Bruce Lee’s philosophical movies and more

I hope you’ve been healthy and safe in these tumultuous times. Amongst a lot of catch up work—in life and business—I’ve been studying philosophy. In my latest research stream, I came across a book discussing the philosophies of Bruce Lee. It had been a while since I thought about Bruce Lee or seen any of his philosophical movies. But the book really spoke to me, so I decided to invest a little time in his life and work.

Book I’m Reading

The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee written by John Little, is a story about an artist who used philosophy to help guide him towards a balanced lifestyle of spiritual and commercial success—what most artists can only dream of.

As a child in Hong Kong, Lee was being bullied at school and sought martial arts training to protect himself. He learned the Wing Chun style of gung fu under the martial arts master Yip Man. And sums up his experience amongst his prolific writings:

Gung fu is a philosophy; it’s an integral part of the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, the ideals of giving with adversity, to bend slightly and then spring up stronger than before, to have patience in all things, to profit by one’s mistakes and lessons in life. These are the many-sided aspects of the art of gung fu; it teaches the way to live, as well as the way to protect oneself.

At 21 years old, Bruce majors in Philosophy at the University of Washington. He saturates himself in the writings of Lao-tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Descartes, and many others. And then self publishes his first book—Chinese Gung Fu, the Philosophical Art of Self-Defense.

The Warrior Within touches on philosophical concepts such as yin and yang, be like water, the need for honest self-expression, and the art of fighting without fighting. It then discusses how Lee expressed these in philosophical movies. One of his students, Daniel Inosanto, writes:

He felt very strongly that if he could get people to appreciate something in the Chinese culture, then they would appreciate something in other cultures as well. He felt that he was doing his small part in establishing something toward world peace.

Film I’m Studying

Enter The Dragon showcases the philosophy for the art of fighting without fighting and the need for honest self-expression.

Bruce Lee’s Chinese gung fu films stem from an explosion of swordplay films produced largely by the Shaw Brothers in post-WWII Hong Kong. They released up to fifty titles each year. One of their star directors Li Hanxiang started to combine Chinese opera styles and classical painting into his films, and the genre began to rise in artistic status. And with films like A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu, 1971), he began to infuse his films with philosophy—winning awards for technique at the Cannes Film Festival. And the Shaw Brothers swordplay epics started seeing widespread commercial success. At this time, Bruce Lee starred in his first leading role in The Big Boss, which launched him into stardom.

Three films later—in 1973—comes Enter the Dragon. And it’s the first Bruce Lee film to target an American audience. Much of the camera work followed the “zoom boom” trend of the ’70s. Innovations in zoom lens technology started to make them easier to use and more affordable. And as zoom shots started to replace dolly and crane shots—Cinematographers struggled with controversies over its artistic integrity. In Enter The Dragon—it helped Director Robert Clouse emphasize interpersonal moments in the middle of fight scenes without getting in the way of the action, using additional cameras, or taking the time to reshoot the scene on a tighter lens.

The film was shot in anamorphic on an Arriflex 35 IIC camera with Panavision C-series and Angenieux Lenses. And the film stock was Kodak 100T 5254. It takes a lot of light to expose such a film stock properly. And when shooting in Hong Kong with Chinese crew and equipment—Cinematographer Gil Hobbs didn’t have access to all the light control tools that were common in Hollywood. This might explain why the high key lighting approach feels more utilitarian than expressive.

What touches me the most in this film is Bruce Lee’s determination to express himself. In a new book written by Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee—Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee—she accounts for how Bruce campaigned to change the title and how he rewrote the script to include the philosophical scenes and tune up any cultural discrepancies. While his push for changing the title from ‘Blood and Steel’ to ‘Enter The Dragon’ succeeded—his rewrite of the script did not. As a result, he refused to show up on set until the producers agreed to his rewrites. The producers fed the press a cover story—that he was too nervous to start filming. Meanwhile—for two weeks—Bruce held his ground. And finally, the producers gave in and re-issued the locked script with his rewrites. However, the cover story has held on for decades.

The release of Shannon Lee’s book this month is a nice coincidence. An excerpt from the book about the making of Enter the Dragon is available here.

Downloadable Resources
Film Excerpts
Frame Grabs

Credits and Specs
Directed by Robert Clouse
Produced by Raymond Chow, Paul M. Heller, Fred Weintraub
Written by Michael Allin
Starring Bruce LeeJohn SaxonJim Kelly
Music By Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography by Gil Hubbs
Edited by Kurt Hirschler, George Watters
Production Company: Warner Bros
Release Date: 1973
Running Time: 1hr 42min
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Camera: Arriflex 35 IIC, Panavision C-Series and Angenieux Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak 100T 5254
Printed Film Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Country: Hong Kong, USA
Language: English, Cantonese
Reported Budget: 850,000

Photographer that inspires me

Yu Yuntian. I met Yuntian when I was a teenager.  He had some film to process while traveling for an exhibit and came into the Wolf Camera and Video store where I was working. Somehow we got to talking—he told me about his next photo expedition to Tibet and invited me to come along. It caught me off guard, and I was certainly apprehensive. Still, I thought to myself—“wouldn’t it be nice to have such flexibility in my life, just to get up and go to Tibet…” I didn’t go on the trip, but he gave me a copy of his exhibition booklet and the photographs within have always been an inspiration for me.

Yuntian writes, “it is photography that has enabled me to find man’s value and his entire dignity throughout my endless journeys.” And like Bruce Lee and his philosophical movies, it was the spiritual nature of his own art that drove Yuntian the most:

I think that, in our attitude toward artistic pursuit, we should have a spirit of perceiving nature and observing life with a reverent mind, a religious sentiment that is strong and earnest. It is precisely here that ‘art is willing to walk hand in hand with religion’ (from Goethe). This is the revelation of religion.

Downloadable Resources
Select images from the exhibition booklet

Links
Gallery on the Global Photography website
Profile and Gallery on the China Photographers Association Website

Video I am enjoying

Bruce Lee “Lost” Interview from the Pierre Berton Show in 1971. In his films, his voice was always dubbed, and his lines were always scripted. This interview gives us the rare opportunity to hear him speak freely with his own voice in English. “Be water, my friend.”

A five course mind meal: a list of independent films and more

The Templo de Santa Rosa de Viterbo in Querétaro, Mexico
I hope you are all enjoying 2020. I love this time of year and it’s proven to be a welcoming season of reflection and development so far. Therefore, I’ve been able to make a huge dent in my “films to watch” list. And subsequently I’ve included a list of independent films that have impacted me most. It’s always fun putting these together. I hope you get inspired. Enjoy!

Personal Project

More from Common Ground. The above image features The Templo de Santa Rosa de Viterbo in Querétaro, Mexico. It opened as a convent in 1752. After the Liberal party won a civil war known as La Reforma in 1860 it was used as a hospital for 100 years. It is now under historical preservation while the convent portion is a college and the Temple holds regular mass.

Common Ground is a 20+ year photographic study of Latino culture. Check it out on Instagram!

Films I’m Studying

I’ve been catching up on my watch list over the last few months. And have been focusing on films that were made for under 3 million. As a result, my brain is churning up the many conversations I’ve had with friends and other filmmakers whom gripe about Hollywood and how they are only interested in putting out comic book movies and other big budget blockbusters. Well, here is a list of small independent films that in one way or another were made and/or released through Hollywood. But these are just the ones I’ve liked or re-watched. Additionally, they’ve all been released within the last six years, the genres and ratings are mixed and the links go to the films IMDB page.

Narrative

Bone Tomahawk 

Camp X-Ray

Columbus

Dear White People

Eighth Grade

Embrace of the Serpent

Flower

Hardcore Henry

Hearts Beat Loud

Hello, My Name is Doris

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I Origins

Ida

Irreplaceable

It Follows

Moonlight

Mustang

Obvious Child

Palo Alto

Swiss Army Man

The Blue Room

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Florida Project

The Lunchbox

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Skeleton Twins

Unsane

Upgrade

Documentaries

Antarctica: A year on Ice

Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary

Photographer That Inspires Me

Arnold Newman is another photographer who’s work was imprinted upon me when I started studying photography in the 90’s. His portraits are so content rich and intriguing, it makes me wonder why our culture today is so obsessed with the “Headshot.” I suppose they have there place in certain industries. But the environmental portrait, popularized by Newman, is a glorious authentic outlook on the human condition. And in comparison the “headshot” just seems like wasted opportunity.

On March 25th, 1996 I was lucky enough to attend a lecture of his sponsored by Canon. I saved the program and here it is.

Video I’m Enjoying

The Look of Parasite made by the Hurlbut Academy is an inspiring breakdown of the visual devices used to evoke specific emotional responses in the storytelling and how these visual ideas started early in the script writing process.

Written by Chris Haigh
Narrated by Ross Papitto
Edited by Dylan K Leong

Quote I’ve Lived By

A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart. – Arnold Newman

Poetry of a long tracking shot, surreal photography and more

The Common Ground Project - A black and white portrait of a Latino girl behind the barred gate of her families home and business in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

This month we look at the poetry of a long tracking shot, the surreal photography of Jerry Uelsmann and the meaning of art. It’s always fun putting these together and I hope you get inspired. Enjoy!

Personal Project

This featured image is from the Common Ground project: A twenty plus year study on Latino culture. More images are available to see on Instagram.

Film I’m Studying

Stalker: The camera starts very close on Stalkers wet leather jacket, it follows a path of jacket buttons until Stalkers dormant face fills the screen. We rest here for a moment as omniscient whispers tell a tale of Kings hiding from God on the day of his return to earth. The camera and the whispers continue, leaving stalkers face to closely examine the shallow depths of a long forgotten aqueduct where corroded remnants of a corrupted civilization rest amongst floating filth. We don’t stop moving until we see Stalkers hand, resting on the water like a disfigured pearl, a welcome reprieve from the filth. The camera slowly moves out and cuts, leaving us to ponder on the poetry of a long tracking shot.

Of any shot that I’ve seen in Cinema, this one reaches out to me the most. When I think of visual story telling, of visual poetry and of things I hadn’t seen before. this shot it always there. have a look.

I’ve been fascinated by Tarkovsky’s films since Janos Kovacsi showed us some clips from his first feature Ivan’s Childhood, in a class about working with actors at the North Carolina School of the Arts, School Of Filmmaking. He rolled in one of those old square tv’s on a metal framed cart with squeaky wheels and played us a clip. It was perfect, every element was in absolute harmony with the other.

Due to conflicts with Soviet authorities regarding his work, Stalker was Tarkovsky’s last Russian film. Therefore, his last two; Nostalghia and The Sacrifice were made in Italy and Sweden.

Here are some frame grabs from some of my favorite shots in the film.

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Produced by Aleksandra Demidova
Written by Arkady StrugatskyBoris Strugatsky
Based on Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Starring Alexander KaidanovskyAnatoly SolonitsynNikolai GrinkoAlisa Freindlich
Music by Eduard Artemyev
Cinematography Alexander Knyazhinsky
Edited by Lyudmila Feiginova
Production Company: Mosfilm
Release date: May 1979
Running time: 161 minutes
Country: Soviet Union
Language: Russian
Budget: 1,000,000 Rubles

Photographer that inspires me

Jerry Uelsmann: I was exposed to Uelsmann in the 90’s when first learning about photography and have been obsessed with his work ever since. But aside from his images, the one thing I remember the most about him is that he had a ritualistic way of working. Every Wednesday, no matter what, he would work in the darkroom.

Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote about him in 2001 for a college assignment.

In search of a way to display his vision, Jerry Uelsmann studied and experimented with different photographic techniques in the early 1960’s. He found that photomontage was the best way for him to express himself and this started a storm of controversy. He was breaking the photographic  tradition in creating surrealistic images by using many different negatives to create one print. Purist photographers said that he was not a photographer.

The essay is titled It’s About The Vision and you can check out the full article along with my research and professors notes in this old PDF.

Article I am enjoying

Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic: This was a quick read that inspired me to read more poetry.

Quote I am pondering

Art is by nature aristocratic, and naturally selective in its effect on the audience. For even in its ‘collective’ manifestations, like theatre or cinema, its effect is bound up with the intimate emotions of each person who comes into contact with the work. The more the individual is traumatised and gripped by those emotions, the more significant a place will the work have in his experience.- Andrei Tarkovsky

Action of stillness, non-visual film and purist photography

Locals in Guanajuato, Mexico discuss News and Politics⁠ over coffee while employing the action of stillness. From the Common Ground Project.
Here is some personal work and musings. It’s always fun putting these together. I hope you get inspired. Enjoy!

Personal Project

This featured image is from the Common Ground project: Locals in Guanajuato, Mexico discuss News and Politics⁠ over coffee. Thank you @biomimi_healingspaces for the beautiful comment on this image via instagram; “the action of stillness.” I love the irony. More images are available to see on Instagram.

Film I’m Studying

Non-Fiction Directed by Olivier Assayas. I usually don’t like non-visual films. In cinema we write with light, not words. Dialog is merely supplemental. So why am I so interested in a film that Rolling Stone Magazine describes as “Talk, Talk, Talk,” while Assayas himself says “this movie’s explicitly nonvisual. And I never saw it as flattering in terms of mise en scène.”

Both thematically and aesthetically, the evocative duality attracts me. While their action is primarily to be in stillness, there is great turmoil inside each character as they seek refuge in salons, cafes, bedrooms, living rooms and office lounges while indulging in french food, wine, cigarettes, love making and intellectual stimuli. Their conversations run the gamut but most often rest on anxieties over new technological trends in the writing and publishing industry–an allegory on the state of affairs in Assaya’s own industry.

With DP Yorick Le Saux, his use of super 16mm and flexible diffused light is a nostalgic homage to the arthouse spirit of French New Wave in the 50’s and 60’s. However, at times it feels out of place–self aware that it’s time to embrace something new. I think Assayas and Le Saux recognized this–in one way or another–and they shot the closing scenes in 35mm amidst the warm embrace of a late day sun.

Looking at this film amongst Assayas filmography, it appears to be a very personal film for the director. It’s almost as if he is accounting for his own transition into purely constructive cinema starting with Something in the Air, and fulfilled by Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper.

Production companies: CG Cinema
U.S. Distributor: Sundance Selects
Writer-director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Guillaume CanetJuliette BinocheVincent MacaigneChrista TheretNora HamzawiPascal Greggory
Producers: Charles GillibertOlivier Pere
Executive producers: Sylvie Barthet
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Casting: Antoinette Boulat

Photographer that inspires me

Edward Weston: After WWII a purist approach to Photography was advocated by photojournalists and dominated by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. They preached what Adam’s called “previsualization”: the full realization of the image at the moment of exposure. In their point of view any post tampering with the negative was anathema. Weston’s widely exhibited prints were unmanipulated or “straight” completely free of embellishing handiwork.

He was focused primarily on form rather than the recording of events–an approach more akin to painting rather than documenting. His goal was to reveal the significance of his subject without providing any context or reference of time. He called it revelation of the subject. Inspired by nature his subjects were almost exclusively organic. Nudes, vegetables and rock formations frequent his work and share intertwining visual themes as they are posed, placed or found in stillness.

Blog series I am enjoying

Wait But Why: The Story of Us. This is a trump era inspired thesis on human behavior. And particularly thought provoking is the concept of how the primitive mind, the higher mind and our belief systems intertwine and compete with each-other.

Quote I am pondering

Photography suits the temper of this age – of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery, for a prolific worker who would be slowed down by painting or sculpting, for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately. – Edward Weston