if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad

This media blow hasn’t read anything in a while.

Brave New World: Again, I read a book that everyone else on the planet has read years ago. I have nothing to add to the decades of critical acclaim heaped on this book, so I’ll talk more about my reactions to it than a critique of the book (savagely funny, frighteningly telling, oddly paced).

First, I went in expecting something more of the tone of Nineteen Eighty-Four – not a biting satire obsessed with sex written in a postmodern style. Which isn’t bad – it’s very true to the moral of the story – but it was certainly a surprise. Could you imagine a book written by an American, today or in the recent past, which features seven-year-olds engaging in “erotic play”? American Puritanism has always been stiffer than British Victoriana in certain ways. Sure, we invented the blues, but we also held onto slavery quite a bit longer (cause/effect? anyway).

Second, I don’t quite know the effect the story had on me. For one thing, its brilliant, reductio ad absurdam critique of fascism, corporate psychology and Keynesianism suits me just fine. I don’t genuinely believe that we’ll all worship Henry Ford in the future (and Huxley probably didn’t either), but science fiction isn’t a lens through which we view the future. It’s a lens through which we view the past – what concerned the author and his contemporaries at the time the novel was written. So, on that level, the novel works.

But I don’t know that I buy every criticism. “There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant,” Mustapha Mond tells John the Savage at the end of the novel. And I believe that. At the very least, I see that as an ideal. I believe that relief of human suffering is one of the noblest ends to which one can commit a life. You can measure the progress of civilization by how far it takes humans from the state of nature – when we died young, hungry and often at each other’s hands. The romance of chivalry, exploration and surviving by the sweat of one’s brow that Shakespeare (and through him, John the Savage) idealize is just that – an idealization, passed down to us by the one person in one hundred who was taught to read.

And yet I wonder if I would still think that if I hadn’t been so thoroughly conditioned to. I had a comfortable childhood and live a steady life now. The adventures I allow myself exist within controlled confines – train trips to Baltimore, weekends in Reykjavik. Am I just one of the Deltas clamoring for their soma ration – ignorant of what real freedom is because I’ve never known it?

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: That rarity among 70s kung-fu flicks: a well-paced story that a Western audience can access with little trouble. Leonard recommended this in an AVClub column on gateways to geekery as a good intro to the genre. I wanted to stick up for Fist of Legend or Five Deadly Venoms or even, just to be snobbish, Magnificent Butcher, but, having seen the movie, I can’t fault his choice.

The plot’s an afterthought, but here: callow student Gordon Liu (whom Western audiences might recognize as bearded master Pei Mei from Kill Bill Pt 2) joins the revolution against the Manchu dynasty at the instigation of his philosophy teacher. When things go south, he flees the city to the esoteric Shaolin Temple where he hopes to learn martial arts. The Buddhist monks enroll him in a sequence of bizarre and demanding trials to build up his body and kung fu: think “wax on, wax off” on HGH. Then he returns and kicks butt all over the place.

If film students should watch William Goldman films for dialogue, Spielberg movies for pacing and Kubrick for cinematography, they should watch Shaw Brothers’ films for editing. Not scene transitions necessarily, but the way the Shaws compose a fight scene. You never lose track of who’s doing what or in relation to whom – a rarity in this era of Tony Scott smash cuts. More importantly, you can always tell who’s winning a fight, even if no one draws blood, thanks to musical cues, camera angles and pacing. Watch Gordon Liu fight the monastery’s abbot to see what I mean.

This is the film (along with Five Deadly Venoms, Shaolin and Wu-Tang and Mystery of Chessboxing) that inspired the Wu-Tang clan’s debut album. This is The Realness.

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