EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is proud to premiere a new video essay by Los Angeles scholar and filmmaker Matthias Stork. His video essay, Chaos Cinema, should be a welcome sight to anyone who's ever turned away from a movie because of a director's shaky camera.
During the first decade of the 21st century, film style changed profoundly. Throughout the initial century of moviemaking, the default style of commercial cinema was classical; it was meticulous and patient. At least in theory, every composition and camera move had a meaning, a purpose. Movies did not cut without good reason, as it was considered sloppy, even amateurish. Mainstream films once prided themselves on keeping you the viewer well-oriented because they wanted to make sure you always knew where you were and what was happening.
Action was always intelligible, no matter how frenetic the scenario. A prime example: John Woo’s classic Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled. Its action is wild and extravagant, but it is nevertheless coherent and comprehensible at all times. Viewers feel and experience the exaggerated shootout fantasy without ever losing their bearings. In terms of camerawork, editing and staging, precision is key. Woo’s film is in fact strongly influenced by the work of American directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. A similarly great American action film is John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Notice the economy of cuts and camera moves in the scene where hero John McClane fights the bad guy's chief henchman, Karl. The fight itself is frantic yet clearly understandable, both riveting and stabilizing -- the M.O. of classical cinema.
But in the past decade, that bit of received wisdom went right out the window. Commercial films became faster. Overstuffed. Hyperactive.
Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking. Film scholar David Bordwell gave this type of filmmaking a name: intensified continuity. But Bordwell’s phrase may not go far enough. In many post-millennial releases, we’re not just seeing an intensification of classical technique, but a perversion. Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.
Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It’s a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren’t interested in spatial clarity. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what’s happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones.
Even attentive spectators may have trouble finding their bearings in a film like this. Trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here is the art of confusion.
Consider Michael Bay’s Bad Boys 2, an explosive mixture of out-of-control editing, intrusive snatch-and-grab shots and a hyperactive camera. Bay’s cacophony stifles the viewer’s ability to really process the film’s CGI-assisted skirmishes. The action is cool to look at, but it’s hard to discern in detail, and there’s no elegance to it. The shots are often wobbly. Sometimes this is due to the use of deliberately shaky handheld cameras. Other times, the filmmakers have made relatively stable shots seem much wilder and blurrier in post-production through the use of AfterEffects software. (This is not film grammar, it is film dyslexia.)
Considering all the deliberate insanity occurring onscreen, these movies should be totally unintelligible. Yet we still have a faint sense of what’s going on.
Because of the soundtrack.
Chaos films may not offer concrete visual information, but they insist that we hear what is happening onscreen. Ironically, as the visuals in action films have become sloppier, shallower and blurrier, the sound design has become more creative, dense and exact. This is what happens when you lose your eyesight: your other senses try to compensate. Consider how relentless machine-gun fire, roaring engines and bursting metal dominate the opening of Marc Forster’s James Bond entry, Quantum of Solace. The scene’s dense sound effects track fills in the gaps left by its vague and hyperactive visuals.
But the image-sound relationship is still off-kilter. What we hear is definitely a car chase -- period.
But what we see is a “car chase.”
French auteur Robert Bresson rightfully stressed the importance of sound in the formation of atmospheric depth in movies. He even argued for its primacy, saying that in some ways sound might be even more important than picture. But in lavishly funded action films that wish to create an immersive experience, sound and image should be complementary, and they should be communicative. In Quantum of Solace and in other works of chaos cinema – image and sound ultimately do not enter into a dialogue, they just try to out-shout each other.
In contrast to Bay’s and Forster’s haphazard execution of action, consider the meticulously staged and photographed car chase in Ronin. In contemporary action cinema, such a sequence is, unfortunately, hard to find.
Chaos cinema technique is not limited to action sequences. We see it used in dialogue sequences as well. We hear important plot information being communicated, but the camerawork and cutting deny us other pleasures, such as seeing a subtle change in facial expression or a revealing bit of body language.
This deficiency is especially discernible in the musical film, a genre that ordinarily relies heavily on clear-cut choreography and expressive gestures. But the woozy camera and A.D.D. editing pattern of contemporary releases clearly destroy any sense of spatial integrity. No matter how closely we look, the onscreen space remains a chaotic mess. For comparison, consider a scene from the classic Singin' in the Rain. Long, uninterrupted takes allow us to see the extraordinary performances of the actors. No false manipulation necessary.
To be fair, the techniques of chaos cinema can be used intelligently and with a sense of purpose. Case in point: Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. The film uses chaotic style pointedly and sparingly, to suggest the hyper-intensity of the characters’ combat experience and the professional warrior’s live-wire awareness of the lethal world that surrounds him. Bigelow immerses viewers in the protagonists’ perspectives, yet equally grants them a detached point of view. The film achieves a perfect harmony of story, action and viewer involvement.
But such exceptions do not disprove the rule. Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It’s an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.
Some film buffs have already grown tired of chaos cinema – especially the so-called “shaky cam,” which has been ridiculed even by South Park. Despite stirrings of viewer discontent, however, chaos is still the default filmmaking mode for certain kinds of entertainment, and it’s an easy way for Hollywood movies to denote hysteria, panic and disorder.
Chaos cinema seems to mark a return to the medium’s primitive origins, highlighting film’s potential for novelty and sheer spectacle – the allure of such formative early works as The Great Train Robbery. You can trace the roots of chaos cinema to several possible factors: the influence of music video aesthetics, the commercial success of TV, increasingly short viewer attention spans, the limitless possibilities of CGI, and a growing belief in more rather than less. Those who look closer, though, may wonder when cinema will recapture the early visceral appeal of the train pulling into the station at La Ciotat -- truly a symbolic relic, powerful in its simplicity. Chaos cinema hijacks the Lumière brothers' iconic train, fills it with dynamite, sets the entire vehicle on fire and blows it up while crashing it through the screen and into the rumbling movie theater – then replays it over and over. And audiences are front and center, nailed to their seats, sensing the action but not truly experiencing it. All is chaos.
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.