Tuesday, June 08, 2010

We were all "Karate Kids"

We were all "Karate Kids." Out of the tragic events of World War II came a renewed interest in the Orient. Conquered and maybe even bowed, the influence of Japanese and other Asian cultures would have as much influence upon popular American Culture as rock and roll for the rest of the 20th century. That influence would be martial arts.

Judo had been practiced in the US since before Teddy Roosevelt , who, like Vladamir Putin, was a judo black belt. In the 1950s, martial arts was appearing in all kinds of settings. Karate master Mas Oyama came to Chicago in 1953 and fought a bull to the death. Spencer Tracy, as a one armed WWII Veteran used karate to fight bigotry in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

It was this generation who helped invented the American take on martial arts. It is this period, 1950-1975, that I use as a back drop for my documentary film, The Search for Count Dante. We were in awe of James Bond films, TV shows like Secret Agent Man aka Danger Man and I Spy. When the Green Hornet premiered in 1966, Bruce

Lee's character, Kato, would propel hundreds of thousands into Karate and nascent Kung Fu Schools.

With the premier of the new Karate Kid will there be a resurge of interest in martial arts films. Will all the middle aged guys like me get a saudade, a longing for the kung fu cinema of the 1970s and early 80s? I remember leaving the Kung Fu Stroll of 42nd street in NY, downtown Chicago with the McVicker’s Masters and then, when I moved to London in 1974, Midnight/All Night Kung Fu films at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. When I moved to Dar Es Salaam in 1975, Blaxploitation films like “Truck Turner”, would double bill with Kung Fu films like “Flying Guillotine” right across the street from Arab films like “Muhammad Messenger of God.” Crazy! I saw Black Dragon's Revenge aka "Death of Bruce Lee" with a cheering, screaming audience of teenage Tanzanians.

It is an amazing memory of true audience participation. A lot of the films were horrible, the martial arts mediocre. Bruce Lee and a few others were brief shining lights. But the shared social experience was absolutely unbeatable. Some of the audience beat on each at the McVickers and on 42nd street.

The memory is so strong that Sensei Kirk Haygood, a former usher at the McVickers Theater, and I are initiating Flicks of Fury, a monthly Xtreme Martial Arts Cinema Club, at ICE Theaters in Chicago. We start August 30, with a live appearance by Ron Van Clief, “The Black Dragon” and we will show his bio-pic, Black Dragon, the Legend of Ron Van Clief. Talk is being bandied about concerning getting actor, Soke James Caan, a real martial artist, and reviving his film, The Killer Elite for one of the screenings.

Ahhhh, to be 19 again and spending Saturday afternoons watching escapist films like Master of the Flying Guillotine, The Last Dragon, Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow, Mad Monkey Kung Fu.

These films would become the backdrop for the hip hop underground, from the acquisition of names, samples and dance. Wu-Dang Chuan is where Wu-Tang Clan got it's name and Ghost Face Killer is a character in the film Mystery of Chess Boxing.

There was a lot of discussion about the need to remake the Karate Kid. I am not getting into that. But the shared social experience of every bullied kid is a universal. Every generation has a need to see itself in a way that reflects their times free of their parents history, as they make their own stories.