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Who let the dogs out

So far I have talked about where I'm coming from when I talk about martial arts and the Philip K. Dick-like uneasiness I feel about the relationship between Hollywood and reality as I observe it play out in martial arts circles. Today I want to talk about representations of personal combat in popular media that I love. There are two examples that I want to share with you because I think they both exemplify the sincere effort to bring the live animal of the fight to the screen.

Beautiful Boxer is director Ekachai Uekrongtham's film about the life of Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphol. There are many wonderful and fascinating aspects to this film, which is based on the true story of a person born in rural Thailand with male genitals and the psychological identity of a girl. As a young person in a male body she fought as a professional Muay Thai fighter so as to help her struggling family, eventually becoming the very successful adult fighter Nong Toom. While transitioning, she continued to fight men, with the prize money ultimately going to sex reassignment surgery so that Parinya Charoenphol could finally live life as herself; sadly, as a woman she was no longer permitted to fight on the professional circuit. I recommend Beautiful Boxer as a moving and involving piece of cinema.

What I love about the film from a martial art point of view is how the director cast professional fighters as actors--including the lead. He didn't choreograph the fight scenes, of which there are many. He allowed the fighters to go at it and filmed what happened.

When you look at this trailer, for the purposes of this discussion please disregard the synchronized, romantic displays of Muay Buran in the forest; look instead at the fight scenes that start around 1:15 to see what I mean. These scenes have been edited out of a real mix of two fighters going full throttle. This is not to say that nothing here has been planned--my guess is that they have been given a bit of general direction. The fights look maybe a little flashier than average. But the performers are real fighters and it shows. These are good fight scenes because they are real.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh's Haywire has fight scenes that appear meticulously choreographed, but the result is still effective because the choreography has been mostly pulled from actual fights and its performance is naturalistic. The clip below is an extended sequence in a hotel room, and it makes use of a variety of moves typical of what you'd expect to see a trained fighter use against another trained fighter--which is OK in this context because both people are understood to be agents schooled in hand-to-hand combat.


Some parts of the sequence are more believable than others (I think the exchange of blocked hand blows near the middle is shaky) but one thing that I find consistently believable is Gina Carano. This is because Carano came to the film on the heels of a successful Muay Thai and mixed martial arts career. Soderbergh offered Carano the part immediately after her defeat at the powerful fists of Cris Santos in Strikeforce. You're looking at a real athlete in Carano. Whether she's throwing, punching, kicking a guy through a door, or choking him out she's doing it just like she would do it in the cage. This makes for great cinema without chucking realism out the window.

Talking about Gina Carano brings me to the topic of women fighters. It can be no surprise to anyone at this blog that fighters get far less money, opportunity and attention if they are women. Not even ten years ago, a google for 'MMA women' revealed mostly pictures of 'hot ring girls' much like a google for 'science fiction women' revealed mostly hits about 'hot babes of sci fi TV'. (I know because I keep an eye on these things. If you google 'science fiction women' today you'll see 'kick-ass women' and 'Women Destroy SF' and stuff like that--but it hasn't been that way for long).

Maybe the 'hot ring girls' mentality explains why Gina Carano got unprecedented attention when she broke in as a mixed martial arts fighter--people talked as much about her looks as about her abilities. I want to make it clear that Carano is a great fighter. But to get attention as a woman it always helps to be eye candy, too. I believe that Carano helped to raise the profile of the women's game by both her talent and her marketability. It's the usual double standard.

In the last couple of years something has begun to change. In 2012 women were allowed to box in the Olympics for the first time. The UFC (the biggest MMA organization in the world) allowed women to fight for the first time in 2013 after having said in 2011 that it would never happen. It has taken a very long time to overcome deep prejudice, but finally we are seeing women fighters in the spotlight. And you know what? What a lot of resistance over nothing. Women fight just like men do.

All this time I've been talking about the screen. This is because I find the verbal descriptions of fighting that I've read in a lot of genre fiction to be far-fetched, but as a writer myself I know how difficult and challenging this work is. I don't want to pick on anyone's book in particular. The problems are broadly the same as you see in cinema: exaggerating certain features for effect without understanding the fundamental principles of live combat.

In my final post I will talk about how I approach fight scenes as a writer. Specifically, I'll discuss my novel Shadowboxer, which centres on a young woman who fights MMA. Early readers have said that the fight scenes are the best parts of the book. They were actually dead easy to write, and I'll tell you how I did it.

39 Comments

1:

I don't know how much of a future Carano has in Hollywood in general, but I totally believed her in her role in Haywire. I had never seen or heard of her fighting skills, but they came across very well on screen. (And very much an opposite to the Sherlock Holmes film you talked about last time)

2:

Delicate representational question: if we show people what fighting really looks like, are they more or less likely to hurt people inappropriate, vs. Matrix-style fight choreography.

I'm thinking particularly of the old story about US police performing no-knock raids "like they saw on TV" when under pressure, rather than following their training.

If teenagers default to grabbing the first improvised weapon and smacking their opponents until they fall over, vs. the traditional slapfight in a jeering circle, is that bad? Yes. But if people under pressure have realistic fight images in their heads to draw on, can they defend themselves more effectively?

I think of the gunfights in Reservoir Dogs. If all gunfights were represented like that, what would the social trade offs be?

3:

I was thinking of your articles as I watched Muppets Most Wanted with my boys last night. One fight scene is Constantine (evil Kermit) going through prison guards in a wonderful spoof of the choreographed fight scene. The other is the more realistic fight scene where Ms. Piggy dispatches Constantine. Sorry, too recent for YouTube vids of these.

4:

My favorite female action actor is Zoe Bell who comes from a background of stunt double performance. She definitely looks like she could do it in real life...
Here she is in Kill Bill
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvnrvRvKhuA

5:

Gina Carano is fantastic in Haywire. I remember she made some interesting comments in this podcast about moving from fighting as a fighter to fighting in a film:

http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2012/01/haywire-gina-carano-q.html

And I recently heard Ronda Rousey talk somewhere about how she had to make adjustments while making Expendables 3. One example was, I think, that she had to make herself lower her guard during fights because otherwise her hands were blocking her face from on camera. I think it was on the Kevin & Bean Show, but I can't find a link.

I look forward to the next post.

6:

That stunt-double clip of Zoe Bell tells you a lot about movie fight scenes. It's not like reality at all. It's trying to look like what the director wants, which need not be realistic.

It's like that last scene of The Dam Busters: did Guy Gibson really say that? Well, the film was based on a book, as was Reach for the Sky, and the real men were different.

I heard personal accounts of both, from family members that came across them in the war (they sometimes went to the same pubs), and the film versions are as cleaned up as the fights. And maybe you have to be a bit of a mad bugger to do what they did. but can you show that in a movie?

7:

It's not just women in sport; the debate over women in the infantry continues. Women have always fought; this is a Western military debate. Note that "in combat" is not the same as "in the infantry, in combat" - one might involve fighting, the other involves killing as a primary job requirement. Even then, there have been infantry women; the debate is really around women in rifle platoons.

The need to push key skills (e.g. medics, intelligence types, military police) as far forward as possible means that women were accompanying fighting patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan; several have now been awarded the Military Cross for how they acted in a gunfight (search for Kate Nesbitt MC, or Michelle Norris MC). Operational service is changing perceptions.

While it will be interesting to see the eventual decision within the British Army, the Canadians have already made it, as have the Israelis to a lesser extent (search for Heather Erxleben, or the Caracal battalion).

8:

Do not mess with Miss Piggy, folks!

9:

I've got to ask the dumb, "emperor has no clothes" question:

What does Hollywood portray realistically, anyway?

I'm not doing this to denigrate the idea of portraying what a real fight looks like (assuming we limit fighting to fisticuffs and don't take in the full gamut, from verbal arguments to nuclear war). It's simply that I started thinking about all the problems Hollywood has with guns, warfighting weapons, romance, relationships, women's bodies, SCIENCE, landscapes, and so on ad nauseum, and just gave up. It's tinsel, all the way up, all the way down. Life doesn't run in three acts and two hours, and when we watch a movie, we're paying (sometimes stupidly) to see an illusion for fun or something.

While I think it's an extremely good idea, from a technical point of view, to ask whether there are better ways of portraying anything on the screen or in a book, at the end, we're still asking whether a more realistic illusion is a better illusion. It's a good question, but I'm not sure the answer is always yes.

10:

Movies about making movies? Like "Silent Movie", by Mel Brooks?

(You may season this comment with emoticons to suit your personal interpretation.)

11:

Maybe not quite about making movies, but certainly set in the business:

Singing In The Rain
The Artist
Cats Don't Dance

I wouldn't count Space:1999 even though it is set at a film studio.

12:

Barton Fink?
Struggling writer ends up in Hollywood writing Wrestling movies.

14:

>I'm thinking particularly of the old story about US police performing no-knock raids "like they saw on TV" when under pressure, rather than following their training.

Hmm you got a source for that? I have this theory that popular depictions of crime are a really effective anti-crime measure because would-be criminals follow popular examples instead of thinking before, therefore going for glamour instead of what works, or making otherwise critical mistakes. Same for terrorism by the way. And some examples to back it up would be neat.

15:

Nothing but I am not sure that any of our enterainment forms does any better. Peoole like narrative but much of life is randon shit that happens. We retro fit narrative onto things. That si one problem and the other is that stylistic quirks of succesful directors are taken as 'realistic' by people that have no basis for comparison.

Look at the modern trend for massive petrol fireball for every explosion and compare to forties and fifties war movie explosions. Not saying hte old movies were realistic but pretty much everyone on set ( or a large proportion of them) had really seen an artillary shellburst, now no- one has.

So there is nothing to sanity check the realism and it is now becoming self referential and increasingly stylised.

16:

In the clip from Haywire, why did the Gina Carano character put a pillow over the man's face before shooting him? Is this a real thing or another Hollywood gun myth?

This series of posts has been interesting and educational. They have also reminded me how much I dislike fights and fighting, and why I don't watch these sports. But each to their own.

17:

For when you don't have a silencer. Besides, would you want to be looking him in the face?
Apparently it actually works: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cnMeTlXsXC8
Had thought Mythbusters had covered it, but they don't seem to have covered pillows. Have I mentioned how much I dislike guns lately?

18:

Two reasons - one hope is to muffle the gunshot. The certainty is to stop being splashed with blood from breaking a hole in someone's head, and the resultant potential for arterial leading.

The youtube link in the other thread ("five gun myths") that suggested that silencers don't work is wrong; they do, you just need subsonic ammunition and a closed bolt for best effect. The clip from "No country for Old Men" involving the shower curtain also missed the main purpose - it's not to cut down noise.

19:

I was thinking more along "The Producers", also by Mel Brooks.

From what I've read about Hollywood accounting practices, it's not even all that far-fetched...

20:

Thinking about it, one of my favorite fights is the epic battle between Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's not that it's realistic. I remember when I watched it, saying "she (Zhang) should have died there, she should have died there, she should have definitely died there," because Yeoh was portrayed as definitely more skilled than Zhang. Right after the battle, someone asked Yeoh's character why she didn't kill Zhang's character, and she replied something like "I didn't have the heart." This wasn't a realistic battle, but it did something very unusual for a fight scene, which was that it conveyed Yeoh's internal conflict through the fight, because the fight choreography made it obvious even to someone like me that there were openings that the more skilled fighter chose not to take, over and over again. From a storytelling point of view, it was a much more interesting fight than most of the ones where Hero Protagonist must disable X number of baddies to level up to defeat the boss and win the girl.

21:

For what it's worth I appreciate these posts. I think a little realism goes a long way in a film - in No Country For Old Men, for example, there's an early scene where a man is chocked to death, and it's the scuff-marks the victim's boots leave on the linoleum floor that really invested me in the film's stakes. After that, I really felt like the characters counted for something, because that touch of realism hit home for me. I felt invested because the characters seemed vulnerable.

Likewise, there was a sword-fight in a recent episode of Game of Thrones that I saw was being praised for its realism by people who take historically-accurate swordplay seriously. I didn't know it was especially accurate at the time, but I did know I liked it because it was unlike the swordplay I was used to (and bored by) in film.

My point being that even if I can't recognise realistic fighting in a film, if it's different in a way that's more realistic I'm going to appreciate it anyway. And I think most audiences would. I think the standard tropes are as tiresome for the hoi polloi as they are the knowledgeable crowd. Again, a little realism can go a long way, if only because it's unexpected for a film to portray something a little differently than you're used to.

22:

I have a martial arts background myself, from very formalized, "flowery" expressionistic forms to getting beat up and thrown into citrus trees in my trainer's back yard. "Now what did you learn?" Of course, without foundational training, he would not have taught me. Seems like "fighting teachers" prefer you to have a background in body mechanics and basic techniques. Suffice to say, it's probably hard to learn "how to fight" without a few (or many) scars.

Anyway, I don't know if i care much more about representational aspects of movie fighting other than "looks cool." I've seen cars on fire and gas tanks go up (they just kinda "woof") and I know that movies are not real life. So I think of (for example) Star Trek. Space battles wouldn't take place in seconds within view of each other, but you need something to see. Starfleet (space militants) are trained in an XYZ hybrid hand to hand art, yet they default to the right cross (Kirk's famous two handed slam).

Average that with the historic Chinese theater tradition of formalized hand to hand displays and the tableau-style representation in Japanese theater and, well, that's entertainment I guess. I don't believe you can learn "to fight" from movies any more than you can learn swordplay from Dungeons and Dragons. It may be a sad state that there's more drama in martial arts instruction than application, but it's hard to make a living in martial arts as it is without having to stitch your students' faces every lesson.

24:

Dirk reminds me - the oldest martial arts manual in the world is i.33, late 13th century, European, shows a style of sword and buckler fighting, which is rather stylised but fairly effective. The aim is to bind or otherwise put out the way your opponents weapon in order to safely strike him. Lots of attacks to the head; in the later longsword styles, I often partially joke that when in doubt, hit or stab them in the head.

I'm still waiting for a film to actually use longsword techniques properly. What Dirk links to is German longsword, there were distinctly different Italian longsword styles too, and some clues for an English style, although I don't think enough to put a complete set of moves together.

How this relates to films, well, they don't manage swordplay well either, because it's actually quite hard to do well, and also simply lack of knowledge about the styles and moves. Also a real fight would not look cinematic, simple as that. When sparring you often do end up basically avoiding getting hurt, which doesn't look as exciting as charging in, sparks flying from clashing blades.

25:

Fascinating!

I see move after move in that video that are virtually identical to specific Japanese iaido and kenjutsu forms I've seen demonstrated, allowing for the difference in blade shape. (Many that are different, too, of course.)

Assuming the longsword techniques demonstrated here were taken from traditional European manuals, it must be a case of convergent evolution at work.

26:

One thing you will almost never see in sword fights in movies (Rob Roy excluded) is catching the opponents sword blade.

27:

I have a vague memory of the BBC documentary, years ago, that mentioned there were two distinct types of sword arts in Japan. The -do art was distinct from the -jutsu. Kendo had people striking at the armour. Kenjutsu had people striking at the gaps in the armour. Have I misremembered the names? But the forms had split.

It makes sense as a part of the process from real fighting to healthy exercise. But does that make my memory true?

28:

Jutsu tends to imply practical application, while -do is more like the abstracted art ie "Way" of doing something - more philosophical

29:

So Clifton sees Japanese in the European.

The first time I was I.33 presented it looked very Filipino to me.

The buckler covering the hand while the sword makes the bind looked an awful lot like single-stick work in the Escrima variants I'm familiar with.

30:

The two aspects that are almost always wrong in choreographed pieces, and seldom mentioned in writing, are footwork and distance. Visual shots often require that the actors be too close together in order to achieve some other desired effect. And footwork is incredibly unglamorous, but is probably the surest way to tell the difference between someone who is a serious practitioner and not.

31:

Has anyone mentioned Ong-Bak yet?

I'd be interested to hear Tricia's opinion on it as Muay Thai...

32:

@Martin...LOL. I just looked it up on You Tube. I think you already know my opinion & are poking me with a stick ;-)

33:

It's convergent evolution, and yes the moves in the video are correct according to the manuals, or at least within the envelope of usefulness of the different interpretations people have of the manuals, which rather mirrors the modern plethora of martial arts all claiming to be good or better at something. As the sword masters who taught me pointed out a few times, people in the far east have a head, arms and legs and the same shape as we do here, and the same joints etc etc. So if you have tools of certain sizes and shapes, you end up with pretty much the same moves.

Michael Cain is right about distance and footwork. Too often I've seen films where people start fighting within what is already contact distance, or dance about within it but show no idea of where they are. Or indeed vice versa.

34:

Yes, Miss Piggy used the straightforward approach of grab your opponent and pummel them repeatedly into nearby solid objects =)

35:

One of the things I have done in my writing is have characters who don't take a chance on hand-to-hand combat. If they have a gun, they will use it. The Police might believe the myth about rice flails, which makes it much easier to convince a jury.

(They're dangerous things, for yourself, if you don't use them exactly right.)

"So he swung this flail, wrapped it around his arm, and struck himself on the head hard enough to cause a depressed skull fracture, and you still shot him?"

"I didn't have time to think, Your Honour."

"Twice?"

"It's how Mr. Fairbairn from Shanghai trained me."

36:

Quickie Japanese lesson:

Ken is simply sword. Iai- refers specifically to sword drawing and cutting technique. (It's sometimes been glossed as "quick-draw" because many of the kata (forms) focus on drawing and cutting in a single motion while an attacker is rushing you.)

Do is way (same word as Chinese Tao), jutsu or jitsu, technique. Often (but not always) -do was suffixed to the name of a martial art in the course of turning it into a formal sport; thus jujitsu (techniques) became judo (the sport) and kenjutsu (sword technique) to kendo (a very stylized sport.)

However, "do" also applies to formalized practice as a "way", spiritual practice. (For example, cha-do, the way of tea.) Iaido falls more towards the latter category - the "competition" aspect of it, in so much as there is one, is simply the practice of the formal iaijutsu kata (drills), one or two person, trying for absolutely perfect form and timing in front of judges.

Kenjutsu, as a generic term for sword technique, doesn't describe one specific martial art; kenjutsu may be taught along with advanced aikido or judo, for example; I got a very small smattering when I studied aikido in my tens.

37:

One of the things I found incredibly useful when doing sword stuff with a partner was having done an unarmed martial art. It made getting the correct combat distance and foot work trivial. Partly that is because all sword techniques are slower than unarmed techniques.

38:

"It can be no surprise to anyone at this blog that fighters get far less money, opportunity and attention if they are women."

My understanding is that Ronda Rousey makes a lot more than most other male UFC fighters, so the above statement isn't strictly true.

If you look at the disclosed purses for fights, male and female, the money is very inconsistent. Some people who are really good don't seem to make much. It appears the UFC values a$$es in seats over anything else, and that's where Ronda Rousey excels. She is very popular.

Now, I'm a huge fan of Rousey, but not for the typical reasons. I absolutely love watching her apply Judo to MMA fights. It's just a beautiful thing to watch, whereby her opponents know she's going to throw them but they just can't stop it.

39:

I've followed your articles about fighting with interest, and it has caused me to reflect upon my own history. Responding to the second article would have bee better than this one, but here goes anyway.

Some people around here will have heard of my single fight at an independent school, which suffered from systematic bullying. The usual story goes like this.

I decided to fight back. I kneed him in the balls and nutted him in the face. He fell over backwards, cracked his head on a kerb and was sent to hospital to check for concussion. A win. Fighting dirty is okay.

I got a revenge attack later, which I don't usually talk about. That involved broken spectacles, a black eye and a burst lip.

The result of all this is a bit more positive. Guys bigger and less weedy than me also clocked that it was okay to fight back against their own bullies, and applied it with some vigour.

This made the school culture horribly pugilistic, but it did cause the staff to realise that bullying was an actual problem, and do something about it. It got stamped on hard, with a result. It ended.

However this improved the school, with my own fight being part of the the start, it didn't really happen the way I described. which is where your articles come in.

I made minimal contact with his balls, and had just enough of a reaction to put my head in the way of his face when it was coming down (he was quite a bit taller than me). The third part is true, he was indeed sent to hospital to check for concussion. I did get a severe telling off form the headmaster, amounting to "I said stand up to bullies, not hospitalise them". An accidental win, pure and simple.

I do wonder how many fights are decided by such accidental reactions. I'd make fair guess that its quite a lot of them.

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This page contains a single entry by Tricia Sullivan published on September 13, 2014 12:21 PM.

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