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VIDEO ESSAY: CHAOS CINEMA: The decline and fall of action filmmaking

VIDEO ESSAY: CHAOS CINEMA: The decline and fall of action filmmaking

Part 1

Part 2

: Press Play is proud to premiere a new video essay by Los Angeles scholar and filmmaker Matthias Stork. His video essay,
Chaos Cinema, should be a welcome sight to anyone who’s ever turned away from a movie because of a director’s shaky camera.


During the first decade of the 21st century, film style changed profoundly. Throughout the initial century of moviemaking, the default style of commercial cinema was classical; it was meticulous and patient. At least in theory, every composition and camera move had a meaning, a purpose. Movies did not cut without good reason, as it was considered sloppy, even amateurish. Mainstream films once prided themselves on keeping you the viewer well-oriented because they wanted to make sure you always knew where you were and what was happening.

Action was always intelligible, no matter how frenetic the scenario. A prime example: John Woo’s classic Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled. Its action is wild and extravagant, but it is nevertheless coherent and comprehensible at all times. Viewers feel and experience the exaggerated shootout fantasy without ever losing their bearings. In terms of camerawork, editing and staging, precision is key. Woo’s film is in fact strongly influenced by the work of American directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. A similarly great American action film is John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Notice the economy of cuts and camera moves in the scene where hero John McClane fights the bad guy’s chief henchman, Karl. The fight itself is frantic yet clearly understandable, both riveting and stabilizing — the M.O. of classical cinema.

But in the past decade, that bit of received wisdom went right out the window. Commercial films became faster. Overstuffed. Hyperactive.

Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking. Film scholar David Bordwell gave this type of filmmaking a name: intensified continuity. But Bordwell’s phrase may not go far enough. 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, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.

Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It’s a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren’t interested in spatial clarity. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what’s happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones.

Even attentive spectators may have trouble finding their bearings in a film like this. Trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here is the art of confusion.

Consider Michael Bay’s Bad Boys 2, an explosive mixture of out-of-control editing, intrusive snatch-and-grab shots and a hyperactive camera. Bay’s cacophony stifles the viewer’s ability to really process the film’s CGI-assisted skirmishes. The action is cool to look at, but it’s hard to discern in detail, and there’s no elegance to it. The shots are often wobbly. Sometimes this is due to the use of deliberately shaky handheld cameras. Other times, the filmmakers have made relatively stable shots seem much wilder and blurrier in post-production through the use of AfterEffects software. (This is not film grammar, it is film dyslexia.)

Considering all the deliberate insanity occurring onscreen, these movies should be totally unintelligible. Yet we still have a faint sense of what’s going on.


Because of the soundtrack.

Chaos films may not offer concrete visual information, but they insist that we hear what is happening onscreen. Ironically, as the visuals in action films have become sloppier, shallower and blurrier, the sound design has become more creative, dense and exact. This is what happens when you lose your eyesight: your other senses try to compensate. Consider how relentless machine-gun fire, roaring engines and bursting metal dominate the opening of Marc Forster’s James Bond entry, Quantum of Solace. The scene’s dense sound effects track fills in the gaps left by its vague and hyperactive visuals.

But the image-sound relationship is still off-kilter. What we hear is definitely a car chase — period.

But what we see is a “car chase.”

French auteur Robert Bresson rightfully stressed the importance of sound in the formation of atmospheric depth in movies. He even argued for its primacy, saying that in some ways sound might be even more important than picture. But in lavishly funded action films that wish to create an immersive experience, sound and image should be complementary, and they should be communicative. In Quantum of Solace and in other works of chaos cinema – image and sound ultimately do not enter into a dialogue, they just try to out-shout each other.

In contrast to Bay’s and Forster’s haphazard execution of action, consider the meticulously staged and photographed car chase in Ronin. In contemporary action cinema, such a sequence is, unfortunately, hard to find.


Chaos cinema technique is not limited to action sequences. We see it used in dialogue sequences as well. We hear important plot information being communicated, but the camerawork and cutting deny us other pleasures, such as seeing a subtle change in facial expression or a revealing bit of body language.

This deficiency is especially discernible in the musical film, a genre that ordinarily relies heavily on clear-cut choreography and expressive gestures. But the woozy camera and A.D.D. editing pattern of contemporary releases clearly destroy any sense of spatial integrity. No matter how closely we look, the onscreen space remains a chaotic mess. For comparison, consider a scene from the classic Singin’ in the Rain. Long, uninterrupted takes allow us to see the extraordinary performances of the actors. No false manipulation necessary.

To be fair, the techniques of chaos cinema can be used intelligently and with a sense of purpose. Case in point: Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker. The film uses chaotic style pointedly and sparingly, to suggest the hyper-intensity of the characters’ combat experience and the professional warrior’s live-wire awareness of the lethal world that surrounds him. Bigelow immerses viewers in the protagonists’ perspectives, yet equally grants them a detached point of view. The film achieves a perfect harmony of story, action and viewer involvement.

But such exceptions do not disprove the rule. Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It’s 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.

Some film buffs have already grown tired of chaos cinema – especially the so-called “shaky cam,” which has been ridiculed even by South Park. Despite stirrings of viewer discontent, however, chaos is still the default filmmaking mode for certain kinds of entertainment, and it’s an easy way for Hollywood movies to denote hysteria, panic and disorder.

Chaos cinema seems to mark a return to the medium’s primitive origins, highlighting film’s potential for novelty and sheer spectacle – the allure of such formative early works as The Great Train Robbery. You can trace the roots of chaos cinema to several possible factors: the influence of 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. Those who look closer, though, may wonder when cinema will recapture the early visceral appeal of the train pulling into the station at La Ciotat — truly a symbolic relic, powerful in its simplicity. Chaos cinema hijacks the Lumière brothers‘ iconic train, fills it with dynamite, sets the entire vehicle on fire and blows it up while crashing it through the screen and into the rumbling movie theater – then replays it over and over. And audiences are front and center, nailed to their seats, sensing the action but not truly experiencing it. All is chaos.

Matthias Stork is a film scholar and filmmaker from Germany who is studying film and television at UCLA. He has an M.A. in Education with an emphasis on American and French literature and film from Goethe University, Frankfurt. He has attended the Cannes film festival twice (2010/2011) as a representative of Goethe University’s film school. You can read his blog here.

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Sanghita Sen

Wonderful. I enjoyed both essays very much.


Jawohl! Matthias says films have to be made his way. Matthias says he doesn’t like action films thus nobody is entitled to like them. Matthias says we should still leave in caves, life was much more calmed and easier.


Mr Stork, your essay is very interesting and I agree with you for most of the parts… until I watched the videos. The examples chosen to illustrate your words are sometimes wrong, in my opinion.

About Quantum of Solace, you mention "gasps" of the "vague visuals". I disagree. The editing of the car chase might be hyperactive but each plan has his meaning, there is no random plan.

You also say that contemporary blockbusters "trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload" and select an extract from Inception to explain this. The sensory overload is subjective, I won't debate about it, but the chase was clear, there is no problem of visual intelligibility in it.

Speaking of Inception, why don't you mention the other action scenes which use with wisdom image composition and camera move ? This film is full of scenes which show how the time seems distorted and all the tension that occur by linking the action at two differents levels of dream, etc. Why don't you mention the hallway fight ?

And I think there are others examples – yet rare – of chaos cinema which don't use chaos as a visual gimmick. Yes, there is The Hurt Locker, but what about Heat (the bank robbery or the final duel, especially the final duel), The Dark Knight (the truck/car chase in Chicago tunnels and around), Exiled (the precision of Johnnie To gunfights remind Peckinpah's one) ?

Once again, I like your essay but it could be less extreme, more nuanced. Even in Hollywood, some directors do allow the public to sense the action AND experience it (Nolan, most of the time, James Cameron as he proves it with the Mecha/avatar fight in Avatar, etc.).

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A point often omitted in these discussions is that shaky camera shots and wanton close-ups are not just used to achieve a desired aesthetic, they are used as what the military calls a 'force multiplier.' In action scenes; close ups and shaky camera work can be used to hide the fact that an apparently climactic, explosion of action is nothing more than two people running around in a 20 foot circle while a grip shoots off $2 fireworks.
Years ago before all this started I was watching 'Starwars: A New Hope' at a friends house. To make the point that laser disc was the dogs bollocks, he played the opening scene on VHS and then Laserdisc. The main difference being letterbox vs. 'reformatted to fit your tv.' In his own words "On laser disc it looks like a real shootout… on VHS it looks like two grown men getting a little too serious about playing laser tag." Old movies with the sides chopped off are cheapened by the removal of a substantial portion of each scene. New movies now purposely hide what high resolution blue ray players and billion dpi tv screen screens can now expose. The cheapness and phoney-bologna nature of what an action movie set really looks like. To remain hidden, directors now must result to cheap trickery. If you don't get to look at anything for more than a millisecond you'll never notice just how ridiculous the whole scene really is.
Ever since Saving Private Ryan directors have been using obscenely close close-ups and cameras with shaker devices attached to convince audiences that something is really happening, like a magician with his smoke, mirrors and scantily clad assistants. If the director makes his cameraman zoom in close enough and shake the camera hard enough, their audience will never realize that they are only watching two grown men get a little to serious about running around in a small circle while a grip shoots off $2 fireworks.


I'm a software developer and I found this essay through Google while I was looking for information on writing a program (perhaps a plugin for computer video player applications) that would detect these insane scenes in movies and automatically stabilize them. It sure would be simpler if the camera operators could just use a tripod (or whatever the pros use for this purpose).


Sorry respectfully disagree with everything the author is stating here, Yes in this current wave of movies, there seems to be an aesthetic leaning towards hyper reality and getting us closer into the action. But that is not the case in every film, a handful of directors have applied this, The biggest culprit paul Greengrass has a background in Documentary film, so understandably the craft he honed for many years at the BBC and his outlook when looking through a camera has been applied to his Narrative fiction films. Very few films have used your so called chaos cinema in dialogue scenes. As for this being new the "La Nouvelle Vague" set out to do this 50 years ago jump cuts mismatched sound in the edit, spacial displacement. It seems that the author has not taken into account many varying factors. For example advancements in technology, to edit at the speed we do now was very difficult 50 years back, with the advent of non-linear editing far more options can be made much quicker. This also brings us to digital capture, it is cheaper and quicker than film, so more coverage can be gained on set, opening up the possibilities for more coverage in action sequences. In regards to the framing and aesthetic again, with the advent of new technologies we can now get angles that were literally impossible for the likes of Peckinpah etc to get. In regards to musicals, there were certain requirements back then that dictated that type of framing one was camera size, the Technicolor camera (enchanted cottage) was bloody huge and had to be put on a dolly or Crane, to incorporate any movement hand held wasn't an option, neither was having 4-6 of them to cover the action. Add in the caveat of a lot of the big stars of the Day like Fred Astaire having it written into their contracts that all dancing coverage was required to be head to toe then you have other reasons. The list goes on and on. I suggest you go back 60 or so years and watch the films of Pressburger and Powell, These are fantastic examples of people trying to push the boundaries of cinema, who use sound, lighting camera movement and positioning way ahead of its time. I think you are cutting your cloth to suit a bit and the notion of Chaos Cinema is in my opinion just that. There are plenty of great films out there that are not bogged down in over stylized camera techniques etc. What you discuss up here is nothing more than stylistic choices by certain directors on certain films. Not a whole new radical approach to film.


Death to neoclassicism.

Watching money explode is fun.

Ur old, or whatever.


Aye I agree with a lot of what is said, I especially get annoyed when some action scene like a (unarmed fight) really narrows what you can see and just bangs in blurs and sounds to make you percieve a fight. American film makers may joke about kung fu movies but they actually never got so compacted you couldnt see them, they showed you the whole thing and kept it coherent.

My only annoyance of this essay is your negative usage of dyslexia , I am dyslexic and it did seem a bit of a dig at the condition.

Christine McMillia

Great essay. This past summer myself and two of my co-workers literally fell asleep while watching Captain America and Transformers 2. We fell asleep while in a movie theater. Booming, sonic surround sound and all. I have actually never been able to stay awake through one of the Transformer movies, including attempting to watch the first one in my home. We all found it comical, albeit hard to believe that we could fall asleep through movies that were such sensory overloads. Your essay does a great job of proving our point as well was that the movies had too much white noise. I was so confused and uninterested my brain figured it was time to shut off and sleep.

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Again, thank you all for your contributions. The multitude of responses is truly enlightening.

The practitioners of German Expressionism and French Impressionism drew on the cinematic apparatus for specific purposes. They undoubtedly experimented with style. But the impetus, along with the final aesthetic resut, was substantial. Chaos Cinema, by contrast, at least in my estimation, primarily seeks to overwhelm.


I completely understand everything your saying – but I would call it Conservative & Futile. I would liken your argument to some one lashing out against the Impressionists / Expressionist movements during the first 10 years of their founding – and your coming at them from the POV of a lover from the well established classical style. We now all like those styles – but he have had time since the the ate 19th century to do so. As you say in your essay – you are dealing with the last decade and critiquing it. What is the point in labeling it as inferior when you don’t know what tomorrow may bring – and we have so many previous examples in other art forms that have done the same yet we don’t call them to be poorer versions.

The reason is we have had 60+ years of the original framing and consideration of of viewer orientation was on various factors. Technology, camera size. The size of camera during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when musicals were big, were huge and had to be placed on a tripod only. Years of getting the size down, to a HD cam the size of a human’s fist AND the recognition on the directors part that Musicals can also be viewed in real life on a stage in a more traditional framing lend them the freedom of doing some thing “NEW”

In Stevens Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – to increase how big a deal it was – D-Day – he PUTS YOU IN IT. Not framing it conventionally, the WW2 films of the 40s and 50s could not move and be positioned the way he does it. One of the first on screen major uses of the “Earthquake Cam”, to intensify the audiences’ injection INTO the film, work so well as everyone knows. It is/was an experience the first time people saw that whole sequence, and the fact is that War is not well orientated, everyone is confused and in need of a breather to get their bearings – yet the moment does not allow it. Stop for a breath – and your dead.

I do agree that the acting in the past is better to witness on screen – but it is because they had less technology to aid in the production. I’m not a fan of the era of the 70s, but the movies one amazing on character. less is more, they had to do what they could with what they had. Martin Scorsese was/is amazing, but his continuity is appalling; the person who should have been cheeping check on that had another job and thats because the movies, budgets and crews of the past were much smaller. Today you have a Continuity Department, where any problem is reflagged and corrected, adding much more of a Formulaic Process to a movie than an Art. So with the bigger crews, all making sure their jobs and positions are taken part – it becomes a situation of “Too many Chefs in the Kitchen”. Thats why in years past you’d see 1, 2 or maybe 3 Producers, today a movie can have over 20. With this high number of producers, with the budget able to be higher and higher – It becomes an investment where a Positive return Must be the end result ~ hense the crap movies and sequels that are built to a formula sometimes imitating ground breaking movies so they can Aesthetically ride their coat-tails.

So I think you should have taken these factors into your critique, and not bash great directors like Ridley Scott along with “Filling-a-Gap in the Market” Directors like Michael Bay – as if they are in the same league.

Gui CD

Dear Matthias,
A lot of people already wrote a lot of things about your excellent video essay. I just wanted to share my thoughts about it too.
I started reading Bordwell two years ago, principally his blog and his stuff about intensified continuity. Those questions interest me a lot. Your essay striked me for this.
The term you’re coining, “chaos cinema”, is, I think, very efficient to describe the stylistic trend of the last decade in Hollywood, not only in action scenes, but in general. It’s true the visuals of the movies look “messier” than ever. Whether one enjoy it or not, it’s just getting more cutted, more shaky and more zoomed, especially in the movies you mentioned.
At the same time, I’m not sure that this trend is so radically different from what we had before, especially in term spatio-temporal clarity. I think someone mentionned it already over here: when Bordwell talked about intensified continuity, he was pointing a trend that goes back in the 1960’s. A defendor of classicism, “intensified continuity” is not something positive. He wanted to show that it is at this point (1960’s) that more elaborate shots where being let down in favor of things like fast cutting. The examples you are using to describe the classical style are sometimes the same exact examples Bordwell used to show the opposite: “wild bunch” for example is very complex in term of editing, but far away in term of staged shot complexity from “searchers” or “stagecoach”. Those were the movies that were “chaotic” for their times.
About John Woo, I think it’s different: Bordwell used the term “intensified intensified continuity” to speak about the action sequences of Hong Kong movies, because they were, as you mentionned it, tightly staged and edited. I would not say the same thing for Die Hard and the majority of the action movies from Hollywood in the 1990’s: the staging and the editing often lack the clarity we had from Hong Kong. True, they are slower than what we had today. But they are still less tight.
On the other side, coming back to today’s movies, even if “transformers” or “quantum of solace” are cutted at a very fast pace, I’m not sure they are not so “unstagged”: they looked pretty staged and choregraphed to me. It’s more that we are missing some frames of the action from time time. Anyway, what I mean is that it’s not “that” chaotic. Maybe it’s a question of habit, but watching “transformers”, I was not “so” lost: even if it was fast, nervous and noisy, I could know who was fighting who and where. I mean: I knew it was Optimus who was fighting Megatron in the city, and when they were fighting, I could understand the fight, and I’m pretty sure it was all set before it was shoot.
Last thing: I really appreciated what you said about the sound. I’m thinking just like you about it. Today’s movie are messier on the visuals, but so elaborated on the sound design. And the sound is often what help us understands the “mess”.
Sorry if it’s a long reply and thanks for your essay again!


I just want to quickly add an interesting example that I think shows both sides.

In the 2010 movie Kick-Ass, there is a gunfight fought almost entirely in the dark. It’s several mobsters against a solitary hero with night vision goggles and throughout the scene we switch between a chaotic tantrum lit only by muzzle flashes and the poised calm perspective from behind the goggles.

Director Matthew Vaughn has said he did this to show the audience how both sides are feeling during the gunfight. How the hero is calm and collected as they casually shoot and stab a bunch of bad guys (in a single POV long take) and how the mobsters are lost and confused and scared (in a fast-edited, sparsely lit sequence)

Personally, even though there is chaos, the thought that went into why the chaos was there demonstrates elegance. And while I agree that chaos is overused in cinema, there are times when the noisy frenetic unsettling wackiness is the best choice for pulling an audience into a scene.

To me, it comes down to what the director wants to do to an audience. Does he/she want them to see the movie or is it a story that should be felt. When I direct, I often choose the latter, but (as with EVERYTHING else in cinema) the most essential factor in making decisions is: What is right for the story?


Checker’s point and example are spot-on. Chaos is part of any real-action story, undoubtedly. But it also proves Matthias’ point: just as the mobsters are in total chaos in the dark, so are most spectators watching chaos galore on the screen. Now if one loves being in chaos, fine, that is the kind of movie to watch. Iwould like to bring one more movie into discussion: Tarkovski’s Stalker. There are long scenes of quasi-chaotic imagery (sensu Storker i.e. one finds no bearings) backed by a strange soundtrack. It is the preamble to “the room” where inner chaos erupts as neither of the two has the guts to turn their deepest wish into reality. Just a thought.

Thomas Montgomery

Not bad, however i tend to disagree. While i’m not a fan of “Chaos Cinema” scenes, I can understand why they are being implemented over and over again. Simply put, to immerse the audience. Not in a sense that the audience is immersed in the visual aspect and understands exactly what is going on, but more as a bystander within the film, or maybe even a character in the film. The audience experiences some kind of confusion. However, with that confusion comes more adrenaline, more of a panicked sense to find out where they are or what is going on. The same feelings a bystander or character would feel during such a sequence. Now while I do have to agree that this type of filming is overdone many of times and the laws of placing shots is almost completely moot nowadays, it does have its place in cinema. Do you have as much as a rush when watching Die Hard as you do Quantum of Solace? No, because you know exactly where you are at all times. You are the calm, relaxed bystander watching McClane go to fisticuffs. I can understand this even more in war films, where the innocent young of whichever nation is at war among the complete anarchy of the setting around him and he is overwhelmed by emotions and actions.

Also some would argue that this type of filming takes away from the story when does it really? What we experience during these scenes is pure action. We are not accessing a large plot point (usually). Now sometimes when this does transition into the end of an Act it focuses (or rather should focus in some cases) on the conclusion and strays from the chaoctic confusion that surrounds it. Also during these scenes it gives more to the story than takes away, it gives you a feeling of immersion and understanding to what the character is feeling (again, in some cases, not all. particularly this stands for war films).

I’ve seen good cases of this form and bad cases of it. If done correctly it can add to the film, if done incorrectly it can take away severely.

Again, i enjoy cinema all around, from The Cabinet of Dr Calagari to Alien. From Dr. Zhivago to Oldboy. From The Bicycle Thief to The Fly. So this is no jeer in the direction of any film era, just an observation on the current ones techniques.

Please reply if you would like to carry a conversation on this topic.


Seems this essay is written by a pretty self pretentious person, who wants to whine about how THEY do not find quality in today’s action films. Stop trying to lump us all in with you.


Very good job. Where come Modern chaos cinema ? May be you miss a factor:
Hong Kong cinema which chaos come from 1997 retrocession.
Do you know The Blade (1995) from Tsui Hark. Most clever chaos movie.
There is Time and Tide (2001) too wich work on 5.1 sound…
Frenetic Hong Kong cinema has been mistunderstood by a lot of directors, using silly effect…

sorry for my bad english.

Emil Silvestru

Wonderful example that the Internet can still help culture! Both the essay and the comments prove it. No-one has brought into discussion the scientific component of this, namely how much can the brain really process of the unnatural optical input offered by chaos cinema? Yes, unnatural since one can run the basic physics analysis of most of the stuff in these films and find out they must present another universe, where physics as we know (and use) it is different. It is in fact amazing how erroneous clichés have become standards (like the low humming of the imperial battleship diagonally crossing the screen in slow motion in Star Wars, even if sound does not travel through void space) and once a fist step is taken in this direction, any averagely educated brain switches into the alert mode, subconsciously yelling: “this can’t be true!” Yes, I know, some may argue that this is the gist of the whole thing, helping imprisoned minds escape the bad reality we’re living in. But your subconscious will never do that, so it inevitably ends in overload with chaos cinematography. If I am wrong, we will soon see camcorders with options for “optical stabilization” or ‘optical destabilization”. Here is my basic thesis: cinematography cannot go beyond physiology. It worked somewhat in music videos (with the well-known result of dramatic reduction in attention span) because they are short, it will not eventually work in cinematography. Dixit!

Jason Bellamy

First of all, this video essay is the kind of provocative stuff that makes me giddy about Press Play. So thank you there.

That said, I’ll echo a few others in saying that I find the premise of the argument more convincing than the execution.

For example …

* At precisely the point that you finish saying that the action in HARD-BOILED is “coherent and comprehensible,” the kind that keeps viewers from “ever losing their bearings,” the action from the clip you selected becomes, well, mostly incoherent and I totally lose my bearings.

* Meanwhile, the first clip you show from TRANSFORMERS (a film I found wholly disorienting in every way … perhaps mostly due to the sound design), as an example of chaos cinema, is in fact wholly comprehensible and has very few cuts or angle changes.

* Beyond that, I find it curious that you’ve compared a slow non-action shot in LA CIOTAT to the very action-oriented UNSTOPPABLE. Because they both have trains? That’s not too far removed from comparing A FEW GOOD MEN to G.I. JANE because they both feature Demi Moore as a member of the military.

* Mostly, I never find a compelling argument that the shakycam action in THE HURT LOCKER is any more deserved or effective than the action in one of Greengrass’ Bourn spectaculars. A better film overall? Sure. But until the recent Bond series tried to seize on the success of the Bourn franchise, what was the single element that made Bourn distinct from Bond or any other hero? The overwhelming speed and intensity of his battles, that’s what. That is, whether you’re a fan of the style or not, Greengrass does exactly what we should want filmmakers to do: evokes mood and character through the cinematography (by which I’m including editing).

Although I’m not a fan of shakycam and fast cutting in general — the clips from BATTLE: LOS ANGELES made me want to crawl under my desk — I find that the longer this debate goes on (by which I mean the debate at large, not the one in this comments section), the less convincing it becomes and the more it sounds like film fans saying in code, “I don’t like it, so it sucks,” an argument that would send the same fans into a rage if it were applied to a minimalist director. Put another way, of late many film fans have been rolling their eyes at people who criticize the nonlinear narrative of THE TREE OF LIFE, so why are we so quick to dismiss more abstract, nonlinear visual storytelling?

I’ll leave by quoting Scott Nye’s compelling rebuttal to this piece (I don’t agree with it entirely either), which is must-reading (as much as this video essay, indeed, is must-viewing):

Of the action in DOMINO, he writes: “I see a full-on sensory assault dedicated to visual abstraction and the destruction of our notions of what cinema should be. Which seems like a pretty decent purpose for art to have (Lord knows that art lovers lose their shit whenever MOMA highlights a painter who did just that).”

For the rest of it, read here:

Thanks for the thought-provoking piece and to Press Play for giving it a home.


Troels Hundtofte:

Thank you for your comment. I am glad we can maintain a civil etiquette on this touchy subject and continue this discourse.

Academic discourse is much more flexible and varied than you give it credit, at least in my experience. I am not going to dwell on this subject. We obviously have differing opinions which we will not likely resolve in this correspondence. But I would like to emphasize that many academic critics, David Bordwell being one of the most prominent ones, seek to understand how film involves us as viewers. We should not lose our bearings in overgeneralizations. After all, academic film discourse consists of numerous approaches.

I do not endorse the view that spatial clarity affords emotional detachment for the viewer. Classically staged action scenes involve us emotionally but they equally grant us the opportunity to reflect critically upon the events onscreen. Chaos Cinema, as I define it, continuously seeks to overwhelm the audience.

You argued quite eloquently that you want to ‘feel’ the action. I am right there with you. And, alas, I do not feel the action in chaos cinema. It is rather implied than explicitly staged, in my opinion. The excess employment of chaotic techniques destroys the integrity of physical space. As a result, the extraordinary action feasts lose their impact. The “too much” approach sadly only achieves “less”, at least for me, and there seem to be viewers who share the same sentiments. But then again, your viewpoint is not without its supporters either (in fact, you may represent the majority). But I am not sure whether we disagree on everything. I like chaotic technique, if it shows nuance and precision. In many cases, I find it too overwrought. There are moments in the BOURNE films that are exceptional. The same applies to a particular Tony Scott film and the tv series 24. But these moments do not stand out as much due to the excessive overarching style.

Anyway, I hope you can understand that I am not opposed to the techniques of chaos cinema. I object to the overuse of them, the relentlessly overwhelming chaos aesthetic certain post-millenial films aim for.

The *spoiler warning* should become institutionalized, I agree :-)


To Troels:

You don’t have to be an academic or view a film academically to see how shaky cameras destroys an otherwise good film or story. It’s like the slo-mo sequences in a Michael Bay movie, the shaky camera (with a few exceptions) are so in your face and so cheesy and self-indulgent that for seasoned viewers, it’s impossible to immerse yourself in the film.

It does the opposite, it takes you out of the moment, out of the magic, and the worse offenders can even leave you with a headache. (I’m sure whatever guy on the screen who’s getting his face bashed in has a headache too. It doesn’t make us feel more involved by giving the viewer one as well)

Shaky camera doesn’t make you feel more involved in the action, which is my point of contention. For the most part it destroys whatever intensity the viewer could have felt. It’s a legitimate style of direction when done right. But for most films, it’s simply a cliche and sloppy filmmaking.

Here’s the thing. If a film establishes it at the very beginning, it’s a legitimate style (even if overused and tiresome). Legitimate usage: Saving Private Ryan, Hurt Locker. Blair Witch Project. The problem is that rarely do films establish that style. The camera just randomly start shaking half way in the film for the action sequence.

Is there an earthquake in the theater?


Matthias, first thank you for the reply.

As concerning the essential idea of your thesis, I find it hard to conclude that lack of spatial clarity, or explicit geography, as you also put it, as a result, entails almost no emotional involvement in the action. I believe that the effect produced can be something quite the opposite – the intensified emotional engagement . After all, that is the initial effect movie-making devices, we are talking about, strive for. If not that, they can convey different kinds of adrenalin infused states, on the verge of psychedelic ones, which is not intrinsically bad or unworthy. As much as classical devices embody variegated effects and states, so can these produce moments of pure horror, love nostalgia or even poetry.

Also, I find the concept of discerning what lack of explicit geography necessitates too unsubstantiated. As someone already mentioned, these movies are highly successful ones, which means a lot of people see them, and even come back for more, in a way of a sequel. It would be very hard to establish to what degree we are not aware of the position and actions of characters in Bourne movies, Bad Boys or any other. Rapid editing, frequent camera movement, and tight framing , devices that the style we are talking about comprises, do not necessarily confuse spatial intelligibility. In a way they also always incorporate at least one or two wide or master shots.

Troels Hundtofte


Firstly I just wanna clear up the computer analogy thingie. What I was saying was that the detachment you were talking about engages faculties and cognitive processes that essentially a machine could replicate. Whereas this is not true of an emotional response, which is why I think it matters just as much as critical reflection. I’m not saying that your motive for creating the essay wasn’t emotional. I’m sure many of the most emotionally detached movies were created because of an emotional impulse, but all I’m gauging is the film’s relationship to its viewer, not the underlying causal underpinnings and motivations.

In my experience academic discourse is, for all intents and purposes, the closest approximation of emotional detachment as you can get. It’s the intellectual stimuli that we study, not the emotional impulses. Because I think they are much harder to quantify and define, and are still, to this day, considered baser elements because ultimately their mechanics are not based on thought and cognition, but on an elusive viscerality.

But wasn’t your argument that spatial clarity affords the viewer a detachment from the goings on, in which he or she can engage in critical reflection? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed to me that you were essentially creating an oppositional binary, saying that spatial clarity = detachment and spatial chaos = immersion. If this is so then doesn’t it follow that spatial clarity engenders analytical or reflective involvement, and NOT emotional involvement? At least not to the degree, the chaotic style does it.

I think that would be a simplistic reduction of what I’m saying. Bear in mind, we’re only talking about action, not the film as a whole. I’m not arguing that every scene should be shot in the chaos style. What I’m saying is that action set pieces should be (ideally for my tastes), because what I’m looking for in an action sequence is to FEEL it happen, and detachment DURING an action scene would be counter-productive towards that end. Reflection happens in scenes of character development and exposition, but not in the action scenes themselves.

My problem with academic discourse is exactly that ideally (according to academia) the way you look at film is from a vantage point that always necessarily draws attention to its artificiality – to the fact that it is at the end of the day merely an authored “text”. Very little or no emphasis is put on the actual experience of losing yourself in a movie (unless it’s in the context of feminist theory’s womb analogy…). Academia treats films only from an analytical and critical perspective, even when it discusses the emotional spheres of cinema. And I do understand why, because academia is an intellectual exercise, not a visceral one. But my point is that I found that, to me, the academic approach to film is ultimately myopic and corrosive because at the end of the day what I really love about movies is how they make me feel. That’s the chief maxim to me. That doesn’t mean they need to be brainless, quite to the contrary, I think only smart movies are able to earn its visceral action sequences in a way that creates a meaningful narrative synergy.

Case in point: Every film professor I’ve ever had has not given a rats ass about spoilers when discussing films (even tangentially). I once did an hour-long presentation in front of the class and before talking about The Thing’s ending I asked the class if they had all seen it, because if they hadn’t I didn’t want to spoil it for them. Upon seeing that over half the class hadn’t seen it ( a crime in itself) I decided to use another film as my example, until I was instructed by the professor to divulge the ending and make my point. Because to him one’s emotional experience with film is inconsequential. It only matters what it means in an academic context. And I find that symptomatic of academic discourse in general. That viscerality doesn’t matter. And I think it does.

I digress, but that’s my defense of emotional immersion by way of the chaos style ;)

I understand people are different though, and this is just my predilection of the style.



Thank you for your comment. In your opening paragraph, you characterize the thesis of the essay. I postulate spatial clarity as an essential component of effective action cinema. I believe I stated, at various instances, what I find deficient about chaos cinema, the disrespect for spatial integrity, a lack of explicit geopgraphy, and a resulting confusion, with almost no emotional involvement in the action.The films I single out are of course part of the dominant Hollywood narrative. I emphasized that they represent what I consider a growing style in commercial filmmaking.

The fact that GAMER seeks visual confusion is exactly the point. Many films I cited fit into that mould, in my opinion. And there were several more than just QUANTUM OF SOLACE. But you are absolutely right about the need for more detailed analysis.

As for the moniker, it was exressive and illustrative of my argument, I believe. And the essay required a title.


The problem I have with the essay is that Mr Stork asserts spacial clarity and orientation as absolute values of film-making, or action cinema at least. What he extolls is a long shot in Singing in the Rain that gives an opportunity for actor’s performance to come to the fore. Hence, the use of camera, duration of shots and rapid editing make Moulin Rouge an instance of bad film-making. When you separate tools and devices from purpose of their usage, that is to say when we omit what they convey, you are at liberty to proclaim characteristics of those devices as values themselves. Spacial clarity and orientation were nothing more then the way the movies in the past expressed what they wanted to express, as much as a contemporary movie, e.g. Gamer, disavows those things in the name of the effect of confusion and bewilderment. That should not be deemed as unworthy by itself.

To characterize those traits as a characteristic of a visual style (one that induces disorder ) is one thing, but to pronounce them of less value is different thing. By doing so one starts evaluating and stops perceiving how films work and why they work that way.

That‘s why the author has come up with such a generalizing concept of chaos cinema as an umbrella for different kinds of practices and approaches. His conspicuous intent is to create a term which he could in turn use to disqualify a large amount of movies at once. Detailed analysis of his propositions and statements would disclose them as mere assumptions. “Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene…” or “Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle” are poignant phrases but they could hardly be applicable to any of the movies. As much as the author sees Bordwell’s concept of intensified continuity as failing, those films still operate within recognized patterns of classical Hollywood film-making. None of them, in any way, represent a break with regular Hollywood narrative. Since the term used is Chaos Cinema, not a style, we have to keep that in mind.

To insist on unconventional (or should I use the word inconsistent) method of building action dynamics in scenes in Quantum of Solace, does not give basis to conclude that all modern action movies function the same way.

It is obvious that there are certain tendencies in contemporary Hollywood film-making, there always are, but they exert more substantial analysis, one which would account for detailed structure of the scenes or whole narratives, and which would encompass different production and reception circumstances of movies as apart as Bourne Ultimatum, Shoot’em Up or Moulin Rouge. In a way the thing that is happening in these comments, because coining terms like Chaos Cinema, their potential dissemination can only bring more potential confusion and misunderstanding.

Jason Bellamy

Matthias: Thanks for taking my comments in the spirit intended (and for the very kind words).

As I somewhat implied in my previous comment, I think what I’m noticing isthat the longer this debate goes on — in reviews, essays, video analyses, etc. — the more problematic the arguments become on both sides. At some point it all simply comes down to personal preference, both in terms of general style and specifics about what we can follow and what we can’t (Spielberg supposedly wants us to follow the action, but INDY IV is a friggin’ mess to my eyes).

This might seem like a curious aside, but I’ll go there anyway: This week in my day job I attended a diversity training session in which, among other things, we debated stereotypes and whether they were positive or evil or both. After kicking it around for a while, with examples on both sides, it basically came down to this: If the result is positive, stereotyping is a helpful tool; if the result is negative, it’s evil. In so many ways, the same goes for cinema, whether it’s chaos cinematography, first-person narration, CGI, dialogue and more.

Again, very much enjoyed the piece and reading (and engaging in) the debate.

Matthew Seitz

I just posted this comment over in the comments section of Press Play contributor Ian Grey’s rebuttal piece to “Chaos Cinema.”

But I thought it made sense to re-post it here, since it’s where the argument really got cooking.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this whole debate is the sight of people coming into it, chests puffed out, ready to demolish Matthias’ (or a detractor’s) arguments with specific examples, but as soon as they start actually listing examples, catapaulting us back into the realm of subjectivity, and thus the realm of the unprovable.

The BOURNE films are junk. No, they’re art. Michael Bay is a hack. No, he’s a misunderstood genius. No, sometimes he’s great, and sometimes he’s a hack. Tony Scott is a hack. No, wait, he’s a genius. DOMINO is a brilliant stab at abstract expressionist action cinema.

Make up your minds, people.

I think we need to dig past the Chaos Cinema debate and go deeper. To where I don’t know, exactly. Maybe into a discussion of subjective response, and the degree to which criticism (and comments on criticism) are an attempt to rationalize that which we feel but cannot explain.

I feel that Michael Bay’s style is mostly hack-ish, pulverizing perfectly good, even beautiful compositions with nervous, unsure-of-itself editing. Yet I loved TREE OF LIFE, which is filled with quick, jump-cut shots. I think most Tony Scott films post-2000 have been visually trendy garbage, but I think Paul W.S Anderson, whom Ian praises in his rebuttal, does have something going on — a mix of classical discipline and Chaos Cinema restlessness.

And i thought SPEED RACER, one of the most disorientingly “virtual” action films ever made, was pretty amazing.

What makes some of these films work for me, and others not work at all? I don’t know. They are comprised of many of the same stylistic components.

I liked the BOURNE films for the most part, and defend the impetus behind the style, but I don’t think they accomplished anything kinetically that could not have been accomplished equally well if they had held the shots just a bit longer, and made the camerawork less promiscuously “unstable.” I’m not asking for every action filmmaker to turn into John Carpenter, holding shots for ten or twenty seconds at a time, but there is a diminishing returns quality to a lot of the Chaos Cinema films, even the really good or defensible ones.

I hated almost all of Michael Bay’s films, except THE ROCK, where I felt like he was going for a kind of Frank Miller-esque graphic novel type of violence. He lost his way after that because the cuts got too fast and indiscriminate. That’s a problem with a lot of these movies for me, quite honestly—the cutting is not only too fast, but often needlessly busy, so much so that it destroys the flavor of perfectly good performances, compositions, lighting, etc.

I don’t understand the point of that. It’s like purchasing a beautifully marbled rib-eye steak, then boiling and grinding it into dog food.

I would also like to very strongly caution people against attempting the “you just don’t like this because you’re old” argument. It’s not really an argument, and it fails to consider the very real possibility that a current, very trendy style that’s all over the place right now might in fact be just that, a trend. Like the craze for wild, unmotivated zooms in the 1970s.


Quite an honor that you weigh in on this discussion. I love your blog :-)

As for your remarks, I concede that the TRANSFORMERS clip is not as visually chaotic as others I selected for this argument. But it may still be able to jog viewers’ memory about the rest of the film.

The clip of the Lumière short evokes an earlier time in cinema when onscreen ‘action’ (movement really) managed to impress, physically excite viewers. I did not feel that way about UNSTOPPABLE.

THE HURT LOCKER, in my opinion, is audiovisually precise, not in spite of, but because of its recourse to chaotic techniques. The action in the BOURNE films, I feel, tends to lose me in the overwrought editing pattern and close framings. And the main difference is the visceral impact the films achieve. The BOURNE fight sequences, for instance, are monotonous in terms of staging, cutting and photography, not so THE HURT LOCKER.

I agree with Scott’s characterization of Tony Scott. He has a visionary, abstract-painterly style (though, to be honest, is it not as lame to call anything out-of-the-ordinary abstract?) but I find it ill-suited for narrative action scenes. I do not object to the versatility of art. I object to a particular aesthetic rendering of action!

Thank you for your feedback, it is greatly appreciated!


I am glad we could “talk this out” :-)

Troels Hundtofte


I think that’s fair enough. I do generalize a bit when I talk of academia, but my point wasn’t that academics like Bordwell or Thompson don’t try to understand how we respond emotionally to films, but quite simply that they way they inherently go about it through a mode of intellectual analysis. In other words they try to quantify an abstract and felt emotion in a language of critical detachment. And I don’t really have a problem with that in itself, but I just wanted to draw attention to what I perceive to be an inadequacy of academia. That how it feels can be as important as what it means. Although I realize I sound like I’m espousing some kind of Lawrencian hedonist film theory…I wouldn’t quite go so far.

I understand your point of view, but I think ultimately it just comes down to the fact that we, as human beings, experience the techniques in different ways. And thank god for that, you know? ;)

I, like you, however think the style can be overdone, and I do have issues with Bay and Tony Scott’s use, so it’s just a matter of where we have our respective threshholds of pain I guess.

Good discussion though.


It seems to me like you’re just generalizing your own feelings about the style. It’s fair enough you feel that way, but I think you should remember that film is not an exact science, and how you experience the technique may not be how other experience it.


Troels Hundtofte:
Thank you for your comment. I do not necessarily agree with your contention that we share dissimilar views on film. I did not dismiss emotion as inconsequential. In fact, I emphasized that THE HURT LOCKER utilizes chaotic technique, precisely to promote viewer involvement. I personally do not differentiate between emotion and reflection. I stressed, however, that my favorite films succeed in both categories. More precisely, they enable me to both immerse myself in the narrative, on a purely emotional level, while, at the same time, offering space for critical reflection.

Furthermore, your seem to have a rather narrow view of academia. Academic discourse is not divorced from emotion, neither is the video essay. An impetus behind the essay was to point out that classical action scenes engender more emotional involvement, by means of spatial clarity etc.

To put it polemically, your characterization of film experience, though eloquent, could be misinterpreted as “turn your brain off when you enter the theater” and “turn it on when you leave it”.

When a film touches me, moves me, engages me, it, most of the time, equally stimulates me intellectually, to a certain extent, of course. And chaos cinema, in many cases, does not involve me, emotionally. It does intellectually, from the inevitable academic perspective, of course.

Finally, I find your computer analogy inappropriate. Ask yourself: Why did I craft the video essay? It was first and foremost an emotional impulse, as you pointd out in your first comment.

I am serious, though, when I say that I am glad chaos cinema works for you. It does not for me, at least in its excessive contemporary state.

Troels Hundtofte


I think the difference between you and me, is that you look at movies through the prism of academia, and I don’t. I don’t doubt you love film as much as me, but I think WHAT you love about film is very different than what I love.

I had a professor at university who was an unapologetic marxist, who LOVED movies because he saw them as ultimately political instruments of subversion. He loved the aesthetics of film, but only insofar as they served a purpose within a political discourse.

The detachment you talk about, to me, is the opposite of immersion. If you sit back and reflect on the filmmakers artistic and creative deliberations for any given aesthetic, you’re necessarily NOT experiencing the diegesis of the film, but simply OBSERVING it.

A computer can do that. But only a human viewer can feel a movie.

To me a good movie is the movie that puts you INSIDE the world of the film for its entirety, without allowing you to sit back and wonder about extra-dietic circumstances. Then after the film, you’re afforded the retrospective reflection. You onstensibly take your FELT experience with the film, and run it through a critical analysis.

The first time you hear a song, do you detach yourself and ponder the composers aesthetic or didactic impulses? Do you wonder what it means? Or do you just…listen? Feel it?

Analysis comes after the fact, not during it.

As it’s true about poetry, it’s true about film: “emotion recollected in tranquility” and all that…

Roy Karl Bedford

I’m with you – I did an essay on this myself.

Films like Greengrass’ BOURNE sequels work for most people in spite of their chaotic style – not because of it. The action is expertly staged by the stunt coordinator, but then shot and edited in the misguided hope that it will look like a documentary – despite the fact that docu cameramen don’t artificially shake their camera around. Imagine how much stronger the BOURNE films could have been with John Frankenheimer’s RONIN approach. With precise, well designed camerawork and fast cutting, you can draw the audience in emotionally, build the suspense and unleash the action – but still keep the spatial relationships clear so the audience knows what’s happening and where, as it happens – as opposed to just getting a chaotic impression of it.

But of course, accomplishing this takes real filmmaking skill. More than a decade ago when I asked Frankenheimer about his editing technique, he was quick to say it was very important not to confuse the audience – now that’s out the window, and I do often sense it’s because the directors don’t have his ability to pre-plan and fully visualize a sequence beforehand. Instead they just shoot the action as it happens while throwing the camera around, then leave it to the editor to figure out how to cut it together.

In my Filmmaking Theory blog I give a history of where it’s been done right, from Hitchcock to George Miller.


I am sure the point has been raised already, but people complained about the action being too kinetic and incomprehensible when really all of those examples you gave first came out. Pauline Kael somewhat famously did in her review of Raiders of the Lost Ark.


Christoph: Thank you for sharing this quote :-)


Hey Matthias, here’s a friend:

“It’s my bête noire – disorientation,” he said. “As an audience member you want to actually see what’s going on; [that editing style] it’s a bit of a cheat. So it tends to bother me as a viewer when I don’t know where you are in the scene because the editing and rhythm is far too clipped. I feel like sometimes [progenitors of this style] aren’t giving their audience enough credit.”

Steven Soderbergh, talking about his upcoming HAYWIRE, on The Playlist.


Andrew: Thank you for your comment and alas, I am afraid we have to agree to disagree on the thesis of my video essay. Again, I am not denying an evolution of style. And I have already conceded to the polemical nature of the essay. But I still hold that the juxtaposition is not simplistic but realistic. I identify chaos cinema as the prevalent style in modern action filmmaking. The term ‘laziness’ refers to the imprecision of these action scenes. My argument is certainly biased but your rebutall, in my opinion, is rather one-dimensional. An evolution of style is not by default an improvement.

And the subtitle ‘decline and fall’ is of course open to interpretation. Read it again and apply it to the essay. You may see that another interpretation is possible.

As for the films I selected, they are, in my estimation, good representations of chaos cinema. You pointed out that they are of inferior quality. We agree on this one. This minor quality is attributable to the overusage of chaotic techniques. Again: If filmmakers employ these techniques effectively, they can realize the cinema you describe. I am not adverse to progress. Far from it, I am lobbying for progress, by considering the robustness of the established form, and introducing the merits of the new form. And UNSTOPPABLE and SHOOT’ EM UP were positively reviewed, as were several other films I cited.

Your argument about the evolution of film history, I must say, is rather insubstantial. You seem to be a very articulate and interested cinephile. But to dismiss stylistic discourse, be it appealing or not, and just advance an axiom as all-purpose wisdom, is somewhat disappointing, and a lame argument at that.

All in all, I will take account of your critical points. We are not worlds apart in our conception of film, maybe in our understanding of social etiquette. But I am glad you weighed in with your opinion. Contrary views (can) enrich the film discourse.


How could you not mention Peter Berg?

Do his shaky-cam films not suck the hardest?


The fact remains that you’re simply juxtaposing good with bad. It’s as manipulative and reactionary as your odd choice of article title (decline AND fall?). You claim that you chose examples that were considered “good examples of modern action” and then tossed out Unstoppable, Gamer, Shoot ‘Em Up, and Domino. These movies were all flops both financially and critically. They are in no way considered “good action”, you just chose the movies that would look the worst when stacked up against your “classic” examples. I’ll give you Bad Boys 2 and Transformers, unfortunately Micheal Bay has always had a way of packing theatre seats, but the rest are horrible examples and are chosen specifically because of how bad they are. It’s fairly easy to argue a point when you choose the best and worst of a genre. If you were stacking up the bests of both eras, I think you’d find that more often than not, the modern ones might win out. Constantly choosing The Hurt Locker (which just so happened to win Best Picture) as your safe choice doesn’t really do any favours as it’s not even part of the genre you’re talking about.

The truth is, these kind of essays are written every time a new technique finds it’s way into mainstream film. It might not seem like you’re simply saying “Older is better”, but that is essentially what it comes down to. It’s a denial in the evolution of style. There are some filmmakers who make good use of what you call “chaos cinema” and there are those that do it poorly. This is how it is with every new style. Technicolour, Cinemascope, hell even Talkies were all heralded as the downfall of cinema. In the end, it will be the good ones that will be remembered and it will be through them that the form progresses. It’s not laziness, and to call it that is just plain ignorance. And it’s certainly not, as someone pointed out, that you view this through an academic lens (as I’m sure many of us here have film studies backgrounds), it’s that the lens is being autofocused based solely on what’s come before.


It’s interesting that no-one has mentioned what I consider a fairly obvious ‘advantage’ of chaos cinema for fight scenes. Namely, the need to employ stunt people is considerably reduced.

The way that fight scenes are mostly composed now, i.e. with the hyperactive editing, it’s enough to have the actors just take up various static poses and on other occasions do the odd lunge towards each other. Then the ‘fight’ scene is edited and voila! the actors are doing their own ‘stunt’ work – bonus!

I find such fight scenes to be a lazy cheat although I’m sure the person doing the editing is very proud of their work.

Ironically, the alternative (using stunt doubles) does come with a cost I think (and not just the cost of employing the stunt doubles). When you look at the at the fight scenes in Die Hard (which incidentally I consider the best action movies of all time) several times a stunt double (with all his own hair) is used in place of Bruce Willis. This does take you out of the action somewhat. That’s irony for you. Still Die Hard – you rock.

And if it takes bringing back stunt doubles to make fight scenes in action movies coherent again then I say – bring ’em back!


I find this video essay a fair approach on today’s mainstream trends. Examples were give to criticize, but to also justify the selective uses of “intensified continuity”.

Filmmaking offers a wide variety of tools that each filmmaker utilizes. The problem nowadays sticking with one technique and overdoing it.

Steven Spielberg wanted to plunge audiences into normandy beach, so he taped a drill on a panavision camera, turned it on, and said to janus kaminski “i want it like that”…although panavision did create a special mechanism that will shake the camera , it was most of the times on a jib or dolly. The rest of the movie utilizes both static and smooth moving shots.

It can be effective, but only when the subject matter fits the directorial approach. Ridley scott for example wanted to make “Black Hawk Dawn” feel as if “you are there”… so did spielberg…but to be honest, since then i’ve grown tired of hearing “this puts you in the situation”… it does, but like the essay describes here, it also alienates you from the characters and the situation itself, ur getting fragments of a linear action.

Another reason is because contemporary directors (most of which cut their teeth on either music videos or commercials) can’t really design single shots that tell a story and are choreographed according to dialog/dramatourgy beats. Cutting, some times, becomes the weak director’s ally. You have no idea how many times i’ve sit down to edit something only to discover that a director shot a 15seconds action (a woman walking in, picking up the phone for example) from 3-4 angles. The angles have no dramaturgical effect to what’s being shown. They are just “safety nets”…insecurity about coverage.


Honestly, you haven’t really said anything that Bordwell has not already said. His modification of intensified continuity in a contemporary framework as “rough[ed] up” explicates both some films’ unintelligibility and their lack of motivation in employing such a style.


Thank you for this excellent article. And re one of your replies in the comments section: I could not agree more with your assessment on the difference between the action scenes of two related films: ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Quantum of Solace’. I wonder about some in the audience though. I saw both films when they opened, and both times the audience applauded at the end of the first lengthy action sequence. In ‘Casino Royale’, I was one of those applauding; in ‘Quantum of Solace’, I was thinking “What just happened? I couldn’t tell what was going on.” Fortunately, the non-action parts of that film did not use shaky-cam.


“Decline AND Fall?” How redundant.

Heather Ferreira

I feel as though the author has been seated beside me in the cinema and overhearing my own rants since about 1990.

I’m positively ready for the next Auteur Wave to do away with this. The first rule should be, “Has never directed a music video.” Because, argue it if you must, the music video era is a huge part of the problem. Corporatization of all the motion picture studios, and its demand for “bigger, louder, more”, is the other.


An addendum:

Arvin: Interesting postulate, indeed. In concur with Matt, though, that a psychologist or sociologist may be better equipped to solve quantify this observation. I personally wonder whether contemporary perception is still (or more decidely) calibrated to detail, or whether the increasing speed of our ephemeral consumer culture has led to a more superficial perception.

Chris Thomas: I agree with your assessment on Nolan. He is a great storyteller. His action sensibilities are still not fully evolved.

RC. SHOOT’ EM UP is a satire yes but it still (or therefore) displays the problematic chaos cinema aesthetic. I can sympathize with your objection, though :-)


Thank you all for your thought-provoking comments. I am glad the discourse is still vivid.

I would like to take this opportunity and clarify a few issues. Chaos Cinema, as I defined it in the essay, must not be reduced to spatial unintelligibility. I emphasized that chaotic films employ distinctive techniques that may yield spatial incoherence onscreen and a lack of emotional involvement as a result. An increased editing pattern is not the sole property of chaos cinema. It is one of many components.

As for the reference to David Bordwell’s concept of “intensified continuity”, I specifically enumerated the central stylistic categories he identified as characteristics of this prevalent style. Furthermore, I stressed that chaos cinema may in fact constitute a perversion, a further intensification. I respect Prof. Bordwell’s work very much and I whole-heartedly concur with his views on contemporary action cinema.

The classical examples are indeed exceptional. And some of you rightfully pointed out that the comparison to lesser films is cheap or manipulative. However, I specifically compiled a canon of films that, by and large, are considered displays of ‘good’ modrn action, at least if judged in terms of box-office success and pop-culture popularity. In this respect, they may be cited as ‘classical’ paradigms of 21st century action and thus warrant a comparison with earlier equivalents.

My definition of the term “classical” does not necessarily refer to the golden age of Hollywood. It refers to classical techniques, as practiced in the action genre. These techniques are still in existence, of course, but I find that they are utilized in new ways.

Finally, I would like to respectfully respond to a few individual remarks.

Troels Hundtofte: I find a detached point-of-view extremely desirable and important for a simple reason: it allows the spectator to reflect critically what transpired onscreen. Bigelow’s mastery, for me, is her consistent alternation between extreme subjectivity and reflective objectivity. We experience the action through the eyes of the characters but we are granted time for reflection, to ponder why she utilizes this style and what its overarching narrative implications are, aside from mere subjectivity. There can be more to chaos cinema than a simple vicarious thrill. It can be thought-provoking, I think.

Andrew: You argue that sometimes editing basically facilitates the sequencing of shots. Yes, I agree. But to what end? Why do filmmakers use editing? Is the basic reason to place shots next to each other? In theory, yes. In practice, hardly. In the action genre, editing ensures the evolution of an action scene, the building of suspense, laying the groundwork for visceral impact and emotional involvement. In chaos cinema, I personally find that some directors forget that, simply adding shot after shot, without a sense of purpose. Moreover, the inclusion of the Lumière Bros. was not intended to suggest that film as an art form should regress, but progress by regression perhaps. Essentially, it was meant to recontextualize feelings of awe and bewilderment which, according to historical reports, early spectators experienced at the screening of this short feature. And you mention CASINO ROYALE. I find the film’s action extraordinary. It integrates chaotic techniques into its overarching classical action aesthetic, thus demonstrating how powerful stylistic chaos can be, if its aim is to complement steady and tight action. QUANTUM OF SOLACE is a mess in comparison. And the argument that disorientation has to be literally mirrored onscreen is hackneyed and baseless. A chaotic scene … shaking the camera … cutting wildly … not for me.

Common Sense: I apologize for my poor choice of words in the essay. Apparently, my selection of films was not truly helpful either as you confused the BOURNE IDENTITY with the Greengrass’ efforts. I hold no grudge against Liman’s film. Furthermore, the thesis of my essay is not that older films are better. I essentially tried to illustrate a dominant style of commercial filmmaking in modern action cinema. I would like to quote Yojimbo Slice’s comment: Better is better, was the central maxim of the essay. Finally, I did not dismiss chaotic techniques. I criticized the overabundance of them.

Nicholas Sternberg: I agree with you that chaotic techniques can be powerful. Hence, THE HURT LOCKER segment. But visual confusion is not by default a guarantee for realism. I included the musicals in order to exemplify the growing impact of chaos cinema, the action variant, on mainstream filmmaking in general. Action scenes are not the only habitat of chaotic techniques. And in the dialogue and musical examples I cited, I find that the style is ill-suited to communicate the narrative essence, the actors’ performance.


The shaky camera is film’s equivalent of auto-tuning in pop music. It’s meant to distract from a lack of true substance.

Daniel Vandersall

I am literally at the point where I can’t follow the Tourette-Syndrome hyperactivity of modern “film making” (I always add quotes when discussing Greengrass or Bay’s work). It seems that now excitement and explosions are all modern film making is; who cares about comprehension, or eliciting emotion?!

What is truly sad is that there is now a generation of film viewers who are being raised to believe that shaky hand-held cameras are the apex of artistic expression. I suppose the Mountain-Dew fueled 13-year olds cost less than, say, an actual artist with experience and skill. And yet somehow these films still cost a fortune…

Nicholas Sternberg

in someways i like this essay, in some ways i hate it, i personally am not a fan of the rapid cut shots of modern day action movies but you missed their true foundation in the works of michael mann and paul greengrass. the bourne supremacy, i consider to be ground zero of chaos filmmaking with its rapid cut chase scenes, quantum of solace”s first scene was almost a shot for shot remake of the chase scenes of the bourne supremace. and michael mann is the king of rapid shot gun fight where you just have quick shot of people shooting into space it is one of biggest pet peeve and one of the many reason i consider “public enemies” to among the worst movies i have scene. but that does not mean there is not a time and place for such film antics it really captures what i believe a fight would be like in real life showing the sheer confusion of it. i like to think of fighs in books to see this more clearly, fights are almost always written as a stream of moves which can only truely be captured on film throught the chaos filmmaking your denoncing. and another point that you really lost me at is when you bring up golden age musicals which in no way shows a contrast since the thing your condeming is modern action movies. and then you bring up how the long shots of these film show such beautiful artistry, well your living in the age of the long shots in the last ten years you’ve had some of the most beautiful oners in the history of film. think of the car chase in “children of men”, the beach setting shot in “atonement”, or even the plane crash shot in the god awful “Knowing” it would have been best if you left that side of it out.

have you seen...

to follow up my 1st point, it seems more pervasive a change as it is a complete change of media: from film to digital, as opposed to a change of technique.

have you seen...

As in music, the new technology, which makes it all possible, gets abused, and that’s why things look “dated” in 10 years. Also, the commercial mainstream takes what is palatable from the avant garde (surrealism, Brechtian, are early examples, showing up in cartoons, hollywood musicals)and makes them part of the commercial vernacular… Look at the history of the jump-cut, for example, or “cutting-edge” experimenters of the 60’s as antecedents

Chris Thomas

Ok, what I don’t get is how people are talking about top notch action and mentioning Christopher Nolan in the same breathe. While his overall action scenes aren’t too bad, his fight scenes are dull as dirt. Only the training scenes in Batman Begins and the hallway sequence in Inception standout to me. Both Begins and The Dark Knight had pretty solid chase scenes and Inception had some decent gunplay, but action is hardly Nolan’s strong point. He’s average at best. The fight choreography in both Batman films is completely uninspired and you can hardly see what’s happening when he takes on thugs in Begins.

As a huge action fan, I’ve found myself leaning towards lower budget and DTV fair for my fix and have been quite satisfied. Movies like Undisputed III, The Protector and even the cult classic Equilibrium have action scenes that trump a lot of the blockbusters. If anything has hurt the modern action film (and don’t get me wrong, super frenetic cuts and shaky cam can be a drag) it’s a lack of imagination and watering things down. R rated action films are fewer and far in between these days. The death note for comic book flicks being an R has been all but signed and even the most intense actioners are usually PG-13 to grab a wider audience. There has been a minor comeback in recent years in mainstream cinema with movies like Rambo, The Expendables, Faster and Punisher: War Zone being released, but none of the those pictures made enough money for studios to steadily flock back to that style.

Like I said, I think imagination and creativity are coming up short nowadays too. A lot of action movies just aren’t EXCITING like they used to be. Not a lot of interesting camera work; just nothing out of the ordinary. A lot of stuff is more of the same. Gunfights that don’t try to do anything new, repetitive car chases, final showdowns where the bad guy dies in 30 seconds…that’s not exciting. There is a fight between Batman and Superman on The Brave and The Bold that rocks…and it’s a cartoon! There’s no reason a cartoon should have a more excitingly planned out fight scene that a action oriented major motion picture.


The film “Shoot Em Up” is satire against the very style that you stand against, and should not be lumped in with the rest of the ‘Chaos’ entries. Great Essay though! – I really enjoy your work.

Matthew Seitz

@arvin: “If I were a betting man I’d wager on there being little if any difference, and a clear correlation between their comprehension, enjoyment, and emotional attachment to a particular film and their age when they saw it (specifically, whether or not they were of the age most impressionable for the genre, i.e. youth for action films).”

This is an excellent point! Though one that a scientist or sociologist is probably better equipped to answer than a critic.

Yojimbo Slice

I couldn’t agree more with this article. Excellent read, valid points all around.

To anyone who thinks this is article is set in the “older is better” mentality; you’re an idiot with bad taste. This article is set in a “better is better” mentality, one that I personally completely agree with.

Ronin is the shit. Love it.



Great essay!! Enjoyed it quite a lot. Hyper-editing in film today is way beyond control. Personally, I think it can be traced back to Armageddon which shows just how untalented a director Michael Bay really is. Not only is it a badly written, badly directed, badly acted film but it’s also horrifically edited. Roger Ebert called it the 1st 150 minute trailer & he’s absolutely right. The film itself is simply a series of cuts where almost none last longer than about 5 seconds. Combine that with bad acting & dialog & you get a film that’s deliberately confusing but not artistically so. Surely, the film was meant to be an action spectacular but when you consider films like Die Hard or Hard-Boiled, there were brains behind the chaos.


A very pretentious and, above all, highly biased essay. Older is better, that old chestnut. That’s pretty what your essay said in a nutshell, despite the fact that you would probably deny it. There were a lot of shit and terrible films made in the “Golden Age”, too, but the film snobs usually choose not to remember them. Funny thing is a lot of terrible films from back then are actually WORSE than really bad films of today.


Ah, the film snob, so deftly able to explain why they are better than everyone but unable to produce the results in reality :). A good film takes heart, passion, experience, a ton of work and an undeniable set of talent to begin with. You are clearly lacking in any number, if not all of these areas. Your pompous and self serving argument provides in fact no real evidence towards your conclusion. While you make think you sound clever, all I’m reading on this end is bullshit. You compare shitty films to universally loved ones (big risk there eh?), and then describe a scene from a classic action movie as wonderful because you can simply see all the action? You then spend time explaining how ‘chaotic’ film making is bad because the viewer can’t tell what’s going on.
In no form do you actually explain your argument besides using as many clever words as you can possibly cram into your haughty writing style. On a side note, if you’re writing to communicate a message to people, why wouldn’t you just write plainly. Perhaps because you are writing to sound superior and boost your sad little ego instead?
A film like the bourne identity gets the adrenaline pumping precisely because of its chaotic filming. The action looks real and intense, an action scene at its finest. Some people rave about the one shot hammer scene from oldboy. In my opinion the action looks completely fake and therefore takes me out of the movie. I understand that some people don’t prefer this style of filming (bourne), I enjoy many different ways of shooting a fight scene myself. However, to call this type of filmmaking ‘lazy’ just because you don’t like it is downright childish. The fact that you’ve backed up your colossal pile of bs with no real argument other than whining about lazy editing and that it sucks is even more absurd. You remind me of a professor teaching about film techniques: they’re so afraid what they say is pointless or doesn’t make sense that they don’t allow any room for clarity.
You may have a following of hipsters, but ya can’t fool me. The premise that older is better is a tired one, not to mention one of the laziest ;) arguments to cling on to. There are in fact more excellent films coming out today than there were in previous years, thanks in no small part to modern technology. While you may rave about the golden age of films, the fact remains that for every good movie that came out there were tons of crappy ones surrounding it. Just a convenient fact of history nobody remembers them.


It seems as though Mr. Stork mischaracterizes Bordwell’s use of the phrase, “intensified continuity.” In his book THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT, Bordwell intends the term to apply to the norms of Hollywood filmmaking, across genres, beginning in the late 60s and encompassing the proffered examples of non-intensified “classical” cinema like BULLITT, THE WILD BUNCH, RAIDERS, DIE HARD, and HARD BOILED. These films aren’t “classical” at all, as the word is traditionally used in describing film style. They may be more spatially clear and coherent than Tony Scott or Paul Greengrass’s films, but identifying them as “classical” is taking it a step too far, I think.

Stork’s claims may hold for select action films in recent years, but it’s troubling to misappropriate a theoretical concept like Bordwell’s. It’s also not insignificant to note, as many in this thread already have, that people have complained about the chaotic nature of modern cinematic style since the 1960s; the song remains the same, as it were.


Very interesting essay! I direct you to some research on the perceptual psychology of film by James Cutting:

Among other things, he’s argued that edits have gotten shorter and sharper over time.


I appreciate that a lot of time went into this, but its simply a denial of style. Filmmaking is an ever-evolving artform, one that changes with advancement. Do we still edit things the way Georges Méliès did? No, of course not. It’s a progression. And while some films do a poor job at this (Micheal Bay’s Transformer series, most of what Tony Scott has done in the past decade), many are masters. Can I safely say that any action scene Christopher Nolan has shot in his last few films is better than the action in Hard Boiled? Absolutely. How anyone can still watch Hard Boiled with stars in their eyes is beyond my comprehension. Just because there’s a lot of gunshots in one fluid shot, doesn’t mean that shot isn’t blandly composed. That saying “Every shot must have a purpose”, is one that gets tossed out in film school a lot as I’m sure many of us can attest to. But what most people seem to forget is the meaning behind it. Sometimes the purpose of a shot, is simply to connect a sequence together. There’s no grand over arching, methodical painter’s approach to simple connective shots and it’d be ridiculous to ascribe such values to them. Sometimes a man turning a faucet is simply a man turning a faucet.

A lot of hatred gets piled on Paul Greengrass’s style in the Bourne films, yet that style is precisely what makes them a step above most other studio action films. By taking a realistic, documentary approach to action, you hope to intensify the experience for the audience, bringing them farther into the protagonist’s world. Maybe this doesn’t work for you, but for many, it does. The same for Forster’s opening of Quantum of Solace. The point of that sequence was to differentiate itself from every other stock car chase, it was supposed to be disorienting. Most of your other examples are ridiculous. Why even bother with films like Gamer, Shoot ‘Em Up, The Expendables? They’re hardly in the same class of film and one could easily argue that for every good example of a “Classically edited Action Movie” you chose, there’s just as many ridiculously shot entries that would go alongside these ones.

Raiders of The Lost Ark was nominated for Best Picture, and rightfully so. But putting it alongside Bad Boys 2? A movie that upon its release was trashed by every major critic. How is that even a good example? It’s simply putting good movies against bad. And their action sequences are not the reasons for their shoddy status. Your attempt to be unbiased, sampling The Hurt Locker as one shining example of the technique is a bit ridiculous as it’s not even an action movie. And comparing it with Domino? A movie quite universally reviled? Your entire thesis is essentially juxtaposing good films and bad.

You’re taking what is a popular critical point of view in that you seem to think you’re the only one who knows what’s really going on. The rest of the audience must be sheep because they eat it up. But you’re basically being just as reactionary as the films you deride. Piling hyperbolic phrases over top of films that were universally panned (Domino, Unstoppable, Bad Boys 2, Gamer) and claiming that these films are the standard when that’s anything but true. You include examples of Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Inception, two wonderfully shot action films that are also two of the highest grossing films of the last few years. You mention Quantum but don’t really touch upon Casino Royale which flirts between the two styles of editing. You seem to have done very little research into editing techniques, especially when it comes to justifying why “older is better”. Choosing a scene from “Singing In The Rain” is a fairly easy out, because it’s a universally loved film. And the scene works because of the performance, not the composition or the editing. But then you put it against a network TV show? I’m with you, there’s a lot of excess in modern cinema, and it’s been a growing trend. But that doesn’t mean the style is going to completely take over. As film has progressed there have always been people to take the style, make it their own and help the progression of film. For every great film, there has always been ten mediocre ones alongside it to capitalize on similar techniques. This is not new. This is simply the way it has always been. Calling some of these filmmakers lazy, ignoring some of the legitimate progress being made seems so archaic. The Lumiere Bros helped to pave the way for an entire artform, but would we ever go back to the beginning? Of course not. We’re educated and things have evolved. Why don’t we go back in time and show those people Inception, I’m fairly certain the awe would still be there. Unfortunately, because we’ve grown up with this artform, we don’t have the simple pleasure of turning that part of our brain off. I think I’d conclude with one question. If film fails to continuously impress us the same way, is it the fault of over-editing, or over-analysis?

Troels Hundtofte

This is a nicely put together essay and your arguments are fine, albeit, as you yourself conede, intrinsically polemical.

Like others have noted, you base your entire argument on the notion that one specific way of acheiving a desired effect is inherently better than another — seemingly solely because it’s “classical”.

I’ve had this conversation with others who have had the same issues with the shaky camera (et al.) that you do, and what I’ve found is that it’s really a matter of taste. What I mean is that what you’re looking for in an action scene to give you immersion and enjoyment may not be what others look for.

Let me explain why I enjoy the shaky camera style and frenetic editing (When done right – I can’t watch Transformers…).

You claim it makes the viewer lose his or her spatial bearings and the actual geography of the scene becomes unintelligble. And that’s true, but that’s exactly why it immerses me.

Because if you’ve ever been in a fight, you’ll know that it’s not particularly intelligible. It’s actually quite confusing and frenetic. In other words the style is there not to make me understand the action, but to feel it. You’re supposed to lose your bearings.

You may call that a sensory overload, but that presupposes there’s a natural limit when it comes to how much your senses can take before it no longer immerses but repels the viewer. And that such a limit would be universal.

To me, it’s not important exactly where what fist goes and how it gets there, To me it’s about the feeling of being in the fight with them. And I’d sacrifice spatial intelligibility over immersion any day. And I’m sure a lot of Russian formalists would agree with me. ;)

You seem to be aware that proper use of the chaos cinema style exists it’s seem a bit arbitrary which films you condone of and which you don’t.

You write:

“The film uses chaotic style pointedly and sparingly, to suggest the hyper-intensity of the characters’ combat experience and the professional warrior’s live-wire awareness of the lethal world that surrounds him. Bigelow immerses viewers in the protagonists’ perspectives, yet equally grants them a detached point of view.”

My first question would be: Why is a detached point of view desirable? This seems like a fairly random maxim of proper filmmaking, and stands in contrast to immersion which I would hold up as the ultimate goal of the medium.

My second question would: Could you not replace Bigelow with Greengrass and The Hurt Lokcer with The Bourne Ultimatum and the argument would still be true?

Isn’t the style just as justified for a soldier hunted by btural assassins as it is for an Iraq vet?

Again it just seems fairly arbitrary which films you seem to think uses the style properly and improperly. Perhaps you have yet to quantify what exactly it is that makes you like The Hurt Locker and dislike Bourne, or perhaps it’s just not quantifiable, but as it is in your essay right now, I don’t find it very convincing.

Now, does this mean that you should use the chaos style at all times? No. You still need to justify it. And Like I said, I got a headache from watching the Transformers movies, but I think it’s a common mistake to lump a guy like Bay in with people like Greengrass who’s essentially a docu-actioneer, who shoots his scenes like he would a real life event. His handheld camera frees up the actors who are not bound by rigid choreography and place-markers, thus allowing for more naturalistic performances.

That’s NOT what Michael Bay does. Michael Bay’s movies, whilst shaky and frenetically editied are EXTREMELY composed.

Because to Michael Bay the style is just that. A style. It’s almost like a filter he adds in post. With Greengrass he’s using it for a purpose. Its intrinsic to his entire operation.

Ultimately I feel you’re bit too much of a nostalgic, longing for the perfect time in the past when the grammar of movies was perfect and complete. But no such time existed. I enjoyed your essay but I disagree with you overall.


I have to disagree with the inclusion of scenes from “Inception” and “Shoot ‘Em Up”. These are scenes that may be sufficiently more chaotic in sound design and rapidity of cuts when compared to say, “Die Hard” but “Shoot ‘Em Up” in particular takes great care to clarify both what action is taking place and where the characters are at all times. In fact, the choreography in the film appears pain-sneakingly planned out for maximum continuity and shouldn’t be lumped in with “Domino” or “Transformers”.


I may not agree with all of this (I found much of Cloverfield to have great spatial awareness, particularly the street scene you posted. Not sure why you used that as an example. The subway scene would have been a better example, I think) but I was very captivated by the video. Nice job.

Out of curiosity, have you seen Tron: Legacy? That movie has OUTSTANDING spatial awareness. Look no further than the Light Cycle battle for proof that Kosinski is an action director to look out for.


Fast-cutting and the shaky-cam are just like any other film technique – it’s not enough that the director knows how to use them; the director needs to know why. Black Hawk Down is a good example and it’s been mentioned a few times: each individual sequence is clearly chaotic but it’s building towards an overall purpose, and that overall purpose and meaning is always apparent. Same thing with The Hurt Locker, Children of Men, and even The Bourne Supremacy (Ultimatum… not so much).

But you could really make the same argument about any cinematic technique. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t. What distinguishes so-called chaos cinema is its simplicity – it’s much easier, particularly for an inexperienced director (or a lazy condescending director like Michael Bay), to take a shot of a fist and edit it into a shot of a face and imply a punch with a sound effect than to actually choreograph and film a fight. What they’re forgetting is that, unless there’s a purpose behind the chaos, this is just flashing images and is considerably less visceral and thrilling than a long take or a clear, intricate action sequence.

I find it interesting that Christopher Nolan continues to be mentioned in these types of discussions, since he, more than most other recent action directors, has shown that his style is growing. Compare action sequences from Batman Begins to Inception and you’ll see a style that’s gotten stronger, more confident, more spatially aware and less reliant on the illusion of action.

Craig Simpson

This piece is everything “Press Play” should be. Great work.


I think the examples used in this essay are very well spotted. BOURNE in particular – I hated that second film because it was so outrageously shaky and out of control – same with QUANTAM.

Contrasted with Peter Jackson’s excellent LORD OF THE RINGS – consider how meticulously his battle scenes were shot and edited. You never feel lost in the action for a second – in any shot, you know EXACTLY where you are in relation to the characters and the set. If you were dropped in any frame of the battle of Helm’s Deep and were told to make a B-line for the gate, you wouldn’t even have to think about which way to go. Even in FELLOWSHIP in a battle in a random forest, you STILL knew exactly where the other characters were in relation to the ones on screen. RINGS was followed by a plethora of Epic Battle movies that completely failed in this regard: KING ARTHUR, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, etc…


Thank you all for your comments!

I see CHAOS CINEMA as a ubiquitous phenomenon in mainstream action filmmaking. The essay’s thesis refers to films that seek visual confusion for dramatic effect, sacrificing spatial clarity along the way. I tried to point out chaotic techniques, such as the shaky-cam, rapid cutting, close framings etc. Obviously, these techniques, by themselves, are not problematic, the overarching aesthetic is. While I can read and comprehend the action spaces of these films, I find them inferior to more classical examples of action which emphasize clarity and orientation. It is not just a matter of comprehension, though. I was weaned on MTV-style editing and stylistic hybridity. But watching these films, to me, is more an act of consumption, rather than true cognitive and emotional involvement.

In this regard, the essay is by default polemical. The ostensibly simplistic comparison between classical and chaotic films is, in my opinion, quite apt. Many films employ chaotic techniques, without narrative justification. THE HURT LOCKER should serve as a counter-example. Chaos cinema, as a style, may be classified as a new classical mode, as it seems to have become a default method in Hollywood action film. And its influence is noticeable in dialogue scenes and musical performances as well – and the musical film, originally derived from stage performances, is particularly interesting. The traditional formula enabled viewers to watch the ‘stage’-performance selectively. In the new versions, performance is not unified anymore, but broken into pieces, more an act of editing than acting, it seems to me at least.

Furthermore, I would like to emphasize that I am not adverse to chaotic technique in general. I take issue with an oversimplification of chaos cinema. War, as a cinematic scenario, seems to provide a justification for jerky camera moves, ultra-close framings and wild cuts. I find that formula trite. Cinema, as a medium, has a stylistic catalogue that allows for more varied approaches. Matt rightfully cited FULL METAL JACKET. Clearly laid out shots that you can easily reconstruct and explain in terms of narrative motivation. And the horror of war is still present … disturbing, nauseating even.

I tried to suggest possible reasons that account for chaos cinema. Personally, I hold that we need to consider both technical and industrial (e.g. new equipment) and sociological (our tendency to ‘over’look, shoot glances rather than scan and observe in detail) factors. But this is of course still speculation.

A particularly divisive point seems to be the grouping of directors. I chose works that, to me, reflect chaos cinema. I like Christopher Nolan. His films competently play with narrative conventions. But his action choreography is an illustration of chaotic technique, fast, disparate cuts, close framings, multi-angle camera footage. More seems to better. Less, subtlety I mean, is rare in these action sequences. This is not to say that I dismiss him as a director overall!

MTV-style editing has been in existence for more than forty years, for sure. I do not object to that. But is that not an overgeneralization? Cutting films rapidly is not inherently problematic. If used sparingly, this technique can stir up audiences, involve them in a film. But in chaotic films, rapid cutting is standardized. And usually coupled with other chaotic techniques.

This view of action cinema may appear narrow to some. Consider the format of the essay. It cannot possibly account for the entire genre. But chaos cinema, as I defined it, is not as versatile as some make it out to be. It can be categorized. Some of you mentioned OLD BOY and the NO COUNTRY, or Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. I do not find that they are chaotic at all. OLD BOY and NO COUNTRY … long takes, carefully devised choreography of action, a variety of field sizes, astutely placed sound cues. Winding Refn’s latest DRIVE is entirely classical. And his PUSHER trilogy … he shot with light equipment and granted, some shots are wobbly due to the handheld aesthetic but his editing is crisp and clear, his framings scrupulously composed, particularly in parts 2&3.

Chaos cinema appeals to many viewers. I personally find classical exercises, which are, as some of you rightfully pointed out, still out there. But they are not as wide-spread as they used to be. Chaotic techniques have merit. They can be powerful displays of cinema art, no question about it. But if they are overused, they can be head-pounding and debilitating, in my view, of course.

I am sorry that I cannot respond to all of you individually. If you feel that this response is inconsistent, please leave another comment. This discourse is surely valuable.

Kevin Urbanek

Film makers need not argue that “chaos” techniques are essential to appeal to an audience. “There Will Be Blood” was anything but chaotic and appealed to many.


Great essay. So true. Movies are really chaotic these days. You have no idea what’s happening on screen. Who’s chasing who and who’s killed and everything until the action scene is over and sometimes not even then.


I wasn’t specifically referring only to the editing, but to all the elements to which you’d referred (fast cutting, as well as more chaotic cinematography, staging, composition, and camera movement); I think they’re all elements that can be parsed (and enjoyed by its very merits) by youth of the current generation, who can immerse themselves in a virtual world and virtual characters even back when they were made up of crude polygonal models.

I think to be able to fully prove a thesis of a fall of action filmmaking you’d have to look at its effects on a controlled demographic (youth back then versus youth now, adults now versus adults back then), and see whether or not they regard films of the past to be any clearer and emotionally engaging than action films of the present.

If I were a betting man I’d wager on there being little if any difference, and a clear correlation between their comprehension, enjoyment, and emotional attachment to a particular film and their age when they saw it (specifically, whether or not they were of the age most impressionable for the genre, i.e. youth for action films).


Arvin: According to your definition, contemporary cognitivity standards enable us to perceive the rapidity of the images onscreen. This argument does not necessarily involve spatial clarity. And again, the essay does not reduce chaos cinema to an intensified editing pattern but identifies a variety of techniques. Furthermore, while I concur with your assessment that the modern generation of spectators may be extremely visually literate (subconsciously, though, I would argue), the trend to abbreviate takes and minimize shots in scale is not a method to foster the new cognitive ability.

Thomas Jahn: I respectfully disagree with your thesis that cinematic evolution involves an increase in speed. Cinema is concerned with the movement of the image, yes, but it offers more than just editorial velocity.

Thomas Jahn

They said the same things about Peckinpah years ago. If you don’t like the modern Cinema, just watch old movies. But the Cinema is an evolutionary Thing and it will get faster and faster. Yes. But throwing the Scott Brothers and other great Filmmakers in this essay, basically swing that they don’t know what there doing… i just shake my head and make movies.


If it’s acceptable in The Hurt Locker, the same must be said for Black Hawk Down as both employ the technique for a valid reason.

Lev David

Anybody care to define (or redefine) chaos cinema? Is it just fast cutting? Must it also include shaky cam? Or is it fast cutting, shaky cam and lack of spatial clarity? Or is it just the last one?

Going through the list of 2011 mainstream action releases, those that extensively employ handheld are rare and none appear to intentionally or unintentionally disorientate the viewer.

Major action films/films with major action sequences (almost inevitably designed, shot and cut without much influence from the name director) are dogmatic about spatial clarity, which is why scenes like the opening of Marc Fosters’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE get noticed and talked about. It’s stands out because it’s rare to see something so spatially unclear in a mainstream release. But CAPTAIN AMERICA, ON STRANGER TIDES, the last HARRY POTTER, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, COWBOYS & ALIENS, CARS 2…? Which of these were intentionally or unintentionally spatially unclear? Shaky cam also seems — when you look for it — pretty rare.


It seems a major fault in the author’s argument that the advent of action video games… specifically first person shooters, and their ever increasing pace (driven by multiplayer gaming), have honed the spatial acuity of the current generation of moviegoers (i.e. the prime audience for action films) to parse chaotic action. Their level of discontent at current action movies seems to be at the same level of previous generations…

Honestly at this point the only indisputable claim one could make based on the data is that action films are edited and paced to match the cognitive sensibilities of its contemporaneous audience (which, yes, seems to ever trend towards faster and faster cutting), which inevitably lead to the previous generation’s distaste towards the present form. As someone else said, it’s been happening since the beginning of action cinema.

i.e. – we’re all getting old. get over it (or not, you can certainly bellyache all you want, I’m just getting tired of “academic” bellyaching), and hold onto your Criterion collections.

Henry J.

I don’t disagree with the core of the author’s thesis where action cinema is concerned, but – then again, this has been the trend of action cinema since its inception. What’s regarded now as a remarkably long and implicitly thought out sequence in something like, say, George Miller’s The Road Warrior, for example was at the time of its release victim to many of the same complaints that you’re foisting on these films, here. That it moved far too fast and was visually incoherent. The same was said of Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. These are filmmakers from the explicitly montage cinema school of thought, of which Hitchcock and Eisenstein were the pioneers, as opposed to those in the mise-en-scene camp. And, what is ironic is that, for many of the films that you’re using as examples of “how it was in the good old days,” they’re all edited almost as rapidly as anything from the last ten years that you’re using as the crux of your argument.

The fault that you should be confronting here with these films – your selection of which, by the way, shows a brutally narrow view of action cinema and visceral cinema as a whole, which includes musicals – is not their use of constant, rapid editing, but rather their visual dissociation and general lack of thought and narrative philosophy put into them, at the start. You do hint at this somewhat by your inclusion of The Hurt Locker, but as you say, the exception proves the rule. You say. And yet, filmmakers like these are, by and large, the minority. Christopher Nolan is one of the larger action filmmakers around right now, and I think his set-pieces are beautiful examples of clarity and choreography, utilizing an initial philosophy behind which to bind their editing styles – especially in The Dark Knight where, because of a few of the narrative and extranarrative factors, in contrast to Batman Begins which was intentionally herky-jerky, all of Batman’s punch-up sequences are filmed almost entirely in one naturalistic shot. He flows and moves far more smoothly and is much more biting in his attacks, and the film’s visual clarity reflects that, in lieu of its predecessor. And yet, it is as much a style of its generation of filmmaking as any other – there are no hierarchies in terms of quality, only quality itself, really. It’s also because of this that I think Cloverfield is such a strong film, visually – by the way. It is governed by its internal philosophy that is governed from the ground up by narrative.

There’s also Steven Soderbergh’s two parter Che to consider, which – for all of its political muckity-muck – are both as much action films as they are essays on a man. In the first part, Soderbergh places us in the mess at the mountain barracks, The Battle of Santa Clara, and again at the capital – bullets whiz by our heads, their is shouting and fire all around. The editing is at times slow and thoughtful, and at still others fractured and immediate. It is within the back and forth between these two aesthetic styles that the film creates something entirely other and authentic. If anything deserved to be called “Chaos Cinema,” it is this film.

(also, I’m a little put off by your exclusion of most of the examples of both of the genres you attempt to confront, action cinema and musicals, that kind of disprove the overall thesis of yours that both of these genres are headed into the visual and aesthetic toilet – where was Park-Chan Wook’s Oldboy? The Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men? Cuaron’s Children of Men? And as far as musicals go, where was the big one – George Miller’s Happy Feet? I mean, sure, it’s an animated film, but it is one approached with a live-action filmmaker’s sensibility, and it’s one of the foremost returns to the loping and lyrical editing styles of the golden age of musical yesteryear, melded with Miller’s trademark visceral, roving and emotional aesthetic. Come on, that’s just inexcusable.)

Henry J.


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Loved this video blog. You presented some very interesting points.

I’ll make sure to pass on your blog. Great work.

I work for a unique film school that makes professional feature films. Check it out:

Michael L Norris

“I tried to suggest possible reasons that account for chaos cinema.”

I think you are neglecting to account for the key ontogeny:

“Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking. Film scholar David Bordwell gave this type of filmmaking a name: intensified continuity. But Bordwell’s phrase may not go far enough. 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, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.

Steven Santos

Not really getting this notion that we should necessarily accept chaotic filmmaking because of new camera and editing technology. Regardless of whether one edits on a Steenbeck or Final Cut Pro, you still have to make choices that serve emotion, theme, story, etc. In other words, just because one can cut faster and shoot something from about twenty angles doesn’t mean they have to slap all those angles together in the cutting room. Good filmmaking is about making artistic choices. If you don’t find this sort of chaotic filmmaking problematic, then what choices do you think the filmmaker is making when the camera is whipping about and a cut happens every 2 seconds?

Also, the accusation that somehow this essay is stuck in the past is rather absurd, considering it includes the old-timey classics like “Hard-Boiled” and “Ronin”, both movies which employ a lot of cutting themselves and somehow maintain spatial coherence. And I’m sure at least “Ronin” was edited digitally as well. We have moved over the last ten years from filmmakers who would learn how to stage exciting moments through camera placement and editing that was precise and thought through to what we have now which is creating excitement by cutting to between angles just because they can. Not because any of those shots actually have any function or meaning beyond coverage.

DG Brock

Thanks for the great essay Matthias. The spatial sloppiness of many (but not all) action films today leads to boredom for the audience. These is frequently combined with cookie cutter character building which only makes the action scenes worse. How can you care about an action scene if you don’t care about the people in it? Filmmaking has been getting worse in general which makes this film lover and creator very sad.

Steven Boone

Greg, your argument for segregating high-class directors like Nolan and Greengrass from populist jockstraps like Michael Bay is the kind of caste/hierarchy/Grey Poupon thinking that has everybody so confused out there.

All these guys traffic in cinema that induces pointless anxiety and disorientation. They are like terrorists who do it just for kicks.

Doesn’t matter what books they done read or if their screenwriters got Pulitzers. Their shots be dumb as rocks.

Rasmus Varnich Blumensaat

While I don’t in general watch the movies being attacked so viciously – but not incisively – here, I don’t accept neither the premise nor the conclusion of this “scholar and filmmaker”. His arguments about the movies not “suspending disbelief” and being generally crude, brings to mind the sort of person who will criticize people for drinking wine when they can have champagne: he’s conflating categories and he mistakenly believes that champagne has some sort of intrinsic quality beyond that bestowed upon by the social context and the history behind it.

Furthermore, where are the arguments for the claims of how the movie-goers parse this new visual language, brought about by revolutions in digital recording and editing? I, for one, never had any issues following action on-screen – this from a person who absolutely adore Roy Andersson’s still-life-like tableaus, Tarkovsky’s cutless style, and Haneke’s insistence on concrete spatiality. Judging from the comments here, it seems that you’re preaching to a choir of nostalgic ADD’ers, who seemingly can’t follow MTV-style editing – after MTV has been around for neigh-on 30 years.


I’m sorry, comparing excellent directors (with excellent DPs) like Nolan and Greengrass (both of whose films you have a good spacial awareness and you know exactly what is going on all the time) with Bay and so on is just not sensible. It is like trying to review a whole nation’s cuisine by going to the dodgy takeway near you that has given you food poisoning every time you’ve eaten there.

It’s also a very conservative and romantic view you are taking and I tend to disagree with much of it because it comes across as too stuck in the past and oblivious to the faults of that past. Which you amplify because when you pick the best of the best of the past and compare it only to the worst of the worst of the present, of course today is going to come up short. In fact go back to older lesser appreciated action films and they are just as bad as the hyper kenetic insane ones now.

Also nearly all your comments only apply to poor films and directors and muddle up the issue of filming style with quality and spectacle which are separate issues.

Similarly you pretty much ignore the issue of changing technology in this as all this is down to improved cameras pretty much.

Basically it is a dominant fashion, it will change. I also think you are overstating the lack of non-‘chaos’ cinema as there are plenty of films with a far less frenetic style.

Also have you considered you personally may have poor spatial awareness when watching film scenes? I never find this an issue in ‘choas cinema’ directed by good directors like greengrass and nolan.

Steven Boone

@Chris My only point is how the advancement of filmmaking technology has kind of allowed so called ‘Chaos Cinema’ to exist. Digital cameras are smaller, lighter and more mobile and computers allow for much more precise editing.Maybe the slower, more deliberate staging of action in older films was borne more out of necessity than a filmmaking aesthetic.
This is the fallacy of the age. Yes, so many stylistic tendencies arose out of practical necessity, but they were developed and refined over decades of filmmaker-audience call and response–similar to the delicate “conversation” that Stork says picture and sound should be having. But lighter cameras and non-linear editing technology allowed businessmen and salesmen with no real stake in this conversation (other than the desire for more efficient delivery of content and profit) to hijack it for their shallow purposes.

Now filmmakers and audiences have largely internalized this crass visual language, and we’re all cheaper for it.

And what do you mean by “more precise editing”? Was there something imprecise about this old thing?


You don’t mention Saving Private Ryan but I think that launched the chaos cinema era. Well, Saving Private Ryan was the first film that did it well. The awful Shoemaker Batman movies is the first time I really remember seeing it.

What people failed to notice about the opening sequence was that the chaos was purposeful and controlled. It was supposed to give us a feel for what the attack was really like. The later battle for the bridge is much more coherent and maintains its focus.

I also think the backlash against chaos is one of the reasons the Star Wars prequels were as popular as they were. Whatever you might say about Lucas, he know how to shoot an action sequences so that it’s both exciting ad coherent.



Agreed with some points but not everything. Interesting nonetheless.

My only point is how the advancement of filmmaking technology has kind of allowed so called ‘Chaos Cinema’ to exist. Digital cameras are smaller, lighter and more mobile and computers allow for much more precise editing. Maybe the slower, more deliberate staging of action in older films was borne more out of necessity than a filmmaking aesthetic. I mean try shaking one of those old Panaflex cameras and see how far that gets you.

Oh and watch how Zack Snyder directs action. A vastly underrated director.

Lev David

Personally, I find the TRANSFORMERS movies unbearable, but I’m guessing that Stork enjoys the long, uninterrupted takes of full-body robot action. They truly have far more in common with SINGING IN THE RAIN than a BOURNE movie.


Nicely done. Insert Antichrist reference ‘Chaos Reigns’ here.

Matthew Seitz

@Michael: “Films that effectively use these techniques, i.e. The Hurt Locker, are also hurriedly discussed. No mention of the equally distinct visual styles of Nicolas Winding Refn, or the amazing single shot fight scene in Oldboy. How about the action sequences in Coen Bros’ True Grit or No Country For Old Men? All of your points about “chaos cinema” are true, but I feel like you’re taking one style of action movie and saying that it is true for ALL action movies.”

The author is defining a very distinct type of filmmaking, then criticizing what he thinks are its inadequacies while also offering one example of a film of that type that he thinks really works: THE HURT LOCKER. Oldboy and Refn’s films aren’t mentioned because they cannot be considered chaos films. They are more in the classical mode cited at the beginning of Part 1 — more in the stylistic school of BULLITT, THE WILD BUNCH and RAIDERS than DOMINO, BLACK HAWK DOWN and Michael Bay/Paul Greengrass.

I don’t think the action genre is as stylistically varied right now as you and some other commenters are making it out to be.

Chaos Cinema, as Stork describes it, has become the default mode for big budget action films, and for many kinds of films, period. You could even say it has become “the new classical.” It is the house style for that kind of movie. Tony Scott pushes it about as far as it can go, sometimes interestingly, sometimes annoyingly; I don’t like most of what he does in that mode but at least there is a sense of deliberateness there, so I would not lump him in with Bay and his ilk — at the very least I would put an asterisk by his name. But it’s not my piece.

I also think “disorientation” is quite a different thing from chaos. FULL METAL JACKET is disorienting. BLACK HAWK DOWN is chaotic.


For all their chaotic tricks, action films have lost the thrilling sense of building tension and using explosive action to relieve that tension. These new directors are poster boys of attention deficient. The results are loud, relentless, in-your-face movies–and no amount of throwing explosions at the screen improves lame lack of story and character.. Hollywood seems to completely miss the point — they aren’t losing audiences just because of internet and video games…they are losing audiences because these new action movies are so hollow and boring. Excess, sensory overload, and editing techniques that “were once considered sloppy and amateurish” are STILL sloppy and amateurish! Thank you for the articulate article.


“Please think i’m smart cause I’m saying old movies are better than new movies derp derp derp”. This is bullshit, I’ve literally never seen a movie where the space or action was incomprehensible. Then again, I watch with my eyes open.


I can’t agree. You’re 100% right when it comes to directors such as Michael Bay, Ridley Scott and Paul Greengrass–whose films make up a substantial majority of your evidence. But coherent action films, i.e. Ronin, are quickly dismissed as outliers. Films that effectively use these techniques, i.e. The Hurt Locker, are also hurriedly discussed. No mention of the equally distinct visual styles of Nicolas Winding Refn, or the amazing single shot fight scene in Oldboy. How about the action sequences in Coen Bros’ True Grit or No Country For Old Men? All of your points about “chaos cinema” are true, but I feel like you’re taking one style of action movie and saying that it is true for ALL action movies.

Joseph Medina

This was a well-made, intelligently researched video essay. However, it seems somewhat biased against modern films. Yes, the quick cuts and shaky cams are overused, but it’s a style that not only defines our generation of films, but also helps the audience feel what happens. To automatically dismiss and tell us that this “takes away” from the film is a bit presumptuous, in my opinion. It all depends on the context of the film and how well it is executed.


Good piece of work!


Wonderful work, Matthias. Very interesting! Thanks for making this.

Jill Malcolm

Ah, question answered in Part II. Jumped the gun a little… ;-)


Indeed, “holy shit.” Thank you for finally saying what we’ve all subliminally known since at least the mid-90s. Seriously, from the bottom of my movie-loving heart, I thank you.


Sometimes it’s more important to tell a story in the action rather than expressing the realism or the chaos of the moment. That’s the kind of ideology film makers use to excuse techniques such as this. But it’s not better for the viewer. It’s takes away from the story.


Excellently done. Been saying things to this effect for years.

Jill Malcolm

Very nicely done, and alas, so true. My only question is in relation to chaotic filming and war films. Because war is often a very chaotic and adrenaline inducing experience, is it not plausible that such a filming “technique” be utilized to capture those feelings? I believe you used a scene from ‘Black Hawk Down’ as an example of chaotic filming. Does it just take a more talented filmmaker to express the emotions of war in a more technically adroit fashion that doesn’t result in shaky camera work and blurred visuals?
Thanks again-

Steven Boone

This is beautiful.

Can we please get an HD master of this to sneak into the projection booth at every multiplex? People will treat Ho’wood like Ghadafi.

Ben Jackson

I actually didn’t realize that clip from Domino was all one movie until the music picked back up.


nicely done. i enjoyed this.

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