Bruce Lee Paper written for Columbia Mass Media class. I cannot find the completed version... oh well.
In early October, 1973, the number one box office hit in the country was Enter the Dragon, a film starring Bruce Lee, a Chinese American. This film remains the most popular martial arts film in history. In a time when racial prejudice in Hollywood was rampant, and the thought of a Chinese movie star was unheard of, the success of this movie was obviously a tremendous achievement. But what exactly was the achievement of this movie? What was it really saying, and about who? Danny Peary, in The Guide for the Film Fanatic, called it "arguably the most entertaining, colorful and spectacular kung-fu movie ever made." But is Enter the Dragon merely a martial arts film, or does it contain deeper meaning? Take away all its action sequences, and wouldn't it still be important for millions all over the world? In this essay I will examine how and why this film has managed to transcend all boundaries of its production process, to what is interpreted as a work of art to this day by millions.
In the film, Bruce Lee plays a secret agent that is led to the island fortress of an Opium smuggler. Lee discovers that this is the man who killed his sister, and Lee infiltrates the group to avenge her death. He enrols in the island's gladiator style martial arts tournament and is victorious. The movie ends with a climactic fight scene between Bruce and the arch villain. Despite the villain's unfair use of weaponry, the unarmed Lee kills his foe in a dramatic explosion of fury. All the fight scenes are directed by Bruce Lee himself, so he is not merely the star of this movie, but its substance as well.
On the surface this less than Shakespearean plot line might not seem different from countless other films in the martial arts genre. But Enter the Dragon is anything but just another kung-fu movie. In fact, it is undeniably the most successful and popular martial arts epic in film history. To recognize the elements of the movie responsible for its success, an examination is required that is more substantial than the superficial plot summary I have just outlined. But first, in order to gain some perspective, it is useful to understand the process that this text underwent before its audience ever had a chance to see it- namely the production process. One might suppose this begins in a Warner Brothers studio at the beginning of the filming. The real production process, however, was the entire life of Bruce Lee; because this movie was his artistic expression, the experiences which led him to want to star in an American film are at least as important in a critical study of his work, as the type of film and hierarchy of the Hollywood crew. This movie was the culmination of a lifetime's work, and in Bruce's mind, at least, the expression of all the ideas he had accumulated. Bruce Lee was obsessed with becoming a movie star since he arrived in the US from China in the early sixties. But what were the factors that contributed to his obsession? It is with this loose interpretation of the production process that I will continue my analysis.
After reading Bruce Lee's writings, watching his only video taped interview, and hearing interviews with those who knew him, it becomes clear there were two major driving forces behind Bruce's obsession. The first was the rampant racism that he encountered upon arrival to the U.S. from China in the early sixties. The second was his belief that he had discovered a truth about martial arts, and indeed, life itself, which he needed to express. Becoming a movie star, Bruce thought, would kill both birds with one stone. He would finally be considered a "real" America, and what better and more efficient way to show the beauty of both Chinese culture than through Hollywood, the cornerstone of American popular culture.
His father was an actor in the Chinese theater in San Francisco
the green hornet- had to weak a mask
he already made movies in china
"I want you to be a star"
Warner Brothers- a traditional film company
But it was more than Chinese culture that Bruce was exhibiting. Bruce Lee had previously published an article, in 1971, in Black Belt Magazine in which he summarized his ideas on Martial Arts. Bruce believed that the Martial Arts world was dominated by what he referred to as a "classical mess." Organized Martial systems, he argued were so concerned with systematic traditions and meaningless martial rituals that they were losing sight of the original purpose- the art of fighting. The following is a quote from Bruce's article:
Unfortunately, most students of the martial arts are conformists. Instead of learning to depend on themselves for expression, they blindly follow their instructors, no longer feeling alone, finding security in mass imitation. The product of this imitation is a dependent mind. Independent inquiry, which is essential to genuine understanding, is sacrificed, Look around the martial arts and witness the assortment of routine performers, trick artists, desensitized robots, glorifiers of the past and so on- all followers or exponents of organized despair.
How often are we told by different sensei (teachers) or "masters" that the martial arts are life itself? But how many of them truly understand what they are saying? Life is a constant movement- rhythmic as well as random; Life is a constant change and not stagnation. Instead of choicelessly following with this process of change, many of these "masters," past and present, have built an illusion of fixed forms, rigidly subscribing to traditional concepts and techniques of the art, solidifying the ever-flowing, dissecting the totality.
The most pitiful sight is to see sincere students earnestly repeating those imitative drills, listening to their own screams and spiritual yells. In most cases, the means these sensei offer their students are so elaborate that the student must give tremendous attention to them, until gradually he loses sight of the end. The students end up performing their methodical routines as a mere conditioned response, rather than responding to "what is." They no longer "listen" to circumstances. These poor souls have unwittingly become trapped in the miasma of classical martial arts training. A teacher, a really good sensei, is never a giver of truth; he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that the student must discover for himself.
His attack on classical martial arts training continues throughout the article:
It is conceivable that a long time ago a certain martial artist discovered some partial truth. During his lifetime, the man resisted the temptation to organize this partial truth, although this is a common tendency in man's search for security and certainty in life. After his death, his students took "his" hypotheses, "his" postulates, "his" inclinations, and "his" methods and turned them all into law. Impressive creeds were then invented, solemn reinforcing ceremonies prescribed, rigid philosophy and patterns formulated, and so on, until finally an institution was erected. So, what originated as one man's intuition of some sort of personal fluidity has been transformed into solidified, fixed knowledge, complete with organized classified responses presented in a logical order. In so doing, the well meaning, loyal followers have not only made this knowledge a holy shrine, but also a tomb in which they have buried the founder's wisdom.
Clearly, Bruce Lee had more on his mind than acting in a Hollywood picture; he had a clear and definite message that he was trying to express. But he obviously wasn't;t satisfied with speaking to the limited group of Black Belt Magazine readers. His message, he felt, was universal, and he wanted his audience to be as well. He wanted to go mainstream. It is this meaning that Bruce Lee brought into the Warner Brothers studio on the first day of shooting. The production of his ideas, was, therefore, the crucial element of in the big picture of the film's production process.
If Bruce Lee's goal was a communication of his vision, then all the spirit he puts into his movie is useless if it is not interpreted successfully by his audience. Without a successful dialogue of this idea, his work has little value. It is after the process of interpretation that meaning can transcend from the text and into the hearts and minds of the viewers. Enter the Dragon accomplishes this task unquestionably. In fact, I can think of few films that establish a more obvious affect on the viewer than Bruce Lee's films. When Bruce kicks he KICKS, and when he punches he PUNCHES. And certain moments of the movie, he literally seems to come flying right out of the screen and onto the laps of the viewers. His energy radiates out to his audience. Bruce Lee was at the first showing of his first film, The Big Boss (in Hong Kong) and after it was over the audience picked him up and carried him triumphantly out the street where he was surrounded by cheering fans. It would be hard to imagine a better example of a successful dialogue between artist and .
To the Chinese, with whom he was most popular, Bruce Lee was proof that they did not have to be victimized by racism and prejudice. But on a more universal level, Bruce Lee represented a little guy (he only weighed 115 pounds) standing up to bullies and showing them that he would not have to take their harassment. Sympathy for the underdog has always been a powerful Hollywood sentiment.
Surely, Bruce enjoyed his popularity. His audience were responding positively because they were interpreting ideas they found pleasing from his work. But does Enter the Dragon also successfully communicate Bruce's own ideas as well? One need not watch more than the first five minutes of the movie to find out. The film starts out with Bruce winning a fight contest watched by dozens of monks, and overseen by the elders of the order. The monks hold up their arms, forming a tunnel of honor Bruce is supposed to walk through, but instead he puts on a coy grin, and jumps over all of them with a spinning back flip. In the next scene he encounters a young boy who is eager to show off his kung fu skills. Bruce reprimands him, saying that he is not putting enough "emotional content" into his kick.
"Don't think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon," says Bruce. "Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all the heavenly glory." He pauses and then adds, "Do you understand?" in a tone of voice that suggests he is speaking to more than the boy. Perhaps even to the audience.
If we can judge a work of art by how successfully it completed its goals, and the importance of a piece of popular culture by how much it impacts society, then the success of Enter the Dragon in the box office becomes somewhat humbled. On this broader level, the movie was, after all, just a movie, and could not change the world overnight. Stereotypes in Hollywood continue to be pervasive, and it is hard to imagine another Asian movie star today. In fact, even in Enter the Dragon, stereotypes are abundant. One of the supporting characters is an African American, and, as expected in the Black exploitation films of the seventies, he is brutally killed halfway through the movie. The supporting white character remains alive and well.
Nevertheless, Enter the Dragon remains an enormous accomplishment, and its positive influence was permanent. It almost single hardly became the catalyst for the explosion in popularity of martial arts in the US. Today nearly every city has dozens of booming martial arts schools. Martial Arts have undeniably become a part of American Popular culture, and Bruce Lee almost single handily is responsible for this. Testimony to the walls of stereotype and prejudice that Bruce Lee broke was the success of his half Asian son Brandon Lee. Brandon became a star in several martial arts films, and was proof that his father had brought the genre a long way from where it was in the days of the Green Hornet.
To this day Bruce Lee is adored by millions and considered by many to be a role model. There is even a group of monks in Tibet that worship him. Obviously, Enter The Dragon, which was by far his most successful film, communicated more than just adrenaline and kicking power. What was the idea that gave this movie its potency?
both the production (loosely defined) and the interpretation is meaningful. dialogue necessary. artist is nothing without listener.
his message transcended the form
Bruce died, sadly just weeks before the release of enter the dragon
Clearly transcends the genre of martial arts films into a successful blockbuster.
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