03 February 2010

"Here's another explosion for your movie, kid."

So I finally got around to seeing Avatar. I don't intend to review it here - for one, everything anyone could possibly say about the film has pretty much been covered by the entire Internet, a medium so inundated with every asshole's opinion (hello!) that all films are simultaneously overrated and underrated; for two, I fear James Cameron will dispense his hired goons to my apartment to carefully break my legs in ways averse to healing. But there is one aspect of the criticism about it that I would like to address.

In discussing the film with friends and colleagues, I've heard a couple of people praise the action sequences. They generally use lines like "I could see everything that was happening," "I knew where all the characters were in relation to each other and the environment," and "The editing was well-paced and clear." I agree with this assessment - James Cameron is a good action director and knows how to stage and shoot a thrilling set piece. And this is also praise I've heard (and have directed myself) toward other recent action movies. I understand where it comes from completely.

At the same time, it fills me with despair. Has our action cinema so completely degenerated into incoherence that it's become necessary to single out "I could see what was happening" for praise? THAT'S WHAT DIRECTORS ARE SUPPOSED TO FUCKING DO! That's their job - to tell the audience a coherent visual story. And if they deliberately disorient the audience, then they better have a good reason for doing so, not just because it looks cool. (By the way, attempting to approximate the mindset of Jason Bourne is not a good reason, because Jason Bourne is the one character who would know exactly where everyone is and what they're doing - that's why he's so good at kicking their ass. Also, he's not spastic, so stop shaking the camera so goddamn much.)

(By the Way Part II: While looking for links for that last parenthetical sentence, I came across a David Bordwell piece that essentially says everything I wanted to say, not just about the Bourne movies but action cinema in general. He does it with vastly more insight and expertise than I could ever muster, so I highly recommend reading it. If you'd like to stick around for my amateur hour, I would be grateful.)

When I was in college, we studied Hong Kong action cinema, usually in comparison to how Hollywood practiced the genre. (Speak of the devil, David Bordwell's essential Planet Hong Kong was our guiding text, and most of my observations in this paragraph are drawn from my memories of it.) One thing the professors noted was that modern Hollywood typically gives viewers the impression that action is occurring without it actually happening - for example, shaking the camera to make it seem like a car was going fast when it wasn't - whereas Hong Kong actually staged the events occurring in the film - if someone got hit by a car, they got hit by a damn car. Hong Kong also practiced a pause-burst-pause rhythm in both editing and staging so that, no matter how frenetic the fighting became, viewers could still follow the action, while Hollywood chopped things up into incoherence.

I bring this up because Hong Kong cinema, like most worldwide cinema, was influenced by Hollywood to a certain degree, and stands as evidence that back in the pre-1990 Dark Ages, Hollywood knew how to stage and shoot action. Even in the dumbest of '80s action films (the glorious age of fun stupidity), there was a sense of geography so we could easily follow the events. Hong Kong studied Hollywood's lessons and combined them with its own existing culture and tricks to create something new (and awesome).

But Hollywood lost its way, with the Michael Bay school of "Shoot and Blend" becoming the dominant mode of action expression. Instead of looking at action cinema itself for influence and guidance, Hollywood has stolen the "You Are There" shaky cam aesthetic so unfortunately predominant in "gritty" films. Rather than being influenced in turn by Hong Kong's more concrete filmmaking innovations, it has instead co-opted only its relatively shallow surface traits (gun fu, martial arts) in the hopes that they will bring power and excitement to sloppy hackwork.

It's reached a point where I become excited when drama directors take on action films in the hopes that they will invest some classical cinema into the shoot 'em up moments. I'm often wrong to get my hopes up (3:10 to Yuma, Quantum of Solace). I wish I could say that the center cannot hold and that eventually Hollywood will find its way, but audiences still throw their cash at whatever the insurmountable marketing divisions tell them they enjoy.

Sure, sure, there are still directors who know what they're doing - I keep thinking back to the brutally wonderful mayhem of No Country for Old Men, and anyone influenced by Sergio Leone can craft an expert bit of the old ultraviolence. But these master craftsman are far too rare, so I'm afraid we're stuck for the time being, giving our praise to directors who are only doing their job in, you know, showing us what the fuck is going on.


  1. While I agree with everything you are saying, I feel it is disingenuious to say that Avatar's action sequences are just "ok". They're genuinely thrilling, even when you take into account the fact that we could really give a shit about these stock characters. At least the mech fight FELT like something was at stake, instead of District 9's "shoot me" "now shoot me" mech finale.

    Your argument appears to be less with the action in Avatar and more with the fact that the overall story and themes of the film are obvious and dull. "Respect nature" is more in your face than the 3-D. But the action is delirious and splendid. We praise it because it is worth praising. We're excited about it because we don't get to see action this good every day. Worrying if a new action movie might have "choppy action" is the new "I hope all the funny jokes weren't in the trailer".

    Isn't being excited about good action in film the same as being excited about a comedy that speaks to real human experience with jokes that are more than farts and pratfalls? Shouldn't every writer and director know that?

    To answer your question, yes, our action films have been denigrated and destroyed. Seeing a Na'vi swoop over a battle ship and kill the shit out of it in one glorious take is exactly the kind of thing that will have me cheering.

    As always, a great post J.

  2. Ah, but I never said that Avatar's action sequences were just "ok" and never argued for or against Avatar. At least, not in this blog post. (Insert tongue sticking out smiley face here - it's just easier for me to write this than figure out how to approximate it.)

    But now that you mention it, you're right - my problems were more with the overall story and theme and characters. I can't hate on the action sequences - well, it started getting tedious at the end, what with the general just barely escaping the ship, then fighting it out with the protagonist, and that giant knife was a bit silly - but even that complaint has more to do with story and characters than staging and shooting.

    I've found that no matter how great an action sequence may be, it usually doesn't engage me if I've been bored by the story leading up to it. I can deal with stock characters and plots, but drag them out for too long, or navel gaze about this and that, and I become disengaged. When the action starts up again, I can intellectually think "That's impressive" but I won't feel it emotionally.

    Jeez - maybe I should do a sequel blog post to unpack that paragraph. I could even throw in some spieling about your (very apt) comparison of action to comedy - there really isn't much separating the two genres, after all. That's why they work so well together.

    Now I have the Huey Lewis "Pineapple Express" song stuck in my head.

  3. In an interesting coincidence, Ebert touches on some of your thoughts on action in his two star review for From Paris With Love.

  4. I notice this phenomenon particularly as applies to action scenes from 1960s television. When Captain Kirk mixes it up in the engine room with Khan, the camera pulls back to the second floor(!) to show us what is happening. Long, languorous shots with obvious stunt doubles in favor of tighter, bouncing, shots where all we see is a fist hitting a hand.

    That being said, I am fully in support of that style when it is a deliberate use of storytelling. (I'm thinking of the first time we see Batman down by the docks in Batman Begins.) But as you said, isn't that what the director is supposed to be doing all the time?