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VIDEO ESSAY: CHAOS CINEMA, PART 3; Matthias Stork addresses his critics

VIDEO ESSAY: Chaos Cinema, Part 3, Matthias Stork responds

Editor’s Note: Press Play is proud to debut part three in Matthias Stork’s Chaos Cinema, the latest installment in an ongoing consideration of a phenomenon that Stork defined in two video essays that ran on this site in August, 2011. His first two chapters touched off a firestorm of debate that’s still going on.  Just last weekend, New York Times contributor Alex Pappadeas cited the piece in a year-end “Riffs” column. Citing bizarre images in “the trailer for 2016, a possibly nonexistent sci-fi movie from Ghana,” Pappadeas argued that the major problem with the style is that it does not go far enough. “The standard knock on Chaos Cinema filmmakers is that they’re constructing narratives entirely from rupture and collision,” he writes. “But if movies are going to go there, they should really go there. Let’s stop asking directors who clearly have no affinity for story or character to pretend otherwise. Instead, let’s let the alien kick the baby, and see how far the baby will fly.” That’s what Stork is doing here by addressing his critics directly using the form that has served him well in the past, the video essay. The full text of the piece’s narration is printed below. For context, we’ve also reproduced Parts 1 and 2 of Chaos Cinema as well. The comments section is open. You may fire when ready.

Chaos Cinema, Part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of my video essay Chaos Cinema argued that chaos cinema represents a major trend in mainstream action filmmaking. It could be seen as the third stage in mainstream movie storytelling.

The first stage was classical cinema. It reigned supreme from the silent era until well into the 1960s. It emphasized spatial clarity, for the most part. The goal was to keep the viewer oriented and involved. You were always supposed to know more or less where you were, where the action took place, and who was involved. And this visual clarity was only disrupted at moments of high tension.

Then came intensified continuity. It favors velocity and increases the speed of classical cinema. It still keeps the viewer oriented, but it does so in a more compact form – almost shorthand. The shots are more succinct, the cutting more aggressive, the camerawork more hectic. This is the old style, reconfigured in a new time.

The third and modern stage is chaos cinema. It makes the previous two stages look old-fashioned. The goal is total visceral impact. There is no clear axis of action that tells you where characters and objects are in relation to each other. The action does not have to be comprehensible. It has to be overwhelming. This is not the action that we have come to know in the cinema; it is the general idea of action. Chaos cinema is a vehicle for spectacle, a roller-coaster ride. It is designed to showcase attractions.

The three stages are by no means mutually exclusive. They are all interrelated and define what we see as the action film.

My video essay on chaos cinema led to an interesting discussion on the Internet. Many viewers agreed with my position. Others took issue with the argument and sought to refute or dismantle it.  They posited chaos cinema as a legitimate action style, with its own purposes and goals, and criticized the videos on several grounds.

The points raised were generally instructive. And some deserve a response.

1. Chaos Cinema as Pop Art – Ian Grey, Press Play

Several commenters dismissed my point of view as romantic, misguided. They argued that chaos cinema offers filmmakers a new style for a new age.

In his engaging essay “The Art of Chaos Cinema“, Press Play columnist Ian Grey defines the chaos cinema style as “pop art”, with a film syntax that better suits the trashy taste of the PlayStation-trained, YouTube-raised digital generation. He writes: “[C]lassical cinema doesn’t match the experience of a generation of Facebookers, Tweeters and Call of Duty players. It just doesn’t.” In his view, chaos cinema presents the world as it is: hyper-mediated, flamboyant and excessive. And classical action cinema is simply obsolete.

Chaos cinema is undoubtedly newer, perhaps even more modern. But I do not see it as an accurate reflection of the 21st century online / gaming experience. It is at best an interpretation. Using the Internet is not the same as watching chaos cinema fireworks onscreen.

Grey also stresses chaos cinema’s potential to engage audiences, keep them awake in the soporific dream machinery of the movie theater. We agree on this one, although I do not necessarily consider it to be a virtue.

2. Chaos Cinema as Abstract Art – Scott Nye, The Rail of Tomorrow

Scott Nye eloquently defended chaos cinema on the grounds of abstract art in his very emotional and convincing response. He compares the later work of director Tony Scott to abstract painting, claiming that they share certain aesthetic and ideological similarities. About Scott’s Domino, Nye writes, “I see a full-on sensory assault dedicated to visual abstraction and the destruction of our notions of what cinema should be.

I admit that Tony Scott’s chaos style is intriguing, especially the texture of his images. He paints with the camera in a playful, experimental manner. Or, more accurately, he splatters. Nye’s argument is thus sound in general terms.

But it ignores one thing: the genre context.

And that’s a problem with his comparison. Action filmmaking, even highly stylized action filmmaking, is really not abstract; it is literal. Its goal is to tell a mini-narrative, to record things that happen in a story for an audience that absorbs and processes the action. It is, at its basest level, a record of bodies, or objects, moving from point A to point B. Chasing. Leaping. Clashing. The action scene is <strong>a record of something concrete</strong>. Therefore,
legibility should matter. Precision should matter. Grace should matter.

Abstract artists such as Jackson Pollock or the filmmaker Stan Brakhage produced art with very different aims.  Their work only has an implied narrative, no characters, no motivations, and no tangible goals beyond what the individual viewer decides to bring to the work.

And here is another important point: artists such as these exclusively work in a hermetically sealed environment: the avant-garde. They have different audiences, reception spheres and ambitions.

This is not to say that the abstract has no place in the world of narrative. But when we discuss action, should we not agree on a specific framework? Is it abstract art? Not even the great Sergei Eisenstein could produce this association. And in any event, I suspect it will be a few years before <i>Domino</i> is displayed in the Louvre.

3. Chaos Cinema as Romanticism / Nostalgia – Matt Lynch, AKA Colonel Mortimer

The video essay was also dismissed as anachronistic hipster nostalgia which favors the old over the new. Film critic Matt Lynch summed up the general dissent in a rather ingenious, if reductive tweet which labeled the video essay an example of “neoclassical get-off-my-lawnism”. Frankly, it is hard to rebut this accusation. I admit a certain bias towards the old.But I am by no means opposed to the new … if it acknowledges the old, and demonstrates an understanding of it, a sense of its value. There have been a number of recent films fitting that description. And I enjoyed them very much.

4. Chaos Cinema as Myopic Discourse

My seemingly wholesale condemnation of chaos cinema in parts 1 and 2 of my video essay infuriated several commenters — and in retrospect, I have to admit, rightfully so.

I did point out that chaos can be effectively used as a narrative device. But my example of The Hurt Locker did not suffice. I should have included others. And I should have made clear that not all films cited as chaos cinema were bad movies that were somehow not worth seeing or discussing. In some cases, I chose particular clips because I think the films are below average. In other cases, I selected clips only because they illustrated a certain point that I wished to make about the look and feel of chaos cinema. In other words, if anyone felt insulted or offended by seeing a certain clip in there, my apologies.

5. Chaos Cinema as Video Game Aesthetic – Matthew Cheney, The Mumpsimus

Probably the most frequent issue raised in the chaos cinema discourse was the influence of video game aesthetics on action film style. Many weighed in claiming that chaos cinema is heavily informed by the hyperkineticism of first-person shooters. Matthew Cheney’s observations are a case in point. In an article on his blog The Mumpsimus, he writes: “I find the popular ones really disorienting and many of them bludgeoning. My perceptions haven’t been trained to the action video game aesthetic, and it’s all just chaos to me.”

Action films and first-person shooters share certain narrative parallels. They are essentially navigations through space. As far as aesthetics are concerned, however, they could not be more different. Yes, shooters emphasize speed in all its glory, with pans, tilts and track-ins. But they transpire in a clearly defined diegetic space. There are no cuts, no disruptions, mise-en-scène rather than montage, complete stability. This is not chaos cinema. This is something else, something that cinema aspires to reproduce, by different means.

6. Chaos Cinema: Beyond the Surface – Ambrose Heron, FilmDetail

As many commenters pointed out, chaos cinema did not just magically appear in the new millennium. It was a steady process, a development. Critics such as David Bordwell, Barry Salt or Geoff King have been writing about the stylistic changes for a long time.  In his essay Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid, blames non-linear editing systems for the emergence of chaos techniques. This is how we should discuss chaos cinema, as an aesthetic and industrial phenomenon.

In the end, however, we all approach action films with the same mindset. To quote Michael Bay: we demand our action to be …awesome!

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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