Thursday 26 May 2011

Action Scenes : Levels of Complication

This article is an attempt to show the degrees of complication in action scenes, the simple elements that are used to build excitement. Separating and classifying the blocks that build action scenes is by no means an exact science and there are, undoubtedly, messy dribblings wherever cuts are made.

One Level

This is the bare bones Fight or Chase.

Thor : Fistfight vs Security Guard. A simple tussle.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
: Flight into the forest. Jen flees pursued by Li Mu Bai

Two Levels

An extra element of danger or uncertainty is called into play. This could be the geography of the place or nature of the arena in which a chase or a fight takes place - height, fire, or unpredictable foreign elements such as traffic. The reason for the fight can also be the second layer, for example a bomb primed to explode. In other words: time. The two levels could equally be the combination of a fight and a chase (i.e. firing at each other while running/driving).

Quantum of Solace : Suspended and swung over the ground on ropes, Bond and Mitchell attempt to kill one another. This evolves from a chase (three levels - involving gun fire and rooftops).

Batman Begins : Monorail fight - the track is destroyed and time waits to trigger a fall

Attack of the Clones : Arena Battle. Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme fight off the Geonosians as well as the monstrous creatures that have been set upon them. Two adversaries are present with separate and differing motives to be vanquished.

Three Levels

Yet another danger. Another action or consequence to be taken into account. Maybe another person is put into the equation.

Spider-Man 2 : Fight on the side of a building. The fight itself, the height of the building on whose wall it takes place and the precarious position of Doctor Octopus' hostage, Aunt May, used as a pawn to weaken Spider-Man's position.

Fast Five : Two cars chased through traffic (two levels) pulling a bank safe that destroys cars in their wake. A chase with weapons and serious obstacles.

Four Levels

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull : Jungle Chase. A chase through the jungle by car (one), weapons such as swords and rocket launchers (two), height in the precipitous cliff that suddenly appears to one side of the chase or the possible fall awaiting the swinging Mutt (three), and the perils and pitfalls of deadly ants (four).

Yes, these don't all take effect simultaneously but I think it qualifies nonetheless.

Five Levels

Mission Impossible III : Wind Farm

One: Having rescued one of their agents the team board a helicopter and fly off. They are then pursued by another helicopter. Thus an action scene is born.

Two: The team's helicopter heads into a wind farm, introducing a level of danger and uncertainty requiring skill and nerve to overcome them.

Three: The enemy chopper enters the wind farm. By shooting a heat-seeking missile (which the team will head off by swerving and shooting flares) they have launched the scene onto a third level.

Four : One of the team (Lindsey) is lying on the floor of the helicopter in great pain. It is discovered that she has an explosive device in her head. A defibrillator is readied that will deliver a charge that may disable the explosive. Two countdowns converge: the machine's countdown to readiness and the invisible one behind her eyes.

This is not strictly a direct part of the action but it does divert the energies of those involved. It is, regardless, part of the scene.

Five : Height. Zhen slips out of the door of the helicopter because of the pilot's tight manoeuvres. She hangs on for dear life.

Eventually the enemy helicopter is chopped up by a blade. Lindsey, however, dies seconds before the defibrillator is ready to save her.

*      *      *

Of course none of the above takes into consideration Emotional Complications. Take G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra or Mr and Mrs Smith, where men and women must fight people they once, and perhaps still, love. What about when the eponymous hero of Spider-Man is faced with the balanced fates of a tram-load of passengers and the woman he loves, Mary Jane.

There are many ingredients at the disposal of artists. By using or eschewing them they excite, tease and torture.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

100 Posts! Full Archive

Checking On My Sausages has reached 100 posts. Here they are, give or take a few that were updated by later posts or have been removed.

Essays / Thoughts

A Wounded America : Bad Lieutenant and Southland Tales
A Cinema is A Cave 
Acting in True Grit
The Action/Sports Film (particularly Unstoppable and the Bourne films)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence : Love, Self-love and Self-hate
The Animated World and Books

Avatar and Language
Avatar and the Fusion of Male and Female
Avatar : The American Flag
Chungking Express : Identities and Labels
Close Ups

Dekalog : Chance and Control
Dekalog III : A Dialogue through Light
Dekalog : God in Man
Dekalog IX and X : Greed, Mistrust and Acceptance

Do Films Need Music?
Drag Me to Hell : Three Thoughts
Film Criticism and the Action Film
Film-makers' Intentions
G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra : Paris Chase Scene
Golden Age Gals or Why the Stars shone brighter in the Forties
Hulk : What Has Been Passed On ? (Physical and Emotional inheritance)
Inglourious Basterds : Observations
Is Every Film a Documentary?
The Last Airbender : Circles, Globes and Peace
"Me Too" Cinema
Pixar : Just a Toy 
Reacting to Characters' Reactions
Viewer Authorship


Alice (Jan Svankmajer)
Auschwitz, by Uwe Boll
Black Swan
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Box
Bridge to Terabithia
Cinderella / Battle of Kerzhenets - Cutout Classics
Citizen Kane
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Damnation (Bela Tarr)
Demonlover (Olivier Assayas)
Destino (Salvador Dali / Walt Disney) and Computer Animation
The Exorcist and Horror before The Horror
Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao Hsien)
Jeanne La Pucelle (Jacques Rivette)
La Joie de Vivre (Animated Film)
Lady in the Water (M Night Shyamalan)
The New World
Police, Adjective
Psycho II
Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Revolver (Jonas Odell)
Scenes of the Decade
Scream 4
Star Wars Episode I : The Phantom Menace
Stone Wedding (Nunta de Piatră)
Story of a Street Corner (Animated Film)
Terminator Salvation
The Top 50 Greatest Films 
The Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson)
Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo)
Your Animated Film Reviews

Image Galleries / Essays

Deer in Film
Gallery of the Cinematic Image
Images Recalling the Passion and Resurrection
John Carpenter - Under Siege
The Matrix Revolutions : Symmetry
Memorable Kisses
Muses (Actress/Director Partnerships)
Performance of the Decade
Romance Language
Travelling through film by Train


Directors' Art Outside of Film 
Disturbing Moments in Film
Revenge of the Sith Companion : Why is Star Wars so loved?
Taxi Driver - Writing while Watching


(Videos by Me)

In Praise of Godard

(Other Videos)

Lotte Reiniger's Animation The Star of Bethlehem

Saturday 14 May 2011

Scream 4

(Contains Spoilers)

The new heroes and heroines of Scream 4 are savvy technologically, connected by mobiles, Facebook and live web streaming. They are thoroughly clued in. too, on the conventions and convolutions of the fiction they find themselves in.

The older characters, including the original three (Dewey, Gale and Sidney) find it hard to keep up with modern ways. Sheriff Dewey doesn't realise how quickly rumours of the new murder case have spread on the internet and Gale's attempts to film the Stabathon with hidden cameras end in failure.

We see the generation gap in the way the killer deals with them. The girls are teased and manoeuvred into position via the social media sites they frequent and their mobile phones. For Jill's mother, on the other hand death is delivered the old-fashioned way : by post. She's knifed through the letterbox.

However, the new generations know-how proves of little practical use. They are the ones who die. Furthermore, on two occasions, gadgets enable victims or potential victims merely to see the killer on their screen before they see them with their own eyes (screens and interfaces are as another pair of eyes, often detaching them from immediate sensations i.e. intimacy).

*      *      *

Among these students are those who have not (especially the persons behind the Ghostface mask) been able to make the leap into maturity without disaffection, bitterness or confusion.  While there are distant echoes of high-school massacres, what are most frank and explicit are frustrations that come from being invisible to others (in affection, attention and the anonymous mime of fragmented 21st Century communication), not knowing how or where to get respect ("I don't need friends, I need fans") or being uneducated in, or unaccustomed to, coping with rejection.

Their parents are almost completely absent, even at night; these young people uncomfortably straddle the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Some get by, some struggle, all suffer.

The bonny, middle class, hyper-domestic living rooms and bedrooms (virginal in a manner of speaking) lack any of the messiness associated with teenagers and the sight of them disordered, smashed and covered in gore is harrowing. Surfaces, neat and beautiful; depths, foul and befouled.

When Jill beats herself up to look like a victim ("everyone loves a victim") it really is painful. With every blow the internal wounds become written on their face. It isn't the jumps or the shocks or the stabbings that hit home but that pain. When Kirby is stabbed by Charlie he is almost weeping when he spits that she hadn't noticed him in four years. He walks away hunched over and decidedly non-triumphant. Later, it is apparent that Charlie is seeking Jill's approval, in vain, as Clyde to her Bonnie. The mask is the face of a ghost - the person who puts it on is already, to all intents and purposes, dead.

Under the Bed : Jill in the position of victim and stalker. Hiding and lurking.
The killers are highly self-conscious and reach out for self-esteem. Not only for them is technology providing an impotent remote closeness.

Sidney, whose changing face is the very portrait of Scream, is haunted and hollowed upon seeing her nightmare returning to life, is another damaged (yet in some ways hardened and more determined) soul.

Jill's monologue, once she has revealed herself as one of the killers, seems both an unconvincing  (as if fed into her earpiece by Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson) appraisal of a modern world gone wrong and an arresting and ascerbic diatribe/confession.

*        *        *

Ghostface is just a mask : the mask of the angry, the jealous, the lost. It is an adopted identity. Any one of us could put it on. One of the traits that distinguishes the Scream films from the pack is that we already know the killer. We don't know who exactly but we have already met them. It can be anyone - not a person of supernatural strength or gothic fairytale degeneracy.

 Masks - Enough for Everyone

Perhaps this is why the killer is filmed differently from other slasher film perpetrators. In the first scene proper of Scream 4 Jenny runs up the stairs towards the camera pursued by Ghostface. As she goes past the camera we turn to follow her. Then exactly the same happens with Ghostface.

Generally speaking, when gazing at a killer, the camera would be static. The killer may come past the camera, or through it or across it but the camera won't adjust to follow his movements. It doesn't happen in Halloween or Black Christmas or countless other Slasher films that the Scream series takes its inspiration from. It may pan, but it won't twirl or spin. It is about the otherness of the character, its relentlessness.

Scream is different. "There's something really scary about a guy with a knife who just...snaps"

*        *        *

The original cast all survive the killers' attempts to remake the incidents depicted in the original in-film film Stab (based on what we see in Scream). They reclaim the series from its imitators and from itself : "Don't f**k with the original!" (even the Stab films have become clever sillies - Stab 7 doesn't even bother to mask the killer* and Stab 5, we are told, involves time travel).

The final word uttered by Sidney, in killing Jill, is "Clear". Defibrillator paddles are normally used to restart a failing organ and to revive the patient. This is what she does to the franchise, returning us to the beginning (or to zero) with a jolt that, ironically, kills the enemy.

*        *        *

Scream 4 is a film wrapped up in itself. The characters talk about horror films all the time. Bit by bit, aware that the killers are adapting real-life events and tipping their hats to cinema's heritage, they start to feel like they are now part of a movie. They watch their tongues ("I'll be right back" says a police officer, and quickly regrets it) and they wonder if the murderers are playing by the book or breaking the rules (surprises are cliched, as someone says).

Because the Ghostfaces could be adhering to convention or departing from it there is no way of knowing how to be safe. There is no rhyme or reason, no discrimination made between who will die and who will not. There are more deaths in this film than in the other three Screams and they are matter-of-fact. They can come at any time. It is so easy to take a life with a simple movement of the arm.

The previous Screams were exasperating because the angle of a horror film about horror films and people who like horror films seemed tacked on and not deep in the sinew of the narrative. Here it is the film. Layers upon layers, not decoration. There is something charming about a work that feels like an essay on and love letter to horror films.* It is lovingly and precisely engineered. It's a film that was clearly worked on with much care.

*        *        *

Scream 4 not only plays with itself, its past and its inspirations but connects with the real world...

Jill is fed up with playing second fiddle to her cousin Sidney, disenchanted with her life in the shadows. She is played by Emma Roberts, the niece to a (currently) more well-known actress: Julia Roberts. The film doesn't hide the parallel. Jill's surname is also Roberts. A frisson, a trembling, an added kick.

Dewey and Gale are now married in Scream 4, though they are going through a rocky patch. Scream was the film that brought together the now married actor and actress who play them: David Arquette and Courtney Cox. The film plays with the tension between them as characters and the tension between the film and real life. It has been suggested that Scream 4 has brought them closer after a period of separation (sounds lovely).

Then there is horror buff Kirby. She is played by Hayden Panettiere, best remembered as Claire Bennet in the TV series Heroes. Claire had a special healing power that meant she could survive being shot, run over or... stabbed. When she is suddenly punctured by the knife and told that it takes longer to die than in the movies, because of the images we associate with her, it pierces us still deeper.

So Scream 4 is wrapped up in itself, in the world of film and how the world interacts with fiction. It is, too, furnished and coloured by the backgrounds of its players.

*        *        *

Scream 4 doesn't terrify you in the moment but afterwards, in the dark streets where your fate may be waiting for you camouflaged in black.

Scream 4 is not very scary, nor very funny. It can be frightening (Kirby desperately reeling off sequels in an attempt to appease Ghostface) and it can be amusing. If one were to watch and judge on strict genre lines (having said that, which one film would be the template, because all are different?), it could be deemed a failure. "It's not a comedy, it's a horror film!" says Ghostface but it needn't be experienced as answerable to either. Seeing films as fitting genres is like seeing the world only out of train windows. There is so much land between the tracks.

It is what it is : engrossing and likeable.

The characters are believable and interesting (Kirby, Trudie and Sidney especially). Sub-plots, gradually and delicately advanced, are made vital.

The inhabitants of Woodsboro are the kind of people you can care about for as long as the film lasts, and longer.

Monday 2 May 2011

Reacting to Reactions

Good acting and writing is in the creation of a character anchored to the fictional world around them. The integration of person and place (and the successful interplay of one to another) makes both appear real and lifts the work in suspension above disbelief.

Good acting is in intonation, facial expression, body language. It is in the illusion of control in pre-decided action and spontaneity in reaction. Good writing is in filtering the story through the eyes of these characters.

However, the importance of acting, and hence the merit of good acting, is more fundamental still than fashioning something credible that we can understand or distantly connect to. The characters, the fleshy ghosts behind the screen, are us, they are our representatives, our vessels, avatars that allow us to run through the verdant landscape of fiction's fancy.

When something happens that is moving or scary or surprising it is just as important, if not more so, that the characters appear appropriately and authentically moved, scared and surprised. We echo off them. No matter how the sight awes us, we need to see the awe of those actually there (the characters) to found our feelings, to validate them, to fulfil and fortify them.There is a back and forth, audience and character feeding off each other.

Good acting and direction and writing geared towards showcasing reactions, are paramount. Acting is not something that I can dismiss as  easily as some do, dedicating a mere sentence to how the acting is wooden yet frankly insignificant when set against the majesty of its action. Steven Spielberg is a master of accentuating the reactions of characters (either before we ourselves see the object or after) turning around in shock or joy, eyes wide and turned heavenward. These witnesses are often gathered in groups too and the sense of community makes the events more palpable.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Which is more wondrous - the alien spaceship or the awe of those who see it? Do we say only "Did you see that ship!?" or also "Did you see the look on his face?"

The trailer for Super 8 (produced by Steven Spielberg and said to be made by J J Abrams in part homage to Spielberg's films) is replete with shots that revel in the glory of the grand reaction.

To dismiss the importance of a character's reactions to what we see in this way is to amputate our own importance, to accept a benumbing of our own senses.

If that strong bond is created between character and audience (of a remote link, of sympathy and empathy) then we will begin to look forward with worry or with excitement to see their reactions to revelations that we know are forthcoming. We know how it will further charge our own gratification. We can't wait, or dread, to see what these characters we like will make of it.

The best revelations (and reactions to them) are not only those we don't expect, like Harry Lime appearing smugly in a doorway of The Third Man, Sonia hearing that Bruno has sold their child in L'Enfant (perfectly acted), or Peter sat behind the desk in Charade (Cary Grant's self-satisfied face and Audrey Hepburn's shock, annoyance and delight are priceless), but those we know are coming.

 Charade : The revelation and the perfectly acted reaction that cements a brilliant scene

L'Enfant : The Shock of Bruno selling his son only hits home when we see the mother's reaction.

In the latter cases (the character being unaware) we act and root for them in response to what they can't know, and then the tension is released through the characters, when they are enlightened. Their gasps, their tears, their smiles and smiling eyes are projected onto our faces, the light of the image using our faces as a screen.

Clark Kent is revealed as Superman, Peter Parker as Spider-Man, comic books and comic book films work on and through this dramatic irony, on first establishing a relationship through an imbalance between what the audience and the character knows and then making it stronger through consummation via a revelation and a reaction.

Yes, it is not just fiction and reality that is brought together in this explosion of revelation but audience and character are suddenly and violently fused in knowing the same, feeling the same, being the same.

*       *       *

Abbas Kiarostami manipulates this bond in Shirin, swishing it about our heads like a rapier. Here we have our backs to the screen and watch the reactions of people to the film that they are watching. We can only hear it. Watching the reactions - serenity, concern, tears - we ourselves are split between the audience, each person in the auditorium taking a part of us, as the film echoes off them into us.

One discovers later that Kiarostami had showed the actresses a screen of dots and not the romantic tale we could hear. They are acting. A rotten farce. The bond of empathy, of a disbelief wilfully and cooperatively suspended is violated. However, the revelation of the subterfuge (the film itself never admits it) reframes it as a sobering and fascinating meditation on the nature of cinema and of fiction as a whole, on layers of reality, on the control we want to have on the deception (the structure also provides a pretext to look at beautiful, "unveiled" women). We want to be complicit in the trick and not its victim. What a tangled web.

We want to walk hand in hand with the character, with the person, and that is why, at first, we grieve when we are disabused - they are ghosts, it is fake, and the traces of our shared response will soon fade.

*        *        * 

Think of when we discover, in Rebecca, that Max hated rather than worshipped his wife. Is it our shock that makes it? Is it our joy? Or is it Mrs de Winter's (excellently depicted by Joan Fontaine) and ours through her? The second revelation, of Rebecca's illness, is undermined by a paucity of reaction shots. In The Empire Strikes Back how much of the impact of his father's true identity is its impact on us through Luke? The proportions may change but sights and sounds in cinema are nothing without those who are there and make us believe that they are there experiencing them. So much of cinema is faces, the actual presence of a person upon the white sheet. It isn't our real after all. It's theirs. Otherwise film is just events, dear boy, events.