oz_1I grew up on flights of fantasy. The first books of any substance I ever read on my own were Frank L. Baum’s famous “OZ” series. Soon I discovered comic books and science fiction novels. Like any fantasy addict in the 1950’s and 60’s I often thought, “What a great movie this would make.” while imagining a state of cinematography and special effects far in advance of the pitiful Star Trek, Lost in Space level of magic.

Now the special effects industry has grown beyond anything expected with scenes of never previously envisioned complexity and illusion. But – though the child part of my heart still is leavened by visions realized on the screen – there is also a part of me that doesn’t want the special effects to smother the nuances of acting and the snap of dialog. I like special effects but I don’t confuse them with substance.

In Kung Fu, the art where I have spent much of my life, the story is the same. Each generation raises its expectation of effects while lowering its bar on content. My problem is that I can’t – and never could, even when I was young enough to do it myself – stand the plot grinding to a halt for the introduction of the effect. I can’t take flying kicks that require the performer to run half a stadium before launching himself. I never appreciated aerial tumbling that leaves the player struggling for balance for three seconds after accomplishing his “big feat.” Why I don’t even like limber females dropping into the “Chinese Splits” at the end of the form just because they can. High notes are impressive if the person can sing, otherwise they are just noise.

I realize that this might be considered curmudgeonly but it is, I promise, not the effect of advancing age. I love gymnastics and all body arts, but if I want the real thing I’ll go to Cirque de Solleil, not a local tournament.

You see its more than just a stunt. It actually damages the plot. Everything grinds and wobbles because the When I was a Kenpo teacher we taught ostensibly effective self defense techniques.But then Tae Kwon Do came on the scene. In an effort to adapt some Kenpo teachers went back and added kicking series to the end of the techniques. You would perform, say, “Seven Swords” on someone basically cutting them from stem to stern with lightning fast hand moves then spin around and toss a couple of completely inefficient hook and rear kicks to finish off. Horrible! Just because you like toppings you still don’t pour on hot fudge, cherries, marshmallow, nuts and pineapple. Not if you are older than six, that is.

But it is precisely for the youngsters that many of these “effects” are added: to thrill mommy and granddad and, of course, the kid himself. What kind of schooling caters to the esthetic of children in that manner? Is this how we teach them conscience, ethics and taste?

Personally I enjoy the acting style of Morgan Freeman. He is, of course, a fine technical performer. But there’s more. When Freeman acts I find myself watching his eyes. There always seems to be something behind those eyes, not necessarily aching to get out but there nonetheless. I’ve seen an awful lot of Kung Fu in my life, especially for a Westerner. And I will tell you, just like a jaded talent scout in Beverly Hills. I rarely see stuff behind the eyes – at least stuff manifest in performance. Oh, I see a lot of people starving to be liked, anxious to be accepted, or feared, or admired. But their performances don’t show this. Their performances are a series of special effects, hopeful stabs at impressing and leaving an impression.

For a martial arts instructor it does get old. I teach, among other styles, Northern Shaolin. It is built on ten core sets, each one of which has a few tornado kicks and broom kicks and then, in some more specialized movements like cartwheels and single leg presses. It is evident how important the creators considered these because in every case the forms are constituted in such a way that you could easily remove these difficult actions without changing the tempo of meaning of the set. So one season that’s exactly what I tried to do – take them out. I had gotten sick of so many students taking a gulping breath before going into that big kick or low sweeping move. Also, I teach mostly adults so many moves were inefficient and inappropriate.

But I couldn’t do that. I mean my students wouldn’t let me. After I explained, quite rationally to my mind, how completely arbitrary such moves were (not useless, just arbitrary) and everyone nodded, conceding the point, they went right back to their stuttering tornadoes and stumbling brooms. I, on the other hand, can still probably pull off a decent tornado kick. It just doesn’t come up that much when you’re in your fifties.

Oh, well, car chases and explosions made many a rich man in Hollywood. Where, after all, would Chuck Norris be without that spinning hook kick of his?


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