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Original Action Scenes: Point-Blank Possible

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Some cinematic writers and directors and writer-directors have the notion that all that is required to produce a dramatic conflict is to show a physical conflict. This might suffice sometimes, but, even then, the devotees of this expedient often do not know how to present the clash in a way other than we have already seen many times before. Or maybe they just don’t care enough to make the effort to present it otherwise.

The scene-concoctors are, of course, as familiar with the imitatively wrought patterns of movement as we are, which is why they find them so readily at hand, so easy to draw upon when something is needed to fill the time and move the plot “forward.”

So, if there’s a car chase, there is something very familiar about the car chase. Yes, we have seen these vehicles turn corners like this before.

If there are fisticuffs, there is something about the punches and counter-punches that we can say is not entirely foreign to memory.

If there is an axe sweeping toward the head of our prone protagonist, it is a good bet he will jerk aside just before the blade would have severed that head.

How wonderful to see the sudden surge of strength and mastery with which an utterly exhausted one, his arm and hand akimbo, but whom we do not want to die, somehow wins an arm wrestling match with a villain who is in the best possible physical position to plunge a knife into the heart of our beleaguered compatriot yet somehow cannot make it through that last inch or so. Still, were it not for the frayed electrical cord and the vat of water that the good guy can see but that the bad guy cannot, all might have been lost.

The bad news for TV show people who complain about how their short production schedules must usually preclude doing much better in most scenes than the most weakly imagined cinema is that there are shows like 24 and Lost now. (The people who do 24 have to answer questions like this: “But isn’t the unpredictability of the show becoming all-too-predictable?” Yeah, it so boring when you know ahead of time, already, that you are not going to be bored to death. Next….)

For the sake of argument, let’s say you don’t have the resources and talent of the crews doing 24 and Lost. Still, how hard is it, really, to look at a scene you’ve plotted out, to look at the staging you have in mind, to look at your stack of 3×5 index cards of cookie-cutter directions you are about to give to your overly obliging actors and which you culled from the Standard-Issue Director’s Kit of 3×5 Index Cards of Cookie-Cutter Directions for Overly Obliging Actors, cards bearing the same old stale directorial wisdom on them that all the other directors are giving to their actors…and to realize that what you are about to do is a “creative” crime for which you should be flayed alive? How hard is it to take a step back and say, “You know, if we do this the way it’s been done umpteen trillion times before, it will look exactly the way it’s looked umpteen trillion times before.”

Okay, so maybe you’re not an artistic genius; maybe you’re not de Palma; granted. But do something that comes out of your own brain and aspirations instead of out of the index cards. Give it a shot, man.

Maybe it won’t work. Maybe you’ll blunder. But then I as a viewer would at least be able to say, “What a botch! What he was trying here doesn’t work at all! The tone is wrong, the pacing gangs aft agley, and the motivations of Suzy and Sal are improbable in the extreme! But you know…at least he tried. He was after something and he tried honestly to grasp the nettle of it. Got to give him credit for that. It’s crud, but it’s noble crud.”

Where this is taking me is a scene in the 1967 movie Point Blank starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman, a film I was able to see recently thanks to Netflix. (Thanks, Netflix.) Angie Dickinson stars as Chris, a woman who helps the Lee Marvin character, Walker, get his revenge against a fellow crook who double-crossed him during a heist and left him for dead. While not perfect, the movie has very interesting bits in it, and should be preferred to the unwatchable 1999 remake with Mel Gibson, Payback. (Douglas Pratt offers some interesting details about the Point Blank DVD at the moviecitynews.com site.)

The scene occurs when Walker takes Chris to the home of a man he intends to shake down for $93,000, a man he may end up killing. Chris had not fully realized their purpose in coming to the house, and when she finds out, is very upset. For a couple minutes the only thing that happens is Chris hitting Walker, striking him in a way that is utterly awkward, spastic, flimsy and distraught. Walker just stands there impassively, taking it. Finally she collapses. The woman has stopped, so Walker gets another drink or does whatever he was about to do before she started flinging her fists at him. It all just happens.

You watch this scene and no matter how you may assess the rest of the movie, you can’t help but say to yourself, “I’ve never seen this before. I know that people can get upset. I know that someone might strike another person over and over again without that other person flinching. It makes sense that Chris would be so incompetent yet sincere in her blows, given her emotions and everything else. It makes sense that Walker would be impassive and just let her wind down, that he doesn’t feel threatened by her, and also that if he feels any sympathy for her on some level, he doesn’t have the time or inclination to express it right now. It’s plausible. It’s not canned-plot-turn-plausible, it doesn’t follow the index cards, it’s not plausible in virtue of being numbingly familiar. But I’ve seen aspects of this one-sided altercation many times in real life. That, in addition to its consistency with what we know of the characters, is why the scene persuades me. I can accept these emotions, this weakness versus strength, this utter loss of control versus rigid self-containment. Yet this particular scene, the way it was done just now, the whole gestalt of it? It’s out of the blue as far as I’m concerned. Something new. Fresh. Riveting. And it’s not just physical action. It also tells a story about the characters. It moves the story along actually, not just physically, not just through space or time; it’s a development. Okay, I’d better stop talking to myself now.”

And it doesn’t matter if you now instruct me that in “So-And-So Movie” directed by Such-and-Such Director, produced two years before Boorman did Point Blank, there was a similar scene and that Boorman probably saw that scene before he set up his own such scene in Point Blank. Maybe. And Shakespeare stole the plot of Hamlet…what’s your point? Nobody can or should be beyond influences. Your choice is to either enlist and reshape those influences for your own distinctive artistic purposes, or just chew the cud of them like a dull cow.

I’ve never seen the flailing-away scene before. It looks and feels like something that could only have been done by these actors in this scene in this movie. But the police captain chewing out the renegade tough-guy detective, and barking that if you pull another stunt like this, I’ll have your badge? That scene I’ve seen. If the cop ain’t Clint, I’m not interested.

David M. Brown is the publisher of The Webzine, and runs the blog for the Laissez Faire Books web site, where he has been discussing many urgently important topics of the highest possible interest to you.

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About David M. Brown

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com deano

    It’s an interesting point – how some directors and actors can take a scene that, obviously, we’ve seen many times before, and put a fresh spin on it that resonates and works.

    One that sticks in my mind from a comparatively recent movie was the Bourne Supremacy, both its fight scenes and the chase scene. one might expect the usual ‘kung fu’-based superspy fight that you get from the various thrillers and the James Bond films instead what you got was a brutal, highly kinetic fight that used both its characters and its environment to good effect.

    The same element was present in the chase scenes which made a deliberate effort to “put the viewer” inside the car in a visceral “NYPD Blue” style of camera-work, a choice that made the chase much more dramatic and involving.

    Again, it has been done before (notably in The French Connection) but in the hands of another director it would have been very formulaic. The movie plot itself is fairly standard and torn directly from the “thriller/spy” playbook but what made it work while other similar movies failed was the energy and approach. It breathes life into what could ahve been very stale material.

  • http://www.lfb.com/cart/affiliate.php?code=10758 David M. Brown

    Good observations about The Bourne Supremacy. The French Connection was one of the movies I had in mind a la non-formulaic car chases. I also liked the extended chase in the second “Matrix” movie, which was really almost nothing but a chase scene. (I agree that the third installment fell a little flat, but I found #2 enthralling, including the rapid-fire Explanation of Everything that some complained about.)

    There’s an early fight scene in one of my favorite movies, Time and Tide, that I find mesmerizing. A cute young bodyguard scrambles in a stairwell with an assassin he has discovered (and who is not so cute but is interestingly devilish). A lot of missed blows and haphazardry…sloppy, desperate. Completely believable and fresh.

    All the action in Time and Tide is very well done, for example all the hopping around at the apartment complex (not so believable, but still interesting)…but don’t miss the stairwell scene…

  • http://www.lfb.com/cart/affiliate.php?code=10758 David M. Brown

    P.S. Also, re Time and Tide, you don’t want to miss the climactic scene in the station with the woman giving birth participating in the gun battle…. Actually, what the heck, just go ahead and watch the whole movie from start to finish.

  • Bliffle

    Yes, “Point Blank” is an excellent movie with the incomparable Lee Marvin, it’s at #27 in my Netflix list of 170, so I’ll reprise it in about a month and cop a dub for posterity.

    And the point in that scene is instructive. One learns, as a man, that if a woman or a child starts beating on you it’s not appropriate to hit back. Not necessary, either.

  • T

    Okay, I have to say that the fights scenes in Bourne would good. Too bad the camera was too choppy to let us enjoy it.

    My votes for (1) very good fight scene: Grosse Point Blank–check out the highschool hallway fight, totally plausible and damn good effort.
    (2) great car chase scene: Ronin–I can bet that when you see it, it will become one of your favorites.

    Check them out.

  • http://www.lfb.com/cart/affiliate.php?code=10758 David M. Brown

    I dislike Grosse Pointe Blank but agree about Ronin, a very absorbing movie.

    It’s been a while since I saw The Bourne Supremacy, but I don’t remember being annoyed by the camera work.

    Anyway, I don’t always expect to see fight scenes perfectly. One critic of “Batman Begins” had that complaint…though the clobbering transpires in places like darkened warehouses where all the bad guys are continously confused about what’s going on…and the viewer is the only one who’s supposed to know exactly what’s going on? I don’t want to know everything about how Batman does what he does, I just want to be convinced that he can do what he does. More about “Batman Begins” in my review at TheWebzine.com.

  • Eric Olsen

    T, I agree with you totally on this that Grosse Point Blank scene: it is both bizarrely hilarious and brutally realistic, as is he movie in general, among my very favorite Cusacks.

    Very interesting point and approach David, thanks!

  • T

    David, because of my marital arts background, I expect to see the fights as staged as they are. I don’t think that hiding it leads me to believe the authenticity.

    For me, I need to see the skill. If Batman is so good, then lets see it. I do say that Batman Begins was a good effort on that front.

    I am not saying that Bruce Lee movies are classics. Maybe in their genre they are, but in general they are sub par movies. But he showed us why Bruce is a legend. He never hid his techniques. And in showing us his world, he appeared super human.

    A good fight scene is one where the actor acknowledges the art behind the fight. I have to say that the Matrix movies got it right, but that was more show than go. I love plausible fights and I have two more for your consideration:

    True Romance: Patrica Arquette’s knock down drag out fight with the hit man. It is bloody and it is real as hell.

    They Live: A good basher between Roddy Piper and one of the “aliens”. This one is just fun to watch.

  • http://www.thewebzine.com David M. Brown

    “I expect to see the fights as staged as they are. I don’t think that hiding it leads me to believe the authenticity.”

    I think we’re sort of speaking past each other, T. I’m not making any special brief against easily scannable fighting, or the action of a classic movie like “Enter the Dragon” with unique Bruce-Lee clobbering (though I think some of the action could likely have been done better–I liked the individual fighting better than the sprawling all-against-all stuff). It depends on the movie and what’s going on in the movie. My brief is against cookie-cutter predictability and cliche, the evasions of the hard job of presenting something original and fresh, which is the only reason one would want to see a flick or any bit of it in addition to the flicks and bits of flicks one has already seen.

    There are myriad ways of showing the same thing, any one of which might work in one kind of film with its sensibilities and aims but not in another. Whether a bit of physical action works also depends on the execution and other factors, not only whether it’s original. On the other hand, there’s no reason to say, “Nope, that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be” simply because it’s not what we’ve seen before.

    In the case of “Batman Begins,” the approach throughout that movie was, as I argue in my article at TheWebzine.com, to often present the emerged crusader in fleeting glimpses. He is a creature hard to fathom despite all the explanation about the why and how leading to that emergence. So on the question of whether we “see” the Batman’s fighting skill, I’d say we see and don’t see it at the same time. We really have no idea how Batman got from the other side of the warehouse to just above and behind the guy with the machine gun. We don’t hear him do it. We don’t see the beams he clambered across. We don’t know whether he swung or leaped or glided or what. We also don’t quite know exactly what the Batman then does to knock the thug’s lights out; we just see the cape coming down. But at that point, we really don’t need to know every rivet. We’re utterly convinced that Batman can do the things he does.

    It’s any viewer’s judgment whether any particular approach in a scene works, but I wouldn’t say it should be lopped from the director’s options from the get-go because it doesn’t mesh with standard parameters.

  • Baronius

    Good article. Valid points.

    If I may go on a tangent here, an action scene is going to be more interesting if you care about it. The viewer who really wants the good guy to win, and doesn’t know if he will, is going to watch intently. Near the end of “The Pelican Brief”, I lost track of who the good guys were, because it was confusing and didn’t hold my interest. There was no way the final action scene was going to be satisfying. Remember in “Misery”, when the sheriff gets killed? The rescuer is supposed to rescue the good guy – what happened? That scene made you realize that anything could happen, and it made every other scene more compelling.

    But back to your point. “Miller’s Crossing” had completely original fight sequences. I don’t know what was different about them, but they were jarring. Then there’s “Final Destination”. The whole movie turned the suspense scene on its head. It was like a slasher movie, except the supernatural stalker was replaced by the scriptwriter. There were fake-outs galore, but in the context of the film they made sense. The camera work was shameless.

    One more Coen brothers reference, then I’ll shut up. “Raising Arizona” was basically one continuous, multi-character chase scene. Child abduction as a game of tag. I didn’t really like the movie, but it was original.

  • http://www.thewebzine.com David M. Brown

    >If I may go on a tangent here, an action scene is going to be more interesting if you care about it.<

    Well, yes, Baronius. I mean, yes I agree. (Yes you may do the tangent, also, but you were tricky there. I can’t withhold permission after you’ve posted….)

    I was focusing on only one ingredient of artistic success, but you’re surely right. If we couldn’t care less whether Bob lives or dies, the attack on him may be very interesting (like the opening of an “Avengers” episode with a man in a wheelchair trying to escape from a mysterious bouncing ball) but we’re not going to be as involved as we would be if we’ve grown to care about him deeply over the past hour and a half. Even so, sometimes nerve-wracking suspense is accomplished very quickly; something of a feat.

    There’s a lot that goes into what works craft-wise and also into our subjective responses, which depend on craft but not solely on craft. There are movies I can say are good in many respects or even all, when considered as artistic execution of the moviemaker’s purposes, but which I still can’t like and would not want to ever see again. (An example is “Very Bad Things,” which I found continuously repellant, even though I agree with the film’s overt idea of satirizing self-help cliché, which is only superficially what it was about.)

    Let’s say I have good reason for my distaste, i.e., something that would be relevant for other prospective viewers, more universal than “Actor X has always rubbed me the wrong way.” In that case, as a critic I should at least note the successes of craft even as I slam the morally vicious treatment of the subject matter (or whatever cardinal aspect I see as lamentable or problematic in the film). In practice, of course, what a movie is about and how it’s done can’t really be placed in separate boxes; they intimately affect each other. But I’ve noticed that some critics, if they dislike a theme (film is too pro-gun or whatever), will tend to downplay or ignore effective craft. Other critics will be too forgiving of artistic lapses if they can cheer a film’s assumptions and sensibilities. I say that both subject and craft are the legitimate province of the critic, because both are the legitimate and necessary province of art. And to assess art, one can’t proceed as if any of the major aspects that give it form are properly to be discounted or ignored. How these are to be ranked and integrated are further questions.

    Back to you. I remember well any particular scene in “Misery,” as it is one of my favorite movies. I loved what was accomplished dramatically with (usually) just two people in a house. And you’re right, the bit with the sheriff is extremely effective.