martial arts

The Fight is the Story (part 2)

Make sure you go back to the previous FitS post, part 1, and read it thoroughly before you read this one. This is my contrasting example to the pointless fight scene that was in the Phantom Menace. It appears at the end of Return of the Jedi. Here it is:

Let’s look at the basics first: this, like the PM fight, is a master and apprentice vs. a solo opponent. What’s that? Oh yes, it is. If you are under the impression that the Emperor isn’t a part of this fight because he isn’t whipping out a lightsaber, that’s where you’re wrong, and that’s also where you’re falling into the same trap as so many storytellers out there, when it comes to fights. The Emperor is a major part of this fight, throughout. In fact, he starts it.

So. 1): Why here, why now, why these characters fighting? What’s everyone’s OBJECTIVE?
It’s quite clear: Luke’s OBJECTIVE: to bring his father back with him. Vader’s OBJECTIVE: same thing, basically: to keep his son here with him, enjoy blissful life in the Dark Side as a family. And our third fighter in this scene, the Emperor? He wants these two to fight to the death. Remember what Vader seems to have forgotten: there’s only a master and an apprentice Sith at any one time. Now for the Emperor, he’d obviously rather have Luke, as he’s younger and stronger with the Force, but hey, if Vader ends up killing his own son, well talk about Dark side, and he’s been a pretty gosh darn good viscount of terror for this many years. Really either way is fine. And no, you don’t have to have read novels or anything to get this from this fight scene–in fact, if you didn’t see any of the rest of the movie, this would still be clear as day.

So, how about 2)? Lots of clear TACTICS going on here, starting with Palpatine’s biggest TACTIC, the one he’s best at: to seduce. Notice that he’s using mainly words in this fight, up until the end, that is. Why? Because WORDS ARE HIS STRONGEST WEAPON! Palpatine has no need to resort to physical tactics through most of this fight. Why? Because HIS VERBAL TACTICS ARE WORKING. It’s his insidious tease and threat to Luke’s friends that spurs Luke to grab his lightsaber and attempt to kill him. And yeah, it’s obvious that that is what he’s trying to do–the way the first move is choreographed makes that apparent. Vader’s objective? To protect his master. Through the first part of that whole fight, every physical move Luke does (after the initial failed one) is to try and get away from his father, so he won’t have to fight him. Kicking him away, only blocking Vader’s blows, jumping up to the catwalk–all these things are attempts to STOP fighting Vader. Why does he start fighting him again? Well, Vader himself pulls out the verbal tactics, to get Luke to come out of hiding and continue the fight. He finds out about Leia, and threatens her safety. This TACTIC works: Luke is overwhelmed with anger and launches himself at Vader, his attacks now vicious.

This is where we see the fight take a major turn. And this is where the biggest fight scene mistake was made in ep. 2 (the ridiculous Yoda vs. Dooku lightsaber fight), when you compare.

Luke accidentally cuts off Vader’s hand. This shocks him, and makes him stop his barrage, remembering what his OBJECTIVE is and how this attack was NOT a TACTIC to get him that OBJECTIVE. Palpatine takes this opportunity to pounce: still using verbal TACTICS, he reveals his OBJECTIVE to the other fighters. He tells Luke to kill Vader and take his place. When Luke turns off his lightsaber, throws it away, and says, “No,” this is the moment when Palpatine’s verbal TACTICS have run out. Then, and only then, does Palpatine resort to physical violence. And he does so in a way appropriate to his character (unlike Yoda vs. Dooku). Does he whip out a lightsaber and supernaturally become agile real quick? No, of course not, that would make no sense. Instead, he uses a physical weapon much more apropos to him: the Force lightning. Luke has no idea this is even a thing, and has no defense against it–all he can do is collapse, screaming in agony. He does have one more verbal TACTIC left in him, though: he calls for his father to help him.

And boy does that TACTIC work: Vader then uses a physical TACTIC to stop the barrage. Because of this balance in the fight scene, it’s my professional opinion that Vader didn’t predict that he’d die from the lightning. It sure doesn’t look like he expected it, but once it was happening, he changed his OBJECTIVE into killing Palpatine, because he knows he won’t survive to collect his previous OBJECTIVE. And thus he succeeds. All of this is crystal clear, not from obscure back story, but FROM THE FIGHT ITSELF.

Not a whole lot of spinning in this fight scene, but what a more compelling, interesting, gripping, and exciting fight this was than the one in Phantom Menace. Well, the music in the other was pretty cool…..

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The Fight is the Story (part 1)

Since I will only have a mere 15 minutes for my DCC presentation this year, I thought it’d behoove everyone interested if I posted my more detailed thoughts about what I’ll be discussing Saturday, so that folks with inquiring minds can get the full effect of my presentation. This year, I’ll be talking solely about The Three Rules for Actors, how they apply to plot, and how fight scenes fit in with that. For background on these rules, see the following two older posts, one about the Three Rules in writing, and one about the Three Rules in warriorship. Read these articles first, so you can be familiar with the concept of OBJECTIVE, TACTICS, and OBSTACLES.

The basic thesis of my presentation “The Fight is the Story” is twofold: 1) a fight scene needs to be an essential part of the overarching story itself; 2) a fight scene needs to tell a story alone, too: a fight should be physical storytelling. Too often, fight scenes are shoehorned into stories (especially in this Age Of The Superhero Blockbuster), where they have no place, aren’t interesting or necessary, and are completely gratuitous. Why does this happen? Why, because fight scenes are cool. Empirically. But let me explain further:

1) Whenever a character speaks, what that actually is is TACTICS. The only reason a character ever opens her mouth is as a TACTIC to obtain her OBJECTIVE. When she has run out of words–that is, when each one of her verbal tactics has failed, then and only then does she resort to physical ones. This is (or, should be) the only reason a fight scene occurs. When the words run out, that’s when the fight happens. Actually, it’s my opinion that this is why fights happen in real life, too. But I digress…

So when I’m choreographing a fight scene for a play, I look at the whole script. I ask myself (and often the director) the following vital questions: Why does this fight have to happen here, now? Why between these characters? Why these weapons? What about all these things are vital TACTICS, to bring the characters to what OBJECTIVE? What do the characters want, that they are fighting to get it? Often directors will be surprised at how little actual fighting needs to be seen onstage.

2) Each move within a fight scene is a TACTIC to gain an OBJECTIVE in and of itself. Each thing a character does physically is to move him closer to his OBJECTIVE. When a fight scene in cinema has too much CGI, or too many cuts, the viewer can’t see what the TACTICS actually are, and so loses the thread of what should be physical storytelling.

EXAMPLE ONE: The Phantom Menace

So, let’s talk about 1): Why these characters, here and now? What is Darth Maul’s OBJECTIVE? What is Qui-Gon Jinn’s? Obi-Wan seems to be rather tagging along with his teacher, but it’s unclear what his OBJECTIVE is, either, except for one brief and fleeting moment (which I’ll talk about in a minute). Are the Jedi protecting the Queen? Well, no, it doesn’t seem like Maul is really threatening her, and she’s off being a badass with her army somewhere else anyway. The only thing I can see here is Jedi vs. Sith. No reason for the fight to happen, here and now, and the only reason I can even tell who’re the good guys and who’s the bad guy is that the good guys are white men dressed in light earth tones, and the bad guy looks like an amalgam of multiple cultures’ portrayals of demons and devils through history. Sorry, but it’s true: nothing in this fight needs to be happening now, as far as the over-arching plot goes (such as it is). Are the Jedi wanting to kill the Sith, or disarm him? Doesn’t seem like either, at least not judging from any of the moves seen here. And what’s Maul trying to do? Besides show off his aerial cartwheel skills? Which brings me to:

2): NOBODY IS TRYING TO DO ANYTHING TO ANYONE ELSE. There are ZERO physical tactics going on here, and no OBJECTIVES to speak of at all. Seriously. Look at it. Now, a lightsaber is a pretty versatile weapon: you can stab, cut, sever, throw and catch, and even do stuff to the environment to advantage. Is any of that happening? No. Not for any tactical reason anyway. It’s all for show. There’s a lot of spinning going on, both of blades and of bodies, for no reason (and yes, Virginia, I am a martial artist and I do know what spins are actually for in martial arts. Nobody is spinning anything for any of those reasons). The lightsaber blades are literally meeting in the air between characters, like kids playing with sticks in the park.

There’s one brief moment of a clear OBJECTIVE: when Qui-Gon Jinn is killed. Obi-Wan then suddenly, clearly, and beautifully shows us (FINALLY!!) a reason he’s fighting. He doesn’t have to speak it for it to be apparent: “You killed my teacher; I’m going to kill you!” However, that OBJECTIVE promptly disappears into the purposeless, spinning choreography as soon as it starts up again, and Ewan MacGregor’s brilliant acting reverts once again to Dancer Face.

My conclusion? The only reason this fight scene is here is that the writers suddenly realized, “Oh shit! We don’t have a big spectacular lightsaber fight scene yet! The movie’s almost over! Quick, put one in!” Because fight scenes are cool, and lightsabers some of the coolest. Thing is: if the only lightsaber fight was that brief drive-by encounter on Tatooine, earlier, that would have been much more compelling, much more impactful, and would have made a whole lot more sense. Think about it: Maul has a specific OBJECTIVE for having done that quick fight. His purpose was to reveal himself, scare the midichlorians out of the Jedi, and leave them freaking out. That way, we wonder with the Jedi: what the heck is gonna happen in the next movie? Was that the master, or the apprentice? What will they do next? (Of course, those of us nerdy enough to remember that the Emperor’s name was Palpatine in ep. 6 would totally know this, but still!)

Stay tuned for Part Two, where I Roger-Ebert a *good* example of a lightsaber fight scene.

Stage combat as a ryu

Back in my first martial arts training experience, I had the good fortune to train at a dojo that was intensely focused, complete, and rigorously disciplined in the instruction of its myriad arts. All the ryu-ha put together made for some high quality, authentic ninja training that has formed the base and foundation for many other practices in the many (many!) years of my life since then.

One of the documents I’ve come across as I cull my belongings is a page of musing re: making stage combat a facet of the trainings offered at the school. Before I recycle this (handwritten) document, allow me to share these thoughts of mine from 2004 with you, lovely lurkers.

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When most people think about the martial arts these days, one of two things come to mind: sport tournaments, and the movies. Therefore, most non-martial-arts people have a completely distorted view of what real martial arts (read: actually used in combat or self-defense) are really about.

As practitioners of ninpo, I feel it’s important to know what the fake stuff constitutes, so that we can freely communicate the differences to those who inquire. Also, as practitioners of theatre, I feel stage combat is one of the most important and useful trainings one can get in the theatrical arts.

Fake fighting and real fighting go hand in hand in this culture. Mark Grove isn’t so crazy in his inclusion of stunt work and stage combat in his dojo. I’d like to embrace this cultural idea of martial arts as theatrical, and include a branch of training in this art. In reverse, too, hopefully those only trained in the fake stuff can then also come to us, to learn what a real punch feels like to throw, and especially to receive, and etc.

I get poked in the sacrum with my brother’s boshiken. My first black belt test, ninpo taijutsu, at the Genki Kai dojo. Also pictured: sensei Jason Boughn.

Sketch of the Day

I’m sure I must’ve posted this sketch before, but it’s been long enough that it warrants a re-post. (Riposte?) This is the fourth in a series of sketches based on the old ninja legend of the Four Demons. This is Ongyoki, the Concealed Demon. All four original sketches were displayed at the BEET collective’s monthly gallery, and they now live there.¬†

ongyoki

Left Hand Right Brain

My appearance on former student JD’s Left Hand Right Brain podcast is up and listenable-to. I’m doing this from my phone so it may not work–I’ll fix it later if not, don’t worry.


 Please to enjoy the discourse on creativity, theatre, clowning, and the Patronus.

http://lefthandrightbrainpod.com/?powerpress_embed=970-podcast&powerpress_player=mediaelement-audio