Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Chalice

This is a compelling episode about coveting, and how the acquisition of an object can come to symbolize the attainment of a dream. There’s also another plot thread about restitution that I think robs “The Chalice” of some of its cohesiveness.

Follow the plot here, which has three main thrusts. Caine meets a priest named Father Cardonez (Victor Millan), who has stolen a chalice from the altar of his mission, San Blas. Fr. Cardonez is robbed of it by four desperadoes, and with his dying breath asks Caine to rescue the chalice and return it to the mission, his way of “making restitution.”

Also on the trail of the four thugs is Captain Luther Staggis (William Smith, veteran of TV, biker movies, and such 70s classics as Any Which Way You Can), a hard man and a mercenary, but not without heart or ideals. Seems the four have stolen a Gatling gun belonging to Staggis and he wants it back to fight alongside a political figure in Mexico.

Caine, meanwhile, has an object of his own that he’s carrying and having trouble letting go, a small stone he has taken from the grave of his beloved Master Po. To Caine, the pebble symbolizes Po as he was when he is alive. Carrying it reminds Caine of his sin, his involvement in Po’s death, and somehow comforts Caine, as if Po is in the pebble.

Chalice, machine gun, pebble. God, strength, absolution. Each man, the priest, the mercenary and the Shaolin are trying to acquire something so that it will meet an inner need. Each man is trying, through the acquisition of this thing, to make restitution for something wrong he has done. Only one of them ultimately learns that attaining the object doesn’t fulfill the emotional and spiritual needs being sought; you can guess which one.

Cool plot, right? In the middle are the four killers, with whom Caine must deal while also collaborating with the murderous Staggis, whose heart is polluted by his passion. “You ever kill a man?” he asks Caine. “Once you do, you’re hooked for life.”

Here’s where it gets derailed. A vague, lame plot twist pits Caine against Staggis in hand to hand combat. Maybe Staggis loses site of his mission and what it is he’s supposed to acquire? Maybe he cannot coexist with Caine, a man who has taken life but not been spiritually corrupted by the act? This twist is the only thing keeping this from being a four yin-yang episode, it’s quite distracting. Honestly, I gotta give it three out of four.

Which is too bad, there’s a lot of other cool things happening in this episode, including some flashbacks to how Caine escaped from China (through the help of a Christian missionary priest!) and, I gotta tell you, a sa-weet! stunt in which Caine leaps from a second story ledge onto a ladder and rides it to the earth, where he rolls into an attack. Wow. IMDB is here. Be sure to check out the "trivia" surrounding the colorful career of William Smith and, hey, just for grins, here's the classic fight between Smith and Clint Eastwood.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Some Good Martial Arts Reads

Can’t get enough kung fu in your life? It occurred to me to share with you a couple of good reads on the topic.

First off, let me recommend the writings of Mark Salzman. You may have seen the great movie based on his memoir, Iron and Silk. The book is even better, telling the true story of a young man who comes to China to teach English and learn kung fu, which he does at the hands of the animated Pan Qingfu. Salzman explores 1980s China with his western eyes and gets deep inside the culture, learning about martial arts, calligraphy, work, bureaucracy, peasantry, politics – people.

Salzman recently wrote another memoir called Lost in Place that I also heartily recommend. It’s about growing up in 1970s Connecticut. Here, too, kung fu plays a role, although the book is also about Salzman’s family life and coming of age. In Lost in Place, Salzman describes getting turned on by our old friend David Carradine in “Kung Fu” and how that changed his adolescent life, leading him to seek instruction in the martial arts, which he portrays with great clarity, especially if you ever lived through something similar. I can still see in my mind one of Salzman’s instructors from this period, a tough, quiet guy with a tattoo on his forearm of a skull head smoking a joint. Classic.

But Salzman’s writing is enjoyable for more than just his characters and incidents. He writes with precision and explication, drawing you along with a sincere interest in his characters and situations. Simply great stuff. I liked him when I read Iron and Silk; I loved his stuff after Lost in Place, and will try to read everything he wrote.

Something else I enjoyed recently was Matthew Polly’s American Shaolin, his memoir of training at the Shaolin temple – THE Shaolin temple – in the 1990s. Shaolin is a real place and has undergone several transitions over the hundreds of years it’s been around. It was recently reopened by the Chinese government, and when Polly studied there it was still emerging as a Spartan kung fu training camp with several government approved kung fu schools there. Polly’s experiences and writing are as interesting as Salzman’s though he gives them different emphasis and voice. Like Salzman, he gets to know the culture and, even deeper, the people. He also gives, frankly, ass-kicking descriptions of the bad ass training and the people he worked with.

Before I close this out let me throw one more in there. As a kid an older, hip friend of my parents knew I was into Asian stuff and recommended to me Jay McInerney’s Ransom. This novel is probably overlooked among McInerney’s other work; he’s often remembered for Bright Lights, Big City. It’s the story of an expatriate living in Japan, studying karate and teaching English to businessmen, and the guilt he carries over some of the questionable things he’s done in his life and travels. It blew me away when I was 14 or 15 and has continued to impress me upon many subsequent re-readings. Here, we’re in 80s Japan, not China, studying karate, not kung fu, and here we have more of a novel than the memoirs I’ve noted, but the reading is just as compelling.

So there you go, something to look for at your next trip to the local used book store!

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kung Fu on The Art of Manliness!

Well, sort of! Just wanted to share my excitement over the fact that a post I wrote for a terrific blog/online magazine, The Art of Manliness, is live!

Whatever your experience in physical fitness, if you’re considering martial arts as your next undertaking, I’ve got good news and… not bad news, more like some challenges for you to consider. The good news is the martial arts are very accessible. The challenges? The martial arts are very accessible. Finding the right one for you can be tough because there are so many to choose from and, if you’re inexperienced, you don’t know what to expect. I hope this article can provide some encouragement and direction.

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