Nabokov, Jackie Chan, and the Elusive Symbiosis Between Form and Content

by Jamey McDermott  ·  May 04, 2015

307428447_07dcc1979f_oI recently watched Jackie Chan’s 1994 classic Drunken Master II, which has also been released as The Legend of Drunken Master, and was struck throughout with a feeling not unlike the one I get from reading Nabokov. That’s not to say that the movie has anything in common, content-wise, with Lolita or Pale Fire, or that their stylistic approaches are at all similar. Nor am I trying to claim that there’s an analogous relationship between texts, that Drunken Master II has the same status in film that Lolita does in 20th century literature. (Next time you find yourself at a party playing a game of Things That Aren’t Jackie Chan, Vladimir Nabokov might be a good guess. Keep him in mind, at least.)

Even so, they all induce a kind of…I guess the phrase might be “formalist elation”: the sense that an artist is doing something that would be completely impossible, or at least wholly inadequate, in a different medium. There have been film adaptations of Lolita, sure, but the real substance of that book is in the language, the way Humbert Humbert—and it is the character’s voice, not Nabokov’s—chooses his words to misdirect the audience, desperately trying to reshape the horrifying reality of the situation into something romantic. It’s a book whose narration is completely rooted in a lying solipsist’s point of view. How do you make a movie out of that without losing 90% of what makes the book interesting? Even Kubrick couldn’t get it right, which is saying a lot.

Drunken Master II, though, is a movie about people punching and kicking one another. That’s reductive, admittedly: like most of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong work, it’s about exploring the seemingly endless variations on the basic People-Punching-and-Kicking-One-Another formula. If Lolita is about the tension between language and meaning, between signifier and referent—a tension that’s never fully resolved—then Drunken Master II is about collisions between objects in space. Specifically, it’s about human bodies colliding with one another, and the details of each collision depend entirely on the spatial relationship between the bodies and the temporal relationship between individual hits. Physical action, not plot or dialogue, is how these movies develop their characters. We learn far more about who a Jackie Chan character is through the spur-of-the-moment choices he makes in the middle of a fight than through anything that happens in the movie’s quieter moments. This makes technical precision—blocking, mise-en-scène, choreography, editing, performances—really important. There’s a real art to putting together an effective fight scene, and few people do it better than Chan at his peak. [1]

In other words, it’s as purely cinematic as storytelling gets. It’s all there on the surface. This isn’t a criticism; it’s a description of a movie taking full advantage of its medium’s strengths. What would be the point of trying to render this stuff in prose? And how would you go about doing such a thing, anyway? A prose adaptation of a Jackie Chan movie would be as absurd, as futile, as a cinematic adaptation of a Nabokov novel. As writers, we have nowhere near the same amount of control over space and time that filmmakers do; there’s a reason Tarkovsky described cinema as “sculpting in time.” What we do have—probably our greatest asset, I think—is the ability to open up our characters’ heads, describe the world as they experience it. Interiority is a much harder thing to pull off in a visual medium. We can dig deeper, at least. At the risk of repeating myself, I should clarify that “deeper” doesn’t really mean “better” in this context. Depth of character is one particular thing that literature excels at, but we shouldn’t necessarily judge all art by that criterion.

So, yeah, there are obviously certain genres that work far better on film than they do on the page: action, musicals, pure abstraction, anything that relies heavily upon visual shapes moving in rhythm.[2] We can’t pull off anything like the fight scenes in a Hong Kong action movie, a Fred Astaire dance sequence, a Buster Keaton slapstick routine: can you imagine a short story about a character slipping on a banana peel? (If so, is it any good?)

Still, there are plenty of cinematic techniques that we can use, to potentially interesting effect. I always have Eisenstein’s ideas about montage in the back of my head when I’m writing: the idea that meaning can emerge from contradiction, from—again—collision, from taking two disparate ideas[3] and crashing them together. I like thinking of paragraphs as discrete units, the closest thing prose has to the individual shots in a montage, and seeing what results I can achieve by juxtaposing them against one another. Will the dots connect themselves? Will meaning—any kind of meaning—emerge as the bits of information accumulate? That’s an area where fiction writers really can learn from movies: not by imitating their content, but by thinking about cinematic language, the ways in which literary and filmic techniques overlap and (more frequently) diverge. By doing so, hopefully we can learn more about our own medium’s strengths, what we’re really capable of accomplishing with the written word. I’m hoping to end up with something more useful than a film adaptation of Pale Fire, at least.

[1] It’s not easy, either: most summer blockbusters’ action sequences feel pretty stale and inert, no matter how shiny and pyrotechnic they might be. Compare the climax of a Christopher Nolan Batman movie to something like Johnnie To’s Triad Election. The former is big and ambitious and intense, yeah, but it’s also a little clumsy and visually incoherent. The latter has a real feeling of grace–a musicality, almost.

[2] This might be the wrong time to announce my upcoming project, a junior novelization of Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man.

[3] (Like, it occurs to me now, Vladimir Nabokov and Jackie Chan.)