Sunday, July 23, 2006
This post was inspired by the release of My Super Ex-Girlfriend starring Luke Wilson and Uma Thurman. No, I haven't seen the movie, Nor do I plan to see it. But on my last outing to the movies, I was subjected to the preview of this dreck. The plot is boy meets girl, Boy breaks up with girl. Boy discovers girl is a superhero with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal girlfriends. Then she uses her powers to harass her ex-boyfriend. The inspirational moment in the preview was a scene of the superheroine flinging a Great White Shark into his apartment after discovering him in bed with another woman.
"Oh," I thought midway through the flight of the shark, "It's another vagina dentatus."
Vagina Dentatus is a psychological/literay term for the symbolic fear of immasculation. It literally mean "vagina with teeth." "Vagina" is Latin for "sheath," and was a common word as well as slang term for female anatomy. Thus, every Roman soldier had a vagina. Sorry, old Classicist joke... The idea for the vagina dentatus image is self-explanatory. It is a symbol of castration and immasculation; a manifestation of the male adolescent fear of women and the sexual act. Like most psycho-literary devices, it is best used as a subtle symbol. The maelstrom Scylla in The Odyssey, which employs a running sub-plot of the tempatations of infidelity, is a subtle use of the image. Even the shark in Jaws evokes the vagina dentatus as one of the many primordial fears it evokes.
Super Women flinging a Great Whites into the hot bed of an ex-lover is hardly subtle.
Perhaps the greatest movie exploring the vagina dentatus theme is Predator. Yes, I'm serious.
On the surface, predator is the story of a commando team sent on a jungle rescue mission. After they complete their raid, they are hunted by a mysterious warrior who turns out to be an extraterrestrial big game hunter. Clearly it is an update of the short story "The Most Dabgerous Game" or perhaps Beowulf.
Our commando team are all buff, macho men belonging to an exclusive fraternity of men. They are all warrior archetypes, the quintessential masculine role. Among them are various sub-types: the mystic, the nerd, the leader, the rivel, the stoic, the braggart. We are given an initial view of them being very good at what they do, so long as they stay within their all-male world.
At the camp, in the aftermath of their scorched earth attack, they encounter a woman guerilla. They capture her ostensibly for her intelligence value, but we are never given any evidence that she knows anything of value, and they make no serious attempt to question her. But it is only after this woman is taken -- by force -- into the male group that trouble plagues the team.
There are three quick scenes after the woman's capture that mark the transition to the bulk of the story. in one scene, two commandos share a bawdy joke, tellingly the punchline of the joke is about female sexual anatomy. In the next scene, two commandos have a tense moment in which one believes for a split second he is about to be stabbed from behind-- a symbolically (homo-)sexual attack. Instead, one commando is killing a scorpion which had crawled onto the second commando. The scorpion is important, because as the commandos fade into the jungle, it provides an important image for the final transition scene.
This third trasition is the first time we encounter the monster, although we view the scene through the monster's heat-vision. The monster comes down into the devastated camp, replaying snippets of the overheard conversations. The monster then picks-up the dying scorpion. The monster's heat-vision, the outline of the scorpion resembles an x-ray view of a uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries and we watch it grow cold and black right in front of our eyes.
The first commando to die is the Geek. This is the one we would expect to be most vulnerable to a predatory female power. He is killed while chasing after the woman in an escape attempt. The next commando to die is the braggart, who carries the largest and most potent weapon (i.e. phallic symbol) in the squad. During this encounter, the monster is briefly seen, and the commandos manage to wound it while unleashing an otherwise futile "mad minute" of firepower.
The only person to realize the monster is wounded is the woman. She links herself to the monster by touching its strange blood trail, then wiping it on her pants. This act calls to mind the menstrual cycle.
Basically, the team is killed off one-by-one. They bring all their manly skills to the problem but nothing works. Big guns and knives come into play for more phallic imagery, but still the monster beats them. During a lull in this action, the woman reveals she knows something about the monster. Local legend recognizes the hunters as "the demon who makes trophies of men." This links the woman even closer to the monster, and even specifies the threat as being aimed at men.
Really, the last crucial thematic moment comes near the end of the movie and caps all that came before. The leader is alone in fighting the monster in primitive, hand-to-hand combat. The monster doffs the helmet/mask it has been hiding behind and reveals its most intimate self to the leader. The face is pale, the eyes are so small as to be inconsequential. The most prominent feature is its hideous, slash-like mouth -- it resembles nothing som much as a vagina with pointy teeth and grasping claws that pull things in and do not let go. The leader's words are classic and sexually charged: "You're one, ugly motherf*cker."
The leader, of course wins. Which could be viewed as the eventual triumph of mature masculinity over the adolescent fear of the sexual -- or it might be simple Hollywood storytelling. Regardless, Predator uses the vagina dentatus as the organizing principle. This is a fight between sexual roles and fears.
I know -- assuming you've read this far. You're thinkig there is no way this was intentional. You're probably right. But that is why it works. They couldn't set out to make a movie about the vagina dentatus and make it half as well. In fact, one of the reasons this theme pulls together so well is the design of the monster's face. In fact, the monster design wasn't finalized until near the end of shooting. The now familiar Predator monster was a compromise the production team was originally unhappy with.
Another clue that Hollywood didn't realize what it made is that the Predator monster -- which is objectively sexless -- became a masculine symbol of warrior power (exactly what it fought and mocked) in future incarnations. The last movie even pitted the masculine power symbol Predators against the feminine power symbol Aliens (which are an embodiment of a nightmare vision preganacy, birth, motherhood and family in the sickest of ways).
I was watching my DVD of Batman Begins last weekend, when I finally got around to watching the extras on disc 2. There is a great short feature on the fight choreography for the movie. As we have already discussed at length on this site, Bruce Wayne is trained in a secret ninja training facility somewhere in Tibet -- or Bhutan, as the extras on the DVD point out. But how many of you have even heard of Bhutan? Oh, and while I'm at it, let me drop this controversial quote from a kung fu website into our old debate: "Upon release, he makes his way to the Himalayas, climbs a mountain, winds up with the League of Shadows, bumps into Ducard, and Ducard tells him that they are all ninjas. What would have been neater and geographically correct would be for Ducard to explain that they are a remnant of the Chinese Forest Devils that existed in South China, the true progenitor of the ninja. (?) Then having a group of assassins who look and fight like ninjas but live in the Himalayas wouldn't have been a stretch. Likewise, the training sequences would have made more sense since Bruce undergoes Shaolin pole training, where people fight on top of tall wooden logs hammered into the ground as seen in Donnie Yen's IRON MONKEY."
Unfortunately, the fighting system used for the fight scenes is not genuine ninjutsu (or to be more accurate, taijutsu). Instead, the producers turned to a far newer style called the Keysi Fighting Method. The short on the DVD is great and makes the Keysi look really dynamic. But then, it has to be photgenic or they wouldn't have used it for the movie, or devoted valuable DVD space on the short. Keysi in action looks a bit like Thai Kickboxing without the kicking. It's all close range, brutal elbows being swung into exposed portions of the adversary. The fighting, at least in the video, is done mostly at trapping range.
Keysi was developed by two friends, one of them trained in the Bruce Lee tradition of Jun Fan kung fu, Jeet Kune Do and the Filipino arts. The other is English, which accounts for the penchant for close-range head butting, I'm sure. Beyond Hollywood, I've never heard anything about this art, but it sure looks cool. But can it deliver the goods outside of a carefully arranged fight sequence?
My ten minute exposure to this system was tantalizing. The instructor offered a handful of techniques that seemed promising, but were not revolutionary to pressure point techniques I'd previously seen. Let me say this, all of the techniques would work. But I have to admit, I was skeptical of the truly devastating effects that promised to shut down organs.
The one-touch knock-outs, on the other hand, seemed to be a real possibility, because they would likely cause a concussion. (Now, allow me to digress for a moment... I was talking about the demonstration with some classmates, and there was some confusion about what is a concussion. I thought it was a "brain bruise." Someone else thought it was a hairline fracture of the skull. So I thought it best to look it up. One reference called a concussion a "traumatic vibration of the brain." Here's what Wikipedia says about a concussion. Despite my confusion, my assessment that the Dillman techniques would cause a concussion still stands.)
As I conclude, let me emphasize that a ten minute demonstration is hardly going to give a fair view of a full martial arts system, so I'm afraid that I'm not going to resolve any controversy over the issue of one-touch knock-outs, organ shutdowns, body meridians, chi channeling, or anything else. All I can say is, I was intrigued. Sure, the rational part of my brain grasped at reasonable explanations -- it even found some -- but that doesn't mean something else isn't afoot.
Actually, one of the things I've been working on in my own training is more careful listening and observation. It wasn't until sometime after the opportunity to see this demonstration that I realized I wasn't listening carefully enough because I was too busy thinking. Maybe I'll do better next time. But in the meantime, I'm going to retreat into my vast martial arts library to read-up on Okinawan karate, Ki, Chinese medicine, and pressure points fighting.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Genghis Khan has an extremely bad reputation in the West. But if you look at his achievements first, and then consider even his warlike behavior in comparison to our Western historical figures, he actually comes off pretty good.
Genghis Khan rose from being dirt poor, literally eating vermin to keep his family alive, to ruling the largest Empire ever conquered by a single man. His immediate goals were to unite the nomad tribes of the Mongols and secure their prosperity. He did this with a certain degree of ruthlessness, to be sure, but he was always fair and stuck to his word. He frequently offered peace and alliance to his enemies. If they submitted without a fight and swore allegiance to him, no harm would befall them and he would ensure they were treated as equals.
Having been poor, he always treated the lowest classes with dignity and fairness. He instituted a merit system of advancement, and most of his generals were common-born men who proved they could lead. His general Subotai is an example of this merit system in action, and also an example of the great trust he placed in his men. Subotai was given free command of an army and covered 90 degrees longitude as he sped across Asia and into Europe in two years. Then he returned home. This was an unprecedented feat. It took the Romans nearly 400 years to conquer the territory Genghis Khan and his generals conquered in 25. Mongol armies, sometimes even the same men, fought both European knights and Japanese Samurai; and neither the Europeans or Japanese even knew of each other's existence.
Genghis Khan was a firm believer in trade and education. After conquering an area, he would take time to interview the scholars and sages. The evidence indicates he enjoyed speaking with these people, and more importantly, he put their ideas into action to administer his new empire, or provide engineering services for his army.
The learned engineers of conquered China helped transform the Mongol army from horse archers to skilled siege masters, the weakness in steppe warrior experience that for centuries had relegated them to raid and retreat tactics. The scholars helped codify a simple, but broadly satisfying legal code. Genghis Khan's law included religious tolerance, free trade, and care for the elderly.
Believe it or not, Genghis Khan outlawed torture. This innovation did not last beyond two generations of his dynasty, but it was strictly adhered to during his reign. He also was careful to protect diplomatic envoys in his care, and expected the same courtesy in return. More than one war began when Mongol envoys were mistreated (i.e. killed and mutilated) when they were sent abroad.
Genghis Khan's fearsome reputation is a legacy of his adventure out of Central Asia into the firmly Muslim lands of Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Here he discovered a redoubtable enemy, and began the scorched earth policy that we now associate with the words "Mongol Horde." It was the Persians who called him a "scourge of God." The Arabs and Persians fought bitter campaigns to the last man, and Genghis Khan sought to crucsh this stiff resistence. The few cities which surrendered and accepted the benovolent rule of the Mongols took the trust to be a sign of weakness and erupted into open rebellion. The Mongols reurned to these rebel cities and wiped them from the face of the earth, trampling the buildings into the earth and killing all who opposed them.