In films like The Legend of Zorro, fight scenes tell a story, depict combat through codified movements, and draw on the social and historical meaning of what "swordplay" represents.
Japanese Kabuki plays use a highly stylized form of fight representation called tachimawari. Here fights are performed as a sort of musical dance.
Practiced martial movement is different from unpracticed martial movement, insofar as the former implies a certain investment of time and training while the latter can simply result from one's reaction to desperate circumstances. Here, the practice of aikido, which often relies on joint locks.
Shot analysis of the fight choreography in Steven Seagal's Out for Justice
1. A combat sequence – which Seagal’s character easily wins – opens the film, establishing martial skill as a central theme. Similar opening scenes are common to many action films.
2. An early action sequence again shows Seagal’s character, Gino, easily outmatching opponents. Here Seagal uses a wrist lock to disarm a man who had been pointing a gun at him. As guns are visual markers of power, the ease of the disarm marks Gino as especially dominant.
3. Special effects – here a meat cleaver embedded in a prosthetic hand – allow a kinesthetic revulsion for abnormality. Intellectual knowledge that the effect isn’t “real” tempers viewers' physical response.
4. Aikido practitioners use joint locks to control opponents. Here an arm bar creates a kinesthetic impact in the viewer that is different from the impact created by the special effects meat-cleaver-through-hand seen in the background. Both images involve pain and both create a certain cinema of attractions, yet each has a movement that “feels” different.
5. A prolonged bar fight provides the film's main action sequence. The choreography is neatly book-ended by showing the same man shoved into the same phone booth. This creates a structured way for audience members to “read” the fight within the film's overall narrative.
6. The bar fight's first sequence creates narrative tension largely through the use of syncopated sounds. Seagal/Gino randomly breaks glasses as he walks around the bar then shoves the bartender to the floor. The bartender’s fall pulls down even more glasses. This in turn escalates the fight's building rhythm.
7. End of first sequence: Seagal/ Gino deliberately discards his pistol. This act constructs an atmosphere of heightened tension in which hand to hand combat becomes narratively inevitabe.
8. The overall bar-fight slowly builds as a single man attacks and is easily defeated. This man’s attack was a single attempted punch, and Seagal/Gino’s response was likewise a single, almost effortless, throw. This quick 1 – 2 rhythm establishes a choreographic foundation on which to build the multiple attacks that follow.
Because the static language of muscularity cannot adequately address concepts of movement, we need to find another form of discourse to describe these concepts. For such a purpose, stage and screen fight directors routinely use musical terminology to describe the rhythmic nature of many theatrical fights. Legendary fight director William Hobbs describes fight choreography in terms of "Fight Orchestration" (53). Likewise, fight director Dale Anthony Girard describes "The Sounds of Violence" (445), and fight director J. Allen Suddeth writes about "phrasing in fight choreography," as well as "patterns and tempo/rhythms," and "the music in the blades" (68-77). This sort of language describes choreographed martial movement in musical terms, which provides a useful alternative to static description.
Theatrical fights differ from "real" fights partly because they try to convey a story. A theatrical fight is designed to be "intelligible" to an audience. That is to say, a theatrical fight is specifically constructed so that an audience can clearly see and hear what is going on. A real fight's tactics, however, often result in the complete opposite — since an actual combatant would face a severe disadvantage if his opponent could see what was about to happen. Real fights often involve hiding an attack until the moment it is launched. Any "real" fighter wants a single attack or series of attacks to damage or disable an opponent before the defender can counter.
Clearly, a theatrical fight has a very different purpose from a real fight. In essence, theatrical fights represent real fights in a codified way. The theatrical fights are designed to convey a narrative story of conflict through representational movement. This means that any time a fight's primary purpose ceases to be about actually damaging an opponent and begins to entail presenting a movement-story to a viewing audience, a certain amount of stylization automatically is employed. One important aesthetic aspect of this stylization then becomes the musicality of the fight itself.
The degree of stylization varies considerably depending on the medium or concept used. For instance, Japanese Kabuki plays use a highly stylized form of fight representation called tachimawari in which fights are performed as a sort of musical dance. Likewise, Chinese Beijing Opera combat involves a highly stylized display of acrobatics set to musical accompaniment. However, no matter how extreme the form, some degree of stylization and musicality always function in choreographed fights; and these fights themselves act as a sort of movement-narrative. This kind of narrative can convey the story of the fight through movement alone.
Whenever stylization and musicality become expressed through a human body, a type of expressive movement is created that functions in many ways like dance. And from dance, we can get another concept particularly useful for describing the fight sequences in action films. A concept of kinesthetics (or kinaesthetics) exists principally in the realm of dance analysis and has become fundamental to any description of choreographed movement. It is a complex idea consisting of many different interwoven and related theories, including the interrelated topics of metakinesis and muscular sympathy.
Metakinesis, as the term implies, is the process of transferring something through the medium of movement. A forerunner in this area of movement analysis, John Martin, describes metakinesis this way:
Although this passage primarily addresses issues related to modern dance, Martin's definition of metakinesis can also describe elements of choreographed martial movement. Martial movements intended to be seen necessarily have an expressive design. The movement itself aims to convey a story or narrative. For example, a simple movement-narrative might enact something like, "Good guy throws a punch and hits bad guy in the nose." If I describe such a simple action in terms of movement-narrative, at first glance my strategy may seem too obvious or overly analytical. But the basis premise this example serves to demonstrate is crucial — that movement itself can be the medium through which a martial narrative is transferred. And this kind of analysis serves as an important basis for understanding other aspects of metakinesis in relation to martial movement. A key critical question then becomes this: If movement itself can act as the medium for transferring narration, what else can movement transfer? Martin's definition of metakinesis also implies transferring "aesthetic and emotional concept[s]." What, then, do these concepts comprise?
One of these concepts related to martial movement entails a romanticized empowerment relative to a displayed level of skill and training. Practiced martial movement is different from unpracticed martial movement, insofar as the former implies a certain investment of time and training while the latter can simply result from one's reaction to desperate circumstances. Practiced martial movement can, in fact, deserve the label "martial art." Here, the term "art" in reference to movement qualifies the movement as specifically skilled or practiced. The time and training of practiced martial movement, in turn, implies a certain level of readiness for physical confrontation and thus results in the fighter's empowerment through increased movement potential.
Such physical empowerment also includes certain romantic aspects anchored in the past. Paul Connerton describes practiced movement as a form of "memory":
The practice of martial arts, in fact, seeks in part to make martial movement instantaneous and reaction habitual. Practicing martial arts has as one of its goals supplanting conscious thought with physical reaction. This "habitual skilled remembering," in Connerton's terms, then "reenacts" aspects of the movement's "historical origin." That is, certain types of movement (or "bodily practice" to use Connerton's terms ) may evoke romantic or idealized aspects of the historical origin of movement forms.
Take, for example, staged swordplay — in theater, in child's play, or on screen. Swinging a sword might evoke images of knights on horseback or mythical heroes slaying dragons. Specific images of knights or heroes do not necessarily get evoked through the movement of swinging a sword, but the potential to invoke aspects of these images always exists within the movement itself. In other words, movement has the potential to reenact elements related to the historical origin of the movement itself. Since memory is "sedimented in the body," bodily movement can evoke memories of that movement's historic origins. The act of swinging a sword thus has the potential to invoke images from the history of swordplay. And since swordplay itself has become widely romanticized in history through art and literature as well as through the more general cultural and psychological practice of idealizing the past, romanticized images of this past have the potential to accompany this "reenactment."
Likewise, Asian martial-arts movements may evoke images of Asia and, correspondingly, all the exoticism associated with those images. Romanticized aspects of movement are not necessarily invoked through this process of bodily sedimented memory, but surely a certain romanticism does accompany many people's perceptions of martial movement. This romanticism can take the form of an idealized longing for the past. Or we may see evidence of it in the longing for individual power through physical potential. Here, an idealized belief assumes that physical skill can solve a range of human conflicts. It is this type of simplified belief to which the term "romanticized empowerment" refers.
Whether one agrees with the specifics of this analysis or not, Martin's description of metakinesis when combined with Connerton's description of "habitual skilled remembering" implies that both viewed martial-arts movement and performed martial-arts movement have the ability to "reenact" elements of sedimented bodily memory. And certain movements, by referring back to their historic origin, can transfer elements of that origin to the fighters and to the viewers through the process of metakinesis.
Practiced art of martial movement has an elite nature, which also contributes to martial art's empowerment potential. Connerton describes the elite nature of certain practiced skills historically, principal of which was "the profession of arms" (85). In the West, prior to the sixteenth century, part of what granted men honor from bearing arms was the distinction of class that the arms themselves signified. Since only nobility could wear arms, the act of wearing arms demonstrated the wearer's noble birth. Later, however, as the bourgeoisie began to rise in wealth and power and also began wearing arms, the nobility distinguished themselves as a class by also displaying the time they spent practicing the weapons' use. That is, a man rich by birth could afford to perfect the art of swordplay, while a man rich through business would not have free time to develop such refinements. Displays of practiced movement thus served to indicate class distinction.
Modern displays of practiced martial skill do not necessarily represent class distinction. However, martial arts films consistently privilege skill in physical confrontations over other class distinctions. In a martial arts film, what ultimately matters is how well a character fights. A character's social class or wealth does not matter, but rather simply how well the s/he performs in physical confrontations, from which viewers distinguish the characters' relative power. That is, in a martial-arts film, displays of practiced martial-arts movement, as opposed to displays of non-practiced martial movement, equal displays of "symbolic capital" through "investment of time and skill." Because the genre itself implies a visualizing of the concept of power, it is significant that the characters' relative empowerment can be discerned only through their movement. Ironically, both empowerment and negating class distinction are implied by practiced movement. Thus the process of metakinesis in martial arts films transfers a range of concepts in addition to narration. The genre always relies on aspects of practiced movement which are seldom considered part of movement itself, but which are also not easily articulated except through movement.
Another aspect of kinesthetics, closely associated with metakinesis, is the concept of muscular sympathy. This refers to a physical, empathetic "feeling" evoked by the movement itself. With an arguable exception in certain cases of congenital paralysis, all human beings experience life in a human body that moves more or less like every other human body. Even if a human body becomes damaged in some way, it still shares basic structural similarities with every other human body. Every person who has a body thus knows what it "feels" like to move a human body through space. And every time a person sees another human body move, s/he implicitly understands what this movement might "feel" like. This feeling, itself, while expressed physically, includes emotional and psychological responses. An analysis of specific movement sequences in action films will help to clarify these terms in relation to choreographed martial movement.