The half-century-long public debate about how good a fighter Bruce Lee ‘really was’ may seem both culturally passé and intellectually irrelevant to the study of action cinema today. However, this talk argues that within the debris of the popular debate about Bruce Lee’s ‘real’ fighting abilities there remain some important issues, that can enrich our understanding both of action fight choreography in its relation to ‘real’ fighting, and also of ‘real’ fighting in its relation to choreography. In this way, the talk argues that exploring the concept and construction of ‘reality’ in and around Bruce Lee’s execution of combat techniques, we can also deepen our understanding of the place of (action) film in the (real) world.
The talk does this, first, by showing the instability and untenability of many naïve or crude concepts of the real, which often rely on binaries such as physical-reality vs. unreal-representation. In such schemas, Bruce Lee’s action choreographies are essentially ‘unreal’ (because spectacular), and this exists in implicit contrast to a non- or extra-filmic world of combat training which are ‘real’.
Even Bruce Lee himself would on occasion invoke such a contrast, drawing distinctions between flashy cinematic techniques (for entertainment) and ‘simple and direct’ techniques for effective combat use.
Acknowledging the tenacious hold of the real/unreal distinction not only in Bruce Lee’s approach to martial arts but also in widespread discussions of the subject of ‘real’ versus ‘cinematic’ fight choreography, this talk will zone in on the way these differences manifest (or don’t) at the level of technique.
It will analyse Lee’s execution of specific combat techniques both within a formal film context (his choreographed fight scenes) and a non-film or informally-filmed context (such as in his own writing and in occasions where he was filmed performing techniques as an instructor).
In doing so, this analysis will cast light on the characteristics of Bruce Lee’s technique – both cinematic and non-cinematic – searching for the oft-declared differences between the ‘reel’ and the ‘real’, and reflecting on occasions of identicality or identity across realms.
The aim of the talk is to strengthen the ground for deeper cultural studies of the putative cinematic/non-cinematic distinction. This distinction that takes many forms, one of which is the putative binary between representation and lived reality.
The talk will be underpinned by Ben Spatz’s theorisation of ‘technique’ as a primary category of culture and pedagogy, and it will also constitute a significant critical engagement with Peter Sloterdijk’s philosophical celebrations of ‘anthropotechnics’.
Professor Paul Bowman
Deputy Head of School, Professor of Cultural Studies
School of Journalism, Media and Culture
Cardiff University, UK