In death, two of Bruce Lee’s greatest wishes were fulfilled: He wanted to be an international movie star and he wanted to bring martial arts movies to the West.
Enter the Dragon, the kung fu movie that opened six days after Lee’s sudden death of a brain edema in July, 1973, did exactly what the 32-year-old San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised trainer and actor had hoped for. By this time 40 years ago, Enter the Dragon was racking up box-office profits around the globe, and Lee had joined that elite club of prematurely deceased movie stars, such as Rudolph Valentino and James Dean, whose demise preceded the release of their final films – a recipe for enduring cult stardom if ever there was.
But of the two wishes, it was probably the fulfilment of the latter one that Lee would have taken most pride in. Despite its modest budget, boilerplate James Bond plot and wooden performances, Enter the Dragon altered the world action movie completely.
Apart from the occasional karate chop, martial arts had been restricted to the realm of Hong Kong-produced cheapies disdainfully categorized in North America as “chopsocky.” After Lee’s last movie was released, traditional (and, in Lee’s case, not so traditional) Asian fighting styles went action-movie viral. Four decades later, skill in martial arts is considered standard toolkit equipment for action stars, right along with rugged good looks and designer stubble.
Lee had trained the likes of James Coburn and Steve McQueen in Hollywood, while struggling to maintain his own acting career because of a heavy Chinese accent and an enduring industry disinclination to cast real Asians as fictional Asians. His parts pretty much began and ended with a gig as Kato in The Green Hornet TV series (1966) and a room-wrecking cameo in James Garner’s private eye office in Marlowe (1969). But he held on to the dream that he would break out. Do, that is, for his own career what his character had done to Garner’s workspace.
A formidably fast and skilled fighter, he had abandoned all forms of martial arts orthodoxy in favour of a style that emphasized flexibility, versatility and adapting to the demands of the moment. “Empty your mind,” he once explained to Canadian broadcaster Pierre Berton. “Become formless and shapeless like water.”
Lee was also a master fight-choreographer and stunningly photogenic physical specimen. When screenwriter Michael Allin was writing Enter the Dragon, he would simply write, “Fight scene here to be choreographed by Bruce Lee.” Lee instinctively knew where to put the camera for the maximum wow effect.
On screen, Lee moved with such speed, grace and precision that action became a kind of transcendent spectacle, a Fred Astaire gravity-defying number with deadly force. Among the many legends that adheres to this one-man myth-machine is at least one perfectly credible one: that at one point Lee moved so quickly in simulated combat, his movements were slowed down in camera so as to appear more credible. On his commentary track for the Enter the Dragon DVD and Blu-ray, producer Paul Heller describes what happened when he asked Lee to demonstrate his famous “one-inch punch” on the producer, wherein the fighter strikes an object with his fist from exactly that distance. Heller remembers being knocked across the room.
With Enter the Dragon, three facts were established that have yet to be refuted: You don’t have to be a white guy to be an international action star; martial arts transcends all cultures as a form of high-thrill entertainment; and Bruce Lee is one of the most influential pop cultural figures of the past half-century.
A River Runs Through It
As a sculptor, poet and painter as well as filmmaker, Kevin Jerome Everson has a keen appreciation for things that don’t move too quickly, which makes his study of the Tombigbee River, a north-south waterway that nearly washed away significant parts of the city of Columbus, Miss., when it flooded in 1973, an exercise in contemplative appreciation.
Many of Everson’s African-American family still live in the community of Westport, which a subsequent dam-building project effectively isolated from the rest of Columbus. In The Island of St. Matthews, he visits them to probe their memories of the flood. But he is also interested in the river, which his 16-mm camera observes as patiently as a turtle sunning itself on the bank. The result is an evocative experimental documentary about time, endurance and the primal spiritual pull of the river. Needless to say, it’s in no rush.
The Island of St. Matthews screens on Oct. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of the TIFF Cinematheque’s Free Screen series. It will be the second of a two-night retrospective of the filmmaker’s work, and Everson will be in attendance to introduce the screenings.