Tag Archives: culture

Up In Arms, Up In Smoke

So I’m revisiting some thoughts from a much earlier entry, and hoping to expand upon the same. Marijuana legalization is back in the news of late, and in a surprisingly big way. I say this because lets face it, pot legalization can often times seem a bit like yesterday’s crusade. The cause of clumsily aging hippies, Gen-X’ers, and undergrads who aren’t good at finding oppressed peoples on a map. These are stereotypes obviously, the movement wouldn’t have the longevity it clearly possesses without a diverse platform of support. Still though, in a world where 9/11 happened closer to the fall of the Soviet Union than to today the periodic flaring of the marijuana debate can almost seem passé. With that in mind the sudden leaps made towards broader legalization kind of boggle the public consciousness. The notion has been such a pipe dream (pun only partially intended) for such a long time that I’m beginning to realize the common tropes of the debate aren’t ultimately that well adapted for the reality of the agenda they promote. At least in terms of the expectations of its grassroots (I’m on a roll) proponents.

Let me explain. As we seem to grow ever closer to an achievable legalization within our lifetime, questions are arising as to what the actual real world implications of that legalization are. Questions that require real thought and real answers. Increasingly those answers appear to be rather different from what many proponents likely imagined. Legalization is ultimately going to redefine our relationship with marijuana, and paradoxically in so doing herald the final death of the “pot culture” which originally birthed the legalization movement. This isn’t meant to be a comparison of the pros and cons of legalization. That’s a discussion far too detailed for this corner of my internet, and frankly one that is already playing out on a broader stage. Rather what I’d like to do is examine some predictions of mine regarding unintended collateral of pot legalization and what that means for the common philosophies surrounding the movement.

4twenty

Let’s start with taxation and regulation. These are both longstanding elements of the marijuana debate, and despite both being essential to legalization and frankly being net goods I don’t think that their implications have been well thought through by many of those that advocate it. The utopian vision of many pot-partisans, independent farmers and entrepreneurs selling their wares at roadside stands and local markets is ultimately incompatible with legalization. The USDA, the FDA, the IRS, and even the Surgeon General are necessarily going to have a large role in the new policy regime. Growers may not have to worry about being busted by the cops, but the taxman is going to create a laundry list of new grievances. The business models best suited to thrive in this environment are more likely than not to have a decidedly corporate character, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. What taxation and regulation also means is vice tariffs and price floors. “Lowest price allowed by law” is signage all of us are familiar with, and that price is never going to be low enough for many pot supporters, despite the legalization rhetoric.

marlboro

Further, independent sellers are unlikely to remain the primary point of service for marijuana transactions. While there will likely always be a space for dispensaries, just as there are for tobacconists and liquor stores, this product is inexorably going to move into the retail sector alongside other legal recreational substances. What this means is branding, commercialization, and industrialization. The egalitarian aesthetic so long associated with marijuana culture is going to quickly give way to mercenary sensibilities and classism. Going back to our discussion of business models, a corporate framework is inevitably going to prevail in the legal marijuana sector, pushing out the dispersed production and distribution infrastructure idealized by many adherents. What this means in frank terms is the rise of the American cartel, albeit in a legitimate economic space. Corollary to this is the changing role for activists that legalization creates, in that there is a very fine line between an activist and a lobbyist. Corporate lobbying is antithetical to the ethos of many pot pundits, but more and more marijuana policy interests are going to move from one side of the line to the other. Moreover, as the battle lines over the shape and extent of regulation are drawn this new breed of marijuana lobbyists is likely going to find their closest political ally in the tobacco lobby. How’s that going to look on the PR?

micropotxp

The branding I mentioned is another unintended consequence with significant implications for the culture of marijuana use. With branding comes increased competition for a base of customers and a balkanization of tastes. There’s going to be cheap pot, expensive pot, pretentious pot, ironic pot, blue collar pot, college pot, and everything in between. Pot snobs will be a thing, along with an underclass smoking the marijuana equivalent of cowboy-killers. With this the iconography of marijuana culture is going to change as well. We’ve all seen the pot-leaf design plastered over posters and shirts on every college campus. The designs are typically meant to connote a combination of rebellion and revolution; a disregard for societal mores and the advocacy for a counterculture. What does that mean in a post-legal world though? Well, the connotations do shift a bit. Stripped of its radical status the fetishism of marijuana becomes a bit more like wearing a t-shirt for Monster energy drink, or Budweiser, or Marlboro. That you bought from the Gap. The visual shorthand that has surrounded pot culture for almost a half century will be sublimated by legalization  and over time will simply lose its anti-establishment associations.

This is not to say that I am in any way anti-legalization, or that I think its consequences will not ultimately benefit society. What I am contending is that its consequences may be more far-reaching than we imagined, at least as far as our interactions with marijuana are concerned. The world envisioned by many proponents of legalization is not the world I think they’re going to get, and while I don’t think it is necessarily a “bad” world, I don’t think that it will end up being a world they wanted…

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X-Studies

Without too much preamble I’m going to jump right in. I spend a lot of time thinking about X-Men. This won’t come as a big surprise to those of you who are familiar with the blog. On this particular occasion a discussion between a friend and I inspired a digression into how the television incarnations of the X-Men (the primary gateway into the franchise for many of its current fans) have dealt with certain issues of women and gender. I feel this is a relevant inquiry given the social justice theme implicit in so much of the X-universe. I’m going to be limiting my scope to X-Men Evolution and the 90’s X-Men, as those are the two series I have the most experience with and which I think are the closest reference for most of my readers. There isn’t really a thesis statement binding these observations together, more just an interesting series of conversational points.

First up, X-Men Evolution.

Evolution

Not as well regarded by some fans for various character reinterpretations and being a little heavy on the teen drama, Evolution was ultimately a kind of return to classic formula. The idea of Xavier’s as a school for outcast youth was a central idea of the comics for years, but had not been strongly represented in the media up to that point in time. Given that conceit, I’m going to focus on the three female protagonists among the student characters (excluding the adults and the antagonists for the moment). Jean Grey, Rogue, and Kitty Pryde.

Jean Grey is easily one of the most self-possessed students at the school, male or female. She is an archetypal overachiever that seems to excel at everything she puts her mind to, academically, athletically, and socially. Also by far the most secure in her own identity and in her sexuality, being in an emotionally committed relationship with Scott. In many ways this is made easier for her by her mutant abilities. They are active rather passive powers. Telekinesis granting her a profound level of physical agency and telepathy allowing her to sidestep many of the uncertainties that plague normal adolescents.

Rogue on the other hand is arguable the least so of the student characters. She is a loner who is perpetually stymied in her ability to assert herself. Her mutant life-draining power effectively erects a barrier between herself and those around her, robbing her of both physical agency and interpersonal intimacy. Because of this she is withdrawn from others and any time there is an attempt to emerge from her shell there exists the possibility that she will be punished for it, as over the course of series she is on several occasions.

Kitty Pryde is an interesting counter example to both of them. Her ability to phase through matter is not the boon to self-assertion that it is for Jean Grey, but neither does it impede her as it does for Rogue. What it does grant her however is a means by which to escape from the perilous situations of life, adolescence, and emerging identity that Jean glides through and Rogue is trapped by. She has access to a level of unspoken security that allows her to take chances and make mistakes.

Then, there’s X-Men.

X-Men

This one is a little more complicated, in that its relationship with gender politics is rather problematic. It has a variety of classically empowered female protagonists, but the show has this weird tendency of subtly undermining them and reminding us of their vulnerability in a way that rarely becomes a problem for the male characters.

Jean Grey seems to have much less overall presence in this incarnation, often almost acting as a prop for her teammates.  She also repeatedly finds herself overwhelmed by some great telepathic force and swooning into the arms of Scott. When she is finally in a situation where she is unbridled from these constraints by the Phoenix Force it results in a threat to the entire galaxy (and a brief stint in the Hellfire Club wearing black leather if subtly isn’t your thing).

Rogue has significantly more physical agency in this series than in Evolution, owing to her additional powers of flight, super-strength, and invulnerability. Accordingly she is much more assertive in her personality and even rather flirtatious, nearly a polar opposite of her other portrayal. That being the case she is on several occasions incapacitated by her own life-draining ability, or herself becomes a liability, finding herself overwhelmed by the act of touching another (often male) character.

Storm really needs no introduction, her goddess archetype is almost an image of power personified. Still though she seems to be neutralized with uncommon frequency, often in such a way that reinforces a kind of submissive status (such as through her claustrophobia). I’m going to gloss over Jubilee in this analysis, since in my judgment she isn’t really written as a female character and more as the kid sidekick, however there are still other characters of note.

Morph is a rather interesting case, being much less lantern-jawed than the other X-Men and having an ability of physical and even gender fluidity. The only other character in the series with this ability is Mystique, practically a self-evident primer on dangerous boundary-crossing femme fatales. Morph is placed directly into the fridge, only to be removed as an on-again-off-again antagonist whose moral confusion seems to dovetail with his cis-confusion.

Also noteworthy is Professor Xavier. Like Morph he lacks the strong physical character of the other male protagonists, needing to be carried out of danger and otherwise rescued on a number of occasions. Throughout the series his role is often that of both father and mother figure, and like Jean he has a tendency to swoon following some psychic intercession. This scene, now familiar to approximately everyone on the internet, is essentially one in which Xavier’s lack of physical agency is culminated, largely helpless to act even in defense of another while his step-brother the Juggernaut and eventually Gladiator overpower the situation with brute force.

I cannot really speak to the portrayals present in Wolverine and the X-Men as my exposure to the series has been very limited. It is a question worth asking though as the multimedia faces of the X-Men brand are ultimately gateways into its universe, and each end inevitably informs the other. With the interrogation of equality forming the X-Men’s philosophical core, it stands to reason that one should explore whether the branches of its creative continuum succeed at living up to these ideas. The answer to any one of these questions does not form an immutable verdict over the whole, rather it points out a new direction for these ideas to travel. Only by engaging with the weaknesses of a thesis does it become stronger, and the same is true of the X-Men.

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Holiday Historiography

Two months is entirely too long to go without an update. I acknowledge that. I’m a bad person and I should feel bad. Combination of work, family obligations, and illness have just killed my motivation over the last few weeks. As of now though I’m going to do my best to return you faithful to your regularly scheduled programming.

So, good holidays for everyone? See any heartwarming Christmas movies? I did. Specifically the one starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz called Django Unchained.

django

Discussing this movie in the same sentence as controversy isn’t exactly breaking news (my own fault for letting this go so long), but I think its worth looking at it in a slightly larger context. Django is actually the third major film released this year to deal with the Civil War and Antebellum time period. The others have ranged in tone from the rather serious, to the rather less-so. I’d say Django falls somewhere in between the two poles, but all three are bound together by a peculiar common thread. All three movies, Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and Django Unchained are staunchly and stridently anti-revisionist. This is not to say that they don’t engage in a degree of their own revisionism, but rather that their version of events makes a statement about the dilution of history. Specifically, each constitutes and attack on the “Lost Cause” of Civil War cinema.

The “Lost Cause” broadly constitutes the school of pop history in literature and film which portrays the Civil War primarily as a contest for the preservation of Southern culture. The antebellum South and the Confederate States are treated as a kind of golden age of chivalry, gentility, and agrarian values destroyed after a valiant struggle by the aggressive industrial power of the North. This will sometimes co-opt related but distinct themes like national tragedy and reconciliation into its narrative, but always conspicuous in its absence or subdual is the question of slavery. The inherent racism of these narratives, invested as they are in the historical rehabilitation of racist institutions, is sometimes comparatively benign (though no less insidious), such as in Gone With the Wind or the more recent Gods and Generals. At other times though it has been startlingly overt, as in the prototype of Lost Cause film, D. W. Griffith’s (in)famous Birth of a Nation. Now in recent years there has been some progress against this strain of thought, Glory and Confederate States of America being excellent examples, but they are fighting against over a century of ingrained Lost Cause mythology in our culture.

To say that even today discussion can be complicated when it comes to the Civil War would be a titanic understatement. It is difficult to reconcile bravery with an unjust movement, and given the strong ties of place and ancestry we still attach to the War no one wants to have been “in the wrong.” At the end of the day though ignoring painful truths does a greater disservice to memory than acknowledging and engaging with them. Lincoln, ALVH, and Django all attack the underpinnings of Lost Cause revisionism, whether it be through satire, the forced discussion of uncomfortable facts, or a combination of both. Their refusal to buy into our accepted legends is what lends these films uncommon merit as works of entertainment.

In Django Unchained this attack is probably the most self-conscious, due to director Quentin Tarrantino’s particularly cinematic sensibility. The plantation scenes use the soft focus and saturated color palette of “classic” filmmaking to evoke Gone With the Wind‘s idyllic presentation of the antebellum. It then brings that silver lens to bear on the sickening foundations of that vision and splatters the screen with the technicolor blood of its perpetrators. The hooded outlaws who attempt to lynch the protagonists parallel the “heroic” Klansmen in Birth of a Nation, and are portrayed in this as ruffian morons. The character of the genteel southern aristocrat is here the film’s moral nadir, a walking ethical vacuum and distillation of everything loathsome about Lost Cause mythology. By contrast the black protagonist, so often a passive role in Civil War narratives, is here a participatory agent of rare energy and complexity.

vampire hunter

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is less self-aware in its mission, but it gets the job done. It’s preferred method of subversion is satire. Here the heroes of Lost Cause culture are cast as literal parasites, sucking the blood from the their black slaves to sustain their decadent old world lifestyles. Its a pretty blunt metaphor, but it drives the point home. Such a stark reflection in the form of insensate, supernatural evil calls into the question the supposed righteousness of the Lost Cause, albeit perhaps not as effectively as Django, which lets the horror of slavery stand on its own mortal basis. Turning Abraham Lincoln into an axe-wielding avenger of inhuman injustice is an appropriate call for our greatest president, though it does flirt with the aforementioned trap of making black characters passive agents in a story that is really about them.

Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln on the other hand takes the most down to earth approach to deconstructing and defeating the Lost Cause. While the least “action packed” of the three, it is probably the most heartfelt. The film’s title is appropriate in that Lincoln is the central protagonist, but its not really the biopic you might expect. Rather than act as a filmic telling of Lincoln’s life or a war film, it chooses to center on the constitutional elimination of slavery. This brings the story back around to the singularly important issue that the Lost Cause is determined to ignore: the abolition of human bondage and the removal of its stain from the American promise. This is not to say the issue is portrayed without nuance or complexity, but its moral casting is unambiguous and sets itself up to take on all challengers.

lincoln

As I mentioned previously, this is not to say that these films don’t have a form of revisionism in their narrative. Rather, they serve as a counter point against a school of revisionism which has steadily infiltrated and co-opted our understanding of this moment in American history. Chances are that if you really think on it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The iconography of the Lost Cause is so pervasive that its almost invisible if you aren’t actively looking for it. This is important because most Americans are exposed to history through its expression in our popular culture. If one takes a hard look at the way that history has been written, it isn’t difficult to say that the South has already long since “risen again.” This isn’t accusing anyone personally of being racist if they happen to enjoy the films of the Lost Cause canon (except for Birth of a Nation, with it’s blackface and Klansman and all that, ’cause that’s pretty racist).  As a people we are loathe to part with the comforting fallacies of myth and memory, conflating them all too easily with truth, but the challenging of myths and memory is essential to the discovery of history. The myths of the Lost Cause are particularly poisonous in this respect, and are overdue indeed for a sweeping from our consciousness. That each of these movies should have been released so close to one another and done as well as they have may give one some glimmer of hope for the future. What has been must not necessarily always be, and the American desire for pop history may not be mutually exclusive with history that is both true and just.

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The Id, The Ego, And The Superhero

So with news of Iron Man 3 swirling about the vast series of tubes, as well as the growing number of spinoffs and sequels the franchise has spawned, it seems like as good a time as any to get out some stuff that’s been rolling around my braincase. I want to take us back in time to the halcyon summer of 2008. The idea of comic book blockbusters this big was still something ephemeral and fanciful. While it was The Dark Knight that shattered all the records and became the movie everyone remembers from that year I’m going to focus instead on the frontrunner of the also-rans. Iron Man was pretty hot on Batman’s heels, and I would argue that over the last few years it is Iron Man that has had the greater cultural penetration. Some of this is due to Iron Man having having an additional sequel over Batman and several spinoffs bearing its imprint, but I don’t think that accounts for all of it. The Dark Knight was a sequel to the successful Batman Begins, and the sixth Batman film adaptation in twenty years. I’m not saying The Dark Knight wasn’t good, just that it wasn’t starting from square one either. Iron Man was a freshman effort with a protagonist not all that well known outside the comics readership, in contrast to Batman’s longstanding icon status. This in mind, Iron Man‘s own towering success is not only more impressive but also raises the question of how it managed to get its hooks in the popular culture the way it did. Well, I think I can tell you.

Heroes resonate with people in times of crisis. Superman was two Jewish boys’ vision of the tzadik-hador amidst the Great Depression, the transformative New Deal, and the approaching Second World War. Four years ago things may not have been as apocalyptic, but with an imploding economy brought on by decades of excess and foreign wars in need of clarity and direction Americans were ready for a hero. I don’t think its a coincidence at all that later that same year Americans decisively acclaimed Barrack Obama to the White House.

Still, why though? Why Iron Man? Why Tony Stark? Well, as presented in the film Tony Stark in many ways an avatar for the American sense of self. In the first part of the movie Stark is narcissistic, insensitive, greedy, hedonistic, and revels in the callous calculus of war. In essence, Tony Stark is what America at some level fears it has become. We fear we have squandered our moral mandate from the promise of the post-war years, just as Stark has squandered his father’s legacy. We secretly fear we are the fatted, self-absorbed sybarites that anti-American propaganda portrays us to be, just as Stark flagrantly disregards the needs of others for his own comfort and gratification. We fear that we have become trapped as Stark has by the blowback of our own excess, and like Stark we have to wonder if we deserve it.

It’s not all dark though. Tony isn’t an indictment of American identity, he’s a redemption of it. He realizes how he got where he is and understands not just that he needs to change, but that he ‘wants’ to change. This is only part of it though. Important also is ‘how’ Tony Stark changes. He doesn’t simply renounce his works and become a hermit. Rather, he accepts what he is and chooses to use that to do the right thing. He isn’t ashamed of his wealth and success, but he opts to channel it into something worthwhile. He doesn’t destroy the weapons he’s made, but he takes responsibility for them. He doesn’t become a pacifist, but attempts to become a more conscientious warrior. As Iron Man he returns a moral agency to war that had too easily become lost in the haze. He fights the way we want to fight; with the strength of an army, the precision of a laser, and the clarity of a single righteous conscience. Iron Man is our idealized America, the other side of the coin to Tony’s (and our own) flaws.

In Iron Man Americans saw a cross section of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could be. It spoke to something we didn’t even know we were searching for. People like to pigeonhole Iron Man into either a conservative or a liberal label, but the truth is it’s not either. It neither condones nor condemns the American self image, merely articulating it with warts, aspirations, and all.

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Heavy Metal

Now there’s a nice straightforward title! I was originally going to review The Shadow #2, but Diamond Distributors are a bunch of failcakes and shorted my friendly neighborhood comic shop. I was then going to post some creative writing which has finally unstalled itself, but frankly it’s not quite ready for prime time (even less so than the stuff I do put up here). So, musings and excelsior ensue!

In the course (such as there is ever one) of today’s ramblings, I will treat with the subject of Heavy Metal magazine. I’m not going to go too in-depth on the history of the magazine itself, as honestly that’s just expertise I don’t really have. Rather, this is about my relationship with said magazine over the years. There was a time when Heavy Metal was a nerd-culture institution and an almost universal part of a young geek’s transition to *ahem*, manhood. This doesn’t really seem to be quite the case anymore, though. I’d argue that taking a cross section of nerds my age would likely reveal me to be fairly exceptional in having gone through “the Heavy Metal phase.” For one reason or another, I have for most of my life been steeped in the ephemera of the generations immediately preceding my own. Some of this is due to having a young aunt whose popular culture I precociously absorbed, and some is simply due to the fact that my parents had me fairly young by contemporary standards. As such, the debris of misspent youth most parents have tucked away by the time their kids are properly cogent was more readily accessible during my own formative years.

It was in this way that as a bawdy preteen I happened upon a small stack of Heavy Metal magazines, crushed beneath the weight of old issues of Popular Mechanics and a pair of Dungeons and Dragons books (which would ultimately have perhaps an even more profound impact). These Heavy Metals were of the vintage stripe. Crumbling pages of Moebius and Giger. Also, you know *ahem*, women. Also things that ostensibly weren’t human but ‘looked’ an awful lot like women, at least in the areas a kid like me most cared about. Around the same time I was also introduced the eponymous 1981 film, but at this point I can’t honestly recall which came first. I’ll admit, at the time I thought the movie was pretty much the coolest shit ever. These days though I can only really consume it if contemporaneously consuming some quantity of alcohol.

My enjoyment of those older magazine issues however, continued to be profound. It was strong genre material that, for whatever other faults it might have had, resolutely refused to pull its punches. By way of illustration, the story of “Den” (also adapted into the film version) is really just another riff on John Carter of Mars. However, what sets it apart from the pack is its fearlessness in portraying the more lurid elements of Burroughs’ mythology that most other visual representations of the same tend to ignore or back away from. As a nerd coming into his own, this was exactly the sort of thing I had been searching for. Given the circumstances, you can understand my enthusiasm when later in high school I obtained a copy of the current publication. Upon reading it I was… strangely disappointed. “Strangely” I say, in that while all the lurid elements were there in full force, perhaps even moreso than I remembered, the undergirding stories were gauzy and flimsy, the barest excuse to bare skin. That was really what it had become: just a skin mag. I was somewhat deflated in my enthusiasm.

Nonetheless, about a year ago or so I decided on a lark to give Heavy Metal another try, for old times sake. These were also incidentally the first issues I ever obtained completely legally as a theoretically adult person, which was sort of a milestone in itself that had to be reached. I was… once again disappointed, but in a surprising way. The shift in the magazine I had noticed a number of years earlier now seemed to have been completely reversed, all the way to the other end of the spectrum. Gritty science-fiction still played across an illustrated environment, and with greater depth than I had noticed from the magazine’s intervening years. The stories and comics were oddly flat though. Some violence and sexuality was there, certainly. It felt restrained though. Unnaturally tame.

It was in pondering the conundrum of Heavy Metal’s shifting focus and loss of it earlier mystique that I happened on what I consider the reason behind its institutional decline: graphic novels and trade paperbacks. Over the last decade the publication and ready availability of these writ large comic books has skyrocketed, and in concert with an overall “maturing” of the medium, not to mention the rise  of adult oriented imprints like Vertigo and MAX, has effectively undermined Heavy Metal’s one time monopoly. The once unique combination of content and presentation that Heavy Metal pioneered has now become so proliferated that it ceases to be exceptional. The “Heavy Metal phase” I mentioned earlier still exists, it’s just that most of those who go through it nowadays don’t spend much of it actually reading Heavy Metal…

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马鞍上

Alright, I’ve wallowed enough. Time to get back in the saddle, as the title says. In more ways than one, really. The other day I was sating a profound desire for American Chinese food and was listening to the kitchen staff’s idle chatter. Time was, I could pick out at least a functional context from these scraps of conversation. Anymore though it is rapidly becoming an indecipherable mystery. I decided a while ago that Chinese language wasn’t where I wanted to go with my career, but that doesn’t mean its a skill that I want to let wither away either. Obviously not being in classes has helped things atrophy, with constant homework repetitions, but I also realized that I consume much less Chinese language media than I used to. I’m probably going to have to go back to square one to retrain myself completely, but I’m hoping that reviving my interest in mandarin television and film will also help prime my listening skills. This is a sort of segue into a discussion that I’ve wanted engage in for a while, simply because its kind of funny and weird doesn’t have a lot of parallels elsewhere. I would like to present for your consumption, the film canon of Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen is a pop-culture icon and modern day folk hero in China. He is a kind of contemporary legend in both the martial arts and the broader spectrum of Chinese culture and history. He is also completely fictional.

Yes, Chen Zhen exists solely as a character in film. The thing is though, that he isn’t really the protagonist of a film ‘series’ per se, like James Bond or Rocky. Rather he is the central dramatic force of several film and television projects produced independently of each other over nearly forty years. In true urban legend fashion, the exact details of his exploits are somewhat different in each telling and have an array of apocryphal amendments. The portrayal you are probably most familiar with is this:

Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fist of Fury is the birthplace of the Chen Zhen character and it is irrefutably statistically proven that every martial arts film ever involving nunchaku contains at least one reference to the scene pictured above. Fist of Fury is arguably Lee’s most well-known film after Enter the Dragon, and Lee’s performance established Chen Zhen’s central story and iconography. Head student of a murdered Sifu, victim of racist imperialism, wears a white Mao suit (or Sun Yatsen suit, if we’re being true to the time period), uses nunchaku (an Okinawan weapon kind of out of step with broader narrative of Chinese nationalism but whatever its iconic), gets satisfying violent revenge against the invading Japanese thugs that assassinated his master, and goes out in a blaze of glorious martyrdom.

This is not necessarily the end of the story, however. In 2010’s Legend of the Fist – The Return of Chen Zhen it is revealed that the character survived his (spoiler alert) quixotic flying kick into a hail of gunfire and… well, returns. This time though he’s wrapped up in the intrigues of Shanghai on the eve of World War II, with the Japanese not-so-secretly planning to generally do bad things to China. Oh, he also dresses like Kato.

Yes, the character popularized by Bruce Lee wears the costume of ‘another’ character popularized by Bruce Lee. As goofy as the premise sounds, its actually a very enjoyable movie. Donnie Yen takes over the title role of Chen Zhen, having already cut his teeth punching out evil Japanese in his popular Ip Man films. He is a good fit in the part, comfortably following Lee’s easy charisma and athletic skill. Yen also manages to make the transition fluidly from the Wing Chun style used in the Ip Man movies, and which most western audiences probably associate him with, to the Mizongquan style appropriate for the Chen Zhen character. The film is as much a paean to Bruce Lee as it is to the character he helped create, but it works.

As fanciful as this sequel gets, its really not the end of the weirdness. I mentioned earlier about how there was an appropriate kung fu “style” for Chen Zhen to be using. Why does it matter if he’s fictional? Well, while Chen Zhen is fictional the murdered Sifu he is avenging in all of his incarnations ‘is’ a real person. Chen Zhen is the student of Huo Yuanjia, an actual Chinese folk hero, martial arts pioneer, and anti-colonial activist who lived in the latter nineteenth century and died in 1910. While never proven so, it has long been believed that Huo Yuanjia was poisoned by the Japanese, to the point that his remains were exhumed in 1989 to attempt to prove the assassination thesis. The debate will probably never be resolved, and Huo Yuanjia’s believed martyrdom forms the basis for the Chen Zhen mythos. Huo Yuanjia’s own life and exploits have been portrayed and embellished in movies and television over the years. Probably the most well known version is in the 2006 film Fearless, in which the central role is played by Jet Li.

 

For all that this film has its problems with historical accuracy (while still managing to at least be entertaining), it does not go all out and incorporate the Chen Zhen character. There is still a sort of narrative link there though. The themes of anti-imperialism and Chinese nationalism that permeate the Chen Zhen films are present here as well. It is possible for you to take Fearless, Fist of Fury, and Legend of the Fist together and find yourself with an effective trilogy of films. Films that were produced decades apart by different companies with different actors and without really intending to create any kind of “franchise” have created a kind of cinematic collaborative storytelling all based on a central popular myth. Also, now might be a good time to mention that Jet Li helped launch his film career starring in another unaffiliated movie titled Fist of Legend, which was a 1994 remake of (can you guess it?) Fist of Fury where he played the role of (ready for it?) Chen Zhen.

Yep. Getting too meta for you yet? There are still other works that I’m not going to discuss here, but the fact of the matter is that Chen Zhen is effectively a man-made myth. Somehow though that artificiality does not diminish his cultural presence. You talk about him less like he is a pretend character than an actual historical personage. In a way, he is. He is a unique specimen of the twentieth century zeitgeist, the ultimate urban legend. It is my belief that Chen Zhen’s film canon, and his legend, will only continue to grow and evolve. He has that precise alchemical mixture of mooring in true events, Shakespearean melodrama, and enduring cultural message that creates something more than the sum of its films. Also he does kung fu. That always helps.

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Smoking Gun

A little better. Still longer than I’d like though. Believe it or not, I have been updating. Just… not on here. I have a number of posts written out long hand in my notebook. It’s just a matter of transcribing them. Dumb excuse, but there it is. I’m working on it, alright? So, here’s ya go…

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You ever just get the urge to smoke a cigarette? You don’t even have to be a smoker. I’m not really. Hard to say where it comes from. Just a situation where suddenly, a cigarette would really complete the moment. Does it have to do with neurochemistry; our brains crying out for a stimulant? Or is it socially programmed; Hemingway running headlong into Freud? I think that’s why, no matter how hard well-intentioned activists might try, you’ll never completely eliminate cigarette smoking in America. People want to smoke. It fills a niche. We have been conditioned for decades to associate the act of smoking with escapist wish fulfillment, and as long as there are people who hate the corner of the universe they’ve found themselves boxed into, there will be smokers.  Even beyond that, the notion of eradicating cigarettes is an impossible political goal. I’m not talking about corporate lobbying power in this case, I’m talking social and historical momentum. The anti-smoking movement is in many ways a sort of neo-temperance crusade. Unfortunately the grand victory of the temperance movement, Prohibition, was pyrrhic and ultimately unsustainable.

In addition to the mark on the national psyche still left by the Prohibition experiment, anti-smoking campaigns also find indirect opposition from another equally powerful social movement. Marijuana legalization. Both are passionate, both are noble in their way, but that fact is there just isn’t room for the both of them. Though not directly arrayed against one another, their currents simply run counter. You’ll never have it both ways. The notion of legalizing marijuana while eliminating tobacco doesn’t hold up to any logical or legal test. Sooner or later there’s going to be a showdown, and in the immortal words of Christopher Lambert, “there can be only one.” At this stage in American history, the winds seem to favor the ships of greater social freedom, and as such the more far reaching goals of the anti-smoking movement may I feel remain a pipe-dream at best.

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