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Van Damme’s Universal Language

3 July 2008

Jean-Claude Van Damme told Metro magazine (3 July 2008) that he wasn’t surprised that he had become an international movie star.  “My movies are international,” he said, explaining, “Everybody understands a slap in the face.  In Japan, Belgium or America, a punch is a punch.” 

This, of course, is exactly what dictators and schoolyard bullies and movie directors have known all along, that physical violence communicates in any culture.  Otherwise indifferent audiences have to pay attention.  The attitude Van Damme displays goes a long way in explaining why men in so many societies tend to default to violence as a mark of true masculinity.  It identifies a man as powerful, forceful, and important.  On the other hand, I find it interesting that Van Damme’s statement is patently false in the sense that not all cultures interpret violence to mean the same thing.  It may be a sign of power, but that power may be interpreted as more or less appropriate, more or less fitting as an expression of manliness.  Most cultures tend to find American movies’ bloodshed gratuitous at best. 

I might add that, from what Van Damme movies I’ve been exposed to, the universal language seems to be that of vengeance.  Most every culture seems to relate to a sense of personal justice.  Van Damme plays off this the inherent weakness we have, not for violence per se, but for vigilantism.

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