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 Men, Superman 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.