VIDEO ESSAY: CHAOS CINEMA, PART 3; Matthias Stork addresses his critics

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by Matthias Stork
December 9, 2011 6:12 PM
22 Comments
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Editor’s Note: Press Play is proud to debut part three in Matthias Stork’s Chaos Cinema, the latest installment in an ongoing consideration of a phenomenon that Stork defined in two video essays that ran on this site in August, 2011. His first two chapters touched off a firestorm of debate that’s still going on.  Just last weekend, New York Times contributor Alex Pappadeas cited the piece in a year-end “Riffs” column. Citing bizarre images in "the trailer for 2016, a possibly nonexistent sci-fi movie from Ghana," Pappadeas argued that the major problem with the style is that it does not go far enough. "The standard knock on Chaos Cinema filmmakers is that they’re constructing narratives entirely from rupture and collision," he writes. "But if movies are going to go there, they should really go there. Let’s stop asking directors who clearly have no affinity for story or character to pretend otherwise. Instead, let’s let the alien kick the baby, and see how far the baby will fly." That’s what Stork is doing here by addressing his critics directly using the form that has served him well in the past, the video essay. The full text of the piece’s narration is printed below. For context, we’ve also reproduced Parts 1 and 2 of Chaos Cinema as well. The comments section is open. You may fire when ready.

Chaos Cinema, Part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of my video essay Chaos Cinema argued that chaos cinema represents a major trend in mainstream action filmmaking. It could be seen as the third stage in mainstream movie storytelling.

The first stage was classical cinema. It reigned supreme from the silent era until well into the 1960s. It emphasized spatial clarity, for the most part. The goal was to keep the viewer oriented and involved. You were always supposed to know more or less where you were, where the action took place, and who was involved. And this visual clarity was only disrupted at moments of high tension.

Then came intensified continuity. It favors velocity and increases the speed of classical cinema. It still keeps the viewer oriented, but it does so in a more compact form – almost shorthand. The shots are more succinct, the cutting more aggressive, the camerawork more hectic. This is the old style, reconfigured in a new time.

The third and modern stage is chaos cinema. It makes the previous two stages look old-fashioned. The goal is total visceral impact. There is no clear axis of action that tells you where characters and objects are in relation to each other. The action does not have to be comprehensible. It has to be overwhelming. This is not the action that we have come to know in the cinema; it is the general idea of action. Chaos cinema is a vehicle for spectacle, a roller-coaster ride. It is designed to showcase attractions.

The three stages are by no means mutually exclusive. They are all interrelated and define what we see as the action film.

My video essay on chaos cinema led to an interesting discussion on the Internet. Many viewers agreed with my position. Others took issue with the argument and sought to refute or dismantle it.  They posited chaos cinema as a legitimate action style, with its own purposes and goals, and criticized the videos on several grounds.

The points raised were generally instructive. And some deserve a response.

1. Chaos Cinema as Pop Art – Ian Grey, Press Play

Several commenters dismissed my point of view as romantic, misguided. They argued that chaos cinema offers filmmakers a new style for a new age.

In his engaging essay "The Art of Chaos Cinema", Press Play columnist Ian Grey defines the chaos cinema style as “pop art”, with a film syntax that better suits the trashy taste of the PlayStation-trained, YouTube-raised digital generation. He writes: "[C]lassical cinema doesn’t match the experience of a generation of Facebookers, Tweeters and Call of Duty players. It just doesn’t." In his view, chaos cinema presents the world as it is: hyper-mediated, flamboyant and excessive. And classical action cinema is simply obsolete.

Chaos cinema is undoubtedly newer, perhaps even more modern. But I do not see it as an accurate reflection of the 21st century online / gaming experience. It is at best an interpretation. Using the Internet is not the same as watching chaos cinema fireworks onscreen.

Grey also stresses chaos cinema’s potential to engage audiences, keep them awake in the soporific dream machinery of the movie theater. We agree on this one, although I do not necessarily consider it to be a virtue.



2. Chaos Cinema as Abstract Art – Scott Nye, The Rail of Tomorrow

Scott Nye eloquently defended chaos cinema on the grounds of abstract art in his very emotional and convincing response. He compares the later work of director Tony Scott to abstract painting, claiming that they share certain aesthetic and ideological similarities. About Scott’s Domino, Nye writes, "I see a full-on sensory assault dedicated to visual abstraction and the destruction of our notions of what cinema should be."

I admit that Tony Scott’s chaos style is intriguing, especially the texture of his images. He paints with the camera in a playful, experimental manner. Or, more accurately, he splatters. Nye’s argument is thus sound in general terms.

But it ignores one thing: the genre context.

And that’s a problem with his comparison. Action filmmaking, even highly stylized action filmmaking, is really not abstract; it is literal. Its goal is to tell a mini-narrative, to record things that happen in a story for an audience that absorbs and processes the action. It is, at its basest level, a record of bodies, or objects, moving from point A to point B. Chasing. Leaping. Clashing. The action scene is <strong>a record of something concrete</strong>. Therefore,
legibility should matter. Precision should matter. Grace should matter.

Abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock or the filmmaker Stan Brakhage produced art with very different aims.  Their work only has an implied narrative, no characters, no motivations, and no tangible goals beyond what the individual viewer decides to bring to the work.

And here is another important point: artists such as these exclusively work in a hermetically sealed environment: the avant-garde. They have different audiences, reception spheres and ambitions.

This is not to say that the abstract has no place in the world of narrative. But when we discuss action, should we not agree on a specific framework? Is it abstract art? Not even the great Sergei Eisenstein could produce this association. And in any event, I suspect it will be a few years before <i>Domino</i> is displayed in the Louvre.

3. Chaos Cinema as Romanticism / Nostalgia – Matt Lynch, AKA Colonel Mortimer


The video essay was also dismissed as anachronistic hipster nostalgia which favors the old over the new. Film critic Matt Lynch summed up the general dissent in a rather ingenious, if reductive tweet which labeled the video essay an example of "neoclassical get-off-my-lawnism". Frankly, it is hard to rebut this accusation. I admit a certain bias towards the old.But I am by no means opposed to the new … if it acknowledges the old, and demonstrates an understanding of it, a sense of its value. There have been a number of recent films fitting that description. And I enjoyed them very much.

4. Chaos Cinema as Myopic Discourse

My seemingly wholesale condemnation of chaos cinema in parts 1 and 2 of my video essay infuriated several commenters -- and in retrospect, I have to admit, rightfully so.

I did point out that chaos can be effectively used as a narrative device. But my example of The Hurt Locker did not suffice. I should have included others. And I should have made clear that not all films cited as chaos cinema were bad movies that were somehow not worth seeing or discussing. In some cases, I chose particular clips because I think the films are below average. In other cases, I selected clips only because they illustrated a certain point that I wished to make about the look and feel of chaos cinema. In other words, if anyone felt insulted or offended by seeing a certain clip in there, my apologies.



5. Chaos Cinema as Video Game Aesthetic – Matthew Cheney, The Mumpsimus

Probably the most frequent issue raised in the chaos cinema discourse was the influence of video game aesthetics on action film style. Many weighed in claiming that chaos cinema is heavily informed by the hyperkineticism of first-person shooters. Matthew Cheney’s observations are a case in point. In an article on his blog The Mumpsimus, he writes: "I find the popular ones really disorienting and many of them bludgeoning. My perceptions haven't been trained to the action video game aesthetic, and it's all just chaos to me."

Action films and first-person shooters share certain narrative parallels. They are essentially navigations through space. As far as aesthetics are concerned, however, they could not be more different. Yes, shooters emphasize speed in all its glory, with pans, tilts and track-ins. But they transpire in a clearly defined diegetic space. There are no cuts, no disruptions, mise-en-scène rather than montage, complete stability. This is not chaos cinema. This is something else, something that cinema aspires to reproduce, by different means.

6. Chaos Cinema: Beyond the Surface – Ambrose Heron, FilmDetail

As many commenters pointed out, chaos cinema did not just magically appear in the new millennium. It was a steady process, a development. Critics such as David Bordwell, Barry Salt or Geoff King have been writing about the stylistic changes for a long time.  In his essay Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid, blames non-linear editing systems for the emergence of chaos techniques. This is how we should discuss chaos cinema, as an aesthetic and industrial phenomenon.

In the end, however, we all approach action films with the same mindset. To quote Michael Bay: we demand our action to be …awesome!

Matthias Stork is a film scholar and filmmaker from Germany who is studying film and television at UCLA. He has an M.A. in Education with an emphasis on American and French literature and film from Goethe University, Frankfurt. He has attended the Cannes film festival twice (2010/2011) as a representative of Goethe University's film school. You can read his blog here.

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22 Comments

  • Kristy | January 3, 2012 3:29 PMReply

    Hi Matthias.
    I found your video essay extremely useful and love your idea of chaos cinema. I am a film student at university and I am currently doing a personal assignment on you and your theory. It would be great if I could get some comments from you.

  • Matthias | January 6, 2012 4:05 PM

    Shoot me an email or look me up on FB

  • Matthias | December 16, 2011 4:42 AMReply

    I could not agree more ;-)

  • Scott Nye | December 15, 2011 1:04 PMReply

    Oh, totally, do what you want - I'm just saying if fans of BAD BOYS II and DOMINO can't take a few jabs, I really don't know how they've made it this far. I'm not calling for uncivil discussion (fun though it may be to indulge in here and there), but I just didn't see anything to apologize for in the first place. I guess it's my way of saying "none taken" :-)

  • Matthias | December 15, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    Thank you for your comments, especially Scott! Our rhetorical exchange was a pleasure. And I agree with you that DOMINO is something else. And it reveals intriguing aspects of filmmaking and cinema in this perspective (although I have also heard cogent arguments that Scott's style is not as innovative as it might seem). Within the context that I define for this series, however, it registers as an anomaly, and it does not defy criticism (not even on its own terms, I'd argue). The notion of genre is not a detriment to cinema in my view but I understand your criticism. Obviously, there are different forms of action. And as for the apology section, civil discourse does not invalidate my argument, I'd say. It simply acknowledges that I reviewed and reflected upon the comments (whether I was successful is up for debate of course).

  • Scott Nye | December 14, 2011 7:05 PMReply

    What can I say that I haven't already? I've enjoyed this back-and-forth, that's for sure, but I might have even managed to say that.

    I will say that I think your insistence of conformity with regards to DOMINO is a bit weak. Even if you insist that all action films have to obey the rules you dictate, then you can just as easily say DOMINO just isn't an action film, but something else. Dictating a film's content according to an assigned genre isn't a particularly strong case - the need to assign genre to every film is part of what's sinking modern cinematic culture.

    And yeah, I agree with Jimmy Zhang, actually - own it, don't apologize. Also, this comment system really needs to recognize line breaks.

  • Jimmy Zhang | December 14, 2011 12:09 AMReply

    I don't think you should apologize. I believe folks should be professional enough to see that even if you used clips from some of their favorite movies, you were using them to make a point. Art is subject to critique after all, and a professional critique should require a professional response.

  • Steven Boone | December 13, 2011 10:24 AMReply

    My primary interest in the Chaos Cinema debate is political: What purpose has this style of filmmaking and media creation served for the (to use another 2011 buzzword) 1%? Showbiz has always had a social control aspect, but how has the Chaos additive affected this role?

    I think you've identified the pivotal moments in the evolution of action flick style, but this notion of Chaos Cinema as a natural leap gives me heartburn. CC seems more like just another industrial shortcut for the sake of efficiency and profits, like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. These movies will be sitting on the shelf long after they've killed us.

  • Matthias | December 11, 2011 12:38 PMReply

    Thank you for all of your insightful comments. I truly appreciate your engagement with the material. Pointing out potential shortcomings, quibbles or even accuracies - :-) - only enriches the debate. Thank you!

    Ian:
    The reason I cherish Sam Peckinpah's action filmmaking is his ability to establish order within chaos. To me, the action scenes are meticulously choreographed and assembled. But the action is still chaotic. I think your analogy to Jackson Pollock is apt. The reason I used him as a paradigm of chaos in relation to chaos cinema is simply that, at first glance, his paintings, at least to me, appear inscrutable. Obviously, if you invest more time in his art, you can detect a logic - whether it is his own or your own personal interpretation is not necessarily relevant. But I feel that chaos cinema does not grant us the time to invest in the images. What counts is the overall stimulation, a visceral response (which is not to say that these films, by definition, defy intellectual engagement; that would be unfair, because they do not!).

    Jason:
    I concur with your assessment of the fine line between what I refer to as classical action, intensified continuity action and chaos action. There are cases where the differences are not as evident. And I whole-heartedly agree with your proposition to examine chaos as a technique and a result. To me, it is both. To claim it as a technique implies an effect. And to postulate it as an effect implies that it can be achieved, via technique. The video essays are by no means definitive accounts on chaos cinema. They are designed to inspire a debate. And your remarks point into the right direction.

    As for DRIVE, the entire action in the film is designed as a subjective experience. Hence, for most of the time, the camera is restricted to the inside of the car. There are only a few establishing shots of the surroundings. What I appreciate about the DRIVE aesthetic, however, is that it nevertheless succeeds in laying out a clear action space. I feel I am part of the action. I am inside the car. Still, I am aware of the outside space as well. Additionally, the scene is structured to have the establishing shot occur at the end, as part of the climax.

    In regards to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and KICK ASS, I disagree with your characterization of the former as less spatially coherent than the latter. BUTCH features a number of carefully and explicitly placed match on action shots. The pacing is consistent. Towards the end, the editing rhythm accelerates, precisely at the point when they are unable to control the situation. In KICK ASS, by contrast, the pacing is a lot faster, the match on action shots briefer. It is still spatially clear. But the pacing, the rhythm, the shot length (and the composition) are more aggressive - granted, the narrow space of the locale and the genre semantics are factors that need to be taken into account.

    Steven:
    I understand your quibbles with the essays. I made an attempt, in all three essays, to point to potential aesthetic reasons for the employment of chaos technique (c.f. THE HURT LOCKER, CLOVERFIELD, GAMER and video games). It is the primary objective that I will tackle in the future (not in a video essay, though). And I agree, it should form the core of the discourse.

    I hope I was able to provide at least a few valuable responses to your highly stimulating comments.

  • Steven Santos | December 11, 2011 11:28 AMReply

    While I admire what you're trying to do with your essays, Matthias, I also feel, as an editor, between your series and Jim Emerson's series, that the both of you are drifting farther away from making the point. I believe that any discussion of technique without relation as to how it serves content and vice versa, represents more of a mythology and fantasy of what filmmaking is rather than any reality. In effect, it reminds me of how in film school, we are taught all these neat and tidy rules about technique only to realize not only do modern films toss away these rules without it necessarily being a wrong method, but films throughout all of film history have been as well. It brings up the bigger issue that I think rules are being applied arbitrarily to art based on someone's preferences and this is coming from someone who doesn't find most action films particularly well made.

    And, back to the fantasy and mythology I believe these series may be enforcing, they seem to operate on the notion that some filmmakers plan so well and carry off every shots in a sequence with clarity while others don't, which is what I think Jason Bellamy is getting at. In the reality of filmmaking (and if you really watch films closely), you can see a lot of these problems in what many consider good filmmaking. We do understand the editing process is often used to correct and make better the initial intentions of filmmakers, right? It is why it is considered an important part of the process in shaping the film. Directors often cringe at watching first assemblies and the process often results in some cuts that may not be aesthetically pleasing to film purists, but ultimately serve the greater purposes of a film: story, theme, emotions.

    And that sort of brings up the bigger issue and perhaps reflects my own personal biases. I admittedly don't watch many action films because I genuinely find most of them boring these days. If I were to list the reasons how effective a film is to me, whether it has good action scenes would rank at the bottom. I go to movies to feel. In other words, I need to give a shit about what is going on up on the screen. My personal preference in evaluating filmmaking, as well as an editor, would be how does it serve emotions, which I can tell you is something that isn't even taught in film school and shouldn't be. It's what separates the artists from the technicians.

    It is why if I were to pick a recent movie that undercut its effectiveness in editing, I bring up "Tree of Life". Because a film that doesn't allow its scenes to breathe so that I can register the emotion the filmmaker clearly wants me to feel is doing more damage in its editing than a badly cut action sequence ever can. I remember thinking to myself right after watching the film and coming up with the word "chaotic" to represent what I just saw. That all of these essays basically choose to focus on the action sequence as if the editing of that type of scene is somehow more significant than how a scene between two people sitting at a table is cut suggests a rather myopic view of filmmaking. It's the same reason why action movies with "a lot of editing" tend to get rewarded with editing awards.

    To focus on a film in your essay, "Domino", I do feel the filmmaking is being done with a certain intent and vision. It is a film that intentionally chooses and applies the chaos aesthetic. And yet, the movie, for me, was a failure because it was numbing and produced a film of little more than two hours of Capital A Attitude. I understand the aesthetic choice and still thought it failed. "The Hurt Locker" I think justifies its technique with the story it is telling and actually succeeds in execution. Someone like Christopher Nolan I believe has the right intentions, but clumsy execution in his action sequences. Michael Bay's style is completely intentional, but I find his films emotionally and stylistically bankrupt. Then, we have moments like "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" where one of the best action filmmakers of all time does the jungle jeep chase sequence, which is unintentionally a complete visual mess.

    The problem I have with these essays, and what I think Jason is getting at in his comments, is the classification of a group of films into an easily summed-up catchphrase rather than a real look as to how the aesthetic choices of a filmmaker serve a particular film. The latter may be messier, but I think it's more of the reality of how filmmakers and is more honest.

  • jim emerson | December 13, 2011 11:05 PM

    Steven S.: You don't give me anything specific to respond to from my three In the Cut essays, but I think we've been over this territory before. (I can't speak for Matthias, and wouldn't try to.) You say "any discussion of technique without relation as to how it serves content and vice versa, represents more of a mythology and fantasy of what filmmaking is rather than any reality." My essays were devoted to portions of five action sequences -- and ONLY these particular action sequences -- in "The Dark Knight," "Salt," "The French Connection," "Bullitt" and "The Lineup"). The techniques discussed focused on direction and editing, and how they served the "content," which was, in each case, the filmmakers' desire to create a thrilling, suspenseful, white-knuckle vehicle chase.

    You go on to say: "In effect, it reminds me of how in film school, we are taught all these neat and tidy rules about technique only to realize not only do modern films toss away these rules without it necessarily being a wrong method, but films throughout all of film history have been as well." Nobody said anything about traditional rules of continuity editing being unvarying or inflexible or unbreakable; but they can certainly be used to demonstrate why a particular shot or cut or series of shots does what it does -- and why I (as the critic analyzing the sequence) found either confusing and muddled or exciting and gripping. Those are the only emotions these sequences seek to serve (though there's maybe a little more going on in "The Lineup," with the kidnapped woman and girl in the car).

    Next you say: "And, back to the fantasy and mythology I believe these series may be enforcing, they seem to operate on the notion that some filmmakers plan so well and carry off every shots in a sequence with clarity while others don't, which is what I think Jason Bellamy is getting at. In the reality of filmmaking (and if you really watch films closely), you can see a lot of these problems in what many consider good filmmaking." It's a myth or a fantasy that some filmmakers plan and carry off sequences with more clarity than others? I don't know what you mean by that. (And I don't know what comments by Jason Bellamy you're referring to.) But I never said I expected every film to be perfectly executed, or that editing isn't a form of problem-solving. But a flaw is a flaw, no matter whether the movie is dreck or a masterpiece. Some post-production choices may make up for shortcomings during shooting -- and may even improve on the original conception. A continuity error in a dialog scene might not be of any significance, because you're caught up in the emotion of the moment; but a different kind of continuity error in an action scene may be quite distracting if the suspense depends on the spacial relationships. That said, I also shy away from action films these days because I find them "boring" -- because there's nothing at stake: not only no characters or story to care about, but so little attention to the action itself.

    Again, I repeated again and again that there are many ways to make movies. We know that Christopher Nolan and Phillip Noyce use storyboards for their action scenes, because they've talked about it (and one of the animated storyboard artists actually sent me a link to his storyboards for the sequence I discussed in "Salt"). Others, like Terrence Malick, like to shoot lots and lots of footage and "write" the movie during post-production. His longtime production designer, Jack Fisk, talked about how he created a five-block area for "Tree of Life" just so Malick could run around in it with his camera and find stuff, because that's the way he likes to work. And yet I agree with you that, in the theatrical release version, many scenes in "Tree of Life" don't breathe. And that's the result of Malick's technique.

    You also say: "That all of these essays basically choose to focus on the action sequence as if the editing of that type of scene is somehow more significant than how a scene between two people sitting at a table is cut suggests a rather myopic view of filmmaking. It's the same reason why action movies with "a lot of editing" tend to get rewarded with editing awards." Nobody has consistently focused on the ludicrousness of awards categories for what amounts to "Most Editing" over the last 30 years than I have. But when somebody sets out to address one, well-defined subject (comparing action sequences across decades) and doesn't address any number of others (comparing dance sequences or dialog scenes), that's hardly grounds for legitimate criticism. (In fact, I'm prepping several more In the Cut essays that will focus on other kinds of scenes.)

    I hope you have seen Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" -- which, in its current 2.5-hour cut, is very much a film in which the primary goal is to preserve the emotional back-and-forth between the characters. As you know, Lonergan's cut was around 3 hours, and you can sometimes see where chunks are missing -- sometimes out of the middles of scenes. Later I was able to get ahold of the script, which confirmed what was obvious on the screen. It's been criticized for the increasingly chaotic cascade of scenes in the last hour, which is indeed where most of the cutting was done, but I and some other critics have argued that it reflects the teen-age main character's increasingly frantic and fragmented state of mind.

    So, I'll conclude by asking you two things: Please don't put words in my mouth. And if you want to criticize my essays, feel free, but please cite the specific thing you're criticizing when you do, so that we'll have a basis for an exchange of views. I don't disagree with most of what you say -- except when you misunderstand or misrepresent what I've said.

  • Jason Bellamy | December 11, 2011 9:08 AMReply

    Matthias: The feeling I come away with after watching this third part is that there's a lot of "intensified continuity" that's being incorrectly called "chaos cinema" (not just in your video essays, but broadly) simply because it includes some of the same tricks: mostly rapid cuts and shifts in orientation, not to mention other effects.

    For example, the scene from KICK-ASS, which you rightly use as an example of intensified continuity, roughly looks like chaos cinema, but it's actually far more classical in terms of its spatial clarity than, say, the clip from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, which is used here as an example of classical cinema. To suggest that KICK-ASS is more classical than BUTCH CASSIDY on the whole would be absurd, however, and what this leads to, in my opinion, is a kind of cinematic profiling, where new, rapidly cut films are quickly sorted into "chaos cinema," whereas older films, or films with fewer cuts, are considered classical even if they do no better job of creating spatial clarity or otherwise orienting the viewer.

    Case in point: consider the now infamous jeep scene in INDY IV. Spielberg is always the go-to example of classical filmmaking, but that sequence is a mess -- chaotic without using the familiar techniques of chaos cinema.

    (On that note, the use of the clip from DRIVE is interesting. I read lots of raves about the clarity of that movie's action when it came out, but I watch that clip and feel it's screaming for a wide establishing shot, and I also notice random changes the axis of action, which is the kind of thing often trotted out as evidence that that a filmmaker doesn't know how to stage action effectively. That said, can I follow the action? Yes. Is there enough basic clarity, even if it sometimes takes a moment to orient a shot? Yes. But then I could truly say the same thing for the clips from DOMINO, which seem to drop shots or randomly insert shots into the action sequence (the RV driving down the road, say) without, in my mind, breaking my basic understanding of what's going on.)

    I bring all of this up, because I think the chaos cinema debate often doesn't wind up being about "chaos," or spatial clarity, or our ability to comprehend what's happening. Rather, it becomes a debate about intent, with many objecting to chaos cinema because they get the sense that the filmmaker wasn't careful enough in preparation and then settled for randomness in the editing room -- objecting not because the action is disorienting but because of a sense that the filmmaker took the easy way out, grab-bagging clips to throw into the editing timeline.

    Does chaos cinema exist? Absolutely. Movies like BATTLE LOS ANGELES are full of it. But for the chaos cinema debate to be constructive, we must decide: When a movie has a classical look-and-feel but chaotic action (INDY IV), what do we call it? And when a movie has a chaotic look-and-feel but (generally) understandable action (the clip from KICK-ASS), what do we call it? In short, we need to decide whether "chaos cinema" is a technique/approach or an effect/result.

  • Ian Grey | December 10, 2011 11:53 PMReply

    Hey Matt. I haven't seen the establishing scene in forever but I'm sure Peckinpah would do so, even in trans.

    My only point is, the all-hell-breaking-loose approach works fine without me knowing anything. It's fantastic, artful, exciting, all on its own.

    To use Matthias' example, if I have it right, it's impressionistic. A Pollack splatter of action. Pollack's splatters are fiendishly pointed. So is this scenelet. You can watch it forever. I love the not-knowing because I'm getting the totally-understanding.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | December 10, 2011 10:30 PMReply

    Ian, I have to take issue with your description of THE WILD BUNCH. Though it is definitely a transitional film (between classical and so-called "intensified" continuity) Peckinpah is actually very careful to orient us geographically. Before all hell breaks loose, everybody's positions are clearly established, and although the cutting is quite rapid, it's rapid because Peckinpah is suspending time and showing us simultaneous actions unfolding within a very brief moment. If it were possible to map an action scene -- geographically and in terms of time -- and account for everything, you could do that with every big action scene in THE WILD BUNCH. I agree in principle with a lot of what you say in your comment here, but I think you're misrepresenting THE WILD BUNCH and Peckinpah generally by positioning him as the forerunner of Chaos Cinema.

  • jay | December 10, 2011 3:09 PMReply

    I may be stating the obvious here. Perhaps what defines chaos cinema in the Action context is the degree to which the filmed on-screen action and cutting orient the viewer within a shot, or shot-to-shot within a sequence (where a sequence in this sense could be defined simply as a series of shots that ultimately orient the viewer within the space/action of the scene). In an action scene, our need for visual and auditory information becomes primary. We are signaled that the fate of the characters is in immediate danger, our senses are heightened to assess the extent of the threats or dangers and the degree to which the characters are overcoming them. The cutting between new shots that withhold this information (effects/blurs/shaky camera/canted angles/dirty framing/off axis/loose P.O.V shots, etc. that obscure or deny us physical or emotional reactions/actions) is a technique that can draw us in: with each new shot, as we initially question what is happening in that moment, our need-to-know this and what will happen next should become intensified. The film engages us with the characters' struggle for survival and victory by purposefully disorienting us. There's a limit to this disorientation. And if we're not oriented within the shot or at least within the sequence, this disorientation becomes chaotic. Far different from intensified continuity. As you mentioned, sound provides us with continuity (and this is not unlike first-person shooter video games by the way); we hear important cues re: the action, technically off-screen even if it is in the shot (for example, a bone snapping or a knife being pulled out). It seems like what you are saying is that in an Action scene, if the shots do not provide enough visual information for us to reasonably track our protagonist(s), then the storytelling loses continuity and begins a descent into a sustained chaotic state. In Action, we see it in car chases, fight scenes, battle scenes, etc. This same dynamic potentially exists more broadly in any form, anytime a film purposefully withholds vital story/plot information.

  • Ian Grey | December 10, 2011 2:24 PMReply

    Hello Mattias. Good work! I too believe that chaos cinema is a real thing and there are real issues to be had with filmmakers who take advantage of AVID, cheap adrenalized spectacle preset styles and technologies to get away with being shitty craftsmen. When you focus on that I'm totally your guy.

    But then there's the *shoulds*. When you talk about how action film is about bodies and objects in space and that therefore legibility, precision, grace and so on *should* matter, my instant response is—*whose* legibility, precision and grace and how?

    Since I am utterly immune to Spielberg’s notions of legibility, precision and grace, which *I* find rote and aesthetically deadening--is there something wrong with me? When I saw INDIANA JONES I thought it was a one-off joke on 40s style. Now it's the Bible of cinema correctness.

    Behind these' shoulds'--and a goodly portion of critics agree with you; I'm not singling you out--are the values of core conservatism that assume that there is a basic, 'natural' set of correct velocities, angles and geometric schemata for all things and that we need always regress to these defaults.

    Yet look at THE WILD BUNCH! It's completely insane! Looking at that scene you used I have no idea whatsoever who's where, doing what, with what, or how. And it *doesn't matter*. The film is about that chaotic, impotent, insane masculinity destroying itself.

    Meanwhile, those scenes in RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE are totally readable and practically sing with crazed life, invention, a brilliant, constantly-shifting sense of geometric space. In every scene Paul WS Anderson is inventing his brain out. The only film close to it is HUGO, which is pretty fucking chaotic at time as well--or rather, uses what I'd call an explosive design (another article maybe? :)

    Ultimately, I'm more than glad to suffer through 50 crap chaos cinema films for one RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE. I think of chaos cinema as a sort of R&D to get us from traditional cinema through videogame to what's next. I think the core of the thing is closer to what Mr. Shaviro said in his post--that we might be thinking more about "hybridizations".

    I like that. And I look forward to your evolving view on, well, anything!

    Cheers,
    Ian

  • Kelly & Ben | December 9, 2011 11:04 PMReply

    Once again, another excellent video essay. We thoroughly enjoyed this installment!

  • Steven Shaviro | December 9, 2011 10:53 PMReply

    Mattias, thanks for this Part 3. Just very quickly, after one viewing of the video:
    1- It is an important observation that, although chaos cinema seems to be trying to emulate the feel of video games, its technical means are in fact the opposite (since video games are continuous, with no montage; whereas chaos cinema is heavily edited). I think that there is a lot more to be said here, about media specificity and (conversely) the way that media influence one another. (I tried to work some of this out when writing on Gamer, but I haven't figured things out to my own satisfaction).
    2-I find your response to Scott Nye is weaker than your other responses. It is too unilateral. You are saying that action filmmaking has to be one thing ("literal...a record of bodies, or objects, moving from point A to point B."). I don't see WHY this has to exclude hybridizations and other approaches. Especially since one of the chief characteristics of our contemporary culture -- in all fields, not just in film -- is the total collapse, and hence irrelevance, of all those mid-20th-century distinctions between experimental avant garde art on the one hand, and popular entertainment on the other. Why does Indiana Jones have to be restricted to one compartment, and Brakhage and Pollack to the other? Brakhage himself would have hated it, but today the techniques that he and other avant gardists explored are freely deployed in music videos and tv advertisements, and why not feature films as well? In any case, it needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, rather than categorized as broadly as you are doing. And in this case, I'm with Scott Nye: I think that Domino is a work of genius, and merits a place of honor in the Cinemateque, if not in the Louvre. And the fact that Tony Scott accomplishes this sort of abstract splatter in a crass action film, rather than in an abstruse avant garde context, is precisely the point. (I am inclined to give Richard Kelly's delirious screenplay some of the credit for pushing Scott over the edge to a greater extent than he has dared in any of his other films).
    3- You have a sequence from Drive towards the end of the video, but you don't say anything about it. That film seems to me to be spatially coherent, rather than "chaotic" (was that your point?), and yet in terms of how it is abbreviated, allusive, & iconic it seems to me to belong to the same world as that of "chaos cinema," and to be far removed from the older taut B action films (like those of Don Siegel) to which it alludes. I would need to think harder to work this out, but I mention it here only in order to suggest, once again, that your observations on action editing are part of a greater puzzle.

  • Matthias | December 9, 2011 9:20 PMReply

    Matt, I may have called the tweet reductive but I also called it ingenious, which it definitely is! I am looking forward to your comments.

  • Joel | December 14, 2011 5:04 PM

    A reductive tweet? Nonsense! =)

  • josh | December 9, 2011 9:16 PMReply

    good. i liked it.

  • Matt Lynch | December 9, 2011 9:00 PMReply

    Matthias,

    I'm at work right now, and haven't yet had the chance to view this newest installment, but I'd just like to say that I agree with your assessment of my initial tweet as reductive. It was certainly a knee-jerk comment written in haste, and doesn't really accurately describe either your arguments in the video or my feelings about them (other than in a very broad sense). In hindsight, while I stand by those initial impressions, I probably wouldn't make that same statement now. Hopefully I'll have something more substantive to add later.

    Cheers,

    matt

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