Indiewire’s Mattias Stork (STORK PATROL! NASTY PLUMAGE!) has put together a two-part video essay called “Chaos Cinema,” about the evolution of action-movie editing and cinematography. I’d recommend checking it out whenever you’ve got 18 minutes or so to spare. While his narration is a little overwrought and silly at times (really, dude? “promiscuous camera moves?” Also, “similarily” is not a word), the basic thesis is something I’ve been bitching about for years, and the side-by-side comparison of older action film composition to recent is fantastic. To boil it down to a single sentence, the idea is that in the 21st century, action movies began to “trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload,” as he puts it. (Or, a more “immersive” or “subjective” experience, as a shaky-cam proponent would probably call it).
I would argue that one of the first to do it (or at least the most influential) was Gladiator (and to a lesser extent, Saving Private Ryan), and perhaps the worst offender was Quantum of Solace, where the blurry camera and fast editing are so incomprehensible that you’re blind to method, only results. You might as well fast-forward through the action sequences and have the hero hold up a sign that says “I lived.” The hand-held, quick-cut bullsh*t isn’t terrible in small doses (it still bugged me in Saving Private Ryan, but didn’t ruin the movie), but lately it’s infected entire films, and I’ve been praying for the pendulum to swing back. I used to enjoy even mediocre action films, and these days, trying to sit through the Transformers was like getting a root canal. I’d even throw movies like Sucker Punch and Tron Legacy onto the pile, not so much because they’re shaky-cam, quick-cut, but because they seem to take place in a space with a confused spatial awareness, where you’re not sure which way is up or down or what the rules are. And no gravity equals no consequences equals no tension equals boring. It’s the same disorienting effect. Anyway, check out the videos for a full explanation of what I’m talking about. Let’s hope Hollywood wises up and finds a better way to communicate chaos. Reaction shots of scared cats, maybe? What? I think that’d be fly.