The Action Movie
by Leo Goldsmith
Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Summer, for many, affords the opportunity for every kind of outdoor venture possible, from kitesurfing to bocce, camping to badminton. For others, it is a time for action—that is, the type of action best experienced while seated in a plush seat with a quart of sugary soda to hand, the orange glow of an artificial explosion the only thing to brighten the dark frigidity of an excessively air-conditioned movie theater.
Depending on your point of view, the action movie is either (or both) the zenith or the nadir of cinema. To many, it exemplifies the spectacular excesses of the movies in general, presenting the most bloated, corruptive, and superficial of films, cynically designed for the delectation of that preeminent demographic: the teenage boy. But at the same time, it is a genre that pushes the margins of what is possible with the cinematic apparatus, even as it reaches back to the very basis of the movies: movement.
After all, what is cinema – any cinema – if not the mere record of kinetics on a two-dimensional surface? In this light, any movie is basically an action movie, and those few films that seek to flout the conventions of the movie as a parade of moving pictures (see La Jetée, among others) are exceptions that prove the rule. Etymologically and practically, action is the very basis of a medium that exists primarily to document movement. But what’s more, the action movie employs every conceivable aspect of the cinematic apparatus tocreate illusions of motion, as well: blocking, framing, editing, sound design, special effects, and the elastic, inimitable grace of the human body.
From Aristotle (or maybe even a little earlier) to praxeology and cognitive science, thinkers have explored theories of human action that seek to divine the processes by which people do things. Cinema, with a quasi-scientific lineage of its own, seems uniquely suited to contribute to these debates, or at least serve as an aesthetic analogue. After all, the cinema’s roots lie in the photo-empiricism of Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, which settled his supposed wager with Governor Leland Stanford about whether a horse lifts all four of its hooves off the ground while galloping. In the actualities of the Lumière brothers and Edison, before narrative took hold of the movies, cinema was most useful and fascinating as a popular means of studying every kind of movement in time to be found in contemporary life. And along with dance and sexuality, violence was among the very first preoccupations of the movies.
As it relates to the film or literary genre, the word “action” seems mainly to derive from the military, in the sense of deploying combat maneuvers or deploying action against a country or force. (The source of the related sexual slang of “getting some action” is itself almost certainly military.) Quite significantly, the Oxford English Dictionary reports a cluster of new usages for the word “action” arising in the 1950s, including “action committee” (describing a communist force deployed to purge a society of non-communist elements), “action painting” (describing the method used by artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline)1, and of course, from the realm of film criticism, “action-packed.”2
That the phrase “action-packed” continues to be a handy descriptor for the filmmaker demonstrates the unquenchable desire for film to offer motion – human, vehicular, cinematographic – at its most extreme, spectacular, and implausible. It is then something of a linguistic error to refer to an action film with anything but strings of capital letters, punctuated with exclamation marks. It is a genre full of movies that entertain scenarios of utmost exoticness and offer conflicts that pivot around fatalistic dilemmas, populated with characters – both good and bad, male and female – that exist at the antipodes of human physicality and ethics. They are FAST! BOMBASTIC! THRILLING! LOUD! and EXCLAMATORY! Action movies are also brazenly unrealistic entertainments, and in their evolution have become increasingly colorful and excited to the point of abstraction. They contain scenarios and emotions many of us will never experience, liberally exploiting the spectrum of human emotion.
To Read the Rest of the Introduction and the Collection of Essays