And… Action! How the death of the shoot ’em up presages the irrelevance of Hollywood

By Richard Poplak 5 September 2011

A recent video essay on the Press Play website makes a compelling case that action filmmaking is a debased art form, and coins the term “Chaos Cinema”. What does this mean for the rest of mainstream filmmaking, and can the art be saved? By RICHARD POPLAK.

Several weeks ago, the Hollywood trade paper “Deadline” informed the world of some dispiriting news. Tony Scott, the man who helmed “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide,” has been tapped to direct a long-in-development remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic “The Wild Bunch.” Pick five random, spastic minutes from any Tony Scott opus, and you have a précis description of modern action filmmaking. Since he made the ur-blockbuster “Top Gun” for schlock producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer in 1986, his career has spanned a quarter-century of decline in the quality of action filmmaking, and a subsequent slide in the aesthetic of cinema overall.

Tone deaf as Scott may be to subtlety and nuance, he is remarkably attuned to what audiences are willing to put up with, which is not the same thing as knowing what they want. This is not to blame him for ruining the movies; he finds himself in excellent company. Along with his brother Ridley (who made some fabulous films early in his career), Bruckheimer stable-mate Michael Bay, and others including Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, Gore Verbinski, Peter Berg and Jon Favreau, he has presided over a plunge in attendance at the cinema, and an erosion of the popularity of film in general. To be sure, good films are still made in Thailand, South Korea, Romania and, less commonly, in America.  Who cares about action flicks, the film buff wonders, and in what way does Hollywood action filmmaking matter to the overall health of the art form?

In a recent, essential video essay published in Press Play, scholar and filmmaker Matthius Stork bequeathed a new, chillingly dystopian coinage on modern action filmmaking: “Chaos Cinema.” While action is not the only genre that finds itself riddled with the bullets of irrelevance, Stork hints at why it may matter more than other mainstream genres. Sure, the romantic comedy has literally hit the toilet, where the excretion of bodily fluids has become a default punchline and screwball has been replaced by balls caught in zippers. Yes, the adult thriller has all but disappeared, and the musical has been so thoroughly debased that even the biggest budget examples resemble nothing so much as a botched high-school talent show. I would argue, and Stork would probably agree, that the downward spiral follows the fall of the action film. Like a canary in a mine, action films warn us that we are in fact losing the language of cinema.

Firstly, the fundamentals: We must attribute Hollywood’s decline, in part, to industry vicissitudes, which is another way of saying films cost a fortune. When studios are ultimately responsible to shareholders rather than patrons, script and craft will necessarily take a backseat to proper and responsible management of the product. Toys are made into movies, which are made into video games, which are made into toys. Then cometh the sequel.

All this does nothing to explain the drop in quality of the shoot ‘em up, given that action films are assumed to be script resilient. Yet no type of filmmaking demands more precision, planning and conceptual consideration than action films. They are written twice: first as a narrative, then as a series of standalone sequences that clip into the narrative, adding to it. Historically, action films have always functioned as cinema’s soul. They shirked off the early trappings of theatre, and created the backbone of classical cinema that has been, in Stork’s opinion, abandoned over the last 15 years.

In cinema’s early days, spectacle did not mean emptiness. There was a fluid conversation between the work of Harold Lloyd and that of his contemporaries, like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Lloyd and his peers took the notion of the “action film,” exemplified by 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery”, and built upon it. Action scenes functioned as coherent narratives embedded within a story. They were expressions of a character’s will: the will to overcome chaos; the will to triumph over adversity; the will to survive. These scenes were the ultimate expression of the heroic, and when we watched Harold Lloyd dangle from the hands of a clock, something elemental about our life-force was revealed to us.

Action scenes demand virtuosity. The very tincture of cinema, they should unfold in coherent space and time, with an arc of their own. Every shot, meticulously chosen, is assembled into a sequence that has the rhythm of an aria. From silence to climax, the action sequence is primordial, sexual. And its language is distinctly cinematic.

This language once travelled across the spectrum of genre filmmaking. It informed the visual gag in comedies, the dance sequence in musicals, the suspense scene in thrillers, the coup de grace in horror. One watches the superbly calibrated rhythm of Hitchcock’s opening sequence in “Strangers On A Train,” and posits this against a scene from Keaton. This intra-genre conversation built towards the great films of the late 60s and 70s and the beginning of postmodern moviemaking, where the seven-decade grab-bag of international cinematic history was plundered to make tough, adult films, created by erudite directors.

That, it turns out, was Hollywood’s high water mark, although the eighties were perhaps the action film’s finest decade. We came to know Indiana Jones in motion, through the wit and resolve he displayed under fire. Spielberg crafted wondrous set pieces, in which Indy came fully alive by dodging bullets and boulders, properly expressing his essence through action. We remember “Die Hard” not just for John McTiernen’s superb action filmmaking, but for the long set ups, and the rewarding pay offs. Who can forget Bruce Willis as John McLane, anguish written all over his face, revealing the stakes involved in trying to save a skyscraper from a bunch of terrorists, hobbled by the fact that his feet are cut up by shattered glass?

Watch the ‘Die Hard’ trailer here:

These films, and their action set pieces, were ballasted by a century of classical filmmaking. No longer. The final shoot ‘em up in Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” perhaps one of the most studied sequences in the medium’s history, will soon meet Tony Scott’s ADHD-plagued camera. In a recent GQ-published jeremiad on the state of cinema, writer Mark Harris singled out “Top Gun” as the beginning of the end for film as a legitimate art form. He describes the oeuvre of Scott and his ilk as films that are “stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility or recognisable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.”

Harris attributes the decline to the modern-day studio executives who came of age during the Simpson/Bruckheimer age. Their teenage sensibilities are a result of the chronic arrested development that plagues their caste. It compels them to “greenlight” the films of their boyhood, too terrified to support anything that may resemble a good script and therefore a risky proposition. “If movies were now seen as packages, then the new kings of the business would be marketers, who could make the wrapping on that package look spectacular even if the contents were deficient,” writes Harris. The science of marketing has been for filmmaking like a vat of weed killer dumped on a solitary pansy.

If Hollywood executives are financing action films in such quantities, surely this has led to some good action filmmaking, if only by default. Not so much. And here the blame must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the filmmakers. Let’s start with Christopher Nolan, perhaps the most celebrated commercial filmmaker of his generation. For a man playing with hundreds of millions of dollars, he has an astonishing lack of flair when it comes to his set pieces. He is bright in the way of a precocious middle-school kid, and his tick-tock plotting, as far as “Inception” and “Memento” are concerned, result in some small satisfactions. Yet for a film set in successive dream worlds, “Inception” is absent any sense of the oneiricism that better filmmakers capture as a matter of course. Nolan’s grasp of space is non-existent, and his scattershot approach to action burdens his films with a leaden quality that reveal his inner hack. Batman is not the lithe and lethal crime fighter we suppose him to be, but a Kevlar mannequin. “Souplesse”, the wonderful French word that translates as “suppleness”, is entirely missing from his aesthetic. Nolan goes big, and then we go home.

Tony Scott’s most recent film, a men-at-work thriller called “Unstoppable,” is the director’s best since “True Romance,” which isn’t saying much. Two rail engineers, portrayed by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, must use the locomotive they are piloting to stop a rogue train full of explosive chemicals from smashing into Pittsburgh. The conceit, based on a true-ish story, is standard ticking clock fare, and Scott can’t even get this right. His camera swirls and dips and dives, unwilling to rest for even a moment on the face of his appealing actors. The plot, simple as it may be, derives its momentum from cutting back to the “live” television coverage of the event. Scott’s affectations reveal that he doesn’t have the tools to tell a straightforward story without borrowing from the machinery of news television. This isn’t style, nor is it “postmodern”. Simply put, modern action filmmakers have lost the ability to employ the language of cinema.

Watch the trailer for ‘Unstoppable’:

No current director has done more to bring Chaos Cinema into prevalence than Michael Bay, director of “The Rock”, “Armageddon” and the Transformer trilogy.  Bay, a favourite punching bag of the cognoscenti, has worked almost exclusively with Jerry Bruckheimer, and his style doesn’t iterate the pubescent mind so much as reinvent it as broad caricature. The slapstick set-ups of the three Transformer films—the hour-long comic hi-jinks that precede the action—are so odd, so drenched in gay panic and terror of the female, that they play more dreamlike than anything Nolan conjured up in “Inception”. Like all Bay’s work, they are an attempt to deliver the subconscious teenaged mind to rapt teenagers, and display the subconscious of 80s-bred studio executives who are destined to misremember their youth in a “Groundhog Day” loop of cacophonic, unintelligible celluloid. Mostly, though, Bay’s films are a spaghetti tangle of smash-cut, semi-related images, the purest form of Chaos Cinema you will find.

“‘Bad Boys’ was the first time I, or any other Hollywood filmmaker for that matter, used that fast editing style,” Bay recently informed the website Moviehole of his debut film, a buddy cop picture starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. “And I only did that because we didn’t have a lot of money. What happened though is that that style became a trend, and all these movies started using it, which is fine, but I get blamed for every film that uses fast-editing.”

Bay has described his style as “fucking the frame,” which is gloriously apt, and should be the standard-issue bumper sticker for most modern action filmmakers. But we must take careful note of his comments regarding “Bad Boys” for they are revelatory. Bay comes from a school of music video directors who plied their trade in the late 80s and early 90s, and perfected the scattershot approach to montage that would come to define MTV. Music videos are to films what press releases are to novels, and yet the production style of the music video has come to dominate how action and suspense sequences are shot. Because time and money are short, the trick is to film as much footage as is financially plausible, and “fix it in post”. The primary goal of the director is to bank footage; the driving force of the creative process is the editor, who assembles this jumble according to the beat of the music, sense be damned. Editing, and now the computer, have replaced planning and conception and script. Everything can be salvaged in dark comfort of an after-effects suite.

Watch the ‘Bad Boys’ trailer here:

The music video approach infected filmmaking like the Ebola virus, chewing through comprehensibility, space, time and rhythm, leaving a lump of rotting necrosis in its wake. Chaos Cinema, its proponents would argue, hints at the violence and incoherency of the modern world, dominated as it is by streams of endless and ultimately meaningless information. It is the equivalent of the news ticker rolling under a babbling talking head, the ultimate expression of violent nonsense and, therefore, an accurate parsing of our reality.

But this doesn’t wash. Paul Greengrass, in the acclaimed latter two Bourne films starring Matt Damon as a memory-challenged killing machine, has proved without a shadow of doubt that Chaos Cinema is more about expediency. It is a tic that Greengrass would argue he borrowed from the documentary (see his first American film, “United 93,” which religiously apes cinema verite, pretending to us that we are there, observing a moment rather than a replication of a moment.) Surely the shaky-cam style of the Bourne films suggests immediacy, and the violence is more visceral for it?

Yet Sam Peckinpah reminds us that chaos is best expressed through virtuosity; the fog of war he depicts with excruciating precision at the climax of “The Wild Bunch” has a relationship with real violence, real human madness, that the nonsense cut-ups in the Bourne films come nowhere near capturing. Chaos Cinema does not represent the insanity of everyday life in the 21st century. Instead it represents the loss of virtuosity and, more distressingly, the loss of the need for virtuosity.

Stork and others have pointed out that Chaos Cinema relies on sound design to root the incomprehensible and ground the viewer. Noise makes up for the lack of visual sense. (Stork reminds us that when we lose one sense, the others jump in to compensate.) Thus, in what is perhaps the stupidest affectation in cinema history, we hear a “whoosh” when a flashlight sweeps the frame. Action is jacked up on high fructose extreme sound design. Sound, once the most subtle and playful of cinema’s tools—recall the child killer whistling “Peter the Wolf” in “M”—is now another cudgel.

“Crank” and its sequel, “Crank: High Voltage,” by the directing duo of Neveldine and Taylor, come closest in tone and spirit to parodying Chaos Cinema. Starring Jason Statham as an (almost) indestructible tough, the films dial up the flash-cut tics to 11, with intentionally hilarious results. The directors have clearly studied their Michael Bay, and they knowingly throw the detritus of the last 15 years up on the screen. “Crank” tells us there is still somewhere to go in terms of the action film, and now that we know how bad things have become, we can start remedying the rot.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is an example of a filmmaker referencing the 70s, especially in his upcoming movie “Drive”. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” lets us know that spectacle can still be smart and nuanced. Mark Harris, in his GQ piece, tub-thumps “Inception” as the kind of daring film that Hollywood should be making. He’s wrong. I’d take solid, comprehensible filmmaking, coherent and full of voice, over the industrial sensibility of a Nolan product any day of the week. Film’s soul is found in the action sequence—the kernels of its language exist therein. Nolan, along with too many of his peers, makes action films without possessing the ability to shoot action sequences. And so, film’s soul is in real peril, because Chaos Cinema rules the day. DM

Read More:

  • “Chaos Cinema” Video Essay in Press Play;
  • Part 2 of Michael Bay interview on Moviehole;
  • “The Day the Movies Died,” in GQ.

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