In spite of nostalgia’s effect on my revision, and in spite of Bloodsport’s apparent contrast to what we generally deem cinematic art, the cult-classic remains fastened on the minds of many a cinephile. Such a phenomenon surely calls for retrospection, and today, after viewing the now 28 year old film—which was released on my birth year—to an energetic 400 capacity venue in Vancouver, it will receive one.
When released, the film drew much critical backlash as well as general dislike from audiences, and Jean Claude Van Damme was nearly awarded the 1989 Razzie for Worst New Star (Note that Van Damme would go on to win the much lamented Razzie for Worst Screen Couple with Dennis Rodman).
The film was perceived as a joke. Its cardboard acting, disrespect of filmmaking guidelines including continuity editing, and its penchant for brazen emotion in lieu of narrative fervor met the criteria for discarding the film as a cheesy flop. And yet the film is today revered as iconic by those who were moved by its originality, memorable characters, resonant music and images, and ability to inspire.
To realize how a supposed ‘bad film’ could be revered in such high manner would be to question the cinematic, something which film critics and theoreticians are hesitant to do. But this is not always the case, and in doing this for Bloodsport, the notion of affect or affective cinema may be helpful. It is a film perspective oft used to describe what is called the post-cinematic film, and as a movement it has gained greater recognition in recent years due to a tie-in with the modern cinephile borne concept of vulgar auteurism.
Through minding this viewpoint, Bloodsport may serve as a prime example of affective cinema. While it may not be cinematic in terms of a tradition of quality, Bloodsport contains the presence of affective sounds and images which draw a visceral experience for the viewer. The story is revealed by way of static transformed moments, images which are held independent of narrative and are immediately apprehended by the senses. This feature makes such images resonant beyond the possibilities of continuity editing and instead showcase what Eisenstein referred to as total image, or an image within which the elements of montage already exist.
Bloodsport is replete with images of a total nature. They stand independent from the film as a whole and thus exist in a world of icons. Supported by the sound image, this includes such moments as Jean Claude stretched between trees, Jean Claude stretched between chairs, and Jean Claude stretched on a bench over the City. Jokes aside, the images throughout the film, from young Frank’s sliced cap to the dim-mac, chants of “Chong Li”, roundhouse kicks, a raspy cry while blind, and the sudden bliss of martial arts meditation conveyed through sound effect and facial expression all serve as elements of Bloodsport’s iconography.
It is through affective images of this kind that a strong emotional resonance may be formed between viewer and film, as proven by the number of viewers at last night’s screening applauding one resonant image while anticipating the next. What is between these iconic moments is as incidental as the base story line.
To recognize a ‘bad film’ as one with tremendous transformative potential is to recognize the tenuous line between so called high and low art. It also throws into question the service of narrative in creating cinematic art, after all “film isn’t story. it’s mostly picture, sound, a lot of emotions. The stories are just covering something” (Bela Tarr).
It is through intuition that viewers may realize the art hidden behind the surface, and it is through our perceptions that an aesthetic experience of art may occur. In understanding this, we may now retroactively analyse films like Bloodsport with eyes unblemished by prenotion. By mounting a state of perception that is receptive to art, we might find ourselves entranced by the magic of cinematic art in a most unexpected place.