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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