“Chaos” Theory

The problem is actually state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking itself, which while in pursuit of relentless video-game-style cool and nonstop action no longer has room or time for ideas or story or character or even other kinds of tasteless sensationalistic impact—the kind that Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Verhoeven and Lars Von Trier, for example, have trafficked in without always resorting to chases and punching, chases and punching, and then some shooting.

That’s from Michael Atkinson’s takedown of the Total Recall remake, which I was ready to sign onto without even reading it because of the whole Jesus!-Hollywood-get-some-imagination-already thing, but also because I’m a fair to middling fan of the old Schwarzenegger number. Indeed, I’ve bitched so much—here, there and everywhere—about the lack of “ideas or story or character” in mainstream fare that I don’t really need someone haranguing me on the subject.

The slam-bang relentlessness Atkinson is describing refers to the sensation-centered cinema of Roland Emmerich’s mega-disaster flicks, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies—the exact kind of cinema that Pauline Kael once feared would eventually cause audiences to see nothing but “a big hole in the screen” during movies that don’t come with over-the-top action scenes. These movies take as their basic building block the loud, splashy and improbable sequence, as opposed to the old-fashioned story that organically grows out of a single idea, which is roughly the difference between a string of sausages and a living pig. Fans of the style like it because it’s exciting and at its most extreme it provides what they think is a one-on-one correlation between the perils on the screen and their own experience—“It’s like you’re really at war” they’ll tell you, although why anyone would want to experience such a thing is never explained, any more than the difference between sitting in a comfy theater chair and someone firing a machine-gun into your face is ever reconciled.

The style was recently christened with a name—“chaos cinema”—which successfully conveys the idea of a perspective that’s missing a unifying consciousness, and when Tony Scott, a past master of fragmented editing, committed suicide last week, his work was hailed as “a smearing of the senses”, which gets at the same thing. Well, as for me, I don’t get—not even remotely—where the pleasure is to be had in this stuff. The final battle of Seven Samurai also employs a lot of cutting, but only after Kurosawa has so thoroughly grounded us in both the characters of the combatants and the layout of the battleground that not only can we make instant sense of what we’re seeing, we can derive meaning from the action even as it’s happening—meaning that goes far beyond “Oh, he got him right in the head!” I believe the people oohing and aahing over Bourne’s car chases are being sincere when they say they’re having a good time; I just don’t think they’re demanding enough. If the biggest high you get from movies comes from a fireball seen from half a dozen angles, then a stripper humping a silver pole must make you feel like you’ve just gotten laid.

For my money, good action scenes—whether it’s the train robbery in White Heat, the encircling nightmare of Nada’s arrest in Carlos, or a shootout on the velvety streets of a night-darkened town in No Country for Old Men—do a hell of a lot more than throw me into a passive trance. Craving disorientation isn’t just infantile—it’s self-defeating. The touches and details that go into a successful action scene create levels of involvement and satisfaction that go far beyond who’s whacking who. The car chases in Siegel’s The Lineup and Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds are thrilling in part because, even amidst the mayhem, we can appreciate their geographical correctness as they zoom across San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The ironic thing is that “chaos cinema” ultimately hails from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which in 1969 contained an unprecedented amount of multi-angle editing, to the point of setting a record for shot-to-shot edits in a single feature film. (Some 3,200, if memory serves.) But Peckinpah was a classical filmmaker to the bone, and every shot of his massive gunfights was both intensely motivated and carefully fixed within the physical arenas of his action, while his famous intercutting of film shot at different speeds was done with Hitchcockian precision to achieve very particular effects.

And so I’m fundamentally sympathetic to Atkinson’s complaint here. However, he makes a mistake that’s common as dirt when critics lament The Death of Cinema, and it’s all based on some strange misunderstanding people have about videogames. It may be simple prejudice. Once, when I told a pair of friends that I was playing Grand Theft Auto IV, they literally gasped “No!” as if I’d told them that I like strangling kittens in my spare time. It’s no dark or dirty secret, though: I own a PlayStation 3, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the half-dozen games I own. And I’m here to tell you, my brothers and sisters, those games—all among the most popular ones on the market—provide an experience which is completely and utterly at odds with the slash-and-stab attack on the senses that Atkinson is talking about. In fact, he has it exactly bass-ackwards. Movies haven’t come to resemble awful videogames; instead, the games—these games, anyway—have done their best to look like good movies.

The games’ cinematic roots can be seen dangling from them in various ways. In GTA IV a bank heist gone awry leads to a reproduction of the (classically staged) street shootout in HeatRed Dead Redemption owes some of its story and many of its tonal elements—the music, most noticeably—to Unforgiven and Leone’s spaghetti westerns. And as its title indicates,  L.A. Noire is the most movie-conscious of them all, with in-game references to a million old crime pictures and a wild foot-chase through the Babylon set from Intolerance.

There’s none of Tony Scott’s whiplash editing style in any of these games, not even for a second. Indeed, that would be impossible, for apart from the cut-scenes—that is, those autonomous little scenes in which the storyline is advanced without the player’s participation or guidance—there’s no real editing at all. Typically you’re viewing the scene through a proscenium-like frame, just as in a movie. Even during the gunfights the action remains framed, continuous and seen from a constant perspective—your own.

Atkinson also complains about the breathless pacing of the modern action movie:

Total Recall is structured in one-second bricks—that’s exactly as long as you get, and not one microinstant more, to let your eye rest on an image, contemplate a character’s feelings, or piece together a narrative sequence’s logic. What movies traditionally basked in now comes at us in strobe-rate splotches…You watch the blip-blip-blip of Total Recall‘s trite ingredients speeding by, and your abandoned craving for context and contemplation and substance—any substance—quickly turns into irritation and then disgusted rage.

In GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, the player’s surrogate is normally found on foot, and has to be put on horseback or in a car to travel with any velocity at all. If you’d wish to have him walk across the entire “sandbox”—meaning the territory as a whole on which the game is played—from one end to the other, you better be ready for a lot of context and contemplation, because it’s going to take you hours. These game-worlds are each infused with an uncountable number of details that serve as constant enticements to slow down and examine one’s surroundings. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, recreates the topology of the American west—from the plains to the deserts to the snow-capped mountains—while carefully including all the wildlife, weather conditions, and changes in light one would expect to find there.

This encouragement to explore to your heart’s content is the opposite of “chaos cinema”, which holds your attention in a death-grip and never stops directing your gaze. The appropriate cinematic equivalent for videogames, in which “the camera” is perched slightly above and behind the character, isn’t Gladiator at all. It’s the Dardenne brothers’ subjective camera peeking over Rosetta’s shoulder.

In truth, the impersonal, purposeless cutting that’s killing so many action movies today is derived from an art-form that was the whipping boy for everything that was shallow and fast in the ’70s and ’80s: the music video. If you want to blame someone, blame Adrian Lyne and his goddamned Flashdance video. (It’s only fitting: chaos cinema has shredded the musical, too.) That’s the model that has six edits whenever someone tosses a cigarette away, that zooms in and out willy-nilly, and that rejects anything resembling a governing consciousness. The distinction is hardly a milestone in the history of aesthetics, but it’s worth getting right if it’s worth going into at all. Far from corrupting movies, videogames have done their best to replicate the older medium. They’re practically a tribute to it.

3 Responses to ““Chaos” Theory”

  1. David Garza Says:

    While I could never master the mechanics of interrogation in LA Noire, I was really impressed they at least tried to inject “real” art in the form of motion captured faces. And yeah, given the choice between a shlocky action movie and a video game, I prefer the video game because at least the level of immersion is a magnitude above the quick-edit crap.

  2. Tom Block Says:

    >I could never master the mechanics of interrogation in LA Noire

    WHO COULD?!? Everyone acted the same way, and the choice between doubting them and accusing them of lying was flawed in some way at least half the time. No wonder cops like the third-degree.

  3. David Garza Says:

    And I guess to ratchet up the tension and stakes in interrogations, the game designers made it extremely unpleasant to re-load a case. Struck me as punitive for failing at gameplay that lacked polish.

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