The Aesthetics of Knocking a Sucker Out

Posted: August 9, 2010 in Threat Quality

Holland’s post about Kick-Ass got me thinking about this; I’m not really going to talk about Kick-Ass, because I haven’t seen it (and probably am not going to; it’s not anathema, or anything, it’s just there’s a lot of stuff I could be doing instead, you know?).  But in trying to articulate my problem with the idea of Chloe Moretz as an eleven-year-old gangster-mauling badass, I think I’ve stumbled onto my problem with fantasy or non-realistic fights in general.

So, let me clear some things up very quickly.  1) cisrealism.  Cisrealism isn’t when things look like reality, it’s when things look as though we’re meant to believe they’re reality.  Superman flying around isn’t “realistic” in the sense that people can fly around in real life; it’s “cisrealistic” in the sense that the movie goes out of its way to make us believe that he’s really flying, and wherever it falls short is meant to be glossed over by our willing suspension of disbelief.  2) nonrealism.  Nonrealism is when something, either purposefully or by accident, doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to be portraying.  3)  Transrealism.  When something doesn’t look realistic, but doesn’t look that way for a reason; if we could see the wires on Superman’s back while he flew around, but the wires were there as part of a broader statement about the nature of fantasy and freedom, such that we were meant to understand BOTH that Superman is flying around, AND that Superman is also an actor pretending to fly around, that’s transrealism.  4)  Unrealism/unrealistic.  When people try to be cisrealistic (Superman flying around) but they just fuck it up too badly.  (There’s a point at which we can no longer ignore the wires, right?).

Now, I don’t care whether or not you agree with the terminology; this is just what I’m using for the sake of the discussion, okay?

The way I figure it, there are two reasons that a fight can be interesting in a movie:  the first is that it’s part of the movie’s narrative, and the outcome of the fight specifically relates to the outcome of the story (in the most basic, monkeys-on-typewriters sense:  the protagonist wants something, the huge Swedish kickboxer is standing in his way; if the protagonist wins the fight, he gets what he wants).  The second is that it’s spectacularly fulfilling, by which I mean it is a spectacle worth watching in and of itself, and the specific outcome of the fight isn’t really pertinent to anything that we care about.

Let me take a second and find two strong examples.  Okay, well, obviously:  Die Hard.  The fight between John McClane and that huge Swedish kickboxer.  John McClane needs to win this fight to stop the terrorists; it’s not particularly impressive as a fight, but it doesn’t have to be — the outcome of the fight is dramatically significant.  These guys basically just whale on each other; Karl does some fancy ballet moves in which he kicks McClane in the face, but you know, even if he hadn’t, we’re still invested in how this turns out.

That’s the first kind of fight.  The second kind of fight is the spectacle fight.  For that we’ll use this fight from The Protector, with Tony Jaa:

This is an extended scene in which Ton Jaa spends something like twelve minutes (this is only the first half) just beating everybody’s ass.

I assert that both of these kinds of fights must be presented cisrealistically — that is, they must be presented precisely according to the rules of the world that have been previously established.

Let’s go back to my first example.  The thing about the fight in Die Hard is that Bruce Willis gets his fucking ass kicked.  Just whacked around.  He only wins the fight because he was lucky enough to be near some chains that were hanging usefully around.  When Bruce Willis gets punched, though, he hurts; when he gets kicked in the face he bleeds, when he gets kicked in the stomach he groans.  You can see Alexander Gudunov wearing him down in the fight — you can see, in other words, what it means that John McClane is losing.  The narrative motivation of the plot-centric fight is “Heroes never say die,” I suppose.

You could compare this to a fantasy Die Hard, in which John McClane were not just invincible (that is, “always victorious”) but also invulnerable (that is, “immune to harm”).  Alexander Gudunov kicks him in the face, John McClane just shrugs it off and kicks him back.  Dramatically, this is a far less satisfying fight, because it spoils out sense of the importance of the outcome.  Every time Bruce Willis gets kicked in the face and isn’t hurt by it, the filmmakers remind us that because of the kind of movie this is, John McClane can’t lose.  He is the hero, after all, and invincible by definition — the outcome of the fight (because this is a movie, and not reality) is pre-determined.

Of course, the entirety of the movie is the same way:  the outcomes are all predetermined, we know the hero is going to win; nonetheless, both within the two-hour context of the movie, and the two-minute context of the fight, we’re able to trick ourselves into believing that we DON’T know the outcome.  To forget that what we’re watching is pre-recorded and foreordained, and to pretend that John McClane could fail, that Alexander Gudunov could literally ballet-kickbox him to death.

Every time the filmmaker permits John McClane to violate the rules of the world in order to succeed, our suspension of disbelief is broken.  If John McClane did some kind of insane backflip out of the way of Alexander Gudunov’s deadly ballet foot, it’d be like a neon sign springing onto the screen saying, “Remember, John McClane is the hero!  He can’t lose!” The narrative mechanic in this case is abandoned; if the hero doesn’t realistically suffer the consequences of losing, there’s no need for him to never say die.

This extends throughout all the cisrealist oeuvre, in fact.  Consider two movies in which the fights are not strictly “realistic” (that is, they could not ever occur in reality), and two bits of two fights that are roughly concomitant:  in Spider-Man, the Green Goblin hurls deadly whirling thingies at Spider-Man, who leaps in an outlandish fashion, contorting his body to avoid them.  In Moff’s favorite movie, Daredevil, Bullseye catches shards of stained glass like a stack of pancakes, and then hurls them at Daredevil who backflips out of the way.

On the face of it, these two incidents are basically the same:  villain throws a deadly thing at hero, who must dodge.  And neither of these movies are encumbered by the realism that you and I are; we go into both of these fights assuming that Spider-Man and Daredevil are not just capable of more than you or I could ever do, but capable of more than anyone in our regular, boring, stupid world is capable of.

And yet, the Spider-Man scene is a thousand percent superior to the Daredevil scene, and why?  In watching Spider-Man, we have learned the rules of Spider-Man’s world.  Physics is basically the same as our world, we know; getting slashed by a bladed whirling thingie cuts you, gravity pulls you down, the human body is capable of bending so far.  We also know where the deviations from the norm are:  Spider-Man is super-agile, super-fast, can leap unusually high.  He and the Green Goblin are sturdier and stronger than regular human beings — and that’s about it.  There are a handful of specific, clear deviations from the natural world.

When Spider-Man leaps and contorts himself out of the way, what he does is remarkable — in the sense that you and I know that we couldn’t do it — but not impossible.  We have already established that such an action, while Spider-Man has never specifically done it before, is within the confines of the world established in the movie.

Daredevil gives us a similar platform to work from; we know that this world is mostly also like the regular world.  It is identical in terms of physics and human biomechanics; the differences are that Daredevil is super-fast and super-agile, and that Bullseye is super-accurate at throwing things.  So, when Daredevil avoids the shards of stained glass but doing a series of backflips — at a consistent speed and at regular intervals — it looks like bullshit.  Because the rules of the universe have already established that 1) there’s no reason that Bullseye shouldn’t be able to hit him, and 2) that physics suggests that backflips neither bodily move Daredevil out of the way, nor do they provide an especially quick means of escape.

When Spider-Man avoids whirling bladed death thingies (which he doesn’t completely do, remember?) it is because he is A MAN WITH THE POWERS OF A SPIDER.  When Daredevil avoids the shards of stained glass, it is because he is supposed to win this part of the fight.  The filmmaker has broken the shroud of cisrealism, and has permitted us to see the driving narrative mechanics that require Daredevil to win this part.

So, let’s take a look at spectacle, now.  This one is a little more straightforward.  Bruce Lee, when he got his start as a kung fu action hero, lamented bitterly the tendency in Chinese cinema to have their kung fu movies all tarted up with wire-work and cheesy special effects bullshit.  He believed that fights should be as realistic as possible — and, considering that his movies were literally just showcases for him to beat the shit out of some guys, he was essentially right.

If we’re looking at a fight that is spectacular — that is worth watching in and of itself — we’ve got a different set of standards we apply to it.  What’s interesting is not the outcome of the fight, but that a person could do that in the first place.  No one even gives a shit about the plot in The Protector.  What is it, some dumb stuff about elephants?  Totally inconsequential to the twelve-minute ass-beating that Tony Jaa deals out.  And the problem is, if he had been doing wire-work, or been the beneficiary of special effects, he’d be less impressive; what’s remarkable about Tony Jaa’s fight is that Tony Jaa is doing it.  He is actually flying through the air to knee someone in the head.

In a strictly realistic world (like the one in which Tony Jaa’s Protector lives), violations of the natural laws of physics don’t appear to be even more spectacular — they instead look like what they are:  bad special effects.

Consider, for a moment, Steven Segal.  Remember how in early movies, Steven Segal was awesome?  Just going through the world, beating the crap out of guys.  The point of all of those movies was that he was an unstoppable engine of Aikido, decimating any and all opponents that came his way.  He partook of the spectacular fight scene — which, when the narrative is bothered with in the first place, is usually “You fools, you have no idea what you’ve unleashed!”  But he also did all of his stunts and his bad-guy whupping himself; the point of the movies was the he was doing it.

Then, remember how later in his life, when he started to get old and fat and lazy?  And so his movies started having weird effects in them, like swordfights with paper cutters, and Steven Segal doing clearly wire-asssisted flips over speeding cars?  Remember how that was some bullshit, appreciable only in the way that we can sometimes get a perverse thrill from the disappointment we suffer when we notice that something is bullshit?  Because Steven Segal’s world is the real world, that operates according to real rules, and are bent only slightly, and only to support the unlikely but still technically possible scenario that Steven Segal could Aikido the shit out of ALL the motherfuckers.

But cisrealism applies even to fancier, less-realistic movies.  Consider the fight in The Matrix between Neo and Agent Smith at the end.  And let’s, for the moment, consider it ONLY in terms of spectacle.  When these two guys are flying through the air at each other, or Neo is blocking all of Agent Smith’s attacks with one hand, we’re not disrupted from our appreciation of the fight even though we’re plainly watching special effects.  Why?  Because in a cisreal universe, nonrealism isn’t a problem, so long as we’ve been given a context in which to appreciate what we’re seeing.  The entire premise of The Matrix is a pretext designed precisely to explain how the Neo/Smith fight is possible, so by the time we get to it, our expectations aren’t tossed on their ear.

It’s not nonrealism that’s specifically problematic; provided that there is a context in which to interpret it, I don’t have a problem with deviations from reality.  The issue is unrealism — when a world offers up the rules by which it is supposed to function, and then violates those rules without pretext.

  1. Moff says:

    It’s not my favorite movie.

    It’s my second favorite movie.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    You should have titled this, “Die Hard: Better Than Daredevil?”

    Because that question mark would intrigue the HELL out of people.

  3. Moff says:

    I think Die Hard is pretty clearly better than Daredevil. Die Hard might be in my top ten, under “Action Movies, Platonic Ideal Of.”

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    As far as subjective statements can be considered facts, it is an absolute fact that Die Hard is a better movie than Daredevil. Hell, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a better movie than Daredevil.

    Yet Daredevil is a better movie than Die Harder and Live Free or Die Hard.

    There has to be a graph around here somewhere to illustrate this….

  5. Sam says:

    If Hit-Girl worked as a semi-plausible combatant (and I think she mostly did in the movie), it was because she was using all kinds of force multipliers, like naginata, knives, knives on wires, and guns. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but some of your concerns are addressed.

    Black Widow’s fight in Iron Man 2 worked for similar reasons: She used weapons, joint manipulations, etc., rather than just punching dudes with skinny Johansson arms.

  6. […] is, they are presented in a style that is manifestly different from observable reality (see some further notes about the distinction between “real” and “realistic” over here) […]

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