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Honest-to-goodness Truck Flippings

Two brilliant film reviews by a friend and critic Michael Barrett (from San Antonio):

On Renoir’s La Marseillaise (featured in a budget DVD collection of Renoir films):

It’s a collection of historical moments about the French Revolution, and even though it includes the points of view of the royalty and their minions, its primary focus is the common people.

Stop and consider for a moment how unique that is. When Hollywood tells the story, whether with Norma Shearer or Kirsten Dunst, it’s naturally from the point of view of Marie Antoinette, whose regal tragedy is assumed to be what middle-class audiences want to identify with. Even A Tale of Two Cities, which focuses on ordinary people, tells of unjustly victimized outsiders in the grand tragedy of the guillotine, while the unwashed revolutionary peasants cackle from the sidelines with their knitting.

In Renoir’s version, much of which is taken from documents and letters of the time, we hear a Madame Defarge-like peasant woman expressing contempt for the queen in an assembly, but we know where she’s coming from with her prejudices and grievances (nor do her slanders seem completely unjustified). We also see her courage and we sense the remarkable cultural novelty of hearing a woman speak in public at all. The film begins with a graceful shot of the changing of the guard inside Versailles (a pregnant image), and the last we see of the royal family is a touching, understated shot when the camera suddenly remains stable as they exit the frame and exit history, stage left.

On the cinematic style of the Shaw Brothers:

Chang was the Douglas Sirk of the Shaw lot, a supremely confident stylist at home with grand emotions and subtextual ironies.

He renders the most plot-mechanistic scenes with grace, often gliding smoothly around characters as they utter expository dialogue. In this film, talky scenes in which the bad guys explain their plans are shot with artful coyness, hiding the face of the main villain to add a layer of mystery and suspense—even though his identity is no great secret or stunning revelation.

Chang also didn’t believe in photographing tableaus of fight choreography, nor in using editing to present movements analytically; he was less interested in showing a fight than in conveying emotion through kinetic images. He thought the most important participant in any fight was the camera, and therefore the viewer. He throws us into the middle of scrambled hand-held shots, a genre innovation he claimed credit for. He also selectively used slow-motion, an effect that caught the eye of assistant director John Woo.

Indeed, Chang is so confident that often he hardly bothers to show the fights. This movie doesn’t have many of them, and what’s seen are mostly highlights, including a climactic sequence where he cross-cuts casually between a group fight in a courtyard and a one-on-one with our armless hero in another location, showing only a few moments of what other directors would stage as a major separate set-piece.

In later films, his assurance is such that he often cuts away from action, to conversations for example. He understands the important fact that nothing is happening when his camera isn’t there, and the subtle corollary that wherever his camera is, there, too, is the action. In other words, he doesn’t stage action for the camera; his camera makes the action. When he cuts to something else, you don’t feel you’re missing anything, and you aren’t.

Such is the confidence of a skilled, prolific craftsman. Someone looking for fight choreography may be disappointed and think it’s mishandled, but those looking for human drama won’t be. Besides, he knows when to get around to violence in spades; he was famous for upping the blood quotient, so it’s important to realize how much he avoided over-use of action.

On the King Boxer film:

Pursuing our analogy of popular Hollywood stylists, he’s the Samuel Fuller to Chang’s Sirk, evincing a blunt pulpy poetry against the latter’s silken operatics. But he too didn’t have much interest in “the dancing”, as he says about his approach to the fight scenes. He devised certain tricks, such as landing people flat on their backs on the hard ground, puffs of dust flying up as a visual corollary of impact.

He uses editing heavily, causing fight director Lau Kar-Wing to admit in his interview that the editor was more important than himself, and that they worked together to string shots into an impression of motion. Of course this disguises stunt doubles as well as manufacturing motion.

In a way, this is the beginning of the end for action cinema, which like so many characters in today’s cinema of Millennial Unreality, doesn’t know it’s dead. Most of today’s so-called action films are non-action films that try to fool the audience by spraying a barrage of edits in our eyes to disguise the absence of action. The only thing in action is the rapidly flickering lights, and the viewer must mentally create what supposedly happens from this impressionistic blur.

Take last year’s Casino Royale, greeted with such critical rapture. The opening set-piece pretends to show people jumping high in the air from one girder to another. We see shots of people jumping, people flying, people landing, but we never see anyone jumping, flying and landing. All this “action” marks time, filling the space where nothing is happening, either on set or, when you think about it, in narrative terms. That’s why it’s so exhilirating to see, as in The Island, an honest-to-goodness truck flipping over. You appreciate that somebody’s driving that truck and flipping it over; the editor’s not flipping it and the CGI cartoonists aren’t flipping it.

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