Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Exit the Dragon

Bruce Lee died on July 20th, 1973. It is now 32 years after he died at the age of 32. I met Bruce about 40 years ago. In the next eight years he spanned an arc from insignificance to stardom to sudden death. That’s not really an arc, I guess. It was a fiery rocket to stardom that exploded at its apex, and turned to early ashes.

My one meeting with Bruce was something of an encounter. He was a man very open to his drives, and even willing to share some of his demons with a stranger. But I had seen Bruce Lee in action before I met him, and it was that circumstance that led to our evening’s encounter.

In 1964 I drove from L.A. to Long Beach to observe a martial arts competition. I had been taking a karate class for a few months at that time, but no way, no how did I ever expect to do anything with karate except tug on an opponent’s jacket a bit and flop around on the mat. On the program, but out of competition, a young man named Bruce Lee gave a brief demonstration of his unique training method. A TV documentary which I recently saw graphically depicts my own recollection.

In this old B&W footage, you see the slightly built performer direct a husky young volunteer to stand directly in front of him. Several feet behind the young volunteer, another man holds firmly to a braced chair. When the volunteer is ready, Bruce extends his arm straight and places it against the young man's chest. He pulls it back about one inch, then snaps it back into the chest, sending the volunteer flying back into the chair. It is an awesome explosion of power from an almost miniscule movement.

About a year later, I was invited to a press screening of a new Chinese film musical at a theater in L.A.'s Chinatown. And there was Bruce Lee -- a chorus dancer in the film.

After the screening there was a sit-down dinner at a Chinatown restaurant. As people circulated after dinner, I took an empty chair beside Bruce, who was eager to talk to press people. I advised Bruce that I would not be reviewing his film, but that I had seen his demonstration at Long Beach and was very interested in his brand of Kung Fu. I also asked him why he had not participated in the Karate competition.

He told me that he called his personal martial technique Jeet Kune Do and he could not use it in a sporting competition because it was a true martial art, not a sport. The only objective of his technique is to kill or maim the opponent. It is so lethal, he claimed, that it was against the law to teach it. Nonetheless, he was teaching it, under concealed circumstances at a location in the San Fernando Valley, and invited me to join his class.

He was such a sweet-faced and low-key guy, I asked him why he developed and taught such a violent technique.

"Because I like to hurt people," he lisped. He was Asiatically slight of height and build, almost feminine (not effeminate) in his gentle-seeming persona; but with an unattractive edge of arrogance.

In explaining how his martial arts technique was not a sport but rather a lethal showdown, he described some of the body parts he targeted. They included crunching the opponent's foot in such a way as to break down the arch, and exploding the kneecap with a kick that would immediately and permanently disable the opponent from normal walking. Eyes were also a target -- with permanent blindness being the objective.

Certain blows could also be directed toward inducing temporary or permanent paralysis. With the knowing touch of a skilled masseur or chiropractor, he held a muscle in my upper arm with a firm grip and told me he could yank the muscle from its bone, causing it to wither and atrophy, rendering my arm useless forever after.

Before our conversation ended, he offered to give me a personal demonstration of the power behind his one-inch stroke in Long Beach. He promised me no permanent damage. After what I had learned about him, I wasn't too trusting, but was too macho to decline.

He told me to brace myself in my chair, which was backed up against a wall. Sitting in his chair, he extended his arm full length to my chest. Then he doubled down the first two fingers of that hand so that only those two knuckles were pressing against my chest. He said he would not pull back his arm at all. The only movement would be a slight forward movement of his shoulder. The only contact I would feel would be the two finger knuckles, not the fist knuckles. Since he was sitting, his full body power could not be invoked, even if he wanted to use it. However, he warned me, the explosive power contained in his upper body was still enormous, but he would contain it for my benefit.

Maybe only half believing I could be hurt, I nodded when I was ready. His knuckles exploded into my chest, rocking me back in the chair and against the wall behind me. At the moment of the explosion I saw the intense concentration on his face.

As I struggled to catch my breath, he smiled sweetly. It was, all-in-all, a friendly demonstation. I don't remember the time frame now, but I know my chest and ribs hurt for days after. I wondered why he used two fingers when one would obviously have done the trick. And I never looked up his school.

As we talked that night, it came out that he hated the movie that we had screened, and hated being a dancer. He also resented his shortness of height, nationality and culture. His classes were mostly composed of white men and included some film and sports celebrities. He expressed delight at being able to teach them his art while hurting them in the process.

Sometime later, before he became an international martial arts star, Bruce appeared on TV as the Green Hornet's masked karate sidekick. I watched a couple of segments but it wasn't my kind of TV. In 1969, however, I saw Bruce in the Hollywood movie, MARLOWE, with James Garner. This is the one where he uses karate kicks and chops to destroy Marlowe's office, furniture, walls and all, as Marlowe helplessly looks on. The scene works beautifully because of the outrageous joy and glee that Bruce expresses during this vicarious and anticipatory destruction of Marlowe, himself. For me, this is Bruce Lee’s signature performance. His character’s delight in destruction is both over the top and virtually suicidal.

Two years later, Bruce went to Hong Kong and in the next two years made the small handful of films that made him an international star and unique icon of action movies. And then he died.

His sudden death generated many rumors, including even murder. The medical certificate, however, cited a brain aneurysm as the cause of death. I still wonder if his lifelong anger had contributed to that condition. Or was it some glitch already in the brain cells that caused that persistent anger? Or neither.


At July 24, 2005 6:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never been into B.L., but found your piece, interesting, and a good read.. M.T.

At July 24, 2005 7:38 PM, Blogger Jeffrey Veen said...

Hey B.J.,

I have fond memories of Bruce Lee films on the independent TV channels in Los Angeles as a kid in the 70s. Sunday afternoons on KCOP, or was it KTLA?

At July 24, 2005 8:38 PM, Blogger BJMe said...

I can't answer to those channels, Jeffrey. My habit, after Betamax appeared on the scene, was to tape kung fu movies off the air, then play them on Saturday mornings after breakfast and between my yard chores, etc.

When I screen the current hollow action movies, all computerized and wired, I miss the good clean stunt work of a good fight scene.

At January 29, 2006 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was looking for blogs about martial arts and came across yours. Great blog you got. I have a website somewhat related you might find interesting.

At March 25, 2006 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might be mistaken regarding the specific time period you talked to Bruce Lee because I don't think he called his art Jeet Kune Do until around 1967-68. Before that he called it Jun Fan.

At March 25, 2006 9:18 PM, Blogger BJMe said...

The time period is right, but I'm sure you are right about Jun Fan. I wrote this piece many years after the encounter and just assumed it was Jeet Kun Do as it sounded familiar.

Thanks for the correction.

At March 13, 2007 7:38 PM, Blogger Winson said...

hi, i was a little bothered by one of your sentences. "He also resented his shortness of height, nationality and culture." He resented his nationality and culture? From what he has shown he loved his nationality and culture. But did he wished he wasn't Chinese? thanks

At November 12, 2012 2:05 AM, Anonymous Blayne Chavez said...

The gutless hero may want to use Natsumi and Yuzuki as shields when the alligator attacks. and floral baby doll dresses. My mother's bracelet box, a beautifully turned, round, wooden lidded bowl always sat on her dressing table.


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