Phantom Menace

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.


The Monster

This, from the series of old lecturettes from defunct courses taught at DU. This is from the class called Villains, Monsters, and Foes, which was a writing workshop as well as a literature course. We covered three kinds of villains in the class: the Monster, Fair-Faced, and Villain Within. For this week (Monster Week–rawr!), we read Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and an article about Star Wars; Phantom Menace. I may have required the movie’s viewing too, but I don’t recall–it was right around the film’s release, I believe…   ~Jenn



Be afraid…be very afraid…[1]

The wolf is carnivore incarnate; and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh, then nothing else will do.[2]

The word ‘monster,’ from the Latin monstrare, to show, even suggests that monstrousness is above all visible. But monstrousness is…subject to historical changes in attitudes.[3]

…and I am…cute, too![4]


The monster is terrifying because it is other. The ugly, bestial, unnatural, not of “our” tribe, what-have-you is potentially harmful and therefore decried.


Back in the day, when you lived in a hut on the edge of a wild forest, when winter came, you’d better believe the Wolf was your enemy. Livestock, children, and even adults could fall prey to hungry predators coming too close to the village in search of food. Here enters the Big Bad Wolf, savage Bear, Man-Eating Tiger, and the rest. Beasts also act according to instinct, unlike humans who have rationality to repress certain urges and behavior, so animals came to represent the “bestial” side of human nature as well. In this era of urban living and conservation, animals as such aren’t considered monstrous. In fact, we are so separated from our past struggle with animals that now beasts are cute-ified out of nostalgia. As Marina Warner says, “Tapping the power of the animal no longer seems charged with danger, let alone evil, but rather a necessary part of healing. Art of different media widely accepts the fall of man, from namer and master of animals to a mere hopeful inclusion as one of their number.”[5]  This being so, what is the Beast in recent myth and fairytale?

Beast as Cyborg[6]

The artificial intelligence, living mannequin, the constructed, man-made creature is unnatural, outside of what should be. This is a different tack on the monstrous—the robot monster “represents the apocalyptic culmination of human ingenuity and its diabolical perversion.”[7] Frankenstein’s Monster, the Borg of Star Trek, HAL from 2001-A Space Odyssey, those scary living mannequins in that one Twilight Zone episode, the rogue robots in I, Robot—all these characters are examples of the Beast as Cyborg, the man-made monster.

Our Sample Literature


Mr. Dark continues to scare the hell out of me, to this day.

Hyde is a monster because he is the distilled, separated “beast” half of Jekyll. He has none of Jekyll’s civilized restraint or rational choice of behavior, therefore he unsettles everyone he meets even before they know he’s a murderer. He represents (he is) everything Jekyll despises about himself, everything humans do that is ‘bad’ according to Victorian English society.

Mr. Dark (a yellow-eyed, pockmarked vampire himself) heads a whole sideshow circus out of monsters he has created out of human fears. The Witch, Dwarf, Mr. Electrico and the rest all used to be “normal” humans integrated with their inner darks, but Mr. Dark takes each person’s neurosis and transforms the person into a physical metaphor of that neurosis. In a way, Mr. Dark has refined what Dr. Jekyll clumsily tried. And what exactly are the “autumn people?”

Darth Maul, with his red-and-black facial tattoos, horns, black cloak, and menacing yellow teeth, was obviously designed with old illustrations of the Devil in mind: Maul the monster in this case is the less powerful villain: “the monster who terrifies, who gets what he wants through brute strength and violence.”[8]



[1] This is from The Fly, right? Is it also older than this, or is that it? Yes, she’s showing her ignorance…J

[2] Angela Carter, from “The Company of Wolves” in The Bloody Chamber.

[3] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde, New York, Noonday Press, 1996.

[4] Grover Monster as Super Grover, Sesame Street, the place where live the biggest population of friendly and cute monsters in the world.

[5] From the Beast to the Blonde again

[6] Warner’s phrase—love it! You will be assimilated…

[7] Ibid. So it’s a good book. Go read it.

[8] Shanti Fader. “In Sheep’s Clothing: the face of evil in the Phantom Menace.” Parabola Winter 1999,p. 88-91.