“[…] In contemporary martial arts discourse, the most important distinction to be negotiated is not between the screen and street, but rather between the dojo and the street.
Increasingly, in martial arts discourse, it is not the screen that is held to be unreal or suspect or accused of being fantasy. It is the dojo—the training practices in training halls, that stand accused of being dream factories.”
Paul Bowman. “Mediatized Movements: Martial Artistry & Media Culture.” A Keynote presented at the Martial Arts & Media Culture Conference in Cologne (Germany), 17th of July 2015. As always, you should read the article under discussion before moving on to today’s post. Seriously, it will be worth it!
Introduction: Beware the DVD Special Feature!
If Peter Jackson made one strategic mistake with his release of the “Fellowship of the Rings” DVD (2002), it was to include so many special features. I enjoyed his adaptations of Tolkien’s novels, and I greatly appreciated the attention that he generated for them. But I never actually watched any of his movies more than a few times. Maybe once in the theater, and another time or two on DVD or TV. It was not that I failed to find his vision of Middle Earth enthralling. Rather it was just the opposite.
While I spent dozens of hours with each of the DVDs, almost all of my attention was dedicated to the “special features” included with each film. It was clear that producing these mini-documentaries, which covered various aspects of the making of these films, must have consumed considerable resources. I loved hearing Tom Shippy (one of my favorite Tolkien scholars) discussing the good professor’s life and literary works. But as a martial artist I spent even more time pouring over the “behind the scenes” glimpses into the workshops where the prop weapons were made and the training halls in which Orc and Elvin fighting methods were imagined by teams of very talented (and very human) martial arts choreographers.
All of this begins to raise questions. When a group of professional martial artists dedicate thousands of hours to developing a detailed combat system for creatures that do not exist, employing weapons that while realistic are not identical to historic arms, what exactly have they created? A fantasy martial art system? Certainly. Yet how different is that from the historic martial arts systems of our era, endlessly reinvented and reconstructed from personal transmission, faded 8 mm video tapes, poorly illustrated Ming era manuals and a driving dedication to make it work? Whether anyone cares to admit it or not, the transmission of “tradition” depends on both a good measure of hard work and creativity.
While watching these professionals I began to suspect that they were so successful in creating a martial art for Orcs because they were doing basically the same thing that martial artists had always done. Understand the strategic environment, ask basic questions, look at the tools that you have to work with, and apply every bit of your knowledge to solving the problem at hand.
Recently I had another, slightly uncomfortable, moment. This time I was confronted with a dystopian, but equally martial, vision of the future. Once again, it all started with delving a little too deeply into the “special features.” As I reported in this news update, the AMC series Into the Badlands is creeping ever closer to a TV set near you. There has been a huge amount of buzz about this series, but until recently there was very little information about how this creative reimagining of a classic Chinese tale would actually look.
The shows creative vision came into focus recently when AMC released both an extended trailer and a “behind the scenes” special feature looking at the martial arts training and choreography that was going into this series. It is not surprising that these two products were released at the same time. AMC has been carefully crafting the message that they are going to bring “serious martial arts action” back to the small screen, and the videos were meant to be a down-payment on their promise.
I have to admit that the stunt team and fight choreography (provided by Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung) appeared to be excellent. Not only that, the basic martial arts instruction that they were putting the talent through looked tight. I found myself wishing that I could sit in on some of their sessions. And then I caught myself. After all, I am (or should be) a “real” martial artist. Right? I should not care about choreography or film angles.
In truth I do not remember much from the actual trailer (which I only watched once) except for a sense of emotional confusion brought on the perverse beauty of seemingly unending hills of opium poppies. I can take or leave dystopian futures; they are getting to be a little over done. Yet like any martial arts aficionado the invitation to visit another school really stuck with me. Still, this was tinged with emotional confusion. The output of this dream factory was only an image of the martial arts. It was undeniably an illusion, a masterpiece of visual fantasy. Yet the basic training that went into the production of this simulation looked all too familiar and real. In fact, it looked good.
Reality: A Two Sided Mirror
The typical response to all of this seems to be to double down and reassert the fundamental boundaries between the worlds of “performance” and those of “reality.” Of course this formulation of the problem will automatically begin to raise red flags for lots of academics. After all, many of the most basic categories that structure our lives, things like gender, nationality, race and economic class, all involve a healthy dose of performance and social construction.
Are the martial arts, structured as they are by the constraints of violence, immune to this? Put another way (one that might be most familiar to other political scientists) should we insist on the “realist,” as opposed to socially or institutionally constructed, nature of the martial realm.
This is the default position for many. The idea that what we do is brutally real while what we see on the screen is a “fiction” is widespread. And no matter how realistic one’s fight choreography attempts to be, I don’t think that anyone would assume that these visual images are actually attempting to pose as reality. After all, fights in the movies can be many things. They might be dramatic, heroic or even funny. In short, they are always (striving to be) entertaining. Violence in real life tends to lack this essential quality of good TV.
And yet we all tend to be drawn to those images on the small screen. More fundamentally, they can even structure the world of “real” martial artist to a surprising degree. In the West the Chinese martial arts, and Wing Chun in particular, were obscure topics in the West prior to the rise of Bruce Lee. And the Karate Kid probably sold more square feet of strip-mall real estate than any other Hollywood film before or since. If we are honest, many of us will admit that it was these flickering images, or more importantly the ideas behind them, that first brought us into the realm of the “real martial arts.”
So would it then be correct to say that the movies made Wing Chun? Absolutely, but maybe not in the way that one might expect. After all, Bruce Lee did very little actual Wing Chun in his films. He probably filled more Tae Kwon Do schools with kids trying to learn his trademark flying sidekick than anything else. And when Wing Chun really did make it big, it was not alone. Rather it was accompanied by a number of other arts, all of which were reputed to emphasize midrange fighting.
In the minds of a number of practitioners the rise of systems like Krav Maga, Kali, Escrima and Wing Chun might appear to be a simple reflection of “reality.” These systems have gained in popularity because they all address a certain set of strategic problems in a realistic (and highly efficient) way. So maybe Bruce Lee and media trends are more peripheral to all of this than you might expect. Perhaps he was simply a messenger of something more fundamental rather than the message itself?
Luckily we have a new resource to aid us in sorting this out. One of my very few regrets about the June 2015 Martial Arts studies conference in Cardiff was that its gracious organizer, Paul Bowman, was too busy organizing and facilitating the event to present his own thoughts on these questions. Luckily for us he was recently invited to present a keynote address at a conference on “Martial Arts & Media Culture” in Germany.
In his paper Bowman argues that it is no coincidence that close range combat systems rose to popularity on both the big screen and the training hall at roughly the same time. Yet to understand exactly how these two events are linked we must begin by rethinking the supposed dichotomy between martial arts “fantasy” in film or TV and “reality” on the street or in the dojo.
He begins by informing his readers in the first few paragraphs of his paper that he intends to discover the “connections between film choreography and martial arts practice – even a kind of two way street of suggestions, inspiration, copying and cross-fertilizations…” but to do so we must first accept that we are not “dealing with a situation of truth on the one hand and falsity on the other, but rather a general test of force and signification.” Or to put things in the simplest possible terms, martial artists (whether they work for a movie studio or a police department) are always looking for inspiration to creatively solve their problems, and those may come from a screen just as easily as a session in a training hall.
All of this is premised on a more basic debate about how individuals interact with the media that they consume. Are they essentially passive recipients of ideas and images, who are simply entertained (or possibly indoctrinated) by their consumption of media? Or, following the Use and Gratification Theory (Blumler & Katz, 1974), should we assume that individuals consciously seek out certain types of images, and then creatively reconfigure them for their own purposes?
A quick tour through the many playlists of Youtube would seem to leave very little question as to how engaged individuals are with their media choices. Not only is the platform (and its advertising strategy) literally built around the assumption that consumers will select certain images rather than others, it seems that most of the videos that one runs across are edited, modified, curated or commented upon by users in quite creative ways. Nowhere is this more clear than within the genera of martial arts “how to” videos.
It is not all that difficult to locate videos offering to teach techniques seen in a recent MMA fight, a movie scene or to bequeath the secrets of improving upon them. Of course the UFC isn’t the only area where Youtube viewers turn for reality. One can also find CCTV footage of various sorts of fights, muggings, stabbings and attacks. Unsurprisingly these are a popular topic of conversation among martial artists. I have even used a few of these with more students as jumping off points for various training discussions.
Bowman notes that some groups take this trend further than others. Practitioners of KFM, or the Keysi Fighting Method, have a complex relationship with the concept of “reality.” Their style has always focused on simple brutal efficiency, but it was selected for use in Batman Begins (and it subsequently enjoyed a period of popularity) precisely because it appeared to be “dramatic” and “violent” when filmed. Something like Jujitsu, while just as “real” and quite effective in practical terms, is not highly visual and can be difficult for audience to follow. So it was the fantasy images of Hollywood that popularized the KFM system as a point when it was attempting to be the most “real” of martial arts.
Bowman notes that this same tension between image and practice can be found in other registers as well. The “Winchester Virginia KFM” studio released a promotional video onto Youtube in which they spliced together ‘real fight’ clips taken from CCTV film with school demonstrations. All of this was constructed to promote the following argument: “reality is like this; our training equips us to master this reality.”
And yet “reality” proves to be a hard nut to crack. There are hard limits to how “real” any training session can be made. Others have already explored these boundaries in excruciating detail so I will not belabor the point. At the same time, is what we see in the CCTV footage “reality?”
In some ways, yes. These are images of events that actually happened. Of course it is not always clear what was said in these incidents, or how they escalated. Thus the vital element verbal confrontation is often left out. Nor can we expect that any two muggings, stabbings or random attacks to play out in exactly the same ways as the one that we have just studies. Of course the instructors who ran the KFM schools were well aware of this.
Nor should such limitations be taken as an argument that these sorts of images are useless. Rather, they need to be understood with caveats. Yet once the caveats have been introduced, it quickly becomes obvious that what we are interested in is not the limited, grainy, out of focus CCTV footage itself, but the concepts, images and ideas that we see illustrated within them. Yes they are limited, but they are useful.
According to the group who spliced them together as part of an advertisement, they are more useful than much of what has been passed on under the guise of traditional martial arts instruction. As Bowman so aptly observed in our introductory quote, the real debate in the martial arts world today is not between the screen and the street, but between the dojo and the street. Increasingly it is the training hall that is under attack as a fiction while “reality” can be found in the octagon or on Youtube.
The Logic of the Dream Factory
Something interesting happens once we take these reproduced images of real attacks to be a legitimate way of thinking about violence. As noted above, these images are always in some way partial, and everyone understands that for them to be useful as training tools we must focus on what they suggest (conceptually or strategically) about the nature of violence rather than seeing them as a definitive catalog of everything that could possibly happen. If we take these exact same caveats and apply them to wide range of other images, what we quickly discover is that they too are making symbolic arguments about the nature of violence, some of which may be more or less meaningful to our own training.
This insight brings us back to Bowman’s central argument, that there has been a critical reciprocal relationship between the development of martial arts on the soundstage and in the training hall. To understand how these spheres might relate Bowman asks us to consider the rise of “close range” fighting in action films following the release of the Bourne Identity.
Imagine the challenges facing a fight choreographer at this point in time. Action audiences identify with fight scenes, but following the rise of the UFC they have become aware of the critique that flashy kicks and long-range fights as “unrealistic.” Indeed, even at the height of the popularity of these techniques, many of films seem to have contained their own internal critique of such high profile kicks. Daniel in the Karate Kid wins his fight with a spectacular “crane style” kick, but only after another his kicks was caught and exploited leading to his leg injury.
Likewise, everyone remembers Bruce Lee’s visually powerful flying sidekick from Fists of Fury (1971). What is often forgotten is that the same kicks are shown to be ineffective in the hands of the Japanese karate students during the Dojo fight sequence. Only Lee can perform the technique in a way that is meaningful to the audience. And even then, was it technically effective in the face of machine guns? Like so much else about the martial arts, the spectacular kicks of the 1970s and 1980s seem to have been embedded within a self-dismantling discourse which foresaw their own obsolesce.
By the 1990s audiences were demanding something fresh and “realistic.” Jujitsu would be the obvious choice given its dominance in the octagon. Yet as Bowman notes, the highly nuanced nature of ground fighting makes it difficult for non-specialists to follow. It is more of a tactile than a visual art.
Close range fighting seemed to present choreographers with a much needed answer. The physical proximity of the two characters allowed for a greater degree of inter-personal drama in the shot, but the conflict would remain open enough that audience members could see (and hear) distinct blows, grabs, elbows or throws.
Better yet, the very nature of short range fight choreography, with its linear strikes and frequent use of fast takes, meant that it was possible for a fight choreographer to train actors who were neither athletes nor professional martial artists in the rudiments of fighting as quickly as possible. Scenes could be spliced together with footage from multiple mediocre takes into an action sequence that was both fast paced and convincingly realistic.
The logic that Bowman articulates here is important. As a Wing Chun instructor I too deal with students who are neither athletes nor experienced martial artists. And it is also my job to teach them some solid self-defense skills knowing full well that most of them will never go on to become dedicated fighters. In a sense we all face the perennial problem posed by General Qi Jiguang back in the 16th century when he first contemplated the role of unarmed boxing in military training. How can we take the weak and make them strong? More importantly, how do we do it facing restricted budgets and tight timelines?
Wing Chun (and a variety of other arts that also focus on “close range fighting”) has found that strength and skill can be augmented with a focus on structure. I don’t know that it’s the only, or even the best, solution to General Qi’s question. But it is interesting to me precisely because it is such a parsimonious one. Note how similar the logic of the problems facing fight choreographers and the martial arts instructors actually is.
Bowman argues that once this new approach to “realism” in the martial arts was put on film, it quickly gained prominence in the training hall. Yes Wing Chun grew in popularity (and it is interesting to note how many films it has appeared in since about 2000), but so did an entire host of other short range systems. He argues that trends within these two environments tend to be linked because they are both part of a single larger cultural discourse in which martial artists are talking with one another, and exchanging ideas, in an attempt to work out solutions to their problems and attract new groups of students.
Where then are the dream factories? In this view we might think of both the dojo and the sound stage as likely candidates. One cannot effectively solve a problem before imagining a solution and coming up with a way of communicating it. This is a fundamentally creative act. What happens in these two spaces is undeniably different, and no good is likely to come from naively or haphazardly mixing the two. Yet it is undeniable that the broader social discourse on the martial arts does evolve over time, and it is unlikely that we can fully grasp how this happens without examining the complex and reciprocal relationship between these two dream factories.
Conclusion: The Problem of Change
Bowman’s argument is both straightforward and powerful. I suspect that much of its impact comes from the seemingly counterfactual nature of his conclusions. Indeed, this is the aspect of his argument that does the most work, opening a window onto the evolution of fight choreography as well as the rise of a certain group of hand combat systems within the marketplace for martial arts instruction.
Yet conference talks are a limited medium. And as Bowman states in his introduction he is offering these remarks “in the hopes that you will join in the conversation and we can take them further together.” In that spirit I would like to use this conclusion to consider a possible omission in this framework.
The evolution of a discourse, like anything else, is predicated on a process of change. Certain sorts of meanings, arguments and images that were once powerful must fade away for a new set of identities and symbols to take the stage. Indeed, Bowman discusses this very process in some detail as he leads us on a tour of the historical evolution of fight choreography.
At one point in time the flashy flying kick was a powerful symbol that resonated with audiences. Bruce Lee, a student of a close-range fighting system, focused on these techniques in his fight choreography, essentially forsaking his more down to earth mother-art. But by the late 1990s audiences were demanding something new. What they wanted was “gritty” and “realistic.”
Bowman notes this change in taste and moves on. In essence he treats it as an exogenous variable. It remains external to the essential logic of his argument.
Still, he is clearly aware that this is a tricky and potentially important issue. He notes at one point that a “cinematic style or gimmick can remain striking for only so long.” But given that the change in audience tastes is part of the larger martial arts discourse, and that this is what he ultimately wants to understand, I suspect that we may need some way of bringing this aspect of the process into the discussion. Potentially significant events cannot be left as mere “fads,” meaning that their existence is assumed at the outset of the discussion rather than being explored.
After all, some types of symbols are remarkably resilient. There seems to be something about the image of a lone hero with a sword that just won’t die. One can draw a pretty straight line connecting the swashbuckling tales of the 1950s, Star Wars in the 1980s and more recent fare including Pirates of the Caribbean. The image of a fledgling knight errant and his trusty blade setting out on the “hero’s quest” may not be as universal as Joseph Campbell imagined, but it does seem to be remarkably stable. Yet as Bowman observed, flying sidekicks come and go. Why?
As I read his paper I took an hour or so to assemble a timeline of important fight sequences from films released in the early 1970s to the present. Bruce Lee’s 1971 Fists of Fury was interesting to me as the flying sidekick was so important to the plot of the movie. But what role did this technique really play in the film?
Given that the final scene is meant to suggest his death, I don’t think that audience was supposed to be convinced of the absolute military superiority of the technique in the face of superior fire power. Rather than being seen as “realistic” I suspect that this highly acrobat kick was introduced to tell us something about the character Chen Zhen and his use of the martial arts to create a new persona, one that was capable of both fighting and dying for the nation. His seemingly superhuman kick was critical as it marked the reality of his inner transformation in the personal and spiritual realms, something that is less easily observed.
Indeed, as I worked my way through my timeline of fights it seemed to me that during the 1970s and 1980s highly athletic, long distance, fights were used in stories of questing heroes, where the protagonist fought for a certain type of glory or honor. They often appeared in situations that might best be characterized as “duals” rather than instances of true “self-defense.”
Put another way, the use of these techniques might not be confined simply to certain trends within fight choreography. Rather they may have also reflected the sorts of heroes that audiences responded to at a specific moment in history.
The Bourne Identity is interesting not only as it introduces a different sort of hand combat, but because its protagonist seems to be a different sort of hero (or possibly anti-hero). Jason Bourne is not walking into the middle of Japanese Dojos in occupied Shanghai to issue a public challenge. For the most part he goes to great lengths to keep a low profile and project an “every man” image. His unarmed fight sequences usually begin when an antagonist approaches or ambushes him (the assassin crashing through the apartment window being the quintessential example of that). In this case a close range action sequence is not only visually gripping, but it makes a good deal of tactical sense as well. The fact that this is Bourne’s “preferred mode” of combat seems to suggest something about nature as a character and the values that he embodies.
Audience reaction to Bourne suggests that at such a moment in history, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this figure was deeply appealing to a large segment of the public. It might be possible to give other examples of the same general trend but this post has already run long. I originally wanted to discuss the evolution of Neo’s fighting style in the first Matrix movie, between his initial dual (long range) with Morpheus in the training simulation and his later desperate fight (short range) with the sinister Agent Smith within the matrix itself. It might be the case that this transition smoothed the way for what we saw in a number of subsequent films and discussions of the martial arts. But those thoughts will have to wait for another day. While my own limited additions move this discussion another level back rather than definitively resolving the question, I hope that it suggests an area for further consideration.
In conclusion, Bowman makes a number of important observations in this paper linking trends in both the training hall and soundstage to create a more cohesive understanding of the way in which society’s martial arts discourse has evolved. I greatly look forward to reading future versions of this paper. Yet rather than taking the initial moment of change as exogenous to the model, we might want to bring this variable more clearly into the discussion. This could be accomplished by asking why the social demand for one sort of martial arts product, rather than another, evolves at a specific moment in time, and how this is reciprocally linked to (and find expression in) the protagonists created by dream factories of the silver screen. As Seraph reminded Neo, “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.” And it is through these evolving fight sequences that audiences come to identify with the values of their new heroes.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Telling Stories about Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man: The Evolution of a Heroic Type