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GREY MATTERS: The art of Chaos Cinema

Press Play By Matthew Seitz | Press Play August 26, 2011 at 2:30AM

By Ian Grey Press Play Contributor
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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.

This article is related to: GREY MATTERS (Ian Grey), CHAOS CINEMA


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