Thursday, December 11, 2008

Action Movies, Part 3: Taxonomy!

Here's a brief history of the posts related to this conversation on action movies:

1: Movie Club discussion of T-2.

2: My first Gold Age of Action Movies post. Turned out to be the only one (the follow-up post on Speed remains half-written).

3: Sean's response is really worth reading. (That Speed post was supposed to address a lot of these concerns - honest!!! ;) )

4: Post on f/x and super-hero movies.

5: Sean's Bourne/Bond post and my response (check out the comments, too).

Which brings us (mostly) up to date... I'm going to use this post to regroup a bit and throw some more ideas out there.

I see two major trends in contempo American action cinema - two major branches on the family tree - and both are a response to the challenge of CGI-driven fx.

Branch 1: "Plastic Playsets and Comic Book Movies". These movies present stylized action in stylized worlds. The use of space in these movies tends to be expressionistic. There is an emphasis on self-contained settings and a decided lack of emphasis on creating the illusion of contiguous spaces.

(By which I mean: compare the opening of Speed - which goes to great lengths to show us the elevator shaft and exactly how the elevator shaft is connected to the rest of the building - or the entirety of Die Hard - where both the "geography" of the building and how the building fits into its surroundings are important - to the Matrix movies - where the major action scenes are set in places that are like closed-off levels of a video game (the rooftops, the hallway, the highway).)

This branch takes CGI and uses it to make movies more like comic books (once again, I'm following Bordwell), anime, and wuxia.

Major works include: The Matrix, the Star Wars prequels, Sin City, Kill Bill, 300, Beowulf, Speed Racer.

Minor works include: many videogame adaptations, 30 Days of Night.
Interesting outliers: Fight Club and Panic Room.

Branch 2: "Impact Impressionism". This is what I've been talking about in the Bourne/Bond post. There's a focus here on any number of techniques that read as "realistic" and are meant to give off a "you are there"-feeling. The illusion of spatial authenticity and integrity so important to "Golden Age" action movies takes a backseat to creating the illusion of integrity and authenticity of feeling. The videogame analogue here is the first-person shooter.*

Branch 1 uses CGI to create an intense fantasy experience, Branch 2 uses CGI (but tries to mask this use) to create an intense experience of realism.

Major works include: the Omaha beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Tony Scott movies, the Bourne Movies.

Minor works include: Mission: Impossible 3, Quantum of Solace.

Outliers (not fully action movies but indicative of the trend): Phone Booth, Tigerland, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later.

I tend to be more down, in general, on Branch 2 movies for a number of reasons.

One is that, as a practical matter, I think it leads to sloppier filmmaking, or, rather, it allows the filmmakers to get away with being sloppier than they otherwise might be.

Two is that - and this might be my crankiness getting in the way of my judgment - critics tend to talk about these movies in terms of greater realism, ignoring the fact that the realism is superficial. And that's partly the filmmakers fault, in that Greengrass, say, adapts the cinema verite style from his "non-fiction" movies when he's making the Bournes.

Related to this: I see the "Impressionistic" Style as part of a larger trend away from a kind of filmmaking where meaning lies in the shot and towards a kind of filmmaking where meaning lies more in the rhythms of the editing (see also: Michael Bay). I think that this is an interesting trend, but that talking about it in terms of realism obscures the issue.

That's also why I'm skeptical about observations like Tom Spurgeon's (from this comment thread):

Wasn't the fact that Bond was indistinguishable from his opponents in some of the fights in the second movie part of the point? His actions gain clarity as he gains moral clarity and is able to better distinguish himself against the people he's fighting.

The way the two films use the action to compare Bond to others -- including the woman in this latest film -- is the most interesting thing about the two movies.
It isn't just that I don't buy that theory in this specific case. After all, we can tell Bond and Mitchell apart just fine during the chase, but not when they get to the scaffolding - the part of the sequence that would be the most difficult to choreograph and edit for clarity. And, aside from the chase that happens at the opera, I don't think there's much that distinguishes the rest of the action sequences from those of many other contemporary action movies.

I do think these techniques can be used expressively. I think that 28 Days Later's final action works in the way that Tom is suggesting the Quantum scaffolding fight works.**

Three is that I can't shake the sense that in these kinds of movies the filmmakers are working extra hard to put something over on me. It comes off as frantic and desperate.

*Steve Sailer's point about No Country for Old Men is interesting here: he argues that the Coens figured out you have to slow things down to give a "real" FPS experience.

**I also think this is part of what Greengrass does in Ultimatum.


Mark said...

You left out Crank... said...

I like "Homeward Bound."

Anonymous said...