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Wednesday, April 02, 2008


That action montage scene

You know the one, right? The kind parodied in Team America comes to mind, but it's an extremely common part of many stories: the transformative training scene. It can be very effective. It can be useful. Sometimes, it can be downright worrying.

The thing about these sequences is that they're transformative. And what are you going to transform into?

Let's start with a famous one. The first Rocky movie involves our tough underdog hero working out to match up to a boxer he can't possibly beat, finishing with a triumphant flourish on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art following his training montage . This sequence is so effective that those steps are referred to as the 'Rocky Steps', complete with statue.

Now, Rocky is a curious beast. Despite the bravado and triumphalism of the sequels, the first film is actually pretty melancholic. Rocky isn't a heroic statue, he's a loser, a Bickle-ish mess who'd picked out of a failed life by random chance to square up to a man who's stronger, more able, wealthier, more successful, and all-round happier than him. Rather than a huge victory, Rocky's aim is simply to last out the fight without getting knocked down. He knows he's going to lose, but he wants to lose with dignity. The whole thing has a rather seventies grittiness to it; our blue-collar protagonist has no real expectation of his life becoming spectacularly better, and even his aim, to lose on his feet rather than get smashed down, is an expression of his life: the best he can hope for is to endure long enough to lose well.

In this context, his training sequence is best viewed as an expression of courage. He's training himself to endure, because that's what he's going to have to do. But in the process, he changes himself from a man who had given up to a man who's ready to keep fighting.

Here's the odd thing: by the the sequels things are getting more and more bombastic. Rocky goes from brave underdog to America's secret weapon; his melancholic endurance feat becomes a blast of nationalist triumphalism. Consider the Living In America sequence that greets the Russian opponent in Rocky 4, played off against the Russian national anthem when Rocky goes over there: Rocky, by this time, is speaking for his nation. He began as a citizen of it, a citizen that represented it at least in part because he was suffering from its social problems as well as having some of its virtues, but by this point, Rocky's presentation of America is entirely uncomplicated. He's stopped being an American and become AMERICA, the propagandists' America, which loses an awful lot of the subtlety that made the first film good. (Sylvester Stallone has a habit of being in films that mutate from one political state to another, a habit I'll discuss in another post.)

Now, it's probably not entirely the fault of that famous montage scene, but I have a strong suspicion that it helped. The image had so archetypal a quality that people looking for a flag to wave could point to Rocky's arms outstretched over the city, ignore what it cost him to get there, and go with the simple version.

Let's mosey through another example: the Pai Mei sequence in Tarantino's Kill Bill 2, which you can see most of here. Kill Bill is a parodic film, but even parodies contain plots, and this sequence is, jokey camera angles aside, a quite classical demonstration of the training story. (It's also available on YouTube and famous, hence convenient...)

The traditional elements of a training sequence are all present and correct. The protagonist begins weak, suffers, shows endurance and gains eventual strength. The results of the training are finally brought into play when our heroine Beatrix escapes the nasty fate of premature burial by punching her way out of a coffin.

At this point, we need to bring in another archetype: the phoenix. Leaving aside the whole fire thing and taking in metaphorically, what's the nature of the phoenix? It dies and is reborn anew, rising from the shattered remnants of the old self. Beatrix manages this in a very striking way: Pai Mei breaks down any pride in her initial self right at the start, puts her through hell, and finally she takes what she's learned and uses it for a primordial phoenix image: rising from the grave to triumph.

At this point, it's worth noticing something. Pai Mei has taught her a short-range punch, which is intended to break wood from a distance of about three inches. It shreds her hand, but she keeps doing it; when she's in the coffin, she manages to break the wood, but not without tearing the skin off her knuckles. If we ignore the mythical elements and concentrate on plain logic for a moment, this seems oddly impractical. She's been buried by an enemy and will need all her strength once she's topsides again; emerging with a damaged right hand is hardly wise. And she actually doesn't need to. Pai Mei isn't in the coffin with her to criticise, and she doesn't lack for things to protect her hand. She has ropes, a knife she could use to slice pieces off her clothing, even boots she could slip her fist into. An impromptu boxing glove is not out of the question.

So the bloodied knuckes don't make sense, except in a mythical way. The point of Pai Mei is not just that he taught her how to punch hard from a short distance, but that he broke down her old self and created a new one. Going against his training, or even modifying it, would be failing to acknowledge the thoroughness of his work. If Beatrix made herself a glove, she would be using her own judgement instead of the new, Pai-Made self, so to speak, which would interfere with the whole phoenix thing.

It's the phoenix thing that's worrying me.

We live in dark times, my friends, as I'm sure you've noticed, and the word 'fascism' is being thrown around with some worryingly convincing arguments. This essay I just linked to to quotes the academic Roger Griffin's definition of fascism: 'palingenetic ultranationalist populism' - palingenesis being a mythic rebirth from the ashes, as of the phoenix.

Obviously not every phoenix image supports the same ideology; archetypes are archetypes precisely because they're so general as to be universally applicable. But the rebirth-training concept gets particularly worrying when it's combined with something else: anti-intellectualism. There's a trait I've noticed in a lot of work, particularly thrillers and action, best summed up thus: suspicion of learning combined with a reverence for training.

Now, technically both things fall under the heading of 'education', but there are certain kinds of story that divide the two sharply, with a black-and-white morality. I've already had a go at 300, but I feel like having another, because there's more to say, and also because if you want a fascist film from recent years, 300's your baby. But 300 is only an extreme example; this attitude is uncomfortably in the air. Other examples of it are welcomed.

It's easily recognisable once you've identified it. People possessed of education, esoteric knowledge or other worryingly intellectual things are the bad guys, either sneaky and evil or ineffectual and out of touch. On the other hand, there's an almost worshipful acknowledgement of the right kind of education. The right kind is usually dedicated towards some practical end: becoming a soldier, or a spy, or something physical that preferably involves violence. Such a training can, in fact, involve quite intellectually demanding stuff, such as handling complicated software or defusing bombs, as long as they're not allowed to dominate the procedings. The main aim is that the subject be remolded and taught techniques; thought is not supposed to come in too heavily.

Anti-intellectualism is obviously at play here, but there's also something else. The essence of training is that you're not expected to come to your own conclusions. Education, etymologically, is a drawing-out: you present somebody with information, teach them critical methods and encourage them to find their own conclusions. Training, on the other hand, is about breaking somebody down and building them up again in a new image. As the army says, if the glass is half full of dirty water to begin with (dirty water being individualism), you have to tip it out before filling it up with clean. Individualism might lead to rejecting parts of the training; difference might lead to variation in abilities: to a training-loving mind, this is not flexibility or freedom but a breach in the dam, the fault through which disaster can flow. For the idea of training to be reassuring, it's essential to believe that it's infallible, that if somebody is put through the mill, they will come out the other side exactly as the mill intended.

Training, in other words, is predictable. It's a common trope of such stories to show a man solving a crisis by remembering something from his training, in a 'Say that again, Hastings!' sort of way - for instance, the young Leonidas in this clip from 300 spotting the advantages of battling in a narrow passage against a wolf, which will obviously lead later to his military hour of glory. Like Beatrix in the coffin, he repeats something he's already learned - but 300 goes farther: he doesn't just repeat a technique, he repeats a whole strategy. It's perfectly possible to work out post-training that narrow passageways give you an advantage in positioning, but for Leonidas to exercise his tactical intelligence post-agoge would be to acknowledge that he could be creative, and that's not what we want. That would imply inventiveness and intelligence that were just part of his personality, and his personality is supposed to have been created entirely by his training. Lateral thinking is a natural talent; for him to be able to take imagination out of the training, it would have had to survive the fire, which undercuts the whole rebirth image. Inventive strategising would be fine if he'd been educated, but education is altogether less a rebirth than a nurtured growth: the usual images are horticultural rather than pyromaniacal. There will be no ashes, because nothing is burned away. It's merely guided in the right direction. Training, on the other hand, puts the old self through the cleansing fire of suffering and struggle, burning the old self in the emergent flame of the new.

Now, symmetry and coincidence are traditional means of giving stories a pleasing structure, but there's something more at play in here. The strong conclusion is that the training is so perfect in its process that it already encompasses every situation the trainee can ever encounter. Education encourages looking at every new situation afresh, continually considering oneself a learner, but training is about being finished, perfected. For a trainee to encounter a situation that the training has not fitted him to cope with would be to undermine the whole concept. Hence, solving what is apparently a new problem with an old solution validates the enclosed predictability that training glories in. Sufficient unto the day, and the day after, and the day after that, is this reassuringly finite model of understanding.

Obviously, to an authoritarian mindset, this is tremendously appealing: the status quo cannot be overturned because it already contains within its processes the means of protecting itself against any possible onslaught. It doesn't need to learn, and it cannot be forced to change.

And it's at this point that the training sequence gets dangerous. Rocky doesn't despise education; Apollo Creed, the antagonist of the first film and best pal of the sequels, is articulate and clever - whether educated or just bright, it's not stated, but he's clearly got intellect - and, even as an antagonist, he's not a bad guy. Adrian, Rocky's girl, actually reads, to her brother's disgust. In addition, Rocky is extremely wary offers of help, on the grounds that nobody was nice to him until Creed offered him a big break and he doesn't want cupboard love; his training is an act of individualism rather than breaking-down-and-building-up. Kill Bill is more a style mash-up than anything else, but there's at least a reverence for antiques in there, if only in the form of antique swordcraft. It's when palingenetic training starts to be, not just a mainline to the audience's emotions when you want to get them bouncing in their seats, but the only form of teaching allowable, that I start getting scared.

Interesting commentary, as always.

Where do you fit in the archetypical training sequence that you might see in, say, THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, in which the mentor is in fact training the hero in flexibility, lateral thinking (in other words, *educating* him), yet by the very same means you descry -- breaking down his identity, letting him experience "old solutions", etc.

Even more appropos might be the Phoenix's training of young David in the glorious DAVID AND THE PHOENIX, since the villain is in fact the Evil Scientist -- yet, like the young Arthur, David ends up in a sense surpassing and in fact educating his mentor by his compassion and open-mindedness.
Training to be able to act without thinking vs. taught to think. Hmmm, this really is food for thought and something I want to examine in my own WIP. So, thank you for that!

How goes the exercise music?
Alas, Hapax, I fear I haven't read either of the books you mention! (And hi there.) I haven't read very much fantasy, but if you can think of a really famous example that everyone has heard of, even genre-ignoramuses, I'll certainly give it a go. :-)

At a guess, though - The Once And Future King involves Merlin, right? I think that falls into a different category of training; the wise-mentor Yoda-ish training, which is to say, one with overtones of religion or mysticism.

That, I'd consider a third category, separate from both education and montage-style training. Education is primarily intellectual, training (in the sense I'm using) is largely physical and practical. The wise mentor's teachings are spiritual; his ancestor is the Zen guru and the bard rather than the pedagogue or the drill-sergeant.

A spiritual teacher can encourage a student to unlearn his old identity, though I wouldn't expect him to traumatise it out of him military-style, but it's still more on the education side: rather than presenting him with an image of what he's supposed to be and beasting him until he achieves it, the guru encourages the pupil to learn for himself how to be better than he was.

He's also likely to work with the personality the student already has, drawing out its potential, rather than smashing it down and pouring it into the mold. I'm basing this on Star Wars and The Matrix, which are the closest examples I can think of; in both cases, the student goes into the training already recognised as someone who has it in him to do well - not just because he's tough, but because of elements of his personality. He gets his mind opened up rather than his body hardened off, and what was in his mind to begin with is what the teacher is really after. The teacher's trying to get rid of the clutter that's concealing the true self, rather than get rid of the whole self to replace it with something else.

Also, if I have this right, I think Merlin partly educates Arthur by turning him into various animals and letting him see what that's like - um, yes? That's basically presenting your student with new information and letting him draw conclusions from it, like a teacher rather than a trainer. It's more guiding-light than swagger-stick.

Hi Margaret! Exercise music is going pretty well. 'Walking on Sunshine' was a great idea...
Well, have you seen the Disney cartoon Sword in the Stone? Because that's like the first section of TOAFK.

I think, though, that most effective education and training combines the threads you've focused on. One must give up preconceived notions, and learn to do certain things more or less instinctively, to free the mind and body for truly creativity/achievement. You have to know the language before you can write poetry in it. You have to know the basics before you can hold your own as a swashbuckler/martial artist, etc. But I think the idea of using repeated situations is supposed to be that you've been sucessfully trained to break problems down so that you can solve them. Not that it's always used that way. Now I'm trying to think of some examples in art.

The training sequence I always think of now is the one in Wet Hot American Summer. Which doesn't help.
Avoid the cartoon SWORD IN THE STONE, it's a horrible adaptation (other than the Mim/Merlin duel).

This discussion reminds me very much of an early seventies TV movie, TRIBES: Drill instructor Darrin McGavin becomes increasingly frustrated because hippie draftee Jan Michael Vincent keeps accomplishing everything he's told to do, but without being remade--for a stress-position exercise, he gets through with meditation, for instance.

-Fraser, visiting from slacktivist.
"I'm not an idiot. You're training me . . . That's what you've been doing from the beginning. I'm learning more tricks than a monkey-lizard. I just don't know what you're training me to do."

"You are free to do, or not do, what you will. Do you understand the difference between training and teaching? Between learning to do and learning to be?"

--exchange from Traitor, by Matthew Stover (Star Wars spinoff book). Interestingly enough, the entire novel covers some of the most devastating deconstruction of self I've seen.

Just love to quote that.
HEyy do you know... So I will try to fix the bike myself and if it is skewed up I will bring it to the professional:)But it is hard to do in a living-room and using a cooking pan wrapped in a towel as a hammer. Student life is hard.
It is right ..Major training going on with you, I'm sure body will be happy to have some adjustment time this week!! I've been adding a lot more mileage and I know my legs are still adjusting...but I love it too!
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