Action Aesthetics: Realism and Martial Arts Cinema, Part 1

Theoretical Considerations

by Kyle Barrowman Volume 18, Issue 10 / October 2014 42 minutes (10294 words)


In his nuanced rethinking of the work of the renowned film theorist, André Bazin, Daniel Morgan laments the ubiquity of the complacent oversimplification of Bazin’s canonical work on realism and aesthetics. The standard reading of Bazin generally attributes to him a straightforward understanding of cinematic realism as resulting from films that bear fidelity to our normal perceptual experience of the objective external world. Furthermore, Bazin’s conception of cinematic realism is typically spelled out as a list of stylistic attributes (such as long takes, deep focus, and camera movement), directors (notably Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Roberto Rossellini), and periods/movements in film history (primarily Hollywood in the 1940s and Italian Neorealism). According to Morgan, this puerile perspective has led scholars to content themselves with a “thin and impoverished picture” both of Bazin’s theories in particular and of the possibilities of the cinema more generally (Morgan 2006: 444-445).

The issue of realist aesthetics has permeated the discourses in myriad realms of film history, but one cinematic realm that has not been theorized with much frequency or rigor is martial arts cinema. 1 . As Paul Bowman observed in the first of his two provocative studies of Bruce Lee, after the “Kung Fu Craze” took hold in the 1970s, the discourse surrounding martial arts cinema was “overwhelmingly dominated by one word,” a word uttered “in reverential, awestruck tones, and printed in emphatic italics. That word was real” (Bowman 2010: 67). Similar to the fate of realism in the standard reading of Bazin, realism has become a terribly muddled concept in the academic discourse on martial arts cinema, and the project undertaken by Morgan of rethinking realism in Bazin, while promising further insights into the career of arguably the most important film theorist of the 20th Century, is also crucial for my project of rethinking realism in martial arts cinema. Whether scholars turn their attention to classical Hong Kong martial arts films such as Fist of Fury (1972) and Five Fingers of Death (1972) or post-classical Hollywood action/martial arts hybrids such as Above the Law (1988) and Rapid Fire (1992), questions of realism inhere in all analyses of martial arts cinema, yet realism is conspicuously absent from much of the foundational work on martial arts cinema. Even the pioneering work on martial arts cinema from scholars such as Stephen Teo, David Bordwell, and Leon Hunt show signs of a curiously widespread desire to minimize the difficulties of cinematic realism.

Recent efforts to theorize martial arts cinema have showcased a renewed interest in issues of cinematic realism, and in step with this recent turning of the realism tide, I will endeavor to think through the dialectical relationship between realism and aesthetics. My articulation of a concept I will refer to as martial suture will serve to overcome the two most problematic tendencies in scholarship on martial arts cinema, each of which reinforces the other: First, the tendency to discuss cinematic realism in reductive and inflexible terms where montage is antithetical to realism 2 , and second, the tendency to ignore the differences in martial arts action between striking (martial arts featuring offensive attacks consisting of punches, kicks, knees, and elbows) and grappling (martial arts featuring offensive attacks consisting of throws, trips, joint-locks, and chokes), differences which have important practical and aesthetic ramifications. In order to overcome these two problematic tendencies, I will look back to earlier debates in film theory on montage and suture that have been taken up again in recent revisionist studies and test my claims for a more flexible account of realist action aesthetics. My test case for martial suture will be the films of Steven Seagal, from which I will expand to a consideration of the Bourne Trilogy (The Bourne Identity [2002], The Bourne Supremacy [2004], The Bourne Ultimatum [2007]). 3

Realism in Bazin – The Montage Fallacy

As explicated by Morgan, the standard reading of Bazin subscribes to one of two accounts—the direct realism account or the perceptual realism account (Morgan 2006: 454-458). A reading of Bazin that adheres to the direct realism account, such as is offered by Noël Carroll, maintains that Bazin presupposes “a view that realism is a two-term relation of correspondence between film and reality” (Carroll 1988a: 142) and seeks corroboration in Bazin from such claims as “the making of images” is a matter of creating a world “in the likeness of the real” (Bazin 2005 [1945]: 10). A reading of Bazin that adheres to the perceptual realism account, on the other hand, such as is offered by Dudley Andrew, maintains that the central aesthetic issue is to what extent films correspond to “the realities of perception” (Andrew 1976: 159) and seeks corroboration in Bazin from such claims as “the spectator [is brought] into a relation with the image closer to that which [he/she] enjoys with reality” vis-à-vis his/her “active mental attitude” from which “the meaning of the image in part derives” (Bazin 2005a [1955]: 35-36).

Regardless of which account one subscribes to, be it direct realism or perceptual realism, the standard reading invariably casts montage as public enemy number one. The biggest problem with the standard reading vis-à-vis montage is the frequency with which Bazin’s opposition to the montage practices pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and his fellow Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s is conflated with an opposition to montage as such, a misreading I will refer to as the montage fallacy. In Carroll’s estimation, Bazin was vehemently opposed to the “increasing sophistication of montage” (Carroll 1988a: 119). To support this claim, Carroll invokes Bazin’s famous binary between filmmakers who “put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality” (Bazin 2005a [1955]: 24). And Bazin appears to lend credence to the hardline stance evident in the montage fallacy, as he considered both the Soviet montage of the 1920s as well as the “analytical” montage of Hollywood cinema in the 1930s to be in opposition to the “continuum of reality” (Bazin 2005a [1955]: 37) that was transferred to the screen by the efforts of Hollywood and Italian Neorealism in the 1940s.

And yet, this polemic against the history of montage for the sake of the then-contemporary development of realist aesthetics exemplified by Welles and Rossellini was by no means closed off to the potential future of montage. As Bazin approvingly observed, “it is understandable, as a matter of fact, that the sound image, far less flexible than the visual image, would carry montage in the direction of realism” (Bazin 2005a [1955]: 33); unlike subsequent exegetes such as Andrew and Carroll, both of whom perpetuate the montage fallacy, Bazin himself distinguished among “the virtues and limitations of montage” 4 , noting that analytical montage was a positive, forward step away from the montage of attractions, which Bazin believed had initially been a fruitful idea but the virtues of which Bazin believed had been exhausted by Eisenstein and his compatriots 5

This pro-montage/anti-montage disjunction in Bazin might seem to justify Carroll’s repeated charges against Bazin of obscurity and incoherence (Carroll 1988a: 110, 128, 142, 159-161, 170). More accurately, as Morgan astutely elaborates, Bazin never sought to erect a theory of cinematic realism; he was more interested in offering theories of cinematic realism for specific critical aims (Morgan 2006: 458-469) 6 . As Bazin unequivocally asserted, “there is not one realism, but several realisms,” and each film looks for its own aesthetic “that will capture, retain, and render best what [it] wants from reality” (Bazin 1997 [1948]: 6). Furthermore, Bazin made it clear that realism “can only occupy in art a dialectical position—it is more a reaction than a truth” (Bazin 2005b [1949]: 48). This is a far cry from the Bazin of the standard reading who allegedly proclaimed deep focus and the long take as the sole guarantors of what Bertolt Brecht derisively referred to as “the one and only realism” (Brecht 1964 [1938]: 109), and this “new” Bazin is much closer to the Bazin one actually encounters in his writings.

Similar to (but more benevolent than) Carroll’s charge of incoherence, Tom Gunning observes that Bazin “never argued the exact relation between his theories of ontology and of style” and postulates that his “discussion of realism across his many essays contains both contradictions and also a possible pattern of evolution and change in his work taken as a whole” (Gunning 2007: 31). Morgan extends this line of thought, positing that it is in Bazin’s “seemingly minor essays” that one finds his “best work in thinking through the implications and significance of his own theoretical commitments” (Morgan 2011a: 128). While Bazin’s ambivalence regarding montage is perhaps most clearly registered in “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” in essays such as “Theater and Cinema” and “Death Every Afternoon,” Bazin interrogated his own presuppositions vis-à-vis montage with far more subtlety and rigor than any of his subsequent exegetes, and his personal interrogations have significant implications for aesthetic analyses of martial arts cinema.

In “Death Every Afternoon,” Bazin offers (in the process of reviewing a film about bullfighting) a reading of the psychological, emotional, and moral implications of death in the cinema. More startling than any of the claims made about death, though, are the claims Bazin makes about the use of montage. After lavishing praise on the film’s editor, Myriam Borsoutsky, Bazin comments, “when it is this good, the art of the editor goes well beyond its usual function—it is an essential element in the film’s creation” (Bazin 2002 [1951]: 28). With regards to the “usual function” of montage, reference to “Theater and Cinema” can help to clarify matters. There, Bazin argues that “normal editing is a compromise between three ways of possibly analyzing reality,” which he outlines as follows:

(1) A purely logical and descriptive analysis (the weapon used in the crime lying beside the corpse). (2) A psychological analysis from within the film, namely one that fits the point of view of one of the protagonists in a given situation. An example of this would be the glass of milk that may possibly be poisoned which Ingrid Bergman has to drink in Notorious [1946], or the ring on the finger of Theresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt [1943]. (3) Finally, a psychological analysis from the point of view of spectator interest, either a spontaneous interest or one provoked by the director thanks precisely to this analysis. An example of this would be the handle of a door turning unseen by the criminal who thinks he is alone (Bazin 2005a [1951]: 92).

Even though, as Offscreen editor Donato Totaro accurately observes, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” presents, “in the strongest possible sense, Bazin’s mistrust [of] montage” (Totaro 2003) 7 , one cannot overlook in Bazin’s writings his repeated insistence on mitigating what he knew could potentially appear to be a monolithic attack against montage. For as confident as he was (and rightfully so) that there were certain cases where montage was nothing less than the negation of cinematic realism, discernible throughout his writings (and foregrounded most optimistically in “Death Every Afternoon”) is the sense that, for any and all limitations of montage, the virtues were too important to justify dismissing montage out of hand. And even though he was unsure of the exact ramifications of the “neomontage” he had witnessed in the bullfighting film—where the goal of the montage was not to “suggest symbolic or abstract links between the images,” thereby violating the spatial reality, but to “fulfill both the physical verisimilitude of the découpage and its logical malleability”—Bazin, with his characteristic perspicacity, knew that “such a conception of montage film calls for further discussion” (Bazin 2002 [1951]: 28). Indeed, the issues broached in these three essays—preserving a sense of spatial reality in “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” and “Death Every Afternoon,” the communicative function of montage in “Theater and Cinema,” and methods of rendering action onscreen in “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” and “Death Every Afternoon”—represent the fundamental issues in analyzing the action aesthetics of martial arts cinema.

Realism in Martial Arts Cinema – The Pro-Filmic and the Aesthetic

Among the comparatively small amount of scholars who have concerned themselves with martial arts cinema, the vicissitudes of realism have been observed most perspicaciously by Leon Hunt, who postulates three different types of “authenticity” in cinematic representations of the martial arts. Archival authenticity refers to “the authenticity of the actual martial arts featured” in martial arts cinema, which has showcased a range of actual forms of traditional martial arts including Karate, Judo, Kung Fu, Taekwondo, Aikido, etc (Hunt 2003: 29). Cinematic authenticity refers to “a desire for transparent mediation, championing long takes and wide framing as a guarantee of the ‘real’” (Hunt 2003: 35). And lastly, corporeal authenticity refers to the star’s actual body and is “measured by stunt work and physical risk” (Hunt 2003: 39). Of note in this account is Hunt’s usage of the word “authenticity” as opposed to “realism.” Unfortunately, Hunt’s text is by no means systematic, and aside from an implicit connection to the language of Walter Benjamin, Hunt never explains the logic behind his preferring authenticity to realism (or why authenticity is preferable to verisimilitude, or mimesis, or imitation, or simulation, or if/how any of these terms are superior/inferior to realism, etc.). Nevertheless, it is possible to infer the logic behind his preference.

Man Fung Yip argues (with reference to martial arts cinema generally and Hunt’s articulation of authenticity specifically) that it is necessary “to differentiate [realism] from the related, yet different, concept of authenticity,” although significantly, rather than engage Hunt’s formulations, he merely points out that the discourse of authenticity is just one of the many ways to talk about realism in martial arts cinema (Yip 2011: 89). Yip pays lip service to the “complex interplay between the different emphases of meaning contained in the ideas of authenticity and realism,” but his ultimate decision is to merely simplify and then dismiss the former while modifying the latter—and often times in language that places him in direct contact with the “emphases of meaning” contained in Hunt’s articulation of authenticity, thereby calling into question the alleged necessity/usefulness of such a disengagement (Yip 2011: 91). In contrast to Yip’s half-hearted engagement with Hunt and the notion of authenticity, I propose to explore its implications in an effort to preserve its useful components for a more precise understanding of realism in martial arts cinema, first in relation to the performance and choreography of fight scenes in front of the camera (the pro-filmic concern) and second in relation to the methods of shooting and editing fight scenes behind the camera (the aesthetic concern) 8

Morgan points out near the end of his revised reading of Bazin that the core issue in realist film theory is not that the notion of realism is too restrictive, but rather, that it seems universally applicable (Morgan 2006: 490). More than two decades before Bazin tackled the issue of realism, Roman Jakobson averred this potential problematic where realism becomes a “bottomless sack into which everything and anything could be conveniently hidden away” (Jakobson 1971 [1921]: 45). This is the scandalous shadow of realist film theory, and Bowman teased out this dangerous implication in relation to martial arts cinema, asserting that, “unless it is very highly circumscribed and qualified,” realism is an “impossible notion,” a theoretical fantasy that can only be made concrete and useful by close analysis, if at all (Bowman 2010: 70). It is possible that Hunt, with his articulation of authenticity and its vicissitudes, merely substituted for realism a term with less baggage 9 Regardless of whether or not there were rigorous theoretical considerations made in his choice of authenticity over realism, it must be acknowledged that his instinct was sound, as his understanding of authenticity is especially useful for my articulation of realism insofar as the semantic dimension of authenticity carries with it a sense of process.

Morgan maintains that “realism is not a particular style, lack of style, or set of stylistic attributes, but a process, a mechanism—an achievement” (Morgan 2006: 445), and this understanding of realism-as-process is present in Bazin, as well:

The word “realism” as it is commonly used does not have an absolute and clear meaning, so much as it indicates a certain tendency toward the faithful rendering of reality on film. Given the fact that this movement toward the real can take a thousand different routes … the movement is valuable only insofar as it brings increased meaning (itself an abstraction) to what is created (Bazin 1992 [1958]: 85).

The goal of realist film theory is thus to use a “highly circumscribed” notion of realism as a critical tool that can be used to evaluate the aesthetics of individual films. For Hunt, the act of circumscribing realism in order to analyze martial arts cinema led to his formulation of these three modes of authenticity, and even though I will continue to use the word “realism” for the sake of terminological clarity and consistency, it is important to underscore my usage of realism in reference to martial arts action with the process of authentication hinted at but never fully elaborated by Hunt. Rather than setting up realism and authenticity in an antinomic relationship as attempted by Yip, the two can be usefully synthesized insofar as the notion of authenticity links the process of realist filmmaking with the process of realist film theory where the latter entails the scholar’s authenticating a particular film, of determining whether a given film achieved or failed to achieve a sense of realistic martial arts action.

Despite the benefits of certain “emphases of meaning” in Hunt’s notion of authenticity, there are several problems with his formulations that are relevant to concerns of both the pro-filmic and the aesthetic in martial arts cinema. An initial problem with Hunt’s modes of authenticity is identifiable with reference to the same problem that beset film noir: How many modes does it take to make an authentic martial arts film (or, on an even smaller scale, without getting into debates on genre, simply an authentic fight scene) 10 ? Pushing beyond the strict generic boundaries of martial arts cinema as exemplified by the work of Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1960s through the 1980s, a Hollywood action movie like Die Hard (1988) presents a unique challenge to analysis according to Hunt’s terms. Despite the presence of fight scenes, there is clearly no archival authenticity, as John McClane (Bruce Willis) displays no discernible martial arts training; indeed, he is nothing more than a gruff brawler. However, as opposed to unproductively disqualifying the film without a second thought (or worse, denigrating the film for its lack of combative polish), one could make the argument that the hard-nosed New York City cop’s lack of fighting finesse contributes to a sense of authenticity, as a sudden flurry of extravagant techniques in the traditions of Taekwondo or Capoeira would hardly make sense given the character’s personality and background 11

Likewise, corporeal authenticity as formulated by Hunt also seems more burdensome than instructive. For Hunt, corporeal authenticity is exemplified by Jackie Chan. Although, according to Hunt, Chan’s films are not as cinematically authentic as the films of Bruce Lee, Chan compensates by authenticating his “presence” in his elaborate stunt work, which is confirmed at the end of each film where he includes behind-the-scenes footage of outtakes that show him often suffering injuries during the performance of his stunts (Hunt 2003: 39). The reference to Jackie Chan makes corporeal authenticity seem like little more than grounds for claiming bragging rights, as stunts such as car chases and jumping off of buildings speak more to the general bravery of the actor than to their combative competence.

Upon further scrutiny, both archival authenticity and corporeal authenticity as defined by Hunt prove largely irrelevant to the scholarly process of authenticating cinematic fight scenes inasmuch as the former places more emphasis on really existing martial arts than on realistically performed fight scenes while the latter places more emphasis on stunts than on techniques. In both cases, attention is directed away from the specificities and intricacies of combat, but rather than dismiss Hunt’s discussion altogether as encouraged by Yip, I propose the synthetic term combative realism to provide more flexible means for dealing with the pro-filmic concern of assessing the degree of realism (including but not limited to the featured martial arts and the bodily presence of actual combatants) in a given cinematic fight scene given the following parameters:

(1) The particular historical context of both the production and the diegesis. For example, a contemporary fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) trying to make the argument that the fight scenes in Fearless (2006) are not realistic because they look nothing like the fights that occur in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) would not have grounds for such a claim, for even though the filmmakers would/should have been aware of the existence of MMA and its enormous impact on the evolution of the martial arts, the historical context of the diegesis (circa 1900) predates the MMA revolution. The same argument could also be made against a fight scene such as the one between the boxer and the Judoka in Behind the Rising Sun (1943), but the fact that the film was made several decades before Vale Tudo and No-Holds-Barred events started becoming popular in Brazil, Asia, and the United States disqualifies such an argument, for expecting the filmmakers to have been able to predict—and in exact detail, no less—the future changes in combat brought about by the rise of MMA would be an outrageous stipulation 12 . In both cases, charges of being “dated” or “old-fashioned” actually serve to bolster the films’ claims for combative realism.

(2) The skills of the particular characters. For example, in an effort to “checkmate” the notion of realism for use in discussions of martial arts cinema, Bowman makes the argument that, between the climactic confrontation between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon (1972) and the sloppy scuffle between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), “the latter has moments of much more verisimilitude or vraisemblance” due to the presence of “mistakes, misses, and clumsiness” (Bowman 2010: 75). For purely heuristic purposes, this is a useful observation that helps one recognize the departure from reality in a film like The Matrix (1999) when Keanu Reeves’ untrained computer geek character instantly knows martial arts and can execute techniques at an extraordinarily high level, something neither Grant’s character nor Firth’s character were able to do once they engaged in combat. In making this move, however, Bowman misses the hole it leaves in his argument, for comparing a fight between two untrained civilians to a fight between two renowned experts and expecting the combative texture to be identical (either expecting them both to look as skillful as The Way of the Dragon or as sloppy as Bridget Jones’ Diary) is a terribly egregious attempt at elevating a contingency to a universal (and the egregiousness is compounded by the fact that this position also overlooks the similarly contingent nature of the techniques used for filming sequences of martial arts action).

On the one hand, given the lack of training and martial arts experience of the characters fighting in Bridget Jones’ Diary, one could hardly expect a masterclass in martial arts, thus validating the film’s claim to combative realism specifically as a result of the absence of technical skill; on the other hand, given the considerable training of the characters fighting in The Way of the Dragon, one could hardly expect buffoonery, thus validating the film’s claim to combative realism specifically as a result of the presence of technical skill. Bowman’s mistake was to think that there was any useful way of comparing these cases according to a universal notion of “Realism” in the first place 13 Just as there is no universal Bazinian Realism the criteria for which are completely met by The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Citizen Kane (1941), and Journey to Italy (1954) (Morgan 2006: 458-469), there is no universal Combative Realism the criteria for which are completely met by the fight scenes in The Adventures of Fong Sai-yuk (1938), Enter the Dragon (1973), and Here Comes the Boom (2012).

(3) The situational variables of the particular scene. For example, the texture of the grappling-based fight scenes in Marked for Death (1990) and The Bourne Ultimatum are markedly different, and it would be inaccurate to claim one was more authentic than the other given the different variables in the two scenes, notably the presence of guns in the latter scene. In a fight scene near the end of Marked for Death, Seagal’s character uses constant circular footwork to create distance between three attackers, allowing him time to see attacks coming and to dispatch his opponents one at a time rather than being ambushed and pinned down by all three attackers at once. In the scene in the train station near the beginning of The Bourne Ultimatum, however, Matt Damon’s character is concerned with closing the distance between him and his attackers so as not to allow any of them the time and space to use their weapons. Both characters employ grappling and even execute some of the same techniques on their attackers, but due to the presence of guns in the latter scene, Damon’s character does not have the same luxury as Seagal’s character of constant movement and thus has to alter his modes of attack and defense for the variables of the given combat situation.

Now, even if the notion of combative realism holds up for the sake of the pro-filmic concern—and, having discussed it only briefly here, providing counters only to some of the most obvious possible objections, the case is by no means closed—Hunt’s articulation of cinematic authenticity still presents a problem for the aesthetic concern. For all of the astute observations made in his discussion, Hunt is discernibly apprehensive when it comes to making concrete assertions regarding realism in martial arts cinema, and his ontological agnosticism hinders the clarity of his ruminations on martial arts aesthetics. While discussing the aforementioned “desire for transparent mediation” in martial arts cinema, Hunt identifies this position as “naïve, lowbrow Bazinian realism” (Hunt 2003: 35); as Luke White humorously (and accurately) observes, it is “only martial arts fans who outdo Bazinian critics in their preference for long takes and deep focus” (White 2014: 3). The step that Hunt is unable to take, however, is the crucial (and truly Bazinian) step of acknowledging the fact that the relationship between realism and aesthetics is not antinomic but dialectical.

Hunt’s ontological agnosticism precluded this realization; instead he invokes Benjamin’s concept of the aura as a means of extricating himself from the tangled web of realist aesthetics. Hunt initially brings up Benjamin in reference to the “Wire Fu” aesthetic of post-classical Hong Kong martial arts cinema (exemplified by the director/choreographer team of Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-ping) as a result of which, in the words of Ackbar Abbas, “there are no more authentic stars/heroes of the order of Bruce Lee” (Abbas 1997: 31). To Hunt’s mind, Abbas’ claim suggests that “their ‘aura’ has been erased by technology” (Hunt 2003: 42), a common enough complaint among fans and scholars of martial arts cinema. Where Hunt exceeds this commonplace criticism, however, is in stretching this Benjaminian technological lamentation back even further than the recent era of Wire Fu and digital martial arts to claim that, insofar as “technology removes an object (or, in this case, a performance) from the ‘domain of tradition,’” martial arts cinema (and, by extension, cinema itself) was “always in trouble” (Hunt 2003: 42, my emphasis) 14

By the end of his discussion, which began by attempting to sort out a notion of authenticity for analyses of martial arts cinema, Hunt has clearly taken up a quasi-Benjaminian stance vis-à-vis the myth of realism in the age of cinematic representation against a straw man Bazin. Missing from his account is the understanding that “realism in art can only be achieved in one way—through artifice” (Bazin 2005b [1948]: 26), that “every realism in art [is] first profoundly aesthetic” (Bazin 2005b [1948]: 25). Lacking the nuance of Bazin’s engagements with cinematic realism, Hunt ultimately arrives at the same destination as Bowman and writes off realism as essentially useless in discussing martial arts cinema. Bowman (to his credit anything but apprehensive) flat-out proclaims that there exist greater demands for scholars studying martial arts cinema than analyzing “those easy forms of perfunctory evaluation which proceed in terms of making claims about ‘real’ martial arts practice versus cinematic ‘tricks’” (Bowman 2010: 71) 15 Considering Bowman’s interests in martial arts cinema vis-à-vis cultural identity and cross-cultural representation, his position on cinematic realism is not particularly surprising; nevertheless, such imperatives against “easy forms of perfunctory evaluation” do not, as was pointed out by Miriam Hansen, “make the issue of cinematic realism go away, whether as rhetorical claim, ideological fiction, or aesthetic possibility” (Hansen 2000 [1999]: 347). Indeed, the very fact that so many scholars working on martial arts cinema have attempted to sidestep the realism issue proves that it is anything but “easy” to explicate, and to dismiss aesthetic analysis as “perfunctory” is to elide a fundamental aspect of realism in martial arts cinema.

Suturing Bazin – Montage and the Legacy of Psychoanalytic Film Theory

To speak of Bazin’s conception of “neomontage” as promulgating a notion of “sutured reality” 16 may seem to be little more than an ill-advised, vulgar conflation of Bazinian realism with a discarded remnant from the heyday of “Grand Theory.” After elaborating on this connection, however, I will use the notion of suture as a crucial analytical tool in thinking beyond Bazin’s prolegomena on post-World War II era montage to a consideration of realist aesthetics in martial arts cinema. In its original articulation, the concept of suture was developed by Jacques-Alain Miller as a means to understand the precarious position of the subject in the psychoanalytical context. Miller introduced the concept at the twelfth seminar conducted by Jacques Lacan, and as the concept developed out of Lacan’s seminars (not to mention that it also first appeared in English in the pages of the U.K. journal Screen) it has always been linked to Lacanian psychoanalysis. This fact inevitably contributed to its conceptual muddling in film studies as part of a more dubious politico-theoretical position 17 , but to be fair to the film scholars who sought to incorporate the concept of suture into their critical frameworks, they were faced with the very tall task of trying to decipher Miller’s Delphic disquisition. Jean-Pierre Oudart was the first film scholar to attempt to incorporate suture into film studies, and his articulation still stands as the most lucid and probative for further reformulations.

Oudart conceived cinematic suture as the process whereby the “filmic subject,” apprehending the film frame, becomes aware of the lack constitutive of the cinema (as lack is the constitutive element of subjectivity in Lacanian psychoanalysis, it is not surprising that it becomes, for Oudart, the constitutive element of cinematic spectatorship). This lack is anthropomorphized as the “Absent One,” Oudart’s personal term for a concept no doubt inspired by the Lacanian “Other,” and the recognition of an Absent One is followed “by its abolition by someone (or something) placed within the same field” (Oudart 1977 [1969]: 37). This, as far as Oudart is concerned, is the “fundamental fact” of cinematic signification; in short, the basic act of the filmic subject, as Oudart sees it, is the perception of another space other than that which is visible within the frame, an absent field from which an Absent One is looking. And, as helpfully highlighted by David Bordwell, in Oudart’s original articulation, the Absent One was not a character within the film, but rather, the author/narrator (Bordwell 1985: 111) 18

This situation outlined by Oudart where the spectator becomes aware of the (lacking) frame is at once constitutive and unacceptable, and Oudart postulates suture as the way out of this paradoxical deadlock. The act of suturing the present field and the absent field (via the montage procedure of shot/reverse-shot, or field-counterfield) ensures that the uneasy feeling produced when one becomes cognizant of the fact that someone else is really doing the looking in the cinema is abolished by suturing the filmic subject to a space/character within the film, thus establishing the filmic subject’s place in the network of cinematic signification. As Oudart explained, the filmic subject is situated in a place which,

although remaining empty when [he/she] vanishes into the filmic field, must nevertheless be kept for [him/her] throughout the film; otherwise the spectator may fail to fulfill the role of imaginary subject of the cinematic discourse, a role which is only possible from a locus displaced in relation to the field of the Imaginary and the place of the Absent One, since the spectator is not the Absent One (Oudart 1977 [1969]: 37-38).

Interestingly, this emphasis on “subject positioning” links Oudartian suture with Bazinian realism. Recalling Bazin’s three aspects of normal montage techniques from “Theater and Cinema”—those of logical/descriptive analysis based on narrational salience, psychological analysis based on character subjectivity, and psychological analysis based on what he called “spectator interest”—it is not insignificant that his praise of Jean Cocteau’s Terrible Parents (1948) is as a result of Cocteau’s using, “practically exclusively,” the montage principle in accordance with spectator interest (Bazin 2005a [1951]: 92). As Bazin argues:

Logical and descriptive analysis together with points of view of the actor are virtually eliminated. There remain those of the witness. The subjective camera finally becomes a reality but in an opposite sense, that is to say not as in The Lady in the Lake [1946], thanks to a puerile kind of identification of the spectator and the character by means of a camera trick but, on the contrary, through the pitiless gaze of an invisible witness. The camera is at last a spectator and nothing else (Bazin 2005a [1951]: 92).

It is this sentiment which links Bazin and Oudart in their shared desire for a cinema for the spectator. Like Bazin’s abhorrence of The Lady in the Lake, Oudart expresses a similar sentiment with his disdain for the “aberrant series” of shot/reverse-shot exchanges in Fritz Lang’s Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) “where the protagonists seem unreal because of Lang’s categorical refusal to allow the camera to move from the position of their viewpoint” (Oudart 1977 [1969]: 37). Linking Bazin and Oudart in this fashion vis-à-vis montage may appear heterodox, but for the sake of analyzing montage-based sequences of grappling in martial arts cinema, I will elaborate a concept of martial suture that closely follows the arguments made on behalf of the “neomontage” that so fascinated Bazin as well as the argument for an “imaginary subject” made by Oudart.

At its most basic level of form, suture denotes the joining together of images. This aspect of suture as suturing, stitching, enjoining, is important to foreground against the less favorable connotation inherent in the notion of cutting which informs most criticism of montage-based martial arts aesthetics. In a discussion of “cinematic sequencing,” Carroll describes montage as excising time, space, and action, “hence the idea of a ‘cut’: something has been cut out” (Carroll 2008: 117). It must be stressed that martial suture stands in marked contrast to this understanding of montage as a process of excision, as the opening up of a wound rather than the suturing of a wound. According to Bordwell, beyond a concern for realism, there are three fundamental concerns in the aesthetic construction of a sequence of martial arts action: Clarity, expressiveness, and impact (these three components, taken together, will hereafter be referred to as the CEI function of martial arts action). As he explains:

[Fight scenes] aim at clarity … you have to be able to see all the maneuvers that the figures execute … There’s also the condition of expressiveness, that this has a certain emotional feel to it … a kind of emotional expressiveness on the part of the executor of the action … And the third thing is aiming at a kind of physical or visceral impact on the spectators. So that there’s a blow, it’s very crisply communicated, it has a certain emotional quality or force to it, and it also impacts on the spectator in some way. The spectator feels the blow (Bordwell 2013a).

In spite of Bordwell’s repeated denigrations of the montage-based aesthetics of Hollywood martial arts sequences (about which I will have more to say later) the process of martial suture works to ensure not only the preservation of pro-filmic combative realism via the maintenance of spatial reality, it also ensures the aesthetic concern of the CEI function. Broken down into discrete filmic units, suture as it was originally articulated by Oudart refers to an AB shot/reverse shot pattern wherein Shot A depicts a person or place while Shot B provides the absent field occupied by the Absent One signified by Shot A. If Shot A signifies an absent field/Absent One, then Shot B serves to stitch or suture the spectator into the narrative by providing a coherent perspective within the narrative space that “represses” the haunting presence of the author/narrator. As a corrective to this AB dyad, William Rothman posited an ABC triad wherein, rather than beginning with a shot ostensibly perceived by some ghostly specter, he claimed classical continuity principles frequently introduced sequences as point-of-view exchanges beginning with Shot A featuring an “objective” shot of a character looking offscreen, Shot B representing what Shot A has cued the spectator to interpret as the “absent view” of the character, and Shot C featuring a “reaction shot” that essentially closes the loop, confirming that Shot B was, indeed, a point-of-view shot, the entire unit of looks diegetically contained so as to never allow the spectator to feel discomfort at the presence of the Absent One (Rothman 2009 [1975]: 121).

These two versions of suture can be fruitfully combined under the umbrella term of what I am calling martial suture. Martial suture is not (pace Oudart) strictly related to character subjectivity, but it is (pace Rothman) diegetically motivated/contained. Martial suture is ultimately concerned with depicting in separate discrete units the step-by-step execution of a single grappling technique, ultimately suturing the technique onscreen, and just as there is no set number of stitches to be applied to a given wound, there is no set number of stitched shots required to render a grappling technique. Bordwell’s disfavor with Hollywood’s montage-based martial arts aesthetics stems from the previously discussed negative connotation attributed to the term “cutting”; he views the martial arts in films like the Bourne Trilogy as an organic whole to which violence has been done by lazy faux artists, the montage hacking away the important pieces of the movements and rendering the action unintelligible.

This perspective also informs Bordwell’s engagement with Oudartian suture where, despite his clarity vis-à-vis its overall narrational function, he misinterprets a crucial element vis-à-vis montage. In Bordwell’s account of Oudartian suture, he claims that “suture operates by creating gaps and then filling them” (Bordwell 1985: 111), but this erroneous understanding makes suture complicit with that which it serves to remedy. The process of suture does not partake in the creation of gaps, only the binding of them. For Oudart, the gap (i.e., the lack) is constitutive of the cinema; it is not an external element introduced by the presence of suture, which allegedly cuts up the primordially “Whole” cinema only to perversely suture the wound created by suture itself. The cinema is, in Lacanese, constitutively split.

This Lacanian principle is by no means mere pedantry, for grappling, as well, is in a sense a constitutively split form of combat the wholeness of which is only a retroactive wholeness upon the successful execution of a given technique. As a means of differentiating the cinema from (among other things) photography, Stanley Cavell identified the “material basis” of the film medium as “a succession of automatic world projections” where “succession” includes “the various degrees of motion in moving pictures: the motion depicted; the current of successive frames in depicting it; the juxtapositions of cutting” (Cavell 1979 [1971]: 72-73). Likewise, whereas a single strike (a punch, a kick, a knee, etc.) consists of a single technique, a single grappling maneuver consists of a succession of techniques, with the possibility at each step of substituting one technique for another depending on the contingencies of the particular combat situation (which extends vis-à-vis the CEI function to the possibility over the course of the succession of automatic world projections of substituting one shot for another depending on the contingencies of the particular fight scene). While martial arts admittedly do not convey “meaning” in the same way as language, thus limiting the usefulness of a semiotic understanding of combat, it is nevertheless helpful to think of every grappling syntagm as a succession of techniques in paradigmatic relation to one another, the “meaning” (as well as the clarity, expressiveness, visceral impact, and realism) of which is best conveyed via martial suture. It is my contention that a more sophisticated understanding of grappling and a more benevolent appreciation of the power of montage, particularly in the form of martial suture, can provide the means for a more precise understanding of the realist action aesthetics of montage-based martial arts sequences. 19

Part 2


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  1. For heraldic scholarship on martial arts cinema, see Verina Glaessner (1974) and Marilyn D. Mintz (1978). Subsequent to these foundational efforts, the most influential attempts to theorize martial arts cinema have been offered by Stephen Teo (1997; 2009), David Bordwell (2000; 2008 [1997; 1998]), Leon Hunt (2003), and Paul Bowman (2010; 2013a). In recent years, a new interdisciplinary initiative dubbed “Martial Arts Studies” has been rapidly growing (Farrer and Whalen-Bridge 2011) thanks in large part to Bowman’s efforts not just as a scholar but also as an editor. This past June, he published a special issue of his JOMEC Journal devoted to Martial Arts Studies, featured in which are a number of encouraging examples of the renewed interest in realism. See, for examples, Bolelli (2014), Bowman (2014)/Barrowman (2014b), Downey (2014), and White (2014).
  2. For the sake of terminological clarity, “montage” as it will be used throughout this essay (and as it was used by Bazin) is in reference to editing in toto as opposed to exclusively the unique brand of montage taken to the extreme by Sergei Eisenstein.
  3. At this point, I feel I should make clear (following the example of Stanley Cavell with his articulations of the Hollywood genres of “remarriage comedies” [Cavell 1981] and “melodramas of the unknown woman” [Cavell 1996]) that this essay is primarily theoretical and not historical. Therefore, I will not provide a full historical timeline of martial suture in the cinema; I will merely attempt to sketch its logic. I will, at times, make historical claims, but a proper historical account would have to include, as the precedent for martial suture in film history, the sequences of Jujitsu and Judo in the early James Cagney actioners G Men (1935) and Blood on the Sun (1945). My decision to focus mainly on Seagal is not because I believe he “invented” martial suture, but rather, because I believe the logic of martial suture had never before (and, for that matter, has never since) been so consistently and systematically explored. Additionally, the aesthetic analysis of Seagal that will follow is intended as a companion piece to the textual analysis offered in my previous Offscreen essay on Seagal (Barrowman 2013a), while the concluding discussion of the Bourne Trilogy was inspired by the interview with Bordwell published (in text and video form) in Offscreen last year wherein the Bourne Trilogy was a recurring topic of conversation (Bordwell 2013a).
  4. This, of course, is a reference to Bazin’s 1957 essay of the same name, although interestingly, as was brought to my attention in conversation with Tom Gunning, Hugh Gray took the liberty of retitling Bazin’s essay. Bazin’s own title for this essay was “Montage Interdit,” which can be translated as “Forbidden Montage” or, as Timothy Barnard translates it in his 2009 translation of What is Cinema?, “Editing Prohibited.” For more on Barnard’s translation, see Totaro (2009). To add another wrinkle to the Bazin/montage issue, see Bazin’s most emphatically titled essay written three years prior, “The End of Montage,” which was translated along with two other rare essays of his in a special 1985 issue of The Velvet Light Trap devoted to widescreen. In this lesser-known essay, Bazin laments the inability of CinemaScope to “destroy montage as the major element of cinematic discourse” (Bazin 1985 [1954]: 14), though it is important to stress that Bazin is not suggesting montage be eliminated from cinematic discourse, just subordinated.”
  5. Inasmuch as “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” is almost universally taken to be Bazin’s definitive historical statement on film style, his characterization therein of montage has led to a dangerously hyperbolic misrepresentation that overshadows the more nuanced perspectives Bazin was at pains to distinguish. In this essay, Bazin argues against montage not as a tool of the cinema but as the alleged essence of the cinema, an important distinction that many Bazinians have failed to make. Bazin’s account of montage as presupposing “the unity of meaning of the dramatic event” and thereby prohibiting “ambiguity of expression” (Bazin 2005a [1955]: 25) is meant to prove, against such canonical film theorists as Rudolf Arnheim and such canonical filmmakers as Eisenstein, that montage cannot be the essence of cinema (and, by extension, that silent cinema cannot be the apex of film art). If this is the essence of montage for Bazin, what it does by its very nature, a phrase Bazin repeats twice in quick succession to drive home the inescapability of the conclusions he has reached, then it cannot be the essence of cinema. Bazin does not, however, take this to mean that montage has no place in the language of cinema. As he stresses (echoing his mitigating remarks from “The End of Montage”), “what we are saying then is that the sequence of shots ‘in depth’ of the contemporary [realist] director does not exclude the use of montage —how could he, without reverting to a primitive babbling?” (Bazin 2005a [1955]: 35, my emphasis). This mitigation vis-à-vis Eisenstein and montage is also supported by Bazin’s landmark work on Italian Neorealism, where he hypothesizes that it was “from the outset their search for realism that characterized the Russian films of Eisenstein,” with Battleship Potemkin (1925) marking, for its time, a “new stage in the long-standing opposition between realism and aestheticism on the screen” (Bazin 2005b [1948]: 16). Between these two essays and the statements on Eisenstein and montage contained therein, it is possible to trace a subtler historical development in film style and the evolution of realist aesthetics—one that does not exclude montage but rather tries to find a suitable place for it in the language of realism.
  6. Indeed, Carroll does acknowledge the critical function of Bazin’s writings, conceding that “what fails as theory may excel as criticism” (Carroll 1988a: 171).
  7. Endemic of Bazin’s mistrust of montage are such assertions from “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” as “the important thing about [The Red Balloon (1956)] is that this story owes everything to the cinema precisely because, essentially, it owes it nothing” (Bazin 2005a [1957]: 46); “montage which we are constantly being told is the essence of cinema is, in this situation, the literary and anticinematic process par excellence” (Bazin 2005a [1957]: 46); and “we see that there are cases in which montage far from being the essence of cinema is indeed its negation” (Bazin 2005a [1957]: 50).
  8. My language here is based on Gunning’s tripartite breakdown of what he refers to as “narrative discourse,” which he argues is made-up of (1) the pro-filmic, which refers to “everything placed in front of the camera to be filmed”; (2) the enframed image, which is where “the whole host of formal devices that derive from the effects of perspective, selection of camera distance and angle, framing for composition, and the effects of movement within a frame” serve to “transform the pro-filmic into a two-dimensional image”; and (3) editing, “the process of combination” where the enframed images of the pro-filmic are “assembl[ed] into syntagmas” (Gunning 1991: 19-20). My notion of the “pro-filmic concern” of martial arts cinema corresponds to Gunning’s sense of the pro-filmic, but my notion of the “aesthetic concern” combines the enframed image and editing into a single register of artistic construction.
  9. Of course, “less baggage” is relative. For a useful account of the theoretical baggage of authenticity, see Tim Milnes (2011). Milnes argues that, if “there is life in the idea of authenticity,” then authenticity will be conceived “not as a hypostatized origin or essence, but as an act that comes into being only through its own telling, and whose legitimacy is always open to question, if not erasure” (Milnes 2011: 8). Usefully foregrounded here is the sense of a process in the notion of authenticity, of the act of authentication, which fits in neatly alongside Morgan’s sense of realism as a process.
  10. In terms of genre theory, this point is indebted to insights provided by Rick Altman (2009 [1984]), while the question of how many modes of authenticity are necessary to make an authentic martial arts film was inspired by a similar interrogation of the ontology of film noir conducted by Paul Schrader (2009 [1972]).
  11. This white knighting of Die Hard was inspired by the position taken up against the film by Bordwell (Bordwell 2000: 224-233).
  12. For more background on MMA and its place in the history of the martial arts, see Clyde Gentry (2011 [2001]), Erich Krauss and Bret Aita (2002), Jonathan Snowden, (2008), and David T. Mayeda and David E. Ching (2008).
  13. It is worth mentioning that, in one of his most recent essays, “Instituting Reality in Martial Arts Practice,” Bowman reorients his claims in terms that are compatible with what I am calling combative realism. As he maintains, “it seems better to say that rather than being ‘fixed,’ the ‘reality of combat’ is always produced in the encounter between two or more combatants in a specific physical and cultural context. The reality of combat between two untrained fighters will be very different to that between two people trained in boxing, or one trained in boxing and one trained in wrestling, or a Judoka and a Karateka, or if the ground is wet or dry, flat or uneven, etc. Furthermore, the ‘reality’ is fundamentally experiential and always therefore radically perspectival. It has no simple univocal objectivity” (Bowman 2014: 14). For additional commentary on this essay, see my response to Bowman (Barrowman 2014b).
  14. A full interrogation of Hunt’s reductive understanding of Benjamin would take me too far afield, but for a useful account that highlights some of the problems that plague scholarly engagements with Benjamin’s articulation of aura indebted to his Artwork essay, see Miriam Hansen (2008). Additionally, White’s elaboration of the Benjamin/martial arts cinema connection solves some of Hunt’s problems and provides a more (although still not thoroughly) convincing case for Benjamin’s equitability for analyses of martial arts cinema (White 2014).
  15. This is another position Bowman has since modified, moving away from what Cavell has characterized as a “farce of skepticism” that denies “that it is ever reality which film projects and screens” (Cavell 1979 [1971]: 189) to the embracement of an “aesthetics of ambivalence” (Bowman 2013a: 61-62).
  16. This phrase is taken from the title of a recent attempt to think through suture and realism in the cinema by Francesco Casetti (2011). I am indebted to Casetti’s desire to understand cinematic realism as a suturing effect, but I will not engage Casetti directly as he is more concerned in his essay with placing the photographic image in competition with the digital image than he is with tracing the history of suture en route to a thorough reconceptualization of the concept, and his decision to essentially take the vague and contested concept of suture for granted unfortunately limits the usefulness of his essay on this front.
  17. This position has been referred to alternatively as “Grand Theory,” “Screen Theory, “1970s Theory,” or simply “Theory.” The most useful accounts/critiques of this politico-theoretical position (most of which feature engagements with suture) are those provided by Andrew Britton (2009 [1979]), William Cadbury and Leland Poague (1982), Noël Carroll (1988b), and D.N. Rodowick (1988). For more on Grand Theory in relation to studies of martial arts cinema, see Barrowman (2013b; 2014a).
  18. Bordwell provides a useful corrective to the misguided glosses and reformulations in, for example, Daniel Dayan (2009 [1974]), Nick Browne (2009 [1975]), and William Rothman (2009 [1975]).
  19. This essay was originally conceived in 2013 as a potential Offscreen essay and I would like to thank Donato Totaro for expressing interest in the ideas and arguments presented here and for his generosity in allowing me the time to develop them over the course of my thesis work at the University of Chicago. For providing important insights and encouragement during the writing process, I would like to thank Paul Bowman, Vincent Caputo, Tom Gunning, Matthew Hauske, Daniel Morgan, D.N. Rodowick, Noa Steimatsky, and Ling Zhang. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Daniel Morgan, who provided detailed feedback on multiple drafts and who was extremely generous with his time and his insights. Lastly, I would like to thank the members of the Sherdog Mixed Martial Arts Forums who helped provide the visual aids used in this essay.

Kyle Barrowman is a media and cinema studies lecturer in Chicago. He received his PhD from Cardiff University. He has published widely in and between film studies and philosophy, on subjects ranging from authorship, genre theory, and camera movement to skepticism, perfectionism, and ordinary language philosophy. His work is available at the website linked below.

Volume 18, Issue 10 / October 2014 Essays   action film   bruce lee   martial arts film