Little Dragon

by Sam D. Lyons

His passion might have been in the martial arts, but Bruce Lee’s most constant ambition was to achieve worldwide superstardom in films. That surprised me to learn, though I didn’t know much about him anyway before reading the book by Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: a life.

I knew only that his fame as a fighter was nearly matched by his reputation as a philosopher; and so I guess he always struck me as being too far above the pursuit of something as egocentric as fame and global superstardom.  But then, it turns out he was a pretty egotistical guy, and this ambition might have been every bit as attributable to vanity as it was practicality.

For one thing, yes, he had a lot of swagger and bragged often.  In fact, it’s a character trait that took center-stage recently in Quentin Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in a scene where Bruce Lee challenges a stunt man, played by Brad Pitt, to a fight after Pitt’s character raises doubts about whether Lee could defeat Muhammad Ali.  Seconds before, Lee had insisted that he could make Ali a cripple.  

The film sparked controversy among Lee’s fans, as well as friends and family, who regarded the depiction as distastefully over the top, while further citing Bruce Lee’s deep admiration for Muhammad Ali. In an interview for The Wrap, Polly himself weighed in on the scene.

“Bruce Lee was often a cocky, strutting, braggart,” Polly says.  “But Tarantino took those traits and exaggerated them to the point of a ‘SNL’ caricature.”

It may indeed be easy to observe Lee’s cockiness and vanity and think less of him for it.  I’ll admit that I did too while reading the book, until I began questioning whether it said more about me and less about Bruce.  This book is not just the story of Bruce Lee, after all, but a compelling portrait of ambition, and devotion to oneself and self-actualization.

Bruce Lee from his unfinished film ‘Game of Death’

I think it’s safe to say our relationship with ambition has proven complicated over the years, at least in America.  On the one hand, we celebrate it as an integral component of success, something that neatly ties into the more traditional, individualistic values of the American Dream.   On the other hand, we relate to it with an equal degree of skepticism, a wariness of how easily and suddenly it can morph into selfishness, ruthlessness and greed.

Lately I’ve come to identify two seemingly separate value systems at the heart of that ethos, counterbalancing eachother in a continuous drama playing out in the mind of the individual, and by extension, in the whole history of mankind: service to oneself and service to others.

Now in reading Bruce Lee’s story, it might be easier to assume that he most definitely took the more individualistic route.  For example, at first glance, someone who frequently brags about how great they are might not seem like the most likely person to prioritize other people’s needs over their own.  He also took virtually no interest in social and political issues or the larger news of the world.  But in true Bruce Lee fashion, examining this a little further leads to larger, more philosophical questions.  Chief among them, to what degree does self-devotion translate into service to others?

It’s another question probably better suited for another time.  The book makes no claim to know the answer, and I won’t either.  Like so many of the best questions, there may not be even an ultimate answer that can be applied to every situation. 

Still, in pursuing that ambition, Bruce Lee left an indelible mark on our culture, revolutionizing the film industry around the world and popularizing martial arts into a global phenomenon and respected institution. 

It’s important to understand because it suggests Lee’s own awareness of the more practical benefits of achieving fame; that while he might have been as keen as the next guy in simply seeing his face and name all lit up on the silver screen, he knew full well that those same benefits extended far beyond himself.

Starring on screen as a strong, confident Chinese man with attitude, acting not in some peripheral, subservient ‘butler’ role–the kind that was typically given to Asian actors next to their white co-stars–but as a leading man with more wit, charisma, charm and sophistication than any action movie star before or perhaps since, Bruce Lee left an incalculable influence on the collective consciousness for millions of people around the world, certainly for the continent of Asia, and most specifically for the Chinese, who for centuries had long suffered under the stigma of being labeled the “sick man of Asia.” 

Bruce Lee’s fame shattered that image, and his influence continues to empower generations of people, young and old, navigating their own paths to self-empowerment, in the continued realization of who they are, and what they want to be. 

Still, it seems that same ambition cut his life tragically short.  At age 32, he suffered a cerebral edema and died shortly before the release of Enter the Dragon, the very film which would catapult him into fame and set that future influence into motion. 

While the precise cause of the edema is still met with some uncertainty by medical experts and biographers, Polly makes a strong case for heat stroke/hypothermia caused by overexertion and sleep deprivation during the production of the film.  Enter the Dragon was his first starring role in an American movie, and he was very much aware of it’s potential impact as the perfect platform to introduce both himself and his philosophies of self-empowerment to the world. 

The Man Himself

With the film’s success, Bruce Lee had finally achieved much of what he envisioned, only posthumously; and as he paid the ultimate price, we might question whether it was even worth it.  The author makes no overt claim to know one way or another, though he does conclude that his death was not a tragedy because, as he writes, Bruce Lee’s life was a triumph.   

“Even though I, Bruce Lee, may die someday without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I feel no sorrow,” he once said.  “I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.”

Issue #2 / Quinby & Co.

 

 

Kerouac

I read your words late this morning
to rock and roll in
the living room
booming, resounding
as clouds roll, overcast
in mysterious
oncoming afternoon
daze………

Are we here?
Is everybody in? Is that working now.
Is it just me?
Do I type too fast? I am just?
Trying
to type
my
poem, for Kerouac
triumphant
having licked the devil
toward the end of his book
of pomes
I like that
lip drummer
Pome
little sketches
all that was familiar to me
returns to me
as Jack and I
lick those demons
once again
yea once and
for all

Issue #1
Q&Co.

A saw a film today, oh boy! 1917.

by J.L. Quinby

1917 is a story about two British soldiers in World War I sent by their commanding general to warn another battalion, currently preparing an assault on German forces, that they are walking into a trap and playing right into the hands of the enemy. One of the two soldiers has a brother in that battalion and thus a personal stake in warning them of the impending danger.

The film is directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), whose work I’ve increasingly admired since Road to Perdition–including two of the more recent Bond films starring Daniel Craig. Skyfall is actually my personal favorite in the whole series.

Anyway with 1917, Mendes reaches a new peak. Right from its opening scene, the film never lets go. This is no doubt aided by the one shot/one take method it employs, which involves shooting a scene in one shot, and thus one take, requiring the film’s cast and crew to be on-time and on-mark, fully synchronized as in a stage production. Personally, I love this style of shooting and I’m glad to see it being used more over the past few years. You might recall seeing it in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman and The Revenant.

Much like those films, 1917 reminds us why it’s important to still see films in theaters; which, safe to say, is something slowly getting forgotten as we move further along into the digital streaming age and films become more accessible than ever before.

These feats of technical visual wizardry can only be truly appreciated in a theater, where audiences can better absorb stunning photography, vast landscapes and cutting-edge camerawork on a big screen, and perhaps better grasp the scope of what goes into staging such a large-scale production.

Seeing a film like this in a theater is a shared experience, one that allows us to get swept up in a visceral symphony of sight and sound, and thus–for a couple hours, at least–to forget the notion that we are total strangers from each other; which in the opinion of this humble filmgoer, is the real illusion.

Anyway to that point, I was reminded of the tremendous brutality, valor and sacrifice that form the fundamental components of war. Specifically, as is typically the case with the great war films or any effective telling of history, 1917 reminded me of my connection to those who have come before, and how much of our current world and thus our lives are shaped by history.

1917 is an a emotional, cathartic experience that honors, as much as any film is capable, the bravery of soldiers who fought for something bigger than themselves. Far from being mere escapism, it brought me closer to our world and history.

Issue #1
Q&Co.

a billion dollar question

by Sam D. Lyons

The New York Times sat down with each of the 2020 Democratic candidates a few months back and asked them the question: “Does anybody deserve to have a billion dollars?”

Deserve might be a strong word, but still, let’s say that person is an extremely virtuous, all-around beautiful human being with a heart of gold who does nothing but wonderful things. That person might deserve all the money in the world less because their moral character calls for a reward and more because it indicates what they might do with their acquired wealth.

I think, in theory, anyone deserves the money for which they’ve invested the time and labor; but that leads to the second question of whether that person actually worked for all the billion dollars they have. To what degree did their fortune depend on precisely that: fortune, or luck, or the ingenuity and sweat of other people?

Practically speaking, a billion dollars could be too much for any one person to have especially when it would likely be spent on the acquisition of things, which they’d pursue simply because they can and not because they actually need those things. How much of the fortune, conversely, would be invested in something that could make society better or more prosperous, like environmental causes or public infrastructure?

Might the ultimate measure, then, of whether someone deserves a billion dollars be what they plan to do with it? Would it be spent in such a way that would reflect their stake in others, or in a way that would serve and simply reflect their own ego?

Issue #1
Q&Co.