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Wednesday, May 23, 2007


No other deceased superstar has as sketchy a legacy as kung fu king Bruce Lee. Part of it comes from the fact that he was a charismatic Asian actor in an industry where such performers were consistently reduced to playing ridiculous, repugnant stereotypes. The other aspect comes from his decision to travel abroad to expand his career horizons. Unlike the West, which views film as a combination commercial and artistic medium, the East sees cinema somewhat differently. There, it’s disposable and direct, providing an entertainment service and then fading away to make room for the next interchangeable offering. Even though films like Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Enter the Dragon managed to crossover, his untimely death at age 33 locked his celebrity into a single unswerving ideal.


Perhaps this is why most fans have long since forgotten his posthumous labor of love entitled The Silent Flute. Originally conceived with pal James Coburn as a cool co-starring vehicle, and polished with the help of Oscar winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, it had everything that was dear to Lee’s heart. Renamed Circle of Iron and released five yeas after his passing, this exploration of Zen and the art of bountiful butt kicking is by far the most personal movie the man never made. Hoping to include as much of his own spiritual philosophy as possible while simultaneously showing off the various unique forms of martial artistry, this almost epic would have – along with Game of Death – propelled the actor deep into legitimacy’s limelight. Instead, it’s now an anomaly, a project of near mythic proportions eventually half realized by friends, well wishers and determined disciples.


In this simple quest narrative, a rebellious fighter named Cord (an off kilter Jeff Cooper) heads out to seek the Book of All Knowledge. It’s supposedly held by a great sorcerer/villain named Zetan (Christopher Lee in an extended cameo). Along the way, he must face several trials, each one determining his worthiness to reach his destination. In addition, he constantly runs into a blind master (a cool, collected David Carradine) who hopes to teach him humility and focus. After battling a deranged monkey man, a panther-like shadow of Death, and a nasty nomadic flesh merchant, Cord finally reaches the final stage of his journey. But there is not another fistfight in the offing. Instead, the stubborn warrior must learn that there is more to life than aggression, and that the answers to the great mysteries of the universe lie not with a single volume, but in another ‘vessel’ all together.


In retrospect, it’s easy to see why devotees both past and present have shunned this otherwise excellent veiled vanity project. Containing more mysticism than martial arts, and an incredibly awkward turn by Cooper (Lee originally pegged Coburn for the lead), what could have been unique and quite unparalleled in the burgeoning world of international action filmmaking ends up an endearing but often incomplete voyage. Part of the problem lies directly in the casting. While exceedingly buff and talented in the ways of personal fighting, Cooper’s Cord is too contemporary in his mannerisms. He just can’t play period. He speaks like a guy down the street, not a meditative wanderer looking to purify his soul. Even in moments where he’s not required to deliver dialogue, there is just something about his actor that screams mid 1970s.


Luckily, Carradine is much, much better. While still slightly too modern for his characters (he plays several roles here, including the blind sage and all the bad guys), he projects a kind of inner consciousness that flows directly into what Lee was after. Indeed, as a substitute for the late artist – Bruce created this collection of roles as his own personalized tour de force – the Kung Fu star is stellar. Even the supporting roles are better than our ab-addled lead. Eli Wallach is intriguing as a doctor trying to temper his own biological urges by dissolving the lower half of his body in oil, and Roddy McDowall is nicely disconnected as the organizer of the competition which starts the film. As for Christopher Lee, his is a very minor turn as the notorious Zetan. But one shouldn’t expect a Count Dooku preview here. In keeping with Lee’s original idea, nothing happens the way it’s supposed to in this obviously allegorical world.


Apparently, it was an approach that many in the cast and crew found confusing. As part of a new double disc DVD release from Blue Underground, Circle of Iron gets a collection of telling supplemental material that try to explain this ersatz epic. Director Richard Moore is on hand, and he’s helped by company commentator David Gregory. Together they explore the film’s rocky origins and offer up speculation on where, in Lee’s overall canon, this movie would rate. Star David Carradine also adds his introspective two cents worth, and he’s not ashamed of labeling Lee an arrogant, self-important man. Producer Paul Maslansky complains about the difficulty in finding financing for a marital arts movie in the Me Decade, and fight coordinator Joe Lewis admits that, because of a certain actor’s inexperience with fake fighting (cough – Carradine – cough), the film’s tête-à-tête’s are not quite up to snuff.


All agree on one thing, however – Lee was obsessed with this project – and if you can remove yourself from all the mindblowing Matrix-like fisticuffs of recent years, you will recognize the passion at the center of this story. Lee was devoted to the karmic elements of his craft, the yin and yang of being a man of peace who made his living pretending to abuse and even kill people. He wanted to prove that age old adage that the reason you learn a technique like karate is to be taught how and when NOT to use it. The simplistic philosophizing peppered throughout the film (“two bird tied together may have four wings, but still cannot fly”) is meant as baby steps to understanding the basics of the Zen conceit. By downplaying the physical and emphasizing the cerebral (or in some cases, the spiritual) Lee was looking to take the genre to another level. For that alone, the film is very important.


However, Circle of Iron will definitely rise or fall based on the expectations you bring to it. If you’re expecting a rollicking nonstop spectacle of flying fists, roundhouse kicks, and expertly wielded weaponry, you’ll be disappointed, and maybe even a little disgusted. This is not Hero, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Instead, it’s more like a loincloth version of Five Easy Pieces with throwing stars. We are supposed to respond to both the introspection and the arm breaking, the parable-like approach to life and its lessons, and the ludicrous love scene between Cooper and newcomer Erica Creer. When cobbled together like this, it can seem quite silly. But when given the added perspective of Bruce Lee and his devotion to the project, obvious flaws become almost invisible.


Granted, in an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, The Silent Flute/Circle of Iron will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. While Bruce Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration. 


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Matt Yglesias takes a break from blogging about politics and the NBA playoffs (yawn) to discuss something truly interesting: foreign teen mags, in particular Jeune & Jolie from France. Yglesias points out the smattering of Franglish throughout the magazine, wondering what happened to the vaunted cultural protectionism of the Fifth Republic.  Based entirely on his examples though, I began to detect a trend—English is used whenever there seemed to be an editorial attempt to inject excitement into some concept. So perhaps English has succeeded in becoming the international language of marketing hype. So far from undermining the French cultural ministry, it could be part of its devious plan to make all conversations conducted in English worldwide seem trivial and somewhat dubious. Everything said in English will have to be regarded with the same skepticism you’d bring to any piece of ad copy. Americans abroad will find it hard to get people to take them seriously, because they will sound like Teen Beat to foreign ears whenever they begin to speak. (Something similar seems to be going on in America vis-a-vis Australia. Australian-ness for some reason seem to function in American culture as an all-purpose signifier for unlettered, unfettered uncouthness. Think of the advertisements for Foster’s—it’s Australian for beer—which prompted a friend of mine to say, “Australia, it’s American for stupid.)


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

All this week PopMatters is offering exclusive excerpts from the new Chris Salewicz biography of Joe Strummer, published this week in the U.S. by Faber & Faber.


Wednesday [5/23]: Strummer hangs with Warhol; Thatcher comes to power, and after a lot of sweaty work in a shadowy space in the back of a garage, London Calling is unveiled like a gleaming, bad-ass drag racer.  [read article]


Here we offer some of the best videos from The Clash’s London Calling, Cost of Living EP, and Sandinista!:


The Clash - Clampdown


The Clash - London Calling


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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Sometimes, a sequel just shouldn’t bother. No matter what the project thinks it has to offer that’s ‘new’ or ‘unique’, no matter what novel twist it wants to put on the same old storylines, it is almost always destined to fail. Of course, there are exceptions (Godfather Part II and Spider-Man 2 instantly come to mind), but more times than not, what we end up with is something dull (Fly II), derivative (Halloween II), or a startlingly sour combination of the two (any of the Jaws follow-ups). And it gets even worse when you start stringing out a flimsy foundation into some kind of series. The more Roman numerals on the end, the more potential for pointlessness. Such is the case with Shrek the Third. This is the kind of sloppy, generic follow-up that will have you wondering why anyone found the first movie the least bit entertaining.


It all begins with our large green hero wrapped in a quandary. He must make a very important decision – accept the throne from the dying frog King Harold, or head out to Worcestershire and find Arthur, the next in line to inherit the empire. As part and parcel of this franchise’s meta-mannerisms, we are of course talking about the legendary owner of the mythic round table here, except he’s depicted as an awkward loser. Even more confusing, our adolescent ruler-to-be attends a Harry Potter like school where magic makes up most of the curriculum. So, while Shrek is off trying to convince Master Pendragon that the land of Far Far Away needs him, and his sweetie Fiona is preparing to bring a few ogre offspring into the world, the disposed Prince Charming – whose been relegated to doing lame dinner theater for a living – plots to retake the crown that the storyline from Shrek II stole from him. Gathering together all the known villains in the fairytale universe (including Capt. Hook and Rupelstiltskin), he plots a full blown fictional character coup.


Though it sounds compelling and intricate, the truth is that Shrek the Third‘s narrative more or less sits there, lifeless and limp, waiting for the already creaky cogs in its comedy machine to make up for the lack of complexity. Indeed, this type of clothesline yarn is ripe for many a hilarious animated set piece, but aside from two stellar moments (Shrek imagines life as a father, and the Gingerbread Man literally sees his life flash before his eyes), the quartet of screenwriters can find very little to do with it. Indeed, jokes that seemed to work the first two times (lame rap lingo, prevalent pop culture references) now come off as amateurish and pat. Even the standard star stunt casting has been lowered a couple of notches, resulting in good but generic voices (Ian McShane as Hook, Justin Timberlake as Arthur) looking to enliven things.


It has to be said though that Eric Idle, who arrives late in the second act as a blithely blitzed out Merlin, does bring a great deal of madcap amusement to his twisted take on the old wizard, and Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas still sparkle as Donkey and Puss in Boots, respectively. But Mike Myers’ Scottish shtick has grown grating and unappealing. Instead of making Shrek sound continental and crafty, the character is now bordering on the ethnically insensitive. He’s like Groundskeeper Willie without Matt Groening and the gang’s sense of satiric edge. But at least he’s still given something to do. Cameron Diaz is delegated to a substrata supporting role, her Fiona required to do little else than pine for her monster-man and remain vigilant. Now that’s some gutbusting cleverness, huh?


Indeed, most of Shrek the Third plays like missed opportunities purposefully planned out that way. It’s a film so afraid of letting down the demographic that it never ventures beyond the safe. Actually, if you could merely jerryrig the first two films into some manner of comic collage, injecting Charming’s take-over bid somewhere in towards the middle, you would have this tre-quel’s entire creative conceit. It’s just shocking that after three years, an open checkbook, and a studio more than willing to let the animators take this franchise wherever they want, the result is this lackadaisical and unfinished. The motivation for our character’s concerns is left unexplored, the events in the story appearing to occur as if part of some planned animation autopilot. Even the big showdown at the end is anticlimactic, playing more like a cop out than a rousing conclusion.


Still, this movie will probably make scads of money. It offers all the standard CGI stereotyping that has come to define the genre. Where once we had a quasi-clever take on fairytales and fantasy archetypes, the twisting of well known characters into anxiety ridden entities with dimensions beyond their pen and ink particulars, now we have expertly rendered stand-up comics, each one waiting for their moment to drop another onerous one liner. We even get the mandatory musical number over the credits, Murphy’s ditzy Donkey going all Sly and the Family Stone on us as Shrek’s stumpy children make goofy “goo-goo” noises. In fact, the real reason this movie feels so familiar isn’t just its debt to the first two films. No, the Shrek schema has been adopted by so many other derivative 3D disasters (Barnyard, Robots, any Ice Age film) that there can’t help but be a little backsplash.


With Shrek 4 already greenlit, and a healthy return at the box office for this latest release, it is clear that audiences don’t mind these increasingly dreary offerings. As long as they stay as true to their past particulars as possible, turnstiles will be spinning. This means we can expect more Puss in Boots suave sensuality, more dizzying Donkey dorkiness, lots more of Arthur’s gee-whiz boy band blandness, and supplementary silliness by the barrelful. Again, this latest installment in the already stale series will give the wee ones something to obsess over once the DVD arrives, and there’s no denying the increase in artistic approach and design. Many of the sequences razzle with plenty of bitrate dazzle. But filmmakers have yet to learn that any animated feature needs something more than pretty pictures to solidify its significance. Shrek the Third is nothing more than a previous pastiche with very little if anything new to add.


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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Several months ago, I went to see David Lynch talk about meditation while he was on a speaking tour promoting his book and left thinking, Wow, you know, I’d like to dive into the ocean of bliss on demand and unleash all this potent and uncanny creativity in myself. I want to trust utterly in my intuitions about what is fascinating and the courage to express my artistic vision without having to explain it to myself in abstractions first. Maybe I should give this whole meditation thing a try. I wasn’t about to jump into it wholeheartedly, Beatles 1968 style, and adopt the Maharishi (aka Sexy Sadie) as my personal guru, but I thought I should find some time to try to think about nothing, and see if that would ultimately turn out to be productive.


I have to admit that while I had no problem finding time to watch old Veronica Mars episodes or load hundreds of album covers one by one into my iTunes, I had difficulty finding the time to contemplate nothing in a meditative mood. The ocean of bliss seems further away than ever, so when I saw this link on Lifehacker to a post by Scott Young with tips on how to meditate, I was eager to investigate. I’m not sure if it’s going to help.


That the post is called “Solve Tough Problems with a Brain Reboot” was the first clue that this probably wasn’t what I was looking for. As skeptical as I am about spiritual-sounding explanations of the usefulness of meditation, I tend to balk more at being invited to think of my brain as a piece of recalcitrant hardware that my consciousness, wherever that is located, is required to maintain. Young writes, “Meditation is similar to turning off unnecessary programs running in the background of your computer so you can devote more CPU power to a specific task.” (Perhaps next in the series will be “Defrag Your Cortex to Optimize Your Thought Processes”) Young gives the standard instructions on how to meditate (concentrate on your breathing, etc.) and offers this peculiar advice: “If you want practice, try getting into a meditative state when you are going to sleep.” I actually do this almost every night, and it results in my falling asleep. If meditation is no different than sleeping, then I’m already a mediation master, and will need to look elsewhere for the map to the ocean of bliss. (Maybe I should be getting more out of my dreams, which tend to be mundane too the point of stupefaction.)


Then, when discussing how to use meditation (which is itself a red flag—what draws me to it ultimately is the promise of its uselessness, of escaping instrumentality) Young suggests that


once you get into a meditative state, try to form a visual scene inside your head…. In this scene, imagine you are talking to another person. It could be a friend, family member or someone completely from your imagination. Now have a conversation with this person asking for advice on the problem you are having. Don’t think about what the other character should say, just imagine the conversation.


This seems less meditative and more like an actor’s exercise or something. And if I wanted to talk about my problems, wouldn’t it make more sense for me to go ahead and talk to somebody? Such a course of action would have the added benefit of actually being surprised by what I’m told instead of having to merely pretend with myself to be.


He also has some advice for how to use meditation to control your emotions: “Meditation isn’’t going to be a cure for your emotions, but it can give you enough distance to do something about them.” I’m not especially emotional, but even I don’t consider emotions to be a disease requiring a cure. I don’t think about needing to do something about my emotions—the very idea suggests an alienation from oneself that would have to be as bad as the unpleasant emotions themselves?


I guess when I think about meditation I imagine not some kind of higher-order problem solving; I don’t see myself very pragmatically refreshing my RAM; instead I imagine an alpha wave hum of nothingness.  Young also suggests meditation can help you “gain awareness of your body” which is just about the last thing a hypochondriac like myself needs—in my mind meditation is about leaving your body behind. Perhaps I’m less interested in meditation than I am in astral projection.


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