Popdose Roundtable: “Chaos Cinema” and Today’s Crappy Action Movies

Written by Film, Popdose Roundtable

We love action. We’d love it more if it didn’t leave us feeling queasy and confused.

Film scholar and filmmaker Matthias Stork released a two-part video essay this week, titled Chaos Cinema, that looks at the devolution of the modern action movie. Stork points to popular trends like hand-held cameras and quick-cut editing as examples of what’s wrong with the genre, and his arguments struck a nerve with the Popdose staff. Chaos Cinema is embedded below; our thoughts follow.

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Dw. Dunphy: In many ways, I think the “decline” of the modern action movie is a twofold issue. The first is that there used to be a thriving B-movie structure that acted like a minor league for new filmmakers. They cut their teeth on quick ‘n’ dirty flicks that weren’t meant to have long theater runs (and remember that it wasn’t until the early-to-mid-’80s when movies could comfortably stay in theaters more than one week. Before that, it was “one and done” and the phrase “held over for another smash week” meant something).

Anyway, under this structure, they were encouraged to keep up the pace and not get too arty or cerebral about what they were doing. Cut ’em off, blow ’em up and shake ’em for the camera. This ain’t art. But then, after these students graduated, they wanted to expand their palette and get a little arty, so they made a hybrid of the two forms.

That’s one thing — the other is that the new filmmakers don’t come from a movie background, but a music video and commercial background. This is not a new thing, really. Movie directors have traditionally found ways to direct that were contrary to their main goals, but their sentiments were always with the filmmakers of old. Modern filmmakers are a third-or-fourth generation away from that, so whereas David Fincher (originally an ILM employee, then a music video director) knew a lot about Hitchcock, and other directors learned of Hitchcock through Fincher, the latest batch get their education “on the street” as it were, viewing technique through the vision of a copy of a copy.

Then again, a large part of today’s audience is right in sync with that sensibility. Sure, it frustrates longtime movie fans to see the reductionist tendencies of a Michael Bay or a Justin Lim, but those same fans predicted doom for Transformers 3. It wound up keeping the 3D medium alive for another year or two. And as for Lim, why should anyone believe Fast and the Furious 5 (aka Fast Five) is a good idea? Many millions of dollars later, the answer sits in the bank, and that’s all that the studios are really concerned with.

Like pop music, this is the sound of the times. You don’t have to like it. You do have to accept that somebody else (many somebody elses) like it and will feed the beast.

Scott Malchus: I blame Michael Bay. I’m not joking — his movies are the WORST. I almost like The Island, which showed potential until the main characters escape and the movie became just another one of his crappy action pieces.

Hand held cameras in action films can work very effectively. Look at the Bourne films. They’re so well done that even my wife, who only wants to watch rom-coms or movies with happy endings, can’t look away whenever Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne is on TV. Part of that has to do with Damon, but those movies grab you by the neck and don’t let go.

David Medsker: Well, look at the second and third Bourne films. Doug Liman didn’t do that with the original. Consequently, that one’s the only one of the three that I own. And I think this is an argument that can be applied to music as well. For decades, we had aspiring musicians who modeled themselves after the Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin. Now, they want to be Rob Thomas. If you want to know why pop music stinks, there’s your answer.

Jeff Giles: I’d just like it if an action director could take a breath once in awhile. Watch an action flick from the ’60s or ’70s — even movies that felt heart-stopping at the time, like Bullitt, feel sedate now. Everything is so adrenalized now. I think the constant jump cuts are a bigger problem than the hand-held cameras.

Malchus: Well, Jeff, those films in the ’60s and ’70s weren’t considered “action” movies. They were thrillers. I believe the term “action film,” came about in the ’80s, with the popularity of Arnold and Sly.

Constant jump cuts? Hmm, the first film I watched like that that made me want to walk out of the theater (and I was at a free cast/crew screening) was The Rock. Oh wait, who directed that piece of crap?

Medsker: The action comes from the story, not the editing. That should be written on a giant sandwich board on every set.

Matt Springer: For me, the biggest problem with action movies today has to do with what Dw mentioned, the “MTV” style of cutting (which honestly, probably needs a new name, as it’s been at least a generation of
filmmakers since music videos were even a viable format). There’s so little clarity in how an action scene is choreographed most times. It’s all about creating constant impact through fast cuts and big noises. There’s no ebb and flow, and often little sense of what you’re actually seeing beyond “punch” or “explosion.” It constantly drives me crazy.

I vividly remember the truck sequence from the second Matrix movie, not because the film itself was any great shakes but because the sequence itself was pretty brilliant. There’s this sword that Morpheus has that plays a key role once or twice, and I remember the Wachowskis bothered to put in a shot of just the sword sitting on the ground or something at one point, and I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing.” They actually contemplated what was happening in the scene and provided the audience with a brief but critical piece of information that helped the viewer follow the action better.

Today, it’s like they don’t care if you can follow the action, it’s just enough that there is ACTION HAPPENING, and what that action is becomes secondary. Say what you will about Lucas and Spielberg these days, but those men know how to choreograph an action sequence. Even in their later films that are dismissed — even in Indiana Jones and the Freaking Crystal Skull — the action is top-notch. You know you’re in the hands of a master and you are going to be taken on a thrill ride, rather than just slapped about the face and ears by an assault of images and sound.

I agree about Bay, Scott, but what’s more disturbing to me is that there are really good directors who are getting movies made that are mostly great…except they can’t choreograph and edit action either. The most notable example that comes to mind for me is Christopher Nolan. I loved The Dark Knight, but his fight scenes are a mess. Even Joe Johnston’s Captain America was like that — quick cuts, barely-glimpsed punches and reactions, a constant struggle to figure out where the bodies are in the space and what they’re actually doing. And he’s about as old-school as you get these days.

Giles: Right — Johnston was obviously aping Raiders of the Lost Ark. Captain America moves about as slowly as an action movie can these days, which is nuts.

Dan Wiencek: I think Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films are brilliant. The editing in those films is not a post-MTV affectation or a sop to kids with poor attention spans, but a reflection of the fragmented, hair-trigger state of mind through which the main character perceives the world, where anything and everything may be significant. There’s a lot of subtle details you notice on rewatching the films. For instance, in Bourne Supremacy, when Bourne is tailing Pamela Landy to the CIA command center, there is a brief glimpse of some yellow handbills on a wall. This turns out to be for the rally we see later in Alexanderplatz, where Bourne arranges his meeting with Nickie and which he uses as cover to shake off her CIA tails. That kind of attention to detail is completely lacking in the typical Michael Bay-style action movie.

Dunphy: Raiders and Die Hard remain the two movies where the pacing and the editing are all there to keep you in the story but, at the same time, move it along. Thinking of the Raiders sequence with Indy being thrown from the Nazi truck, crawling underneath the thing, then re-emerging to kick ass, there isn’t a moment in that sequence where you’re out of pace. (Fact: That sequence was done by second unit director Mickey Moore, not Spielberg).

Zack Dennis: I actually have a lot to say on this subject. The first time that this technique drove me off-the-wall crazy was during Gladiator. I mean, here’s a guy who fighting a tiger – a goddamned TIGER – and they’re doing all these jump cuts and close-ups. It’s Russell Crowe fighting a tiger! I want to see what’s going on! It was the same with two of the other big action set pieces; the battle with barbarians at the beginning and the first major gladiator battle in the Coliseum. Just repeated blasts of information that were impossible to process. I can’t tell you how upset I was when they got nominated for an Oscar for best editing. What’s funny is that this technique can actually work. I don’t think there’s any other way that Top Gun could have been filmed, but Ridley’s brother Tony still managed to make the fighter scenes effective and exciting.

I think what bothers me the most is when great potential for a scene (or an entire movie) is wasted. I remember Brandon Lee’s first appearance in Rapid Fire and being excited about how much potential he had as an action star. There’s a scene near the end, when he fights the same Asian bad guy that was in all the ’80s movies (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, you know who I’m talking about) and when they face off it’s framed like a game of Mortal Kombat (or, going even further back, Karate Champ). And it was a REAL fight, not just a bunch of ridiculous tip-tap moves and backflips that wouldn’t do any actual damage in real life. One of the first things that happens is that the bad guy gives Brandon Lee a good hard kick to the shin – the shin – and the hero has to back off and shake it out. That’s one of the reasons why I always enjoyed the Jackie Chan Hong Kong movies so much more than anything domestic (say, Bloodsport). Even though the Hong Kong movies contained some over-the-top stuff of their own, at least the fight participants were actually fighting instead of just standing around waiting to get kicked in the face.

Back to Brandon Lee — seeing him in The Crow was really disappointing because we’ve already seen what he can do, and instead of great fight choreography, we’ve got bad lighting and close-ups. I still enjoyed the movie, but it could have been so much better — he really was capable of much more than we ever got to see.

Wiencek: Hong Kong action movies are generally superior because they don’t need to obscure the fact that what you’re seeing is somehow fake — because chances are it isn’t fake. Jackie Chan really jumps from a building onto the rope ladder of a helicopter in Police Story III. That poor bastard in Godfather’s Daughter really does flip over the handlebars of his motorcycle and land flat on his back on the fucking pavement. Ditto with fight scenes: it’s much easier to shoot a fight scene clearly and lucidly when you’re showing people who can actually fight, not Hollywood stars who trained with a fight choreographer for six weeks.

Jack Feerick: It’s all about blocking — about knowing where everything is, and creating a sense of space. That sequence in Raiders used space brilliantly. It’s all about where Indy is in relation to his encironment (i.e., the speeding truck screaming along above him.

It’s not just about fast cutting; it’s also about camera placement. Too many directors have gotten addicted to close-ups — they never use the medium or long master shot that defines the principles and their place in the action. That’s crucial. A couple of years ago, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we saw the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular show, which replicates some of the set-pieces from Raiders live on stage, and it was a revelation. I was struck (again) by the genius of Spielberg and his action choreographers; the stunts still worked from the medium-long fixed vantage point of a theater seat. It pointed out, by contrast, everything that’s wrong with modern action movies.

There’s a reason that one of the most talked-about fight scenes of the last few years is the epic punchout in The Protector, where Tony Jaa goes up five flights of stairs and beats the stuffing out of fifty or sixty mooks in real time, in a single, unbroken steadicam long-shot. It’s a gimmick, yes, but it’s also something of a manifesto; by the time he reaches the top of those stairs, believe me, youy’re invested in that little guy.

And that’s what makes an action movie work — being invested in the characters. The overuse of close-up grows out of that, I think. It’s a misguided attempt at audience identification — the close-up brings you inside the action, giving you the kinetic disorientation of actually being in the fight. But without the master shot to make you understand the stakes of it, it’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Springer: Exactly. when you lay things out right, the close-ups aren’t the action; they’re the icing. Returning to Indy, think of all the classic Harrison Ford lopsided grins that provide the perfect accent to those action sequences. Whether it’s Indy right before he’s about to score a perfect move or right before he realizes he’s about to get smacked, they’re spices in the stew, not the main ingredient.

Zack: That’s a really great point, and well put.

Bob Cashill: Al Leong was the actor/stuntman in all those ’80s Joel Silver movies. Hong Kong movies today are as likely to use digital effects as Hollywood ones. Action scenes jumble the real with the computerized. John Woo pulled off an effective hybrid with his recent epic Red Cliff.

Next to the Spielberg-produced Transformers trio, The Rock looks positively quaint. One director who knows how to shoot coherent and exciting action scenes is Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro), but, for want of a script (and a requirement for all that comic book/fantasy bric-a-brac), we got The Green Lantern from him this summer.

I put on the opening of Temple of Doom for a quick pick-me-up. It’s a beautiful piece of screwball action choreography. And I have a fan-made tape of Jackie Chan stunts that’s just jaw-dropping.

Zack: One of the things that impressed me the most about The Matrix when it came out was how they used slow motion to make things look faster. Most movies now use hyper-fast cuts to make the action look faster, while the Wachowskis managed to attain the same effect by slowing things down. I wish more movies would do that.

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