members. You said you liked the Moscow car chase. Others did not. The question is why. And many of them cited the chaotic style as the reason.

Again, a very long response but your article definitely deserves it. It is well-written and pointed to a few inconsistencies in the video essay. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to - well, not clarify - but at least expand upon them. I truly appreciate it.

And again, great work on BP :-)

P.S. I can totally relate to your opening line ... long day!

Scott Nye said...

Well, I'd say that like most movies, the narrative isn't really important, and merely provides structure for everything that really matters about the picture. But that itself is a very subjective matter that could be discussed ad nauseam (emphasis on the nausea, but hey, I'll go there if necessary).

But beyond that, I believe we have reached the inevitable "agree-to-disagree" portion, lest we dive into cul-de-sac territory. Every response to the points you just made would be restating those I made earlier, and there's not much of a point to that. I'm not trying to have the last word - I can hash it out all day, so comment away! - but I can't think of anything to say that wouldn't fall into that trap.

Like Matt Zoller Seitz said over at Press Play in response to Ian's article, all of us are hitting the wall of subjectivity, and to push beyond it we need to find some sort of objective footing for the discussion to really make its mark.

But maybe it isn't to be found, and it's just that wonderful problem with any kind of art - that there isn't an "answer" or one single way to read it.

Thanks again for the responses; this ended up being a lot more fruitful than I anticipated.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I'm not so sure that DOMINO is an action film, particularly in terms of narrative structure. Not sure where you're coming from. I'm not incredibly well-versed in film studies, but I mean isn't the narrative structure of the action film really just drama boiled down to it's BARE essence? The protagonist has a goal that is impeded by the antagonist. Like in DIE HARD or THE BOURNE IDENTITY. I don't see that in DOMINO, nor do I think the film was even attempting it.

Mike said...

"Well, I'd say that like most movies, the narrative isn't really important, and merely provides structure for everything that really matters about the picture. But that itself is a very subjective matter that could be discussed ad nauseam (emphasis on the nausea, but hey, I'll go there if necessary)."

Please do go there. I'm immensely curious as to how you could make this claim while your blog's focus is clearly narrative cinema. If you are a fan of pure and/or abstract cinema, why do you seek it out in narrative cinema? Are you only kind of a fan, a tiny fan of it? How far are you willing to take your claim? I don't see evidence in your blog that you delve deeper or explore more thoroughly the heart of cinema as compared to Stork.

The experimental filmmaker you do mention is Brakhage, of course, because he's been released on Criterion. Yes, speaking of prestige bias, I did notice your Criterion column.

Scott Nye said...

Alex - Interesting take. The case could be made that the mob element provides the antagonist, but Domino is the unique action film that's also (sort of) a biopic, making the traditional action structure impossible. Undoubtedly action does drive the narrative to some degree - that is, people settle their conflicts through physical confrontation (be it Domino demanding to be part of the gang by assaulting her two future cohorts in the alley, or the final immense confrontation) - but it certainly has very little in common with those other films in more ways than one.

But at the very least, it does have action scenes, which definitely relate to the point Matthias is making.

Mike - Wow, you got me. I like The Criterion Collection! Who'd have thought? Your point is well taken, though what I actually said is that the narrative provided a structure for everything else that really matters about the picture. And God help me, I do still like my structure. But what I take away from those films are performances, moods, camerawork, editing, etc., not the point-A-to-point-B stuff. I have many an experimental film on my various queues, but regretfully haven't gotten to them yet. I'll let you know as soon as that changes.

Mike said...

I admired Stork's tasteful deflection of your pomposity, but am afraid I have no patience for your flippancy nor your superficiality. No, I do not believe you did take my point. Best wishes.

Dan said...

Thanks for the interesting debate. I just wanted to point out that if a comparison with the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock is an important part of an argument, you might want to make sure that you spell his name correctly (it's misspelled "Pollack" throughout your article).

Scott Nye said...

Dan - Yeah, my girlfriend called me on that late last night. I considered correcting it, but oh so sleepy...will do so now. Much appreciated!

Mike - Hey man, if you can't take it, I wouldn't start it. Your passive/aggressive comment certainly wasn't in good taste either. If I didn't take your point, you'd do well to restate it.

Deacon Delray said...

I'm a little confused on what your definition of "abstraction" in film is. The "abstract" part of abstract expressionism refers to the fact that the art doesn't represent anything, whereas Domino and Bad Boys 2, for all the crazy effects, never stop representing concrete things. The still image of the swirling concrete from Bad Boys to is abstract, but only as a still (which is surprisingly beautiful, I might add). But it has nothing to do with the way we experience it in the context of the film.

". . . is that not a great abstract expression of destruction? I mean, things are so crazy, they're spilling out onto the cinema itself."

I don't think it is an abstract expression of destruction. It's a concrete (forgive the pun) representation of destruction. The car hits the camera, and the camera spirals toward the ground. We see this precisely from the camera's point of view, if only for a second. It's quite literal.

You're on more solid ground (so to speak) with Domino, which strays further from the mimetic, but I think you've overstated the case. It's hardly "dedicated to visual abstraction and the destruction of our notions of what cinema should be." I agree with Matthias that if this were the case, the movie would have jettisoned storytelling altogether. This might be jumping to conclusions, since I haven't seen the whole film, but the bits of plot included in the excerpt seem like boilerplate Hollywood bullshit to me.

rwiggum said...

@Ray - I don't really think abstraction is a binary thing. Just because the things that are happening on screen are narratively congruous doesn't mean the way they are depicted has to be as well. I think Scott meant abstracted in the formalist sense. The modes of cutting in the Bad Boys 2 car chase are used less to disorient the viewer into submitting to the chaos and more to convey the kineticism of the car chase in a way more fitting to the emotion of the moment.

While the audience may certainly be more likely to submit to the so-called "chaos cinema" than a more traditional action sequence, I don't think that means that it is any less effective at conveying action. I think that's one of Michael Bay's great talents as a director; While it didn't exactly serve the Transformer films as well, the editing in a film like Bad Boys 2 holds great economical functionality.

Even in the excerpts Matthias singled out in his essay, it's actually quite simple to understand the base action of the sequence:
-A car falls off of the carrier.
-Said car becomes an imminent threat for the protagonists and innocent bystanders.
-The threat is narrowly avoided by the Bad Boys.
-The threat takes its toll on a bystander, the stakes are raised.

That's essentially what needs to be conveyed in the sequence, and it's done effectively in as little time as possible. The disconnect seems to be arising from a disagreement over what necessitates screen time. The only problem is that Michael Bay isn't just interested in what's happening. He places a greater importance on how the characters understand the events as they're happening, which is why his action scenes tend to focus on to many events in so little time: His characters are disoriented by the scope of the destruction. In order to survive the destruction, they must find the shortest, most effective route to comprehension and react without second thought.

That's why, when boiled down to its base levels, the spatial placement of the titular Bad Boys isn't actually important, since Michael Bay isn't interested in an audience passively viewing the action from a removed perspective. The intent of the cutting in those scenes is to give the audience the same flashes of action that the Bad Boys are experiencing--although their ultimate goal is to capture the villains, they must also deal with the great many distractions being thrown at them.

And I think that's where Matthias' frustrations come from. In a narrative sense, the sequence is about the Bad Boys trying to chase down and capture the villains. (Quick question--if the good guys are the Bad Boys, what are the villains? Dandy-Fellows?) However, when the director aims to emulate the confusion and bewilderment of the moment through formal means, that bewilderment can be transferred onto the audience in the form of frustration if they choose to try to engage with the scene on a purely narrative level. It isn't so much about giving ourselves up to the chaos as it is understanding the chaos as a byproduct of the diegetic confusion.

Sorry if that didn't entirely make sense or flow like it should, I'm writing this sporadically in downtime at work and don't really have much time to edit. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did repeatedly using "Bad Boys" to directly refer to the characters.