JOHN MEANEY

22.10.05

CAPED CRUSADER

So as I sit here writing in my superhero costume... Well, no, I’m not that sad. Or am I? The last part of today’s writing stint had me on the edge of my seat. That might be partly due to a thrilling story – I’d like to think so – while another factor might have been the little orange-and-white pussycat who was occupying most of my chair. (Does that make me sad?) If you think I’m soft, the only factor I know of that can stop Charlie Stross from delivering more exciting words at a blistering pace is when one of his cats falls asleep on his hands. (I haven’t seen it happen, but I’ve heard of it.)

In the UK it’s Batman day plus one, with the DVD of Batman Begins out on sale. Yvonne and I watched it at home last night. I saw the movie when it was on general release, in a modest movie theater in Connecticut. I liked it then, and I like it now.

I’m gathering my thoughts on movie violence and martial arts for a forthcoming interview, so I might as well mull over my reactions now. Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger – have I got the title right? You know which one I mean – is not a favourite of mine. I’m now in my thirty-fourth year of martial arts training (and how did that happen?) and I’ve not yet floated up into a tree or dangled in the air while delivering kicks to five opponents. Wirework was exactly the right technique for the Matrix, because the whole point was that the characters were caught in a visual reality, a game scenario that felt tangible but wasn’t. In other movies, I’d rather see some realism, thanks.

The Bourne Identity and the Bourne Supremacy got it right. There was a scene in the first movie where Bourne uses a rolled-up magazine as a weapon. In the cinema where I watched it, a group of young men found that hilarious, whereas I and the two veteran martial artists I was with (one also ex-special forces) were mightily impressed. The featured martial discipline was escrima, by the way, which I’ve only ever trained in during a jeet kune do seminar conducted by the famous Dan Inosanto (Bruce Lee’s main man, and the guy responsible for Lee’s approach to training becoming an art in its own right). Escrima’s knife disarms are awesome and don’t involve grabbing, but they are sophisticated moves – at least the ones I experienced were sophisticated – and to me that implies constant practice is required to nail them down as reflexes. (They don’t work for me because I don’t practice them, but they sure as heck work for Dan Inosanto.)

An art whose training methods map immediately into simple street-effective defence, particularly for anyone who trains already in a striking art (karate, boxing, kickboxing, taekwondo etc.) is krav maga. That’s the Israeli fighting system which has obviously been proven in real situations... so you could argue that its effectiveness is due to all the wrong reasons. But it is effective.

In Batman Begins, the fighting art is the Keysi Fighting Method.

Keysi is pronounced Casey, which I hadn’t known until I watched the Extra Features DVD. I’ve read about the art, though, and seen some photos. I’m not entirely sure, but I believe that one of the art’s two founders has a jeet kune do background, and that he was there during that Dan Inosanto seminar I attended. The fighting style is very different from anything most people will have seen, including agile moves from all angles, and an innovative use of elbow techniques (which are hugely devastating when wielded by thai boxers or by karateka – karate fighters – who’ve trained properly). For those who’ve seen a lot of arts, there are influences from the Malaysian silat styles, and also from the eclectic American style known as Jailhouse Rock, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a survival method developed by American convicts. I’m not kidding.

Anyway, I don’t plan on visiting a jailhouse anytime soon, thanks all the same, but the Keysi Fighting Method (or simply KFM) looks good to me. If I get a chance to investigate it hands-on, I’ll let you know. For sure, Christopher Nolan and the other folk involved in Batman Begins were impressed, since they featured it so heavily on the DVD.

Does any of this have any bearing on my books and stories? Actually, yes. Dan Inosanto pointed out that escrima, while largely a striking (not grappling) art, has no focus (in the particular sense in which I want to use that word: in Japanese one says ‘kime’). In karate and other striking arts, focus involves tensing the striking limb and usually the entire body, turning it into a rigid weapon in other to poleaxe the opponent. It’s hugely effective, but only if that tension is for a fraction of a second, just on impact. (Otherwise you’re tensing agonist and antagonist muscles simultaneously, and slowing yourself down. Taken to the extreme, that means standing like a statue while you have a little isometric workout. Not the done thing in the midst of a fight.) Now, most martial artists would tend to think – I reckon – that striking arts are about focus and grappling arts are about flow. I realized, after reading an interview with Guro Insosanto and then training with him, that those ideas are limiting. Like yin-yang, every technique from a throw to an elbow strike can mix appropriate amounts of flow and focus... Hence the fighting art that Tom learns (which has been influenced by Pilots and developed by some of their ordinary human undercover agents, though that’s not explicit in Paradox or the sequels) is called flow/focus, with an alternative fancy name of phi2dao, which of course means pretty much the same thing.

Also, KFM’s use of space and agility reminds me an awful lot of the Pilots’ fighting. One of the images in my mind when I concocted the first real fight scene with a Pilot – the one that Tom witnesses at the beginning of Paradox – was the way that shotokan expert Dave Hazard moves. He’s at such a high level that his expression of the art is a style in its own right, and he does in fact flow in such a manner, though it’s not the way the average shotokan dojo trains. (I once watched Sensei Hazard slap around a huge muscular third dan as easily as if the guy had been a child.) Such are my formative moments!

Blimey... Anyone would think the disparate parts of my life were beginning to integrate into some kind of coherent whole.

Oh, did you notice that Christopher Nolan begins shooting next year on the movie of The Prestige? Blimey again. I didn’t know that until Martin Sketchley told me.

As for DVDs... I mentioned that I watched Batman Begins at home, but what I meant was, on a laptop. I finally gave in and bought a DVD player a few months back, now that they’re really cheap. When I took it home, I found there was nowhere on the TV to plug the thing in... Our telly is too old to have a SCART socket.

And the moral is... If you want to be a writer, television should be of really, really low importance in your life. If you don’t believe me, believe Stephen King. (And read his book, On Writing.) But I will get round to getting a new set, any year now. Then I can re-watch my Firefly DVDs (thanks Chris and Penny!) the way they deserve. I liked Serenity loads. I hope you managed to see it.

The sky outside is a little darker, and I have a date with a punchbag. Some kata practice first, though, since my choice is to combine both classical and contemporary training methods. As always, life is fun!

Be good to yourselves, Pilots. Stay calm, keep equilibrium, and flow as well as focus. (Resourcefulness grows out of that mix.) Ciao from the Labyrinth.

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