INTO THE NEXT STAGE: 40 Years Later, ‘ETD’ Gets Its ‘Academy Reward’

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Do you have a movie that “changed everything?” A movie that, after encountering it, forever altered your thoughts, perspective or even the course of your life?

It doesn’t have to be a movie, of course. Maybe it was a book, record album, play, speech, TV show or even a fellow human being. But for the sake of this column, I’m sticking with movies.

I’ve heard and read interviews with filmmakers (and I include actors in that group) who say it was a movie like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “On the Waterfront,” “Easy Rider,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Wars” or “Seven Samurai” that completely upended or opened up the possibilities about what a movie could be, what it might be, what it was supposed to be — and seeing that movie was an experience that set in motion changes that would reverberate for decades to come.

For instance, I have friends from high school who I am certain got altered by viewing the movies “American Gigolo” and “The Warriors.” For one friend, I’m sure watching “American Gigolo” made him into even more of a clothes horse than he already was. For the other, “The Warriors” pushed him toward emulating what would now be called “gangsta” culture — dress, tattoos, speech, etc.

The unforgettable 1993 documentary “Crumb” — mostly about the underground comic book artist Robert Crumb — shows the disturbing side to the concept of a movie that “changed everything” when it examined Robert’s more talented yet troubled elder brother, Charles Crumb, and his childhood obsession with 1950’s “Treasure Island” that either inspired or exacerbated his mental illness. Watch “Crumb” someday and you’ll see what I mean.

So in that regard, I’m not sure if there’s a movie that I’d want to admit “changed everything” for me — but if I had to choose one, I’d say it was 1973’s “Enter the Dragon.”

I saw it in the summer of 1974 just before my family, which was stationed at Kadena Air Base, left Okinawa. We had moved out and were staying at a hotel in Koza, a.k.a. Okinawa-shi. It was playing at the local movie theater located the intersection of Moromi and Gate 2 Streets. I saw it with my mother.

As movie theaters go, this was a dump. But the movie, to the eyes of an impressionable young mind — well, it made an impression all right! The music was memorable and cinematography captured the 1970s vibe completely. The story was, in retrospect, not great, juxtaposing a tale of revenge with some James Bond-inspired trappings, but unusual for its time by teaming a white (John Saxon), a black (Jim Kelly) and an Asian lead trio. But what really made it stand out was that Asian American male lead, someone who I didn’t know that I already knew: Bruce Lee.

This was the same Bruce Lee who I realized later was the same fellow who had played the role of Kato in TV’s “The Green Hornet.” Kato/Bruce Lee was, frankly, the best part of that show, the only reason to watch it.

But while Bruce Lee in “The Green Hornet” was memorable, Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” was revelatory. Captured in that movie was Lee’s charisma, screen presence, physicality, movement, philosophy, grace and fury.

Contradictory as it sounds, the movie stayed with me because I only saw it once. Since the advent of home video, we’ve gained the ability to view a movie again and again —though how many movies are truly worth multiple viewings? But because I wouldn’t see “Enter the Dragon” again for many years, the images had to be replayed in my imagination, thus reinforcing it.

After we left Okinawa, we went to mainland Japan to visit relatives in Sendai. I went shopping with Mom and her sister, Fukuko, and at a big depaato, she offered to buy me something. On the music floor, I found what I wanted: the “Enter the Dragon” soundtrack on cassette. I would eventually listen to it over and over, and once again realized much later that the soundtrack’s composer was someone whose work I had already known. Yes, it was Lalo Schifrin, who is probably most famous for the theme song to “Mission: Impossible.”

As I grew older, the movie stayed the same, of course. If it had any direct effect on me, it no doubt inspired me to take up karate. But while the movie remained unchanged, as I matured I realized later that “Enter the Dragon” was more than just a martial arts movie. It was a political statement on many levels. For Bruce Lee personally, it was his assertion that he deserved to be as big a star as any White action movie star of the era, be it John Wayne, Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson.

“Enter the Dragon” was also Lee’s firebomb thrown at the gates of Hollywood’s movie studios, a demand that he be taken seriously, having been forced to make movies in Hong Kong when Hollywood wouldn’t take a chance on giving the starring role to a man who looked a lot like men we fought in Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

“Enter the Dragon” did what it intended: It turned Bruce Lee from a regional star into a global superstar. A box-office smash, it spawned a martial arts genre whose influence is still felt today, in fight scene choreography and in mixed martial arts competitions. That Lee would die in real life before “Enter the Dragon” was released would further cement his cinematic immortality.

No matter who you were or what your background may have been, “ETD” found a way to resonate with your personal situation. Anyone could relate to its simple message of justice. In that regard, it was transcendent. And no one before or since moved the way Bruce Lee moved.

So while it resonated with all, to a generation of young Asian American males who grew up getting called “Hop Sing” or worse, who were singled out for looking like the latest iteration of Asian enemies, who were told in no uncertain terms that they didn’t belong in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Bruce Lee and “Enter the Dragon” were a cinematic antidote. That Bruce Lee and “Enter the Dragon” are still remembered now reminds us how potent the movie remains, four decades on.

Nearly 15 years ago, in my June 4, 1998 column, here’s what I wrote about attending the 25th anniversary of the release of “Enter the Dragon” at the NuArt Theatre in West Los Angeles: “I went to the Friday night showing and not only did I get to see the movie on a big screen, the audience was treated to tributes to the movie and its main star, Bruce Lee. Before the curtain went up, movie producers Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller, composer Lalo Schifrin and actors Bob Wall, Ahna Capri and John Saxon each spoke briefly. It was one of those times I wish I had a video camera or still camera on me!”

It was a nice tribute, but it was topped on Wednesday night. In honor of the 40th anniversary of “Enter the Dragon’s” release, it got the most prestigious treatment yet: a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Talk about an Academy award!

Present were Lee’s daughter, Shannon, co-stars Saxon and Wall, cinematographer Gil Hubbs, the aforementioned composer Schifrin and, once again, the movie’s producers, Heller and Weintraub.

It took about 40 years, but I’m happy the movie was finally able to travel from a junky movie theater in Okinawa to one of the finest film venues in Hollywood. If he were with us, Bruce Lee would be proud.

Finally, I might as well accept it: For good or naught, “Enter the Dragon” was and still is for me, the movie that changed everything.

Theater Dept.: Got an email recently from Nancy Gohata, representing the San Fernando Valley JACL chapter, regarding something you may have already seen in The Rafu Shimpo, namely a concert reading of a new play written by Perry Miyake and directed by Chris Tashima.

The play is titled “happa girl sushi bar after hour,” and I remember Perry telling me a bit about it a couple years ago, when he was busy putting the word out about “Venice Japanese Community Center and the 100+ Year History of the Japanese American Community of Venice, California,” a book he edited.

The reading takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19 at the San Fernando Valley Japanese Community Center, 12953 Branford St. in Pacoima. It stars Michael Hagiwara, Shuko Akune and Kym Hoy. From what I read of the description, it sounds fun, although I’m going to have to ask Perry why he misspelled “hapa” as “happa.” Maybe it’s about turning over a new leaf?

Tickets are $15; bentos, available after the play, are $10. Contact Nancy via email at yaiko16 (at) Verizon.net or by calling (818) 899-4237.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

The 40th anniversary screening of “Enter the Dragon” at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences featured (from left) producer Paul Heller, producer Fred Weintraub, cinematographer Gil Hubbs, actor Bob Wall, actor John Saxon, Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce Lee, and composer Lalo Schifrin. (AMPAS photo)

 

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