When a movie turns into the biggest film that isn’t a sequel or a remake in Earth’s history, you can bet that Hollywood is going to do everything short of ritual sacrifice to figure out what made that film such a billion dollar baby. That movie, of course, is Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games, and the most easily utilized element of that film that can be transferred to other films hoping to cash in on the nonlinear zeitgeist is something not much loved around here—chaos cinema.
Chaos cinema: Yes, that pell-mell movie-making style of un-motivated shakycam and matching frenetic cutting style, both of which leave us confused as to where a character might be in a scene at any given time.
Chaos cinema: where the director starts a scene with a Dutch angle of a character running (a low, oblique shot like they’d use in a Batman cartoon), then cuts suddenly to her feet, and then a long shot in reverse from a helicopter, leaving the audience utterly baffled as to who’s where, or when, or how.
Ah, but making linear sense isn’t the goal. Visceral excitement is what’s on the menu, with a side dish of faux documentary-style verité.
And some folks here at Press Play really dislike it. Film writer Matthias Stork went so far as to craft a video essay titled “CHAOS CINEMA: The decline and fall of action filmmaking.”
Stork looks back fondly on how, until the early 21st century, classical style was the default. Camera movement and editing were motivated, and things happened in the frame for a reason.
But over the last decade or so, all that started going to hell. Films were speeding up, being packed with event, and thanks to nonlinear editing systems like AVID, being cut into often crazed new shapes that made less and less sense. Sensory overload, stylistic excess, and exaggeration became the coin of a realm Stork named “chaos cinema”.
Looking back, it looks like Mr. Stork has a point. It really did seem that if a movie wasn’t one of those spiritually rotted films reflective of the Cheney years’ new bellicosity, it was one of those cutting edge techno-nihilism actioners, and both were total chaos.
Cases in point: stinkers like Black Hawk Down (2001), Domino (2005), The Kingdom (2007), Man on Fire (2004), Michael Bay's filmography, and Quantum of Solace (2008). One particularly offensive scene in The Dark Knight was brilliantly deconstructed by Jim Emerson here.
We see how Nolan seems to have either lost interest, or never had it, in where cars and trucks are coming from, what direction they seem to be going when he cuts, what happens after that happens, and so on. This may seem like nerdy minutiae unless you think of it this way—if this were real life, and a car hit you, and your body was thrown a few feet, and you closed your eyes, but when you opened them, you found you were on the other side of the road, well, that would freak you a bit. Same thing in movies.
So yes, these particular “chaos films” were dreadful grotesques. But what was I to make of–
—Moulin Rouge! (2001), a rapturously gorgeous film that felt chopped together, at 120 BPM? Or 2004’s hyper-jacked The Transporter? Or 2007’s [rec], which combined chopped-up, personal DV and horror? Or The Hurt Locker (2008), the first chaos Oscar winner? Or Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) the first great show to import chaos values to serialized TV, and The River (2012) the first to do so to network horror?
To me, Rouge! Is a traditional musical, except with twice as many shots run at the speed of a trance remix. The Transporter is a Euro-trash version of a John Woo cartoon. And Friday Night Lights with graceful camera? Nope. Boring. We’d never be able to slink into those sizzling Texas mini-worlds on network time. And I’ve not yet mentioned Paul W.S. Anderson’s jaw-dropper of a surprise, Resident Evil: Afterlife, one of the greatest uses of multi-level geometry and spatiality in cinema I can recall seeing, where oneattack scene features twenty or so color-coded Milla Jovoviches attacking hundreds of color-coded bad guys, and it’s not even a high point.
Chaos, I think, has been evolving. And now there’s The Hunger Games, whose “high chaos” style will have an incalculably huge effect on action, drama, indie and hell, on all kinds of films, that just pulled in about $140 million its first weekend. In that film, Katniss' neo-Depression small town life of privation, hunting and solitude, her total love for her sister, and the ambient danger of a totalitarian government are all conveyed in quick, but soft-cut nonlinear hyper-montage that would take classical storytelling a quarter hour to express but here zips by in dreamy minutes. You've never seen a cinema future like this.
So: drop it. The argument is lost and over. Chaos is here to stay as a permanent part of televisual syntax. All that’s left is how we incorporate that reality into our critical discourses.
The exciting thing isn’t chaos cinema on its own—that can be as rote, knee-jerk and annoying to me as anything else.
It’s the incredibly exciting promise of what it will lead to that’s exciting, while classicism always just points back to more of itself.
“Truths” are death and taxes. Everything else is changing and subjective. Everyone said ET was full of “universal” truths, when all I found was the truth that my heartstrings had been mauled and mangled by a sociopathic optimist. And recently I showed Psycho to a friend—not a cineaste, a pro journalist, age 27—only to have her fall asleep. She felt terrible for just not getting it. Remembering my unseemly lack of ET resonance, I said not to worry. Universal, shmuniversal.
Meanwhile, this is a generation that’s been raised viewing entertainment on all manner of screens, some tiny, some tablet, in theaters, at home, everywhere. And a lot of the time, the image is literally shaky because it’s on your leg, in your hand, or wherever.
So televisual entertainment—movies, webcasts, networks, the whole shebang–wants to fit into our natural ecosystem by being a little wobbly itself—even Parks and Recreation and The Office are a bit shaky. So shakycam now signifies a base level of realism. The imperious side of chaos, then, is trapping artists in a small range of high velocities. This could be bad or…
I’m staying with my story—that Ross, who may not be a Great Filmmaker but is one helluva craftsman, trusted his instincts regarding how his market would best be served with the most valuable property on the planet. And he chose chaos. And, like that, chaos cinema became the mainstream.