When did action movies change from being classically shot and aware of space and geography, to all this frantic half-second editing and shaky-cam nonsense? A fascinating two-part video essay tries to answer that question.
I frequent Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog. Recently, he had a great piece that highlighted a well-reasoned, well-constructed video essay about the state of modern action cinema. Film scholar Matthias Stork nicknames it “Chaos Cinema,” and for good reason. So many action movies today feature hyperactive editing and full-blown climactic plateaus of action that never come down for a breath. Scenes in many of today’s films seem to eschew spatial geography, and never let the viewer become aware of the scene’s surroundings. Instead, quick cuts and lazy camerawork paste together hyper-aggressive sequences of whizzing bullets and flailing bodies.
Stork’s video essay is perhaps the best explanation of today’s Chaos Cinema I’ve ever seen. He seamlessly compares recent movies like ‘Bad Boys II‘ and ‘Transformers‘ to well-constructed action scenes from ‘Die Hard‘ and ‘Hard Boiled‘.
The most telling part in the first half of the essay is when Stork compares the famous gun battle in ‘Hard Boiled’ to the insanely unintelligible action movies of today. That elaborately choreographed sequence is infinitely more enjoyable than the indistinguishable bodies and bullets flying around in something like ‘Battle: Los Angeles‘. Notice the ways in which understanding the character’s surroundings allows you to be more immersed in the scene. Action directors nowadays mistake the shaky-cam effect as some sort of intimate filmmaking tool. They think that by shaking the camera around enough, the audience will believe that the scene is more real than the classical style of filming.
That ‘Hard Boiled’ clip is a perfect example of a well-constructed, well-staged action scene. The scene draws you in with its realistic portrayal of spatial geography. It’s a scene that knows that pausing for dramatic effect isn’t a bad thing. There are no pauses in today’s action cinema. There’s no time for the audience to catch its bearings. By the time we do, the scene is over.
Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ movies are this way. Bay never builds up to a climax. Instead, his movies feature hyper-kinetic scenes chock full of climatic action right up until the end. This is indeed what Stork means by Chaos Cinema, and as he says it’s a “perversion.”
Prachya Pinkaew’s ‘The Protector‘ is a fantastic example of what you can achieve with a not-so-simple tracking shot.
Why is it that when we see a shot like this we’re automatically surprised? I would submit that we’ve become so accustomed to watching today’s attention deficient cinema that a tracking shot of this caliber makes us simply stare in amazement. In reality, more action movies should embrace this style of filmmaking.
In Stork’s second piece, he points out an immutable truth that we seem to forget whenever the camera is swinging around wildly. If we have a hyperactive camera and insane editing, we miss out on the nuanced performances of the actors. It’s impossible to see the actors react to situations when the frenzied action overtakes them and the camera ignores them. How often do we get to see an actor’s subtle facial movements when the camera undulates without any rhyme or reason?
One thing I really find interesting is Stork’s explanation of how audio mixes have become more intricate and precise to compensate for the visual action. However, it would seem that some soundtracks are just as overbearing – especially when knives and sword blades create a “Shiiiiing” sound just from flying through empty air.
Call me a snooty critic if you want, but I like to understand where the characters are in space and time. For me, it adds to the excitement if I know exactly where the bad guys are relative to the good guys. What do you think of the state of modern action cinema? Are you a fan of Chaos Cinema or do you prefer the classical approach?