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WHEN ARTWORK HURTS FEELINGS
and
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

Mike Bruce Sullivan


THE PURPOSE of this "Point of View" article is to shed light when artwork in the realm of motion pictures hurts people’s feelings. I chose motion pictures because sadly less and less people are reading books (fiction and non-fiction) and newspaper/magazine articles in this fast-paced age of microwave ovens, video games, text messages, facsimile machines, and music videos, all of which give rise to short attention spans. The medium of films can reach millions of people in a short while, and even body language can bridge any gaps in language difficulty or understanding. But behind every film is a blueprint that must be written down, an idea for the story that will eventually hit the big screen, the notes that the director or screenwriter jots down for camera angle, et cetera. What I try to identify is the sometimes blurry line between art (like literary, film, or music artwork) and the power or potential of that artwork to hurt the audiences it reaches. I will also show what can be done to view the entire artwork, while sometimes clenching one’s teeth in anger or disapproval (or just looking away from the bad part of the art) during a “repulsive segment of the artwork, just to be able to learn from any good portion of a particular piece of art. There is also another option that can be used and it produces awareness, feedback, and a form of internal censorship that is not imposed by the government.

Background Information

I bring an interesting perspective to U.S. Asians and its readership. I have family in San Francisco and lived there for nearly a year and a half while I was ten years old. I am part Irish. My mother was part Nepali, Part Thai, part Turkish and part German. I was born during the Vietnam War in 1971. My interests include politics (I have a B.A. in Political Science & Government), law, Chinese Philosophy, and Buddhism.

One of my role models is San Francisco’s native son, the inspiring legend, Bruce Lee. The 35th Anniversary of his passing happened on July 20, 2008; it also marked the 35th anniversary of the work of art entitled "Enter The Dragon." There were also related festivals, events and a memorial attended by Bruce Lee’s family in Seattle, Washington on that date.

TWO THOUSAND AND EIGHT (2008) was a great year for Asian Americans living on the West coast. One of Bruce Lee’s favorite students, Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers were at the N.B.A. Championships and Kareem was seen in the front row of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Summer Olympics were held in China and the multiple back flips and somersaults the talented 29 year old Chinese Olympian, Yang Wei, at five feet 3 inches tall, made through the air, reminded me of the multiple flips Bruce Lee’s stunt double, the acrobat, Yuen Wah, made in beginning of "Enter The Dragon."

I MUST INCLUDE BRUCE LEE as a central figure in this essay. One of the reasons why is because in the 1960’s he was hurt by artwork in the sense that there were motion pictures that portrayed Asians in a bad or inferior way (what I call a negative stereotype; please also see Bruce Lee: The Man and The Legend, copyr. 1973 by Golden Harvest Studios). Surprisingly, not all stereotypes are bad. For example, a positive stereotype is one that for example shows Asians as being gifted in Math and Science or adept at playing musical instruments. Another reason I include Bruce Lee is that Bruce was born in California and thus was a natural born American citizen. So, a lot of the readership of this publication can relate and empathize with him. He considered himself a Martial Artist, not in the violent, negative sense of the term, but in terms of self-defense, in terms of the Philosophy that is inseparable from martial arts. He was a writer, and considered himself an artist.

LET ME GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE of how art can hurt people’s feelings and what to do about it. This example also shows another reason why Bruce Lee is a good choice to be included in this essay. Blake Edwards, a famous movie producer/director, it is well known, was one of Bruce Lee’s students. Before he became one of his several famous students, Blake directed the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In that movie, Mickey Rooney plays the role played by a Japanese photographer living in a nearby apartment. Rooney wears makeup and a costume. Other than the sometimes troubling question of why an Asian role was not given to an Asian character, the character is shown as bumbling, speaking with broken English, clumsy. In other words, negative stereotypes of a newly arrived Asian immigrant. In fact, in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Bruce uses a tactic of fighting offensive artwork by not really fighting, he turns away from the screen while he is seated next to his date, Linda Lee (please see same movie released in 1993).

As a side note, even though this recently mentioned movie was greatly “Hollywoodized” and filled with “white lies,” the moments that show Bruce and Linda together most likely indeed occurred since the movie is based on Linda Lee Cadwell’s, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew (Warner Books, Inc., copyr. 1975).

After Blake Edwards became another of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do students, he created and directed the Pink Panther movie series. The Pink Panther movies included a bumbling, clumsy, docile, man-servant by the name of Cato, played by a Chinese actor born in England, Burt Kwouk. Edwards took the assertive, strong, heroic role of the Green Hornet character Kato played by Bruce and changed the name from a K to a C. But even that was not insult enough to the legacy of Bruce Lee.

Throughout the Pink Panther movies, Edwards has Inspector Clouseau call Cato the derogatory term “yellow” many, many times. Namely, in the 1978 movie Revenge of the Pink Panther, Edwards has his character, Clouseau, use the negative slur “yellow” at least five times. For instance he uses phrases like “My little yellow friend,” “His fiendish yellow brain is plotting ways to attack me.” There is even one particularly offensive scene when Cato falls into a bakery and has white flour all over his face and Clouseau says, “well…at least you’re not yellow anymore.” (as if yellow or light-golden color is bad). At a later point in that movie, at a Hong Kong hotel, Clouseau tells Dyan Cannon who is wearing an Asian woman disguise costume, “Just think yellow.” [in order to evade detection].

THIS SEEMS TO BET THE QUESTION: what was Blake Edwards thinking! I can only think that there seems to be a “poetic” or “artistic” license which allows artists like screenwriters to have their characters say negative stereotypical words that hurts a segment of the population so that another segment can laugh. Or such negative stereotypes are used by a character in order to add more realism to a character—the character is racist or bigoted. Case in point, in the music artistic sphere, Born in the U.S.A., a popular 1984 song by Bruce Springsteen has a line that says, “…to go and kill the yellow man.” This was and is offensive. Yet was it necessary to convey the realism of the plight and resentment of American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War? I don’t think so. It could have easily been an effective song if the lines, “to go and kill for a word I didn’t understand”. [that word being “Communism,” a concept, a word, that a lot of American soldiers in Vietnam really did not understand]. The only good thing Mr. Edwards seems to have done is to employ quasi-martial arts scenes and quasi-martial arts choreography between Inspector Clouseau and Cato.--probably to show how Bruce Lee influenced him.

Why Bruce Lee is the Best

Bruce Lee Montage, click here for more info SPEED: Bruce Lee realized that big muscular builds slow you down. He trained for speed. His speed was definitely beyond average.

TIMING: Bruce had timing. He would observe his opponent and counter-attack at the precise moment. Again, speed allowed him to come in and out.

POWER: Two Fingered One Armed Push-ups. He did those with great ease. Two inch punches capable of doing more damage than regular punches. Bruce had the power to bring down any opponent.

FEINT: Bruce Lee believed that if two opponents were equal in skill, speed and power, the competitor who could use feinting techniques would be the clear victor. Bruce Lee accentuated the use of feinting in his movies and in real life.

MOVEMENT: There is never any wasted movement in Lee's techniques. This makes him a force to be reckoned with. Bruce Lee Montage, click here for more info

SHUFFLING: Bruce Lee moved like a butterfly and stung like a bee. He believed that the best way to avoid a punch or kick was to simply dodge or move out of the way.

FOCUS: Bruce had the desire to be the best at all cost. He trained every day for several hours. He pushed and unfortunately even abused his body to its limits.

DIVERSITY: Bruce did not dwell in one martial art or in one field of expertise. He read and tried to gain knowledge about anything that could make him a better individual and martial artist. He read about boxing, fencing and several other techniques and methods used in the martial arts.

TWO MINUTES: Bruce Lee believed that if a fight lasted more than two minutes, you were finished. That's why his real life fights lasted less than that. For more info, click HERE.

AS FAR AS TACTICS one can use to view offensive artwork and maybe even learn from it, I conjecture on what Bruce Lee would probably do or say. I make this reasonable, educated guess based on my intensive study of his life and his writings. Bruce would probably say "View the whole movie, including the particularly offensive part, learn and probably be entertained by what you can from it, and discard the rest, then come out with your own movie that displays your people in a positive light." I think that he would also say if you concentrate on the finger pointing a path to the moon (the particularly offensive segment of the movie), then you will miss (all that heavenly glory) parts of the movie which are good (such as the scenes of 1978 Hong Kong and the beautiful hills of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong seaport, and the landmark Siemens Building that are shown in Revenge of the Pink Panther.

BRUCE LEE WAS AN OPTIMIST. When he was denied, by Warner Bros. Television, the starring role for the Kung Fu television series, he rationalized the let down as a business decision and publicly told people that he did not take it personally. But the role was an Asian role. It was not a role of a white man to be played by Asian man. Impersonal facts of life such as the low supply of Asian American actors (at the time the Kung Fu t.v. series was made) take the part of the pain of such a decision out of one’s mind. Also since he had a major creative input in the making of that t.v. series, he was probably paid handsomely for his part in the writing of that t.v. show, although I do not know for sure. I can make an educated guess, because there would have been a well-publicized law suit, as law suits are always a matter of public record. Bruce Lee could have held a grudge against Warner Bros., but he did not. When he was offered by Warner Brothers Motion Pictures a movie that was later entitled "Enter The Dragon," he did not reject the offer, but gladly accepted it (please see the book, not the DVD, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, copyr. 2000 by John Little, specifically photo of him smiling and shaking hands with Warner Bros. executive Fred Weintraub).

ANOTHER TACTIC USED BY PEOPLE who are hurt by movies that can be insensitive and vulgar, is to publically protest these movies. The great Asian warrior (for he was a warrior of words, a lawyer by trade), Gandhi, used the media and press to show injustices and to raise awareness for his cause. Also, Vietnamese Buddhists in the early 1960’s employed this technique by holding up placards in English (even though they knew little or no English) for the written press/t.v. news media and some sacrificed themselves with gasoline and flame to raise awareness in the domestic and international sphere. All of this was done to raise awareness at the heavy-handed, brutal conduct of the Catholic government of Ngo Dinh Diem against the Buddhists and their pagodas. In 2008, the movie Tropic Thunder was offensive to people with disabilities and to African Americans. At its initial release and other later showings, people with disabilities protested and used the media effectively to raise awareness. They claimed that the movie was a hurtful piece of “art.” Such protests are effective in the sense that moviemakers (and also the rest of the filmmaking community) learn from them and maybe they will be more sensitized and they will take care not to offend people with their artwork. Then these moviemakers will practice self-imposed censorship. (Read "Creative Gold Beyond the Yellow Ceiling" for additional background info by clicking HERE.) They censor themselves and do not include what could be interpreted as offensive to some segments of the American population. Also, protests, shed negative light and attention on the particular moviemaker who has produced offensive artwork. Protests raise awareness and then moviegoers would probably boycott these movies, hitting the insensitive moviemakers in the pocket with decreased sales.

MY PERSONAL OPINION is that both tactics are effective. But with the second tactic, you do not get to learn anything from any part of the offensive movie that may not be offensive, but instead informative. I suggest that a moviegoer look away or fast-forward the part that is hurtful and try to be open-minded on what can be useful or entertaining. For example, how can you say you liked a book if you have not read the entire book? There are times when anger is justified. There is a feeling of indignity that helps people fight for their rights. But, I suggest using the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words [or artwork] will never hurt me”. The anger one feels when watching an offensive segment of artwork is not healthy. It’s much healthier to change the channel for a brief moment, or to look away.

Media Representations - Good & Bad
Media representations often continues incorrect and false stereotypical images from the past. This can be seen with the recent debacle of the false imprisonment of Wen Ho Lee and in the Jet Li character in Romeo Must Die.

What is ironic is that there has been major films from the past that has featured a US Asian/Asian Pacific American actor in an interracial romance/marriage with a white woman (Crimson Kimono) and where where the US Asian/Asian Pacific American male "won" the white woman from his white male competitor?!?! (i.e. Bridge to the Sun).

I CONCLUDE this article with two important sayings or wise aphorisms written by Bruce Lee and found in Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living (edited by John Little, copyr. 2000 by Linda Lee Cadwell).

SAYING 1: “I’ll not willingly offend, nor be easily offended.” [I added emphasis, from page 71 of aforesaid book].

SAYING 2: Saying 2: “Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.” (from pg. 171 of aforesaid book).

THE FIRST SAYING is so simple, yet so powerful and profound. It needs no explanation. Try not to be easily offended, even by artwork. Also, it gives advice to those ignorant filmmakers and artists, who are probably on the wrong path, astray like lost sheep, it tells them that they should not offend people on purpose.

THE SECOND SAYING indicates that one should absorb what is useful even from a tasteless, insensitive movie or other type of artwork. It then tells us to reject or to turn away from what is useless. It also states that one can add into the body of artwork that is out there, positive movies and positive books which depict positive things about segments of the population.

THANK YOU for your time in reading this. I am not only an artist, but also someone who views art and have had personal experience when artwork has hurt my feelings. But I have learned that anger really hurts the person who is angry. Such anger should be minimized in order for a person to be truly healthy.

PERCEPTIONS OF OUR PAST AND FUTURE Mercury News' Marian Liu reports that "For Asian-Americans, the move toward entertainment careers has been a recent one, stretching the past 40 years, starting with such stereotypical films as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song." (Editor's Note: This "stereotypical film" was based on the first Chinese American novel to be published by an established publishing house, the first Chinese American novel to be on the best-seller list, the first Broadway/major movie studio production to feature, star and about Asian Americans, the female stars of the Broadway show -- Pat Suzuki and Miyoshi Umeki -- became the first Asian Americans to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek and the film that launched the careers of Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo, James Shigeta, and Nancy Kwan.)  
 
EARLY ENTERTAINMENT PIONEERS
 
Anna May Wong 
Philip Ahn
Keye Luke in his earlier days
Sessue Hayakawa Picture

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sadly, many people (along with many within the Asian/Asian Pacific American communities) have forgotten the achievements and victories of past entertainment pioneers in the 1920's (some of the pioneers are listed on the "left") and the various non-stereotypical milestones seen in the movie "Flower Drum Song."

 
   

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