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DOWSE Guide to the
by Tony Lee editor of
Action/Spectacle Cinema: A Sight And Sound Reader
editor: José Arroyo
BFI Publishing paperback, 272 pages £12.99
review by Steven Hampton
A volume of essays taken from the pages of the BFI's magazine, Sight And Sound,
this collection examines, dissects and considers whether "Action/Spectacle" cinema is
a genre or a mode, and critiques individual films in addition to recognising
influences, questioning the aesthetics of popular culture, identifying the trends
(both retrospective and current) that have ruled, and continue to dominate, the
mainstream Hollywood type of American movie throughout the last decade.
In charting the rise of so-called high concept Hollywood marketing, in which the
movie itself may be apprehended as merely a trailer promoting a vast array of spinoff
merchandise, the various articles here expect us to view the subject as both hi-tech
saturated commodity, and as entertainment worthy of serious discussion. That's not to
say there's contradictions within the contributors arguments (though I'd take issue
with several of the opinions expressed), but the suggestion here is that whatever the
corporate intent, sometimes the year's most successful blockbuster can actually have
something to tell us, even as it distracts us with trick photogrpahy and computer-enhanced
Larry Gross finds the beginnings of the "big and loud" movie in Star Wars
and Close Encounters Of The Thirds Kind. But Lucas and Spielberg don't deserve
credit or blame for starting it all. Before those blockbusters, Jason Jacobs claims
Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch incited the riot of dramatically filmed gunfire and
shocking explosions that led to characteristic action/spectacle scenes in The
Godfather, Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket and Hard-Boiled.
There's more to all this stylised carnage than shooting and wounding, though.
Films like Jan de Bont's exhilirating Speed and Brian De Palma's Mission:
Impossible are singled out for their scenes of ingenuity and motion, and these
elements are linked together, according to José Arroyo, so that "their function
as spectacle exceeds their function as narrative", while in the case of Tom Cruise's
super-spy heroics "the star functions less as character than as intergral production
value". J. Hoberman examines the meteoric rise to prominece of "der Arnold" Schwarzenegger's
career in a fittingly titled chapter ('Nietzsche's Boy'), while Linda Ruth Williams considers
the "musculinity" of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane.
Behind the camera, former Hong Kong thriller maker John Woo gets a section of his own, with a location
report on Hard Target, a short interview, and an essay by Manohla Dargis, that
notes the invaluable contribution of Woo's trademark "radiant catastrophe" to Hollywood's
action film industry, and a review of Broken Arrow by José Arroyo applauds
how the director's work "evokes the sublime: awe comes from the beauty of images,
terror from beauty metamorphosising into destruction." The commentaries on big Arnie
also, quite rightly, mention Sylvester Stallone's impact on trashy, comic-book, 'Ride'
movies, from the Rocky sequels to the eagerly anticipated but monumentally dull,
Judge Dredd, with its tortured genesis due, in part, to the failure of the
original comics series in America. However, in comparison to the generally upbeat tone
of Schwarzenegger's movies, Stallone's efforts seem singularly pessimistic and sour.
Quentin Tarantino is another monstrous figure in the Action/Spectacle field. Key
works are, of course, Resovoir Dogs (inspired by Hong Kong films) - this book
includes an interview with actor Tim Roth, and Pulp Fiction. This last demands
a place of its own in this rigorously examined genre, as one of the rare 'event'
movies which actually has some events in it! It links the comedy-thriller oriented
form to the neo-noir drama of LA Confidential. Amy Taubin interviews director
Curtis Hanson about that.
The strong element of cartoon violence in the form of cinema being discussed here is,
perhaps, best sorted in the most direct transfers: Popeye, The Flintsones,
and the incongruity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. More recently, Hollywood has
turned to computer-video games for its source material, though adaptations of comics
Away from the frivolity, there's the grim serial killer movie, perhaps the most
quinessentenial genre of the 1990s, turning up just as often on moribund TV detective
shows (though Chris Carter's excellent Millennium was in a league of its own)
as in multiplexes. Silence Of The Lambs opened the floodgates. Copycat,
Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone is interviewed), and Seven all swam
in the murky waters. These films may, at first, look and feel very different to the
brighter, more hopeful worlds of Schwarzenegger and Woo, but as Gross explains: "NBK
is a film about film" and what could be more spectacular than that?
What's most intriguing here is the variety of film genres being opted into the
frame. If you like lists, here's one: Dracula (1992), Bad Boys, Batman Forver,
GoldenEye, Heat, Independece Day, The Long Kiss Goodnight,
Air Force One, Starship Troopers, Saving Private Ryan, The
Matrix and, of course, coming full circle, twenty years on - Star Wars Episode
1: The Phantom Menace.
A fascinating read, that's bound to light up a few quiet areas of the Internet
with fresh discussions about the current state of high profile Hollywood product. Ah,
as Stallone's bleeding boxer drawled: "Ain't so bad, it ain't so bad..."
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