Matthias Stork’s two part video essay, Chaos Cinema, nicely crystalizes a lot of things that many of us have felt for the last decade. His essay points out the death of the classical cinema style - one rooted in coherent geography and motivated camera movement - in favor of a kinetic, confusing and meaningless style.
The first of the two parts, about action films, feels particularly on the nose. I think Stork isn’t making enough of a distinction as to when ‘Chaos Cinema’ is motivated - in Black Hawk Down the whole point is to reproduce the confusion of war, and Greengrass’ style in his Bourne films is intended to convey the hard-to-follow speed and brutality of ‘real world’ action* - but it’s rare when a filmmaker uses this style to mean anything beyond ‘Hey, this is how they’re shooting movies these days!’
The second of the two parts has some nice summing up, including a bit where Stork compares the modern sensationalism of ‘Chaos Cinema’ to the earliest films, like The Great Train Robbery, where a gunman pointing a pistol at the audience and firing legit freaked people out. That was about spectacle, not about story or character or emotion, and the same is true of Tony Scott’s work (this video essay could easily have been titled ‘Fuck You, Tony Scott’).
There’s a bit that Stork buries at the end that I wish he had made a bigger deal out of earlier - this isn’t about style, it’s about impact. Great, well-shot action is something you experience, almost first hand. Modern, impossible to follow action is something that barrels past you, which is ironic because the whole point of the shaky cam style is to replicate a verite, first person style. Yet it’s so much more distancing.
Also worth discussing: Stork uses a number of Christopher Nolan scenes to make his case. The action in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight tends to be incomprehensible and terrible, and he uses the Mombasa chase in Inception - but he leaves out the hallway fight, which is brilliant and semi-classical action filmmaking. Nolan’s camera is mostly stable, the cutting between the levels of dream is 100% motivated from shot to shot, and the length of shots tends to be longer. It’s elegant, it’s beautiful and it’s an action scene that actually moves me as a fan of cinema. I just rewatched it on YouTube and was transported and elated by it. Of course if I watched the snowmobile chase I would be grumbling right alongside Stork. This is why Nolan confuses me - his action is so uniformly terrible, right up until it’s transcendentally brilliant.
* he does make one almost grudging allowance for The Hurt Locker, highlighting the opening explosion, which I think is one of the best bits of modern action.