At the risk of crying wolf, it seems accurate to characterize academic film studies as being more than simply interdisciplinary, as more perilously resembling a discipline in the throes of schizophrenia. With the introduction into film studies of cultural studies—and with it, issues from politics to psychoanalysis, race to gender, epistemology to ontology, and a whole grab bag of other pressing concerns—various branches of the cinema have been colonized by other disciplines for aims that do not always respect the film text as a concrete historical object to be engaged rather than “constituted” or “deconstructed.” Scholars across the humanities, armed with the discarded or, at best, implicit idées reçues that litter the tumultuous history of film theory, frequently look for opportunities to excavate films for potential theoretical use, which then leads to film scholars coming across such dubious “readings” and incorporating the questionable conclusions into new readings, and so on and so forth, back-and-forth across disciplines, until the films in question are hardly even recognizable. Most at risk of such colonization are the marginalized and trivialized branches of the cinema not already embedded in the film studies fabric, of which action cinema can serve as a paradigm case. Within film studies, action cinema practically does not exist unless it is employed under the auspices of the pejorative “mindless” qualifier, and the implicit ideology of the film studies community regarding “mindless action movies” has discouraged film scholars from seriously engaging action cinema or any of its subsets, including martial arts cinema, unless it is with the intention of proving why no scholars should waste their time seriously engaging such “lowly” cinema. (1) Some film scholars have ignored this implicit ideological initiative; however, the overall paltriness of action scholarship has justified the desire of scholars in other disciplines to pick up film studies’ slack, but at what cost to the films under consideration and, indeed, to the study of the cinema itself?
By and large, any consideration given action movies in or out of film studies is restricted to analysis of how the narrative content of the films is formed directly by the culture, with no consideration given to, for example, authorial intentionality on the grounds that the very nature of action cinema precludes such an artistic luxury as personal expression, nor is any consideration given to aesthetic analysis, unless such analysis is undertaken in order to condemn the genre’s hyperkinetic choreographic, cinematographic, and editorial tendencies as ersatz art. The same holds true for martial arts movies. By virtue of not being made in Hollywood, the bulk of martial arts cinema from Hong Kong at least has a little cache in academia thanks to its exoticness and, from the (leftist) Western perspective, its a priori anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, anti-hegemony, et al. Martial arts cinema is thus similarly countenanced only for its political currency, except where a majority of scholarship on Hollywood action movies concerns itself with issues of politics in an effort to condemn action cinema as reactionary at best and repressive at worst, the majority of scholarship on martial arts cinema concerns itself with issues of race, gender, and representations of the body, with the genre embodying an admirably radical and emancipatory potential that is frequently localized in/on Bruce Lee, one of the most important figures in the history of both the martial arts and the cinema.
As far as “Martial Arts Studies” is concerned, Paul Bowman is undoubtedly the most provocative scholar working in this emergent interdisciplinary field. Bowman is also currently the preeminent academic Bruce Lee scholar, having written numerous journal articles and book chapters on Lee in addition to two full-length book studies (2). Theorizing Bruce Lee is a tour de force of cultural, sociopolitical, psychoanalytic, and philosophical exegesis. Bowman is one of those rare and exceptional scholars who can move from effortlessly condensing the voluminous theoretical postulations of weighty avatars of Theory from Jacques Derrida to Slavoj Žižek to then offering cogent arguments and interpretations of his own based on relevant and straightforward theses relating to politics, philosophy, and martial arts. The general reader is treated to a lucid and easily digestible crash-course on typically jargon-heavy Theory, while the seasoned academic will no doubt be stimulated by Bowman’s artful patchworks of theorists and theories in his efforts to better illuminate the complexities and consequences of Lee’s unforgettable emergence in and his insuppressible influence on popular culture. However, between the two books, the more recent Beyond Bruce Lee is the more aptly titled, for neither one of his books on Lee are all too concerned with theorizing Bruce Lee, but rather, theorizing around, before, after, above, below—in a word, beyond—Bruce Lee.
Additionally, Theorizing Bruce Lee is rather indifferent to the study of the cinema as a discrete practice, therefore it will be of little concern in this discussion except as a project that has been absorbed in Beyond Bruce Lee, which not only subsumes and extends the premises that guided the previous text, but which is far more conspicuously concerned with issues in academic film studies (3). Rather than seek to offer a contribution to any one discipline, Bowman aspires to produce a text that can serve equally as “a supplement to film studies, a footnote to debates in contemporary Continental philosophy, a post-mortem of that old chestnut called postmodernism, and a contribution to postcolonialist cultural studies” (p. vii) in an effort to highlight the necessity of “an interdisciplinary approach” to the study of Bruce Lee and, by extension, to any subject(s) caught up in such “a complex field of intertextuality” (p.viii). One could argue that Bowman’s greatest contributions to academic inquiry are by way of his thought-provoking critiques (which vary in explicitness across his body of work from Bruce Lee to more traditional cultural and political theory) of disciplinarity as such (4). The notion of “pure” academic study—a work of “pure” film criticism or of “pure” philosophy—has been rendered obsolete by the ubiquitous (and perhaps inevitable) cross-pollination between disciplines that characterizes much current academic activity, and as Bowman posits in both of his books on Lee, no theories relating to or emanating from Lee that ignore the cinematic dimension of his intervention into popular culture could possibly be valid, much less useful.
With this in mind, Bowman thus undertakes in much of Beyond Bruce Lee to judiciously recall past engagements with martial arts cinema in general and Bruce Lee in particular in a dialectical effort to highlight either insufficiencies in past scholars’ historical and/or theoretical reasoning, or to build on intriguing ideas that have yet to be fleshed out by the other scholars presently at work in this field. What is nevertheless apparent, regardless of Bowman’s commitment to progressive inter/alterdisciplinarity, is his reliance on the groupthink dogmas that contributed to the construction of the formidable theoretical edifice that David Bordwell and Noël Carroll famously dubbed “Grand Theory,” that “aggregate of doctrines derived from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Structuralist semiotics, Post-Structuralist literary theory, and variants of Althusserian Marxism.” (5) For as stimulating and persuasive as Bowman’s conceptualization of alterdisciplinary academic study may be, if uncritical appeals to “authorities” like Roland Barthes are par for the course, then perhaps even the conceptualization of alterdisciplinarity needs to be altered. In a brief discussion of the much-debated concept of authorship in film studies, Bowman appeals to Barthes’ ideas on textuality as an alibi for his indifference towards even the most basic concession that a majority of “textual effects,” as Bordwell calls them, are the result of “deliberate and founding choices” that impact the visual aesthetics and narrative style of—and potential meanings to be extrapolated from—a given film. (6)
Bowman starts from Barthes’ ideas regarding the distinction between a “work,” which is naïvely and erroneously believed to “be what it is” due to the genius of the presiding author, and a “text,” which is little more than a work whose author is ignored as part of some misguided revolutionary project against “the dominant interpretive institutions” (p. 158). This, as far as Bowman is concerned, is enough justification to make the enormous leap from conceptualizing language not as a “tool” that we “use” to “communicate” but an all-powerful force that uses us, to conceptualizing the film text as a magical creation that was never within the grasp of any of its alleged authors in the first place (from the director/auteur to even the collaborative collective of creators, technicians, and performers who work to produce a film) and that is instead freely available as a network of signification that is “infinitely polysemous” and where meaning is not something to be “discovered” by a “reader” but created by a reader-cum-author (p. 159). Astonishingly, Bowman laments how the pertinence of this antediluvian Barthesian perspective for the study of Bruce Lee “has yet to be stated, let alone fully elaborated” (p. 159), when the real tragedy is that anyone could consider such a perspective to be advisable for the study of any film, film star, or filmmaker within the confines of classical narrative storytelling. (7) While Bowman’s desire to open Bruce Lee up to inquiry that extends beyond mere dismissal of him as a trivial figure of pop culture fanaticism is admirable, his chosen method for doing so is not up to the task seeing how the belief in “infinitely polysemous” films as the norm rather than the exception is more harmful than it is beneficial. With no scrutiny given to any aspects of the filmmaking process and no credence given to even the most flexible of conceptualizations of an author, what results is an “infinitely elastic principle of interpretation” (8) that benefits the hubristic scholar rather than the neglected film text, the “victory” of this Barthesian prerogative amounting to the denunciation of cinematic artistry and the cannibalization of the cinema as an art form.
Now this may seem more like pouring salt in the wound rather than applying an antibiotic, but a rededication to principles of cinephilia could potentially offer a way out of this regrettable (and all-too-frequently encountered) impasse where the only way to successfully offer a theory of film is at the expense of the individual film text. The initial emergence of film studies was due to the indefatigable cinephilia of the French, who were committed to understanding the nature of film production and the processes of film interpretation. Subsequent to the academicization/politicization of film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, however, a hermeneutic divide appeared, with scholars disagreeing on whether cinematic representation was a problem that needed to be attacked through reference to Lacanian/Althusserian theories of subjectivity and Barthesian theories of “knowledge” as an institutionalized agent of repression, or whether cinematic representation was a positive effort to intervene in a historically and sociopolitically specific moment in culture. Today, with film studies more entwined with cultural studies than ever before, the need to transcend this hermeneutic divide has never been more urgent, for the consequence of following the present course could very well be the rise to prominence of an “anthropological detachment” that prefers to substitute “signifying practice” for art, (9) with the cinema falling by the wayside as mere collateral damage in the war against ideology.
Beyond Bruce Lee is perhaps the best marker for the point where, at its most progressive and beneficial, the cultural studies colonization has taken martial arts cinema. As the title of his book suggests, Bowman seeks to go beyond merely a study of Bruce Lee to penetrate the logic behind many of the forms interpretations of Lee and his significance have taken, and far more than any of his other analyses of Lee and his films, Beyond Bruce Lee shrewdly interrogates many of the presuppositions guiding analyses of Lee in film and admirably highlights many deficiencies. And yet, for all of his lucidity and savvy, Bowman stops short of offering new and potentially more productive routes, restricted as he is by the Barthesian framework to which he chose to adhere. As committed a cultural film scholar as any produced by the cultural studies intervention, Andrew Britton outlined two extremes that often characterize engagements with films by scholars in and out of film studies, which, despite their hypothetical generality, nevertheless come to bear directly on Beyond Bruce Lee. For Britton, cultural analysis is inextricable from film analysis; however, “cultural analysis divorced from an explicit evaluative project leads at best to the accumulation of data which have a potential critical usefulness, and at worst to the rationalization, as objective truth, of an evaluative project which is never presented as such.” (10) Despite his fascination with the work produced by Lee and his commitment to exploring the elements that make-up martial arts cinema, Bowman’s curious (and curiously adamant) refusal to write as a fan, to concede at any point and on any grounds that the films with which he is concerned, including even Lee’s films, could possibly be “good” in any sense of the word, causes his text, for all of the useful data it accumulates, to ultimately yield to the latter impulse from Britton’s schema. And as Britton rightly declared in direct contrast to Bowman’s considerable efforts to the contrary: “There can be no impartial discourse, and if readers do not know where the critic stands in relation to [the film], they have no means of defining or assessing [his/her] judgments—which may, of course, be found seriously to misrepresent” the film under consideration. (11)
In the process of analyzing the various martial arts films deemed relevant to his analytical project, Bowman’s ceaseless oscillation—proclaiming martial arts movies to be nothing more than “juvenile action flicks” yet attempting to prove they possess great value in spite of themselves—causes him to commit “the two most serious of all critical errors: indifference to the concrete historical particularity of the works of art and the subordination of interpretation to judgments of value derived from idées reçues which precede the act of analysis.”(12) Bowman worries that such scholarly legerdemain will open him up to charges of racism and ethnocentrism, but as he hastens to assert, his prejudice is directed towards “film genres, formulas, and narratives as such” (p. 164), an extremely disheartening admission seeing how he is explicitly acknowledging—and conceding—the “objective truth” of action and martial arts cinema’s intrinsic awfulness while asserting that their only possible worth is contingent on their ideological “usefulness.” The potential—and potentially devastating—ramifications of such a practice for the future of film studies wholly justifies the eschatological worry discernible in Robin Wood’s impassioned mobilization of authorship against such a critical practice. Warning against the coming “demolition of art,” Wood urged scholars to take note of the logical extension of the anti-cinephiliac “death of the author” initiative: That “without artists there is no art,” in its place “mere ideological constructions, culturally determined, produced out of various combinations of codes, systems, and signifiers”(13) that simply need to be mechanically “deconstructed” and then semiotically “reconstituted,” all glory to the infinite polysemy of the authorless—and thus artless and lifeless—Barthesian “text.”
For too long, action cinema has been denigrated as cinema, denied the distinction of “art” and thus never approached seriously or directly in or out of film studies. While Noël Carroll was right to point out that the liberation offered by the cultural studies intervention (i.e., the proliferation of ideological critique as “a universal premise” that provided scholars with “the philosophical wherewithal to go searching for ideology in places where no one heretofore believed ideology existed”(14)) should not be taken for granted by film scholars, it does nevertheless leave much to be desired, for while it provided legitimate grounds for the initial countenance of such “lowly” cinema, the countenance was initially (and regrettably still is) provisionary. As Britton rightly urged, the scholar should be concerned with determining “the sakes” of the film with which he/she seeks to engage rather than allow a particular theoretical project or taken-for-granted philosophical premise to determine the meaning to be discovered prior to the act of analysis. “What do its makers think of [the film] as being? What do they want to do? What is the significance of their wanting to do this?” After answering these questions, the scholar should then seek to offer “an account of what [the film] does, which may well be very different from anything grasped by its project,”(15) ultimately yielding an interpretation that does not see the scholar inescapably trapped in the repressive grip of the author but that nevertheless does start with a desire “to analyze the conceptual and empirical factors—norms, traditions, habits—that govern [the filmmaking] practice and its products,” thus offering not idiosyncratic conjecture but “explanations, of an intentionalist, functionalist, or causal sort,”(16) the relevance/appropriateness of which can only be determined by the film itself, “which is not something simply available to be constituted at will by the discourse of criticism but a historical object to which criticism aspires to be adequate.”(17) Studies of the cinema that adhere to these principles could exemplify at once a synthetic model of interpretation that attends to the complexities and nuances of authorship, genre, and ideology, as well as committed alterdisciplinarity that strives for more than dogmas and doctrines, more than uncritical appeals to authorities, and even more than complete fidelity to the author as the sole determiner of meaning.
Tom Gunning believes that the hasty jettisoning of authorship precluded more promising methods of “author-studies” to thoroughly develop and that “their premature abandonment has stunted the growth of a dynamic film criticism.”(18) This was resultant from accusations of romantic individualism, which Gunning rightly points out are in most cases inapplicable and in almost all cases merely a smoke screen to allow scholars to move down a different critical path without having to take the time to dialectically engage the tenets of auteurism, in spite of the fact that the best auteurist analyses frequently highlight the benefits of authorship as “a tool for interpretation that is more flexible and mercurial than explication by theory,”(19) even if, as in Bowman’s case, the theoretical explication strives for flexibility. Indeed, recalling Britton’s discussion of the importance of determining “the sakes” of a film, scholars scouring university libraries and online scholarly databases for film books and essays also need to be discriminating the sakes of academic scholarship. What does the author of the essay or book want it to be doing? What is the significance of their wanting to do this? And, of course, what does it actually do, which may well be very different from anything grasped by the ostensible project implicitly or explicitly claimed by the author?
Perhaps the greatest irony of Beyond Bruce Lee is in Bowman’s discussion (during an analysis of the cultural theory of Rey Chow, one of Bowman’s most frequent and fecund reference points throughout his book) of the “negative impulse” of much deconstruction, the “rigorous but negative critical energy” that “cannot really engage with the specifics of the film medium itself” (p. 191), which happens to be the very same impulse that so severely hinders Bowman. Undoubtedly a great fan of Lee’s, Bowman just cannot seem to shed whatever perceived academic seriousness and respectability it is that keeps him from admitting that he likes the films he has chosen to analyze, that forces him to attempt to turn the film medium against itself, to turn it upside down in an effort shake out the salient ramifications it was unaware it possessed, rather than strive to unlock the conscious power of the cinema in all of its wondrous multidimensionality, to work with the medium and its products rather than against it. His detached, clinical dissections of the cinematic carcasses that come across his table “deny cinema its poetry and its haunting effect, its indeterminacy as an evanescent image, its strange realism, its cultural resonance, its visual magic, its ability to confront us with a phantom that, however false and constructed we may recognize it to be, intrigues and enflames us nevertheless, ceaselessly, beneficially.”(20) In discussing what could be termed the “positive impulse” of deconstruction in opposition to the “negative impulse” exhibited by Bowman, Žižek points out the utter necessity of the scholar’s “asking naïve questions which undermine philosophical propositions taken for granted.”(21) The point in such questioning, however, is not to “cancel the gap” that exists between, for example, film studies and cultural studies, or “good” movies and “bad” movies; much more significantly and beneficially, the point is “that all these differences should be re-thought and conceived in a different way, multiplied, ‘thickened,’”(22) and this perspective is actually perfectly in line with the “positive impulse” of what Bowman terms alterdisciplinarity as well as what Bordwell terms a “poetics of cinema.” As Bordwell laments, “interrogation of one’s presuppositions would seem to be the theoretical act par excellence, but [scholars] seldom indulge in it.”(23) However, what Žižek calls “the common sense of deconstruction”(24) is equally the common sense of a poetics of cinema that adheres to alterdisciplinary principles of philosophical reasoning grounded in rigorous cultural, historical, generic, and authorial contextualization and interpretation, all with the goal of better understanding and appreciating film art.
Explicitly in Theorizing Bruce Lee and implicitly in Beyond Bruce Lee, Bowman seeks to beg questions about the limits and maintenance of disciplinary boundaries, and at its best, his scholarship shows the fecundity of committed, dialectical alterdisciplinarity. Then again, there is a reason such disciplinary boundaries were created in the first place. The “alter” in “alterdisciplinarity” must be taken literally: The goal should be to change the disciplines, not to do away with disciplinarity in toto or proceed obliviously as if no disciplinary boundaries exist. If it is the fault of the reader for expecting that which was never a concern of the author, then perhaps it is the fault of this essay for critiquing Bowman for that which he was never concerned with establishing, that of a synthetic model of film interpretation that can adhere to both auteurist and ideological principles. Perhaps it is the fault of the academic zeitgeist itself, with its inter/antidisciplinary thrusts and its desire to move forward at ever higher speeds “to infinity and beyond!” In any case, assigning blame is irrelevant. More pressing are the questions that persist as a result of the present situation, regardless of how it came to be. And these questions can be answered, provided film studies is up to the task, provided the discipline is willing to once again lead the way in the study of the cinema rather than continue to play catch-up with other disciplines. Reading Beyond Bruce Lee begs the question: How can one appreciate the space beyond Bruce Lee without first learning to appreciate Bruce Lee? And reading studies of the cinema conducted by scholars working outside of film studies similarly begs the question: How can one learn to study beyond the cinema without first learning to study the cinema?
From this perspective, Beyond Bruce Lee is thus not a supplement to film studies, but a challenge to it. In challenging film studies, however, Paul Bowman is not the enemy. The issue of disciplinarity with which Bowman has confronted film studies “is neither one of identity, nor even of convergence,” but of a “direct opposition” that can be “conceptually assigned to a shared conviction as to what it is possible to demand”(25) of disciplines themselves. Rather than jettisoning potentially useful concepts in unproductive fashion as lamented by Gunning, rather than refusing to interrogate one’s presuppositions as lamented by Bordwell, and rather than trivializing potentially proliferative intertextual figures such as Bruce Lee as lamented by Bowman, the challenge of “reviving the great classical controversies” from auteurism to semiotics in a dialectical fashion that neither resembles “closed, self-engrossed altercations nor petty ‘debates’” and instead more closely resembles “forceful oppositions seeking to cut straight to the sensitive point at which different conceptual creations separate”(26) represents a challenge to film studies in the spirit of the great philosophical inspiration that has fueled many of the most productive investigations in the history of the discipline, and the final question that remains is whether or not film studies will rise to the challenge.
- For a more extensive critique of this ignorantly close-minded position regarding action cinema, see my, “Blockbuster Ideology: Steven Seagal and the Legacy of Action Cinema,” Offscreen 17.4 (2013). http://www.offscreen.com/index.php/pages/essays/blockbuster_ideology_part_1/
- Paul Bowman, Theorizing Bruce Lee: Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010; Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon Through Film, Philosophy, and Popular Culture, London: Wallflower Press, 2013.
- Added to which, a perspicuous critique of Theorizing Bruce Lee has already been conducted elsewhere. See Lin Feng, “Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier by Homay King, Theorizing Bruce Lee: Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy by Paul Bowman – A Review.” Scope 24 (2012). http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/october_2012/book_rev_oct_2012.pdf#page=63. I also discuss Theorizing Bruce Lee in greater detail in, “Bruce Lee: Authorship, Ideology, and Film Studies,” Offscreen 16.6 (2012). http://www.offscreen.com/index.php/pages/essays/bruce_lee_authorship_part_1/.
- Bowman’s most explicit and significant contribution on this front is to be found in his Deconstructing Popular Culture, London: Palgrave, 2008. See especially his elucidation of the concept he calls “alterdisciplinarity” on pages 186-192.
- David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, eds. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, p. xiii.
- David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Cambridge: Harvard Unuversity Press, 1989, p. 269.
- I explore in greater detail how these issues of authorship condense in the career of Bruce Lee in, “Bruce Lee: Authorship, Ideology, and Film Studies.”
- David Bordwell, The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981, p. 3.
- Bordwell, Making Meaning, p. 109.
- Andrew Britton, “The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole: Wisconsin Formalism and ‘The Classical Style,’” in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, ed. Barry Keith Grant, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009, p. 435.
- Britton, p. 435.
- Britton, p. 436.
- Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia UP, 1989, p. 26.
- Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p. 369.
- Britton, p. 435.
- Bordwell, Making Meaning, p. 269.
- Britton, p. 435.
- Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, London: BFI, 2000, p. x.
- Gunning, p. x.
- Murray Pomerance, The Horse Who Drank the Sky: Film Experience Beyond Narrative and Theory, London: Rutgers University Press, 2008, p. 214.
- Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso, 2012, p. 408.
- Žižek, p. 409.
- Bordwell, Making Meaning, p. 251.
- Žižek, p. 408.
- Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, trans. Louise Burchill, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 4.
- Badiou, p. 5.
Paul Bowman, Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon Through Film, Philosophy and Popular Culture, (London: Wallflower Press, 2013).