Action Aesthetics: Realism and Martial Arts Cinema, Part 2

Martial Suture – The Films of Steven Seagal

by Kyle Barrowman Volume 18, Issue 10 / October 2014 43 minutes (10712 words)

This essay includes selected animated gifs used to illustrate some of the martial art techniques described. When you click on the link it will open up the animated gifs on a new page.

In an effort to move beyond the abstract theoretical ground-clearing of Part 1, I would like to elaborate my conception of martial suture with reference to the films of Steven Seagal. As an expert in the Japanese grappling art of Aikido, Seagal was presented with a challenge that had rarely been encountered by previous filmmakers in film history: How to render grappling onscreen in a way that fulfills the CEI function without sacrificing combative realism. In discussing the action aesthetics of Hong Kong martial arts cinema (which has been overwhelmingly dominated by striking) Bordwell formulated a guiding choreographic principle he termed the “pause/burst/pause pattern,” explicated thusly:

First there is a rapid thrust or parry, or a string of blows, or the whirl of a sword or spear. There follows a slight pause, often at the moment a blow is blocked, and the fighters are immobile, perhaps only for a fraction of a second. Then comes another burst of activity. The result onscreen is an overall flow that harbors a percussive rhythm. The short pauses articulate stages of action, giving them staccato efficiency. The static instants also make the movements seem more rapid by contrast. And each section of the pause/burst/pause pattern can be adjusted to different rates of movement (Bordwell 2000: 221).

The pause/burst/pause pattern as explicated by Bordwell is explained accurately as cinematic evidence of the “alternation of swift attack and abrupt rest” (Bordwell 2000: 224) that is characteristic of the martial arts being employed by the actors (i.e., it is characteristic of striking); as he observes, the “kinetic precision” of Hong Kong martial arts cinema is attributable to the “stringent codes” governing the martial arts employed (Bordwell 2000: 200). In the same fashion, martial suture as systematized in the films of Seagal owes its kinetic precision to the stringent codes characteristic of the step-by-step grappling arts.

While the pause/burst/pause pattern is an accurate generalized account of striking rhythm and a useful heuristic, it nevertheless requires a supplemental, grappling-oriented pattern to explain that which it is not equipped to accommodate. Unlike striking, which is very start-and-stop, grappling techniques often require multiple steps in order to execute a single technique. For example, in Judo, several steps may be required before one can successfully execute a throw, from grabbing one’s opponent’s Gi (or, in a “real life” scenario beyond competition for sport, a collar or a sleeve) at a certain angle with a certain grip to positioning one’s feet properly to maneuvering one’s hips at the correct time based on one’s opponent’s momentum. Not only is the pause/burst/pause an inadequate means of explaining a style of combat that is essentially all burst and no pause, but depending on the framing and the editing, these various steps in the execution of a grappling technique can be hard to follow onscreen, and indeed, can potentially end up entirely imperceptible. 1 This is a problem in martial arts cinema that is virtually exclusive to grappling, and it is a problem that can be solved by the system of martial suture.

To get a sense of the rhythm of grappling via a heuristic along the lines of Bordwell’s pause/burst/pattern, the step-by-step grappling process can essentially be broken down into three steps:

(1) Attack – An attacker tries to grab, throw a punch or kick, or strike with an object.

(2) Defense – The grab is neutralized, the punch or kick is blocked or caught, or the strike is slipped or blocked.

(3) Counterattack – Having committed to and missed an offensive attack, the attacker is now vulnerable to a grappling technique.

This attack/defense/counterattack pattern is the grappling pattern that must be rendered according to the CEI function while still preserving the combative realism of the martial arts performed. In the history of martial arts cinema, filmmakers have time and time again failed to acknowledge, in Bazinian terms, the differences between “the fact of striking” and “the fact of grappling,” often privileging the former at the expense of the latter. The reason Seagal’s films are unique is precisely because, for the first time in the history of martial arts cinema, the fact of grappling was taken to be the defining feature for a new aesthetic system.

In Bazin’s discussion of Italian Neorealism, he describes the “fact” as “a fragment of concrete reality in itself multiple and full of ambiguity, whose meaning emerges only after the fact, thanks to other imposed facts between which the mind establishes certain relationships” (Bazin 2005b [1948]: 37). The exact terms of Bazin’s articulation of the fact are not strictly compatible with my articulation of martial suture insofar as the fact, for Bazin, is a unit of narrative meaning, whereas grappling techniques are not “multiple and full of ambiguity” as Bazin understands facts to be nor does the execution of a grappling technique have the same kind of meaning as Bazin believes facts do. However, even though Bazin’s exact terms are not strictly compatible, the logic of the fact very much underlies the logic of martial suture. As explicated by Morgan, the logic of the fact dictates that a given film “starts with a particular fact that it treats as subject matter for the film, a sequence, or even a shot. It then constructs a style that functions as a response to that fact” (Morgan 2006: 463). Martial suture thus constitutes “a particular mode of responding to and articulating [the fact of grappling] while respecting [its] reality” (Morgan 2006: 463).

For an initial example of martial suture, consider a grappling technique executed in a fight scene from Above the Law [Click view animated gif]

Framed in a medium long shot, Seagal’s attacker charges him with a bottle and attempts to strike him (attack). Seagal uses his left forearm to block the strike (defense), at which point there is a cut as Seagal proceeds to execute a wristlock (counterattack). The fact of this sequence is the grappling, and the style of the choreography, cinematography, and montage is in response to the fact of grappling. The longer framing allows for great clarity, and while the three-step attack/defense/counterattack pattern is interrupted by a cut, the smooth match-on-action preserves the “physical verisimilitude” of the technique. Martial suture serves not to obscure the execution of the technique or to cheat the skill of the performer, but to maintain the clarity of the execution of the given technique and to provide a realistic visceral impact upon its execution. Moreover, cutting to a different angle after the initial attack and Seagal’s successful defense (which allowed for both clarity and expressiveness as the attack was done towards the camera/viewer) allowed for greater clarity of Seagal’s counterattack as well as a better shot of the attacker hitting the ground on impact as both actions were executed towards the camera/viewer. In terms of the aesthetic concern vis-à-vis the CEI function, this is a clear, expressive, and viscerally impactful sequence, while in terms of the pro-filmic concern vis-à-vis the combative realism, the martial suture in this sequence preserves the “physical verisimilitude” of the wristlock while taking advantage of the “logical malleability” of the fact of grappling for the sake of communicating the technique visually in an intelligible fashion.

In pre-Seagal martial arts cinema, grappling appeared only sporadically and was frequently rendered through a montage style (used most notably and consistently by Akira Kurosawa, King Hu, and Lau Kar-leung) referred to by Bordwell as “constructive editing”. 2 This distinctly Eisensteinian montage style showcased “an artificially produced image of motion” (Eisenstein 1977 [1931]: 55) where the montage did not merely contribute to but determined the action. As described by Aaron Anderson (highlighting its antithetical relationship to combative realism and thus to martial suture) constructive editing serves “to construct movement talent where it does not exist,” whereas martial suture serves to “highlight the actor’s movement talent as existing even beyond the editing” (Anderson 1998). With reference to the previous example from Above the Law, a constructive editing approach would have favored quicker and/or more cuts and more extreme variations in the framing and camera movements between cuts.

Additionally, on a less artistic and more practical level, constructive editing is often used in sequences where the actor is (not-so-subtly) hidden from clear view courtesy of strategic camera placement and where the viewer is denied a concrete sense of space (and thus the technique being performed within the space), instead forced through quick, unclear cuts to “infer the entire [technique] by mentally assembling the portions of the action seen in separate shots” (Bordwell 2000: 212). Put crudely, constructive editing is akin to the creation of a Frankenstein monster as completely separate parts of an action are forced together to achieve stunts/techniques that are either impossible for the individual actor to accomplish (e.g., trying to hide the use of a stunt man executing a complicated grappling technique or an extravagant jumping kick) or simply impossible for any human being to accomplish (e.g. hiding wires or trampolines for gravity-defying stunts like extreme jumps or flying).

The style of Seagal’s montage is on the opposite end of what Anderson refers to as the martial arts cinema “reality spectrum”. 3 The system of martial suture established in Seagal’s films is more closely aligned with the style of montage characteristic of classical Hollywood cinema, a style abhorred by Eisenstein, who argued that its “building-block” model (“a means of description by placing single shots one after the other like building-blocks … [the movement within which] was then considered as rhythm”) was “completely false” (Eisenstein 1977 [1931]: 48). Yet, the building-block concept of martial suture is the perfect aesthetic corollary of the building-block style of grappling, as the step-by-step moves of a given grappling technique are captured in a seamless shot-by-shot flow of images. Tim J. Smith argues that the continuity principles of classical Hollywood ensure “existence constancy” (defined as “the experience that objects persist through space and time despite the fact that their presence in the visual field may be discontinuous” [Butterworth 1991: 117]) by avoiding capturing the attention of the viewer with ostentatious cuts and by accommodating viewer expectations vis-à-vis existence constancy after cuts (Smith 2005: 3), and his “attentional theory” corroborates what Carroll calls (following Hugo Münsterberg) the “attention management hypothesis” (Carroll 2008: 122). Elaborating his theory of montage as “a form of communication [which cannot be reduced to] a model of writing and reading” (Carroll 1996 [1979]: 403), Carroll’s attention management hypothesis stipulates the following:

The moviemaker both holds our attention and shapes it by controlling the objects of our perception in addition to the order, pace and scale at which we peruse them. The constant shifting of camera views draws our attention to the screen insofar as our perceptual system is keyed to change and movement. And once our attention is riveted to the array, the alternative, successive framings of the situation [i.e., montage] guide us through it in accordance with a highly deliberate pathway … That is, a very fundamental level of cinematic communication involves the motion picture maker articulating [his/her] intentions by directing and molding our attention (Carroll 2008: 122).

The last piece of the martial suture puzzle and a key component to Seagal’s action aesthetics is the point made by Bowman that “martial arts are irreducibly pedagogical” (Bowman 2013b: 5). An argument for montage being understood as a form of communication presupposes that there is something to be communicated, and in the case of martial suture, that which is being communicated is the martial arts themselves—their techniques, their efficacy, their artistry, their brutality. In looking at this relationship between cinematic martial arts and pedagogy, Bowman acknowledges the fact that nearly all martial arts have become known (particularly in the West) through cinematic representations, but in the case of the Keysi Fighting Method (KFM), the martial art that became famous after appearing in Batman Begins (2005) and the subsequent films in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Bowman argues that its mode of “Post-DVD Pedagogy” 4 marks a break from previous modes of cinematic pedagogy. As he argues:

“Knowledge” of KFM was not circulated in the same way that “knowledge” about other martial arts had been circulated, prior to DVD and the Internet. With KFM, fans were not merely trying to mimic the martial moves they’d seen in the movie. Rather, the DVD extras offered … a specific pedagogical interpellative mode, which is a species or relative of—whilst remaining different from—either fiction film or documentary (Bowman 2014: 12-13).

I do not wish to dispute Bowman’s assessment of post-DVD pedagogy, as I believe his observations regarding KFM and its particular pedagogical mode are accurate and worth pursuing. However, I do think it is necessary to elaborate the pedagogical timeline of martial arts cinema beyond a simple “Before KFM” and “After KFM” division. Bowman frames this division as one between movies that feature martial arts and movies that feature, as “special features,” actual “lessons” in how to perform the martial arts techniques featured in the movies. What gets lost in this schematic division is the uniqueness of the pedagogical mode of Seagal’s films attributable to martial suture. Unlike the familiar cases of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) or Kickboxer (1989), which show what martial artists do, Seagal’s films call attention to how martial artists do what they do. Seagal offers a form of cinematic pedagogy that is not implicit in the films—that is to say, it is not something solely up to obsessed fans with DVD players or Youtube streams willing to endlessly rewind and replay Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme fight scenes to teach themselves the various moves nor is it something non-narrative/extra-diegetic and thus not strictly cinematic—but rather, something that is explicit and an inextricable part of the films’ actual aesthetic construction.

In Cavell’s language, this can be understood as “what the text knows of itself,” or, another way he has phrased it, what the text knows of the viewer (Cavell 2005 [1985]: 117). Before he was a movie star, Seagal was an Aikido instructor, both in Japan where he spent years training in his late teens and in the U.S. after he had returned as an adult (he has also continued for the past two decades to offer demonstrations at as well as host various seminars around the world), and his role as a pedagogue informs the construction of his films just as much as Bruce Lee’s similarly pedagogical role informed the construction of his films. 5 In the second of his two Bruce Lee books, Bowman makes the crucial observation that “many academics who have sought to study Bruce Lee … have overwhelmingly overlooked the fact that Bruce Lee—_himself_—actually sought to teach at all … have overlooked that he sought to teach and what he sought to teach” (Bowman 2013b: 67). Likewise, the nature of Seagal’s cinematic pedagogy has also been overlooked, and further consideration of this component of Seagal’s films in addition to the concerns of combative realism and martial suture can contribute to a more complex account of the nature of his action aesthetics. 6

While combative realism and the CEI function may seem to be in opposition to one another, clarity is as important for the pro-filmic concern as it is for the aesthetic concern, and Seagal’s utilization of martial suture represents the perfect amalgam. In the suturing of a given technique in one of his films, Seagal typically uses, with reference to the attack/defense/counterattack pattern, an AB dyad (where Shot A features the attack and Shot B features the defense and counterattack or where Shot A features the attack and defense and Shot B features the counterattack) or an ABC triad (where each shot corresponds to one of the three steps of the attack/defense/counterattack pattern). Speaking to the flexibility of martial suture (as well as the evolution of action aesthetics in martial arts cinema) it is also useful to analyze the experimentation with montage units over the course of Seagal’s career, including increases in the number of shots over the course of techniques (as in sequences with particularly complex techniques and/or considerable emotional salience, as is the case in Marked for Death), the utilization of slow-motion in sutured shots (as in Seagal’s lone directorial effort, On Deadly Ground [1994]), and even combinations of martial suture and constructive editing (as in Seagal’s collaboration on Exit Wounds [2001] with Hong Kong stunt coordinator, Dion Lam, who had previously worked with Andrew Lau on such wire- and effects-heavy wuxia films as The Storm Riders [1998] and A Man Called Hero [1999]).

The initial example I provided of martial suture from Above the Law conformed to the AB pattern, with Shot A featuring the attack and defense and Shot B featuring the counterattack. The most frequently-utilized montage pattern in addition to the AB dyad is the ABC triad, an example of which can be seen in a fight scene from Seagal’s Out for Justice [Click to view animated gif (1991)]

In this sequence, the three-step process of the attack/defense/counterattack pattern is rendered in three separate shots. In Shot A, the attacker rushes Seagal and prepares to attack with a punch; in Shot B, Seagal dodges the punch and ties up the attacker’s extended arm with a towel; and in Shot C, Seagal takes the attacker by the arm and uses the circular momentum to throw him over a railing. As helpful as these two examples with reference to the AB dyad and the ABC triad in martial suture are, they do not exhaust the aesthetic variety of the fight scenes in Seagal’s films. As he became more filmmaking savvy, Seagal continued to push on the artistic capabilities of his action aesthetics, beginning with increasing the complexity of the techniques executed onscreen.

During an action set-piece in Marked for Death involving a gang of Jamaican drug dealers chased by Seagal into a downtown jewelry store, Seagal performs a very complicated technique on one of the Jamaicans that is broken down into a five-shot sequence. [Click to view animated gif] 7

This particular technique has multiple steps and requires a lot of movement, culminating in a full 360° turn on Seagal’s part, and without recourse to martial suture, it would have been impossible to convey the multitude of steps clearly, expressively, and viscerally. The first shot features the attack (the Jamaican slashes at Seagal with a knife). The second shot features Seagal’s defense of the attack (he turns to his right and deflects the attack with his left forearm) and the first step of his counterattack (he grabs the Jamaican’s wrist with his right hand). The third shot features the successful execution of his counterattack (already gripping the Jamaican’s wrist with his right hand, he secures the Jamaican’s elbow with his left hand and brings him down onto his stomach on the floor). The fourth shot cuts to a close-up of Seagal’s face to register the rage in his expression as he begins to finish the technique and break the attacker’s arm, a gruesome sight captured in close-up in the fifth and final shot.

On paper, a single martial arts technique that takes up a mere five seconds of screen time broken up into five separate shots might seem excessive. Considering Seagal’s distinct pedagogical function in conveying the general efficacy and specific techniques of Aikido, though, it becomes essential to his dojo aesthetic. Foregrounded in this example is the importance of Bazin’s and Oudart’s shared emphasis on what Bazin called the “invisible witness,” what Oudart called the “imaginary subject,” and what Bordwell calls in his critique of such accounts of filmic communication the “invisible observer” (for which he eventually substitutes “ideal positionality” [Bordwell 1985: 110] so as to account for implausible human/camera relationships that cannot be accounted for in the invisible observer model such as crane shots or jump cuts). Bordwell argues against the invisible observer model as the “all-purpose answer to problems involving space, authorship, point of view, and narration” (Bordwell 1985: 9), however it must be stressed that Bordwell’s disfavor with the invisible observer model is in response to its status as an all-purpose answer rather than one possible answer to a given scenario. The notion of an invisible observer and the concern with ideal positionality offer little if anything to analyses of the aesthetic construction of the famous bamboo forest sequence in A Touch of Zen (1971) or the tournament showdown between Bruce Lee and Bob Wall in Enter the Dragon (1973), but when it comes to martial suture, ideal positionality is the primary concern as the nature of the montage is in accordance with the greatest visibility for the sake of what I will refer to as, with respect to Bazin and Oudart, the imaginary student.

A frequent occurrence in martial arts classes featuring grappling comes when, in the course of demonstrating a technique, the position of the teacher and the student chosen for the demonstration makes it impossible for the students watching to tell what exactly the teacher is doing at a given point in the execution of the technique. Two possible scenarios may result from this: Either A) the entire class will scurry to the other side of the gym/dojo to get a better vantage point for the particular step in the technique or B) the teacher will pause at a certain step and realign himself mid-technique for the sake of the students seated at a particular spot in the gym/dojo. This is not usually a problem encountered in striking because striking generally happens from a fixed position (for example, to throw a certain punch combination, your feet must be planted on the ground to allow for proper hip rotation and to generate maximum power) or it at least occurs on a straight line (as in fencing, a striking technique will not land if your opponent is not in front of you, so demonstrations of punches or kicks are not as difficult to follow since the technique will generally finish in the same spot/position from which it started). In grappling, however, the movement patterns are not straight lines and instead favor circles in order to get one’s opponent off-balance and to create momentum to enable trips and throws, and viewing circular movements from a fixed position will invariably result in moments of varying intelligibility.

This is a problem encountered by former MMA champion Bas Rutten during the demonstration of a wristlock in his self-defense instructional Bas Rutten’s Lethal Street Fighting Self Defense System (2003):

When he begins the demonstration, Rutten is on the left side of the frame while his partner, Amir Rahnavardi, is on the right side of the frame. Rahnavardi uses his right hand to choke Rutten, and the technique Rutten demonstrates from this position is a pronating wristlock (in Aikido, a kote mawashi). Rutten begins to demonstrate the technique but immediately realizes from the camera’s position that the imaginary student will not be able to see clearly how he is executing the technique. To compensate, he changes positions so that he is on the right side of the frame and Rahnavardi is on the left. Now he is executing the wristlock directly in front of the camera where the imaginary student has a clear line-of-sight. Over the course of the technique, though, Rutten again ends up in a position where he is forced to turn himself and Rahnavardi around mid-technique to readjust for the sake of the imaginary student, for whom he completes the technique from a new position from which it is easier to see what he is doing. 8

This is the same issue Seagal is faced with in the example from Marked for Death. Considering the technique executed by Seagal in this particular scene as a technique to be demonstrated for an actual Aikido class, such a demonstration would have either forced Seagal to adjust his and his partner’s position at some point along the way so as to ensure everyone in the class could clearly see how to perform the technique before practicing it, or the people in the class would have been forced to move to different positions around the dojo over the course of the demonstration. For Rutten, in the context of an instructional DVD where there is no concern for narrative coherence, readjusting positions mid-technique for the sake of the imaginary student is not a very difficult problem to solve. For Seagal, however, in the context of a narrative film, it is very rare to have a technique where mid-technique readjustments in a single shot for the sake of the imaginary student can seem diegetically motivated/plausible, hence the utility of martial suture.

By taking a seat in the director’s chair for On Deadly Ground, Seagal was afforded the opportunity to experiment even more with the aesthetic possibilities of the cinema, this time with the use of slow-motion within montage units. Collaborating on his lone directorial effort with cinematographer Ric Waite (with whom Seagal had previously worked on Marked for Death and Out for Justice) and editors Don Brochu and Robert A. Ferretti (with whom Seagal had previously worked on Out for Justice and Under Siege [1992]), Seagal developed a fresh take on his (by 1994) familiar action aesthetics discernible in the film’s first fight scene. Of note immediately are the effects of what Bordwell has referred to as “intensified continuity,” which he characterizes as “traditional continuity amped up” (Bordwell 2006: 120-138). Seagal has not altered his style of combat, he has not rejected the attack/defense/counterattack pattern or the basic tenets of martial suture; his action aesthetics have merely been “amped up.”

Consider a sequence where Seagal executes the same wristlock as in the initial example from Above the Law [Click to view animated gif].

Where the example from Above the Law featured an AB-dyad, in On Deadly Ground, Seagal doubles the number of shots to four and includes slow-motion to underline the counterattack. In the first shot, Seagal’s attacker attempts to stab him. In the second shot, Seagal defends the attack and then, in slow-motion and facing the camera head-on in a medium shot, begins his counterattack by turning his attacker around by the wrist and then, as in the Above the Law example, finishing the wristlock by twisting towards the direction of the camera. Unlike the Above the Law example, however, the montage unit is still not complete. Once he has clearly executed the wristlock, there is a cut to a long shot from the opposite end of the axis of action from which another attacker rushes Seagal. The fourth and final shot shows Seagal’s spatial awareness in this combat sequence featuring multiple attackers, as this new attacker rushes head-on into the previous attacker, who Seagal had (practically) turned so as to use the first attacker’s body to take out the second attacker and had (aesthetically) turned so as to allow the execution of his wristlock to be clearly visible to the camera/imaginary student.

As a final example to showcase the evolution of Seagal’s action aesthetics as well as the flexibility of the concept of martial suture, I would like to consider the somewhat anomalous Exit Wounds. At the point in his career when Seagal made this film, he was coming off of a four-year hiatus from the big screen and he wanted to return in a big-budget starring vehicle wherein he could prove that he was in-step with the current trends of martial arts cinema while still retaining the uniqueness of his grappling- and montage-based aesthetics. His first big fight scene in the film comes after he has interrupted a group of thugs trying to break into his truck. The continuity is even more greatly intensified than it was in On Deadly Ground, plus Seagal uses wires for the first time in his career and even incorporates some constructive editing principles. To his credit, though, he does not allow the multitude of stylistic changes to dilute his ability to maximize the CEI function or ensure combative realism.

At several points in this fast-paced fight sequence, there are inserts of a couple of microscopic moments (a close-up of one of the attacker’s legs before his knee is dislocated by a kick from Seagal, an extreme close-up of another attacker’s hand as he withdraws a small switchblade from his belt) that are reminiscent of a constructive editing approach. However, by clearly establishing the spatial coordinates of the combat situation subsequent to these inserts, Seagal is able to keep the sequence from devolving into a disorienting whirlwind of bits and pieces of physical action. Instead, these small inserts help to increase the visceral intensity of the scene (as in the shot of Seagal dislocating the one attacker’s knee) and heighten the suspense (as in the shot of the other attacker withdrawing a knife). Seagal is also wary of allowing some of the more extravagant maneuvers in the sequence (most notably the wirework for when Seagal dodges a gunshot while simultaneously kicking the shooter in the head with a jumping kick, all of which is rendered via constructive editing) to hinder the combative realism. A particularly effective moment comes when Seagal defends the attack signaled by the small insert of the attacker grabbing for his switchblade.

[Click to view animated gif]

This montage unit is composed of six shots over the course of three seconds, by far the most intensified continuity of any of the examples previously discussed. In the first shot (an over-the-shoulder shot of the attacker with Seagal barely visible in the frame) the attacker tries to slash Seagal with his knife (another yokomen uchi, done once again towards the camera). In the second shot, a reverse-angle over-the-shoulder shot, Seagal defends against the knife attack using juji uke, a cross-arm block, and begins turning to his right, away from the camera. On this movement, there is a cut to a third shot (a medium two-shot where both Seagal and his attacker are in the frame, firmly establishing their spatial relationship at this point in the sequence) wherein Seagal uses both of his hands to immobilize the attacker’s right arm. The fourth shot is an isolated close-up of Seagal disarming the attacker; in an extreme close-up reminiscent of the famous close-up of the wrench at the end of D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), Seagal uses his left hand to apply pressure to the attacker’s right hand and uses his right hand to disarm the attacker. The fifth shot is a medium-close up that begins on Seagal’s movement as he turns back to his left to face his attacker, whose right arm he twists across his body with his left hand so as to ensure that he still maintains control of and applies pressure to his right hand, while the sixth and final shot is an off-center two-shot where Seagal uses the butt-end of the attacker’s switchblade to smash him in the forehead.

Despite consolidating decades of experimentation with grappling in sequences of martial arts action, Seagal’s action aesthetics were by no means stagnant. Seagal evolved his system of martial suture in line with the intensified continuity of contemporary Hollywood cinema as well as the influx of Hong Kong personnel and stylistics. No matter how much variation he incorporated into his action aesthetics, though, the logic of martial suture in accordance with the fact of grappling was consistently reinforced and elaborated for the sake of his dojo aesthetic. The overall design of Seagal’s various martial arts sequences have been as varied as the imaginations of Seagal and his collaborators over the course of his 20+ (and counting) year career, and to have shackled himself to the long shot/long take method in fidelity to the reductive pseudo-Bazinian understanding of cinematic realism that regrettably remains in circulation would have obstructed the communicability of his cinematic pedagogy, impeded the CEI function, and decreased the level of combative realism.

Conclusion: Realism Re-Bourne

Over the course of this essay, I have sought to build on recent revisionist accounts of realist film theory in an effort to broaden the understanding and appreciation of the action aesthetics of martial arts cinema. In doing so, I developed a concept I have referred to as martial suture as a critical tool for use in analyzing montage-based sequences of grappling in martial arts cinema. The films of Steven Seagal were selected as my test case due to their systematic, yet not stagnant, utilization of the system of martial suture. By limiting observation to the films of only a single martial arts star—and one who possesses a uniquely pedagogical aesthetic system based on his expertise and extensive teaching experience in Aikido—I am aware of the possibility of skepticism as to the conceptual reach of martial suture beyond Seagal to the rest of the expansive, transnational terrain of martial arts cinema. As a final word (for now) on the utility of martial suture with reference to realist aesthetics in martial arts cinema, I would like to consider the problematic case of the Bourne Trilogy.

In his discussion of intensified continuity, Bordwell references The Bourne Supremacy and quotes Todd McCarthy’s review of the film where he complains about the fight scenes’ “lack of clarity, continuity, and coherence” (McCarthy quoted in Bordwell 2006: 139). Considering the importance of the CEI function in sequences of martial arts action, this is a serious charge McCarthy is leveling against this film. Echoing the sentiment in McCarthy’s review, Robin Wood lashed out at The Bourne Identity in the 2003 Prologue for his expanded edition of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Lamenting the sad state of affairs in contemporary moviegoing, where what audiences allegedly want is a “‘real’ unreality,” Wood attempts to mount a realist argument against the fight scenes in The Bourne Identity (and, by extension, contemporary Hollywood cinema) which his students cheer and validate as realistic in favor of the fight scenes in John Wayne and Randolph Scott Westerns (and, by extension, classical Hollywood cinema) which his students laugh at and deride as patently unrealistic.

Wood alleges that, in the fight scenes in The Bourne Identity, it is “impossible to make out what the [characters] are physically doing to each other”; as opposed to fight scenes in classical Hollywood cinema, where one can at least “see the actors ‘acting’ a fight,” in The Bourne Identity, he complains that “we never see even the semblance of a punch actually landing … we are just allowed a very generalized sense of extremely violent movement.” For Wood, this justifies his damning condemnation of the film and all films like it: “All the actors seem to have been called on to do is strike gestures, then ‘Cut!’ to the next shot. The fakery is so transparent that the readiness of spectators to accept it as ‘real’ shows a quite extraordinary eagerness to ‘believe.’” As his parting shot, Wood speculates: “It is possible that the [film] was shot that way because Matt Damon can’t do ‘action’” (Wood 2003: xxxi).

There are a number of by-now familiar issues at play in these remarks. First, the familiar criticism of montage-based martial arts action as “cutting up” the real, “Whole” fight scene; second, the intensified continuity indicated by Bordwell, here cast in a decidedly negative light; and lastly, Wood’s charge against Damon’s abilities as an action star and thus against the pro-filmic combative realism. This latter complaint brings into focus the importance of the post-DVD theory espoused by Bowman and Hunt, as reference to any of a number of special features across the Bourne Trilogy highlight Damon’s dedication to and his abilities in the martial arts he was trained to execute in his fight scenes courtesy of renowned stunt coordinator, Jeff Imada. 9 . Such criticisms of the Bourne Trilogy as those highlighted in the comments of McCarthy and Wood have become so commonplace that even Bordwell is able to casually bring up the Bourne Trilogy as the preferred scapegoat in contemporary action and martial arts cinema. Commenting on the films’ visual style from the perspective of action, Bordwell had this to say:

The cutting is driving the film. And that’s not the case with most classic Hong Kong cinema. The cutting is serving something else. If you watch the Bourne films, every scene is cut the same way. There’s also the sense that the framing is kind of finding the subject. There’s no reason for the camera to pan slightly this way or rack focus this way. It’s kind of like, “well, we’re not quite, you know, we’re kind of groping towards representing what’s going on here.” This camera drifts away and so my sense is that this is introducing an artificial kind of excitement into the scene (Bordwell 2013a).

Then, from the perspective of character, Bordwell had this to say:

The idea of disorientation, I go back to that too. I think that could be a cop-out. Because, yes, Jason Bourne is disoriented in his life, but he couldn’t fight so well if he were this disoriented. Moreover, these people who are sitting at their work stations, they aren’t disoriented, but they’re still filmed the same way […] So there’s a sense that, okay, if you want to convey confusion, in a way you have to convey it rather exactly. And if you just convey it confusedly, you’re just being confused rather than expressing confusion (Bordwell 2013a).

To his credit, Bordwell acknowledges the speculative nature of his claims, and judging by the frequency of such criticisms and complaints, he is clearly not alone in being confused as to how to understand what is going on with the action aesthetics in these films. First and foremost, in terms of explaining the style of intensified continuity from a character perspective, it is not disorientation that is being sought. In fact, it is the exact opposite: The rapidity of the cutting, the near sensory overload, indicates the speed with which the superspy Jason Bourne can accumulate and process information. The restaurant scene in The Bourne Identity where he explains to Marie (Franka Potente) how his brain works says it all:

I come in here and the first thing I’m doing is I’m catching the sightlines and looking for an exit […] I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside. And at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half-mile before my hands start shaking.

If anything, the nature of the cutting indicates the complete lack of disorientation on Bourne’s part, while any disorientation felt by the spectator merely highlights the disparity between a regular person’s information intake capabilities compared to someone like Bourne (which is likewise manifest in the aesthetic construction of the various fight scenes).

In contrast to many of the fight scenes in Seagal’s films, the fight scenes in the Bourne Trilogy are not motivated by any explicit pedagogical concerns. Instead, highlighting the way Bourne’s mind operates—compartmentalizing information; assessing threats as if he has ten eyes that can see everything; and approaching fighting with a machine-like, step-by-step process to ensure minimum effort but maximum efficiency—the fight scenes have a greater sense of chaotic urgency and immediacy as Bourne is relentlessly pursued by unknown enemies, forever under threat from every face glimpsed around every corner and forced to rely on his machinal combat prowess. With reference to the CEI function, visceral impact is given greater emphasis than clarity in the CEI function, while, in reference to martial suture, greater emphasis is placed on character subjectivity as the nature of the montage, while undeniably working in response to the fact of grappling just as in Seagal’s films, is nevertheless more attuned to Damon’s character than any of Seagal’s characters. 10 .

Take, for example, the sequence early in The Bourne Identity where Bourne is stopped in the U.S. Embassy. [Click to view animated gif]

A lot of action transpires in this breathtakingly bravura sequence, and the martial arts techniques (which combine both striking and grappling) all require a lot of movement, but the chaotic framing and the frequent camera movements are nevertheless grounded by martial suture, which allows Bourne’s tactical awareness and proficiency to shine without neglecting the CEI function. Studying the various shots stitched together in this sequence, the movements are actually very clear and the camera positions and the montage both work to make the action clearer, not more obscure. The first movement sees Bourne reach across his shoulder with his left hand and pull the first attacker’s left wrist from behind his right ear to behind his left. In doing so, he also strikes the second attacker standing in front of him in the throat with his right hand. These two shots—first, Bourne using his left hand to grab the first attacker’s left wrist, and second, Bourne using his right hand to strike the second attacker in the throat—could not have been rendered as clearly, as expressively, or as viscerally without this cut. Based on the blocking and the framing, the second attacker is not even visible in the first shot, and had the framing been changed to a long shot with the second attacker’s back to the camera in the foreground, Bourne in the middleground, and the first attacker behind him in the background, it would not have been as easy to discern what exactly Bourne did when securing the first attacker’s hand nor would the impact of the throat strike on the second attacker been as visceral without being able to see his facial expression upon being struck.

The next cut is back to the same angle as the first shot, which sees Bourne turn back to the first attacker to strike him with a backfist to the stomach. He then, in the same shot, kicks the second attacker (who is doubled over in pain from being struck in the throat) in the face. Now, an objection could be made that the first cut was not necessary because here, this kick to the second attacker’s face is done with his back to the camera, but whereas the purpose of the first cut to the visceral impact of Bourne striking the second attacker in the throat was a way of directing the viewer’s attention to the serious action that has commenced, the impact of this second strike is not as important, as the focus in this shot is not the second attacker but the concentration on Bourne’s face now that he has sprung into action (which is confirmed by the cut away from the action to the stunned onlookers in the Embassy). In other words, the purpose of the first strike on the second attacker was visceral impact, whereas the purpose of the second strike was Bourne’s expressiveness, and in each case, a cut was required to maximize the effect of the specific aspect of the CEI function on display while in neither case was the clarity obscured or the combative realism called into question.

Cutting back to the action, the first attacker has taken out his baton and attempts to strike Bourne. From an overhead shot, Bourne blocks the baton strike and barrels into his chest like a linebacker. On this action, there is a cut to a medium shot of a third attacker aiming a gun at Bourne, the pushing of the first attacker serving the dual purpose of, in the first place, controlling him so he cannot attempt another offensive move, and in the second place, to obstruct the third attacker’s shot and allow Bourne time to grab his gun hand. Having secured the third attacker’s hand, there is a cut as Bourne turns his body to the right and throws the first attacker to the ground (which would not have been visible based on the framing of the preceding shot, thus justifying this cut) and proceed through a grappling technique on the third attacker. This technique requires him to spin around out of view of the camera, which, in turn, requires another cut to allow a clear view of Bourne using his free hand to grab the third attacker by the throat and slam him to the ground. The impact of this final action is most clearly visible thanks to a match-on-action that returns the perspective to the overhead shot, which shows all three attackers neatly subdued in a straight line on the floor, the proverbial bow placed on this gift of martial arts action.

If, as I have argued, montage does not intrinsically destroy combative realism in the action aesthetics of martial arts cinema, and if, as I have also argued, the martial suture employed in the sequences analyzed from Seagal’s films and the Bourne Trilogy neither obscures the visual intelligibility of the action nor hides à la constructive editing the execution of the various techniques, then is there still a case to be made against montage-based action aesthetics in martial arts cinema? Morgan has argued, in his pursuit of a broader and deeper understanding of the histories of both film aesthetics and film theory, that historical studies need not feature sharp, binarized divisions (such as Bazin’s image/reality binary); rather, the preponderance of instances of conflict and of intersection should prompt us to think differently about how we parse history: “The various traditions are not distinct”; “rather than separate lines or discrete categories,” they are “more like interwoven threads” (Morgan 2013: 11). The transnational history of martial arts cinema has bestowed on audiences an astonishing variety of action aesthetics, and the responsibility of scholars interested in martial arts cinema is to do justice to this history, to work with martial arts cinema rather than against it. Gunning maintains that history is “never simply the surviving records of the past, but always a creative and imaginative act of trying to understand the past” (Gunning 1991: 2). It is in this scholarly spirit that the examination of the complex dialectic between realism and aesthetics in martial arts cinema can contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation of the evolution of the language of cinema. 11

Part 1


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  1. For examples of this type of unintelligible grappling action in pre-Seagal martial arts cinema, see the grappling techniques featured in Akira Kurosawa’s “Judo Saga,” Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and Sanshiro Sugata II (1945); the Shaw Brothers films The Chinese Boxer (1970) and Heroes of the East (1978); and Bruce Lee’s unfinished film, The Game of Death (1973), the surviving footage of which was reedited by John Little from its original incomplete and incoherent appearance in the 1978 travesty, Game of Death, for inclusion in Little’s documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2001).
  2. Bordwell has taken this term from V.I. Pudovkin (who was himself elaborating theories and techniques developed by Lev Kuleshov) as a means of describing not strict continuity editing, with which martial suture is more in line, but a style in opposition to a classical Hollywood “analytical breakdown [giving] us an establishing shot before showing the details” where no overall view is provided (Bordwell 2000: 210-212). My decision not to retain Bordwell’s preferred term is as a result of, on the one hand, the unmistakable Eisensteinian inflection he has given the term, and, on the other hand, my uncertainty as to the value he places on this style of montage. In one essay, he casts constructive editing in a decidedly negative light (he singles out Richard Donner’s allegedly lazy reliance on it in Lethal Weapon [1987] as the lowest point in the “bogus action” he argues is characteristic of Hollywood action cinema [Bordwell 2008 [1997]: 397]), while in a subsequent essay, he considers it the height of aesthetic inspiration in martial arts cinema (he singles out King Hu’s constructive editing, which far exceeds anything Donner did in Lethal Weapon, as “a distinctive, highly engaging approach to presenting physical action” [Bordwell 2008 [1998]: 416]). Interestingly, in a lecture for the Higher Learning series at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, Bordwell briefly discussed a term separate from constructive editing which he called “precisionist editing,” which is much closer in spirit to martial suture (though still focused on striking) and on which I would be very eager to see Bordwell elaborate (Bordwell 2013b).
  3. Anderson’s notion of a reality spectrum was crucial as I was beginning to work through an aesthetically flexible yet conceptually rigorous account of realist action aesthetics in martial arts cinema. However, I found the notion as such to be more useful than Anderson’s particular elucidation, with which I will not directly engage but the problems of which I feel I should at least briefly consider. After introducing the concept, Anderson attempts to argue its validity by placing the realistic martial arts sequences in Seagal’s films (where his victims are viciously beaten, injured, and/or killed) in opposition to the stylized martial arts sequences in Chan’s films (where his victims are comically hurt in only the most superficial manner and where there is rarely any graphic violence whatsoever). The problem here is not that Anderson’s argument fails on the terms he has established, but that the terms themselves are only one small, cherry-picked part of the larger context of the films’ combative realism. Against Anderson’s terms here, one could simply argue different terms and make the case that Chan’s fight scenes are realistic based on the frequency with which Chan is struck and injured in fights where he is outnumbered, whereas Seagal’s films are stylized considering how infrequently Seagal sustains damage regardless of how heavily armed his opponents are or how severely they outnumber him. Ultimately, Anderson tries to have his cake and eat it, too, his explication of the reality spectrum serving little purpose beyond being the means by which to assert Seagal as the high-point of realism in martial arts cinema against a reductive straw man Chan, the result of which is an impoverished understanding of the complexities of Seagal’s and Chan’s respective work as well as of realism in martial arts cinema more broadly.
  4. This phrase is taken from the title of one of the sections in Bowman’s essay, “Instituting Reality in Martial Arts Practice,” a phrase which is itself a reference to Leon Hunt’s notion of “post-DVD theory” (Hunt 2014).
  5. For more on the pedagogical aspects of Bruce Lee’s films, see Morris (2001), Bowman (2009; 2010; 2013a), and Barrowman (2012).
  6. It is especially significant for this contention vis-à-vis Seagal’s “dojo aesthetic” that the opening sequence of Above the Law, which was the first time Seagal had ever appeared on film, features Seagal as an Aikido instructor teaching a class, explaining different techniques and demonstrating the randori, which is the black belt test for Aikido students where a student is faced with multiple (typically three or four) attackers in an “anything goes” situation (randori essentially translates to “freestyle” in the sense of the abandonment of the rigorous structuring of forms, or katas, and the greater resemblance to a regular street fight or brawl with no rules, thus representing the ultimate test for a martial artist). For more on Aikido, as well as on Seagal as a martial artist and pedagogue, see the documentary Aikido: The Path Beyond Thought (2001).
  7. Given Seagal’s expertise in Aikido as well as his additional training in Karate, when he began teaching, he would frequently modify techniques based on his own personal experience, and the technique performed in this example, referred to in Aikido as yokomen uchi gokyo ura, is a hybridized version mixing elements of various Aikido and Karate techniques. Translating the Aikido terminology, yokomen uchi refers to a diagonal strike to the head/face, gokyo refers to the specific hand position when pinning the attacker’s wrist (usually reserved for knife/blunt object attacks, as is the case in this example), and ura refers to a rear entry where the attacker is subdued by stepping off to the side and deflecting their attack (as opposed to omote, which refers to front entry where you step into the attacker’s strike and block it, a more dangerous method especially when dealing with a knife/blunt object). However, Seagal deflects the strike in a rather unique fashion (in the same fashion, in fact, as he deflected the bottle strike from the Above the Law example) more indebted to a Karate forearm block than an Aikido hand trap. Additionally, upon bringing his attacker to the ground, Seagal switches his hand position from the traditional gokyo pin and breaks the attacker’s arm using a modified sankyo pin where one hand secures the wrist, the other hand secures the elbow, and pressure is applied in a twisting motion.
  8. In addition to the points already discussed, I would like to call attention to two more interesting moments in the featured clip. The first moment of interest is when Rutten discusses over the course of the demonstration the various ways to finish the technique, advising his imaginary students to use the wristlock position to either kick the attacker in the face or break the attacker’s arm. This is a perfect practical example of what I characterized as the Cavellian succession of techniques in grappling. The second moment of interest is the slow-motion replay of the technique at the end of the clip, which takes the form of a montage unit in accordance with the principles of martial suture. The moments where Rutten repositioned himself and Rahnavardi have been edited out of the replay so that what remains are only the actual steps of the technique, and the result is a montage unit which follows identically the visual pattern of Seagal’s sequences of martial suture.
  9. For more extensive consideration of the martial arts featured in the Bourne Trilogy and Imada’s role in the evolution of the action aesthetics of martial arts cinema, see Bowman (2013b).
  10. The notion of formal devices such as montage and camera movements being “attuned” to characters is established and elaborated by Morgan (2011b).
  11. 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   martial arts   steven seagal