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scene from the movies Black Hawk Down

Chaos Cinema: Trading Visual Intelligibility for Sensory Overload

January 28, 2015

A cinematographic essay on the decline of action movies in recent decades.

Despite being strictly commercial cinema, action movies were meticulous in their use of cinematographic language and the construction of their characters and plots during much of the 20th century, but that has changed during the last two decades. The cinematographic essay Chaos Cinema by German academic Matthias Stork explains why.

We all remember classic action films for their precise camera work and impeccable staging. In the words of Stork himself, that cinema “was meticulous and patient. In theory, at least, every composition and camera move had a meaning, a purpose, and movies did not cut without good reason.”

This kind of cinema also paid attention to spatial dimensions to avoid disorienting the audience and allowing it to emotionally engage with the story, one of the most important tasks of good cinema: the ‘suspension of disbelief’. Some of the examples cited by Stork to illustrate this kind of cinema are: Bullit by Peter Yates (1968), The Wild Bunch by Sam Peckinpah (1969), Hard Boiled by John Woo (1992), Die Hard by John McTiernan (1988) Ronin by John Frankenheimer (1998), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by George Roy Hill (1969) and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

According to Stork, over the last two decades action movies have become faster, overloaded and exaggerated. They “trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload.”

 Each scene is an overbearing hysterical climax of adrenaline, a spectacle lacking quality.

Action-movie directors, Stork says, are more interested in the visual overload than in understanding what is happening in the film: “rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths, and promiscuous camera movement,” (an easy way of portraying chaos, panic and disorder using an esthetic similar to that of videogames), as well as constant abuse of post-production effects. The audience does not relate to the story but is just transfixed by it.

Some of the examples of what Matthias Stork describes as ‘chaps cinema’ are Transformers (2007) by Michael Bay, Déjà Vu (2006) by Tony Scott, The Expendables (2010) by Sylvester Stallone and Black Hawk Down (2001) by Ridley Scott, as well as the recent Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan.

Stork mentions some exceptions, well-filmed recent action movies. The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow (2009) is one of them, as an example of a well-narrated action film that is balanced in its use of camera and composition.

Amazing soundtracks characterize the deficiencies of Chaos Cinema as compensation for what the director cannot transmit visually. For Stork, the sound is important but should complement a cinematographic language capable of speaking for itself. And in this genre of cinema the dialogs are generally informative and are too short, revealing the actors’ lack of talent.

Stork’s outstanding essay has caused predictable controversy among those who defend the action movie genre as a form of abstract art. But, according to Stork, to create any kind of art you first need precision and grace.

Independently of whether the essay is an act of nostalgia, what is important is that audiences are able to engage with what they see: the true essence of cinema, and in that sense it is imperative that voices such as Stork’s call on the public to make us more aware of the act of sitting in front of a screen to watch a movie.

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