I originally wanted to call this post: “A Certain Tendency of the American Cinema or, La politique des martial arteurs” in homage to Francois Truffaut’s seminal work, but ultimately decided against it. : )
Since my last post on the Emmy snub of Into the Badlands for Best Stunt Coordination, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the claims I briefly made regarding the difference between action stunt work and action choreography. To be absolutely clear, I think that the men and women in the stunt world do not receive the kind of recognition and acclaim they deserve. The same is also true for action/martial arts choreography. However, due the frequent conflation of the two – particularly in the US – choreography gets the short end of an already short stick. While there are certainly overlaps in skills and abilities, they are also distinctly different in many ways.
My aim in this post is to tease out some of the differences between what I’m calling a stunt-centric approach to action and a choreo-centric approach to action. Generally speaking, a stunt-centric approach to action emphasizes pacing, editing, and plot while working hard to cover up a performer’s inability. A choreo-centric approach, meanwhile, emphasizes movement, motion, and flow while showcasing a performer’s physical abilities. This is not in any way about saying that martial arts choreographers are better than stunt coordinators or vice versa. Both groups of people do phenomenal work, often in collaboration with each other. This is about being a little more clear regarding their differences so that we can discuss and appreciate each type of work with greater clarity and specificity.
A Brief History
In 1954, Truffaut wrote “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” a touchstone article for the famous magazine Cahiers du Cinema that helped solidify its identify as champions of certain filmmakers. One of the things he does in this work is criticize what he sees as a very stale approach to cinema by the majority of French filmmakers. He takes French writers and screenwriters of the time to task for being overly preoccupied with faithfully adapting literary works. That when French literary authors of the time decided to write for film, they essentially saw it as demeaning; as though they were being asked to lower themselves and write for the lowest common denominator.
Part of what Truffaut was getting at in his original piece was the need to see cinema as a complex and worthy medium in its own right. That the literary tradition was restricting French filmmakers’ creativity. Instead, Truffaut championed certain filmmakers as “men of the cinema,” who were doing something more interesting and more commendable. Truffaut’s article was crucial in the development and ensuing complications around an auteur theory. In its most simplified form, auteur theory looked to identify the “author” of a cinematic work – most often its director – and analyze the film from that perspective.
Since then, the concept has gone through a ton of revisions and evolutions, with lots of other people being given due credit as the primary “visionary,” decision-maker, or “voice” behind a particular production: producers, writers, set designers, etc. For me, I see each take on the “voice” as an additional lens through which we might find some interesting new insight we could not see before.
I would like to make a somewhat similar – though less insulting – claim today, particularly with regards to action cinema. I think it’s time to view the role of martial arts choreographer similar to the way we discuss writers, directors, producers, and actors – anyone on set who is credited with a “vision” or “authorship” in the production. In other words, is there a way to consider the development of a martial arteur theory? And what might it look like? And what new things might it illuminate about a film that we could not see as clearly before? What could it do to the occupation itself? Could it raise it in esteem? Could it perhaps help the argument for an Academy Award for best action choreography? I am ready for “peak” martial arts TV in the US. I am ready for the Golden Age of English-language martial arts productions. I am ready for the total integration of Hollywood and Chinese cinema aesthetics.
Stunts, Swoleness, Dude-Bros, and Shades of Toxic Masculinity
The people involved in stuntwork are grossly under-appreciated, and do not receive the praise and acclaim they deserve. The Emmys have a category for best stunt coordinator, but that’s about it in the US when it comes to major awards show recognition. According to this Forbes article, the Academy Awards (the Oscars) have rejected a request to add a Best Stunt Coordinator category just about every single year since 1991. That ain’t right. Instead, there’s a thing called the Taurus World Stunt Awards, aimed at recognizing the incredible, grueling, and dangerous work undertaken by men and women in Hollywood every day.
At the same time, however, the story that the stunt industry seems to tell about itself can be a little troubling. As I scoured through websites of stunt-people unions, stunt associations, and stunt awards, I couldn’t help but notice an underlying current that sounded all too familiar. The stunt world seems to be a pretty tight boy’s club. Something hit me when I looked through the categories for the Taurus World Stunt Awards, which include:
- Best Fight
- Best Stunt Rigging
- Best High Work
- Best Work With a Vehicle
- Best Specialty Stunt
- Hardest Hit
- Best Stunt Coordination
- Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Woman
- Best Action in a Foreign Film
Much of it can be described by phrases like “bigger is better,” “louder is better,” “boys will be boys,” etc. It’s a world and culture that thrives on creating the biggest explosions, falling from the tallest heights, taking the biggest hit, breaking the most bones, creating the biggest crash, being the strongest, the fastest, the most willing to put their life on the line for a great shot. It’s Spike TV, “the first network for men.”
And then there’s the the defaultness of stunt men. Or rather, the fact that there are 7 specialized stunt awards, followed by one general stunt award for a woman. What this seems to do, in the very structure of the process, is to systematically ignore the work of stunt women. To their credit, based on my cursory view of previous years’ nominees and winners, women arecounted among those specialized awards, though certainly in the minority.
In stunt-centric action, the emphasis for biggest, hardest, toughest is expressed externally by what we see. This extends to the body types of many Hollywood action stars over the years:
The emphasis here isn’t a particular skill or ability. The emphasis is physical strength and physique. It emphasizes what they look like as opposed to what they can do. Which is also another way to think about stunts more generally.
What exactly goes on in a stunt sequence? Generally speaking, a stunt sequence deals with the execution of a physically dangerous feat performed by a trained professional who often stands in for the credited actor/actress who does not posses the ability and/or is not allowed to attempt the same feat. It creates the illusionof danger for one (credited) performer by making it a very real danger for another (less prominently credited) performer. Stunt men and women who do their job most successfully are also by definition the least visible. As digital technology continues to advance, digital facial replacements – the practice of digitally pasting an actor’s face over the body of their stunt-person-stand-in in a shot – are increasingly common. In other words, stunts allow for actors to look like they can do something, instead of them actually being able to do it.
Let’s look at this clip from The Bourne Ultimatum. And if you really want to have fun, try counting the number of cuts for 60 seconds as you watch.
Phew. I hadn’t seen that movie in a while, and that sequence is precisely why. How would you describe the construction of that fight sequence? Words that come to mind for me include: jarring, shaky, intense. But what is actually happening in that scene? And where are the cuts taking place? Each physical action like a punch, a kick, a throw, a strike, etc, is broken up into multiple cuts. The cuts are often just before the point of impact, so that an action initiated before a cut sees its completion after it. In the brief clip above, Matt Damon and his stunt double(s) likely swapped places in front of the camera numerous times.
Every single cut in that brief sequence – and there are a lot of them – was made with great care, attention, and intent. But to what end? What’s gained by making those editing choices in particular? What’s lost? I think the editing of the sequence above is about the “feel” of the moment, more than anything else. The idea being that by keeping the camera shaky and hand-held, the cuts tight and frequent, that the viewer is made to “feel” like they are in that cramped apartment with the two fighters. That if we were with them in that moment, our view would be guided by an adrenaline-fueled fight for survival that does not have time to take in the sights of the brawl. And that’s fine. That is one particular aesthetic and formal choice that remains logically contained and consistent within the entirety of The Bourne Ultimatum. That is, the filmmakers know what they’re doing, and have clearly defined “rules” for their world and how to represent them on screen.
But, again, it’s all about the sequence and performers looking like and feeling like they’re doing a particular thing, not actually doing it.
A Slight Detour
In my research for this post, I came across an unexpected intersection between the shades of toxic masculinity/dude-bro culture that emphasizes toughness and brashness, and the general approach to hiding one’s inability for the sake of appearing to have that ability. My research took me to the websites for the “Stuntmen’s Association” and the “Stuntwomen’s Association,” the latter of which was developed and powered by www.StuntSites.com, a web-development firm targeted specifically at folks who want to advertise their action career online. This proves valuable as a source because it reveals how services aimed at people in the stunt industry appeal to that audience. And man, their website weirds me out and rubs me the wrong way for a number of reasons.
Here’s a screenshot from their home page:
Let’s call a few things out and break a few things down:
“We have worked on websites that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, down to a few hundred.”
Breakdown: people have paid us a lot of money (allegedly), so you should too. Already, they come out swinging with the bragging. Notice that they’ve said nothing about the quality of their work, only a very vague claim regarding the quantity of money they’ve been paid in the past.
“Our team is MUCH larger than our 3 featured associates below.”
Breakdown: our team is made up of exactly 3 people. But if it sounds like we have a vague number of more employees, we’ll seem more legit. What a weird thing to claim/brag about. It sounds like it comes from a such a place of insecurity.
Then there are the bios.
“He is a powerhouse and has worked for so many huge firms.”
Breakdown: Again, nothing about what he has actually done or brings to the table. Only that he’s worked for “so many huge firms,” so you should definitely want him working for you.
“Jeremy has made hundreds of websites over the years and has a vast collection of Successful, Online Companies.”
Breakdown:…I honestly have no idea what to make of this one. What are “Successful, Online Companies” with capital letters? And since when are successful online companies something one collects? I can’t help but think of Rachel Weisz’s character in The Brothers Bloom who collected hobbies.
“Eric is a hip dude, with a youthful eye for design. He loves to keep to very clean websites that are smooth on all mobile platforms..”
Breakdown: Yes. That’s two periods at the end of that sentence. I’m not the only that sees the problem with these, right? What exactly is a “youthful eye?” And is there a single web developer out there who DOESN’T love websites that are “smooth on all mobile platforms?”
What EXACTLY does this 3-man company do??
Oh, and if you’re wondering why Eric seems so familiar or…out of place…, you may know him by his other name: “Male University Student Using Laptop Outside”
I don’t mean to pick on this website, but in analyzing just these brief aspects of their website, I see a lot inabilities being covered up for the sake of appearing to possess a skill that (perhaps) they do not.
All of which is to say, the priorities of a stunt-centric approach to action can be felt in various aspects of the industry and its filmmaking practices: in the creation of a value hierarchy for different kinds of stunts, in the types of bodies and performers that tend to be celebrated, in the editing and cinematographic choices in an action sequence, and in the attempt to appeal to professionals in the field itself.
In Part 2, I’ll discuss the priorities of a choreo-centric approach to action. Again, I am not interested in claiming one set of priorities as being objectively better than another. The differences allow for the creation of different kinds of sequences and different kinds of movies that can be equally enjoyable.
Share your thoughts and comments below. And thanks for reading.