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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 16:13 GMT
Bare fists, flying bullets
By Clive James

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
And not a scratch on her
Meaningless violence can look great on screen, but in real life the bullets don't care who they hit and your highly-trained kickboxing feet turn into instruments for running away with, says Clive James.

A journalist who lives near Clapham High St in London recently wrote a piece in which he wondered why that famous street was turning into what he called a demilitarised zone. Judging from the context he so frighteningly evoked, I think he must have meant a militarised zone, but he could be excused for losing his grip on the English language.

Stray into the wrong side of that road and you can be in gangland. The now commonly canvassed idea that the nation's youth is sinking into a state of hopelessness just one step away from open warfare is hard to accept, but only if you haven't actually seen one young man being assaulted by a couple of others, or, more likely, by half a dozen others.

The best way not to see it is to live somewhere else. I myself spend a lot of time in south London, but so far it's the right part of south London. The chances of getting mown down in the cross-fire between permanently dazed crack-heads accusing each other of "disrespect" is still quite low.

Clive James
An art martial arts movie makes meaningless violence meaningful, or so we're told
Clive James
The only thing to be afraid of is that I might meet Danny on the bus. Danny, who has been named and shamed because Britain lacks the means to send him into orbit, is barely tall enough to nut you in the groin, but he has accumulated so many Asbos for meaningless violence that he is no longer allowed upstairs on the bus, where, apparently, his meaningless violence is especially likely to be unleashed.

As far as I can figure out on my pocket calculator, this altitude restriction on Danny's activities increases my chance of meeting him downstairs when I struggle aboard. Meaningless violence from Danny has driven a lot of people to fear for their sanity already and I'd hate to be in a position where I would have to use my martial arts skills on one so small.

Balletic violence

My martial arts skills were learned from martial arts movies. Nowadays, having attained the status of black belt with gold tassels and diamond clasp, I no longer need to watch these movies, but they're everywhere and some of them are disguised as art, so they can sneak up on you.

An art martial arts movie, or martial arts art movie, makes meaningless violence meaningful, or so we're told. I was able to test this claim all over again the other night, when, still shaking from a newspaper close-up of Danny's face, I accidentally tripped the switch on my television set's optical fibre sidereal satellite cable box and was confronted once again, on channel 723, with the allegedly classic martial arts movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Many film critics, not all of them on medication, think that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the acme, apex and apotheosis of the Chinese meaningful violence martial arts art movie, mainly because of the purportedly balletic beauty with which its featured personnel run up the sheer walls of the Forbidden City and along the treetops of the enchanted forest while slicing at each other with whirling swords made from fragments of a meteorite forged in the book-lined cave of a Confucian philosopher, with extra boiled rice.

Ancient Chinese swords, despite the legendary sharpness proved by their ability to puree a passing butterfly, rarely make contact with swordsmen, or swordswomen, in such a way that the victim loses a limb or even a little finger. Two opposing swordsmen or swordswomen - let's just call them swordspersons - will emerge untouched from a 15 minute stretch of virtuoso choreography, a pas de deux for interlocking whirlwinds.

If, after all that spinning, diving, somersaulting and grimacing, a sword strikes home, it makes only a small neat puncture which in no way lessens the loser's capacity to speak that special dialogue from the Orient that actually sounds more Chinese after it has been dubbed into English.

"Your skills are great," says Falling Snow.
"Your sword was quick," says Rising Cloud.
"Your quest is finished," says Passing Wind.

Passing Wind is Rising Cloud's mentor. Passing Wind is old, older than the hills, visible in the background for purposes of comparison. Yet he, too, can fly. He's been flying since before the Wright brothers. He's been flying since long before mainland China started turning out sword operas with flying people in them, and you probably remember him from the very first such epic that made an international hit: Flying People, Flagrant Piffle. He was a veteran even then, and by now he has run up every wall in China. All the young swordspersons fall to their knees before Passing Wind.

For a sword instructor who has been dodging rapidly rotating blades all his life, he is in good shape. Unbelievably good.

Bruce Lee
He beat all comers, but why didn't they return with guns?
The sub-genre of meaningfully violent martial arts art movies grew out of the sub-sub-genre of kickboxer movies. Ever since Bruce Lee was at the height of his histrionic powers back in the early 1970s, kickboxer movies have been coming out of Hong Kong like a trail of oil behind a sampan.

Those who believe that Liberace was a better actor than Bruce Lee tend to neglect the fact that Bruce, though unable to narrow his eyes without flaring his nostrils and vice versa, had hidden powers of hypnosis. A dozen assailants, strangely unequipped with guns, would corner Bruce in a car park behind the studio and sportingly give away their numerical advantage by running at him one at a time, shouting so as to ensure that he could see them coming and kick each one of them in the chin with the sound of a slamming door.

As each assailant reeled back stunned to be replaced by the next, a close-up on Bruce's face revealed that his narrowed eyes and flared nostrils had been joined by pursed lips. Try it with your own face and you'll find it isn't easy, but when I saw my first Bruce Lee movie in its place of origin, Hong Kong, the whole audience was doing it.

Jobs prove that you can have a salary and still feel powerless - and what do we dream of when we're powerless? Having amazing personal martial skills
Needless to say, they were all young men, and suddenly I got the point. They were just ordinary, hard working stiffs in suits, like those many millions of Chinese young men everywhere in the world except in China, who had a good job and a mobile telephone.

Mobile telephones were as big as lunch-boxes in those days but the jobs were already proving that you could have a salary and still feel powerless. Soon, most of the jobs in the developed world would feel like that. And what do we dream of when we're powerless? We dream of having amazing personal martial skills.

Kung fu fighting

The same dream spread to the West, as it were, when Oriental martial arts started invading Hollywood B-movies. It was bad enough when they invaded television in the form of a long-running US series called Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a saintly Oriental figure who would withstand an hour of provocation by hoodlums armed with rocket launchers before he finally cut loose with the barefoot martial arts skills taught to him by a master even more ancient than Passing Wind.

Jean-Claude van Damme
Jean-Claude's face is a bodybuilder's bicep in worried search of its original arm
But it got worse when the saintly figure was Jean-Claude van Damme. Once again he didn't want to fight, but when bad people opened up on him with a four-barrelled 20mm cannon he was forced to kick them in the chin. Jean-Claude's face is a bodybuilder's bicep in worried search of its original arm but he looks like Bertrand Russell when compared to Chuck Norris.

With two eyes sharing the one socket, Chuck is an action hero whose countless movies kick their way straight to video. Master of every military weapon, Chuck would still rather fight bare-footed, which gives you a clue. Personal, stylised cinematic violence is really a way of giving you a holiday from the world in which guns are decisive.

Much further upmarket than Jean-Claude and Chuck, it happened again in An Officer and a Gentleman, when Richard Gere, who was born with narrowed eyes, was a trainee jet pilot who turned out to have kickboxing skills hitherto unsuspected until he and his girl were harassed by provocative hoodlums.

Soon he would be flying a Tomcat off the deck of the USS Nimitz with enough firepower under his wings to melt a city, but now he was kicking the eyebrows off a bunch of bar-room thugs. And they all picked themselves up and slunk off to their lairs, and not one of them came back with a gun.

And that's what the bare hands are all about, and it's even what the swords are all about. It's even what the movies with guns in them are all about, because Hollywood bullets swerve around the star and anyone on the feature list that the audience might like.

Real bullets don't do that. Real bullets don't care who they hit. Real bullets fired by a real gun turn your highly trained kickboxing feet into instruments for running away with - if you're lucky. You don't get to rise into the air, spin around, and elegantly kick the weapon from the nerveless fingers of the awed assailant.

It's a lie to suggest otherwise, and we could tie ourselves in knots worrying about how a free society can persuade its most powerful medium of entertainment to stop peddling drivel, but there's at least the bitter consolation that the people who most terrify us are probably the ones who spend least time watching exquisite mid-air ballets of acrobatic combat. They're out there on the lower deck of the bus, heading for the demilitarised zone.

A Point of View is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2050 on Friday and 0850 on Sunday.

Below is a selection of your comments:

What point is Clive trying to make with this article? Is he trying to tie the current anti social behaviour problems to the influnce of violence in films? Is he trying to resurrect the ghost of Mary Whitehouse? The majority of films, particularly action/martial arts films have very little basis in reality, and this is how they should be taken, as mindless entertainment, and if Clive James doesn't like it why is he watching?
Ed McIntosh, Cambridge

That's a pretty old argument- and I'd argue Hollywood is worse, followed closely by TV dramas. The main offender is the so called 'historical drama' where swords barely tickle the unwitting victim. However the audience can actually separate reality from entertainment, unlike Clive obviously. A good martial arts flick is as much about (eastern) symbolism as celebrating physical skill.
Andy, Bristol

Clive James column is priceless! How comforting to know that there is still sanity somewhere in this country. I propose Anne Widdecombe for Empress and Clive James for Prime Minister with immediate effect.
Graham Lumsden, Perth, Scotland

Clive, you obviously have no comprehension of the martial arts genre. We don't watch for meticulously developed storylines, characters or historical accuracy, we watch for action, pure exhilaration and fantasy with massive deliberate suspension of disbelief. However, if you would like all films to be purely realistic then people might as well just stop making films.
Ben, Nottingham

love the article. very funny. the point about the lack of realism in these movies is entirely valid. real fights usually last no more than a minute before one or more often both parties got seriously injured or puffed out. But the impact of these movies are different in the West from in the East, where there is a long tradition of stylised violence on stage and where there is certainly less random street violence from youngsters. So Clive might need to delve a bit deeper. Nevertheless, I'm all in favour of films showing the real impact (physical and psycological) of violence more.
kangda ren

It appears as if Mr James enjoys rambling about nothing before he actually gets to the point. If you are trying to make a point relating to the banning of violent movies then please, be my guest - just give it a rest with your holier-than-thou opinions of the calibre of them. I could summarise this article in a single sentence: "Its a jungle out there."
Eddy Loughton, Reading, England

Wow...just wow. Mr James, you are surely the expert on meaningless drivel if this article is anything to go by. This rambling rubbish is the sort of thing I'd expect to read in The Daily Mail, with it's hand-wringing terror of yob violence and accusing finger pointed at violent movies. You also seem to make the common error of confusing reality and fiction. Please tell me this is irony and that I've missed the point, because any randomly selected five minutes of Crouching Tiger displays more artistry than can be found in the last ten years of British cinema.
Rob Sykes, Tipton

Flying People Flagrant Piffle! Having long been mystified as to why anyone would regard the nonsense that is Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as a satisfying cinematic experience on any level, I find Clive James analysis witty and insightful as ever.
Derek Morison, Stirling

As a martial arts student I find your coments to be based on the naive view that anyone trained in such skills then goes out of their way to put them to use. I am a reasonable middle aged man who, if faced by a young thug with a gun,can calculate that he probably has the advantage. I could accept the "media to blame" argument a little more if Clive were to draw attention to the gun culture projected in certain musical genres such as hip hop and gangsta rap. Although it has to be said that Westlife has often made me want to use my martial skills on the CD. Guns, regretably, are now seen as a fashion accessory by a growing disaffected portion of our youth.
David Jones, Tamworth

They're films Clive, get over it. We can't really fly off to distant start like in science fiction films. Dialogue was almost certainly never as cheesy as historical films make out. I've never yet managed to meet a werewolf or other horror film staple. Real life violence is scary and not the sort of thing you'd want to pay to see in a cinema. Watching a hero single-handedly defeat 200 heavily armed warriors using only a spoon and a roll of gaffer tape, however, makes great entertainment.
Peter, London

Is that really all Clive has to say about violent films? He seems to forget IT'S NOT REAL!! Just like those rubbish old WWII films are mostly based on fiction, and the Cowboys and Indians films and all sorts of other movies. Get with it Clive, you're starting to sound like Mary Whitehouse
Dunc, Telford, Shropshire

I was taught martial arts for years by a great instructor. He always said that martial arts was a great way to keep fit enough to run away at high speed.
Gavin, Exeter

Violence is part of human nature, and part of nature in general. In our comfortable western existence we might not like it but that's reality. Violence in films, however realistic or non-realistic, is simply one of many avenues for expressing this nature that we have created for ourselves in our safe existence.
Andrew, Portsmouth

What's with the Mary Whitehouse comparisons? Where does the author say that violence in films should be banned? The point is that kung fu films are usually bad art, and he's right.
David, Edinburgh / London

It seems many of the respondents have missed the point. I don't believe Clive is focussing on film as the catalyst for real world violence. Neither is aimlessly insulting the martial arts genre due to its fantasy element. To me, through humour and insight, Clive is reminding us that stylised, benign, cinematic violence - the type we most commonly come in contact with - anesthetises us to the reality of violence, which is horrific, terrifying and inexplicable. Yes, we can harmlessly escape into fantasy whilst enjoying these films, but does this come at a cost? In conditioning ourselves in this way that violence is safe, noble and predictable, do we intellectually separate ourselves from the danger and suffering endemic in our society, and therby, through blindness, aid and abet it?
Mathew Mackenzie, Folkestone, Kent

I usually agree with Clive on his views but not this one I'm afraid! I feel that by using this comparison to highlight the idiocy of a few is wrong. Yes Martial Arts films do show random, wanton violence in the name of art but the entire point of the Martial Arts is to teach self discipline and to look after the people around us. The films themselves are flights of fantasy and should remain so.
mark taylor, Bolton

This is Clive Jame at his best. In each verbal lunge you can hear his dead-pan intonation as he builds a case, finally releasing a withering put-down in the last phrase. Brilliant stuff.
Ken Lambert, Halesowen, UK

I have disarmed a man with a gun using my training - just goes to show that there are no absolutes, eh Clive?
MartialMan, Leeds

On the other hand, some movies are more realistic when it comes to swords. Look at something like Rob Roy (1995) or Braveheart (1995). Such movies show the raw brutality and pain of fighting with swords, and there is nothing "stylish" in them.
Verklarung, Somerset

I really enjoyed reading this article, but at the end I couldn't work out the point Clive was trying to make, apart from that he doesn't like action films. Isn't it over-simplifying just a tad to blame society's troubles on the arts, be it film or music?
Toby, Newbury, Berkshire

Get a grip people! Much like the Martial Arts movies he's commenting on Clive isn't being totally serious. His comments are tongue-in-cheek, funny and entertaining. Just like the Martial Arts movies.
Phill Watson, Manchester


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