Why La La Land Works

I think we can all agree that La La Land was pretty good, right? While I am only comfortable only saying that three of its record-equalling fourteen Academy Award nominations were justified (best director, musical score, and cinematography), it is still going to be remembered for years as not just the movie that nearly stole Moonlight‘s Best Picture win, but also on its own merits of being a stupendously good film.

Most of the pre-Oscar buzz was that it didn’t deserve most of its nominations because it was just pandering to Hollywood. I can see where that line of thought comes from; Hollywood has shown time and time again that making films about Hollywood will net you a good couple of nominations and wins if you play it right. Remember The Artist from 2012? It did the exact same thing, but going back to the Silent Era rather than the Golden Age of musicals like La La Land did. However, I disagree that La La Land got its Oscars by just being a throwback to when Hollywood was the only market in the world.

The nominations idea would only make sense if everyone outside of Hollywood did not enjoy it. I can safely say that’s not the case. Personally, I gave it 10/10 and went to go see it twice, something which I never did in my stint as a film critic. I have a different theory for why it became so popular and not just that it has been so long since we’ve seen an truly dyed-in-the-wool musical. Heck, Disney has been reliably been doing that since the early 1990s. No, my theory entails going back to 1971 and the Dragon himself, Bruce Lee.

What Bruce Lee can teach us about La La Land

Why do we go see films? Sorry to throw such a philosophical question right at the start of a new section, but it does warrant thinking about for my analogy. I’ve thought up a few ideas; narrative, escapism, favourite actor, favourite director, great marketing or its been lauded as a classic by your friends, family, and critics. Those have been some I reasons I have gone to see films. But all of that can be boiled down into one word; spectacle.

Spectacle as been at the forefront of cinema since the conception of the film industry. People went mad when they saw a train pulling into a station on screen and started fleeing the cinema because they thought it was going to burst through the screen and flatten them all. Imagine when Al Jonson first started speaking in The Jazz Singer, people probably went mental over hearing sound and screen in sync with one another. For a more modern example, why do we pride ourselves on watching the most sick and depraved films we can find? Why do films like The Human Centipede Trilogy, A Serbian Film or Martyrs have an odd cultural capital around them? Why do we go and watch horror films, even though a lot of us hate the loud noises and flashing spooky faces? Spectacle. We love seeing things of screen that would be hard to replicate on stage, on television, or even in real life. Now onto Bruce Lee.

In a fascinating interview in 1971 with Pierre Berton, Bruce Lee discussed his blossoming acting career, his history with martial arts, and his personal philosophies. Even for non-martial artists, it is still an interesting watch to see one of the most clued-in men who ever lived give his wisdom on certain aspects of life. At the beginning of the interview Berton and Lee talk about the latter’s movie career and how most of it is translated for the wider Chinese audience (Lee spoke Cantonese while most of mainland China speaks Mandarin). Staring at 2:14 the conversation goes like this;

Berton: I gather in the movies made here, the dialogue is rather stilted anyway…

Lee: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, see to me, a motion picture is motion…

Berton: Yeah…

Lee: I mean, you gotta keep the dialogue down to a minimum.

Obviously Lee was talking about his own films. His films were to showcase his extraordinary abilities at martial arts, any story that was there was to just set up the next protracted hand-to-hand sequence. But I like his theory, the film is about motion and so should be reflected in the film.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good talkie movie. I think Casablanca is objectively the best film ever made and that is mostly people talking to one another in a bar or on an airstrip. But it is that something, that spectacle of seeing an incredible dance performed on screen, in La La Land‘s case in one take. Remember this tap dancing sequence? (For those who do not wish to be spoiled, don’t watch the clip)

This is exactly what Lee was talking about. It is the motion of Gosling and Stone, how in sync they are with their moves that makes it inherently watchable and enjoyable. That’s why if you YouTube that clip, you’ll find so many remakes or news clips about how influential it is. People love to see that spectacle and wish to recreate it. For another, look at any dance number Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed. Or if you want to go to the extreme, the fights scenes from The Raid or The Raid 2.

The two latter films are another great example of what Lee said, dialogue kept to a minimum so that we can see some gloriously choreographed fights. Fighting and dance are incredibly close; both require full body motion nearly at all times which is why they are so amazing to watch on screen. Edit: In an interview on BBC 5 Live, Gareth Evans, director of The Raid discussed how he would work out choreography to his fight scenes to music,

Kermode: …for me, the best of those [martial arts] movies…are closer to musicals, to dance numbers than anything else and that’s how they should be understood.

Evans: It is interesting you say that because when we are actually doing the choreography we clap along, we figure out what the rhythm is to the fight. So the idea between how long blocks before a punch is kind of like percussion…it takes on a certain musical form. (9:11).

Another famous martial artist, Jackie Chan, also follows this principle when he choreographs fight scenes. In commentary for the film Project A, film executive Bey Logan comments,

“…and there is a rhythm also, to the way shots are performed, and also the way they are edited. And Jackie said something very interesting, that the audience don’t know the rhythm there until it is NOT there.” (4:18).

Following on from that, the YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting mentions, “Jackie’s fight scenes have a distinct musical rhythm, a timing he sets out with the performers.” (4:29).

We get spectacle, either from seeing an excellent spring ball-change or a man getting hit in the face with a claw hammer. Both require a rhythm and endless practice, but once they are done filming they are some of the most electric scenes ever put to screen.

But anyway that’s my theory for why La La Land became such a big hit. It wasn’t just that it made a musical that could have stood up there with Singin’ In The Rain, but that fact that it played up to the motion part of the motion picture, with a performance that was more than just your average dance or action scene.

Martial Arts In Movies: Part One

I’ve been wanting to write something like this for a while. I’m a fanatic of martial arts, training in one form or another for nearly four years at the time of writing. I also love movies, with three of my top five personal favourites having martial arts in them.

I didn’t want to just write what my favourite fight scenes are (because that would just be me saying The Raid 2 over and over again). But more of what types of martial arts are in films, because the term “kung fu movie”, while very apt for when a certain martial artist was the main star, isn’t applicable anymore. Think of this more as a gallery of martial arts in films. I’ll do four to start, but we both know this will take quite a few posts.

Game Of Death – Jeet Kune Do

Game Of Death

Where else to start than the master himself, Bruce Lee. While many (including I) would rank Enter The Dragon as is best film, I chose Game Of Death for insight into Lee’s own martial art, Jeet Kune Do.

His first films (things like Fist of Fury and The Big Boss) were displays of the kung fu style Wing Chun, but Lee soon grew to dislike the confines of it, so decided to make his own martial art, blending whatever ones he liked the most. He created Jeet Kune Do (or Way Of The Intercepting Fist), a philosophy on fighting rather than a set of moves. And this is why I chose Game Of Death.

While Enter The Dragon also shows off Jeet Kune Do (or Jun Fan by its other name) the fights are more rigid, focussing mainly on trapping techniques rather than full fights. Game Of Death was created by Lee specifically for the purpose of showing Jeet Kune Do to the world.

Game Of Death‘s signature set-piece involves a pagoda filled with martial artists. Five floors were planned (only three were filmed) showing Lee and four allies fighting different styles; Hapkido, Praying Mantis Kung Fu, Kali/Escrima, whatever the hell Kareem Abdul Jafar was doing and then an unknown one at the top. The plan was for the four allies to fall away, showing the limitations of their styles and showing Jeet Kune Do to be the best around.

Since Lee died during filming, only half of the film got made, until frequent Lee collaborator Robert Clouse eventually cobbling together a half-baked scheme about the Mafia wanting to employ Bruce Lee’s character. But the surviving pagoda sequences are a great showcase of Jeet Kune Do by its creator.

Picture: Lee vs. Kareem Abdul Jafar in Game Of Death (1978).

Jason Bourne Series – Kali/Escrima/Arnis

Bourne_&_Jarda

Many people confuse Jason Bourne’s signature fighting style with Krav Maga. This is incorrect. True, to an untrained eye it may look like Krav Maga (and it doesn’t help that some Krav teachers went and stole a bunch of moves from Kali and pretended they were Krav’s, but that’s an argument for another day). It’s in fact a Filipino martial art, which goes by many names but for the sake of brevity we’ll go with Kali.

Kali has been showcased in many films, including EquilibriumThe Book Of Eli and even 300 (yes, Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s homoerotic Spartan kill frenzy). But I chose to focus on Bourne mainly for the use of improvised weapons.

Kali is predominantly a weapons based form. Sticks and knives are what are used in training, but the movements learnt are easily applicable when picking up everyday objects. This is what the Bourne series in known for, Jason Bourne and company picking up whatever is around them and using it to both defend themselves and kill their opponent.

Scenes such as the “Pen fight” in Identity (the pen swapped out for a knife) or the “Magazine fight” in Supremacy (the rolled up magazine replacing the stick) perfectly show this weapon-based and improvisational aspect to Kali. The third film, Ultimatum, shows off Panantukan, the empty-hand focus of Kali. This is seen in the Bourne vs. Desh fight, with the use of books, hand towels and ash-trays being picked up and used the exact same as fighting with sticks and knives.

Picture: Bourne vs. Jarda in The Bourne Supremacy (2004).

The Raid/The Raid 2 – Silat

raid2kitchen

I really couldn’t pick between them, so we’ll just go with both. The Raid reset the standards of both an action movie and a martial arts movie. Seeing as no-one saw director Gareth Edwards first Silat (pronounced See-Lat) based film Merantau, The Raid was many people’s first introduction to the form.

Found all throughout Southeast Asia but with Indonesia most commonly thought of as it’s home-place, Pencak (Pen-Chak) Silat (to give it it’s full name) has several different variations depending on regions and styles. Much like certain styles in Kung Fu, it can be based on the movements of animals. It’s main focus is split between ground-work as well as strikes, mostly using the elbows and knees. Interesting fact, Pencak Silat actually pre-dates Islam. When Islam became the predominant faith in Indonesia, it merged with Silat, creating forms that are based on ideas and activities in Islam, for example, washing hands before prayer. But anyway, let’s get on to the films.

The Raid while chiefly a display of Silat actually uses several different styles. This was mainly to give variety to the fight scenes. For example, Joe Taslim, who plays Sergeant Jaka was a professional Judo fighter. Also, there are several scenes involving police batons and knives where Kali principles are used. But for the main fights, Silat was used. And to speed up making the film by not teaching actors choreographed moves, they went and just got the choreographers to play the main roles of the film.

I’m in the minority that likes The Raid 2 more than the original, but it comes down to want you want out of a film. If you want non-stop action, then The Raid is better. It’s 90 minutes and nearly the entire film is action. The Raid 2 did a Goodfellas/The Departed undercover gangster story and stretched the run-time to two and a half hours, but upped the ante for fights. We get the protracted hand-to-hand sequences but also claw hammers (a nod to another martial arts action film, Oldboy) as well as aluminium baseball bats and a Karambit knife, highly identifiable by it’s curved blade. Karambit’s aren’t designated to a singular martial art (most reports claim it to be a Filipino weapon, so possibly Kali) but it is widely used in Silat.

Picture: Uco vs. The Assassin in The Raid 2 (2014).

Ip Man – Wing Chun

ip_man_3_01

To finish, we’ll come full circle and talk about Bruce Lee’s first martial art, Wing Chun. But the story of Ip Man (Ip, not I.P.) is actually about Bruce Lee’s mentor.

Wing Chun belongs under the umbrella term Kung Fu, and is notable for being created by a woman mainly for women to protect their households when the men were away at battle. It is recognisable by the incredibly close-quarters fighting and the Wing Chun punch style, which allows a volley of punches to be fired off in quick succession.

While there is three Ip Man films, the first one is the best for a good representation of the art. The other ones, while alright, have some odd editing choices in fights or have elements of Wire Fu in them (Wire Fu, the technical term for films like Crouching Tiger or House Of Flying Daggers that use wires to allow for superhuman fighting).

While Ip Man uses Wing Chun, we get also a small variety of other styles. None are easily identifiable to me (sorry!) but through dialogue we learn that they are all Southern Chinese Styles. The sequel is easier identifiable, with Dragon and Praying Mantis being used in the Martial Arts Society sequence. Back to the first film though, as the story is set in the Sino-Japanese War, where one of the invading Japanese General’s takes a keen interest in Chinese Arts, and so pits them against his own men, all Karate fighters.

During the highlight of the first Ip Man, we see the brutality and speed of Wing Chun used on ten Karate practitioners at once. It’s probably the best scene of the film, showcasing the trapping techniques common in Wing Chun as well as the Wing Chun punch on a downed opponent.

Picture: Ip Man training in Ip Man 3 (2015).

End

I’ve only scratched the surface of different martial arts in movies. If you have any suggestions what martial arts should be in future posts, drop them in a comment. If I have missed out or said something wrong about an art, again, send a comment and I’ll change it. Thanks for reading!