Chaos Cinema: A Breakdown of How 21st-Century Action Films Became Incoherent

If you read Open Culture, you probably love watching movies. I’d wager, however, that you don’t love watching action movies. I don’t mean that you operate at an intellectual level far above any such paltry entertainments; I mean that the craft of action filmmaking has itself declined. You’ve surely felt that today’s big-budget spectacles of chase, fight, and explosion — Transformers, the Jason Bourne films, last few Bonds, the latest Batman trilogy — don’t thrill you as did those of decades past — Hard Boiled, Raiders of the Lost ArkThe Wild BunchDie Hard — but perhaps you can’t pin down quite why. Have action movies changed, you may wonder, or have I? German-born, UCLA-based film scholar Matthias Stork argues for the former, breaking down the corruption of modern action filmmaking in his video essay Chaos Cinema. “Throughout the first century of moviemaking, the default style of commercial cinema was classical,” he begins. “It was meticulous and patient. In theory, at least, every composition and camera move had a meaning, a purpose, and movies did not cut without good reason.”

No longer. Where action filmmakers once “prided themselves on keeping the viewer well-oriented” in time and space, they now throw disparate images together haphazardly, enslaved to “rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths, and promiscuous camera movement,” trading “visual intelligibility for sensory overload,” leaving it to the soundtrack to provide a semblance of continuity. Stork examines the qualities and effects of this new style of “chaos cinema” in three parts. The first covers the visual disintegration of action sequences themselves; the second covers the deficiency’s penetration even into scenes of dialogue and music and the emergence of the “shaky-cam”; the third summarizes and engages responses to the first two parts. Whether or not mainstream commercial filmmaking will ever cure itself and return to convincing, coherent action rather than the impressionistic “general idea of action,” we now have a fascinating diagnosis of the disease. (For further discussion of Chaos Cinema, consider listening to Stork’s appearance on Battleship Pretension, a favorite film podcast of mine.)

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.



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by | Permalink | Comments (11) |

  • Dennis

    I am currently watching the James Bond movies starting from Dr No. As I was watching the older ones I became aware that I could remember their story lines, but all I can remember of the latest Bond films is some of the action scenes.

  • Lucas

    The first example I recall seeing of this style was the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan. There the style was used expertly by Spielberg to generate a feeling of hyperreal disorientation and fear. It’s hard to watch that scene; it pushes some of the terror and confusion of that day and that battle onto the viewer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHvqS2kk1rs

    I suspect this is the effect a lot of directors are going for when they make these intense, confusing action scenes. However, few directors are as skilled as Spielberg, and much of the psychological effect of the Omaha Beach scene is generated by the fact that the scene depicts a realistic set of events that reflects the experience of thousands of soldiers in that battle. It’s harder to be disturbed and shaken by giant shapeshifting robots ripping up a highway overpass.

  • Marcos El Malo

    “We all approach action movies with the same mindset.”

    It’s too bad Mr. Stork didn’t start with this statement. It would have saved me a lot of time.

    Let me get a few things out of the way: most movies are bad. In any one year, we are lucky to have one great film, four or five good ones, and five that are OK.

    I find it humorous how far Stork had to dial it back in the third episode where he answers his critics. The best criticism was the shortest: the tweet that accused him of “get-off-my-lawnism”.

    I’m going to try an make this short:

    1) Stork has a constrictive, simplified and limited idea of the concept of art if he believes that experimental filmmaking is a hermitically sealed box. Perhaps it is not enjoyed by the masses, but it is not a rarified thing unto itself isolated from popular art, or rather, if Stork had his way, quarantined.

    2) Stork lacks basic (basic for a scholar of a popular art form) knowledge of other popular art forms from other ages, most notably painting. In fact, his rant sounds amusingly like critical reactions to the Impressionists more so than Abstract Art. He also fails note the obvious parallels between changes in painting styles and film styles.

    3) Stork fails to examine the deeper context for the visceral style of filmmaking he abhors, although he comes close (and then veers away) when he discusses first person shooter video games. Obviously, there are differences (his example of the continuous diagetic space in games) because the media rare different. But the feeling is the same, or rather, the intention to elicit an adrenaline rush.

    The more interesting question is why do we need or want this? What is it about our society, today, that makes this a valuable entertainment experience. That is the interesting question.

    4) because that is what chaos cinema a is: it is a visceral style, a style meant to evoke bodily sensation (when done well). Like a first person shooter, it attempts (and sometimes succeeds) to put us into the action. It gives us those flashes of impressions that are not always linear or intelligible. It is a cinema of physical sensation.

    5) paraphrasing Stork because I don’t want to watch that thing a second time: An action sequence is a record of objects moving from point A to point B. This is his argument against chaos cinema being abstract (or, I would argue, impressionist). The name he gives this is “genre context”. Tl;dr If it doesn’t fit Stork’s personal needs or expectations, it is bad.

    6) Final, because this isn’t my job: Stork is an academic scold, and not even an interesting one. It’s not that he is overly intellectual or is too deeply attached to formalism. His intellectualism is shallow, his critique is reactionary and uninteresting. He wishes to impose simple narrative structure “to show the audience what is happening”. His idea of cinema is limited and childish.

  • David

    I really appreciate this video essay for naming and articulating the mess that has become action filmmaking.

    It’s been a LONG time since I enjoyed watching an action film, for many of the reasons that Stork outlines.

    More often than not, I fall asleep watching action films that I had intended on enjoying. District 9, Gravity, Iron Man (all of them), Man of Steel. The acting is bad enough, the paint-by-numbers story-telling is bad enough, but then you add into it incomprehensibly long, confusing and vapid action sequences and whole movies become loud, brash wastes of time.

    I understand the economic incentive for making crap like this: People with home theatres need content to feed their 7.1 surround systems and 800″ TVs. And movie theatre chains need a gimmick to get bums into seats. That gimmick is the sensory overload of watching a modern action film: seeing it on a huge screen with deafening sound helps to solidify the sensory experience of disorientation and panic.

    But I agree with Stork that it doesn’t make for good filmmaking.

    I think Stork does an excellent job of tracing the roots of the visual style of ‘chaos cinema’ and in articulating what its conventions are, IE, intentionally shaky cam, shredding the 180 degree rule, disjointed editing, etc.

    And as for his lament for a more ‘classical’ approach to making an action film, I couldn’t agree more. I realize this might not be the popular view and it might not make films that get bums in seats in a theatre, but it would be watchable for the great number of people out there who don’t live on a diet of FPS video games and UFC fights.

    I’m not saying anyone should stop making chaos films. I’m saying I’d like to see an action film with characters I could give a shit about being thrust into an exciting situation and filmed in a way that doesn’t promote sheer sensory overload over good story-telling and comprehensibility.

  • David

    I just wanted to add that in my opinion one of the most fantastic action sequences of all time is the scene from Children of Men where Theo is escaping the Fishes. The entire sequence is filmed with one epically long take, complete with action inside and outside of a moving vehicle. It is absolutely gripping, terrifying and effective. THAT’s the kind of action filmmaking I would to see more of.

  • Robert Pascual

    @lucas,

    re: Saving Private Ryan and the unsteady camera.

    Steven Spielberg was mimicing the films recorded by the cameras carried by soldiers during the second world war. One can see many such scenes in World War II documentaries. Spielberg was evidently trying to achieve the same atmosphere in “Saving Private Ryan.” The shots are unsteady because the soldiers carrying them are in the line of fire in an actual war!

    Why other directors would employ jittery cams in movie scenes set during modern times is puzzling.

  • Ken

    ….Geekmudgeons.

    Joyless and sad and without a single kid permitted upon their lawn.

    They are boring at parties and impossible to talk to.

    Off to my movie shelf to put on Skyfall and a smile. Have fun, everybody.

  • Joshua

    Marcos, you sound a little defensive. Or should I say Jerry Bruckheimer, you sound a little defensive! Your cover is blown!

  • Robert

    I think Marcos hit the nail on the head, and he sums up well the reason I stopped watching Mr. Stork’s assessments.

    What sadly is missing, and what I’d hoped would be addressed, is the visceral impact of modern cinema – especially action films.

    I recall the moment when it hit me that we are in a different age – I was in the theater when I first saw the trailer for ‘Bad Boys’. I truly felt assaulted.

    Afterwards I recalled the reports of fainting at the first screenings of Frankenstein in 1931, and I finally had a visceral understanding of what that was really meant.

    I’d have loved a dive into how entertainment has changed our expectations and how our expectations have changed entertainment.

  • Robert

    I just checked YouTube and it was the Bad Boys II trailer.

    …my bad.

    =)

  • Lenny Geo

    I liked the essay and I think it produces a good synoptic comparative examination of two distinctive cinematographic approaches. I disagree with Mr Marcos El Malo’s response, I believe it to be poorly constructed on invalid arguments, especially in regards to the futile attempt to correlate cinematic art with static illustrative expression. It is a blatant mistake, obviously, since the paradigm used is wrong – it is not an analog based on the comparison of expressionism and impressionism. If we wanted to draw a parallel, the correct would be the transition from a renaissance era to the style of baroque. Just as such, “chaos cinema” is flamboyant, excessive, decadent. Impressionism requires a high degree of discipline and skill, so that the desired imprint on the viewer’s mind reflects the purpose of the artist, instead of being a random trigger of an entire brain receptive area. It is subtle and refined, pinpointed and precise, not a mere shotgun approach of inflicting massive sensory overload and adrenaline rush.
    But Mr Stork’s intention was not to declare a winning style or to defend a personal preference of classical artistic forms and manners.
    It is clearly an observation of the abusive and excessive utilization of certain technical tools and the choice of specific directing methods that lead to movies of inferior sequential coherency combined with equally inadequate narratives.
    Simply put, I don’t have a problem admitting that most of the highly acclaimed action blockbusters of our time are just pieces of shit that prefer to mind-fuck me and eye-stub me, instead of emotionally and mentally provoking and challenging me.
    When an application is bad, it’s bad. End of story. It may be a technical marvel, but thin as porridge. Realistic or hyper-realistic, framed purposefully out of focus and paced faster that what a brain can process, whatever. Sure it’s art. And a product that makes big bucks. But it can still, be a pile of shit. And it usually is.

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