I really tried, but apparently I’m not done thinking about these ideas. So here we go! My first Trilogy! Part 3: in which I discuss some of the ways that thinking about action aesthetics in terms of stunt-centric and choreo-centric could be helpful or useful.
Application #1: Improving Personal Film Literacy
The first way that using stunt-centric and choreo-centric could be helpful is in improving one’s own understanding of one’s personal film-watching preferences. What my personal anecdotal evidence in all this tells me is that many movie lovers simply do not have the vocabulary or viewing history to know that other approaches to action even exist or that they have other kinds of movies to choose from beyond the increasingly limited options that mainstream Hollywood has to offer.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I talk about movies a lot. Not just online, but also IRL with friends, family, and randos. One of the most common statements I’ve heard from people when talk turned to action movies is something along the lines of:
“Yeah action movies are fun, but I just watch them at home so I can skip through the fight scenes.”
“I just wish that one scene wasn’t so nauseating/didn’t make my eyes hurt.”
“I don’t get why it has to be so choppy/have so many cuts.”
Every now and then, I’ve been able to convince someone who had one of the opinions above to watch a martial arts movie, or an episode of Into the Badlands, or some other movie that utilizes similar aesthetics, and the response is always the same: a mix of surprise and joy in finding a different approach to action, in enjoying watching action/fight scenes for the first time, and praising the smoothness and fluidity of the scenes.
What my newly-enlightened friends discover and are forced to reconcile above is the clashing of the stunt-centrism they’re so familiar with and the introduction of choreo-centrism which is new and exciting. Again, I have no interest in claiming one approach as being objectively better than the other. Nor am I saying the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, as with most things, a balanced blend of the two is probably best.
However, it seems like an awareness of the two approaches, their priorities, and some prototypical examples would go a long way in improving one’s ability to, among other things: 1) express their likes and dislikes as movie-watchers, 2) more accurately pinpoint the reasons why a movie might not be to their liking (too stunt-centric or too choreo-centric, for example), and 3) be better equipped to be critical of the media we love.
Application #2: Greater Accuracy and Nuance in Criticism
Expanding on the above, writing about action aesthetics in terms of stunt- and choreo-centric caused me to rethink some of my own critiques, particularly with regards to Iron Fist. Much of the my problems with the show really comes down to the execution of its aesthetics. (If you haven’t read my earlier posts on the show, feel free to check them out here and here.) But since writing Parts 1 and 2, I’ve been able to think about my problems with the show in a more shorthand way. In fact, I think with all that I’ve laid out about the two terms, I can pretty much summarize all of my problems with Iron Fist into one sentence: The powers that be made a stunt-centric show with an inherently choreo-centric character. All of the issues I tried to express in my posts about the show are essentially me trying to come to terms with and reconcile the conflict between the two approaches. As well as the show’s inconsistency in picking one dominant set of priorities.
Application #3: A Third Kind of Body and Cultural Incompatibility?
The third thought I had has to do with a third kind of body. It seems pretty clear that stunt-centrism demands the appearance of power and mass gained by lifting increasingly heavier weights, while choreo-centrism demands the presence of skill, ability, and agility gained by repetition. But after writing my last two posts, I thought about a third type of body: the body that possesses all of the choreo-centric skills and abilities, but which works primarily within a stunt-centric mode. For these bodies, it is not enough to actually possess the skills and abilities, they must also – and more importantly – look like they are hugely powerful.
I’m thinking about actors trained in martial arts who have made a name for themselves in Hollywood action movies. People like Michael Jai White and Jean Claude Van Damme:
These guys are – without a doubt – amazing martial artists. But you don’t develop those muscles through martial arts training alone. You gotta hit the gym and keep lifting heavier and heavier weights at increased speeds to get that kind of muscle mass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But, again, it’s about recognizing the priorities of the aesthetic, and the different kinds of demands/pressures they place on particular performers.
Recognizing these different body type requirements also has an additional implication in the potential for crossover success. Could part of the reason why Asian martial artists don’t ever seem to receive the same kind of action hero status in the US be attributed to the different values being prioritized in terms of their body and action type?
Application #4: Finding Connections to Deeper Cultural Underpinnings
I touched on this a bit in both Parts 1 and 2 and right above, but there are also some interesting ways that the priorities of stunt-centrism and choreo-centrism are reflected/paralleled in the general cultures in which they’re most dominant: the US and China, respectively. Particularly with regards to views of masculinity.
The US, and “the West” more generally, has pretty much always been obsessed with power, the appearance of power, the exercise of power, with having the most, the fastest, the biggest, the best, with being the strongest, the fastest, the richest, with taking, winning, and having the most beautiful woman, etc. And traditionally, these pressures of taking and doing and having have been especially felt by men in a way that really limits their individuality. But without getting into a whole other (but very important) topic of the toxicity of many masculinities, it’s pretty much a fact that the West has a particular fascination with bodybuilding, which extends to cinematic representations of strength and masculinity as well.
In fact, one of the earliest instances of American filmmaking ever, from around 1896, is of Eugen Sandow, a popular bodybuilder/strongman from the time:
And our cultural fascination with muscles and strength has never really stopped. Fast-forward to the 1980s, and we’ve got the Schwarzeneggers, Stallones, Lundgrens, strongman competitions, American Gladiators, and muscles busting out the seams wherever you look. A few posters from the some of the biggest 80s muscles:
If you want to read more about the connection between the political moment of the 1980s, the action movies of the time, the hard-body aesthetic, and all that jazz, check out Susan Jeffords’s major work Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. So many of those movies were also about just becoming physically stronger in order to defeat the enemy.
And it’s not just the 80s. We’re still absolutely obsessed with muscles. From American Ninja Warriors, to Cross Fit, to gym cultures, and leg days, and protein shakes, and everything in between, we’re a nation that often equates masculinity with muscle mass(culinity). Thankfully things are changing. But I feel like you probably know what I mean.
Chinese conceptions of masculinity are a whole different beast. In 2002’s Theorizing Chinese Masculinity, Kam Louie states “Western paradigms of masculinity are largely inappropriate to Chinese men: their application would only prove that Chinese men are ‘not quite real men’ because they fail the (Western) test of masculinity.” He goes on to instead mobilize the interaction between two traditional ideals in Chinese culture for men: wen and wu.
Wen refers to the more culturally refined qualities typically associated with literary and artistic pursuits. It concerns the development of the mind and education in various forms of knowledge. Significantly, Confucius is seen as the ultimate embodiment of wen. Patience, virtue, knowledge, creativity, morality, and wisdom are just a handful of attributes associated with Confucius and the wen ideal. Wu, on the other hand, refers to the development of physical strength and martial skills. While the term looks highly upon the power of military strength, it also places importance on the wisdom to know when it should and should not be exercised. The embodiment of the wu ideal is Guan Yu, a reallife celebrated general from the 2nd century who has come to be known as the god of war. He is respected and worshipped by many today not only for his military prowess but his devotion to ideals of loyalty and righteousness as well.
It’s important to note that Chinese masculinity is comprised of both wenand wu. As Louie makes clear, “a scholar is considered no less masculine than a soldier.” In fact, contrary to Western notions of physically dominating masculinities, it is wen that is given priority over wu, since the latter represents the use of force in order to achieve one’s goal. And while Chinese masculinity can be either wen or wu, it is at its height when both are present in a high degree.
You see the balance of these two ideals in scores of Chinese martial arts films, especially those set in Imperial China. The most common and easily identifiable presence of these ideals is in movies that deal with masters or would-be masters who are searching for some kind of master, or scroll, or manual, or lost text that would unlock some greater physical power. In other words, the application of wen to increase the wu. Even Kung Fu Panda does this with the “Dragon Scroll.” Fighters are scholars. Scholars are fighters. Always balance. The Middle Path of the Buddha. Too much wu without wen leads to power-hungry villains who want more power for themselves at the expense of others’ wellbeing. Too much wen without wu, and you’re at risk of being all words and no action, or incapable of rising to action when your moral compass requires you to do so. Movies are often as much about heroes finding/achieving that inner balance as it is about defeating the villain.
Stunt-centrism reflects the American/Western ideals of physical strength – or the appearance thereof – above all else.. It encourages power to the extreme. Yes, Michael Jai White, JCVD, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lundgren, and all of our beloved Hollywood action movies should be commended for their dedication to their art and achieving physical condition. But I feel like it also pretty objectively goes well beyond moderation or the functional requirements of peak physical condition. Stunt-centric films are like that too. Explosions are as big and as loud as possible, not so much for the benefit of realism, but for the sake of spectacle. Cuts come fast and loose not because it lets us see things more clearly, but because it’s about the feel of intensity.
Choreo-centrism reflects the Chinese/Eastern ideals of discipline and moderation. Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Stephen Chow, and all of our beloved kung fu stars more generally reflect the expectation of moderation. They are dedicated to the improvement of their minds and bodies, but not to the extreme. Their bodies have the power and musculature they need to perform their arts. Choreo-centric films are like that too. Their skills are in clear and full view of the audience. The camera and crew work to enhance the abilities that already exist more so than create the illusion of their presence. And there is a greater sense of moderation in editing and cinematographic choices.
I think there’s lots of exciting places to take these ideas, but I’m hoping that – at least for now – I’m really done writing about them.