Bruce Lee as Postmodern Text

Every superhero needs an origin story, and Bruce Lee’s came in 1964 when, as a 24-year-old martial arts instructor in Oakland, California, he accepted a challenge to fight a rival sifu, Wong Jack Man. Lee had just opened his second Wing Chun school, but according to legend, Wong and the other local masters were offended that he taught the ancient Chinese arts to non-Chinese. Wong is said to have delivered Lee a scroll, signed by the top dogs of the San Francisco martial arts community, demanding that if he lost the fight, he must close his school and stop teaching Caucasians.

In the 2012 documentary I Am Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Caldwell (Lee’s widow and one of the fight’s few witnesses) remembers that “these elders arrived from San Francisco led by Wong Jack Man” at Lee’s school. She claims that Wong spent most of the fight running around the room to escape his opponent, and “it took three minutes for Bruce to get him down on the ground and say, ‘Do you give up? Do you give up?’” After the find, Caldwell found her husband sitting on the steps outside his studio, head in hands, lamenting that the fight took so long. That was the moment that Lee moved away from the “rehearsed routines” of classical martial arts and began developing Jeet Kun Do—a more fluid style often cited as a precursor to Mixed Martial Arts.

This is a great story, because it encapsulates everything that makes Lee an icon: his skill, his self-confidence, his iconoclastic approach to martial arts, his impossible perfectionism, his transcendence of national and racial barriers. It’s also one of those famous stories that begins to fall apart if you think about it for even half a second. Would Lee really have bet his livelihood on a fight? How many martial arts instructors in Chinatown would actually sign such an ultimatum? How much moral or legal authority would they have had? Was Lee really the only person teaching martial arts to non-Asians in San Francisco? Were the martial arts really such closely-guarded secrets in 1964? If the fight only took three minutes, why did it so deeply rattle Lee? For his part, Wong Jack Man (retired from teaching and still alive) claims that Lee simply offered an open challenge at a Chinatown movie theatre, and Wong decided to take him up on the offer. He also claims that he won the fight—or, if not “won,” then at least kept Lee going for 20 or 25 minutes. Continue reading “Bruce Lee as Postmodern Text”

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Summer 2007 at the Fairway Theatre

In summer 2007, between my high-school graduation and my enrolment at the University of Toronto, my parents relocated from the Etobicoke to Kitchener, about 90 minutes from downtown Toronto. The move had been a long time coming: Dad changed careers when I was in the tenth grade, and commuted an hour to Kitchener every day to avoid the trauma of making me switch schools. Once high school was over, however, nothing was tying them to the Toronto suburbs. In retrospect, the move was a no-brainer: Dad is now a five-minute drive from the office, and my parents spared themselves the possible indignity of clinging to an old home out of sentimental reasons. Even so, I spent a lot of summer 2007 mourning the loss of the house where I spent most of my life; disdaining a city that I knee-jerk dismissed as a poor-man’s Toronto; and moping through the four whole weeks I had to wait before I could again self-identify as a Torontonian.

One way I passed the time in August 2007 was by riding my bike to the nearest multiplex—the now-defunct Fairway Theatre—and seeing whatever garbage was playing during the late-summer dumping period. The Fairway Theatre was demolished a few years later and a Cineplex megaplex was erected a few blocks away, but I miss the Fairway for its five-dollar Tuesdays and its dumpy, pinball-machine-in-the-lobby vibe. As luck would have it, the films of August 2007 combined mediocrity with nostalgia in a way that seemed tailor-made for me in this emotionally vulnerable month of my life. The next summer, Iron Man would usher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and The Dark Knight would become the quintessential “Smart Blockbuster™”, so I daresay that the late-summer 2007 slate even has a certain wistful end-of-an-era quality if you squint hard enough. Continue reading “Summer 2007 at the Fairway Theatre”

Something Weird Video: An Appreciation

Now that physical media is almost dead, it has also entered its golden age. Since the only people still paying money for Blu-Rays are insane collectors like myself, companies like Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome, 88 Films, Synapse, and Blue Underground have to work extra-hard for our limited entertainment dollars, releasing cult oddities in deluxe, extras-packed editions. We now live in a world where Taboo exists on Blu-Ray “scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm original vault elements” and featuring four audio commentaries, an archival interview with star Kay Parker, and a gallery of promotional images. Taking a page from the Criterion playbook, Vinegar Syndrome builds anticipation for their monthly announcements, commissions artful cover designs, cultivates a subscriber base that orders monthly packages, and offers semiannual 50% off sales. Not a day goes by that I don’t get excited knowing that their releases of Joe Sarno’s Red Roses of Passion and Gerard Damiano’s Throat: 12 Years After will be on my shelf within the next month.172267_front

It’s a good time to be a trash-cinema consumer, and in this context, I’m overjoyed to see Something Weird Video—the grand poobah of all weirdo home-video companies—reclaim its rightful place at the top of the heap. Friends, I am now the proud owner of The Zodiac Killer (1971), the first of a projected series of tricked-out Blu-Rays made possible by the good folks at the American Genre Film Archive, who have acquired Something Weird’s enormous archive. Bat Pussy (1973), which may very well be the worst porno film of all time, will arrive on Blu-Ray in October, featuring “a new 2k scan from the only surviving 16mm theatrical print.” A 4k restoration of Ed Wood’s The Violent Years (1956) will follow.

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Wonder Woman: The Movie We Need Right Now™

Well gang, I finally saw Wonder Woman, the new film from executive producer Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker and National Finance Manager for the Donald Trump presidential campaign, and current Secretary of the Treasury in the Trump administration. I was bored stiff, but I will concede that aside from its unconscionable 141-minute running time, it is a serviceable entertainment for children.

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Notes on Revisiting “Breathless”

I’ve probably seen Breathless five or six times, but not much in the last few years, so I was lured to revisit it two weeks ago at the TIFF Bell Lightbox by the prospect of a 35mm print. It was an invigorating experience. Even familiar movies tend to ossify in one’s mind, reduced to a series of still images—most famously in this case, Jean-Paul Belmondo (in a fedora, smoking a cigarette) and Jean Seberg (in a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt) walking along on the Champs Élysées. But on this viewing, the biggest surprise was just how alive it is.

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Notes Towards a Personal Blockbuster Video Canon

In the spring of 1993, at Westway and Royal York Rd. on the border of Etobicoke and York, a gas station was demolished and a new construction project started. Every day, as my mom drove me past, we monitored the progress. First came the off-white stucco walls… then the floor-to-ceiling windows… then the bright blue roof… Finally, when I saw that ticket-stub-shaped sign, bearing the glorious words “BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO®,” I knew my life had changed. That’s a pretty pathetic-sounding thing to say, but when you’re a small child, your world is limited, and my family’s Friday night visits to Blockbuster became the centrepiece of my weekend. I used to savour every moment, carefully considering every video in every aisle before eventually settling on one of the same handful of movies.

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Notes on Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man”

I’ve always held Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1961) in high regard, but a recent rewatch confirms by suspicion that it’s one of the great comedies of all time. Lewis’s second and arguably most audacious directorial effort is a remarkable object—endlessly inventive, surprising, and confounding. Has a more abrasive performer or eccentric an American artist ever become as popular as Jerry Lewis?

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