I’ve been meaning for some time to give my own take on Mattias Stork’s video-essay, “Chaos Cinema,” which has made quite a sensation in the blogosphere. I think that what Stork is talking about is pretty much the same as what I referred to in my book Post-Cinematic Affect under the rubric of post-continuity. I find Stork’s essay very useful and illuminating for the way that it highlights and describes the stylistic changes in recent Hollywood action films; but I also think he is too monolithic in dismissing this style as an inferior (and almost necessarily exploitative) form of filmmaking. (Many of my problems with Stork’s piece have already been addressed by Matthew Cheney, who very kindly mentions my own work as a counter-example to Stork’s overall claims). In any case, rather than write a full-fledged response to Stork at this point in time, I have decided to make my prospective answer into a proposal for a paper to be given (if it is accepted) at the next Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference.
Here is the full text of my proposal (though, as it exceeded the space limit for proposals, my actual submission is an abridgement of this):
In my book Post-Cinematic Affect (2010), I argue that American commercial filmmaking has, in the last decade or so, been increasingly characterized by what I call the stylistics of post-continuity. This is a filmmaking practice in which a preoccupation with moment-to-moment excitement, and with delivering continual shocks to the audience, trumps any concern with traditional continuity, either on a shot-by-shot level or in terms of larger narrative structures.
Post-continuity stylistics is an offshoot, or an extreme development, of what David Bordwell calls intensified continuity. Bordwell demonstrates how, starting with the New Hollywood of the 1970s, commercial filmmaking in America and elsewhere has increasingly involved “more rapid editing… bipolar extremes of lens lengths… more close framings in dialogue scenes…[and] a free-ranging camera.” But although this makes for quite a different style from that of classic Hollywood, Bordwell does not see it as a truly radical shift: “far from rejecting traditional continuity in the name of fragmentation and incoherence,” he says, “the new style amounts to an intensification of established techniques.”
I argue that this situation has changed in the twenty-first century. The expansion of the techniques of intensified continuity, especially in action films and action sequences, has led to a situation where continuity itself has been fractured and devalued, or fragmented and reduced to incoherence. Bordwell himself implicitly admits as much, when he complains that, in recent years, “Hollywood action scenes became ‘impressionistic,’ rendering a combat or pursuit as a blurred confusion. We got a flurry of cuts calibrated not in relation to each other or to the action, but instead suggesting a vast busyness. Here camerawork and editing didn’t serve the specificity of the action but overwhelmed, even buried it.” In mainstream action films by Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and Paul Greengrass, as well as in lower-budget action features by directors like Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, continuity is no longer “intensified”; rather, it is more or less abandoned, or subordinated to the search for immediate shocks, thrills, and spectacular effects by means of all sorts of non-classical techniques. This is the situation that I refer to as post-continuity.
Recently, the question of post-continuity cinema has come to the foreground of discussion, thanks in great part to Mattias Stork’s video-essay, “Chaos Cinema,” which argues that, in recent commercial films, “we’re not just seeing an intensification of classical technique, but a perversion,” which is “marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence.” Stork’s essay has the great virtue of clearly defining the characteristics of these new cinematic practices, and of both showing and explaining how they differ from the more classical action sequences of directors like Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, and John McTiernan. However, it seems to me that Stork is too monolithic, and even moralistic, in his outright dismissal of nearly anything made in the post-continuity, “chaos cinema” style. Despite his grudging exception for Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker (which in my view, is still a film that largely observes a more classical conception of continuity), Stork largely regards post-continuity cinema as “an easy way for Hollywood movies to denote hysteria, panic and disorder,” leading to audiences “sensing the action but not truly experiencing it.”
In my talk, I will take a more nuanced look at post-continuity cinema, considering its virtues as well as its defects. I will consider the ways in which post-continuity stylistics are expressive both of technological changes (i.e. the rise of digital and Internet-based media) and of more general social, economic, and political conditions (i.e. globalized neoliberal capitalism, and the intensified financialization associated with it). I will suggest a strong affinity between what Stork calls “the woozy camera and A.D.D. editing pattern of contemporary releases,” and the minimalist and relativel static styles of recent low-budget horror films (like the Paranormal Activity series), “mumblecore” slice-of-life films, and reality television. All of these are post-continuity, in the sense that they do not altogether dispense with the concerns of classical continuity, but move ‘beyond’ it or apart from it, so that their energy and investments point elsewhere. Like any other stylistic norm, post-continuity stylistics involves films of the greatest diversity in terms of their interests, committments, and aesthetic values. What unites, them, however, is not just a bunch of techniques and formal tics, but a kind of shared episteme (Michel Foucault) or structure of feeling (Raymond Williams).
9 thoughts on “Post-Continuity”
I can’t help but channel Virilio here and trace the stylistics of “post-continuity” and “chaos cinema” to the attempt to depict, or rather evoke the experience of post-Cold War urban combat. The first movie I saw which displayed the jarring, immersive qualities which bombard the ears and jar the eyes was Black Hawk Down. I had never felt so physically pounded by a film, which was able to achieve an unparalleled physical immediacy, from the sweat running down the faces of the soldiers to the loudness of the gunfire and explosions. In fact, one of the most memorable scenes shows one of the rangers being made deaf by an explosion, which is what the film is aiming for on an ideological level: the Somalis are portrayed as an enraged alien mass, whose motives are as indecipherable as they are irrelevant, and the combat sequences have a twisted SF quality about them (Paolo Palladino was quite right to compare Black Hawk Down with Starship Troopers). The combat sequences from Gamer resemble those in Black Hawk Down. The Ridley Scott film not only sparked legions of imitators, but also reflects the disregard and repression of context in favor of an immediacy that overwhelms the senses. Action suppresses the political questions behind the mission. The final lines of the film, spoken by the character played by Eric Bana, essentially tell the audience to forget all about how the rangers ended up escaping, with the help of Pakistani tanks, a weird moment that seems to create a new form of hybrid action-propaganda movie.
What defines such a film is an escapism which relies on the most visceral aspects of an experience, rather than the flight into a fantasy. Or rather, the fantasy has to do with the increasingly immersive realism achieved by CGI and other effects. What gets lost is the capacity to formulate an intelligible and coherent account of experience, or to recognize contradictions even when they are as glaring as the one at the end of Black Hawk Down.
I hope this paper gets accepted!
@Peter: I like what you say about Black Hawk Down. In a brief note I posted on Facebook which compares Gamer and Dr. Strangelove one thing that occurred to me is how much of “chaos cinema,” on a purely formal level of shot relations, is an intensification of the “immersive realism” or war-documentary aesthetic we find throughout film history.
Yeah, so Stork’s video on “chaos” cinema was factually flawed on so many levels I cannot even begin to identify all of them here. And since the description of your paper seems to ride on many of them –I’m not too optimistic that you’re going to come up with anything substantial on the topic.
The main problem is that both you and Stork are committed to a zeitgeist mode of advancing historical claims about Hollywood filmmaking without doing anything that could count as fine grained historical analysis. Appealing to some “structure of feeling” or Foucauldian “episteme” is lazy and moreover, obfuscating. How does it work? And what are the causal relations involved in the emergence of such a purported and wide-scale historical shift? How do any of the general social trends you cite as causal mechanisms inform the practical decisions filmmakers confront when choosing a lens or outlining how a scene will be shot and staged!? And besides, using isolated scenes in a few dozen films(and I doubt you’ll even be that thorough) does not provide evidence for the type of epochal shift you’re arguing for.
Here are some points you need to think about more clearly: genre –both you and stork extrapolate from action scenes to make claims about an entire mode of filmmaking tout court(i.e. mainstream Hollywood filmmaking). That’s pretty specious. What about the other scenes and strategies in these films(e.g. dialogue, exposition, narrative structure????). Do those moments depart form conventions such as shot-reverse-shots, using establishing shots, a 3-turning point plot structure, close-ups to draw attention to details? And what of other genres of filmmaking within the same Hollywood mode? How does EAT PRAY LOVE, or JANE EYRE, or BRIDESMAIDS or any number of other mainstream films released in the past year evince the trends so nebulously identified as “chaos cinema” or “post continuity” cinema, and if they are indeed subject to the same general condition of neo-liberal capitalism–how the fuck do these films(and many, many others) escape such a totalizing juggernaut of determination? And even in the case of Michael Bay –if aspects of his film style were indeed so pervasive and normativised, why are they constantly subject to such dismissive and severe critical scrutiny? Bay himself in interviews has indicated that he realized that he needed to pare back his style, hold his shots longer and tell the story more coherently(i.e. classically!). Certainly, some of the trends used to shoot action scenes are described under the “intensified continuity” rubric –but you and Stork are arguing for a definitive rupture with classicism and intensified continuity that sounds pretty untenable(at least your paper proposal above shows no merit for such a claim).
And especially audacious(in a bad way) is your attempt to recoup what are clear fucking counterexamples to your theory by subsuming the Paranormal and mumblecore films into your zeitgeist history! The paranormal films, a clear example of a genre that enlists the resources of classicism towards different generic ends than action films –and moreover, the mumblecore films are closer in form to indie films and new American cinema than to Transformers 2. And yeah, no shit, reality tv shows “move apart” from classical film continuity –they’re tv shows of a very particular type that adhere to entirely different exigencies of production, exhibition and content(even within the norms of television production which you may want to read a book or two about)! Why don’t you throw in how John Currin’s paintings or Anish Kapoor’s sculptures and Frank Ghery’s architecture also move apart from intensified continuity and display some vague condition of “post continuity cinema” and then you can EXPLAIN how this is all a consequence of neoliberal capitalism and the intensified “financialization” associated with it –oh wait!–that’s basically what you are doing in the process telling us all absolutely jack squat.