Seeing Enter the Dragon in basic training inspired army recruits to do well on their physical training test.
An aikido match: Bodily memory is built up through practice and expresses itself in action.
If critics emphasize the star's body and physique, they may underestimate bodily motion's effect on audience response. Arnold Schwarzenegger began as a body builder, his role in his first film Stay Hungry. He went on to play action heroes, but he has never been known for his martial arts skills in the way that Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan have.
The term "movement" implies continuous spatial and temporal flow. Martial arts practitioners wear loose fitting clothing that does not exmphasize body and physique, as seen here in the practice of hapkido.
The sergeant in basic training did not want us to look like Bruce Lee but to act like him, to feel we could perform like his character and emulate the unstoppable nature of the action we saw.
Jackie Chan is known not for his muscularity but for his martial arts skill and his daring as a stunt man. Here, in Rumble in the Bronx, the thrill comes from seeing him fly through the air.
A fight scene from Rumble in the Bronx ...
... shows how Jackie Chan's fight choreography is highly stylized and...
... how the characters in Chan's films rarely seem injured as a result of the fight. Such scenes have a fantastical element and often incorporate 20 to 30 fight moves.
The climactic fight scene in Conan is created in the editing, by a collage of single unrelated attacks.
Cut, no. 42, Dec. 1998, pp. 1-11, 83
On the night before my basic training's final physical training test, the senior drill instructor, Sergeant Vasques, ordered the entire company out into the hallway. In the middle of the hallway he had placed a television monitor and a VCR, and he ordered us all to sit in front of it. "You know how after you watch a kung fu movie, you feel like you're a bad motherfucker?" he said. "You go outside and kick trash cans and maybe you fight with your friends, because you feel like nothing can stop you, like you're Bruce Lee? Well, tonight you're all going to watch Bruce Lee. And tomorrow you're all going to pass that test, because you're going to be Bruce Lee."
Then he turned on the VCR and we watched Bruce Lee perform impossible feats of martial arts prowess in Enter the Dragon. After the film, we were so intoxicated with our newly found sense of invincibility and anticipation of the test to come that we stayed up all night long "kungfu-ing" each other. This happened in 1986. Although I can no longer remember whether we all managed to pass the test the next day or not, I can still remember the physical rush of empowerment that prompted us all to stay up fighting in the hallway after the film. In fact, the physical aspects of that night — the physical virtuosity of Lee, our own kung-fu fights, and the intensity of the following PT test — remain among my most vivid memories of basic training.
I think that to some extent the vicarious association we achieved through watching Bruce Lee that evening did not happen just mentally. Our mental association with the invincible character we saw on screen expressed itself through our own physical actions as we consciously attempted to recreate elements of Lee's movement within our own bodies. This physical recreation of movement, in turn, constituted a type of muscular memory.
In this essay, I wish to address the degree to which this type of muscular memory plays a role in communicating aesthetic concepts. That is, bodily memory itself allows a certain type of communication to take place, and this communication itself may involve aesthetic concepts inexpressible through other medium.
Paul Connerton describes bodily re-creations similar to those my fellow soldiers and I performed as "bodily practice" (72). He offers the supposition that bodily memory itself becomes expressed through some type of "action" or "practice" — that is, by doing something. This doing inherently involves some type of bodily motion. And such motion is central to my discussion of the action film. However, before talking about action cinema proper, let me clarify several obscuring notions in film studies about the action genre.
Present scholarship on the action film usually understates bodily movement's effect on audience response. In fact, even essays about the action film that do not directly address questions of the action sequences' physicality still tend to use language which dismisses the movement inherent in those sequences. For instance, when Justin Wyatt discusses the primacy of marketing for "high concept" films (of which action films form a sub-group), he writes,
In contrast, by describing the primacy of movement in several action sequences that occur in high concept films, I reconsider to what extent these action sequences actually "freeze" the narrative, or to what extent the narrative itself is primarily focused on them.
Essays that addresses the actor's or star's body and physique likewise tends to understate bodily motion's effects on audience response. Instead, scholarship in this area has focused more on issues pertaining to a passive body-on-display. In this vein, action heroes often are described in terms of their musculature. Audience pleasure in watching action heroes is then described in terms of muscular display, of beautiful bodies displayed and gazed upon. Thus Yvonne Tasker describes action cinema as "muscular cinema" and coins the term "musculinity" to describe "a physical definition of masculinity in terms of a developed musculature … not limited to the male body" (3). She describes muscular action heroes as "pin-ups," defined in part by "an insistent imagery which stresses hardness" (Tasker 77). For her, the action in action films (or muscular cinema) remains secondary to the display of muscular bodies:
Problematically, to focus on the action hero's muscular nature denies the primacy of motion inherent in the genre's "action" nature. While an action hero or heroine's muscularity often contributes much to the pleasure of watching an action film, I argue that in martial arts films the muscularity of an action hero's body plays a secondary role to the very fact of bodies in motion. Surely high concept action film stars do consciously display their muscular physique for viewing pleasure. But the critical language used to analyze action films often remains too static in nature. The critic may describe frozen moments or single images from a moving sequence. But without an adequate description of movement, scholarship in the area often cannot adequately describe much of the action it seeks to address.
Movement vs. muscularity
At this point, I want to establish a clear distinction between muscularity and movement. Muscles constitute part of human beings' physical makeup. Muscularity indicates the degree to which people develop these muscles and display them as developed. Muscles are the engines that allow the human body to move. However, in film criticism, movement itself does not inform the concept of muscularity. Discussions of actors' human muscularity tend to delineate a static, "pin-up" style of display that is frozen in time and space. The very definition of muscularity thus limits the critical presentation of movement to a series of static frames. Indeed, those frames can be described in terms of muscularity. However, such writing necessarily underrates or omits altogether analyzing musculature's potential for movement.
Film movement consists of more than a series of static, frozen frames displayed one after another. Movement implies a continuity between frames. This continuity is more than a sequence of static moments; instead, the term "movement" itself implies continuous spatial and temporal flow. This is a way of conceptualizing movement that stands as inherently incompatible with descriptions of frozen moments. For this reason, any critical discussion of actors' movement must develop a whole other argument separate from considering muscularity. For example, many dancers have lithe, muscular bodies pleasing to view; however, the dancer's movement makes him or her a dancer, not muscularity. In constitutive terms, muscles support and create movement, but they do not constitute the movement itself.
To be sure, dancers and martial arts stars do display their muscularity. Bruce Lee, for instance, has often been depicted in various states of undress, flexing his well-conditioned musculature. This does not imply, however, that the primary aesthetic in Bruce Lee's films entails a passive display of this physique in "pin-up" form. Sergeant Vasques did not show Enter the Dragon to encourage us to emulate Bruce Lee's body; rather he wanted us to emulate the actions of the invincible martial artist we saw on screen. That is, we were not encouraged to look like Bruce Lee, nor meant to feel that we should look like Bruce Lee's character, nor encouraged to focus our attention on Bruce Lee's body. Rather the sergeant encouraged us to act like Bruce Lee or to feel as if we could perform like Bruce Lee's character. In short, he wanted us to emulate the unstoppable nature of the action we saw. That evening in basic training primarily focused on the degree to which we could physically appreciate Bruce Lee's apparent willpower and virtuosity of movement. The sergeant hoped that we could re-create some aspects of that power in the next day's test. Nevertheless, because Bruce Lee conspicuously displays his physique, any discussion of movement in Bruce Lee's martial arts films can easily become confused with issues of muscularity. For this reason, I have chosen to focus my discussion on other actors, particularly Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan.
I have chosen this focus for three reasons. First, Seagal and Chan have become famous action film stars not for how they look but for what they can do. Although both clearly keep in good shape, neither are "muscular" in the manner of bodybuilding action stars such as Jean Claude van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indeed, any adequate critical analysis of Seagal's or Chan's films could not just describe the actors' muscularity without addressing their skills as martial artists and/or stunt men. That is, the two actors' proficiency as martial artists and/or stunt men largely eclipses the degree to which they are or are not "muscular."
Second, the filmed fights of Seagal and Chan exist on opposite ends of what I call the "reality spectrum" of mimetic fights. Such a "reality spectrum" partly derives from the displayed consequences of the fighters' movement. In a Jackie Chan fight, for instance, the characters rarely seem seriously injured as a result of the fight. In a Steven Seagal fight, on the other hand, the characters are almost always graphically shown as seriously injured, maimed, and even killed as a result of the fight. Seagal's fights, for the most part, are specifically staged and shot to look and feel like "real" fights. This shapes the films' marketing strategy. The audience knows that Seagal is a highly trained martial artist who claims to have been in many "real" fights. He is quoted as saying:
In the same fast-paced, decisive way, Seagal's films rarely incorporate more than three or four moves in any given fight sequence, and the filmed fights themselves are rapid and often have brutal conclusions.
In contrast, in a single fight sequence, Jackie Chan's filmed fights often incorporate up to twenty or even thirty individual movements. These fight sequences have been described as evolving directly from the highly stylized movements of Chinese Peking Opera (Cinema of Vengeance). Thus they represent the opposite — or stylized — end of the reality spectrum from Steven Seagal's filmed fights. (I leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not these opposite ends necessarily indicate something about the rest of the spectrum.)
In reference to genre studies of the action film, many critics often assume that fight sequences are constructed in the editing. And while this may pertain to some fights — especially those involving unskilled fighters — I argue that in martial arts films in particular, the editing serves not to construct movement talent where it does not exist, but rather to highlight the actor's movement talents as existing even beyond the editing.
My point is that elements of reality and stylization never remain entirely separate in mimetically representational fights. To prove this, I will describe elements of rhythmic stylization in Steven Seagal's fights, and elements of real danger in Jackie Chan's. In a subsequent JUMP CUT article, "Violent Dances in Martial Arts Films," I will advance this analysis of kinesthetics and bodily memory by analyzing martial arts sequences from the films of Jackie Chan.
Certainly a director can create a fight sequence by editing together a series of otherwise unconnected attacks and defenses. A good example of this occurs in the notoriously "muscular" film Conan the Barbarian (1981). The longest uncut attack sequence in this film consists of a three-move series in which Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Rexor clash their swords together three times on the high line. The climactic battle scene between the forces of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and Conan (Schwarzenegger) is created by editing a collage of unrelated single attacks. The effect reads very much like this: "attack"— cut — "attack" — cut — "close up on blood" — cut — "attack," and so on.
This combination of editing and swordfights has nothing to do with any true attacks or parries, but rather it simply consists of a series of sword-bashes incorporated into the final editing-created fight. Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan's fight sequences bear almost no resemblance to such a postproduction-created fight. Steven Seagal executes authentic attack and parry techniques from the martial arts forms Aikido and Escrima, which in their filmed form can extend up to ten attack-parry reprises between edited cuts. Likewise, Jackie Chan's films incorporate authentic techniques from a wide range of martial arts including Wing-Chun and Hapkido; the filmed version of such techniques may extend up to a staggering twenty or thirty attack-parry reprises between edited cuts. I argue that the execution of these prolonged fighting sequences is not created through postproduction editing. Instead, the editing itself serves to highlight the performers' movement virtuosity.