Monday, October 31, 2011

What's it all about, Archie...?

One of the things I believe in, because it’s worth believing in, is that there is a balance, symmetry and reciprocity to the universe.
Physicists say, “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction."
“As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” quoth Christian clerics.
Others call it “karma.”
“What goes around, comes around,” according to Manny, the ex-boxer who sold porn-lite at his news stand on the corner of Bad Luck and Trouble in my old neighborhood.

In the Rob Roy piece, the parties have agreed to “no quarter,” which means, “no mercy,” a duel to the death. 

Rob is highly motivated – Archie has raped Rob’s lady – and completely committed, though not highly confident.
Archie is not as highly motivated emotionally, but is supremely confident, convinced of his own superiority, not only technically, but culturally. Being defeated by a mere “Rob Roy,” is really unthinkable to him. For him it’s a game of cat-and-mouse, and Archie’s the one doing the purring.

Archie is in what would be the “longer/weaker position by virtue of his weapon and his speed/agility.
Rob is in the shorter/stronger position.
Archie’s best chance of victory is “defensive out-fighting.” Rob’s best chance is “offensive in-fighting,”  Archie should wear down his opponent with a “death of a thousand cuts” while staying out of range as much as possible, and moving out of line when he can’t stay out of range.  Rob should “cut off the ring” minimizing Archie’s mobility, and close distance to deliver a decisive blow.
It’s a classic confrontation. Ali-Frazier. Ali-Foreman. Douglas-Tyson.
And this is exactly what Hobbs (MY favorite choreographer, too) has them do.

As the fight progresses, Archie is having it all his own way.
He avoids trading blows with Rob, is continuously changing the angle, retreating immediately to his distance after each foray, and using the point to keep Rob at bay. He inflicts several wounds, each one successively more serious. When engaged, his focus is impeccable. He’s the predator.

Rob is completely frustrated. His blows are powerful, but predictable. He’s unable to close the distance, or corner the wily Archie. His assaults grow weaker and slower, and easier for Archie to deal with --- increasing Archie’s confidence each time.

Then comes the critical moment.
Rob is down.
What Archie should do now, is deliver the coup de grace and kill Rob, as they had agreed in the beginning: no quarter.
But he doesn’t do that.

His arrogance – founded in no small way in the cultural certainty of his superiority, but also alloyed with his personal vanity – allows him to assume he’s invincible and that his unsophisticated opponent is beaten.   
Instead of dispatching Rob quickly and cleanly, Archie pauses to indulge in a bit of unnecessary cruelty, taunting his opponent with a “you asked for it” reminder of their deadly agreement, and also taking the opportunity to posture for his benefactor.

This is the moment when what goes around, finally comes around.

Archie has closed the distance with Rob and stands preening – and immobile – before him. He shifts his focus away from his prey, like a cat now bored with an inert and no-longer-entertaining mouse.

Rob seizes this opportunity – and Archie’s blade. For a moment Archie is bewildered, doesn’t quite comprehend what is happening or what it means. And by the time he does understand it, it’s too late.

That universal reciprocity, that balance, that symmetry that I choose to believe in, finally sends Archie’s karmic pendulum hurtling back in his direction. His rigid conviction in his own class-superiority and personal superiority had caused him to believe he had license to do whatever he willed with complete impunity, but, in the end, the forces he himself set in motion were his undoing.

You might say Archie’s karma ran over his dogma.

It’s a good lesson.

And a timely one, too.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Change for a Quarter

This clip is from ROB ROY.
I find it brilliantly choreographed and acted.
It is a wonderful interplay of strategic positions.

Here's a question I always ask my students about it:
What was it that cost "Archie" (Tim Roth) his life?
What's the lesson there?

Feel free to offer your ideas on it.


Thursday, October 27, 2011


It's a cold, rainy day in Ithaca.
Good day for reflection.

I promised my longsword students I'd post something especially for them. and I never break a promise.
This clip is from the film ROBIN AND MARIAN.
I like it because it's awkward and ugly -- thus, very true to the feel of a fight with those particular weapons -- and perhaps any weapon.
We train to be balanced, precise of line, acute of focus and exact of distance.
We train to the Ideal.
Fight like you train; train like you fight.
But every principle is greater than its manifestation.
The nice thing about film is that you can portray the IDEAL.
Or not.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

One Size Fits...?

One of the most common errors I've seen amongst martial arts teachers -- including fencing instructors" -- is teaching exactly the same thing to everybody who comes in the door.
They try to teach a monkey, an elephant, a giraffe, a snake and a lion all to fight the same way.
That's just foolish.
They don't all have the same tools.
You wouldn't take a part written for the piccolo and give it to the tuba, would you?
I hope not!
And so does the tuba player.

There are certain basics that are almost the same for most everyone. But even those things have to be adapted to the individual student, right from the beginning.  For example, we say there should be approximately 1 1/2 to 2 foot-lengths between the heels in second position (the on guard stance). But when you have a student with exceptionally long legs, or small feet, you might have to change that.

What's important is understanding what you're trying to achieve in balance, line, focus and distance, and knowing that the "1 1/2  to  2"  rule will help get you there most of the time.
But there's nothing sacred about it, in and of itself.
It's a means to an end.

I think part of the problem is that there are three "levels" of a fighter's education: the technical, the tactical, and the strategic.  It takes a tremendous amount of patient, loving practice to excel at the technical level --and most people quit before they get there.
The tactical level is about feeling, letting go of your ego/intellect and learning to trust your intuition.
The strategic level is about the assessment of yourself, your opponent and the environment in order to decide on a course of action (we call that "finding your strategic position") and setting the stage so that your opponent will help you execute the tactics appropriate to your position.

All this pre-supposes impeccable technical precision.
Part of that comes from molding the student to the sword.
Part of it comes from molding the sword to the student.
Too many instructors scarcely do the first.
Be sure you do both.



Friday, October 21, 2011

Muggsy & the Gators: Part II

See any connections?
If so, what do you think they are?


Monday, October 17, 2011

Follow-Up on Fred Cavens

This clip features my spiritual father, Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood, his first major film role. The bad guy is Basil Rathbone, once again.
The action is beautiful. Everything they do appears to have reasonable combat-logic, and the final coup de grace is a classic.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Mark of Zorro

This was a film that I loved as a kid, for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fight between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. Wish I had a dollar for every time I've watched it since then.

This piece was under-cranked to speed up the action, in keeping with the common misconception that faster is better. When I was in film school in the way back when, I got a print of this and ran it on the moviola at about half speed -- a speed that would be realistic for weapons with a little bit of weight to them, instead of the silly fencing "sabres" they're using.

What I find interesting is that the actions hold up very well at a slower speed. The choreographer of this piece knew his swordsmanship very well. Try watching it in slowmo sometime.

Though his character gets the worst of it, Rathbone steals the show for me. He's crisp, precise, balanced -- a study in impeccable form.

I love the footwork of both actors (and their doubles, of course!) Perfectly centered, what I call "collected," every part of the body an element in a coherent whole, nothing flapping, dangling, loose or out of control, and no wasted movement.

That's the way to train.
And that's the way to fight.


Favorite Quote du Jour

"The exercising of weapons putteth away aches, griefs, and diseases, it increaseth strength and sharpeneth the wits, it giveth a perfect judgment, it expelleth melancholy, choleric, and evil conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, in perfect healthe, and long life." 

– George Silver (1599)