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Stewart Home’s Bruceploitation Groove

By Richard Marshall.

Stewart Home, Re-Enter The Dragon. Genre Theory, Bruceploitation and the Sleazy Joys of Lowbrow Cinema. LedaTape Organisation, 2018.

Stewart Home knows there are these things happening everywhere, all the time, throughout modern capitalist history, and Bruceploitation is a good way of showing what and how. His are the reflections not only of a certain personal attitude, stuffed with feelings and psychological vim, but a philosophical – explicitly Marxist – one as well. Reading Home can be a strange and electrifying experience, one tinged by the sense you’re reading works by a maniac writing towards the edge of an abyss that is more and more your own.

His vision is unreconstructedly Marxist, his approach unrelenting and remorseless as he hunts down the capitalist program from within the repeater asskicking. He’s diagnosing the ways in which reason underdetermines belief, and appeals to a speculative psychological hypotheses to explain belief fixation even in the absence of rational evidence through deconstructing a set of carefully selected kung fu films. And importantly the work is a passionate affair. He’s driven by affection for the films which gives the work its authority and force as well its intensity and hilarious jouissance. It’s also swaggery too, well able to take care of itself. As he writes at the start: ‘ Others with different views will just have to argue their own corner. “Your kung fu, sorry I mean bullshit theory, is pretty good—but it can’t beat my trash cinema dialectics!” He’s not worried.

This new book covers this wild landscape of a minor genre of pulp films that few readers will have seen or known about to the obsessive depth Home has, so the detail and fine -pointed nuances in selection reminds us that here’s a writer thinking about the point of uttering half-truths, about the existence of numbers, about mental content, about scientific laws and models, about the existence of fictional entities, like Tong Fu, and about metaphysical and logical impossibility without caring a toss whether we were interested in any of it  the first place. (Although he does reckon that if you’re reading the book you’re either interested in genre theory or action movies, or both. But it’s just as likely that you’re interested in Home and neither of the other things!) He’s going point to point so we can start learning up. In fact this kind of point-to-pointing is typical in Home, who often lays down detail after detail, even when his first is damning enough. The technique and approach he uses for capturing his phenomena is part of the curious feeling you often get when reading him that he’s strangling whatever it is in the cradle; in his relentlessness you feel he’s using a cannon to kill a mouse, but that it misses the mouse to hit neighbouring mice instead. Deliberately. Home is out to cause trouble. Or what others might call fun.

The publicity from LedaTape sets the scene:

‘HEAD KICKING BRICK BREAKING MAYHEM!

This is the first in-depth look at movies that riff on tropes associated with Bruce Lee and that sometimes transformed this actor into a mythical superman.

The period with the greatest cluster of Brucesploitaton productions lasted less than a decade from the mid-seventies to the early-eighties, but the genre spluttered on into the twenty-first century; and although it didn’t exist as a category before Bruce Lee’s death, there are several films that pre-date the Little Dragon’s demise that clearly belong to it. While death added another dimension to Bruce Lee’s celebrity status, he was already a huge star in South East Asia before he passed away; so cynical movie producers did not need to wait for his death to exploit popular interest in Lee – even if the term Brucesploitation had yet to be coined.

Within Brucesploitation actors who copy and clone Bruce Lee make up one strand of the subgenre, but their importance can and has been over-stated. Much of the writing about Brucesploitation is fan and internet based, and many of those producing this discourse make little attempt to explain why they insist certain films belong to the genre. Too many fans write as if genre is somehow natural, rather than created and shaped both through bald assertion and by more critical discussion and thinking. It is all too common to find any martial arts film featuring certain actors and themes, or with Bruce in the title, being accepted as Brucesploitation without any debate around the issue.

This book systematically explores the genre and controversially takes a close look at which flicks really should be seen as belonging to it.’

Bruceploitation as Home presents it feels like an entire species of semi-beloved and once deferred-to entities has been stolen away leaving behind only persistent appearances. 146 appearences to be precise. That’s how many films he covers in the book. It’s a stunning performance. He’s out to find the representational benefits of genre objects – like Adam West’s Batman tv series, The Men From Uncle, Atom Ant etc etc, – without needing to say that such things exist. Home works to liberate readers from the oppression of the values the reader accepts. Home’s Marxism says that these readers oppress themselves in virtue of certain values and norms they accept – the reality of genius, of originality, of art as an escape from the logic of capitalism and so forth – and Home offers his books as a kind of diagnostic to understand this oppressive character of modernity. Individuals are captured by judgments of normality telling them the ways of being a normal human being. These are the judgments that tell you what to eat, what jokes are funny, who to vote for, how to raise children, what to wear and so on. In the modern era the regulation of these judgments derives from human sciences. The authority trapping us all in its iron cage is epistemic and as well as the usual religious ones modernity has added scientific ones to hold us in too.

Home is out to point out the cage, make sure we can see it and understand it. His strategy has been to cast light on the area of this modern oppression where the cage seems least strong – the arts – to show that aesthetics is no less part of the iron cage than shopping, managerialism, orthodox religions and the rest. The role of art as a liberator of the self, as a place where the antinomian rebel might go to wriggle free is taken down. His strategy is to show how wherever you want to go he can show you the tactics and influence of economics, politics and moral considerations that have led to whatever art form you care to examine. And in showing that they’ve been co-opted and work effectively to maintain the modern capitalist structures that are ubiquitous and currently unassailable he bursts optimistic delusions that capitalism can be breached.

Yet his books are not dry, drab and depressing reads but are injected with a zoomy sense of unstoppability which mirrors the system he’s fighting, as if he’s showing that pushback taken to a limit can be effective in beginning the resistance, no matter how big or small the perceived impact. After all, resistance has to start somewhere and for all we know each little crack may end up contributing to the end game.

So the fun is in this serious agenda bashing up against a wild and prolonged discussion of a genre that, as he explains in the prologue, he first became attached to growing up in the sixties and seventies. ‘As a kid I watched the Batman TV series so it is probable I was exposed to Bruce Lee’s guest appearances as Kato before I learnt he was the ‘king of kung fu’. There were many things to prep my interest in Lee but probably just feeling angry and disempowered was the most important factor. Constantly having teachers tell me and all the other kids at school that we were stupid and would never do anything with our lives—other than work in a factory—was more than enough to make me want to breakout from such drab surroundings.’ This is a typical Home moment mixing personal reminiscence with the underlying anger and resentment that animates his whole oeuvre. Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies and the Bruceploitation movies that followed were, he explains, a form of escape from the dismal limits of childhood . As he writes,

‘Music was one way to escape this sham reality, but by the time I was twelve years-old glam rock was on its last legs, so martial arts flicks filled a void by providing a better form of contemporary escapism—at least until punk rock came along.’ One of the great things about the book is that Home writes about how he got into the films and how his motivations have threaded through his subsequent works in the many arenas in which he works – novels, conceptual art, poetry, essays, performance art, lectures, music and so forth. You get riffs like this which paint a picture of the young Home making his way into the deep waters of contemporary modernity which are fascinating for their insight into a time now fast becoming difficult to imagine for anyone of a certain age, a world without the internet, computers, mobile phones and the whole digital media paraphernalia. It’s the world on the brink of hyper-capitalism, the world  that had since the 30’s seemed to be a world where perhaps capitalist logic could be tamed and defanged.

The time from the 30’s to the end of the 70’s was the only time in recorded history where average returns on work outperformed average returns on capital in western capitalist societies. It was a period where it looked as if we were living in a different modernity to the one that had been in place ever since the French Revolution where capital always made more than work. Alas, it wasn’t to last. By the time the seventies had ended we were returning to the norm of the previous few hundred years. Of course now it seems obvious that capitalists – a tiny portion of the population – own the world, and that we’re stuck in our own version of the belle époque but back then it wasn’t so obvious. This is of course the important message from Picketty’s book on Capital. The low tech, ziney world of the seventies is where Home’s affection and interest for these flicks began, and his asides catch the different atmosphere of those lost times. Take this riff:

‘I first took a conscious interest in Bruce Lee when the London based Kung Fu Monthly began publication in 1974. This was a fan magazine that turned into a giant fold-out poster. After seeing early issues I was desperate to catch the Little Dragon’s flicks. More than anything else in Kung Fu Monthly I found a picture of Bruce in his coffin morbidly fascinating since it was in such contrast to the other images of him as a seemingly super-fit movie star. Since I wasn’t old enough to see X-rated films, I had to lie about my age to gain admittance to Enter the Dragon (1973) and innumerable other martial arts movies. When I first saw Lee’s flicks, I was less sceptical about the fighting skills on display than I am now; of course there is nothing wrong with movie kung fu, it just isn’t real world fighting. Nonetheless, from the get-go one of the things I liked about these films was how ridiculous they were; they definitely made me laugh.’

There’s an important reason why these autobiographical snaps are in there. Home isn’t preaching. He obviously has normative opinions about all sorts of things – of course Home has opinions! But he’s like Marx in this: Marx had normative opinions but never worked out a normative theory, a theory that purported to justify, discursively and systematically his normative opinions and show them to be rationally obligatory and rationally justified. Home’s views are those of the mature Marx’s views about morality and value, in particular, the view he shared with Engels that because moral opinions are determined by the existing relations of production, we can not know what morality would be characteristic of a society that did not have capitalist relations of production. He takes for granted that, at the right historical moment, circumstances will be such that large numbers of people will be motivated to undertake revolutionary change: they do not require a normative theory to help them. What they will find useful is a correct understanding of their historical situation and the causal mechanisms at work that explain its potential, and what this book does is once more work at understanding that historical situation via a detailed, serious but at the same time hilarious analysis of the Bruceploitation movies. 146 of the little evil bastards to be exact!

The autobiographical details are great but what makes the book a hoot to read – in the positive sense that all groovy thinking is a hoot – is how the reader is taken along through a whole set of subtle distinctions that require a thorough and pretty extensive knowledge of the films themselves, something that I would guess is rare outside of fandom. You need insider knowledge to know all the references in passages like this:

‘Fist of Unicorn (1973) should be treated as a part of the genre, and it was made and released before Lee died on 20 July 1973. Brucesploitation dates back to at least 1972 and includes the Ramon Zamora comedy kung fu vehicle The Pig Boss (1972) that riffs on Bruce Lee’s first adult star vehicle; it may also encompass Zamora’s Fish and Fury—although whether this second item is actually a stand alone feature or just segment of King Plaster (1972) is currently unclear to me. These Zamora flicks belong to a Filipino tradition of parody films that include Iking Boxer (1973, a slapstick version of King Boxer) and Lasing Master (1980, a spoof of Drunken Master), but which also encompassed off-the-wall remakes of both local and international hits that had no martial arts content whatsoever. Despite being aware of Zamora’s early involvement in the Brucesploitation genre, I haven’t actually seen the titles I’ve just mentioned…’ .

Reading this makes you realize that this work is no less archive heavy and esoteric than the heaviest of scholarly writing on 19th century German Idealists, for example, but of course this has the advantage of including kick ass pulp genre action which 19th century German Idealism doesn’t.

Home, as ever, has foraged the secondary literature and found it wanting – so the case for writing his own book is explicit. There’s nothing in the archives that actually understands the genre well enough to do it justice. Previous scholarship has been slap dash and been unable to pin point it, as he makes clear in this aside:

‘”Somewhat more sophisticated in its understanding of film as a medium than Here Come the Kung Fu Clones was Leon Hunt’s Kung Fu Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger (Wallflower Press, London 2003) but here Brucesploitation is only really touched on in passing and again the focus is very much on Bruce Li and the Hollywood bio-pic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993, directed by Rob Cohen). Even when Hunt writes briefly about The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980) his focus is on Dragon Lee at the expense of Bruce Le, Bruce Lai and Bruce Thai; he has nothing to say about putative director Joseph Velasco, who might be viewed as ‘the king of Brucesploitation’. Contra Hunt, Cohen’s Dragon is a Hollywood drama and is not even an exploitation film let alone Bruceploitation.’ He couldn’t be more explicit.

Home explains why he’s written about the 146 films he has. ‘ Early entries in film genres inevitably have to be made before the category to which they belong comes into being. Likewise the links between the films that make up any given genre are relational and not rational, and ultimately what belongs to any given cinematic category must be argued on a case-by-case—that is a movie-by-movie—basis.’

So Home is cleaning up the territory and sharpening the contours of the category of Bruceploitation which as he sees it has not been worked out rigorously enough by early pioneers. This makes sense. If what Home is doing is forging conditions for honing revolutionary consciousness then it needs to be done efficiently. His works have always been nothing less than rigorous and formidably engineered. It has long been a complaint by Home of his critics that they take him to be some sort of yob writer who has no craft or skill in what he does. Yet this is someone who cites ‘Last Year At Marienbad’ as one of his fave films and if you look carefully at what he’s up to he’s as conscious a maker as you can find, crafting his language and style to ensure that his ends are met.

Returning to the autobiographic details in this work for a moment, where we’re told of his enthusiasm and his feelings for these films, we’re being given another element of how he’s constructing the work. We’re being told that the project is not a purely scholarly, academic one but rather is one born out of desires and passions. In this we find Home signaling a Humean/Nietzschean – and Marxist – motivation for what he’s doing. Not cold calculation and reason but rather, a passion, a psychological push. The role of the passions should not be underestimated in Home – nor in Marx. And this links with a serious point about the revolutionary consciousness. If you want to find the motivation for revolution it will not come from thinking it out – the dismal mistake of those many vanguard movements that attempt to impose their insights on the rest of us using whatever bullying tactics and resources of brute power they can lay their hands on – but will come from everyone feeling that enough is enough, a mass feeling that exploitation and immiseration has become too extreme to tolerate and has to stop. Communism is not for a few people with deep insights and theoretical rigour to lead, but rather is what happens when we all feel the same about the situation.

Marx was clear about what he thought the conditions would be to bring about this mass revolt when he writes in the ‘German Ideology’:

‘[I]t [capitalism] must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless,’ and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of development….[T]his development of productive forces…is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the ‘propertyless’ mass… Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism (1846/1978, 161-162).’

So for Marx its mass immiseration, truly global capitalism and an enormous increase in productive power that will bring the revolution. What Marx got wrong was the timing for this. He saw it coming much much quicker than it has. In fact, the depressing thing is that with now new billions joining the capitalist system as India and China  become major capitalist players it’s likely to be a long while before we get the mass immiseration. And the pessimists among us might think that capitalism is pretty good at finding ways of keeping itself going. Maybe it won’t end.

But Home has always been a communist of this mature Marxist type. He has declared war many times on the various kinds of vanguardism that pop up in various sub cultures of faux Marxist, anarchist and other groups that work outside the blissed out groove of mature Marxist communist thinking! To reiterate, instead of assuming people will need a theory to make them revolt, Marx assumes that they won’t. As Brian Leiter explains;

‘Capitalism… unleashes the productive power and ingenuity of humanity like no other economic system; but unlike the apologists for capitalism, Marx saw that the structure of the entire system guaranteed the misery of the vast majority. If agents’ basic needs and desires are frustrated, and you can explain to them both why and what the alternatives are, you can be confident that those agents will be motivated to change things. Instrumental rationality and some assumptions about human desires are all one needs by way of a psychology of revolution. Agents do not need to know what justice is, or fairness, or morally right action. To be sure, they may express their desires in normative language (we all use normative language, all the time), but that is not the same as saying they need a discursive justification or theory of those concepts to be motivated to act. They do not, in short, need a normative theory to explain why they should revolt if Marx’s descriptive claims about the tendencies of capitalist development are correct.’

That’s why it’s important to know that Home really digs this stuff, and that his work is not some drudge scholarly work but more a labour of love. The psychological impetus for writing about the films is important because it signals that what Home knows is driving him is his own personal history and psychology and not some arid theory generated by half baked twats in a fug of idiot self-righteous aggrandizement, moralism and self-love.

He’s a fan of Bruce Lee, not withstanding the critique and sharp thinking. It’s why it’s such a great read. Even if you’ve never seen any of these films, or the original Lee ones, you’ll be drawn into this crazy world which Home delineates and deconstructs with verve and skill. He enjoys pressing down on the small details and at the same time boogy woogies with the whole scholarly apparatus so that his writing blends high scholarship antics with seventies jive talk which is in itself a blast. For example, take this little gem of a passage about the 1977 film ‘Bruce and the Golden Chaku’ which is typical of the whole performance:

‘To wrap things up, Loita, Emily and Zamora, see Bruce off at Manila International Airport. In a loop back to the film’s opening, Bruce catches a Cathay Pacific international flight. Despite the loose and unlikely plotting, the fast and furious action makes this movie fun viewing. There are enough Bruce Lee references to put Golden Chaku in the semiperiphery of the genre but the groovers who made this movie seem at least as interested in doing their own thing as ripping off the Little Dragon.’

By the time you’ve read through the vast detail and endless plot lines, absorbed the asides and connections, you end up being sucked into the world of the genre, head spinning with the glut of detail and sneaking around on the net looking to watch a few of the darlings just to see. It’s a cut above the products of unintelligible and juvenile posturing in the intellectual entertainment industry from the likes of Zizek and before that Derrida. It’s class war being fought at the right level. It’s about working with those feelings which are the correct psychology for the way we live now.

Sad to say, there aren’t many who understand the radical position that Home has continually been setting out and exemplifying over the last few decades. He continually pushes buttons for emotional responses, and simultaneously writes from emotional ‘sentimental’ forces he finds in himself. It’s no accident that his work confuses and disturbs, and that it’s difficult to place him in the current cultural milieu, especially now as classical Marxism is out of fashion. Yet if you look carefully there’s something about all of Home’s work that remains consistent. He’s interested in forms of cultural work that is marginal but marginal for a reason. It’s often a sleazy, porny, low-brow sentimentalism he develops and pivots off, one that appeals to clear-cut psychological gratifications rather than sly rational evidence for whatever. He doesn’t waste time on normative theory for consumption by bourgeoise academics and vanguardists of both left and right. He is trying to work out and understand the mechanisms by which Marxist psychology and epistemology works which entails in part understanding better the Marxist theory of ideology. That he is working with the materials he does and in the manner he does is all part of this serious, and seriously groovacious project. Bruceploitation helps dig the groove between Hume, Neitzsche and Marx via his use of speculative psychological reasoning. Passion makes him write the book in the first place. Come on now, who else would even try to do this? Home is a righteous jive.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 13th, 2018.