Bruce Lee: Authorship, Ideology, and Film Studies– Part 1

by Kyle Barrowman Volume 16, Issue 6 / June 2012 36 minutes (8842 words)

In Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, David Bordwell provides a sobering survey of the institutionalization/routinization of film interpretation, which has long been and continues to be the dominant practice of the film studies institution. At first, Bordwell’s task seems highly controversial and affrontingly polemic; however, as is to be expected of his scholarship, his argument proves too exhaustively researched and assiduously explicated for dismissal. The sincerity in his appeal to move beyond the conventionality of routinized, non-medium specific readings of films, particularly of the deconstructionist variety, is aided by a number of alluring alternatives, chief among them his conviction that a “historical poetics of cinema” can aid the contemporary scholar seeking answers to questions either ignored in or unsatisfactorily engaged by conventional modes of interpretation. In light of the frequency of scholars in contemporary film studies “rescuing” various filmmakers, film styles, and critical paradigms from obscurity/disrepute, the long-reigning dogmas of the “Grand Theory” [1] era are being challenged as scholars pursue more modest inquiries that take as their impetus the belief that the act of “making meaning” out of individual films requires that scholars not only privilege form and content in the course of their textually-centered and historically-contextualized analyses, but even more importantly, that they operate with an open-mindedness that allows them “to take despised genres seriously” (Bordwell, 2000: 199) in the belief that all films, filmmakers, and film styles are worthy of analysis. Historically, filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock and Val Lewton have been beneficiaries of this shift in perspective, as have the genres of the Western and film noir, but still in desperate need of reassessment is the martial arts cinema of Bruce Lee and, by extension, the concept of authorship in film studies.

The case of the martial arts film is a fascinating oddity in film history. As sagaciously observed by Offscreen editor Donato Totaro, Hong Kong is the only national cinema “to be discovered in the West through popular genre” (Totaro, 2000), that of the martial arts cinema of Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers; this in comparison to other national cinemas, including Japanese (Kurosawa and Ozu), Italian (Fellini and Antonioni), and French (Godard and Truffaut) cinema, “which were introduced to the West through [the] arthouse” (Totaro, 2000). Just as curiously, from a genre as opposed to a national cinema perspective, the critical response to the martial arts film was the exact opposite of the response to, for example, the Western and film noir, genres the film community eventually came to embrace after having originally denounced them as nothing more than B-movie fare. Initially, the popular explosion into the North American consciousness of the martial arts films of Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers in the early 1970s had writers in both the martial arts and film communities scrambling to understand this new and exotic style of filmmaking. From within the martial arts community, magazines such as Black Belt Magazine and Fighting Stars sought to illuminate the intricacies of the combat seen on the screen, while, from within the film community, scholars such as Verina Glaessner (1974) and Marilyn D. Mintz (1978) sought to explore the consistencies of story structure and theme throughout the genre’s history.

After only a few years of the “Kung Fu Craze,” though, the critical assumption was that the martial arts genre was destined to be merely a footnote in cinema history, a passing fad that had fleetingly captured the imagination of the impressionable 1970s youth culture. Many of the writers at the time, however, knew better, recognizing that the very idea of the martial arts had “so entrenched itself in the lives of young people from New York to New Delhi [that] what was once heralded as just another ‘craze’ seems almost certain to have permanent repercussions” (Dennis and Atyeo, 1974: 94), and indeed, the martial arts have since remained a significant part of popular culture. After Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers introduced the world to martial arts cinema in the 1970s, Jackie Chan and Chuck Norris extended its popularity into the 1980s, followed then by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Jet Li, who took the martial arts film into the 21st Century where it has continued to evolve in the films of such contemporary martial arts stars as Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen.

Sadly, it is not just an awe-inspiring command of the martial arts that links these film stars. They are also all victims of widespread critical belittlement/neglect. The early scholars recognized that, “when given the close consideration deserved, the martial arts film definitely emerges not only as a popular, but also a significant, genre [with] the capacity for greatness” (Mintz, 1978: 219), yet precious few scholars in the decades since have given martial arts films this consideration, even when their attention has turned to Bruce Lee. Unlike his old martial arts movie peers such as Lo Lieh and Wang Yu, Lee has remained culturally relevant. Not only does he continue to serve as the primary source of inspiration for people from all walks of life involved in martial arts; Lee himself has also recently become a popular subject in the academic field of cultural studies, with scholars making use of his international renown as an excuse to explore through him various topics prevalent in the cultural studies discourse. [2]

The work that has resulted from these various explorations into the Bruce Lee phenomenon are all fascinating, but they all “overstep or miss the significance and ramifications of the cinematic dimension of Lee’s popular cultural impact” (Bowman, 2010a: 14). Ironically, this point, made by Paul Bowman in his book Theorizing Bruce Lee: Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy, is not, as one might have hoped, an indication of his personal position vis-à-vis medium specificity. Bowman is currently the preeminent academic Bruce Lee scholar, having written numerous journal articles and book chapters on Lee in addition to his full-length book study. His work to gain acceptance for Lee as a topic for academic study is admirable and his insights on Lee in relation to various philosophical, psychoanalytic, and sociopolitical viewpoints add new shades to Lee’s status as a cultural icon, but he has done nothing to spotlight Lee’s position as a film artist. In fact, for all of his claims regarding Lee’s cinematic import, Bowman has situated himself as a serious impediment to a critical acceptance of Lee’s film work as aesthetically and thematically significant. For someone purporting to be the lone, noble Sisyphus of academia, refusing to give up on pushing the Bruce Lee boulder, he comes off as affrontingly disingenuous and entirely disinterested in Lee’s film work. [3]

Prior to setting out on his quest to explore the cultural (i.e., distinctly not cinematic) significance and ramifications of Lee’s international impact, Bowman makes clear the fact that he is not a film scholar. Acknowledging this fact, he also acknowledges the inevitability of criticisms leveled at his attempts at film analysis. The influence of Slavoj Žižek is felt on each and every page of his text, but Bowman lacks the same mastery of the various disciplinary branches he tries to alternately swing from throughout his study, and he quite clearly loses his grip when he finds himself on the film studies branch. The reason for this is discernible in the following portion from the book’s introduction:

Given the complex multimedia, multidisciplinary, multicultural, and multidimensional nature of the object or topic called “Bruce Lee,” this book necessarily enters into several fields: film, postcolonialism, critical theory, semiotics, poststructuralism, the margins of philosophy, and so on […] Inevitably, therefore, there will be those in these fields who are going [to] regard this book as improper […] as not doing [for example] film studies properly (Bowman, 2010a: 6).

In a clever move, Bowman attempts to get out in front of his critics and put the blame on anyone who finds him methodologically at fault at any point in his text. As Žižek himself cautioned, though, “the lack of specific disciplinary skills” can cause serious problems for cultural studies academics who, barreling headlong in Icarus-like fashion, take their “interdisciplinary” label to be constitutive of a “universal critical capacity to pass judgments on everything without proper knowledge” (Žižek, 2005: 92). Focusing solely on the largest and most fundamental flaw in Bowman’s hegemonic study as it relates to his attempts at film analysis, his crucial mistake is that he is taking Bruce Lee to be an abstract “object” or “topic” as opposed to an artist. As a result, discussions of Lee’s various films (which are actually rather infrequent occurrences) are never concerned with what Lee is doing as an actor or what he is trying to convey as a filmmaker, but rather, what is being done or what is being said in the films, all of which are denounced in Bowman’s ignorant promulgation of the wholesale critical trivialization of martial arts films as “juvenile action flicks” (Bowman, 2010b: 394) whose worth is contingent on their ideological usefulness (to be determined, of course, by the almighty scholar). [4] And, significantly, for all of his attempts to make his analysis of Lee’s indexicality appear novel, the key point to be made is that Bowman is actually just the most recent in a long line of cultural studies scholars who have contributed to a debilitating institutionalization and commodification of Bruce Lee that all but prohibits an actual assessment of his film work. [5]

To “rescue” Lee and his films from the myopic field of cultural studies, then, is to deny the reigning dogma that his star text and his film texts offer saliency only by way of ideological deconstruction. As explicated by Todd McGowan in his superlative reformulation of psychoanalytic film theory for use in contemporary film studies, the continued evolution of film theory has created a hermeneutic divide, the point of interest for the scholar being either what the cinema hides (i.e., the scholar believes his/her task is the unmasking/deconstruction of the cinema, which is constituted by “contingent and meaningless occurrences” out of which only the most brilliant of scholars, with no regard for medium specificity, can establish “teleological and meaningful order” [Žižek, 2005: 99]) or what the cinema has the power to reveal, its primary importance being recognized from this perspective as formal/perceptual as opposed to political/ideological. Finding recourse to again invoke the notion of “Grand Theory,” constituted as it was by the Althusserian politicization of standard Lacanian doctrine, the style of film analysis that rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s viewed “cinematic representation chiefly as a problem that it must attack” (McGowan, 2007: 173), a reductive analytic position that has regrettably flourished in the field of Bruce Lee Studies.

Leading the battle against cultural studies hegemony, Bordwell cautions against combative engagements with the cinema such as Bowman’s engagements with Bruce Lee. Bordwell believes the cost of “ransacking” formal and narratological inquiry in favor of explicating “imprecise and banal” meanings gleaned from cursory overviews of the narrative comes with “the price of insipidity” (Bordwell, 1981: 3). As McGowan asserts, the task of the scholar setting out to analyze any facet of the cinema ought to be “unlocking the power of the cinema rather than fighting against it” (McGowan, 2007: 173); this does not imply, however, that a desire to “scrutinize the film medium in its specificity” (Bordwell, 1981: 1) is a surreptitious effort on the part of the film studies institution to divorce art from ideology. In order to combat the allegedly useless notion of medium specificity, scholars in the past have sought to analyze the ideological implications of film texts in opposition to explicit textual cues and/or authorial intention, concentrating instead on vague assertions pertaining to ideologically-predetermined themes that effectively render the cinema functionally irrelevant. With no scrutiny given to any aspects of the filmmaking process, what results is an “infinitely elastic principle of interpretation” (Bordwell, 1981: 3) that benefits the hubristic scholar rather than the neglected film text, the “victory” of ideology amounting to the denunciation of cinematic artistry and the cannibalization of the cinema as an art form.

More productively, in the spirit of many of the more recent interdisciplinary movements within the film studies institution, scholars have come to recognize that films are “related to ideology but cannot be reduced to it” and that “any account of the relation must include the particular aesthetic dynamics of the work” (Bordwell, 1981: 8). As optimistically posited by Bordwell:

The stress on the medium, on the perceptual activity of art, on systems in harmony or collision, on the different functions of structure and style within historical conventions—such theoretical concepts help us locate specific ways in which art mediates social ideology (Bordwell, 1981: 8).

In the same spirit, this two-part essay seeks, above all else, to demonstrate that the films of Bruce Lee, suffocated by the cultural studies colonization and neglected by the film studies prioritization of “serious” art over “mindless” entertainment, have yet to be adequately elucidated on aesthetic and thematic grounds. More than just an isolated appraisal of a single artist’s work, however, this essay also hopes to exemplify the potential for uniting the search for ideological salience in the cinema with historically-contextualized formal and narratological analysis so as to allow ideological analysis to contribute to, rather than detract from, the practice of film interpretation. To achieve even the smallest of victories in a task as Herculean/Quixotic as altering the tide of over two decades of scholarship on the films of Bruce Lee, though, there is first the necessity of consolidating the notoriously combustible elements of authorship, genre, and ideology.

In his interrogation of the polemics of genre in film studies, Leland Poague posits “no concept in film study is more central or more problematic than the concept of film genre” (Poague, 1982a: 57). Genre theory throughout the history of film studies has been paradoxically insightful and infuriating, and problems of genre go hand-in-hand with problems of authorship, for they often represent the two sides of the textual criticism coin. As Leo Braudy writes, the very notion of genre offends “our most common definition of artistic excellence: the uniqueness of the art object” (Braudy, 1977: 105). If the puerility resultant from the adherence to conventions of genre is a hindrance to true artistic expression, then the auteur theory serves as a seductive alternative with its ability to subsume genre as a “condition of creation” (Sarris, 1968: 30). While the auteur theory was originally created to account for the consistency of visual style, story structure, and theme in the work of filmmakers from the Hollywood studio era, it, too, ultimately found itself the victim of a severe critical backlash. As succinctly outlined by Laurence Knapp, the objections to auteurism centered on attributability:

In a collaborative, commercial art form that involve[s] the close interaction of thousands of skilled technicians and performers, who should be credited with being the author? Can a director have that much autonomy? Can he or she be that omnipotent?” (Knapp, 1996: 1).

This was the quandary that arose concurrent with/because of the rise of semioticians, post-structuralists, and deconstructionists, to whom, echoing Bowman and the cultural studies collective, “the true author of a film [is] either the cultural system that produced it or the viewer who invested the ‘text’ with meaning and syntax,” with the filmmaker having now become “less and less of an architect and more and more of an unwitting bricklayer” (Knapp, 1996: 1-2). Robin Wood also recognized this shift, commenting how, “at the most extreme [end of this backlash], the author as controlling and responsible agent has disappeared altogether: Barthes’ celebrated formulation, ‘The author does not write, he is written’ […] gained widespread currency throughout the semiotic/structuralist school” (Wood, 1989: 8). A line in the sand had been drawn, and the project of finding a “synthetic criticism” (Wood, 1989: 289) is one that has preoccupied a number of scholars in the years since the original clash between authorship and ideology.

While the field of film studies has opened up considerably, allowing for an unprecedented variety of methodologies in assessing films and filmmakers, the ideas of authorship and film appreciation are still anathema to many scholars, creating a severe imbalance in the exegetic activities of the increasingly interdisciplinary field of film studies. Initially, as benevolently observed by Wood, “the assault on the notion of personal authorship was a perfectly justifiable response to the early excesses of auteur theory,” since, as he expounds:

Auteurism [at its most extreme] claimed or at least implied that the author was solely and exclusively responsible for the meaning and quality of [his/her] texts. Its opponents countered this by pointing out that the author did not invent the language and conventions of [his/her] medium, the genre within which the work was located, the ideological assumptions inherent in the culture and necessarily reproduced (with whatever inflections) in the individual text; neither did the author control the conditions of production (Wood, 1989: 8-9).

Somewhere between these two extremes resides a critical vantage point that allows for the acknowledgment and appreciation of, on the one hand, “the existence of a historical method and form” (Braudy, 1977: 114), i.e., a generic tradition that determines, in general terms, the nature of plot development and characterization, as well as, on the other hand, “the existence of a creator” (Braudy, 1977: 114), i.e., an author whose stylistic tendencies and Weltanschauung give the films, indebted as they are to generic tradition and influenced as they are by aspects of the culture at large, a unique and personalized touch. There exists, as a result of the opening up and merging of the various critical avenues over the past two decades, the potential for a synthetic model of interpretation that attends to the complexities and nuances of authorship, genre, and ideology, all in the service of better understanding and appreciating film art.

In conjunction with the views of Knapp and Wood apropos of authorship, Poague observes how auteurism fell into disrepute “not because of any inherent or internal weakness,” but because certain scholars came “to disagree with the critical purpose generally served by auteurism” (Poague, 1982b: 173), that of its implicit insistence on “a textually centered theory of criticism the purpose of which is generally to demonstrate the kind of life that a film text might have in the community of viewers” (Poague, 1982b: 173). This in direct contrast to “materialist film criticism” of the kind practiced by (among many others) Bowman in his book on Lee, where, “for all of the attention it devotes to system and text, [the goal] is not textually centered in purpose [and is instead] to establish the relationship between films on the one hand and the structures of society on the other” (Poague, 1982b: 173-174). The “excess” of this brand of film analysis, then, is the implicit insistence that the scholar’s true aim should not be to understand the films (a frivolous indulgence that is strictly the province of cinephilia) but to simply use the films as tools to better understand society.

This “supratextual” (Poague, 1982b: 174) concern of materialist film criticism amounts to what Wood deems, justifiably eschatologically, “the demolition of art” (Wood, 1989: 26). Attempting to explore a film with the belief that it is beyond individual imagination and relevant only as a cultural object as opposed to an artistic object leads to the undesirable outcome of many of the film’s estimable qualities going unnoticed “because the interpretive optic in force has virtually no way to register them” (Bordwell, 1989: 260). This supratextual prerogative insults the very act of filmmaking (while also making the process of film interpretation mind-numbingly redundant) yet the substantial amount of work offered by scholars that attempts to remove the notion of the author from relevance in the analysis of film has continued undeterred. As bemoaned by Wood, “without artists there is no art,” in its place “mere ideological constructions, culturally determined, produced out of various combinations of codes, systems, and signifiers” (Wood, 1989: 26) that simply need to be mechanically deconstructed. It would appear, then, that a restoration of authorship in the pursuit of a “synthetic criticism” amounts to the very restoration of film appreciation, something that has inexplicably come to be regarded by some academics as not only irrelevant and bourgeois, but downright deplorable.

It is perhaps inescapable that the “excesses” of the original formulation of auteurism “compromise any […] expedition into the American studio era,” where the difficulty of singling out individual artistic influence is so great that even attempting to do so seems nothing more than a romantic fantasy on the part of the scholar; in moving into other areas of film history, however, including post-classical American cinema as well as the considerably less studied arenas of international cinema, auteurism “gains considerable worth and credibility as a means of classification and analysis” (Knapp, 1996: 2). This is not to say that, in discussing any and all films not made in the old Hollywood studio system, the central quandary of authorship disappears completely; nonetheless, there does appear to be two distinct areas where the deployment of a conception of authorship as the primary interpretive framework is the best option, both of which have direct applicability to an analysis of Bruce Lee as a filmmaker.

The first area where the concept of authorship appears to be the best method for classification and analysis is when the scholar turns his/her attention to “the small number of star-auteurs,” or “starteurs,” who have “emerged out of the morass of feature film production with their independence intact” (Knapp, 1996: 2). Knapp sagaciously elucidates his conceptualization of the starteur, the unique filmmaking entity in possession of financial and artistic control over his/her film projects and iconography, in the following passage:

Starteurs have a self-reflective relationship to their work; their films are an extended dialogue with their screen personae, an attempt to shape, reshape, and break the mold that gave them their initial creative and commercial independence […] With great delicacy and insight, they are capable of making successive films that deconstruct or circumnavigate their personae without reducing them to bathos, parody, or caricature. Their longevity and singular status comes as a result of a direct understanding of themselves, their craft, time period, and archetypal appeal” (Knapp, 1996: 2).

From rare early stars such as James Cagney and Cary Grant to mid-century iconoclasts such as Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen all the way up to more contemporary icons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, film history has occasionally allowed the “star-as-author” to reign supreme. In analyzing the films of these celluloid luminaries, one comes to recognize that the directors frequently serve merely as the “nominal authors” of the collaborations, themselves subject to the star text that defines the essence of the films (Saunders, 2009: 5). And yet, for all of the power contained within these incandescent iconographies, there is still missing from their work a sense of real control and creative autonomy. James Cagney is considered one of the most unique and unforgettable icons in Hollywood history, but he consistently fought against the tough guy half of his iconography and failed (though not from a lack of effort) to assimilate his real-life sensitivity with his tough guy screen persona in the projects he undertook for his short-lived independent production company; Cary Grant, while a savvy businessman and a shrewd judge of cinematic quality, tended to put his iconography in the hands of more imposing auteurs such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock instead of having the creative ingenuity to shape his own persona; and Steve McQueen, while a brilliantly intuitive performer and the brains behind his own production company, failed in his lone attempt to meaningfully extend his screen persona in an authorial capacity. [6]

Much rarer than these types of iconic stars are the true starteurs, the film icons so in command of the time in which they live and work, the iconography they have made an indelible part of popular culture, and the medium through which they have been able to immortalize themselves, that they are able, not merely as stars or cultural artifacts, but as artists, to actively determine the nature, character, and evolution of their onscreen persona, in the process developing “unique themes and compositional motifs that are wholly their own” (Knapp, 1996: 2). Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood, and Woody Allen are immediately identifiable as exemplary starteurs; less easily identifiable, though no less superlative, is Bruce Lee, the man who revolutionized an entire genre while also practically singlehandedly popularizing the films of that genre and country internationally.

To really appreciate the uniqueness and ambition of Lee’s filmic artistry, it is necessary to contextualize his rapid ascension from supporting player to superstar to starteur against the historical backdrop of the postwar Hong Kong film industry, which brings this discussion to the second of the two key areas where the concept of authorship exhibits its usefulness. Beyond Lee’s status as a starteur, there is also a necessary engagement with his status as an international starteur working outside of the American film industry. Echoing Knapp’s skepticism about the usefulness of auteurism when looking at classical Hollywood cinema, Gary Needham postulates that authorship “is still in other, particularly non-Western contexts, a valuable interpretive framework for negotiating and mediating sociocultural and national experiences” (Needham, 2006: 359). The “named creative individual,” regardless of the scholar’s particular schematization of such a conceptual entity, is invariably granted a degree “of influence in the production of a film’s meaning;” in nearly all interpretive work in film studies, the author is viewed as a “unifying anchorage” for “discussions and analysis of style and theme” (Needham, 2006: 360), entirely dispensed with only when, as discussed by Poague, the scholar’s concern is distinctly not textual. Problematically, the rivalrous binarism of these two positions has lead, even in international film analysis, to the same impasse of authorship versus ideology. As sketched by Needham:

The simplicity of emphasis on style and thematic consistency [implies that the scholar] who privileges these aspects of the unifying brand-name function [of the author] is able to negate the specific cultural forces and contextual parameters that form part of the film’s meaning and cultural base (Needham, 2006: 362-363).

Even in assessing films outside of Hollywood, scholars are still forced to negotiate the same tenuous ground in attempting to have the allegedly contradictory forces of authorship and ideology cohere in one hermeneutic that works in the service of the film(s). In the context of international cinema, Needham postulates that authorship need not be “the limiting domain of the cinephile’s appreciation” and can instead function as “an active source of dialogue with the larger regional and cultural concerns” (Needham, 2006: 363) of the particular national cinema. In the case of Bruce Lee, that national cinema is the cinema of Hong Kong, though the great paradox in Lee’s case is the indestructible link that has been formed, thanks in large part to the cultural studies institution, between his star image and a sense of Chinese nationalism in spite of his lifelong quest to dissolve such simplistic identity formations in the creation of a “denationalized, if not completely deracinated” (Teo, 2009: 78) martial arts cinema.

On this front, the work of scholars in the recent movement of transnational historiography proves worth surveying, especially before attempting to assert Lee’s power of transcendence beyond what Andrew Higson calls the “limiting imagination of national cinema” (Higson, 2006: 15-19). As posited by the editors of a recent transnational film reader, “the impossibility of assigning a fixed national identity to much cinema reflects the dissolution of any stable connection between a film’s place of production and/or setting and the nationality of its makers and performers” (Ezra and Rowden, 2006: 1). In corroboration, Higson makes the following perspicacious observation:

When a British director teams up with an American producer, a multinational cast and crew, and American capital, to adapt a novel about the contingency of identity by a Sri Lankan-born Canadian resident [in reference to The English Patient], can [the film’s] identity be called anything other than transnational?” (Higson, 2006: 19).

While the discursive framing of national cinemas tends to be determined by the “host countries” (Naficy, 2001: 19), the insufficiency of such a practice has allowed authorship to establish considerable credibility in the arena of international film analysis, the extension of which will be one of the goals in analyzing Lee’s lone completed directorial effort in Part II of this essay. Framing the analysis this way will help to serve as a corrective to the inescapable truth that often times the explicit significance of some textual cues in films, especially those not reified as part of the established canon, can be lost over time (Bordwell, 1989: 266), while also having the potential to serve as a solid foundation for a starteurist analysis, for, as Bordwell points out, a historical poetics of cinema, concerned as it is with “the study of how, in determinate circumstances, films are put together, serve specific functions, and achieve specific effects” (Bordwell, 1989: 266-267), has the ability to absorb and extend the work done by the materialist film critics from the cultural studies institution.

If materialist scholars believe that filmmakers, “as cultural agents, are on the whole blind to ideological forces,” a historical poetics that attends to the specificities of the particular national cinema while also embracing the concepts of transnationalism and authorship in the analysis of a film’s form and content has the ability to show how “most textual effects are the result of deliberate and founding choices [that] affect form, style, and different sorts of meaning” (Bordwell, 1989: 269). Thus, the purpose here is to provide a historical context for Lee’s emergence as a film artist, and that context will then provide a framework for understanding the “textual effects” sought by him in the production of his only completed directorial effort, The Way of the Dragon. The hegemonic scholarship on Bruce Lee produced by the cultural studies institution has consisted of scholars simply putting their deconstruction template on the “object” known as Bruce Lee, a template that obscures more than it reveals; “as a historian of forms, genres, and styles,” the poetician, on the other hand, “starts from the concrete assumptions embedded in the filmmaker’s craft” (Bordwell, 1989: 269). The poetician “aims to analyze the conceptual and empirical factors—norms, traditions, habits—that govern a practice and its products,” thus offering not idiosyncratic conjecture but “explanations, of an intentionalist, functionalist, or causal sort” (Bordwell, 1989: 269). The analysis of The Way of the Dragon in Part II of this essay will therefore seek to explain, based on conventions of the martial arts genre as determined by its historical evolution, stylistic tendencies in both Hong Kong and American filmmaking either repudiated or embraced by Lee, and Lee’s personal Weltanschauung informed by a lifetime of transnational experiences, the nature of Lee’s cinematic expression.

After severe turbulence from war with Japan, civil unrest, and British occupation, Hong Kong filmmaking, divided between Cantonese and Mandarin productions, began to establish set genres that led to a fairly standardized mode of production from 1945 to the mid-1960s. Included in this stretch of time were an abundance of stage-inspired comedies and melodramas on the Cantonese side, and musicals and historical epics on the Mandarin side. These were all staples of Hong Kong filmmaking of the era, but what really made the industry unique was its martial arts film output. Starting with a series of films running from 1949-1970 about the folk hero, Wong Fei-hung, the martial arts genre came to dominate Hong Kong film production. In the 1960s, the Shaw Brothers studio would lead the Mandarin film market to prominence after initiating a shift from the softer, stage-inspired Cantonese martial arts films to more violent and extravagant films. Going into the 1970s, the Shaw Brothers had virtually extinguished Cantonese film production as well as successfully toppling its only significant Mandarin rival, Cathay Organization, positioning itself as the single megastudio in Hong Kong. [7]

As led by the Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong filmmaking became reminiscent of America’s RKO Pictures during the Val Lewton years in the 1940s vis-à-vis the ratio between budgets and profits. Hong Kong filmmaking was “poverty row cinema” (Glaessner, 1974: 15), but extraordinarily profitable nonetheless; as famously proclaimed by studio head, Run Run Shaw: “If they want violence, we give them violence. If they want sex, we give them sex. Whatever the audience wants, we will give them” (qtd. in Block, 1974: 63). As observed by Glaessner in her seminal survey of the martial arts genre:

It didn’t matter […] that the films arrived on the world market carelessly dubbed […], stylistically hampered further by repeated use of back projections and studio lots which the set-dresser barely had time to alter from film to film; or that the characterizations were minimal, relationships one-dimensional, [or that] the plots, as one critic put it, ‘dozed in their traces’” (Glaessner, 1974: 10).

All that mattered was that the films made money, and by the early 1970s, “film was booming despite an almost total lack of professional standards” (Glaessner, 1974: 31). The Shaw Brothers’ graphically violent martial arts productions were raking in money in their home market as well as internationally, and all on production budgets that did not “come even knee-high to those in Europe and America” (Glaessner, 1974: 10). The Shaw Brothers’ 1971 film, The New One-Armed Swordsman, cost $200,000.00 to make and started making a profit after showing in Hong Kong for only two weeks, eventually going on to out-take The Godfather in some of the international markets (Glaessner, 1974: 10). The Shaw Brothers were working in paradise; as Alex Ben Block put it, Run Run Shaw had “more power than Zanuck, Mayer, Goldwyn, and Warner ever dreamed of at the height of their empire building” (Block, 1974: 57). Shaw Brothers contract players lived on the studio lot in cement block dormitories working with a standardized contract of six years for $50.00 a week, with no unions, insurance, fringe, or medical benefits (Block, 1974: 10). “The real story of the Hong Kong film industry, then,” as Block observes, “is exploitation” (Block, 1974: 57), both of the people and the product. Bruce Lee enters the picture at this exact moment, at the absolute peak of power and popularity enjoyed by the Shaw Brothers, at the time when the martial arts film, stylistically and structurally codified and unquestionably profitable, had only scratched the surface of its potential for social allegory, symbolic aesthetics, and philosophical enlightenment. The martial arts genre was being (ab)used for only its most rudimentary charms—sex and violence—by the exploitative Shaw Brothers, and like the other two “martial auteurs” working at the time, King Hu and Chang Cheh, Bruce Lee was determined to show that martial arts cinema had more to offer.

Lee’s rise to starteur status follows nearly identically, in manner and time period, the rise of fellow starteur, Clint Eastwood. [8] As is well-known, Eastwood, after toiling in virtual anonymity as a contract player at Universal, finally got a semi-breakthrough television role in the CBS series Rawhide. After five years of grueling filming (during which time he was consistently but unsuccessfully petitioning CBS to let him direct), Eastwood received what was a blessing in the form of _Rawhide_’s cancellation. Eastwood “yearned for a persona,” he wanted desperately “to tinker with the equipment and experiment” (Knapp, 1996: 28), but before he could become a unique film artist, he first needed to prove himself as a unique film star. Tired of the American film and television circuit, Eastwood teamed up with Sergio Leone and achieved international superstardom by reinterpreting the mythology of the West in a series of Italian-made Westerns. As a result of the success of the now-famous “Spaghetti Westerns,” Eastwood was able to establish himself as not only the quintessential post-classical Western icon, but also an idiosyncratic and adroit filmmaker with enough box-office drawing power to create and produce his own projects in the future.

While Eastwood was cementing his status as a Western hero in Europe, Lee was achieving his first semi-breakthrough television role as Kato on the short-lived ABC series The Green Hornet. Producing only 26 episodes before cancellation, The Green Hornet did not do for Lee’s American career what he had hoped it would. Much like Eastwood’s experience on Rawhide, though, Lee gained the invaluable experience of being able to practice his acting week after week, as well as getting the experience of choreographing and performing fight sequences for the camera. After the disappointment of the show’s cancellation and the subsequent disappointments from studios refusing to put their faith in him as a potential star, Lee became convinced that the only path to international acclaim was to go back to Hong Kong, where he had learned he was immensely popular [9], and use the burgeoning martial arts film genre in the hopes it would do for him what Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns did for Eastwood.

When news of Lee’s impending departure to Hong Kong reached the Shaw Brothers studio, they immediately attempted to snag Lee before their new rival could beat them to the punch. After their original Mandarin rival, Cathay Organization, closed its doors, a large group of disgruntled former Shaw Brothers studio employees, led by Raymond Chow, picked up the pieces and formed Golden Harvest Productions. Lee was a very in-demand commodity, but his choice of Golden Harvest over the Shaw Brothers came down to a simple matter of respect. He felt the Shaw Brothers should have recognized his commercial popularity and his artistic potential, but instead, they offered him a rather standard, long-term contract with no control over film assignments, scripts, directors, or choreography. Chow, on the other hand, was willing to offer Lee only a two-picture deal, $7,500.00 a picture, and a considerable amount of independence regarding script changes and fight choreography. [10] Lee’s career making “Martial Westerns” was about to begin, and the Leone to Lee’s Eastwood would be veteran filmmaker, Lo Wei. Lee’s two films under Wei’s direction, The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, smashed all box-office records in Hong Kong and instantly made Bruce Lee the biggest Asian film star of all-time. However, the experience was far from Edenic for Lee, who, unlike Eastwood with Leone, never formed a collaborative relationship with Wei. Lee resented Wei from the start, referring to him, in a letter to his wife during the filming of their first collaboration, as a “fame lover” who had “an almost unbearable air of superiority” (Johnston and Staton, 2006).

In his films for Wei, Lee at least had, as per his contract with Chow, the freedom to construct his own fight sequences, and in working so closely with the stunt team (which included King Hu’s legendary fight choreographer, Han Ying-Chieh, who appeared in The Big Boss as the titular villain) and the cinematographer, Lee had gotten a taste of the artistic independence he had long sought after, and he knew he would no longer be able to take direction from someone he believed to be a subpar filmmaker. After finishing his two contracted films, Lee refused to sign a new contract with Chow and Golden Harvest. However, because he respected Chow and enjoyed the encouragingly creative atmosphere he provided (and also because Lee and Chow had forged a friendship that would last until Lee’s death), Lee and Chow formed the satellite company Concord Productions. Lee would now be able to enjoy Chow’s financial backing and overall business savvy while finally attaining complete freedom for the development and production of his own film projects. For his third effort in Hong Kong, Lee wrote, directed, produced, and starred in The Way of the Dragon. Despite this unprecedented amount of independence afforded a Hong Kong filmmaker (and a Hong Kong filmmaker making his debut film, at that) Lee was still dissatisfied, taking on a Chaplinian level of command by also having control over the cinematography (in collaboration with veteran Japanese cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto, who had worked for the Shaw Brothers before emigrating to Golden Harvest) as well as the editing, set design, costumes, and even the musical score [11]. As conveyed by his wife:

[Lee] felt there wasn’t any “soul” [in Hong Kong films at the time], that they just were running them off the assembly line and that was not what he wanted to do. He wanted to put his own stamp on each film that he did so it would be his own highly personalized statement […] He wanted to be sure you would know it was a Bruce Lee film when you went to see it, and not just another [chop socky] flick or another fighting movie or action movie—his would be something special (Lee, 1974: 52).

Due to his commanding screen presence and posthumous international impact, the academic community has found it simply impossible to ignore Bruce Lee. As a result, Lee has been given considerably more attention by academic scholars over the years as compared to the rest of the men and women who have worked in the martial arts genre. While this would appear positive, the attention given Lee’s film work on the whole is anything but when one takes into account the affronting lack of historical context and complete neglect of his acting and filmmaking savvy in the various analyses. By way of a final preface before analyzing The Way of the Dragon, it seems prudent to first offer a basic sketch of the martial arts genre’s conventions as they existed during Lee’s career.

The “formula” for the martial arts film, as has been commented on by innumerable scholars, shares a great deal with the Hollywood Western. Martial arts films of the era often dealt with revenge as the driving force of the narrative, and they either had the revenge narrative serve as a classical tragedy (the standard operating procedure for the films Lee made with Wei) or as an ancient myth (the standard operating procedure for The Way of the Dragon and Lee’s incomplete The Game of Death, though it should also be stated that Lee’s “martial myths” had no traces of the ubiquitous revenge trope nor did they include the supernatural elements often found in King Hu’s historical epics); a lone figure was often the main character, and the lone figure was either a poor, oppressed, proletariat stand-in (the Wei films) or a mythically/spiritually transcendent figure (Lee’s own films); and the finale would frequently foreground the triumph of the individual over the villain, who was often portrayed as an evil, Oedipal father-figure who the “son” must kill (Lee’s own films move away from this Oedipal trope, as well).

As perspicaciously acknowledged by Thomas Schatz, we understand films “because of their similarity with other films, but we appreciate them because of their difference” (Schatz, 2009: 567); speaking to his status as a starteur, Lee created a stable narrative foundation for his film based on the paradigmatic lone hero myth, at which point he then went off in different directions based on his own unique artistic inspiration. An admirably multidimensional film with salience extending far beyond ideological deconstruction, The Way of the Dragon is at once a self-reflexive metamorphosis by Lee of his iconic screen persona as well as a conscious commentary on and deepening of the archetypal appeal of the martial arts genre’s established conventions.

Part 2


1 In the introduction to their “Post-Theory” manifesto, David Bordwell and Noël Carroll outline the basic sketch of “Grand Theory” as the “aggregate of doctrines derived from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Structuralist semiotics, Post-Structuralist literary theory, and variants of Althusserian Marxism” (Bordwell and Carroll, 1996: xiii).

2 In the spirit of Bordwell and Carroll, the “Grand Bruce Lee Theory” attends to conceptualizations of Lee as a nationalistic warrior and/or a narcissist indulging in hypermasculine spectacle. More recently, there have even been attempts to “queer” Lee, taking his hypermasculinity as a hyperbolic rendering of either homophobia (looking at the characterization assigned Wei Ping-Ao in The Way of the Dragon) or homosexuality (looking at the “foreplay” preceding “consummation” in the fight between Lee and Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon). Such interpretations of Lee and his films can be found in many of the books and essays included in the Bibliography without recourse to the authors’ divergent analytic allegiances. See Teo (1997), Gaul (1997), Hunter (2005), Elefttheriotis and Needham (2006), and Bowman (2010a, 2010b, 2012) for examples.

3 Bowman’s critical activity throughout his text is replete with, in the fashion of many of the discourses that supplanted the cinephiliac tendencies of textual as opposed to political film analysis, a skeptical (and at times outright hostile) attitude towards the enterprise of film appreciation that anchored the original auteurist tradition of film analysis. For discussions detailing the enterprises of cinephiliac film appreciation versus a Nietzschean hermeneutics of suspicion, see Bordwell (1989: 16, 72, 109) and Joe McElhaney (2006: 13-20). Bordwell’s text is particularly enlightening vis-à-vis Bowman’s analytic activity and its display of the paradigmatic “anthropological detachment that sees sexuality, politics, and signification as constituting the salient domains of meaning” and that prefers to substitute “signifying practice” for art (Bordwell, 1989: 109). Bowman’s contempt for Bruce Lee films (and for action and martial arts cinema as a whole) is even more flagrant in a recent essay (2012) where he condescendingly denounces century’s old generic traditions with no argumentative support save for a perfunctory and obloquial remark about how all action and martial arts films are “shabby” by “any conventional measure.”

4 To be fair to Bowman, beyond his scholarly legerdemain, there is considerable merit to be found in his work, and while a wholesale adoption of his position regarding Bruce Lee is simply untenable for a film scholar, a wholesale dismissal is far from desirable. There has been abundant discussion, both in and out of film studies, vis-à-vis Lee and China, Lee and masculinity, and Lee and philosophy, and as one of the most ambitious and incisive scholars on these fronts, Bowman’s work has much to offer in further studies of Lee and his films.

5 In surveying the considerably more developed field of “Hitchcock Studies,” Sidney Gottlieb elucidates the dangers inherent in the continuation of such an endeavor, including “institutionalization”—the colonization/kidnapping of Hitchcock, “not always to his or our advantage,” resulting in the promulgation of an unassailable critical orthodoxy with set interpretive patterns from which one is not allowed to deviate and that all invariably lead to the same conclusions—and “commodification”—as a result of Hitchcock’s “popularity and canonicity, both in and out of academia,” there is a danger of “some approaches to his life and work [becoming] more attractive than others,” possibly forcing scholars to adhere less to the intrinsic interpretive potentialities of his work and more to “marketplace considerations.” This discussion can be found in Gottlieb’s introduction to his edited collection of Hitchcock essays entitled Framing Hitchcock (Gottlieb, 2002: 13-31). The dangers facing the emerging field of “Bruce Lee Studies” are identical, and the goal of this two-part essay is to consider Lee from a perspective that is not the result of the cultural studies institutionalization/commodification of his star text and film texts as solely the domain of ideological deconstruction.

6 While McQueen received no directing or screenwriting credit on Le Mans, his star power at the time and the fact that the film was a co-production between 20th Century Fox and his own production company, Solar Productions, allowed him a considerable amount of creative control. The original director, John Sturges, left the project after tiring of McQueen’s tyranny and inflexibility, which eventually evolved into a crazed obsession to realize his vision of the ultimate racing movie. Finally, Fox stepped in and forced McQueen to make numerous concessions if he wanted the film to see a release, resulting in an aborted film that ended up, similar to Marlon Brando’s ill-fated One-Eyed Jacks, the victim of a megalomaniacal star’s well-intentioned but unrealizable artistic ambition. For a detailed account of ??Le Mans??’ production history, see Spiegel (1986: 249-267).

7 For the sake of time and space, this is a necessarily egregious sketch of the history of Chinese cinema. For more thorough examinations into the development and evolution of Chinese cinema, see Zhang (2004), Berry and Farquhar (2006), and, specifically focusing on the development and evolution of martial arts cinema, Teo (2009).

8 A fact that is not coincidental based on the multitude of sources that include direct statements from Lee on his intentions to use Hong Kong martial arts films to attain international stardom just as Eastwood used the Spaghetti Westerns. See, for example, King of Kung-Fu (Dennis and Atyeo, 1974: 48).

9 As a result of the popularity in Hong Kong of The Green Hornet, Lee, who had also starred in several reasonably popular and profitable Cantonese films in the 1950s, had reemerged on the radar of Chinese audiences. The Green Hornet would play constantly in syndication on Chinese television (retitled The Kato Show) and his old movies even started appearing on television in the wake of his impending return to Hong Kong in the early 1970s (Block, 1974: 69-70).

10 Different sources offer different figures and a different chronology vis-à-vis Lee’s refusal of a Shaw Brothers contract in favor of a Golden Harvest contract. The information included in this essay is from Linda Lee’s book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew (1974: 134). For slightly different figures and an altered chain of events leading up to Lee’s signing with Chow and Golden Harvest, see Zhang (2004: 178-179).

11 Linda Lee offered detailed insights into the production of The Way of the Dragon in an article that originally appeared in the August 1974 issue of Fighting Stars entitled “ ‘Way of the Dragon’ From the Beginning.” The article can also be found in a collection of articles on Lee edited by John Scura entitled The Best of Bruce Lee (1974). The page numbers indicated in this essay are from the latter publication.


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Block, Alex Ben. The Legend of Bruce Lee. New York: Dell, 1974. Print.

Bordwell, David. The Films of Carl-Theodore Dreyer. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981. Print.

Bordwell, David. Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.

Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.

Bordwell, David, and Nöel Carroll, eds. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1996. Print.

Bowman, Paul. Theorizing Bruce Lee: Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010a. Print.

Bowman, Paul. “Sick Man of Transl-Asia: Bruce Lee and Rey Chow’s Queer Cultural Translation.” Social Semiotics 20.4 (2010b): 393-409. Print.

Bowman, Paul. “Return of the Dragon: Handover, Hong Kong Cinema, and Chinese Ethno-Nationalism.” (2012) Web. .

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Dennis, Felix and Don Atyeo. Bruce Lee: King of Kung-Fu. London: Wildwood House, 1974. Print.

Ezra, Elizabeth and Terry Rowden, eds. Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Gaul, Lou. The Fist That Shook the World: The Cinema of Bruce Lee. Baltimore, MD: Midnight Marquee, 1997. Print.

Glaessner, Verina. Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance. London: Lorimer, 1974. Print.

Gottlieb, Sidney. “Introduction.” Framing Hitchcock. Ed. Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2002. Print.

Higson, Andrew. “The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema.” Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Hunter, Jack, ed. Intercepting Fist: The Films of Bruce Lee. London: Glitter, 1999. Print.

Johnston, Will and Andrew Staton. The Big Boss. Dir. Lo Wei. Hong Kong Legends, 1971. DVD. Platinum Edition. 2006. Audio Commentary.

Knapp, Laurence F. Directed by Clint Eastwood: Eighteen Films Analyzed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 1996. Print.

Lee, Linda. Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1975. Print.

Lee, Linda. “Way of the Dragon: From the Beginning.” The Best of Bruce Lee 1974. Print.

McElhaney, Joe. The Death of Classical Cinema. Albany: State University of New York, 2006. Print.

McGowan, Todd. The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. Albany: State University of New York, 2007. Print.

Mintz, Marilyn D. The Martial Arts Film. New Jersey: A. S. Barnes, 1978. Print.

Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.

Needham, Gary. “Film Authorship and Taiwanese Cinema.” Asian Cinemas: A Reader & Guide. Ed. Dimitris Eleftheriotis and Gary Needham. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2006. Print.

Poague, Leland. “Intentionality, Authorship, and Film Criticism.” Film Criticism: A Counter Theory. Ed. William Cadbury and Leland Poague. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1982a. Print.

Poague, Leland. “The Problem of Film Genre.” Film Criticism: A Counter Theory. Ed. William Cadbury and Leland Poague. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1982b. Print.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. New York: Dutton, 1968. Print.

Saunders, Dave. Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009. Print.

Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genre and the Genre Film.” Film Theory & Criticism. Ed. Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Spiegel, Penina. McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986. Print.

Teo, Stephen. Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. London: BFI, 1997. Print.

Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009. Print.

Totaro, Donato. “Hong Kong Meets Hollywood: Pros and Cons.” Offscreen 4.3 (2000). Web. .

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. Print.

Zhang, Yingjin. Chinese National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Interrogating the Real. Ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. London: Continuum, 2005. Print.

Kyle Barrowman is a media and cinema studies lecturer in Chicago. He received his PhD from Cardiff University. He has published widely in and between film studies and philosophy, on subjects ranging from authorship, genre theory, and camera movement to skepticism, perfectionism, and ordinary language philosophy. His work is available at the website linked below.

Volume 16, Issue 6 / June 2012 Essays   action film   auteurism   chinese cinema