Saturday, 5 September 2015

A Theory of Filmed Violence

I started thinking about a theory of filmed violence and, in brief, its this -

The symbols of violence that tell the story well on film are almost always bad things to do in real violent situations.

Maybe its simpler to say 'accurate violence is a boring story'.

Lets go through it one by one:

Sword fights. Fighting with swords for real would be like boxing with knives. Fast, brutal, ugly and difficult to discern what’s happening from the outside.

In any real physical fight both sides will work very hard not to signal what they are doing or about to do. The movement between any two positions or actions will be as short and fast as possible. There will be no unnecessarily wide arm movements, no unnecessary body movements. Short, clipped controlled movements that return quickly to their originating position and rarely 'follow through' or carry the weight of a contestant far from their centre of mass. Blades will rarely clash.

This looks dull and crucially, *doesn't tell the story* of the fight visually on film. On film all the movements will need to be extended, emphasised, made particular. Always over-extend your arm, always follow through with your body weight. The audience *wants* to see your body move. The shifting of your body tells the story of the act, the more it moves and the more visibly it moves, generally the better the story.

Boxing. I don't know much about this but I think its pretty true that in boxing attritional damage is a bad thing and you would almost never let an opponent 'wear themselves out' on you before you come back in force before the end of the fight*.

In real life, damage is bad. In boxing films, damage is excellent. You *want* both fighters to be visibly damaged. specifically you want the hero to be the more damaged fighter because every visible example of pain makes them more heroic for resisting it.

The boxing hero has to be beat-up towards the end. if they were just very good and won intelligently without being visibly physically hurt then it would have no visual or emotional impact. It would be like throwing away the language of film.

What goes for boxing goes to some degree for all other forms of physical damage. Getting shot is very bad and probably effectively incapacitating for almost all normal people no matter where you get shot. On film the hero *has* to get shot. Or at least clipped. it has to be physical and it has to be *visible*, without the visible example of danger and pain the hero isn't heroic.

*EDIT - ok this is apparently actually a thing people sometimes do.

Gun fights. Any time after WW1 if you are facing machine guns or artillery then you have to be some distance from each other. You need to be far enough away from each other that if someone opens up on you with a machine gun and walks it down the line there is enough time from the person in front of you dying and falling down and you seeing this for you to get into cover.

The trusty grunts dive into the trench or foxhole. They are all there, lined up and *in the same shot*.

"We're pinned down, we gotta get out of this Kowalski!"

Sure you do, but the reason you are pinned down is not because of tactics, its because the director of the film needed their principal story-carrying characters near each other, in direct danger, *in the same shot* so they are interacting socially just by being there and the audience can *see* this happening.

The trusty grunts will *always* end up pinned down together in a foxhole, or behind a wall, or in a room. The only thing you can say for sure about the place that they are trapped in is that it will be somewhere where you can point a camera at the whole group and *see* them acting together, exchanging glances, being in each others social space. That shot tells the story of coming together under pressure to achieve something difficult. It tells it better than simply filming the real thing would.

If everyone has machine guns really you want to be behind someone, in cover, at long-medium range so you can shoot them in the back. This looks terrible on film. Film wants everyone in the shot.

Archery. In Game of Thrones they actually lampshade this.

"Never hold your bow drawn, it loosens the string for no reason." - Also it tires you the fuck out because bows are heavy to draw and you are wasting energy. Just draw and loose in one movement.

Then later in the series during a siege *they do the same fucking shot*, a row of archers, arrows pointed up for a ballistic shot, even though the enemy are below, all holding their bows drawn for a really fucking long time.

I think the arrows are also flaming too.

Why? Because it tells the story of the violence better than the real violence would. The bow held at the draw gives the human body a powerful and tense visual signature. The muscles are literally held in tension, all they can do is release and you are just waiting for that to happen.

Having a bunch of archers in a row? Fucking cool, gives the image depth and perspective. Plus the sight of a bunch of people holding themselves in a uniform tension multiplies the signal of the single archer.

Adding flaming tips? Of course. Always do it. A more powerful visual signature. As well as that, always chase escapees and light your castle with flaming torches and never with candles or lanterns. The naked active fire on the torch is almost a character in itself and the fact that the person holding it must hold it like a weapon, upright, away from themselves, body in tesnsion, makes it better dramaturgy. A lantern hangs, a bare candle must be moved with slowly (always have candles in the scholars study *and if it’s a ghost story*, candles slow physical action down, torches speed it up.)

Weapons. Always too big. Real weapons have to be light enough to wield continuously for a long period of time. Warhammers and picks are small. The head has to be small to concentrate mass and force. A big wide head is dumb, a big wide sword is dumb.

Fantasy weapons have to be oversized so they can tell the story of the weapon better. Conans sword was so big and heavy only Arnold could actually wield it. The sword of Goderick Gryffendor was designed originally to be held by children and looked big in their hands. In the final films, in the hands of adults, it looked too small.

Guns don't always need to be super-big but they should have all kinds of extra crap bolted onto them like laser sights and extra magazines and little pointless clips.

Guns and swords both need to make much more sound than they do in real life. Guns in films clatter like dice bags every time an actor even touches them.

Helmets. Helmets are the most important piece of armour that anyone will ever put on. Except maybe a mail shirt or kevlar. But in general, if you are wearing armour and not wearing an helmet then you are fucking insane because you keep your brain in there and you need that.

Yet in film people are continually losing their helmets. Often they get shot off or lost in battle some other way. Sometimes the main hero becomes such a super-soldier that "helmets just slow me down maaan". Generally if a film can find any way to get the helmet off, they will.

Why? I think because it fucks up the transmission of story energy from the face. Helmets (and hats) surround the face, change the profile of the skull. They look dorky in real life. They look even more dorky on film because a huge amount of information about the way someone’s body and personality and presence impacts the world is simply missing from a film image. What you have is the visual in a box and helmets fuck badly with the proportioning of informational space within this box. Heroes don't have wide faces. Heroes don't have small features. They have large expressive features that fill their often-narrow faces. They are full of information.

Some hats do and some hats don't. Top hats do, Sherlock Holmes rarely wears one on film. Even in old films he's usually taking it off. Cowboy hats don't. probably cowboy hats are ok because they are a *lateral line*, they go *across the screen* and make the screen feel wider, not more dense. A top hat goes up and down and on a film screen thats awkward as fuck.

Neither surround the face and make it look bigger, Sherlock will NEVER wear his deerstalker with the flaps down. Even on the moors when it’s probably cold as fuck and he is literally stalking something he will keep his flaps tied. Marge from Fargo can have her face-surrounding hat, it makes her look plumper and more heavy and that *tells the story* of Marge and is accounted for in that stories structure.

- Over Signalling.
- Taking damage.
- Grouping up when in area-danger.
- Being highly visible.
- Partial armour use.
- Holding a position of dynamic tension.
- Oversized weapons.

Maybe this is another thing like dungeon traps, a signal inverted or somehow turned inside out to make is useful in a fiction about a thing, to make it a useful piece of mental architecture, a transmissible idea, rather than a piece of the real world.


This is something that I started thinking about at about the same time. It really doesn't have much to do with what I wrote above but I can't stop thinking about it.

If Jason Statham had been born in a country south of the Alps then he would be a much bigger star than he is.

Because - Jason Statham signals two things very well. He is very masculine and he is very graceful. He is fluid, precise, he moves his core easily.

Almost the only place on earth that has no strong culture linking masculinity and fluidity is the northern european kind-of-anglo-germanic one. The Spanish have the matador who is super flexible and super masculine. The latins have the tango dancer, super masculine, super flexible. Asian cultures have the kung-fu master, flexible, badass. African Cultures pretty much own core muscle movement as an expression of self.

Its really only in our culture I think where masculinity is *always* a stiff inflexible set of core muscles, a straight back,  heavy body mass, going through rather than going around, alienation from and indifference to the body rather than unity with it.

These elements exist in lots of other cultures as well. Being big, heavy, indifferent to damage etc is almost always masculine, but other things are too and here they really aren't.

So he was born into the wrong culture. We don't have the tools to appreciate him.


  1. The Rope-a-Dope could only be executed by the Greatest of All Time. If you haven't seen it, the documentary When We Were Kings, about the Ali-Foreman fight, is utterly worth your time, even if you're not into boxing.

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  4. sword fighting: I finally got arround to watchig the last jackson hobbit movie and while its visually wonderful and the fight scenes are frenetic virtually none of the main characters is ever botherig to actually defend themselves.

  5. Two things that always strikes me in filmed medieval violence are 1) the way it ignores the long training times to make a good swordsman or archer and 2) How ineffective armor is.

    Farmboys and disgruntled princesses in disguise are always picking up swords and holding their own against guards, barbarians and whatnot. Sword use is exhausting, working a wide variety of strange muscles and also involves a lot of skill and practice, being buff isn't enough. The danger of warrior castes or classes in ancient society might come partially from their better equipment, but mostly it's the lifetime devoted to the craft of smacking people with sharp metal things. Anyone doubting this should think about what happens when primative firearms are introduced. Sure a matchlock isn't nearly as dangerous as a longbow, but it doesn't take a lifetime of bone distorting training to use one, and a matchlock is mostly as good. Conscription becomes functional - not possible, the ancients knew about it, they just figured it was a bad idea.

    Likewise armor works well. Chain armor works, plate armor works - there's a reason that the heroes in sagas cleave through helmets and it's because that's a really rare thing (or maybe even impossible), so saying someone does that makes them pretty superhuman.

  6. I'd recommend the youtube channel 'Scholagladitoria.' It's almost exclusively a channel dedicated to historic European martial arts (a.k.a HEMA).

    There is lots of discussion about swords and weapons, critiques of movie shenanigans and (relevant to the first point) there is also plenty of sparring between people using methods reconstructed from 14th and 15th treatises.

  7. Everything here parallels professional wrestling- from the long hair to big moves to finish a match. They have to get out to the cheap seats. It's a kinetic storytelling medium and blue collar theatre.

  8. I was reading about 1400s longbowmen, who use polehammers for melee, because they didn't expect to wield them in long-term engagements, and were ripped as fuck, what with all the drawing HUMAN SIZED BOWS.
    Only reasons crossbows were popular is because they're powderlesss guns. Just give a dude a crossbow, and bam you have a deadlyish weapon.
    'course, then you'd have vast swarms of crossbow mercenaries wandering around who would then keep running away because no training means NO TRAINING and no discipline.
    I think it was at Crecy that the French had some italian crossbow mercs and turned round to cut down their OWN fleeing mercenaries who were being outgunned by longbowmen.