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What Would People Think?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

"Action As Art" Open Thread

The discussion in my previous post has taken an interesting turn, with Matt Novak suggesting the approach of appreciating action in movies as art in itself. I find that intriguing. This isn't the first time I thought about it.

First, perhaps in slight contradiction to my last post, I must say that I still appreciate the slam-bang-zowie feel of average, everyday action. That's why I'm a longtime James Bond fan. Jeff says he got bored during some of the action sequences in King Kong. Not me. As I keep repeating, I especially loved the T-Rex fight. Oh, man during that part when the one T-Rex was trying to swing itself on the vines and take a bite of Naomi Watts, I had to restrain myself from swinging in my seat to empathetically help Naomi shift her momentum away from the T-Rex. I'm also reminded of a time when I was watching xXx with my dad in the theaters and there was this one young woman who was literally bouncing up and down in her seat during some of the more spectacular action sequences. It helped me turn my brain a little younger and appreciate how freakin' cool the action sequences were....character development be damned.

But usually, I want at least some character development, so I go back and forth.

But back to the topic of this discussion - action as art. I can certainly see that in the "wire-fu" movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, and Hero, with their elegant action that's almost more akin to ballet than battle. On the American (though Asian influenced) side of things the best example that comes to mind is Face/Off. Though less elegant than the wire-fu films - its a film full of guns and explosions - there's a certain beauty to the action of that film, especially the way it plays with the shifting identities of the main characters. Again, even with the guns, some of the action sequences are akin to a dance. I especially love the one scene in a church or something where there's at least 2 or 3 different parties and it's unclear who's on whose side. Many characters have 2 guns pointed at 2 different people and the whole arrangement forms a labyrinth of weapons, ready to fire but afraid of being shot. And John Travolta's character just giggles and says "what a predicament!"

Matt's example of Sin City is interesting. I'm not sure whether it fits. I don't remember anything particularly interesting about the action sequences, with the possible exception of the fight between Marv and Kevin. (A certain Mr. Woodhead has yet to see this excellent film and I don't want to spoil it for him.) (For those of you in this discussion who don't know, I'm referring to Jeff.) (I don't remember whether Mike has seen it.) But the film as a whole is DEFINITELY art. Even with minimal characterization, I felt for the characters. Perhaps because there's a part of me that definitely identifies with the self-hating, protective-of-those-he-loves (usually females) attitude of each of the main characters. Then there's just the look of the film. Dear lord, the film is beautiful. The look of the film makes even the violence beautiful. But Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow had a similar amazing look and that film was...well...lame. Sin City had far more....attitude, for lack of a better word. A wicked sense of humor, combined with an almost despairing sense of righteousness. All packed into a (mostly) black-and-white, ultraviolent comic book of a film. Man, I love that movie. But I'm not sure if its action is art.

So, I've digressed more than once in this post and I've typed right through breakfast.

Any thoughts on action as art? Any other examples of action as art? Feel free to comment on any of my asides.
One last note on King Kong: I think another reason I liked it more than Jeff and Danielle was that I had seen the original and I could see the 10 zillion ways that this film was a loving homage to the original. This film was quite obviously a labor of love for Peter Jackson and I got infected with his enthusiasm.

Also, I saw Match Point yesterday. I think I liked it, but I'm not quite sure yet. Certainly not a happy film.


  • I'd like to defend the idea that Sin City is action as art. I'd argue that it's art because the action is incredibly controlled, and it goes far beyond functional action.

    It's controlled because it needs to look a certain way to be consistent with the visable tenor of the film. It completely fits within the style, and feels completely integrated.

    It's also more than functional. Movies that need a fight sceen, or a chase sceen, or an explosion an always just put those in, and make them functional. Sin City, however, doesn't use action as simply functional like those types of movies. The fights aren't just used to advance plot, they're an integral part of the art. And I'd say that, while they're not necessarily innovative, and certainly serve the functional purposes, the action goes far beyond that. It's controlled to fit a particular aesthethic design and each scene can stand on it's own, and is not simply a plot device.

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 1/25/2006 12:18 PM  

  • Ben, I saw "Sin City" on opening night. Who do you think you're talking to, honestly? :-P

    I agree with you that it is hard to characterize it as "action as art", specifically because there really just isn't that much action. Whereas, movies such as "Face Off" seem destined for the action as art category. However, I would agree (as Matt appears to be arguing) that the action in "Sin City" is artistic. I guess my point is, I don't look upon "Sin City" as an action film.

    Another word on the action genre: you have often mentioned that your mom's favorite movie is "Die Hard" (a respectable choice). "Die Hard" is a great action movie, one of the best if not the best. However, I would have a difficult time characterizing it as art. At the same time, the action scenes never feel tacked on and are necessary to advance the plot. It's not art, but it's a lot of fun.

    (As for "King Kong", I have voiced my problems with the action somewhere, but I don't remember where so I will repeat them here. The T-Rex fight was unreal. Beautifully shot and taut as hell. However, the brontosaurus chase scene did bore me. I thought it was totally unnecessary, and neither it nor I cared about any of the casualties. As for the bug pit scene, I was too busy squirming in my seat at its sheer ickiness to appreciate it. And it's completely implausible deus-ex-machina conclusion didn't exactly help either. Wow, this is a really long parenthetical aside. I'll shut up now.)

    By Blogger Mike, at 1/25/2006 2:45 PM  

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