One of the most notorious stage directions in theatre is: ‘Exit pursued by bear’, from ‘A Winter’s Tale”. Actually for Shakespeare this is quite verbose, as more often than not his directions use even fewer words, one of the most common being… ‘They fight’.
We cannot possibly know what the fight scenes were like in Elizabethan theatre, whether they demanded as much specialist knowledge as they do now in theatre and film. What we do know is that when they go wrong they really go wrong. I saw a production of ‘Macbeth’ once in Stratford. It was directed by the usually reliable Adrian Noble, and would have been fine if it were not for the melodramatic fight scenes, so over-the-top they had us chuckling throughout. Finally, when Macduff burst through the floorboards to confront Macbeth, he was greeted not only by an indignant Macbeth but also by howls of laughter from the audience. We should have been in awe, not in stitches. It was one of the rare times I actually checked the credits to see who the fight director was, and discovered that he had previously worked on the comedy series ‘Blackadder’, which made a lot of sense.
As long as we have the technology to watch movies – who knows how this world will turn out – we will be able to appreciate and even study the choreography of their fight scenes, and give credit where credit’s due, at least to some extent – for it is not always clear how much is decided by the director, the choreographer, the fight director and even the actors. It’s a collaborative process – all we can really surmise is when it works and when it doesn’t.
Is it even important? Joss Whedon – creator of ‘Buffy’, ‘Dollhouse’ etc. – once said they put so much emphasis on story and character development, when it came to a fight scene, they’d think at the last moment, ‘Oh yeah, we’d better put in a fight now’. This is a surprising statement, and not that believable – I suspect some modesty is at play here – because you can witness some spectacular fight scenes in his series ‘Angel’, where the protagonists use the walls, the ceilings, anything in bizarre three-dimensional dances that must have required considerable forethought. A later episode ‘Waiting in the Wings’, where the Angel team go to the ballet for the evening, seems a natural development: also, one of the actresses, Amy Heckerling, was a ballet dancer herself, and the lead dancer in the production, Summer Glau, consequently became a big star in movies and TV. In its sister show, Buffy and her cohorts and her enemies may not have always provided quite the same balletic qualities in the fight scenes, but there is a subtle language going on. (It’s not always ‘Let me answer that with a head-butt’.) In Year One our heroine is clumsy, uneven in her fighting; Year Two sees more confidence and ease; Year Three she meets the ‘dark slayer’ Faith who has a tendency to jump into lethal situations without any procrastination; by Year Four she has incorporated this and other techniques into her own style, even jumping into Hell not knowing if she’ll get back – by Year Seven she has accumulated all this knowledge and more techniques into her own style, always adapting, always thinking on her feet. Her fighting has become her language.
Fighting as dialogue has always been a staple of comics. When Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ films came out, as much as comic fans may have enjoyed them, there was general disappointment at the titular character himself: whereas in the comics, Batman was always defined in part by his grace and skill in combat, this was sadly lacking in the films. The villains were great, but somehow the quintessence of a good comic book was still absent. It was clear that cinematographers, and subsequently most of the world, continued to misunderstand how comics worked. The first sign of a change was the release of ‘Blade’, where the movements of the main character seemed absolutely right. But a film about a daywalking vampire was bound to be too bloodthirsty for mainstream audiences. The real change came with Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’. Singer seemed to understand the deeper ramifications of the comic, very cleverly and disturbingly opening with a scene in a concentration camp, then having the climactic scenes set symbolically and ironically on Ellis Island.
But it was the fight. It was the fight on Ellis Island between Wolverine and Mystique that told me comics had finally arrived in cinema. Brutal, deadly, elegant and beautiful, as the two danced and wove between each other, eluding and parrying, blowing mock-kisses, kicking and cutting – this was how it had always been done on the printed page. There was something uplifting about the experience.
In ‘Avatar’ when Neytiri first appears in front of Jake Sully to save him from the pack of wolf-creatures, she launches herself into the fight as if flying. Her opening move is akin to a ballet leap. Throughout the movie, the Na’vi fight with a grace illustrating their harmony with nature, in contrast with the corporate-sponsored marines. Furthering this contrast, the Na’vi fly on huge bird-like creatures, the human soldiers using hard metallic machines for their ‘shock and awe’.
Also, the Na’vi would move amongst the trees, using verticality as much as horizontal movement. This is interesting – and tribute to James Cameron’s detailed envisioning – because research a few years ago came to the conclusion we are doing our backs in by living two dimensional physical lives. Think about it. We design our pavements, our homes, our offices, to be as flat as possible. But we evolved amongst the trees and our spines rejoice in flexible movement. And when we’re not living in flatland we’re sitting in cars or other vehicles, forcing our spines into more unnatural positions. Kids know better – I knew one whose preferred mode of transport across the classroom was leaping across desks – so when they’re ‘monkeying around’ we should maybe learn a thing or two rather than admonishing them. Apparently some offices have adapted their terrain as a result of this research, incorporating uneven carpeting, hillocks in corridors etc. I wonder what the mailman, let alone Health and Safety make of that.
Even as chimpanzees, we would climb. A biologist would say to seek food or safety, but a poet would take it further. It is said that Nijinsky appeared to defy gravity when dancing, staying suspended in mid-air longer than was theoretically possible. And this is what good fight scenes are like when the grace of dance is brought in. It is about defying gravity. In this way it is not about real life, it is about the poetry of real life.
W. B. Yeats seems to capture this perfectly in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death':
|I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
W.B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)
It seems therefore that a good fight scene may require experience and realism if authenticity is required, such as in a convincing war movie like ‘Platoon’ – but for science fiction, theatre, or anything requiring a strong dose of imagination, then poetry has to be brought in so that the line between fighting and dance becomes so fine it is invisible.
Then, gravity may be defied.