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GREY MATTERS: The art of Chaos Cinema

by Matthew Seitz
August 26, 2011 2:30 AM
14 Comments
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By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor

I just don’t buy it -- that is, the argument claiming we're being overrun by a new plague of bad cinema, most recently expressed in Matthias Stork’s "Chaos Cinema" piece but easily found anywhere in film circles. You know the drill: supposedly pointless, jacked-up imagery, "unmotivated" camerawork, rapid editing and aggressive sound design are destroying movies, particularly action movies. Meanwhile, the compositional elegance and clean editorial lines of "classical cinema" -- where one always knows where a character is in the frame, where she’s going and from what direction her attackers are coming -- are the defining aspects of cinema, the classicists often claim, and an art form in danger of extinction.

It’s an argument that’s very friendly with quantum logic leaps that allow the Transformers toy line to be grouped with Baz Luhrmann's personal, passionate and gorgeous Moulin Rouge, a film with all of the shots the classicist might desire, just edited at a higher BPM; with Tony Scott's hilarious garbage (what's wrong with enjoying honest junk?); with the utterly great Resident Evil: Afterlife; and even with classy joints like The Hurt Locker .

Some of these are Mr. Stork’s choices and some are mine, but what's important to note is this fairly recent need to despise new films, not because of what they might say about the world or how they might reflect it, but rather because of how they embody the aforementioned "bad techniques." Another critic could include Black Hawk Down, which, instead of being despised for its racism, is despised by because its missiles aren't fired in sufficiently elegant fashion. Any of the Underworld films could be loathed not because they’re dreadful movies with idiot characters, sub-Rammstein-video gothic settings and so on, but because of their iffy action setpieces.

Classicists look to the past for a time when things weren’t so terrible. This allows them not to contemplate the very real and terrifying notion that filmmakers know all about classical style, yet choose to treat it as another tool in the toolbox, not the entire kit 'n' caboodle. Readers certainly don’t care about all this inside baseball stuff, and all the scolding in the world from critics won’t make them care one whit more, especially when it does nothing to help them decide which film is a better investment of their hard-earned money.

"Man, that sucked!"

"Yes -- but did you notice that, through the use of classical composition, we could better enjoy the hackneyed alien threat?"

What really isn't considered or countenanced is the idea that the classical cinema style can actually ruin good films. Despite not being much of a Spielberg fan, I do like Minority Report very much. But I thought watching it was a fucking chore. The film -- with its primary theme of humans vs. technology -- was so classically fussed over, every scene perfectly flowing into the next one like auteur mercury, that it began to feel as if one of the film's servo-mechs had directed it. Too often Spielberg seemed so in love with this seamlessness that my eyes glazed over: Please god, let there be a jump cut, a weird angle, a burst of unexpected light -- anything! Ah, but Minority Report was perfect, like they used to make 'em! What else could matter? Damn these new directors playing on the classical cinema lawn, and making such a mess! Pretty soon they’ll be making Lady Gaga videos!

Oh crap -- they are making Gaga videos! Brilliant ones too, like Francis Lawrence’s stunningly classical and chaos-styled "Bad Romance" video.

Here’s a truth: the only time we know something is wrong is when it doesn't work, and we're often not even sure of why until reappraisal time five, ten years later. Then -- those filmmakers we trashed the first time around? Whoops. Sorry!

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.

Enjoying the non-classic does not make one ignorant, either. I am not ignorant. I enjoy swallowing the September issue of Vogue in one beauty-gulping sitting, then inhaling half a season of Fringe in one day. I enjoy reading this site as the careers of Gaga and the stone-brilliant post-black metal Tombs blare in the background. I do watch single films in single sittings, but honestly? I prefer the epic narratives of Rescue Me, Breaking Bad and Teen Wolf.

It’s already a tired remark but it’s no less true: in the pulsing sensorium of multimedia, the sit-down, stand-alone feature film becomes kind of quaint, unless somebody does something to jack it into the world as it is now. And that's what "chaos cinema" aims to accomplish. The style that many of you hate is probably the only thing (aside from that other thing you probably hate, 3D) persuading people to endure an increasingly god-awful cinematic experience. Here in New York City, I sat through nine full-blown commercials and just as many trailers, along with ads for the fucking theater I was sitting in -- an entire 35 minutes of advertisements -- so I could watch what turned out to be a decent "classical" film that would look no worse in my home theater, and cost me a hell of a lot less money.

Along with the musty taste of a museum, there is, without question, the sour tang of elitism in the reflexively pro-classical argument, as critics pretty much demand that filmmakers to do things this way, not that way. Meanwhile, outside critical circles, cinema is doing great, new, amazing things, bringing me joy by gleefully blowing away those sagging cobwebs of "classical cinema." Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen, and the other filmmakers involved in the Transporter series gave me the exhilarating sensation of gravity being briskly turned on its head, but in a cohesive, thought-out way. They're all Chaos dudes. I love the gently chaotic Teen Wolf, a show that channels both Cocteau and the New Wave with its dreamily anti-classical fairy-tale nightmare imagery, its P.O.V. flowing from desire to reality. See our hero fall onto his bed, close his eyes, open his eyes as the bed becomes the school hallway -- and there comes a monster from somewhere! Who cares where it came from? It’s a monster, for fuck’s sake, manos!

And without this "chaos cinema," I wouldn’t have Paul W.S. Anderson''s Resident Evil: Afterlife, which could not exist as "classical action" because it demands more than that old mare can carry. Consider an attack scene where something like twenty color-coded Milla Jovoviches attack hundreds of color-coded bad guys, their action "motivated" by not by internal blah-blah-blah, but by Anderson’s virtuoso use of in-screen geometry. He trusts and respects his audience’s ability to read these invisible mathematics. At the same time that we’re getting an awesome action sequence (awesome as in "instilling awe"), a scene that literally suspends breathe intake, we’re witnessing the birth of a new action film syntax.

The water’s great in here. Jump on in -- I won’t tell.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play.

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14 Comments

  • Nick Taylor | September 2, 2011 1:41 AMReply

    That Russian car-chase scene in Bourne Identity 2 is fucking visceral man. When it's done well, it's fantastic.

    I think overall though... Hollywood kindof suffers from this thing where people are motivated by "what they are supposed to do", rather than by any original artistic expression. I see examples of it everywhere - and it's been the culture for a long time. Decades.

    So now we've got Chaos Cinema... a set of stylistic techniques that are applied regardless of any artistic context. And we've got Orange and Teal fucking everything... because it "pops". And making stuff pop is what you're supposed to do.

    Yea, I'm sick of it. I've stopped caring... but there's this whole cultural context I've stopped caring about as well. It's the past still trying to dominate the future. Sin Nombre pisses over anything that Michael Bay has done... at least it's real... at least it's about us.

    --

    (but you know... if you do try to find a trailer for it on Youtube, try to find one where some Hollywood twat hasn't put The Deep Voice Guy doing the voice-over... because... that's what "you're supposed to do".

    Ok - I'll help http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy28rYE8NIw )

  • Peter Labuza | August 27, 2011 4:57 AMReply

    I think Ian, Matt, and Matthias are all running into the same issue: we can recognize the idea of chaos cinema and admit it exists in some form, but there simply is no way to make an objective opinion about it. When Bordwell first wrote about hyper-continuity, as an academic more than a critic, he never tried to pass judgement on it as simply remark on it as an emerging trend.

    But since we are trying to bridge the two arts, our job is to the figure out what to make of this, and I think Matt makes a great point that just because the intention is accomplished, we might still be cautious on whether that makes it a successful film. Arguably, Griffith's methods on THE BIRTH OF THE NATION totally help it accomplish its intentions, and well, I don't know how many people would really agree that those intentions are justified.

    What I really hope someone can do is pull up some of the behind the scenes features for particularly THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM and perhaps UNSTOPPABLE, where maybe we can see in the editing bay how the filmmakers and editors work. In Lumet's MAKING MOVIES, he talks that the only person who truly knows the intention for a shot are the people on the film. We've been talking about "chaos cinema" that some of these filmmakers are just clashing shots together with no thought behind them, almost like they are rush jobs. Obviously, the advancements in editing techniques, as opposed to classic editing bays, have really helped make it possible for filmmakers to micro-manage scenes much easier than they could in the past, But I would love to see commentary on watching why Greengrass chose this shot next to that shot. There is no way someone simply said, "fuck it, let's just throw whatever is left in the can and take two seconds from each."

    Perhaps, and this is simply crazy talk, there is a certain art to chaos cinema that we cannot see or have not learned. Manohla's piece a few weeks ago talked about how we maybe need to learn how to watch slow art cinema, but maybe the same is true of Chaos Cinema?

    Of course, we, as critics, should be allowed to evaluate what we see on screen without any context if we want. Let the debate continue!

    PS—If people haven't read Jim Emerson's piece, it's one of the best responses. The best part, and the most convincing argument I've seen against Chaos Cinema, is the shot by shot look at Noyce's SALT. Jim shows how each shot works in relation to each other and allows us to follow the action in a concise way, and the "art" of constructing that scene.

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/

  • Lev David | August 27, 2011 4:22 AMReply

    Matthew asks: "Does whipping the camera around wildly and cutting every two or three seconds NO MATTER WHAT really make the scene, or a movie, more exciting? Or more interesting? Or more fresh?"

    Does moving the camera at all do that? Even on tracks? Even a little?
    Does colour?
    Does sound?
    Does music?
    Does the cut? Any cut?
    Does the close-up?

    The answer can only be: well, it depends. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    Any choice -- chaotic or classical (whatever either really means) -- COULD make a movie more exciting, interesting or fresh... or more effective, or more revealing, ore more profound IF MOTIVATED.

    IF USED WELL.

  • Lev David | August 27, 2011 4:16 AMReply

    Matthew Seitz says in response to Scott:

    "Your points are valid, but I would caution against the
    construction you use as you argue them. We shouldn’t just ask if
    a movie accomplished whatever it apparently set out to accomplish; we should ask if it is a goal that is worth achieving."

    Which is a question you could ask no matter the techniques the filmmaker chooses to use. I've just watched the very steadily shot and cut LAST NIGHT. I found that movie every bit as "sloppy, blurry and hucksterish" as I found BATTLE LA.

  • Steven Santos | August 27, 2011 1:21 AMReply

    My main issue about Chaos Cinema is to what point does the style serve beyond generating superficial excitement? If Chaos Cinema is supposed to be some sort of evolution in filmmaking technique, then I wish it was infused with more thought and motivation. But, as I brought up in the comments section of the earlier essay, it seems to come from a lack of choice, a lack of a point of view. Why think about a shot that serves story, emotion and theme when the "choice" of the filmmaker is to shoot from every conceivable angle and chop it together gracelessly in the editing room.

    Yes, I guess someone like Spielberg is classical, in the sense that he actually stages exciting moments on set as opposed to kicking the can to the editing room by relying on what most filmmakers visions are comprised of these days: coverage.

    Since you brought up "Moulin Rouge", the problem with that film is that the editing works against the story in my feeling. The musical numbers were headache-inducing, but the film simply wouldn't let reaction shots between McGregor and Kidman breathe in their more intimate scenes together. Throughout the film, I couldn't help but feel that it would have been more tolerable if Lurhmann added a few frames to the head and tail of each shot. Chaos Cinema seems to come from a level of filmmaker insecurity that they may bore the audience rather than any genuine vision. A Give Them Everything I Can Possibly Shoot aesthetic.

  • Scott Nye | August 26, 2011 7:59 AMReply

    Ah, I see where you're coming from with regard to the BOURNE films. Thanks for clarifying.

    However, I'm not sure you understood me in terms of intent and achievement, or maybe I didn't explain it thoroughly enough. Basically, it boils down to my feeling that art has a life of its own apart from whatever cynical place its creators originate it. So for instance, it really does seem like GROWN UPS was made for the express purpose of Sandler and his buddies hanging out, but there's an underlying artistic purpose dedicated to to crafting a piece of comedy, and if it doesn't function as that, then they have failed.

    And actually, I think Nancy Meyer is a little more earnest in this regard. She's trying to tackle relationships between grown men and women in a fresh, humorous way, but if in the end we don't feel for the characters or laugh at the jokes (which has mostly been my reaction), it's also not up to the standard the film sets (which, as noted above, can be different from the goals of even its filmmakers).

    In the end, yeah, it does come down to individual response, but I think there is something to meeting each film on its own terms. If a film doesn't try to craft a likeable main character, but in the process digs at a deeper issue in humanity, there's nothing wrong with that. If Tony Scott sacrifices coherence in his action sequences in favor of challenging the notion of how film as a medium even functions (by using hand-cranked cameras that his camera operators crank forward and backward within the same shot), then that's something I can appreciate.

    And trust me, I completely agree that dialogue scenes are way overshot these days, both in their set-up (if I had to watch the camera circle the front of the train in UNSTOPPABLE one more time...), and in their lazy execution (excessive coverage really grates on me). I'm not saying they all have to be a classical two-shot - MAD MEN is a perfect example of how conversations can be dynamic while still cutting back and forth (ditto THE SOCIAL NETWORK). It often feels like filmmakers see a dialogue scene and view it as a day off from their camerawork.

  • Matthew Seitz | August 26, 2011 7:13 AMReply

    Sorry, my bad, I transposed a word in one of my sentences:

    Why should the aesthetic goals of the [director] supersede the response of the viewer?

  • Matthew Seitz | August 26, 2011 7:11 AMReply

    Scott: Your points are valid, but I would caution against the
    construction you use as you argue them. We shouldn't just ask if
    a movie accomplished whatever it apparently set out to accomplish; we should ask if it is a goal that is worth achieving.

    The guys who direct Adam Sandler's films doubtless achieve exactly what they set out to achieve, but does that mean we are obligated to like and defend the direction of those films? Nancy Meyers makes exactly the films she wants to make, but should we like and defend those movies? Why should the aesthetic goals of the viewer supersede the response of the viewer?

    As Matthias points out, the Chaos Cinema style sacrifices a lot of values -- worthy values - that have always been associated with commercial cinema, and (in my opinion) the compensations don't really balance out that loss. Believe me, I get the idea that these films are surface in many senses of the word -- treating the screen as a surface, as a canvas, and going for an overall effect, an impression.

    Regarding your response to what I said about the BOURNE movies -- that my saying I would have liked them better if they had been a shade less jumpy in their editing, and a shade less wild in their camerawork, is problematic -- you go on to draw a false inference. I am not saying
    the films would have been better if they'd been shot like RAIDERS OF
    THE LOST ARK or an early James Bond film. I LIKE the style of the
    Bourne films. I just think they went overboard a lot of the time, to
    generate excitement through superficial visual means when the story
    and characters and situations were already plenty exciting, and this
    sometimes tipped the films over into illegibility. As in, you read
    somebody's handwriting and you can make out the gist of what they are saying. It's communicative, but it's still bad penmanship.

    I think a film has to be really extraordinary in every way to make up
    for what goes missing when it adopts that sort of Chaos Cinema style.
    The BOURNE films do accomplish their aesthetic goals, as do many of Tony Scott's late films, but there's something sloppy, blurry and
    hucksterish about the technique that grates on me -- not just in the
    fight scenes but in dialogue scenes, too. I fail to see any
    defensible reason why the camera should be zooming in and out during dialogue scenes, rotating around and around people, swiveling and pivoting, bobbing around, letting foreground actors' faces block out the person who's speaking for a few seconds at a time. Nothing is accomplished through that technique beyond a fraudulent facsimile of excitement.

    It reminds me of David Mamet's cautioning actors against using "funny voices" when acting, or doing crazy stuff with their bodies, or adopting an odd accent, all in service of making the role more "exciting" or "interesting." Especially if the play itself, or the scene, doesn't really require it.

    Does whipping the camera around wildly and cutting every two or three seconds NO MATTER WHAT really make the scene, or a movie, more exciting? Or more interesting? Or more fresh?

    I have serious doubts about this.

    As for MOULIN ROUGE, It's no ALL THAT JAZZ, that's for sure.
    Seventies Fosse is still fast -- the shots are almost all very brief
    -- but there is an elegance, a geometric precision, to every scene
    that you don't get from Baz Luhrmann or Rob Marshall. I want all
    the Chaos Cinema filmmakers to be a bit more like Fosse. I don't want them to be classical filmmakers, I just want them to convince me that they're building something sturdy and using a lot of thought as they do it, and not sort of faking their way through things, which is what seems to be happening a lot of the time when films are covered rather than directed.

  • Scott Nye | August 26, 2011 6:15 AMReply

    I found myself running up against the same wall Matt mentioned - that of subjectivity - but I believe there are foundational things we all should be able to agree on. Namely, if a film announces a certain intention, that is the intention to which we should hold it. If you don't find Tony Scott's art effective in Domino, we can talk about that, but dismissing the film because it is not coherent is, as I mentioned elsewhere, akin to dismissing Dumb & Dumber because it doesn't dwell on man's mortality. I think we can at least agree to approach a film in question on its own terms, rather than what we come to expect from the cinema that surrounds it.

    Matt, you wrote, "I liked the BOURNE films for the most part, and defend the impetus behind the style, but I don’t think they accomplished anything kinetically that could not have been accomplished equally well if they had held the shots just a bit longer, and made the camerawork less promiscuously 'unstable.'"

    But the phrasing there reveals the problem. Something could have been accomplished equally well using a more classical style, but does that mean it SHOULD revert to that mode? And if so, why? If the new style is equally valid, why not try something new and see how it lands?

    As for the whole 30s-cinema-versus-digital-versus-Bresson thing Ian brought up...why must it be a contest? Why isn't there room for all of them? Why can't Tony Scott make abstract action films like Domino alongside beautifully flowing ones like Kill Bill, all of them working alongside David Fincher's contemplative Zodiac, all of them working alongside the grand continuum that includes Au Hasard Balthazar and Morocco? I love all of those films, and in the terms they each present, they are marvelously accomplished. Cinema need not be this, that, or the other - it can be all of them.

  • Craig Simpson | August 26, 2011 4:22 AMReply

    "*I* am not ignorant." It's a bit self-defeating when a writer actually feels compelled to declare this, rather than simply having the confidence that his own argument will suffice -- the written equivalent, in a way, of the insecure, spell-it-all-out, drive-in-the-nail style of visual filmmaking that at least a few of us find repellent.

  • Ian Grey | August 26, 2011 4:21 AMReply

    Just to clarify two things:

    Again, this is not about Mr. Stork's piece but the near-universal views on non-classical films.

    The only thing about what I had to say that's youth-oriented is my belief in what would seem the obvious: just as all of us will find the tempo of 30's cinema to be a bit slow, so does a person who grew up in the ultra-BPM, constant data onslaught digital world might find Bresson trying.

    And aside from the film student of other super-interested party, why should
    they care about outmoded style?

    I mean, knowing about Valentino's entire life of style is an enriching experience, but am I jacked into the fashion multiverses like Mugler, Galliano and especially Alexander McQueen do?

    Of course not! The same process happens in all arts--except, kind of dauntingly, its cineastes who are turning out to be the most reflexively super-conservative.

  • Matthew Seitz | August 26, 2011 3:59 AMReply

    One of the most intriguing aspects of this whole debate is the sight of people coming into it, chests puffed out, ready to demolish Matthias' (or a detractor's) arguments with specific examples, but as soon as they start actually listing examples, we're back into the realm of subjectivity, and thus the realm of the unprovable.

    The BOURNE films are junk. No, they're art. Michael Bay is a hack. No, he's a misunderstood genius. No, sometimes he's great, and sometimes he's a hack. Tony Scott is a hack. No, wait, he's a genius. DOMINO is a brilliant stab at abstract expressionist action cinema.

    I think we need to dig past the Chaos Cinema debate and go deeper. To where I don't know, exactly.

    I liked the BOURNE films for the most part, and defend the impetus behind the style, but I don't think they accomplished anything kinetically that could not have been accomplished equally well if they had held the shots just a bit longer, and made the camerawork less promiscuously "unstable." I'm not asking for every action filmmaker to turn into John Carpenter, holding shots for ten or twenty seconds at a time, but there is a diminishing returns quality to a lot of the Chaos Cinema films, even the really good or defensible ones.

    I hated almost all of Michael Bay's films, except THE ROCK, where I felt like he was going for a kind of Frank Miller-esque graphic novel type of violence. He lost his way after that because the cuts got too fast and indiscriminate. That's a problem with a lot of these movies for me, quite honestly -- the cutting is not only too fast, but often needlessly busy, so much so that it destroys the flavor of perfectly good performances, compositions, lighting, etc.

    I don't understand the point of that. It's like purchasing a beautifully marbled rib-eye steak, then boiling and grinding it into dog food.

    I would also like to very strongly caution people against attempting the "you just don't like this because you're old" argument. It's not really an argument, and it fails to consider the very real possibility that a current, very trendy style that's all over the place right now might in fact be just that, a trend. Like the craze for wild, unmotivated zooms in the 1970s.

  • Scott Nye | August 26, 2011 3:46 AMReply

    Couldn't agree more. Just posted my own take on the ongoing debate:

    http://www.railoftomorrow.com/2011/08/chaos-cinema-abstract-painting-and.html

    On the whole, though, I bristle at any notion that says any form of art has to conform to a certain style, or else it's totally worthless (and conceding Bigelow's The Hurt Locker reads more like an attempt to ward off rebuttals than an honest assessment, especially since he knocks Greengrass, whose style is extremely similar to Bigelow's, a moment later).

    There are always artists who utilize a style poorly, and the "chaos" style is extraordinarily easy to totally fumble (Michael Bay is a prime example of a filmmaker who has complete mastery of his work in one film, only to totally lose track of it in the next), but to suggest it can never be done well is a tough row to hoe. I'd be open to the suggestion, but Mr. Stork would have done better to dive into better films than Quantum of Solace (he does get into Bad Boys II, but I still maintain that the film, and the scene he cited in particular, is simply extraordinary, and I get into it a little bit in the above piece).

  • Matthias | August 26, 2011 3:43 AMReply

    It shows that CHAOS CINEMA can be effectively used. I did not mean that every new action film is terrible, no! I meant that these films are too overwrought to communicate action clearly and involve spectators (granted, myself) emotionally.
    I like the article overall, though. Interesting points!

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