Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On chaos and classicism

I know I'm behind on the ever-growing discussion of chaos cinema, but this is a topic worth expanding, as it has already in so many directions. It started with Matthias Stork's video essay at IndieWire's Press Play. The two videos encase a movement in commercial filmmaking over the past two decades, in which a sense of spatial unity has been displaced by a deliberately less coherent (and sometimes incoherent) aesthetic. Shaky camerawork and quick-cut editing are the base markers of chaos cinema, but lighting, film speed, and zoom are also exploited in the distortion of the "clear" image.

Stork notes that film scholar David Bordwell has already identified this trend and given it a name: intensified continuity. Bordwell has argued that many of these techniques ultimately service a classical agenda but in modified manner. Given that viewers have grown so accustomed to classical techniques of cinematography and editing, the idea is that they can fill in the blanks when a particular sequence removes some of visual clarity. This technique can serve a variety of purposes. In the classic narrative sense, it can mirror a character's disoriented state or it can signal the chaotic environment of war or panic. But Stork looks at this trend as usurping traditional concepts of visual cohesiveness and becoming a new base aesthetic of popular cinema (and action films in particular). He propels Bordwell's notion beyond a matter film aesthetics and addresses the implications of this increasingly prevalent aesthetic.

Stork explains:

"In many post-millennial releases, we're not just seeing an intensification of classical technique, but a perversion. Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload. The result is film style marked by excess, exaggeration, and overindulgence: Chaos cinema."

And Stork doesn't stop there. He adds that chaos cinema is "a never-ending crescendo of flare and spectacle," as well as "an audiovisual war zone." As for the "art" of chaos cinema, Stork notes, "the only art here is the art of confusion." Stork dishes these charges during a montage of film clips from various contemporary action films, including Quantum of Solace, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Dark Knight, Domino, Battle: Los Angeles, and others.

Given the inflammatory nature of the charges, Stork's essay provoked wide-ranging response. Ian Grey, also of Press Play, mounted a bold defense of chaos cinema by going on the offensive. In it, he targets Stork's ostensibly pro-classical tone, which (although Stork never explicitly endorses it) seems to inform his nearly wholesale dismissal of chaos cinema. (Stork briefly addresses the possibility of chaos cinema to achieve something more than empty spectacle with his analysis of The Hurt Locker, but not without noting that the exception proves the rule.)

Says Grey:

"It’s depressing that the ultra-conservative pro-classicists will not even consider that there might be something valuable occurring through these “chaos” films, planting the seeds of a new movement and establishing a new, valid way of seeing things for a new generation."

Grey's impassioned rebuttal highlights the glaring flaw of many accounts of chaos aesthetics, which is to focus almost exclusively on the mechanics of the film image in service of a more rigid ideological agenda. The notion that chaos cinema matters —no matter your opinion of its worth— tends to be glossed over by those launching assaults on it. While Stork briefly mentions music video aesthetics and shortened attention spans in attempt to explain the origins of chaos cinema, he fails to make a convincing connection between chaos cinema and the broader cultural tendencies and transactions on which the broad basis of his argument rests.

For my part, several of Stork's points seemed dead-on. I have always been partial to clarity and geography. Nevertheless I was uncomfortable with the ease of which he dismisses the majority of chaos cinema for not upholding a certain tacit vision of cinema long perpetrated by classical auteurs and formalist critics. Grey hits on this point effectively, but in doing so he makes sweeping generalizations that somewhat diminish the impact of his mostly well-argued response. He observes:

"It’s already a tired remark but it’s no less true: in the pulsing sensorium of multimedia, the sit-down, stand-alone feature film becomes kind of quaint, unless somebody does something to jack it into the world as it is now. And that’s what “chaos cinema” aims to accomplish. The style that many of you hate is probably the only thing (aside from that other thing you probably hate, 3D) persuading people to endure an increasingly god-awful cinematic experience."

Grey goes on to provide an anecdote of sitting through 35 minutes of commercials at a screening in New York to illustrate that viewers today are tired of old models and seek a more strongly visceral response to cinema, which now has to compete with various other modes of aesthetic pleasure in order to stay relevant. This notion warrants more exploration, for sure, but Grey's attempt to connect a movement in film form to something outside the isolation of film analysis is badly needed in film criticism. Too often it is filtered through the same "form/content" lens that it seems to have little relevance. Nevertheless, as part of the pro-chaos/anti-classical argument, Grey's remarks about generation politics leaves his argument vulnerable to criticism, as evidenced by Steven Boone's recent piece over at Big Media Vandalism calling out Grey and other defenders of chaos cinema. Boone concisely streamlines the evolution of our media technologies and senses as a means of explaining how chaos cinema was given to rise. Here's an excerpt (though I encourage you to head over and read the whole piece at least once, if not several times):

"The kids didn't create--or ask for--Chaos Cinema, no more than little Johnny asked for the neighborhood pusher to move onto his block and offer him some new sneakers. Kids just want to escape boredom. They want to feel alive. Chaos Cinema came along at a time when young people and adults alike had learned to expect instant gratification from their DVD players and cable boxes. The kind of spontaneous montage I created as a child couch potato of the '80s, armed only with a cable dial and a slothful VCR, acquired exponentially greater firepower by the late '90s, with thousands of satellite channels and the random-access of DVD chapter stops to draw from.

Concurrently, AVID (and later, Final Cut Pro) non-linear editing systems gave professional film editors the same freedom to make instant selections from their pools of footage.

Meanwhile, the Internet went from a convenient tool for interpersonal and business correspondence to a direct telecommunication and commerce channel. This quickened the pace of everything. Once digital video became widely accessible, it was even easier to feed the beast, 24/7. Finally, cheap portable media devices and Internet screens of varying diminution reduced the amount of information we could be expected to retain in a single image, lending shots the quality of flash cards. Car. Man. Smile. Pile of shit.

In the movie business, this quickening became an opportunity: Storytelling in mainstream movies would get faster and more furious with each year of the last decade, in the style of product upgrades. Let's think of the movies in the aughts as Dell desktops. Each new movie packed more RAM (more footage to draw from, and from a wider variety of camera angles), faster processors (editing that obeys fight-or-flight impulses like a channel surfer) and bigger hard drives (more screen time devoted to densely-packed expository dialogue, like Wikipedia clippings in an undergrad's netbook). Except that, unlike computers, these increasingly tricked-out flicks narrowed our selection of applications (visual styles) to ones with cluttered, user-unfriendly interfaces. This phenomenon was sold as a sign of the times by Ho'wood's de facto publicity outlets and happily/resignedly indulged by consumers who came to think of movies as perishable items. Slurp, burp, next."

Boone's piece is a grand statement against contemporary editing techniques and other staples of chaos cinema. These permeate hyper-masculinized action fare, like Battle: Los Angeles and The Expendables, but also and perhaps more importantly the work of popular cinema's new batch of auteurs, notably Christopher Nolan. Boone's takedown is a good companion piece to Stork's video essays, which were more focused on demonstrating and denouncing chaos cinema. It provides a convincing cultural and ideological context for arguments against chaos cinema. Perhaps most significant about Boone's argument is how it explodes the simple notion of form and content as somehow being internal to filmmaking or film viewing. While Boone stands in support of Stork, the overarching principle I pull from his essay is that how we watch, interpret, and derive enjoyment from cinema is a complex negotiation of innumerable processes both inside and outside of a frame. His narrative of the media state is both beautiful and horrifying to me. No matter how hard we try, we cannot anticipate or even begin to understand the extent to which our minds and brains are being rewired and projected through the increasing number and capacity of transaction in our current media age.

In light of Steven Boone's staggering reflection on the state of affairs in contemporary film standards, I see a number of ways in which the dialogue can continue, grow, and give us more insights into film images and how they continue to hold relevance. With respect to the notion of chaos cinema, I would spin the discussion by first considering that both Stork and Grey have legitimate points to make about the state of the movies. Their opposition may be more the result of ideological and rhetorical posturing than truly repelling concepts. There is more than a kernel of wisdom (as Steven Boone elaborates) to Stork's underlying argument that chaos cinema both reflects and informs a larger cultural movement that is quite honestly concerning. This deserves to be explored as chaos cinema becomes more pervasive in contemporary filmmaking techniques.

While Stork outlines the broad parameters of chaos cinema, we should first try to understand what chaos cinema actually is and how it operates. Stork provides an excellent start (particularly with his analysis of sound), but I am wary of accounts with an established negative outlook of this new aesthetic. While I would not directly refute anything Stork concludes, there are a number of opportunities to explore how and why a destabilized image is significant. Ian Grey broaches this issue with his assault on classical cinema, but this likely stemmed more from Stork's reflexively pro-classical tone. Nevertheless his observations on the beauties of chaos (such as his unashamed love of Resident Evil: Extinction) represent a solid foundation for a pro-chaos approach.

In light of these differing sensibilities toward contemporary visual styles, it might be interesting to look at how classicism and chaos cinema can be melded together. Instead of merely only looking at the work of leading practitioners of chaos cinema such as Paul Greengrass, I might suggest we have a look at films that are more classically influenced but have been inevitably shaped by the increased presence of chaos cinema in film today. Jim Emerson recently did something like this with his response to Stork's video essay (and in countless other pieces over the years, particularly his entries on The Dark Knight). He looks at Philip Noyce's Salt as an example of how the elements of chaos cinema can be assembled in a way that has intelligibility while still conveying the velocity of chaos aesthetics.

Another film that fits this billing is Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. I thought of the film when I read Ian Grey's essay, in which he uses the it as an example of how classicism can bring down an otherwise good film. Grey notes the frustrating extent to which each composition is precisely assembled and positioned. Indeed, Minority Report is largely consistent with Spielberg's self-described geographical aesthetic, but a closer look reveals a strange interplay of classical form and destabilized images typical of chaos cinema. For example, in the film's lone extended action set piece, Spielberg's camera is noticeably more frenetic and busy than in most other action sequences in his catalog. From the jetpack chase in the alley to the car manufacturing plant, the camera is imprecise in its ability to frame the details of the chase and yet there is clarity in how all of the shots and images connect. For example, in the second portion of the chase, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) encounters his pursuer, Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) on the street outside the manufacturing plant and the two race to the building.

The foot chase is executed with a single hand-held shot, but when we cut inside the sterile hallways of the factory, Anderton is shown from a distance in a stable shot down a long, white hallway. He sprints past the camera, which shakes when he runs past it.

While all of the action until this point is discernible, Spielberg keeps the proceedings off balance with gritty camerawork that counterbalances the cleanly mechanical atmosphere of the factory.

A few bursts of light distort some of the images and even in longer shots the camera never stays still.

As the chase continues, Anderton and Witwer find themselves facing one another on a mobile platform maneuvering above the ground.

Here Spielberg incorporates an even stronger chaos sensibility by jumping between extreme shaky closeups and wide angle shots, which seem to compliment and clarify each other.

When the two plummet off of the platform, notice how the shifting camera denies us a feel of gravity, as the two barrel sideways through the air at the camera (but really down into a car under construction). When we cut to another angle, the transition is both seamless (due to the spatial economy) and jarring (due to the pronounced velocity from the shaky camera work and chaos touches).

This set piece is thoroughly Spielbergian in that we can clearly see what's happening from shot to shot, but it is also a subtly distinctive sequence for how it incorporates several characteristics of the chaos style. In my view, Minority Report exhibits a hyper-classical aesthetic that is difficult to situate within the chaos/classical mold emerging in critical dialogues. What's interesting to me is how this shaky-cam aesthetic joins with the classical stylings of the film's sleek visual palette. It is classical chaos.

In my next entry, I will demonstrate a few more examples of how the principles of chaos cinema have been incorporated in other recent popular films. Specifically, I hope to examine how these elements can alter and/or enhance the effect of classical style in some cases, or establish a brand new aesthetic and emotional spectrum in one particular case of genre filmmaking.

In the mean time, I open the forum to you: Are there any other movies that blend the line between chaos and classicism?


Matthias Stork said...

Thanks for a fair and insightful response!

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Matthias. I look forward to more of your video essays and reflections on chaos cinema.

Unknown said...

In response to your question, maybe Gangs of New York? It certainly is a "classical" work from beginning to end, with notable exceptions like the ethnic turf war that opens the film. It doesn't inter-cut the two styles in the way you describe Spielberg doing, but they're at least jarringly side-by-side.

Ted Pigeon said...

That's a great one, Mike. Particularly given how Scorsese's aesthetic is so classical up until that point and for the entire duration afterwards, the battle in the snow is incredibly disorienting. Scorsese seems to be after a jarring effect with contrasts; even the score is not fitting to a period drama in that scene.

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