Monthly Archives: August 2011

Chaos Reigns? Technique in modern Hollywood action cinema

A pair of short video essays I watched recently have got me thinking about modern action cinema, what it does, and who does it well.

Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Chaos Cinema Part 2 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

They came via Matt Prigge, who rightly says:

except that Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films do this well and aren’t simply about chaos. They’re about lightning fast thinking.

Now action on screen is one of those things I think about a lot. Stuff like fights, chases and shootouts are easy to put on screen, really hard to do well. Cheap thrills are embedded in the DNA of cinema. They’ll always be around. We get a kick out of excitement and violence. Basically, the “Chaos Cinema” thesis isn’t (or shouldn’t) be about modern action cinema being ruined forever by those awful modern techniques. It’s a question of whether these techniques are realised competently or not.

Of the directors whose work is shown in the videos, the ones best at using the jittery, verité aesthetic are Paul Greengrass, Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan. (I’d put Neil Blomkampf on this list too for the terrific District 9, but I don’t want to judge him based solely on one feature film.)

Greengrass is known as the guy who brought shaky-cam into the mainstream, after importing it from his docudramas such as Bloody Sunday. As a former director for World In Action, he’s interested in blending a feeling of the factual into Hollywood.

His Bourne films require the jittery, quick-cutting pace because they need to reflect Damon’s Bourne reacting almost instantaneously to the threats ranged against him as his super-spy training kicks in. In United 93, the hand-held docudrama format takes you inside the horrifying situations better than a more conventional style could. Likewise, Green Zone (as with Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) uses that same style to evoke the reportage and amatuer footage from chatotic war zones that has spilled across our screens in recent years. Form informs content, and vice versa; I don’t see why a director should be pilloried for taking a stylistic decision that unambiguously works for the film he/she’s making.

Consider Nolan. He’s a director whose action chops have steadily improved with each film; the fights in Batman Begins were fairly awful, over-edited and confusing. The Dark Knight caught a fair bit of flak on the editing front, but on the big set-pieces he excels. I mean, tell me there isn’t some of the visual grammar of the big car chase in Bullitt (quoted admiringly in the the first video) in the Bat-pod chase sequence.

By the time he made Inception, he’s come on in leaps and bounds. There’s something of the low-key style of 70s actioners in the controlled, lengthy mid-shots during the van chase and hotel fight scene – he even built a costly and complicated revolving set to get around having to cut away during the latter sequence. Claiming him as part of the “Chaos Cinema” phenomenon doesn’t hold weight for me.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s definitely a move towards louder and more incoherent blockbusters. Aside from mere incompetent attempts to ape Greengrass-style verité, there’s also a cynical deliberate attempt by some directors to bludgeon the audience into submission, to not so much distract them as wear them down so they become accepting of ever more grimly mediocre Hollywood product.

The “anti-style” of directors like Michael Bay and Tony Scott is still an auteur’s style – in that it is recognisably their own – but contrary to classic auteur theory, which talked about the director’s control of style, it reflects the auteur’s lack of control. And in tandem with their films’ content and worldview, it’s a gleefully teenage celebration of base impulses.

And this is the problem with the wide net cast by the “Chaos Cinema” thesis – it mistakes a technique for a malaise, and ignores whether its practitioners exercise judgement, taste and competence or not. Those make all the difference.

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Game-changing: plotting in Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones

Following on from my previous post about Breaking Bad, I want to talk about its approach to plotting and the similarities it shares with George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series of novels, which I started reading recently.
A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series (and the recent HBO TV adaptation based on it), begins with a clear setup; despite having several POV characters, we know our hero is meant to be, and we know what form the primary conflict of the story will take. At first, that is, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. As this blog post puts it:
Much of that, I think, goes to Martin’s playing around with different ways to deal with rising action than simply resolve it in a climax. In Game of Thrones, Martin initially does give us a hero in Ned Stark, antagonists in the Lannister clan, and the sharply-defined conflict of the eponymous “game of thrones” they play against each other. The action rises traditionally enough at first, but then, instead of resolving, the arc disintegrates.
Martin delights in defying expectations and delivering some genuinely shocking moments to the reader. By the end of A Game Of Thrones, the central dynamic that was set up within the established order of his world has broken apart: we are now presented with a number of different noble families and assorted individuals moving against each other in a vast array of shifting alliances.

Breaking Badfeatures a number of differences in its storytelling. The very clear preoccupation of the series is whether Walt (and his family) will stay alive and ensure the same for his partner and family. Vince Gilligan isn’t as kill-happy with his characters as Martin is; but he is still fond of subverting the traditional instigation-rising action-climax-denouement storytelling model.The third season, for example, begins with the appearance of a clear threat to Walt. He remains unaware of the menace bearing down on him for almost half the season — until a shocking explosion of violence shatters the previous directions the characters had taken. Reactions to this break inform everything that happens, right up until another threat emerges at the very end of the season, creating a terrific cliffhanger.

Gilligan has explicitly stated his intention to keep changing the status quo:

“Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” saysBreaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan. “When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” So Gilligan designed Breaking Bad to transform its hero into a villain…

and this can be seen in the way he keeps pulling the rug out from under our established view of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Martin’s novels and Breaking Bad both keep their audiences on their toes using this technique. Instead of a slow build to a climax, shocking twists hit you from out of nowhere, leaving existing subplots to spin off into their own stories, which in turn crash into each other to be obliterated or continue on a new course. It’s not an approach for every narrative, but it’s a wonderful way to blindside the audience and keep a story innovative.

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Horror and crime: Breaking Bad vs. The Shadow Line

There are a couple of TV shows I’ve been watching recently. One’s British, the other’s American. One’s a limited series, the other’s currently on its fourth season. I like one far more than the other, but they’ve both taught me a lot about a certain kind of crime show, and when an examination of morality ultimately fades into a horror story.

“…Because you’re wearing gloves.”

 The Shadow Line is a seven-part drama series aired on the BBC recently. Written and directed by Hugo Blick, it follows the dual investigations of the police and criminals into the murder of a gangster.

While it’s byzantine, over-stylised and unafraid of being pretentious and self-indulgent, it’s also well-worth watching despite its flaws. Its creation of a specific and absorbing atmosphere is second to none. And this atmosphere is not entirely related to the crime or even noir genres. As this excellent blog post put it:

the monster of the show– and I very much use the word monster instead of villain on purpose to distinguish it from THE WIRE… That monster is very real and very much a part of our world– the monster is corruption.

The Shadow Line specialises in a kind of despairing, existential horror, the sort that features in HP Lovecraft stories. The characters can struggle all they want, but this is The Way The World Is – the good are crushed and the bad triumph in the end. It’s a worldview common to the conspiracy thriller sub-genre, particularly the ones the BBC did so well back in the 1970s and 80s (and to which The Shadow Line is explicitly harking back).

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, offers up a moral horror. It’s the horror that comes from watching an at-first sympathetic character becoming more and more irredeemable. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a nebbishy high-school chemistry teacher and the series’ protagonist, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and makes the decision to start cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after his death.

It began as a (seeming) act of desperation taken by a dying man. But as the series has gone on, we’ve seen Walt take ever more ruthless measures to keep himself alive. We see him cause huge amounts of pain, suffering and death. And as the bodies pile up around him, he never falters in his constant efforts to justify himself. It’s not just Walt; all the characters know right and wrong. But they do the wrong thing anyway.

“A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it … because he’s a man.”

The message of The Shadow Line is “don’t go there/do that or the monster will get you”. Breaking Bad’s power comes from watching the hero become the monster. Walt has a lifetime of rage and resentment built up inside him, and his pride, along with the opportunity to excel at the work involved in his deadly business and unleash his id in the guise of his Heisenberg persona, create a deadly mixture.

(Brief aside: a regular featureof the Audio Assault podcast, named Lab Notes, specialises in discussing each episode of Breaking Bad’s current fourth season, and comes highly recommended by yours truly.)

The word “hauntology” has been applied to The Shadow Line before, and the surreal, often-nightmarish atmosphere it evokes suggest a kind of TV reality that is fuzzy at the edges. The figure of Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), in particular, appears as an echo from the wave of secret-state thrillers produced by British TV in the 70s and 80s.

They too, specialised in buried secrets, where knowledge was the real danger. Often the theme is of Britainas a small country packed full of history. Layers pile upon layers, the past granting the present more meaning – as with the ancient stone circle, resembling a target, where the climactic sequence of The Shadow Line takes place.

Breaking Bad offers a different geography. The show’s mileu is retail parks, fast-food joints and identical subdivisions, where horrific events take place hidden in plain sight. An alternate landscape of crime, horror and death is mapped onto suburbia – the meth lab under the industrial laundry, the shoot-out in the shopping centre’s car park.

At the same time, the series sketches in the background the disintegration of the middle-class American dream. Pre-diagnosis, Walt was forced to take a second job at a car wash to supplement his income as a teacher. The inability to meet medical bills, for Walt and others, is a recurring plotline in the show. The ghost haunting at the edges of Breaking Bad is the suggestion that this very middle-American nightmare, minus the meth-dealing, is now a fact for millions of people.

The nightmarishness of both series comes not only from the subject matter, but also from the pacing. They revel in the clenched-knuckle slowness of a car crash, of knowing something horrible is going to happen but being powerless to stop it. Breaking Bad specialises in “bottle episodes”; self-contained, single-location stories that show the characters trapped physically, as well as metaphorically (plenty of TV shows do this, but BB does it better than almost anyone else), drawing out the tension to almost unbearable levels.

Both The Shadow Line and Breaking Bad are horror masquerading as crime. They are perfect series for a world where we have ever more information, but less idea of what to do with it. We know of the myriad dangers lurking in the shadows, or about to meet us up ahead, but we simply remain glued to the screen, eyes open.

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