Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fight Club

Slate has a nice video essay by Dennis Lim about the evolution of fight and action scenes in cinema. His comments accompanying the clips are really interesting. I share his disapproval of much of the contemporary action genre which is either too dominated by CGI effects or else too randomly chopped up and spliced together, the ultimate aim of which is to create a feeling of sensory panic in the audience (the feeling of, "what was it I just saw?") and worse, to stun their critical faculties into submission. These directors have obviously never heard of Eisenstein and his theories of Montage. Compared to these films the early and mid eighties feel like the golden age of blockbuster action movies (Terminator et al.) I think (and as he also notes in his essay) this MTV aesthetic works well in the recent Bourne films because the visual incoherence ties in very well with the subjective state of the protagonist, who has lost his bearing in reality. And of course, one of the best uses of non-linear editing to create expressionistic effects is in boxing scenes of Raging Bull. Lim should have also included the classic Samurai films which have very elegantly choreographed fight scenes. Besides the famous ones by Kurosawa there is also Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri the sword fight scenes of which had me completely floored. Also the clip from Cronenberg's Eastern Promises seems to be truncated. For the entire scene click here. (Caution: Extreme gore and partial male nudity). It goes way too far, though I doubt about it being the "platonic ideal of fight scenes" as Lim claims.


puccinio said...

You kow something very funny about the boxing scenes of ''Raging Bull'' the reason so many people have gone bananas over it is that it is utterly and absolutely unrealistic. Scorsese hated boxing and the only way he found it interesting was if he made it as stylized as possible. If you notice the domestic scenes of the film are very restrained, almost rigidly realistic while the boxing scenes are stylized fantasias.

And Scorsese's model for editing those boxing scenes. MGM Musicals and Powell-Pressburger's ''The Tales of Hoffmann'', he essentially made the boxing scenes one long musical number with the rhythm, the tempo, the camera all edited to create a very stark spectacle. I'm pretty sure most of these action junkies would be shocked to their shins if they heard about the connection between boxing and musicals. But then Gene Kelly was one of the biggest alpha-males in film history(on and off screen).

Alok said...

I think I read somewhere that it was also one of the reasons why he chose B/W. What you say about his attitude to boxing is true. On the DVD of Robert Wise's The Set-up there is a commentary by Scorsese. I couldn't listen to it in full but he speaks with great admiration about how powerfully Wise was able to convey a feeling of disgust with the violence to the audience... In that film he mostly does that by showing the reaction of the audiences, some of which are really grotesque and somewhat exaggerated although Wise says that he actually saw scenes like these in real boxing matches. Then there was the great Robert Ryan...I don't think one can better the way he portrayed tortured and tormented violent soul.

That said Scorsese is no prude about showing violence on screen... he actually set new benchmarks with Taxi Driver, Mean Steets and Raging Bull. It is also true that his films *feel* more violent than they actually are.

puccinio said...

That's true. Scorsese by the way is often asked how he approaches violence. He says that he really doesn't have an approach. He just tries his level best to show violence as it is in reality. The obvious answer is that is the best approach.

But it goes deeper than that. In Scorsese's films the violence inflicted on other people isn't his only concern but what the people doing the violence do to themselves. Like Travis Bickle in ''Taxi Driver'' commits that bloodbath to let loose all his rage and frustration and since he missed his intended target he strikes at people below him and in the last bit when the police come in he points a finger to his skull making a motion of shooting which shows that he wanted to commit a kind of harakiri(which was the original idea of Paul Schrader). But Scorsese and Schrader added that coda to show that he is still as lonely and frustrated as ever.

Then in ''Casino'' his most pessimistic and tragic film, the violence is done in a very sober fashion as if it's part of a process, institutionalized.

But Scorsese also deals with emotional violence. In that respects, ''The King of Comedy'' and ''The Age of Innocence'' for that matter are his most violent films.

puccinio said...

Oh and Scorsese's reason for choosing B+W over colour was on Michael Powell's advice. Formerly one half of Powell-Pressburger, he and Scorsese became friends(and he later married Scorsese's editor and close friend Thelma Schoonmaker, becoming part of his family for all intents and purposes) and Scorsese showed him some test footage for ''Raging Bull'' and Powell told him that the red colour of the boxing gloves were too distracting. That and there were many boxing movies in the wake of ''Rocky'' and Scorsese felt that going B+W would be enough to differentiate it from the others.

It was pretty risky because at that time, shooting in B+W had become more expensive than shooting in colour.

Alok said...

I need to rewatch some of these Scorsese films. Also the King of Comedy which I haven't seen yet. Your repeated ecstatic praise of Casino intrigues me...:) I know French critics love it but they also love brian de palma's 90's works. I have put it high on my to-see list because the only time i have seen it was on TV with ads coming in between...

Violence in his films is invariably stylized but he is always dead serious about it. Almost on the opposite pole of someone like Tarantino or even de palma.

I knew he is a big fan of Michael Powell, he has contributed to a lot of commentaries and dvd features, but didn't know about Schoonmaker being married to Powell.

puccinio said...

Also the King of Comedy which I haven't seen yet.

Very recommended. The film was trashed and bombed when it came out, it alienated far too many people. It's a comedy that on first viewing is painful and disturbing but it gets funnier on repeated viewings, just like a Bunuel film.

Your repeated ecstatic praise of Casino intrigues me...:)

That's how I first saw
''Goodfellas'' which didn't impress me(although I loved the dialogue). ''Casino'' I saw on the big screen(and it's a magnificent cinematic experience) and I was hooked. I've seen it 10 times now. It's a very pessimistic film but the form of the film is so open and visionary, with the documentary-like narrative and the many references to culture high(Bach) to low(Las Vegas itself) and the esoteric(a composition re-creating an album cover ''Noel Coward in Las Vegas'', Delerue's score from ''Contempt'' and many others). That said, I can understand that many people won't like it. Scorsese himself found the story too depressing. That's why he made ''Kundun'', a film about non-violence after it.

''Casino'' isn't a gangster film. It's a documentary on a way of life based entirely on greed, fear and maintaining a facade. It's an achievement of one of Eisenstein's dreams, a film based on Marx' ''Das Kapital''. Except Scorsese unlike Sergei describes the impact of that in terms of everyday details and items. So much so, that ''Casino'' is kind of an iconographic film. You can find as much about the story and the characters from their costumes, their accessories and the stuff they surround themselves with than the actual storyline.

Alok said...

I am sure that I didn't catch any of these high-brow (or low-brow) references when I saw it. Will definitely see it again.

Your comment about it being an "iconographic film" interests me a lot because I have been thinking about it a lot lately. Specially how these "iconic" images can be used to represent "ideas" and how these films mine on shared cultural memory and cultural subconscious. Last year's I'm Not There was a great iconographic film (though much more openly so). One needs to see a lot of classic hollywood films through a similar perspective.. films of Greta Garbo for example. Classic German cinema is also full of iconic images.

puccinio said...

Well the idea of looking at a film iconically, that is on the purely visual level of costumes, body gestures, movement and their relation to surroundings was part of avant-guarde cinema of the 50's and 60's. Scorsese started out in that period of cinema and was part of the avant-guarde before he realized that he could make films in the mainstream.

In classical hollywood narrative is very important so you can't do a lot of that kind of reading. The exception(fairly startling) is John Ford. Ford's films according to recent scholars have a higher degree of visual narrative and ellipsis than most of his peers. Sirk, another director with such a tendency probably loved Ford for that reason. ''The Searchers'' for instance for instance, the dialogue tells one story but the images, the compositions and the framings are undercutting the verbal narrative, distrusting the capacity of language to convey depth and psychology.

Of course the ultimate iconographic film is Sternberg's ''The Scarlet Empress'', all of the Sternberg-Dietrich films in fact. But that film above all.

In the avant-guarde another great iconographic film is JLG's ''Two or Three Things I Know About Her'', Scorsese gave a homage to that film in ''Taxi Driver''(the bit where Travis watches that tablet dissolve into the glass is a recreation of the legendary cosmic-coffee scene in the Godard).

And let us never forget Alain Resnais' ''Last Year At Marienbad'', a film which is supposedly about Cold War gloom, the ultimate in Euro-Modernist Cinema, it's also a remake of ''North by Northwest''(complete with Hitchcock cameo via cardboard cameo), has costumes(by Coco Chanel) homaging many Hollywood stars, recreates a scene from ''Gilda''(with the exact same dialogue).