Let’s Step Outside

The evolution of the fight scene, from the Duke to the Dark Knight.

At one point in Michael Ondaatje’s book of interviews with Walter Murch, the venerable film editor reflects on how effective cutting keeps audiences grounded as one shot, often imperceptibly, becomes another. The trick is to determine where the viewer’s attention is trained in a particular shot and to cut to a shot that contains a focal point in the same area of the frame. But there is at least one major exception to this rule: the fight scene. “You actually want an element of disorientation—that’s what makes it exciting,” Murch says of his approach to splicing together a fight. “So you put the focus of interest somewhere else, jarringly, and you cut at unexpected moments. You make a tossed salad of it, you abuse the audience’s attention.”

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.