On My Love of Different Movie Genres

I’ve been fascinated with movies since I was a young child. I’d be the one in 2nd grade at school watching a film all the way through, with rapt attention, while peers around me had long become bored and restless.

Having always loved this form of mass entertainment, there are different genres I don’t care to watch, such as combat-oriented war movies, which I used to tolerate viewing now and then when I was younger. I do occasionally enjoy a well-done war-time film that focuses on dynamics away from the actual battlefield. SCHINDLER’S LIST comes to mind here.

As with combat war movies, the same goes for Westerns with me. I’ve probably truly enjoyed no more than I can count on both hands, possibly only on one, and just when I was much younger. The cinema in general was still so novel an experience until roughly around my early 30s. Since then, it’s taken more for a movie to feel novel and, hence, interesting enough for me to want to see it. The old American frontier is a huge mythology of wonder for a lot of folks, particularly, it seems, for those older than myself, though many males in my age group also appreciate that world. But, it’s one to which I honestly can’t relate. All the gun-related violence and accompanying machismo turns me off. My being gay and not fully gender binary factors into this, I admit. I’m immediately an outsider to this onscreen universe. Even so, ultimately that genre tends to glorify the gun via having it be the central means of power and conquest, so tiresomely destructive in a raw, ugly way. We’re seeing these days what gun worship does in our culture. I also have no interest in spending my precious free time filling my physical vision and brain with more toxic masculinity. I already have to navigate it somewhat in my day-to-day life as it is. A certain very troubled man in power comes to mind. No thanks.

As an extension of Westerns, the modern, male-focused action films (including police-oriented ones) largely elicit the same response from me. They come across as Westerns placed in current times. The one exception and admitted guilty pleasure of this category I do watch are the James Bond films (*ducking for cover now from possible judgment by certain readers*). They are fantastical enough that they cross over into fantasy instead of just hard core action. That said, I’ve always viewed them with a mix of emotions, disliking their awful sexism and some of their violence. And the latest James Bond (Daniel Craig, himself a talented actor) is too much of a muscle-pumped brute for my taste. Gone is the suavity of Connery and Moore, the latter being so refreshingly funny, and the Bond I came of age watching. It is encouraging to hear that the next James Bond after Craig retires from one more upcoming film will be a female. Such a change is long overdue.

There is a rare exception I make for the martial arts sub-genre of action cinema: the small canon of Bruce Lee films. As I’ve written elsewhere, I watch him for his beautiful form and dance, which come across to me as artful and fantastical. Lee transcended the genre he worked within and I don’t know if anyone will ever accomplish what he did as a performer. CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON comes close, though that was all due to beautiful cinematography and costumes, interesting special effects, a good storyline, and competent acting. No single actor embodied the main energy or center of the world in that film like Lee did in his projects. And I have no interest whatsoever in watching what seems like overly-stimuli packed modern martial arts films. I find them too fast, busy, and even noisy. (Same goes for me with Anime in general, though I have enjoyed a few earlier produced exceptions, such as 1983’s BAREFOOT GEN.) Any graceful martial artist seems to get lost for me among all the mishegas of such pointless on-screen distraction.

I’ve rarely enjoyed violent horror films, particularly slasher ones, which, on the whole, I’ve never liked. The rare, well-done sci-fi fantasy horror productions, such as the first two and the fourth ALIEN movies, are watchable for their beautiful, dark aesthetics alone. But, then, I’ve always appreciated monster movies, which can artfully externalize the shadow sides of the human psyche, including our deepest fears and inner rage that all of us have surely felt in life as an initial, primal response to adversity.

I will sometimes take time to see early period dramas, depending on the historical period portrayed. Good acting and beautiful costumes also help me decide with what to watch in this category. However, if a lot of violent war scenes predominate in such productions, I tend to hesitate with consuming them. I’m not fascinated by war as I was somewhat when I was young. The less people at large give mind space to war, the more it will fade away as an overly repeated option to solving social and political problems. I’m simply committed to de-intensifying war images in my psyche as best I can because it feels like the right thing to do. Real life and non-movie media emphasize war to fill a lifetime, and then some, as it is. Still, I acknowledge the titillation war images elicit for so much of the public, including consuming them in their movie watching. Sigh.

Romantic and screwball comedies I enjoy on occasion, but they simply are far less compelling and interesting to me than the usually more imaginative, cinematic science fiction, fantasy, and, to a lesser extent, action adventure (e.g., James Bond) shows. Since I tend to see movies with the intention of being transported somewhere and inspired from aspects of my day-to-day life, I naturally gravitate towards these other-worldly performances.

I’ll sometimes see suspense and mystery movies if the storyline is intriguing enough and stars actors who I particularly admire. My imagination has to be captured by such projects, and that is hit or miss with this genre. It’s simply a cinema universe that doesn’t consistently interest me as much as the comparably more flexible fantasy and science fiction ‘verses do.

I used to enjoy many animation features, including most of the Disney ones. I still have yet to see some of those older productions, which I intend to in time. The Disney and Pixar cartoons from the last twenty years or so often annoy me with their puerile humor, which I’ve simply outgrown. Still, some are heart-felt, enjoyable, and imaginative all at once, such as WALL-E and ZOOTOPIA. What I personally experience as a loss in these computerized productions is the natural and subtly rough, unpolished aesthetic that hand-painted animation conveyed from earlier times. That look is more life-life compared to the overly clean appearance of these newer images on screen. The latter convey a certain mild sterility about them that keep me at a distance, ever reminded that I’m watching a movie.

Of worthy mention here are biographical movies. When done well, and if the subject is of interest to me (such as old-time movie stars and/or singers), these screen gems encapsulate the basic, beautiful essence of a fascinating, compelling life, this being yet another window into a very different world than my own.

Then, there’s the often quirky, off-beat indie art films. They are also hit or miss for me, but often hits. I’ll always have head room to view those, though time and convenience often don’t allow seeing as many of these as I’d like. There is no nearby theater where I live that regularly shows many indie (including foreign films) and arthouse productions, let alone for more than a day or two. Same goes for old-time classics, of which there’s a plethora that I treasure. Fortunately, in earlier years, I lived near movie houses that showed a lot of indie, art, and classic films, which I took advantage of. I’ll always be grateful for that. I’ve also viewed a lot of great oldies and indies on video, DVD, and YouTube over the years, and will continue to do so via the latter two means and, perhaps, streaming someday as well. But, none of these options quite replace the all-encompassing large screen medium I enjoy most for fully experiencing a movie.

I haven’t exhaustively covered all of the extant movie genres and sub-genres, the latter of which there are so many, including those that don’t quite fit into any particular category. But, I’ve discussed the ones that especially come to mind for me within such an often magical form of media. In this time of home convenience where small screen streaming is the zeitgeist for the masses, long live my first love of entertainment: the classy big, silver screen.

Bruce Lee, Kung Fu Dancer

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.