Madeleine Robins

November 16, 2014

Fight Scenes: Time Dilation

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 2:08 PM
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Sabre Fight from The Duellists

I saw Interstellar last week, a hugely ambitious, very heady film about…oh, kind of everything.  The future of the human race. Striving. Time. Love. Space. Loneliness. Duplicity. Ecology. Parenthood. It’s beautiful to look at (well, Christopher Nolan) and well acted, and curiously soggy in places when Nolan attempts to be genuinely affecting.  And the dialogue is mixed so low in places that I swear I missed some important plot points (when you’re married to a sound engineer you learn to notice these things). Overall I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it warrants the kind of ecstasy that greeted Inception (or even the Batman films).  I give Nolan points for trying, and it’s useful to know that even a smart smart person can make a film that is a mixed success.

But it got me thinking about time, and how time acts in certain circumstances.  Or rather, how we perceive time in certain circumstances. Which, of course led me to thinking about writing fight scenes.

No, stay with me.  There’s a link.  The photo above is from The Duellists, one of the most beautifully fight-choreographed movies ever. It’s about two soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars who, over a period of fifteen years, fight in an ongoing duel (using pretty much every form of weapon available to them).  It was Ridley Scott’s first film, and the choreography is by William Hobbs, who also did the choreography for the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, and for Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers (and Ladyhawke and Shakespeare in Love, and… Hobbs is really good. If you’re interested in sword play at all, seek his work out). One of the things I love about Hobbs’s work is that he uses the setting.  If there’s mud, or uneven ground, it’s going to feature in the fight (that magnificent farce of a fight on the ice in Four Musketeers, for example).  And unlike a lot of fight choreographers and directors these days, Hobbs’s fights are generally measured enough, and shot with enough distance, that you can see who’s doing what to whom. One of my chiefest irritations, in watching scenes of choreographed violence, is when the camera gets right in there and you can’t parse the action. Drives me nuts.

Except.  There’s always an except.  At the same time that what I think of as the churning-metal school of fight choreography and filming irritates me, it does represent, much more than the full-screen shots, the furious insanity of physical crisis, the way that time breaks into two pathways.

Ever been in a car accident?  Time speeds up so fast that you can’t tell what’s going on.  It’s like being on the inside of a blender, watching as the world whirls around you.  At the same time, time slows to a crawl, and you find yourself thinking about what’s going on.  At least, that’s my experience, and it works for fight scenes and scenes of physical danger, too.  The best film representation I’ve seen of this is in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, where time shifts between the furious chaos of a fist fight and Holmes’s mathematical plotting out of how he’s going to bring his opponent down.  Two timelines, intimately intertwined.

Don’t believe it?  I’ve had it work in my own life.  Mumbledy years ago I was going to a friend’s house for dinner.  As I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time and it was November, it was dark.  As the friend I was going to visit was interested in costuming, and I had been given a beautiful, very sharp knife to wear with a costume, I had the knife in my pocket to show my friend.  So: dark street, me trotting along, when I am mugged.  Faster than I could realize what was happening, I was rolling on the asphalt of the street with my assailant, tussling per who was going home with my purse, while my mugger’s buddy was keeping a lookout and instructing his friend to “hurry up, man.”  The physical part of the confrontation probably took less than a minute, at the end of which he ran off with my bag.

During that maybe-60 seconds, as I was rolling around on the ground with this guy, I was also thinking. Clearly.  With a weird sort of cool rationality that I only seem to attain in a crisis:

  • I have a knife.
  • I could pull the knife.
  • I don’t want to kill this guy unless my life is at stake
  • I don’t think my life is at stake, just my purse
  • If I pull the knife and don’t use it, this guy might take it away from me
  • And he might not have my scruples about using it
  • Okay, then, no knife
  • Is there anything in my bag I cannot immediately replace?
  • Not really
  • Okay, then.  Let him take the bag

At which point I released my hold on the bag and he ran away.  Deeply shaken, but not hurt, I went to my friend’s house, called the cops, and had half an hour of shaking horrors.  But the moment I let go of my bag and the mugger ran away, time returned to its normal flow.

Writing a fight scene should include all of this stuff: the breathless chaos, the weirdly clear thinking, choreography that lets you, the writer, know where all the body parts of all the players are at any moment, without the characters necessarily being aware of it.  A fight is a physical event, and a mental event.  And sometimes, as the phrase goes, time stands still, even if your characters don’t.

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