I Have Spent Hundreds of Hours Watching Actors Run, and So Have You

Running...

When is the last time you’ve been chased—not figuratively, not tag, not because you had the ball, but because someone was actually after you physically, legs whirling arms pumping heart readytoexplodeinyourchest?  When you were a kid, bullies after school, or maybe a neighbor’s dog?  Once?  A few times?  Or were you the one doing the chasing—you were the bully, or the dog?  For me, the answers are never and never. 

running...

Let me ask you something else.  When is the last time you saw a movie involving a chase?  Unless you like subtitles, chances are that it is, in fact, the last time you saw a movie.  I just saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  Just as action sequels have abandoned Roman numerals for the  academic paper style of Title-Colon-Subtitle, MI: GP has also ditched any pretense of plot or character in favor of adrenaline uncut by the tedium of story.  A maniac wants to start a nuclear war to protect our precious bodily fluids.   Or not.  This maniac’s reason was…  I forget.  It’s really not that important. It’s only there to get people chasing each other. 

running...

The characters are aforementioned Maniac, as well as Tom Cruise (Tom Cruise), The Girl (Paula Patton), Comic Relief (Simon Pegg), and The Other Guy (Jeremy Renner).   Don’t get me wrong—I liked the movie, a lot.  But if a Modernist like Proust and contemporary novelist like Don DeLillo also seem to have abandoned plot, it is because, in part, they created a self reflective response to modernity’s ontological paralysis.  MI:GP does the opposite: non-reflective, nonstop motion.  So maybe I was hasty to say that MI has jettisoned plot.  Really, what it has done is revealed what Aristotle in his poor-quality running sandals didn’t enumerate: all plot is chase, all chase is plot.  Contemporary movies just ditch the pretentions.  

Case in point. MI’s opening: a cleaned up looking Sawyer from Lost being chased and, later in flashback, chasing.  A prison break-out scene, with lots of chasing.  A Kremlin break-in scene, featuring—chases!  Also: chasing—in a sandstorm! In a car!  In a car in a sandstorm!  At a fancy party, for some reason! Down an escalator into traffic! In a futuristic self-parking multi-storey car garage, which was actually cooler than it sounds.   OK, one (pretty awesome) scene, with Tom Cruise climbing a sheer glass skyscraper from the outside, was not strictly speaking a chase scene, although it was A Race Against Time. I guess. 

running...

Of course, other movies have been pretty up front about chase-as-plot/plot-as-chase.  Tom (of … and Jerry) and Wile E Coyote have no delusions of their Sisyphean existences.  Run Lola Run was just that.  Catch Me if You Can won’t be sued for false advertising, even if, in the end, it turned out to be a developed character sketch of the symbiotic, symbolically familial relationship between chaser and chasee.  (This does not happen, for example, in MI.) And the movie that first got me thinking that I’ve wasted my life watching chase scenes was, of all things, The Tourist, which has even less illusion of plot and character than MI:GP.  The Matt Damon oeuvre consists primarily of running, sometimes with MD half glancing over his shoulder at who is pursuing him, at other times giving the full head turn, and, in a radical genre revision, The Adjustment Bureau features Damon  holding Emily Blunt’s hand while being chased and doing head-turns.

It’s all very Green Eggs and Ham: So I will chase them in a box. And I will chase them with a fox. And I will chase them in a house. And I will chase them with a mouse.  And I will chase them here and there.  Say! I will chase them ANYWHERE!

But why is this entertaining—and it is—once you’re over, like, four?  There’s the evolutionary biological approach to why we should really run for, you know, exercise (watching other people run doesn’t count, I guess), as espoused and popularized by my brother, Al Kavadlo, personal trainer and body philosopher.  Or, as no less than the New York Times reported (link found courtesy of Al), neo-cave men are exercising via brief bursts of cardio “to replicate how a prehistoric person might have fled from a mastodon.”  Especially if that mastodon has a high-caliber handgun, or those cave men need to chase that mastodon for food.  Or better yet, if the mastodon has a briefcase with the Soviet nuclear launch codes.

There’s also the problem of middles.  Beginnings of stories are, in their way, easy.  Not easy as in anyone can think of them, but easy in the sense that if you don’t have one, you don’t actually have any story at all yet.  So you simply have to have your premise, your setting, your mise en scene, your dramatic situation.  Then once you have that, you also have your ending already mostly in place.  Hollywood conventions dictate that in the end, the status quo must be restored: the nuclear disaster averted, life going on as though nothing happened.  The end of MI: GP even states as much—Comic Relief is incredulousness that no one realizes that they were this close to annihilation, which is really [snort] more cosmic irony than humor, Comic Relief.   The same is true in superhero, police procedural, and monster movies: the end means villains vanquished, life reverts to pre-movie normal. 

So it’s really the middle—in screenwriting parlance, the second act—that causes trouble.  How do we get from the opening’s disruption to the ending’s restoration?  The best way seems to be: Run There.  Even those darling Pixar movies all have the same middle—a long, madcap chase scene.  It’s a kind of immediate quest narrative, with the quest’s moving object continuously, tantalizingly out of reach.  Or a physical enactment of Derrida’s difference.  Or performing the id’s eternal ceaseless WANT IT NOW AND I WILL CHASE YOU TO GET IT. 

So, what’s the best way to get from Act One to Act Three? Taking a car is acceptable as long as you total it.   Better yet, if there’s conflict, Run. But by God, far better than Tom Hanks, that guy Tom Cruise can run, as a few posters on YouTube have already noticed. 

The first third of MI:GP is just running foreplay before Cruise finally tears after someone, and he is still riveting to watch as he runs.  Johnny Depp’s runs vary according to his character (Jack Sparrow=predictably flouncy; the tourist=artificially self-conscious), and Matt Damon, for all the Bourne Adjustments, still looks like he wants to smile like he’s in a stupid race.  But Tom Cruise genuinely looks as though the fate of the world hangs on his every ephemeral step. He’s an old-fashioned locomotive, all moving pistons and visible machinery, heat and steam rising, picking up speed so that he’s creaky at first but after a few seconds you can’t believe how nimble and quick he still is. 

It’s a snapshot of how I feel about all chase movies—my first response is, This again? But when it’s over, I think, This! Again!  

Time: 70 minutes. I’m over time. But how can you interrupt Tom Cruise running?

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8 thoughts on “I Have Spent Hundreds of Hours Watching Actors Run, and So Have You

  1. Colline says:

    I never really thought of it – but what you say is true. Many of the American action movies do tend to invlove a lot of running. And car chasing!

  2. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Colline! I had never thought about it either until somehow a few months ago, watching The Tourist, I understood what I had been looking at. It seems like it should be kind of obvious, but it still feels like a revelation. You’re right that it’s mostly American action movies, but then again that’s the majority of what Americans watch. Thanks again.

  3. Johannes says:

    Ahem, so you ran out of time (*ducks and runs*).

    From another genre: I think Nancy Ephron says somewhere that every romantic comedy typically has a running scene at the end–where the hero/heroine runs to finally embrace his/her lover. (Okay, full disclosure: I heard this on her director’s commentary on “Sleepless in Seattle.”)

    Running To versus Running From.

    Laughed a lot reading this blog entry; hmmm, you’re really hitting your stride. (Loved the reference to Arist.’s sandals.)

    Maybe one thing that draws us in: running implies there’s something important to be achieved? No time to waste. You know, life’s meaningless and all, but wow then someone’s running on the screen–that can only mean, there’s something worth running for! So, the action movie gives meaning to life!

    J

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks as usual for reading and commenting. “Hitting your stride”=pun intended? Ha ha,

      Funny, I started writing a few sentences about endings as dependant also on genre, including that the ending of the rom com is _not_ the restoration of status quo, but thought I was getting too far off topic. Sounds like another future post.

      Yes, running to vs from is also an interesting problem. Baudrillard’s book about America includes his thoughts (paraphrasing from memory) about jogging Americans appearing as though they’re being chased and wondering what they’re running from exactly. Hmmm.

      Thanks also for that concluding observation on the chase as life affirming. While on Aristotle, a syllogism (possibly faulty, but here goes): Chase is narrative, and life is narrative, therefore chase is life.

  4. Pingback from reference on Why Do Americans Care about Downton Abbey? […] battlefield or back.   The overall refinement counts for a lot when so much American film acting is all physical and kinetic.  Maggie Smith’s many zingers would not be nearly as funny without her wry delivery.  She’s […]

  5. Pingback from my own reference:
    […] The second film, the first sequel, especially when envisioned as a trilogy, tends to be the deepest, darkest, and most adventurous.  Screenwriting conventional wisdom says that it’s the middle of the story that’s supposed to be the hardest part to write.  The opening sets things up, the ending wraps them up, but how do you take the characters from their dramatic situation’s conflict to their ending’s resolution?  It’s why so many movies feature the long chase scene in the middle—they’re running from the beginning to the end. […]

  6. Philipp says:

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