I almost always have issues watching sword fights in movies or on TV, because I know a little bit about how to use a sword. I’ve actually demonstrated to actors a few of the differences between what looks great on stage and what would happen if someone tried that flashy stage move in a real swordfight. I haven’t done any real training in unarmed combat, aside from a few brief introductory sessions in boxing, judo and Taekwondo as a youngster, but I’ve long suspected the same general rule applies to movie fisticuffs. Guest-blogging at Charles Stross’s blog, Tricia Sullivan says if anything I’m underestimating the unreality of TV/movie fighting:
In my first post of this series I said I would talk about the depiction of personal combat in contemporary media. What I find most interesting here is the tendency to conflate stage-fighting with real fighting, and I am particularly impressed by the foolishness of movie-makers — who are themselves illusionists — when they are tricked by the illusionism of the martial arts into thinking they are showing something ‘real’ when in fact they are showing a martial art with only a tangential relationship to fighting
In a high-stress situation where a lot of sensory information is coming in very fast, the visual cortex can’t keep up. The brain has to make a guess about what’s going to happen next based on your opponent’s position and the early ‘cue’ at the beginning of a movement. This guess is informed by your past fighting experience; the more fighting experience you have, the better the guess. To my knowledge, the current understanding is that the myelination in cortical areas dealing with sensory information and motor response are only layered through specific experience, and there’s science suggesting that with increased practice, visual tracking will still take place after the response is initiated, enabling an expert to deal with a late correction. This offers some explanation for how a great tennis player can return a seemingly impossible serve.
But the point is that all of these responses are happening below the level of conscious thought; in fact, conscious thought would interfere with the sensorimotor response. A fighter may have a general plan, and metacognitively they may be watching themselves in action–and they will surely be anticipating their opponent moment-by-moment based on what is known about how the other fighter has behaved so far. But fighters don’t set up and run an extended series of moves like this any more than Federer looks at Nadal and says to himself, ‘There can be no emotion. Place service so that opponent returns ball three inches from the line on left side of court. Be waiting there for return of serve. Return opponent’s forehand, run to net sticking racquet out at angle of 60 degrees to hit line shot into back left corner. Dive across net to meet return and cunningly place ball six inches out of reach.’ Just no.
Of course I’m exaggerating. A little. The thing is, this scene isn’t just some fluff used in a movie for fun. It’s representative of the way self-protection and martial arts are often taught, with a ‘you do this, I do that’ approach that centers on pulling the correct technique out of a hat in answer to an incoming technique, often in series. A fight is too holistic and it changes too dynamically to reduce it to a game of playing cards. The approach is misleading and movies like this only serve to reinforce the misinterpretation of what’s going on in a fight.