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FILM ANALYSIS, Film Structure & Craft

Why do I like Ultraviolent Action Scenes & Super Fancy Musical Numbers?

This (“Mohe Rang Do Laal” from Bajirao Mastani [2015)…

A prominent feature of my cinephilia is my affection for two seemingly unrelated film genres: The action movie and the film musical. The key word in the previous sentence is “seemingly,” because while action and musical films may attract different audiences and imply disparate narrative tones, the core of their appeal and their overarching visual styles are closely related. If one were to construct a phylogenetic tree of all popular film genres, a priori one might define the action movie and the movie musical as sister genres. Allow me to explain why, as well as how a cinephile such as I loves to watch brooding anti-heroes mow down scores of bad guys with machine guns, yet can switch on a dime to enjoying Hollywood musicals (e.g. The Wizard of Oz [1939], The Sound of Music [1965]), animated musicals (e.g. The Lion King [1994], Aladdin [1992]), or Indian musicals (e.g. Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge [1995], Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam [1999]).

On the one hand, there’s not much stylistic or substantive artistic difference between action scenes and musical numbers. This may sound odd, but it’s true. Both action sequences — a glorification of cinematic violence, in some way, and musical numbers — a celebration of costume, song, and dance — are pure audiovisual exercises that emphasize moving bodies, intricate choreography, and progress a story or develop a character through physical action.

This method of visual storytelling contrasts with the base methodology of film dramas. Dramatic cinema throughout the decades have accomplished memorable visual storytelling without elaborate dance or extensive action sequences, but they all do so, I argue, despite their genre conventions, not because of them. Most dramatic cinema and their close genre cousins (e.g. thrillers, comedies, etc.) remain incredibly dialogue-based, defaulting to people sitting in rooms, talking to each other, as their principal “cinematic feature.” This is why most dramas feel boring to many audiences, at least without the added threat of violence characteristic to most crime dramas. 

Compare a random, critically acclaimed drama to the near wordless storytelling of Fury Road (2015) or the vibrant, luscious musical numbers of Devdas (2002); the latter two examples are the definition of the cinematic, whereby their genre conventions — telling a story or describing characters through violence (action films) or song and dance (musical films) — are designed to portray a self-contained world on screen. As great and as visual as many dramatic films are, I can’t help but feel they become so only through sheer force of will, whereas even a mediocre action or musical story feels native to the film medium.

More broadly speaking, both action and dance sequences are considered set-pieces in their respective genres; that is, they are used to pace the level of emotional excitement and narrative tension of their overarching stories. Cinematic violence and song-and-dance are expensive, time-consuming, labor-intensive projects for any production team, and when executed with precision, their budget and manpower comes across in the final edit. As a function of the energy these set-pieces require to watch and how expensive they are to produce, movies tend to build their stories to and then “power down” from these cinematic events. A lone fight sequence or quick musical flourish won’t be the centerpiece of a given film, but together these cinematic “attractions” form the skeletal structure of their genre formula. In that sense, watching people attack or dance with each other on film are one and the same.

On the other hand, my affection for both cinematic violence and musicality stem from their opposite tonal flavors. Both types of filmic set-pieces establish the pacing of their respective stories and increase their viewers’ heart rate, but action scenes and musical numbers get viewers’ blood pumping in distinct ways. For my part, watching Iko Uwais curb stomp gangsters in The Raid (2011) makes me wince, cringe, fist-pump, and laugh out of shock, while watching Gene Kelly prance around with his umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) makes me want to, well, dance and sing along with him. Both are playful reactions to spectacular audiovisual presentations, which must inspire an active response from their audiences in order to be considered successful. But what constitutes an appropriate, or intended reaction to a typical action sequence is quite different from the intended reaction to a given musical set-piece. Even when enjoyed ironically, most action sequences generate far more tension than most filmic dances.

… is little different from this (Julie Estelle tangoing with Hannah Al Rashid in The Night Comes for Us [2018]).

I believe the complementary nature of action movies and movie musicals is akin to the combination of opposite food groups in a meal. They’re both rich, savory artistic expressions that have found life on the silver screen, yet are different enough in tone and tension that they can be viewed in rapid succession with minimal burnout. As I’ve matured as a cinephile, I’ve found myself doubling down on action cinema, which is based in American, East Asian, and Oceanian film industries, as well as musical filmmaking, which is dominated by industries from South Asia, including and beyond the Hindi language studios of Bollywood. I admit most casual audiences would not expect such a pairing of tastes when they think of a generic “movie buff” or film snob, but my appreciation for bloody ultraviolence and gorgeous dance on camera, when captured and edited with precision, is what cinephilia is all about.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

Am I spot on? Am I full of it? Let me know!

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