In Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes, Tarzan’s power derives from his in-between status. He’s not fully ape nor fully man. Here Tarzan / Christopher Lambert visually displays his power by killing a jaguar, an ape killer.  

A key moment of character transformation narrated through violent imagery shows Tarzan becoming “Lord of the Apes” by killing his rival. Tarzan can only do this by using power - a knife - taken from the “other” world of men

In Dances With Wolves, Lt. Dunbar / Kevin Costner exercises power by shooting a stampeding buffalo. This visual narrative moment fundamentally transforms the character, as only then does the Sioux tribe fully accept him.

Like Tarzan’s, Dunbar’s power derives from his in-between status. Here, Dunbar saves the Sioux from a Pawnee raid by supplying “white men’s” weapons. Dunbar’s position as the tribe’s physical protector is described as “a great honor.” He gains further visual coding as powerful by using the guns.  

In Dances with Wolves (extended director’s cut), a “helpless” woman visibly displays an inner strength by smashing the head of a rival Pawnee warrior.

The Last Samurai’s Captain Algren / Tom Cruise changes when he accepts the samurai code of bushido. Here he fights to a draw against the village’s most skilled swordfighter. The fight visually reveals Algren’s new awareness that the only way to win is to cease worrying about either losing or dying - a central tenant of bushido.

Algren is seen as having fully become a samurai by this visual shortcut. He’s dressed in feudal Japanese armor and given a sword of his own. Since similar imagery exists in diverse media, it can be used as shorthand for a wealth of character information (and is also seen throughout Kill Bill). Algren’s reverence toward the blade indicates not only physical strength but also inner calm.

No uniform credit listing indicates fight director. In Kill Bill 1’s opening credits, Yuen Wo-ping has this image saying he was “Martial Arts Advisor.” Such prominent credit placement is uncommon in Western action films. Here it shows how fighting is used to market both films.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought Wo-ping’s signature wire-work to prominence in the West. Although many critics discussed this fight in the bamboo forest, none of them labeled this fight “violent.” Most simply noted its visual beauty and the subtlety of the character interaction.

In the script of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon this sword has almost magical properties. Here, a shot empahsizing the heroine’s touch helps communicate to viewers the blade’s tactile quality. Similar reverence lends an almost palpable sensation to the narrative use of swords in many action films, including those in The Last Samurai and both Kill Bill films.

Bill’s entrance early in Volume 2 plays with the audience’s knowledge of other martial arts films. Connoisseurs may see Bill as both the character Bill and as David Carradine the actor who played Caine in Kung Fu. Here he plays the same flute that he played in the television series.

A connoisseur twist comes from having Gordon Liu play Pai Mei, a character he fought in many of his early films. The subtitled phrase, “Your so-called kung fu is really quite pathetic,” refers to an almost comical reason to fight that was common in many 1970s Hong Kong action films.

The first image in Kill Bill is of a bloody Bride, Beatrix Kiddo, about to be shot in the head. It establishes violence as the story’s underlying ethos. At the same time, the almost tender way in which Bill wipes blood from Kiddo’s face reveals a narrative play already at work within this depiction of violence.

A recurring theme in both films is “epic” combat in mundane settings. Here The Bride / Beatrix Kiddo battles Vernita Green with common household items such as kitchen knives and frying pans.

The fight’s pivotal moment occurs when Green’s daughter Nikki arrives home from school. The visual composition sets in contrast assassin vs. mother, violence vs. domesticity.

Kiddo tacitly agrees not only to stop fighting but also to hide the world of violence from her opponent’s child. This act marks her as an honorable character. Likewise, her ability to “turn off” her desire for revenge marks her ability to do violence as a disciplined, professional skill. Both traits aid audience empathy.

Kiddo’s relative kindness toward Nikki - seen here witnessing the death of her mother - is immediately followed by a quote from the bushido code warning against compassion. This juxtaposition suggests that Kiddo will eventually pay a price for her “honorable” act. In fact, Tarantino already plans a sequel in which Nikki seeks revenge.

One of Kill Bill 2 ’s central themes is to contrast an assassin’s violence with being a parent. However, sequences with Kiddo’s daughter, B.B., challenge that contrast. Here Bill explains to the little girl how he, the father who has raised her, shot her mother.

More on violence and parenting. Bill tells Kiddo about B.B.’s killing her beloved goldfish, which Bill proudly relates as the child’s learning about life and death. After that, we see Kiddo and B.B. curled up together, watching a violent martial arts film.

A supposedly lifeless bride spits in the face of a police officer. Kiddo’s unconscious act of defiance works as a visual shorthand to describe her deep inner resilience. Sports narratives trace the effect of a similar inner resiliance, seeing it as the hero’s best quality and often calling it “heart” or “will."

"Fighting spirit” is prized in sports narratives precisely because it shows inner will conquering the body’s limitations. Here Kiddo, awakening out of a coma, is still semi-paralyzed. She visibly re-asserts autonomy by biting off a would-be rapist’s lower lip.

Physical violence can create a fantasy of personal justice. Here, the audience gets visceral pleasure from seeing a rapist’s head smashed in a doorway.

Mindful violence: the visibility of power and inner life in Kill Bill

by Aaron Anderson

Much has been written about Quentin Tarantino’s familiarity with foreign action films. In fact, Tarantino’s love of low-budget action films and the violent imagery in them has become one of the more significant parts of his public personae as a director. For this reason, almost every review of Tarantino’s latest works, Kill Bill: Volume(s) 1 and 2, notes something about the long list of films from which he borrows, and numerous fan web-sites devote space to sometimes lengthy arguments over his exact inspirations for any given scene. Most of what has been written in this regard suggests that there is something unique—or at least personal—in Tarantino’s allegiance to violent imagery from pop culture. However, I argue that Tarantino’s deliberate use of borrowed imagery from Asian martial arts films is far from unique. And while this may surprise no one, the reason that I propose this might surprise many. I suggest that violent imagery—especially that connected to Asian martial arts—functions as one of the primary cinematic languages for character description and plot progression in modern action films.

I have an unique perspective on the subject of media violence because for part of my living I choreograph fights. Most of my recent work has been on stage rather than on film (because the other part of my living is as an assistant professor in a city where film work is scarce), but many of my close friends get consistent film work. You would have seen their work in Alien Resurrection (1997), Titus (1999), Secondhand Lions (2003), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003), and Troy (2004) to name a few of the more visible recent examples. I deliberately use the word “friends” here instead of “colleagues” because the world of the professional fight director is very small, and many of us know each other socially as well as professionally. I mention any of this because it is the very smallness of this professional world that prompts me to write much of what follows. (In fact, there is not even a uniform title for the role of fight director. We may be called fight coordinator, stunt coordinator, movement choreographer, etc., depending on the specific parameters of the job.)

We fight directors take a number of things about our business for granted that directly impact film scholarship. For instance, one of the basic maxims of our business is that every film fight necessarily tells a story and is therefore—by definition—always more than mere spectacle or an excuse to display actors’ bodies. This stands in stark contrast to most theoretical writing on the subject, much of which remain tied to the old Aristotelian hierarchy that values plot over character, and character over spectacle. From my perspective as a fight director, none of these Aristotelian elements can be wholly separated from the others, let alone separated into hierarchical order. Furthermore, debates about media violence often slip into hyperbole. Many such debates therefore tend toward one of two extremes. Either they denigrate any displays of violence as simply “mindless” or “gratuitous,” or they celebrate the “spectacle” of violent excess without acknowledging the possibility of any social impact at all. I am going to attempt something of a middle road between these two extremes by explaining some of the ways that violent imagery conveys messages to a viewing audience. In other words, by showing that media violence is almost never “mindless,” I also hope to shed a little light on some of the reasons why the social impact of the images may be so pervasive.  

Violence, Asia and
the visible inner journey

Many action films use violence as a central metaphor. To be sure, a large part of the appeal of these films is the visceral spectacle of that violence. Yet, what is not often noted in studies of action films is that one of the most common genre themes presents an inner journey resulting in some sort of fundamental character transformation. In these character-driven action stories, violence plays a much more complex role than simple spectacle. The main difficulty in telling the story of an inner journey on film is, of course, that inner journeys are hard to see. However, visual languages, like other languages, work through systems of differentiation. So one way to overcome this difficulty is to show the character in differing physical environments as the inner journey progresses. The more extreme the visual differentiation between outer worlds, the more extreme the inner transformation may seem to become. In this way, Asia and other “exotic” locations often figure prominently in tales of Westerners’ transformations. For instance (to name only a very few examples), Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes (1984), uses the jungles of Africa as a visual metaphor for “far from Western civilization.” Dances with Wolves (1990) does the same with the expanses of the American plains. And The Last Samurai (2004) contrasts Western civilization to that of neo-feudal Japan (in fact, the need for contrast largely explains why the leading character’s transformation takes place far from even Meiji society: which was inherently modernized—i.e. Westernized). Western film stories about inner journeys may use exotic locations primarily to establish external visual marker of internal character change.   

Related to this need for visual markers, films also use what religious scholar Joseph Campbell termed “the hero’s journey” as part of many scripts, and so delineate the whole story structure around a combination of inner, spiritual, and outer journeying.[1] Although Campbell was concerned with outlining similarities between diverse religions and mythologies, his analysis of the narrative structure of heroic tales is applicable to film studies as well. Campbell outlined three basic stages in all heroic tales:

  • the hero is separated from his or her “normal” life
  • the hero is initiated into a new way of life
  • the hero returns to his or her original world with some form of power learned in the other world.[2]

Besides their reliance on exotic location to demarcate the boundaries of this inner journey, films such as Greystoke, Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai have another very important similarity. The power gained or exercised in these exotic worlds is almost always of a fundamentally violent nature. For instance, in Greystoke, Tarzan’s ability to effect change in either world (animal or civilized) derives mainly from his sheer physical strength and bestial fighting skills. Likewise, in Dances with Wolves, the protagonist, Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner), becomes fully accepted into the Sioux tribe only after killing a stampeding buffalo (Dunbar does this to save the life of a younger hunter), and later the script reinforces this acceptance by also having Dunbar supply rifles to quell a war-party raid by the rival Pawnee tribe. And The Last Samurai’s protagonist, Captain Algren (Tom Cruise), is only able to find inner peace through dedicated study of the warrior’s disciplined code of bushido (sets of “rules” which were said to govern a samurai’s approach to life and death). In this case, Algren’s transformation through the samurai warrior ethos is the basis of the entire film, so much so that the kanji characters that appeared on the posters for the film did not say “The Last Samurai,” they said “Bushido.”

I suggest that the main reason violence becomes so important to telling these types of inner journeys on film is that acts of violence make the idea of personal power itself visible. In other words, a character that wins a fight is automatically marked as “powerful,” while a character that looses a fight is likewise marked as “powerless” or at least as less powerful than the winner. Asian martial arts combine both of these ideas together into convenient shorthand—as a visual marker both of change and of power.

Here let me pause for a moment to highlight the significance of visual shorthand for understanding violence in films. You see, one of the reasons that fight directing can even exist as a profession is that every choreographed fight is necessarily narrative. There is always a story implicit in the way a cinematic or theatrical fight’s events unfold. This is true even of highly stylized fights or of choreography that is just plain “bad.” The very nature of combat implies a negotiation between two or more competing interests. Thus it is virtually impossible to choreograph a fight that does not in some way identify something about the relative power of these competing identities. In fact, the primary role of a fight director is to create movement that is legible in this narrative sense. That is, fight movements need to clearly communicate the story of this negotiation. However, few people outside of our profession know how to “read” movement (especially intricate combat tactics or foreign or outdated military maneuvers). So one of the primary tricks of our trade is that we borrow (we more often use the term “steal") recognizable movements or iconography from other sources.

We do this for three main reasons:

1) Inspiration:
No one becomes a fight director without some personal interest in violent stories; accordingly, most of us are all also fans of the subject and so whenever we see something that piques our own imagination we tend to want to riff on a similar theme. Also, it is the nature of the creative process itself that art tends to beget other art. In fact, it is much more difficult to invent an original concept than it is to play with variety within familiar themes. For that reason too, we often look for inspiration in a wide variety of other media such as theatre, graphic novels, visual art, sculpture, music—anything that might spark our imagination.

2) Economics:
Film fights are almost entirely a consumer-driven product. That is, people don't watch film fights because we make them, rather quite the opposite is true, we make them because people will potentially pay good money to see them.[3] As such, certain styles or themes become “hot” from time to time. So we tend to build fights that reflect what we think those trends to be (in film, of course, such themes are also chosen in close consultation with the rest of the production staff). [4]

3) The nature of movement itself as a language:
One of the primary ways that most people “read” movement is through association with other known movement patterns. For example, one of the top theatrical fight directors often explains this by noting that it would be very difficult successfully to mime building a snowman to an audience that had never before seen snow. One of the main priorities for anyone choreographing narrative movement is therefore to ensure the recognizability of the movements.[5] “Borrowing” movement from successful films is thus also a way to guarantee some degree of audience familiarity.

Not coincidentally, these professional realities parallel some of what has been written about the ways that film communicates to an audience. For instance, in “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” [sic], Robert Warshow suggests that violence (or at least the presence of guns) lies at the “emotional center” of both gangster films and westerns. The way a particular character approaches violence in these genres tells us something about the inner ethical values of that character (654). As Warshow puts it:

“The gangster’s pre-eminence lies in the suggestion that he may at any moment lose control; his strength is not in being able to shoot faster or straighter than others, but in being more willing to shoot. ‘Do it first,’ says Scarface expounding his mode of operation, ‘and keep doing it!’ With the Westerner [sic], it is a crucial point of honor NOT to ‘do it first': his gun remains in its holster until the moment of combat.” (657)

Warshow also suggests that fans of both genres are basically “connoisseurs” who “[derive] pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order” (662). These statements mirror two other basic facts of my business:

  • Most fights retell essentially the same basic story. Minor variation is necessary to differentiate one product from another in the marketplace. However, major variation rarely works if it travels too far from an already familiar movement language.
  • There are almost always larger ethical dimensions within these stories. As Warshow notes: “The conflict of good and bad [becomes reduced to] a duel between two men” (662).

There are thus at least two points that are important to consider when analyzing the use of violence in films such as Kill Bill:

  • Many films rely on variation within familiar visual codes to convey information to an audience.
  • Violent imagery always contains some type of inner or ethical content.

Although this second point runs counter to many people’s beliefs about violence, it is nevertheless fundamental to understanding how violent stories convey information to a viewing audience. Any personal action—violent or not—necessarily involves a wide array of inner thoughts, both conscious and unconscious. Actions that affect other people—as violence does—therefore constitute a type of pragmatic ethics in which inner views about how one actually interacts with the world become outwardly embodied. Embodiment of such inner belief is also the basis of what we call “character.”

This is as true in modern politics as it is in a film’s digesis. We know a person’s character primarily by their actions, or at least by what we perceive to be their potential actions in moments of crisis. Associated with this is the belief that emotional crisis often inhibits higher cognitive function. “Character” thus also comes to mean the core of a person’s being, or the way that they would act if unimpeded by social restriction (this is why politician’s personal lives are often used to justify or argue against their ability to hold public office).

Coupled with this is the fact that in dramatic stories, many interactions with the world come at moments of such emotional crisis. This is what drama is. So, when we talk about character revelations in a film—or moments that define a character—what we are actually talking about, in part, is exposure of this inner philosophy. Violence—martial arts in particular—plays into the exposure of this inner character in a number of ways.

As many social critics have pointed out, violence suggests a rather simplistic definition of personal power—as an ability to harm others. Yet this same simplicity also makes physical violence an excellent cinematic narrative marker of power for two primary reasons: first, force is indeed one of the most basic forms of control, so audiences therefore understand what the movement is meant to signify. Second and even more importantly for film, physical violence—and the potential power it signifies—can easily be visually represented. For example, suppose for a moment that you are a filmmaker and that you need to demonstrate to your audience something about the inner life of one of the characters in your film. Now while there are probably literally hundreds of ways that you might approach this, let us go further and suppose that the character moment you want to display needs to say something about the inner strength of the character — what is often termed “heart” or “will” in sports narratives.

Let us go even further yet and suppose that this moment you need to present comes at a pivotal place in the script. The solution you come up with must be both clear and viscerally gripping. What you will find, if you are a director who has even moderate experience with other films, is that one of the most tried and true solutions to this problem is to include an act of physical violence. This solution also has the added benefit of being cheaper to produce than many of the other solutions you might envision. While this kind of decision making is common for artistic directors of all genres (e.g., using moments when a protagonist stands up to a bully or otherwise overcomes an exterior force come especially to mind), marketing a film as an “action” or “adventure” story also means that the work promises to provide the very type of visceral thrills that this physical confrontation accomplishes so well.

For these reasons, if you are directing an action film, physical violence might easily become one of your primary “go to” scenes or modes of character expression. For critics it might therefore be tempting to evaluate scenes of physical violence only in terms of this visceral response (and in fact many film critics deride action films as nothing more than part of a low-culture “body” genre for exactly this reason). However, such a critical response overlooks and elides the very problem with which we — hypothetically — began: the need to visually display something about the inner life of a character.

In the strictest sense, martial arts are simply military tactics on a personal level. Like military tactics, which must often account for political as well as military necessity, martial arts can be seen as having two fundamentally interrelated functions: 1) specific techniques (for either offense or defense) and 2) beliefs about the proper use of those techniques. In other words, what might be called “philosophy” as well as physical practice defines many martial arts. This is especially true of martial arts that developed in conjunction with religious beliefs. Since they view the world as intrinsically interrelated, holistic religions particularly influence the philosophy and thus the practice of many martial arts. This is principally an aspect of “Eastern” religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.[6] Martial arts that have developed in regions where these philosophies are widely practiced therefore often include philosophical elements as part of their defining characteristics. Training in any of these martial arts often includes corollary education in cultural customs because the philosophical approach to life practiced in that part of the world is understood as fundamental to understanding the proper use of the physical techniques.[7]

Films use this association between philosophical themes and martial arts to their advantage by deliberately linking the outward display of martial practice with the inner philosophical themes related to that particular martial art or region. However, it is important to also note a distinction between actual martial arts practice and their representation on film. For example, a common reason to fight in many Hong Kong martial arts is some variation of the argument “my school of kung fu is better than your school of kung fu” (see for instance Drunken Master [1978], Wing Chun [1994] and many others). Now, on one level, for those aware of certain subtle distinctions between the styles, this may in fact be a legitimate argument.[8] To those unfamiliar with such subtleties, the argument itself remains of course generalized “fighting words.” Indeed, over time, as audience “connoisseurs” demanded more and more variety in the otherwise standard device of “my kung fu versus your kung fu,” filmmakers began to play with the convention itself. In fact, some contrasting “styles” in martial arts films were invented just so the combatants would have something new to argue about—as was done in the case of “emotional kung fu” from 1979’s Fearless Hyena.

Likewise, the practice of many martial arts is also often heavily influenced by traditional etiquette, an etiquette that can be cultural or linked only to that particular martial art (e.g., “bowing in” is probably the most widely-known example of this for Western observers). These traditions are often communicated via stories or myths surrounding the founding of that art. In this way, legendary figures and their exploits are also sometimes linked to the practice of a particular martial art, with corollary “secret” techniques associated with practice at the highest level. These martial arts “facts” become magnified when retold on film. Thus the exploits of legendary characters such as China’s Wong Fei-hung or Japan’s Miyamoto Musashi become even further exaggerated through multiple retellings on film. Likewise, their “secret techniques” often become more and more elaborate. All of this is fertile ground for any filmmaker looking for shortcuts to character description. In fact many of these elements—culturally specific practices, the exploits of legendary figures and secret techniques in particular—largely define the “martial arts” action film sub-genre.

In this same way, the inter-film borrowing Quentin Tarantino has become so famous for is not unique to him alone. In fact, as Warshow’s idea of connoisseurship suggests, it is the very nature of genre films to rely on—and then tweak—established conventions. It should come as no surprise then that the primary aesthetic of Tarantino’s homage to martial arts films, Kill Bill, is playful borrowing.

Continued: The economy of connoisseurship

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