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Bruce Lee: Champ or Cheese?

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
02.24.2000 | BOOKS

The Tao of Bruce Lee
by Davis Miller
Vintage, 2000

Davis Miller got famous writing about Muhammed Ali. Had his debut been about Bruce Lee, he would not have gotten famous. The first two-thirds of this follow-up consist of a personal essay about his adolescence in rural North Carolina during the 1970's; it is neither revelatory nor very interesting. The last third contains something approximating a biography of Bruce Lee, and the value of the book resides in these 80 pages. For Bruce Lee fans sick of tabloid and Hollywood treatments of his life, Miller offers a fresh--if brief and poorly structured--antidote.

The biographical section rests largely on script Miller gathered for a cable documentary that was never made. While the testimony and analysis of former students and associates of Lee is fascinating, little of it can be attributed to the author. He touches on important themes, such as the extent to which Lee was a product of Sixties culture, but leaves them before creating anything approaching a nuanced study of Lee and the period in which he lived. Miller is a sports journalist and memoirist, not a historian.

To the extent that Miller does situate his subject within his time, some things are clear. Bruce Lee was the Bob Marley of the big screen. A third world hero and first world sensation. Along with Che, Ali, and even Arafat, he was part of the internationalizing (and hence darkening) of erotic iconography in the Sixties and Seventies. His sinuous torso, which contained less than one-percent body fat, is revered around the world, a result of the 'global village' that first materialized in the 1960s. Lee was a fan of '60s guru Alan Watts, as well as more commercial manifestations of the Self-Actualization movement, such as mail-order self-help tapes. He smoked a lot of pot. And as Miller notes, his Jeet-Kune-Do style of fighting, with its fluid disrespect for structure and decentering of traditional styles, can be described as a kind of psychedelic kung-fu--as much a product of West Coast counterculture as his wardrobe.

The full-length mink trenchcoat Lee wore after achieving fame sheds some light on his personal personae, which differed sharply from the simple, spiritual characters he usually played in his films. Miller quotes Larry Tan describing Lee coming out of a Hong Kong restaurant in 1972:

"I'm expecting a warrior-monk...what I got was Mr. Vegas. His cologne--it's so overpowering I smell him before I see him. The first thing I see is this pair of four-inch platform heels. He's wearing bell-bottoms, this flowery shirt and jacket, huge sunglasses. I couldn't believe how tiny he was. Now, as an adult, I look back and see he was this little insecure guy who transformed himself onscreen into a physical giant."

Little insecure guy? Bruce Lee? The portrait that arises from Miller's interviews is in fact of a self-conscious, occasionally bullying little man hell bent on becoming rich and the "most famous martial artist in the world." Any romantic, sage-like images built up by sketches of Lee found in books like Robert Shelton's Zen and the Martial Arts are evaporated. Miller is convinced that Lee could be a bastard and probably was as much a 'philosopher' as the typical young Marcuse-quoting radical could be considered an intellectual. Which is to say, not much of one. Most of Lee's famous "aphorisms" were lifted from classic Taoist texts or, in some cases, Mao Tse Tung.

None of which detracts from Lee's physical beauty or his remarkable athletic prowess: in a word, aura. Questions of 'personality' melt away when confronted with a Lee fight clip, any one of which is a masterpeice of poetic action. Miller is at his best in describing the amphetamine-like effect these scenes have on people. First comes a trance, then a strange burst of energy not easily captured in words.

Bruce Lee was an extremely gifted, extremely ambitious Chinese-American born into a showbiz family, who dropped out of the University of Washington to pursue fame and fortune, found it, got sucked into it, and dazzled the world with it until a strange chemical reaction to cannabis at age 32 sent him into the VIP room of pop legend, joined perhaps only by Elvis.

And the fact of the matter is that nobody really takes Elvis seriously anymore, and people will continue to be thrilled by Bruce Lee's four films until the end of the world. Insofar as Miller has helped us understand why that is, we are indebted to him.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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