25 August 2011

Chaos Cinema

Scarface, 1932

There's an interesting two-part video essay by Matthias Stork posted at Press Play about what Stork calls "chaos cinema" -- action movies (mostly from the last 15 years or so) that violate classical principles of staging, framing, and cutting.

I am in sympathy with Stork's overall point, and one of my few absolutely fuddy-duddy tendencies is a belief that classical action composition and editing is usually superior to the chaos cinema style Stork identifies -- I often want to yell at directors like Christopher Nolan (who is five years older than me), "You kids will never understand why Howard Hawks is great!"

But I have some reservations about Stork's analysis. Basically, they are two: 1.) He interprets an aesthetic technique as a single type of moral expression; 2.) he assumes all audiences watch the way he does.

The first problem is always illegitimate. Not because aesthetics and morality aren't linked -- they often are, as both realms are ones of choice -- but because a technique separated from context has no meaning, moral or otherwise. The types of filming and editing that Stork doesn't like acquire different meanings and purposes in different movies, and Stork's inability to see this blinds him to the vast differences between, for instance, a Michael Bay explodagasm and Gamer. Stork has it in his head that a particular way of filming means one thing, and so he's incapable of understanding Gamer -- he needs to spend some time with Steve Shaviro. To have filmed Gamer in a classical style would have changed the film's meaning and ruined much of what is interesting in it, including various effects that could be considered moral or ethical points.

The problem of assuming audiences see, hear, and feel all in the same way is endemic for critics, and may, in fact, be unsolveable -- but a bit of humility helps. Audiences are creative, complex, clever, and contradictory (as some of the more thoughtful comments at the Press Play post show). It is perilous to forget that.

In the second part of his essay, Stork says that chaos cinema is "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." There are a lot of problems with this statement, a lot of unfounded assumptions. To give it the most generous reading, assume that Stork is correct to say that such films aspire "to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state." (Supposing that to be true is a generous reading because the creators and distributors of such films may aspire to all sorts of things*, so it is presumptuous to say we know for sure what the creators and distributors of a large set of films aspire to. But I also think that as presumptions go, it's a fairly safe, or at least common, one.) Just because the filmmakers aspire to such an effect, though, does not mean that they accomplish it with all viewers. Further, just because they aspire to it does not mean that accomplishing or not accomplishing the aspiration is the sole criterion for evaluating the film. All sorts of art is interesting and compelling regardless of the creator's intentions -- sometimes even in opposition to the artist's stated intent.

Stork is on shaky ground with his assumptions about aspirations, but the ground completely gives out from underneath him in the next sentences: "The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up." Who is this you? What if I say I don't feel bludgeoned at all? Will Stork then say, "No, you're wrong. You're feeling bludgeoned." To which the hypothetically non-bludgeoned audience member could then say, "Speak for yourself, critic-boy." To deny someone their own experience is the height of arrogance, but that's what Stork's rhetoric does, because even if 99% of an audience does, in fact, feel bludgeoned, the fact of one unbludgeoned audience member disproves his theory or makes his rhetoric into that of an obnoxious ass.

Audiences may also experience bludgeoning differently. I expect for people who like that sort of thing, the sensory overload of a big blockbuster is a kind of total cinema, a full-body experience, in some way emotionally and aesthetically satsifying. If you don't have access to that type of pleasure, then it's difficult to generalize accurately about the experience of people who do.

In his discussion of The Hurt Locker, Stork hints at a more nuanced analysis, a recognition that these techniques can be used in creative, effective ways even for people who don't normally respond well to them. It's unfortunate that such an insight gets a bit lost amidst the polemic, especially because Kathryn Bigelow's films are especially good examples of thoughtful, versatile action cinema. (I would be interested to see him tackle such movies as Children of Men and JCVD.)

The narrowness of Stork's aesthetic judgment in the essay is demonstrated most vividly by his quick discussion of movie musicals. He would have been able to make a finer point by comparing Chicago not to Singin' in the Rain, as he does, but instead to Cabaret, because Chicago had originally been developed, choreographed, and directed for Broadway by Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed the film of Cabaret. There are illuminating differences between the two movies. Fosse did not simply use full-body shots for the dancing, as Stork seems to prefer, but instead designed the dances for the camera and used the camera as an element of them, then later edited the shots together to create a cinematic dance rather than a record of a stage dance. It's been a while since I saw Chicago, but what most remains with me from watching it is a memory of thinking that the dancing was frustrating because it wasn't integrated enough with the other elements of the film. Pulling back, filming wide, cutting only occasionally wouldn't have saved them, though certainly they would have been less disorienting. But spatial integrity isn't the be-all and end-all. It's a quality that is sometimes desirable, sometimes not, depending on the context and goals of the shot, the scene, and the film as a whole.

Stork seems to want the camera simply to record a record of a performance, like a documentary, but that's an awfully limited ambition for cinema.

He makes an excellent point about acting in chaos movies -- a jerky and always-moving camera style combined with rapid cuts makes the actors' performances less vivid, less able to be seen as performances. Again, I don't think it's always a terrible thing (Terrence Malick often shoots and edits in ways that don't emphasize the actors' performances, and I think he's one of the living masters), but Stork's insight could lead to a good point about stars: If you shoot and edit in the standard chaotic way, there's no need for particularly skilled actors. As long as they can pull off the physical requirements, they'll do fine. They don't even have to be skilled at comic timing for the one-liners, because you can adjust their timing in editing.

Stork identifies some of the influences on the chaos cinema style: "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," and I think he's right about all of that (I hesitated about "the commercial success of TV," since I'm not entirely sure what he means, but I assume he's referring to the same forces that gave us such things as VistaVision -- the studios' need to get people away from the boob tube and into the cinema, and so we get movies where everything is Bigger, Louder, Faster). But there's a major factor missing: video games, particularly first-person shooters. As someone with only the most minimal experience with video games, I find the popular ones really disorienting and many of them bludgeoning. My perceptions haven't been trained to the action video game aesthetic, and it's all just chaos to me. When I worked at boarding school, though, I often watched students in the dorms having a great time with such games, keeping various perceptions clear in their heads that were not at all clear in mine, and matching their hands' actions to those perceptions. I would not be surprised if some of the people shooting and editing chaos cinema are video gamers.

Despite my disagreements with some of the particulars of his essay, I'm grateful to Matthias Stork for putting it together (and it's well put together), because the chaos cinema style has, indeed, become a default, and any default style loses a lot of its original power through constant reiteration. There are always default styles, of course, but we can heighten our ability to understand and appreciate them through awareness, and essays such as Stork's help keep us aware.

*Films themselves, as inanimate and unconscious objects, don't actually aspire to anything, but it's a type of rhetorical shorthand most of us indulge in, even though it hides the fact that things only possess the meaning(s) given to them by human interpretation.