Recently, while watching Bruce Lee in the ridiculously dubbed movie FIST OF FURY (1972), I was reminded of how I’ve always found his graceful Kung Fu moves just as beautiful as the motions of a talented dancer.
For me, Bruce Lee (birth name Lee Jun-fan) came across as a real-life superhero when I was a child. Sadly, he died not long before I turned seven in the summer of 1973, shortly before I returned to the U.S.A. after a year abroad in Europe and Central America. I spent the next few years or so enjoying images of Bruce wherever I came across them, such as catching snippets of his movies on TV and coming across posters of him in stores or other people’s homes. I wish I could confidently remember the very first time I saw Lee on TV or in a photograph, but I can’t. It wouldn’t be until around aged thirty that I’d finally watch him as Kato in the 1960s campy TV series THE GREEN HORNET and then, still later, in a few cross-over episodes of BATMAN. Certain media celebrities and fantastical beings (such as Marilyn Monroe, Godzilla, or the mighty genie/djinn of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, for example), have a relatively clear touchstone memory of introduction into my world and psyche. It surprises me that Bruce Lee doesn’t.
There is a memory I have of being about nine years old and visiting a house where my father happened to be busy on a carpentry job. This was in Berkeley, California. It must have been on a weekend or an afternoon, after school. There before me in what seemed to be an entry room or hallway of the house hung a large poster of Bruce Lee, shirtless. His smooth and defined pecs and abs gleamed with sweat. His thick black hair and side burns framed his face, which held an expression of determination, focus, and defiance. I believe it was an enlarged still from his final completed movie ENTER THE DRAGON, released in 1973. Perhaps this is my initial touchstone memory of Mr. Lee, though I’m not at all certain. I sense that I knew about him even before this moment. It is possible that I’d heard talk of Bruce and already seen him in photos or briefly on TV at friends’ or neighbors’ homes. Anyway, I think my mother was standing right next to me during this deeply impressing moment. She explained, either right then or a little later, that Bruce Lee had died from “a stroke” a few years before, due to being too hard on his body. He had exercised too much, too harshly. At that time, I had never heard of this happening to someone. This man of incredible strength and agility, who looked so fit and healthy, had died suddenly from actual physical abuse to himself, like a master pushing a slave to keep laboring through their exhaustion. At least this is the sense I’m left with of how my parents explained what had tragically happened to him. The image of my father pretending to bang his head against a wall to demonstrate just how brutally Bruce practiced his discipline resurfaces in my mind here.
I felt sad for Mr. Lee, disappointed that I would never be able to meet this handsome man of such skill and grace. I have found that grief so often arises over the loss of potential, what could have been but wasn’t. I grieved over something that, for me, never existed, in this case, the possibility to follow with adoration the life of someone actually alive in the world. There I was, come to awareness too late of a great man long gone while also being too young to fully understand what I intuitively was appreciating. I would simply have to make do with treasuring whatever legacy Bruce Lee left behind– his movies, TV show appearances, photographs, and writings.
Life has a way of distracting and taking one’s focus elsewhere. I had frequent moves with my parents and subsequent adjusting to deal with, school to attend and homework to complete, and an imagination already filled with assorted imagery and other stimuli to keep me plenty occupied. Bruce Lee entered the labyrinth of my psyche, taking his place among many icons and magical beings. On occasion, he would be mentioned during play with childhood peers, where sometimes I pretended to be Mr. Lee fighting off villains, executing what I thought to be his trademark “flying kick” to fell evil men.
At around age twelve, I seized the opportunity to finally see Bruce Lee on the big screen. Having moved to the small Northern California city of Grass Valley by this time, I attended a screening of ENTER THE DRAGON put on by a local projectionist, who made it a point to show movies in town for a reasonable admission fee. I was entranced from beginning to end with the film, marveling at Lee’s incredible grace, agility, speed, strength, passion, and– though I dared not admit it to myself then– sweaty, lithe sexiness. In one scene, a supporting character in the drama musingly referred to him as a “human fly” while watching Bruce jump high up onto a rock wall and either proceed to scale it or walk with ease along its narrow edge. (Given this was over forty years ago, my memory of the actual imagery is not very clear. Regardless, it was some impressive feat of balance and strength evoking comparison to the fine movements of an insect.) His animal-like stances, leaps, punches, hand chops, and kicks relayed a super-human, aggressive form of dance, the intensity enhanced by his constant howling-like kiai’s/battle cries. Every time Bruce was on-screen I watched with rapt attention, captivated by such charisma.
What particularly both moved me yet also puzzled my naive pre-teen mind was Lee’s dramatic facial expressions, namely in one slow motion scene where he jumps upon a villain’s back, crushing it. The camera focuses on Bruce’s pain-filled visage, his eyes wide and mouth pulled back. The emotions of rage, anguish, sadness, perhaps also disbelief, pass through him like shifting lightning bolts captured on very slow film. Pure passion within such intense focus. I wondered what was actually going through his mind in this scene, both his own and the character’s he was portraying. That particular image of Lee’s face lingered in my thoughts for at least a few days. I never arrived at a clear answer to my wondering, but simply found peace around the not knowing. I came to realize that Lee was a complex person, driven yet thoughtful, with a profound ability to focus his will like a laser. My much later reading of a book he wrote about his actual life philosophy confirmed this impression. There, he stressed the importance of being both formless yet adaptive and flowing like water.
The union of beauty in form and movement, such as Bruce Lee’s, is special. Dance often relays this embodiment, succinctly stated by W.B. Yeats’ question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” According to Wikipedia, dance is defined as “a performing art form consisting of purposefully selected sequences of human movement. This movement has aesthetic and symbolic value.” Martial arts, including Bruce Lee’s invention of Jeet Kune Do, is considered to have a dance-like quality to it, because, though it is a fighting art with vanquishment of a perceived foe as a primary goal, there is also an aesthetic intent to its movements. Dance occurs mainly to evoke pleasure, wonder, even bliss in the viewer and/or participant. In regards to Bruce Lee and his film and television performances of Jeet Kune Do, he especially met the criteria of doing actual dancing in conjunction with displaying a fighting (warrior/martial) art. Since performance for viewers was primary, with actual defeat of opponents in combat scenes being fictional actions as a means to create entertainment, the aesthetic purpose of Lee’s martial art was pushed to the forefront for a worldwide audience, like what is done with dance. (More intimately, the truly martial aspect of his art was, of course, expressed through the actual classes he taught and his own personal practice. But, I am less concerned with that whole domain of Lee’s discipline here.) I have no doubt he performed his deft foot work, kicks, and strikes to evoke in viewers a sense of wonder and pleasure at the incredible grace emanating from his body. His on-screen opponents are partners in dance. They follow through on choreographed moves, as traditional dance techniques do, albeit explicitly driven by polarized aggression, with touches of erotic energy and intent more in the background, just enough to enhance keeping the opponents’ attention locked on each other. Conversely, traditional dance moves appear to stem more from a source of polarized, controlled erotic energy, the aggression aspect underplayed yet present as well, or sometimes even equally so to the erotic, depending on the dance style. Hence, dance and martial arts– certainly Jeet Kune Do as performance– can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, if not two neighboring sections on the same side. An end result for both of these different movement arts is a multi-dimensional– or form and movement united– expression of beauty, to be enjoyed by onlookers. Bruce Lee for me was and is like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire was to my grandparents and parents, masters of graceful movement through time and space, i.e., dance, immortalized on screen, while each looked wonderfully dapper in his unique ways. It is no wonder Mr. Lee developed such a following and maintains one to this day, attracting men and women alike for both similar and different reasons as fans experience for Kelly, Astaire, and other famous dancers.
Over a year after watching ENTER THE DRAGON, I started attending a local Jujitsu dojo (school). This Japanese martial art, which focused on avoiding aggression and deflecting attackers via using their own forceful energy against them as much as possible, could not have been more different than Bruce Lee’s explicitly aggressive Jeet Kune Do. For a time, Tyron, the tall, muscular, raven-haired Italian-American Sensei (teacher) at the dojo became somewhat super-imposed in my psyche with Bruce Lee. Before me on a weekly basis was a real-life, darkly handsome martial arts master who, on at least a few occasions, gave me extra attention in between classes. However, at thirteen and fourteen, I was too young and insecure to fully appreciate this man’s kind gestures. What else strikes me, though, about that two years-long experience of martial arts training was how the Sensei mentioned Bruce Lee on a few different instances while teaching us students. He compared styles of certain Jujitsu moves to Lee’s Jeet Kune Do ones, demonstrating how Bruce was a worthy, memorable influence in the overall field of martial arts. I warmed at these brief intersections of my inner world with outer life. Lee’s legacy really did live on(!).
It took me years to integrate my understanding of why and how I embraced Bruce Lee as such a worthy icon. Often, venerating beauty is initially a simple impulse, born of intuition and longing, like a budding flower opening to the sun. It simply feels right to do. Being attracted since childhood to an assortment of appealing, fascinating images, tales, and concepts borne out of the Near and Far East, Lee harmoniously fit within that matrix of my interests. How he stood out from all of this was that he was a man who had actually been alive in relatively recent times and possessed seemingly heroic powers. He represented a union of male beauty and strength, sheer power in pursuit of the greater good, channeled through perfecting his body and movement while deepening his mind. Paradoxically (and, hence, humanly), Lee pursued world stardom, an often selfish endeavor, while also generously developing and teaching others a philosophy of harmony through clearer thinking, being, and movement (like water). He was still early on in developing a healthy life path for others to further emulate or at least draw from, his movie and TV show appearances an expression of his public persona, one of beauty in form and movement. He apparently explained that his martial art was poetic metaphor for his philosophy. Cut down too young (aged 32) from cerebral edema, Lee’s loss was tragic, given his deep potential that he’d only just tapped and started sharing with the world. But, in my own way, I slowly took in what I could of Bruce Lee’s legacy of beauty and wisdom he left behind. And, now and then, I return to take in a bit more.