Let's Step Outside
The evolution of the fight scene, from the Duke to the Dark Knight.
Attention abuse is certainly one way to describe the on-screen tumult that is by now a summer multiplex ritual and that increasingly suggests even more aggressive terms than Murch's. (Try pureed instead of tossed.) In last year's The Bourne Ultimatum, directed by shaky-cam virtuoso Paul Greengrass, the action often approximates epilepsy (and, according to some, induced motion sickness). This year, the murky, jerky aesthetic dominates the whiz-bang scenes in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Despite general enthusiasm for the movie's pop-Nietzschean gloom, some critics have grumbled about the blink-and-miss-it action, especially the sequences of hand-to-hand combat. "Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action," David Edelstein wrote in New York magazine, complaining that it was impossible to make "spatial sense" of some of the fight scenes. Even in her New York Times rave, Manohla Dargis noted that the finale was "at times visually incoherent."
The fight scene as it usually turns up in today's action spectacles—smeared, destabilized, fixated on chaos at the expense of clarity and precision—reflects the changing syntax, the all-around acceleration, of movies in general and Hollywood blockbusters in particular. The current vogue for chopped-up fights also raises the question: Are these hyperedited brawls any more successful than their more straightforward predecessors?
Click here for a video slide show on the evolution of the fight scene.
Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.