BOOK REVIEW: Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body by John Little

Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human BodyBruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body by Bruce Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Even by today’s standards in which movie stars have personal trainers and scientifically formulated diets, Bruce Lee’s physique compares favorably to the most buff of leading men. In the 70’s there was no one even close. Consider “Way of the Dragon” in which Lee fights a character played by Chuck Norris. At the time Norris was the World Middleweight Karate Champion, a top-ranked athlete, but he looks comparatively doughy set across from Lee. What makes Little’s book intriguing for those interested in fitness is that it answers the question of how Lee achieved such a physique without the benefit of the last few decades of exercise and nutrition science. Sure, he had favorably genetics, but he also had—by all accounts—a sterling work ethic and a conscientious approach to fitness.

I wouldn’t recommend that one follow the programs described in this book wholesale without careful evaluation of the details. While Lee was impressive, he wasn’t free of athletic injuries. Best practices have shifted here and there with regard to the science of human performance. This isn’t meant to denigrate Lee’s approach. In fact, Lee, himself, followed the science of his time and recommended his students do the same. (For those unfamiliar with Lee’s martial art, Jeet Kune Do, its central tenet is to take what is of value and let go of what is not—i.e. never rigidly hold onto set notions.) It should also be noted that Lee—perhaps because of this philosophy—was often ahead of his time on issues like cross-training. I don’t want to leave the impression that there isn’t a lot that holds up well in this book. I’m saying that this is a book about how one man achieved spectacular results, but shouldn’t necessarily be taken as one’s one-and-only guide to fitness (though it does cover much of the relevant territory.) Intermediate and advanced fitness practitioners should know what to take and what to leave, but beginners should proceed with caution.

The book addresses Lee’s approaches to isometrics, weight training, calisthenics, flexibility, nutrition, cardio, and what would today be called functional training (i.e. fitness activities designed to better one’s performance of movements of the sort that one will use in one’s intended activity—in this case martial arts.) It’s important to note that Lee’s approach was optimized to the martial arts. For martial arts one needs a balanced approach to fitness, and it’s not all about aesthetics like it is for bodybuilders. One must be flexible as well as strong and be mobile more than muscly.

The books 24 chapters and ancillary matter are logically arranged. The chapters at the fore provide general information on weightlifting and related topics, the middle of the book is gets into specialized exercises by body part as well as special topics like stretching and nutrition, and the final few chapters get into sequencing and other information about how Lee arranged his fitness activities. Little draws heavily on Lee’s notes, often using his words verbatim.

The one way in which I think the book could be substantially improved would be more relevant photos and graphics, particularly in the sections that deal with specialized exercises. Don’t get me wrong, there are many photos in the book. However, they are all of Lee, and, of course, he had a great deal more photos taken either in action sequences (e.g. flying kicks, etc.) or in candid moments. There are few photos of Lee engaged in “sausage-making” activities like lifting weights or doing calisthenics. However, the subject in the photo need not be Lee. Photos would also allow the author to make the text in those chapters a little less heavy and more readable, and—therefore—it wouldn’t necessarily add to page count as much as one might think.

I’d recommend this book for fitness enthusiasts and martial artists. From beginner to advanced, there’s something for everyone to take away from this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller

The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts MemoirThe Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir by Davis Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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While one expects this to be a biography of Bruce Lee, the first half of it is much more an autobiography of the author that is loosely themed around Bruce Lee’s influence on his life. It’s an unusual book in this regard. However, while my description may induce visions of a dismal read by a self-absorbed author, it’s really not so bad. The latter half of the book is much more tightly focused on the events of Bruce Lee’s life—or, more dramatically, his death.

To be fair, there’s not much material for a Bruce Lee biography. Few lights have shone so bright that, while brief, they provided decades of afterglow. Bruce Lee was just in the news last week as he was made a character in a new MMA video game—over 40 years after his death. (It might seem odd for Bruce Lee to be featured in an MMA game, but while movie Bruce Lee showed us high-flying, high-kicking kung fu, Bruce Lee the founder of Jeet Kune Do emphasized the ability to fight at all ranges, against opponents of any style, and in a pragmatic fashion.) But Bruce Lee the movie star delivered only four completed movies as an adult (though he had a childhood acting career unrelated to Kung fu.) Martial Artist Bruce had only one real fight that anyone knows about and even it remains a subject of great controversy to this day. There are competing claims about who came out on top, to what degree, and how. According to the book, there’s not even much of a sparring record of which to speak.

With the proceeding information in mind, it might not be such a surprise that the author took the tack he did and still produced only the slim volume that he did. Miller’s description of his own life pulls no punches and he spares himself none of the embarrassment incumbent in being a young man seeking to emulate the squealing man with the fists of fury. He doesn’t come across as the narcissist that one might expect from a person who devotes at half of a biography of a global superstar to his own obscure juvenile years. In fact, his profile is of a scrawny kid who got his fair share of wedgies and other bully-induced torments. The autobiographical parts are more homage than self-aggrandizement.

Just as Miller is honest about his own lost pubescence as a scrawny kid, he will win enemies with his frankness about Bruce Lee and those in the gravitational pull of the kung fu superstar. Those who deify Lee will no doubt be displeased to read intimations that he died not on a walk with his wife and from a rare adverse side-effect of a prescription—but non-illicit–drug, and instead died on the bed of a lover from a hash or pot overdose.

Furthermore, Miller tells of how Bruce Lee told his students to stop teaching Jeet Kune Do, because Lee was worried about where it was going. Miller goes on to report about how Bruce Lee’s martial art went awry according to many. Then there is the suggestion that Lee had little first-hand fighting (or sparring) experience on which to build such a combative art in the first place.

However, the overall portrait of Lee is of an exceptional human being, and one who had such a wide range of influence, from fitness to philosophy. While the Bruce Lee physique is now much sought after and regularly seen among movie stars, all the leading men of Lee’s era were doughy by comparison. (One may look no further than his Way of the Dragon nemesis, Chuck Norris.) Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial artist; he was also a philosopher and thinker. While it’s true that he didn’t produce much in the way of novel ideas, by Hollywood standards he was a regular Algonquin Roundtable member. Lee oozed charisma so powerfully that after all these decades he’s almost as likely to be seen on a T-shirt as Che Guevara—don’t ask me why the Latin American Guerrilla fighter is so popular in silk screen, but that’s beside the point.

To sum it up, this isn’t a book about Bruce Lee, it’s about how his life and death shaped so many other lives—starting with Miller’s. While I didn’t count pages, there seems to be about as much space devoted to the events surrounding Lee’s death as the events of his life. Of course, there’s a bit of sensationalism, but inquiring minds want to know. People are intrigued about how a man who looked to all appearances to be one of the healthiest men on the planet could have died so young. (It’s an interesting irony that Bruce Lee’s almost complete lack of body fat—estimated at under 1%–could well have exacerbated his oversensitivity to whatever substance killed him.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone curious about the life and death of Bruce Lee.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

Tao of Jeet Kune DoTao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jeet Kune Dō (henceforth, JKD) is Bruce Lee’s “styleless style” of martial arts. Its literal meaning is “the way of the intercepting fist.” However, Lee cautions one against attaching too much significance to that name (or any name) in the book’s final chapter. Long before “Mixed Martial Arts” became a household word, Lee was constructing this fighting system that borrowed heavily from the Western traditions of boxing, fencing (conceptually speaking), and wrestling as well as from Kung-fu, Savate, and Judō/Jujutsu. While JKD employs techniques and concepts from these systems, Lee remained adamant that no good came of organized styles built on fixed forms. In fact, that might be said to be the central theme of the book. That is, each fighter should begin with sound fundamentals and build an approach that is ultimately his or her own.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is an outline of the martial art. In many ways, it looks like and reads like Lee’s personal notebook. It’s illustrated with crude (but effective) hand drawings of the type one would see in a personal journal, and they are annotated with hand-written notes. (My biggest criticism is that on the Kindle version the graphics are largely unreadable. I’d recommend you get the print edition if you can, which is large-format paperback as I recall.) The book combines a philosophy of martial arts with nitty-gritty discussion of the technical aspects of combat. The philosophical chapters bookend the technical ones.

As others have pointed out, there’s not much that is new in either the philosophical discussions or the technical ones. Lee’s value-added is in how he states these concepts, how he selects the concepts of value (informed largely by a love of simplicity and a hatred of dogma), and the weight lent to the lessons by Lee’s great success story—albeit in a life far too short. Lee was a man of charisma, and one who approached endeavors with gravitas.

Now, I can imagine some readers saying, “Why are you recommending a book on real fighting by a movie martial artist? Would you recommend a book on how to conduct gall bladder surgery from someone because they were on the first two seasons of ER? Would you take martial arts lessons from Keanu Reeves because his moves looked pretty nifty in The Matrix?”

I’ll admit that there is nothing about making kung-fu movies that makes one particularly competent to give advice on close-quarters combat. However, as I said, Lee seemed to devote himself entirely to everything he did. Consider the Bruce Lee physique, which seems so common place among actors today (no doubt in part chemical and in part owing to live-in Pilates coaches) was virtually unseen in the 70’s. Yeah, he probably had good genes, but he must have trained like a maniac as well. Lee’s constant mantra of “simplicity” lends him a great deal of credibility. (It should be noted that pragmatism is not a virtue in the movie-making industry.) Lee demonstrates that he’s given a lot of thought to the subject and done the training when he discusses technical concepts. For example, while he gives high praise to Western boxing and emulates boxing moves in some regards, he also notes that boxers are insufficiently cautious owing to the rules/equipment of their sport (a comment—it should be noted–that can be leveled against any sport martial art.)

The technical material is organized in four chapters. The chapter on “tools” deals with the techniques of striking, kicking, and grappling. A chapter on preparations explains Lee’s thoughts on faints, parries and manipulations. There is a chapter on mobility that discusses footwork and various types of evasions. The last technical chapter discusses the approaches to attack, focusing heavily on JKD’s five types of attack.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is undeniably repetitive, but that repetition has value in hammering home key concepts. It’s also consistent with the JKD philosophy of not getting into a great deal of complexity, but rather drilling home the basics. There’s an old martial arts adage that says, “One should not fear the man who knows 10,000 techniques as much as the one that has done one technique 10,000 times.” This seems apropos here. Besides, the concepts that are repeated are often worth memorizing. e.g. Simplify. Eliminate ego. Avoid fixed forms. Be natural. Don’t think about building up as much paring away.

I’d recommend this book for martial artists of any style. Non-martial artists may find the philosophical chapters interesting, but may not get much out of the list-intensive technical chapters.

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5 Classics of Martial Arts Cinema

Martial arts cinema ranges from the horrible through the campy to the excellent. There is one ever-present risk facing this genre. That is, like porn, movie makers may conclude that viewers aren’t watching for character or plot so they might as well just focus on the action. When they do that and then they blow the action– well, that’s when it’s painful to watch. By numbers, most of this genre probably falls into that category. However, sometimes they get it right.

Of course, it’s not always clear what should be categorized as a martial arts film, given many cross-genre romps. The Matrix is science fiction, but it’s also a kung fu flick. The Bourne trilogy films are spy thrillers, but their characteristic gritty hand-to-hand combat sequences are integral to the films. I’ve tried to focus on films that one would unambiguously categorize as martial arts cinema (though anything by Kurosawa is likely to be considered mainstream cinema.)

I also, admittedly, display several of my own biases. I prefer films that avoid over-the-top superhuman choreography. I don’t want to say that I prefer realism. None of it is realistic, but there’s a vast difference between Jackie Chan’s choreography and that of The Curse of the Golden Flower. Still, I do include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle, which both rely heavily on wires and superhuman feats. I also like period pieces as opposed to modern-day films. Of course, characters with charisma also get my attention, but I don’t think I’m unique in that regard.

5.) Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s last film, and features Lee as a Shaolin practitioner cum secret agent. The film reminds me of the Ian Fleming novel You Only Live Twice in that it’s about a person being tasked to infiltrate an evil mastermind’s sprawling lair not because it makes logical or reality-based sense, but rather because the proposed infiltrator is just that damn good.

4.) Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

This is undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed of the films on the list. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2000, and while it did not win in that category, it did take four Oscars that year. It’s in a class of film that includes Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero that are known for stunning cinematography and historical settings. (Unfortunately, these films are also marked by an insanely excessive use of wire-work for my taste.) This film includes a romantic component as well as the fight to possess a sword called Green Destiny. As is mandatory for Kung fu films, there’s a martial arts master whose death must be avenged.

3.) The Legend of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II)

Jackie Chan plays a bumbling young man who is, ironically, a master of Kung fu when completely inebriated. The plot revolves around a mix up between an agent who is trying to steal a valuable artifact and Chan’s character who is trying to smuggle ginseng to avoid paying duty on it. Incredibly, the artifact and ginseng are packaged identically, and the thief ends up with the ginseng and Chan’s character with the artifact. It’s Chan at his best, with all the comedy and creative choreography that one would expect.

2.) Hidden Fortress

I’m not including this just to prevent a Chinese sweep. (On that note: I’ve heard the Thai Ong Bak films are quite good, but I haven’t gotten around do seeing any of them.) Anyway, there are some excellent Japanese period films that involve many combat sequences that are not over-the-top. Of course, Akira Kurosawa dominates in this realm. There are other Kurosawa films, such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or Ran that could equally well be included. Hidden Fortress is probably best known to American movie buffs as a major influence on George Lucas in the making of the first Star Wars film. Hidden Fortress is a about a General (played by portrayer-of-samurai-extraordinaire Toshiro Mifune) who must escort a princess and her family fortune cross-country to safety. Of course, as in every hero’s journey, there are many challenges to be confronted.

1.) Kung Fu Hustle

This comedy is set in the gang-ridden slums of 1930’s Shanghai. A tenement complex is assailed by the gangs. However, the residents offer some surprising resistance in the form of unexpected apartment-dwelling kung fu masters. Unlike Jackie Chan’s down-to-earth comedies, this one is almost cartoon-esque. It features a cast of anti-heroes that keeps the film interesting, and the protagonist has a strong narrative arc.