Kinesthesia in martial arts films
Action in motion
by Aaron Anderson
Cut, no. 42, Dec. 1998, pp. 1-11, 83
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006
reprinted online: Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
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,
"… high concept can be identified through the surface appearance of the films: a high tech visual style and production design which are self-conscious to the extent that the physical perfection of the film's visuals sometimes 'freezes' the narrative in its tracks." (25)
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:
"…any display of the male body needs to be compensated for by the suggestion of action. Thus sports pin-ups and the portrayal of the feats of near-naked action heroes both offer the body as to-be-looked-at whilst refusing the 'femininity' implied by that quite passive position." (Tasker 77, citing Richard Dyer)
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:
"… many, many different kinds of people came to discredit me, kick ass or kill me, and it never lasted more than a few seconds. And I'm not the one who got hurt or carried away." (Richman 306)
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 light 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.
Fight choreography and kinesthetics
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 illusion of 'the real thing' is best achieved when not only what the audience sees but what it hears and feels carries a ring of truth; when not only the look of the staged fight but the music of that fight — the held and released breaths, the running steps, the clang of metal, the voluntary and 'involuntary' vocal sounds, the lines and dialogue, the response to injury — combine to produce a vivid and believable impression. (Girard 445, citing Raphael)
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:
"Movement, then, in and of itself is a medium for the transference of an aesthetic and emotional concept from the unconscious of one individual to that of another. This should not be as strange an idea as it seems to be. Back as far as Plato, and perhaps farther, it has been toyed with by the metaphysical philosophers. Kinesis is the name they gave to physical movement; we find that there is correlated with kinesis a supposed psychic accompaniment called metakinesis, this correlation growing from the theory that the physical and the psychical are merely two aspects of a single underlying reality. We are not here concerned with theories of metaphysics, and it makes very little difference what we may choose to believe about the relation in general between the physical and the psychical. It is extremely important, however, that we see in the dance the relation that exists between physical movement and mental — or psychical, if you will — intention." (13-14)
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":
"Many forms of habitual skilled remembering illustrate a keeping of the past in mind that, without ever adverting to its historical origin, nevertheless reenacts the past in our present conduct. In habitual memory the past is, as it were, sedimented in the body." (72)
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.
"Ceremonial avocations, no less than ceremonial privileges, display membership of an ancient group. These avocations represent an investment of time and skill in a particular type of symbolic capital: the objects endowed with the greatest symbolic power are those which display the quality inherent in the possessor by clearly demonstrating the quality required in their appropriation." (Connerton 87)
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.
Out for Justice
Steven Seagal is known for his fighting skill, and the fight sequences in his films stand out for the sense of "realism" they portray. Seagal's characters use quick and brutal tactics. Elbows are snapped with audible cracks in Above the Law, eyes gouged in graphic detail in Marked for Death, and bodies impaled with broken pool cues in Hard to Kill. These graphic (some may say brutal) effects comprise part of Seagal's trademark and reflect his star persona. In real life Seagal holds a sixth degree black belt in Aikido, and he claims to be "the first white person to operate a dojo in Osaka" (Richman 306). An article in GQ magazine describes this aspect of Seagal 's star persona:
"Can this martial-arts master [Seagal] really do the things we have seen on film, the eyeball-gouging, back-snapping feats that have the young punks in the theaters turning to one another and squeamishly moaning 'Oh, shit?" Seagal, matter-of-factly, says, "Absolutely." Dan Inosanto, who apprenticed under Bruce Lee and now operates his own academy in L. A., says, "I've watched Steven instruct. I've felt his blocks. I've seen a lot of Aikido, and his is right up on top. He can make his work. It's for real." Seagal versus Lee? Seagal versus Norris? My money's on the big guy." (Richman 232)
As already mentioned, Seagal claims to have fought in real-life encounters with sudden, often violent conclusions. However, even though his filmed fighting sequences may appear "realistic," they are far from random or unstructured. To the contrary, they exhibit a choreographed aesthetic of form, rhythm and movement similar to dance sequences. Here I wish to offer an extended analysis of Out for Justice's barroom brawl sequence to illustrate this key concept for analyzing the dramatic use of movement in action films.
In this sequence in Out for Justice, Gino Feline (Seagal), a police officer, enters a bar seeking information about the whereabouts of a murderer named Richie Modono (William Forsythe). The brawl that results includes self-referential, choreographed, stylistically structured, rhythmic movement-sequences in the manner of dance. The first sequence begins when Seagal, as Gino, shoves one of the bar's patrons into a phone booth, at which point we hear the accenting sounds of a ringing phone bell and slamming booth door. Seagal then slowly walks across the bar and kicks the stool out from under another patron who tries to block his way. After briefly talking to Sammy (Gianni Russo), the unofficial leader of the gang inside the bar, Seagal slaps a man named Tattoo (Sonny Hurst) in the face. He then continues his slow stalk around the bar and shoves the bartender violently to the floor behind the bar; at this moment we hear the syncopated sound of breaking glass behind the bar. Seagal then breaks some more glasses and confronts the bartender again, taunting the bartender to fight. There is a brief, silent tension after which the bartender, a former boxer, attempts to throw a punch. Seagal immediately dodges the blow, blocks it and drops the bartender to the floor with a single, loud elbow strike to the face; once again we hear the syncopated sound of glass breaking behind the bar.
A brief silence follows, after which Seagal says, "I dunno, you know, I'm starting to get in a bad mood." Seagal threatens to roust everyone in the bar, telling them to "get up on the table." He then fires two rounds from a semi-automatic pistol in rapid succession into the ceiling — followed by the sound of brief screams and shuffling feet as the patrons of the bar scramble for cover. Sammy then loudly announces that the only "balls" Gino/Seagal has "is that badge and gun." In response, Seagal ejects the magazine from his pistol and clears the chambered round. He pulls his badge from under his shirt and announces to the entire bar: "Here's your trophy. Come and get it." The sequence ends as Seagal walks slowly back out toward the middle of the bar, twirling a bar towel between his hands.
This first sequence serves several functions. It demonstrates Gino's blunt, outside-the-rules method of police work. And it provides a glimpse inside the character in whom we see a single-minded drive and purpose — a glimpse perhaps difficult to observe in any other way. Also, the seemingly effortless way in which Gino/Seagal dispatches both the man on the stool and the bartender displays both Gino's fighting ability and his use of direct, no-nonsense tactics. The relatively slow pace of the sequence — coupled with the syncopated rhythms punctuated with pauses — helps build a dramatic tension that did not exist before. And the repeated sounds of glass breaking and shuffling feet help to develop a shape and rhythm to the sequence as a whole — a shape and rhythm that will then be broken in later sequences for dramatic effect.
But perhaps this first sequence's primary function is to plausibly disarm Gino for the hand-to-hand combat. When Seagal, as Gino, puts down his pistol, a physical, hand-to-hand confrontation becomes, in effect, inevitable. The audience knows about Seagal's expertise at hand-to-hand combat. Even if members of the audience have not read about Seagal's personal claims to martial arts prowess, they have already witnessed Seagal's character, Gino, physically confront several other characters that set Gino up as a proficient fighter. Narratively, Gino's act of putting down the gun clearly functions to heighten the audience's anticipation of the physical combat to come (Figure 1).
Significantly, consciously to construct an atmosphere of heightened anticipation before a fight sequence runs counter to the notion that in an action film narrative, the fight sequences somehow "freeze" the narrative in its tracks. Since movement alone, in kinesthetic terms, can convey both emotions and idea, the action film narrative does not usually stop or slow down with the outbreak of physical violence. On the contrary, it can he argued that this anticipated display of martial arts prowess is in fact the main narrative focus. The screenplay and direction both concentrate on allowing just this sort of martial-movement display. Or to put it another way, this martial-movement sequence develops specific narrative and aesthetic elements valued here over other, more conventionally communicated concepts.
The second sequence in this barroom brawl demonstrates Seagal's famed talent to good effect. Once again, the action sequence employs kinesthetic elements and rhythmic musicality. This second sequence begins when one of the bar patrons attempts to attack Gino/Seagal from behind. Seagal sidesteps and blocks the attack, trapping the attacker's arm with the bar towel and throwing him over a railing in one swift, circular motion. Seagal then quietly slips a pool cue ball into a fold in the bar towel and spins the towel, in effect, fashioning a makeshift flail (Figure 2). Four men gather menacingly around him. Tattoo, the first of these men, pulls a knife and attempts to stab Seagal (Figure 3). Seagal immediately blocks the knife with his left hand and smashes Tattoo in the mouth with the cue-hall flail. A second man attempts an attack with one half of a pool-stick. Again, Seagal blocks the attack with his left hand and smashes the man on the head with the flail. A third man attempts an attack, but Seagal moves faster and smashes him across the face with the flail before he can strike. Seagal then kicks the man in the chest, sending him flying across a pool table (Figure 4). Another man attempts a running attack at Seagal's back, which Seagal simply catches, throwing the man over the pool table in one swift motion.
Each of these blocks and attacks is accented with clear, audible sounds. With each attempted attack, we hear the "swish" of air and the "thud" of a block; and with each attack of Seagal's flail, a loud "crack," as the pool-cue strikes like a drum on bone. These blocks and attacks have a regular rhythm — in direct contrast to the first sequence's syncopated sounds and pauses. Here, the sequence sets up a sort of musical rhythm ("block-crack, block-crack, crack-kick, throw"). This rhythmic sequence then ends the same way it begins. The first man, Tattoo (after spitting out his teeth) yells, "Mother-fucker, you knocked my teeth out!" and attempts an attack. Seagal blocks Tattoo's punch with his left hand and "cracks" him in the head with the flail in exactly the same rhythmic fashion as before.
Tattoo's two attacks thus serve to tie neatly together or bookend this rhythmic sequence, allowing the audience to more clearly understand the progressive narrative of the greater fight. The second sequence has much faster action than the first, and rhythmically more regular action. This pacing establishes a contrast between the two sequences, in effect creating a rhythmic tension between them, but it also serves to develop a sense of flow within the fight as a whole.
This sense of flow is further developed in the third sequence — which begins with the introduction of a martial artist name Sticks (Daniel Inosanto, Figure 5). As Sticks approaches, Gino/Seagal is struck with a pool cue on the back of the leg by the man he had earlier thrown over the railing, effectively dropping the protagonist to one knee. Seagal turns around and strikes the man in the head with the flail again, in the same manner as before (Figure 6). Sticks then approaches and begins to attack Seagal with a half pool cue in each hand. Sticks attacks here with a variation on the double-stick fighting style of Escrima — a Philippine martial art. Seagal, still on his knees, abandons his cue-ball flail and picks up a full-length pool cue which he then uses in the manner of a jo stick to fend off Sticks' attacks (Figure 7). Seagal and Sticks spar like this for several seconds. Their exchange is punctuated by the rapid sound of syncopated taps as each opponent attempts to find an opening in the other's defense (Figure 8). These "feeling-out" sounds then begin to build to a crescendo as Sticks closes in and delivers four hard, loud, evenly rhythmic attacks (Figure 9).
These attacks cumulate in a fifth blow which splits Seagal's pool-cue neatly in half and continue as each man confronts the other, double stick to double stick (Figurer 10). We hear the sound of loud syncopated taps (a rhythm which can be described as "quiet syncopation, 1-2-3-4-Break, loud syncopation"). This loud, syncopated "double stick versus double stick" phrase continues for a full fifteen seconds, longer than any other phrase in the entire fight series.
The tension within the ambient sound phrasing is further enhanced visually, with the use of several rapidly edited cuts in the film itself. The viewer's gaze rapidly shifts between views of Sticks, views of Seagal, and a series of wider views of the two of them in context. These cuts come progressively more rapidly until Seagal is struck in the hand and partially disarmed. Sticks then runs in to attack. Seagal avoids the attack and catches Sticks' right hand, lifting him to his toes with the application of a finger lock. We hear the Seagal film hallmark sound of breaking or separating bones. Gino then retrieves half his pool cue and dispatches Sticks with one swift, loud strike to the head in a way that recalls the second sequence.
The sequence has an unmistakable rhythmic quality. During the rapid editing, for instance, the audience cannot see all that is going on, yet the rhythmic sounds continue and build throughout. In these instances, the fight storyline is told primarily through the rhythmic ambient sounds of the combat. However, this rhythmic pattern derives from fight choreography as well as from editing.
To illustrate the choreographed structure of this fight sequence, I will note how different a structure it has than that of a fight sequence involving largely unskilled combatants, such as that seen near the end of Conan the Barbarian. In Conan's final battle scene, separate and largely unrelated attacks and parries are edited together in order to create the illusion of a longer fight sequence. In effect, the editing hides a lack of martial skill and creates a pattern that exists only in the final, edited version.
In Out for Justice, however, the combatants engage in much longer attack-parry combinations between edited cuts. These longer sequences have a rhythmic pattern unto themselves, and thus they display the actors' level of martial skill. The editing in Out for Justice does not hide a lack of martial skill; rather, it emphasizes a level of skill already attained by the actors. For example, in the "quiet syncopation" section leading into and including the "1-2-3-4-Break," the camera holds to a single view over Seagal's right shoulder, clearly showing the action. Both men feint and parry ten times in rapid succession before the edited cuts to show Seagal's pool cue break in two. The shots in the "loud syncopation" section, likewise, stay on each man long enough to display up to nine individual attacks, feints, or parries with the double sticks before the edited cuts to the next man. The martial use of double stick techniques requires a remarkably high level of coordination — clearly evident in the movement itself. In this film, that trained skill can be seen and heard between and independent of any edited cuts.
The rapidly edited cuts themselves thus clearly do not hide a lack of movement ability, but rather the editing directs the viewer's attention to specific details within the fight and further heightens the tension of a very skillful exhibition. Although the editing does, of course, dictate the fight's final presentation, the skillful exhibition of movement principally establishes the fight's rhythmic pattern and tempo, not the editing itself. Editing can enhance the audience's understanding and kinesthetic appreciation of the fight, but here it does not "create" the fight.
After Sticks is dispatched, a fourth sequence develops which largely abandons rhythmic cadences for a more visually aesthetic display of bodies flying and tumbling through space. This sequence begins as one man runs in to attack Gino/Seagal from behind. Seagal, still on his knees, turns in time to catch the attacker's wrist, and with another turn of his body, Seagal throws the man back from whence he came — to the cracking sound of breaking or separating bones. The man's legs and feet spectacularly circle through the air in a high, graceful, yet painful-looking arc. A second man then rushes from the opposite direction and attempts to strike Seagal in the head with a beer bottle. Seagal once again catches the man's wrist and turns the man's body, throwing the attacker over his shoulder. And once again the man's legs and feet sweep in a high graceful arc through the air — again to the cracking sound of breaking or separating bones. A third man jumps up onto a pool table and attempts to kick Seagal in the head. Seagal stands and blocks the kick, momentarily trapping the attacker's leg. Seagal then punches the man directly in the groin and sweeps the man's other leg out from under him with a pool cue. As the attacker falls painfully to the table, his legs rise in a high arc directly over his head. This final attacker's end thus recalls both the graceful throws administered to the other two in this sequence as well as the emphatic ending beats of previous sequences.
The entire fight then concludes as it began: Seagal approaches the man he had earlier shoved in a phone booth and once again shoves that man inside — just as before and once again to the to the sound of a ringing phone bell and slamming booth door (Figure 11). This fight's structure, taken as a whole, is far from random. It has a clear beginning, middle and end, and it is set apart and neatly book-ended with the same man's being shoved inside the same booth to the same sounds. It displays a definite tempo and rhythmic patterns — characterized by a slow build to a climax, alternately syncopated and regular rhythmic beats, and self-referential patterns that repeat within and between phrases. In addition, the editing is deployed not to hide a lack of movement skill, but rather to demonstrate the actors' high level of actual martial skill, especially the protagonist's.
The spectacular throws demonstrated in the last sequence characterize Aikido, the martial art for which Seagal is famous. Aikido techniques utilize a system of joint locks and circular throws. In addition being effective, these circular movements are inherently graceful and spectacular. Their use here functions to show Gino's unbeatable martial quality. But more importantly for the action film as a genre, the movement's spectacular, circular nature — the bodies' flying head over heels through the air — functions as a kinesthetic cinema of attractions.
Theories of kinesthetic response imply that the spectacular, gracefully arcing throws seen in the above brawl's last movement sequence will inevitably evoke in the viewer some form of physical, emotional sympathy or response. John Martin expresses this idea in the following way: Through kinesthetic sympathy the viewer responds to the dancer's impulse which has expressed itself through a series of movements. Movement, then, links the dancer's intention and viewer's perception of it.
"To a certain degree it is possible to say that no movement can be made by the human body which is not wholly non-representational. The body cannot conceivably be made to do anything, in other words, which the body cannot do. Even in the case of the acrobat and the contortionist we are made to feel, through muscular sympathy, the strain, the difficulty of the tricks performed, and hence to have a corresponding sense of courage, skill, superiority, or sometimes revulsion for abnormality." (12)
Since every human body intrinsically knows what it feels like to move a human body through space, movement itself evokes a "feeling" through a process of the viewer's muscular sympathy or empathy. The aesthetic appreciation of the movement does not occur entirely mentally. The body itself, through empathic physical sensation, participates in the process of understanding the viewed movement. Martin's description implies that this process extends beyond even what we normally consider "physical sensation" — implying that physical sensation includes elements normally considered "emotional," such as "revulsion," and also abstractions such as "courage," "skill," or "superiority." In addition, Connerton's earlier description of bodily-sedimented memory implies that these emotions and abstractions have something to do with individual, physical memory. In other words, physical empathy expresses itself through emotional response based on prior, personal experience.
In "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," Pierre Nora also describes "memory" in terms which place it not in the mind, but in the body itself:
"[T]rue memory … has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body's inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes and ingrained memories … [Memory is] spontaneous; psychological, individual, and subjective…" (289)
In kinesthetic terms, this means that individuals may experience different aesthetic sensations to the same movement based on their own unique history. For instance, a person confined to a wheelchair may experience a different emotional response to watching another human body run than a fully able-bodied person watching the same movement might. Likewise, a person who has experienced joy on a high-dive platform may feel differently about watching a high-dive competition than might a person whose "memory" includes a great fear of heights. Through the process of physical memory, then, the process of kinesthetic sympathy occurs in specific ways based in part on individual differences in viewers' bodies and experiences.
We can analyze the last movement sequence in Out for Justice as kinesthetic spectacle. We might describe both a "revulsion" apparently felt by the "young punks in the theaters turning to one another and squeamishly moaning 'oh shit'" and also a vicarious thrill of power or superiority felt by the viewer. We would consider the possibility that "memory" has an individual, physical aspect expressed in part through "bodily practices" (in essence, movement). Such an understanding of the mechanisms of viewer response suggests that an audience's aesthetic understanding and appreciation of martial movement in the action film exist on several heuristic levels.
For example, some viewers are themselves skilled or aspiring martial artists. This is evidenced by the many martial arts film stars who grace the pages of the many "Insider Kung-Fu" or "Black Belt" style magazines. This segment of the viewing audience derives a certain level of enjoyment and understanding that draws on their own prior knowledge or aspirations. The kinesthetic effects produced in these viewers may include a sort of "insider" muscular sympathy. That is, any members of the audience who know what it feels like to throw someone through the air, or who have themselves been thrown through the air, will experience a more specific kinesthetic response relative to their own prior knowledge than will someone who does not have such prior muscular memories.
In addition to this insider level of appreciation, most viewers experience the more general kinesthetic reaction discussed above. Even if most viewers do not have prior muscular understanding of what it feels like to hit someone with such force or to be hit themselves, they will still experience a certain level of intrinsic understanding of the movement itself. This segment of the audience, even without prior muscular memory of the specific type of movement displayed, will still experience through "muscular sympathy" some "corresponding sense of courage, skill, superiority" or possibly just a "revulsion" for the "abnormality" displayed through the visibly broken limbs and the bodies flying through space. In other words, any given segment of the audience, although lacking insider muscular memory or prior knowledge of the martial arts, will still get enough information through the viewed movement to experience some type of kinesthetic response. Even though they may not have physical memories of specific movements, they may still physically understand the movement enough to turn to one other and "squeamishly moan, 'Oh shit.'"
Another level of kinesthetic appreciation comes from viewing things that can not normally be seen any other way. This is like the joy of watching a cinema of attractions. Enjoyment on this level comes from understanding, however tenuously or imaginatively, the "difficulty of the tricks performed." In this way, we feel a kinesthetic appreciation for the performer's virtuosity. Since "the body cannot conceivably be made to do anything … that the body cannot do," any time we see someone do something that we ourselves do not believe we can do or that we have not ever thought of doing or are afraid to do, we may inevitably feel something — a sense of awe, perhaps, or a vicarious rush of muscular sympathy. The virtuosity of the movement itself evokes the viewer's kinesthetic response.
When audience response is analyzed in terms of these heuristic levels, Out for Justice's action sequences entail much more than "display of the male body." In fact, muscular bodies on display do not predominate anywhere in the entire film. Seagal is neither overtly muscular nor does he appear to "display" what muscular development he does possess. Throughout the long fight discussed above, he appears dressed in long dark pants and a baggy long-sleeved shirt. Most of the bar patrons also wear baggy winter jackets or long sleeved shirts. Only two bar patrons wear what could be considered a variation on the standard muscle tee shirt; one of them is fat, overly tattooed and ugly, and the other is young and rather scrawny. Neither of them, in short, correspond to the model of muscularity even though they dress according to that model's prescription.
I would argue, therefore, that far from offering a "suggestion of action" in order to "compensate" for a display of a "passive" body, the movement sequences provide Out for Justice's main attraction. To discuss displays of muscularity in the films' action sequences is either irrelevant or at best secondary to the incidence of movement. I will explore this aspect of my argument in more detail by providing a close analysis of the film's last major fight sequence.
Near the end of Out for Justice, Gino/Seagal engages Richie in a final hand-to-hand fight sequence. At this point in the film, Seagal has either killed or incapacitated all of Richie's henchmen and has Richie cornered in a bathroom. Richie emerges from the bathroom and throws down his empty gun saying, "What are you gonna do? You gonna arrest me? I'm out of bullets!" Gino/Seagal still has bullets in his own pistol. Instead of arresting or simply shooting Richie, Gino ejects the clip from his pistol and removes the remaining chambered round. It is a movement reminiscent of the earlier bar room brawl. Gino says, "That's a shame because those bullets could have saved you a lot of pain."
Once again, the script clearly demonstrated the scene's narrative intent by having Seagal discard his pistol (Figure 12). It gestures that the fight sequence which ensues exists solely for the pleasure of watching Steven Seagal, as Gino, demonstrate his martial-arts prowess. The fight's outcome is never in doubt. The audience has already seen Gino/Seagal single-handedly destroy every other adversary — sometimes entire rooms full of them — and well knows that Richie stands no chance of winning. Seagal has, in fact, already won. He simply abandons one avenue of beating Richie for another, a hand-to-hand engagement. Richie himself is fat and slow and seems to display no martial arts skill at all (Figure 13). And yet the fight sequence lasts for a full two minutes — almost as long as the entire bar room brawl sequence and many times longer than any individual fight within the brawl.
This Richie-Gino fight sequence begins when Gino throws Richie across the length of an entire room and backward into a wall. The rest of the fight progresses in a similar manner, in which Richie never succeeds in seriously injuring Gino/Seagal in any way even though he attempts to attack Seagal with his body, his fists, pieces of furniture, knives, frying pans, and finally a corkscrew (Figure 15). Instead, Seagal takes each of the weapons Richie finds and beats Richie with them, throws him across tables and through windows, and hits him up to five times in rapid succession before Richie can even hit the ground (Figure 16).
In the end, after Richie dies with a corkscrew driven through his forehead, the audience essentially has gained no new narrative "information" or answers to plot enigmas. The audience knows that Richie is doomed before the fight begins. Any pleasure in the scene comes simply through watching the fight progress. The story of this fight is simple: the hero, Gino/Seagal, deliberately allows the villain, Richie, to test the hero in physical confrontation. In the course of this confrontation the hero overcomes a series of obstacles (body, fists, pieces of furniture, knives, frying pans, etc.) and reestablishes justice (of the "an eye for an eye" sort) on a level playing field (no gun) in a manner reminiscent of a medieval trial by combat in which God alone is judge.
Although neither Gino/Seagal nor Richie "display" their body for the audience to view, they act out an enormous amount of movement. This movement, in and of itself, creates a kinesthetic spectacle which communicates meaning and emotion to the audience. The movement itself conveys the narrative as well as any aesthetic concepts or emotions involved. The effect can be either pleasing or revolting depending on individual preferences and bodily memories, but the kinesthetic effect itself is the primary focus of the scene.
The theoretical description of spectatorship in this essay is not intended as general theory of film spectatorship or expected to have universal application. Rather I wish to introduce a heuristic device to allow a discussion of martial movement as movement in kinesthetic terms. Theories of bodily memory imply that the aesthetics of viewed human movement has some physical impact on the viewer's body — that movement aesthetics themselves are "felt" as well as "thought." Conventional Western paradigms of "thought," however, largely exclude kinesthetic experience. Philosophers through the ages have wrestled with the juxtaposition of psyche and body without clear success. In contrast, all theories of kinesthetics imply that the Cartesian split represents a false dichotomy. Kinesthetic theories assert that certain mental or psychical elements have physical manifestations and that certain physical movements likewise have mental or psychical referents.
Clearly, Steven Seagal's film Out for Justice includes a spectacle of movement which cannot be analyzed in terms strictly limited to either muscularity or narrative plot function. In martial arts cinema, it seems that the spectacle of movement is itself paramount. To analyze films of this type, then, means to discuss and analyze movement. Fortunately, methods of dance analysis have been and are being developed which allow just this sort of analysis.
Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Cinema of Vengeance. Vengeance Productions. Dir. Toby Russell, Arena Home Video and Eastern Heroes Video, 1997.
Girard, Dale Anthony. Actors on Guard: A Practical Guide for the Use of Rapier and Dagger for Stage and Screen. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1997.
Hobbs, William. Fight Direction for Stage and Screen. London: A&C Black Ltd., 1995.
Lee, Bruce, actor. Enter the Dragon. Dir. Robert Douse. Warner Bros-Concord Productions, Inc., 1973.
Martin, John. The Modern Dance. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1933.
Nora, Pierre. "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire." History and Memory in African American Culture. Ed. Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Richman, Alan. "Black Belt, White Lies." GQ: Gentlemen's Quarterly. Mar. 1991: 230-307.
Seagal, Steven, actor, producer. Above the Law. Dir. Andrew Davis. Warner Bros. Inc., 1988.
Hard to Kill. Dir. Bruce Malmuth. Warner Bros., 1990.
Marked for Death. Dir. Dwight H. Little. Warner Bros. Inc., 1990.
Out for Justice. Dir. John Flynn. Warner Bros., 1991.
Suddeth, J. Allen. Fight Directing for the Theatre. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1996.
Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Wyatt, Justin. High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.