Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fist City

Loretta Lynn will hurt you. 

There is something about this song that is incredibly satisfying. It is self righteous and powerful, without losing a provocatively cool sweetness, yet it ultimately promises real and possibly ugly violence. In fact, the violence implied by these lyrics is palpable, becoming its own space: "fist city" is a place that you could wind up, a place where Loretta Lynn is going to "grab you by the hair 'a your head and lift you offa the ground..."

I love this song and am a big fan of Loretta Lynn. I think a major element of what makes this particular song so appealing is its ability to invoke a sense of personal power through controlled, justified violence. When we hear a song like this, watch a fight scene in a film, or read a passage in a book that happens to take place in "fist city," we become fascinated by the control with which something scary-- and unpredictable and perhaps uncontrolled-- is being portrayed to us. The feeling we get from this controlled depiction of violence is different than watching, say, an artless bar brawl, which is sloppily uncontrolled and likely not initiated under the auspices of a struggle between Good and Evil.

Growing up on kung fu movies (that my brother watched forward and backward so many times I began learning Mandarin), I have always enjoyed a good fight scene.

This clip from the movie "Kids from Shaolin" has all of the elements of a good fight scene. (How were bullies defeated before the days of Facebook? Flying kicks. Duh.) Those important elements include: an underdog who represents humility and honor, an adversary who thinks they are undefeatable, and a great amount of fighting skill--exhibited by both the bad guy and the good guy--to make it interesting.

Magda says "bring it" in Soulstring by
Midori Snyder
There are so many superb fight scenes in literature to chose from it's a little overwhelming. I immediately think of my favorite heroines, kicking ass in a whole host of different fantastic worlds.

Aerin of The Hero and the Crown (1984) was probably my first love, as I read the book as a child. Making fire-proofing kennet, slaying dragons, saving the day with her blue sword, and having the most dreamy man (Luthe--yes, I had a total crush on him) fall in love with her... I want to cheer just thinking about it!

Then there is Magda of Soulstring (1987) which I read fresh out of high school. She is a complete badass, freeing herself of the forces of an oppressive patriarch (her father), with the tender gaze of her husband --who's been turned into a stag-- to keep her company. There are so many great fight scenes in this little novel-- all of which solicit more cheers from me!

Then in college, I read Tolkien's masterpieces, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy with their epic battle scenes, exciting in the novels and brought to life recently on the big screen.

Don Quijote/Windmill painting by
Octavio Ocampo
And finally, as I prepare to take exams this spring on Iberian Golden Age literature, I have the hilarious "fight scene" fresh in my mind between Don Quijote and those ferocious windmills: "Those are giants, and if you are afraid, turn aside and pray whilst I enter into fierce and unequal battle with them." The parody of a fight scene here is like the exception that proves the rule; here there aren't two opposing forces meeting in violence but rather a man too assured of his good will to notice it has turned into senseless aggression.

Fight scenes in literature and film seem to be reflections of our deep desire of witnessing Good prevailing over Evil. It is what makes the violence in these scenes not only tolerable but admirable. Vastly different from scenes of torture or cruelty (in which there is a sense of hopelessness and pervasive darkness), these fight scenes show the forces of oppression meeting the forces of freedom on the battlefield, and the fight itself reveals the weaknesses and strengths of both sides.

Yet these fight scenes are not purely allegorical, they are not simply a metaphor for the victory of light over darkness. If they were meant only as metaphors, then there would be no reason to take pains to write a fight scene--the battle could be a game of chess, or an argument over tea. The violence in these fight scenes is real and necessary, it does not simply point to some other meaning, it has its own meaning.

I believe that the violence of a fight scene demonstrates what, to us humans is the potential of total sacrifice (putting one's life on the line). A willingness to die--and to kill--for the benefit of others is one of the most visceral and controversial of all human instincts. That's why a fight scene is exciting-- not because it is a metaphor-- but because it is really the event in which our very mortality is subjugated by a cause.


What are your favorite fight scenes? Who do you cheer on in books, music, film? ...

Until next time-- keep the petticoats rustling!


  1. I love this scene in 8 Diagram Pole Fighter where it's not even good vs evil, but competing definitions of "good."

  2. So many favorite fight literature 1) Jack Schaffer's novel "Shane" - one of the best fist fights between a slender, mysterious hero and a bar bully which sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Shane never fights for himself, but for those who don't know how to. 2) The "testing" fight scenes -- not Good versus Evil but the hero's test against a larger force that will temper the hero's prowess and keep him humble so he is not corrupted by his own battle skills: Enkidu versus Gilgamesh (best scene ever -- their wrestling battle knocks over buildings) and Yoshistune versus Benkei (a sort of Robin and Little John) in the Heike Epic. Light versus dark goes to Beowulf and Grendel and then the reprise with Grendel's mother. Scariest fight scene ever. In movies -- "Unforgiven" -- where the deeply flawed hero keeps saying "I ain't like that no more" and where the audience is urging him to return to the violent avenger. It so brilliantly shows that despite our desire for peace, we want that dark ruthless killer sometimes to act on our behalf (and thereby have our own conscience clean). Great post!

  3. Awesome post! One of my favorite fight scenes is when Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) systematically severs the top knots of the best swordsmen of a corrupt and cruel clan, humiliating and shaming them, which was worse than taking their lives. The movie is 1962 version of Harakiri. One scene, on the plains of Edo, was particularly electrifying, even in black and white. One thing I like about this scene was the subplot's contrast between the skills obtained in the dojo as opposed to the battlefield.

    The other favorite fight scene was the Charge of the Light Brigade as portrayed in Tony Richardson's movie with same name. Can not find any clips of that great film. But I want to.

  4. Yes I totally agree with you on the "Good Vs. Evil" and "total sacrifice" attraction to fight scenes. There is something I find VERY powerful about the thought of laying one's life on the line for a great cause - to save someone I love or to defeat darkness...

    My favourite fight scene has both of those elements - it's from the Fellowship of the Ring and it's Boromir's Last Stand. I find that scene so incredibly powerful and tragic and wonderful. So many fight scenes from Tolkien have these elements and they are glorious because of it. *Real* battles of course are not so simple as it is rarely (if ever) about "good vs. evil".