Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nothing on TV.

This is a wholly American experience. To be sitting there in front of your very large screen with channels in the hundreds and nothing on. Typical over-indulgent, never-satisfied, fat Americans luxuriating in their swank and complaining about it. So I watched The Karate Kid.

Speaking of swank -actually, I watched the end of The Karate Kid. The data channel guide said that it was The Karate Kid II, so I flipped to it because I wanted to see Hillary Swank in her breakout role -straight to the Academy from there, babe! But no, it was KK1, the one that started it all.

And I got sucked right in. This is a classic movie! It has that magical, after-school-special quality that cuts right to the marrow of the 14-year-old soul and coos gently, telling it, "You're not alone... We know how you feel..." It was 10:30 at night. I'm 37 years old. I'm thinking, who's watching The Karate Kid at 10:30 on a Sunday night? Then it cut to a rather embarrassing commercial for male enlargement. Yes, "enlargement", and by "embarrassing" I am referring to the advert's production value. It segued into a commercial for a baldness cure, I kid you not, and the trifecta was in play. But it didn't matter, there was now no wondering who was up at 10:30 on a Sunday night watching The Karate Kid. Made me sad, really.

I kept watching, of course (for the film, not the commercials.) The Karate Kid was directed by John G. Avildsen, who also directed Rocky, and it shows -but hey, if something works, go with it! Both were massive commercial hits, as we know, and went on to numerous sequels. (Turns out Hillary Swank is in Karate Kid IV, of all things. I must've missed a few in there.)

I remember when I first saw it. I went to the theater in the Eagle Rock Plaza with my buddies Jeff Smith and Robby Bryant. It was 1984, and we were about the same age as Ralph Macchio in the movie, only significantly dorkier (we didn't know Karate.) After the movie, we walked out of the theater in a trance, like we'd wholly escaped geekdom, were lifted above it, and conquered all. A fine, pure film. The quintessence of cinema, we agreed, sitting there on the curb waiting for Robby's mom to come pick us up in the station wagon.

Watching it again, you can't help but choke on some of the cheese, but it is surprisingly effective. The movie works because of Pat Morita's touching performance as Miyagi, some choice adroitly-written scenes, and the perfect blend of 80s pop (Cruel Summer) and the wistful, Asian tones of Zamfir (Master of the Pan Flute) providing atmosphere, a musical twosome never again repeated in American pop culture, as far as I can tell. Will you ever forget "Wax on, wax off"? I doubt it. Say what you will, that's good filmmaking.

Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Miyagi (he didn't win) and was known to have had trouble with the Japanese accent, as he regularly spoke with an American one. The scene where he is drunk and remembering the war was almost cut from the film for being too slow. In my mind it's the scene that got him nominated. That's Hollywood. Side note: Pat Morita happens to be the uncle of one of my wife's best friends. When he died a couple of years ago, we sent our condolences.

The Karate Kid also launched the careers (however short-lived) of Ralph Macchio and Elizabeth Shue, who played his girlfriend. A friend of mine knew William Zabka, who played the blonde bully, "Johnny Lawrence". Turns out he's a pretty nice Christian guy who was bothered by playing such a mean character. In the end of the film, after he "sweeps the leg" and takes a Crane Kick to the face in return, he hands Daniel the trophy and cries "You're all right, LaRusso!" -evidently an important redemption for the bad guy (and the actor). The unforgettable dude who played the evil Sensei from the Cobra Kai Dojo was also not that into the role, bummed that someone would teach kids to cheat. I guess we'll do anything for a Hollywood part, right guys?

And that famous Crane Kick that wins it all for Danny LaRusso? It's a bogus technique that doesn't exist anywhere in actual Karate or Kung Fu. Pure Hollywood. The black belt who invented it for the movie even claimed that, as a fighting move, it has "very little practical application". Oh well. We needed a WOW finish.

But what I really wanted to say about The Karate Kid is that it is clearly successful storytelling, however cheesy it comes off. This is a story about ungifted losers becoming winners, and that is every single one of us. There is a crisis of self-esteem in this country, and kids nowadays are wrongly taught that they are all winners, regardless of their achievement. Seems you can get an A just for trying in some public schools, and there is no failure. It's all a sad lie, really, and society will suffer for it if we persist in instilling a false sense of self-esteem into our children. This is the truth: there are only a few winners in life. The 99.9% rest of us are losers. If you really want to teach your kids to be a success, teach them to be good losers. Personally, I know very few good losers, but the ones I do know are the best people in the world, and interestingly, very successful.

The penultimate scene in The Karate Kid says it all. Daniel's leg has been jacked-up and he's about to forfeit the competition though he made it to the final round. He's in the locker room with Miyagi, and he begs Miyagi to do that funky Oriental pain-suppression technique, remember? Where he claps his hands together and then we cut away before we actually see what it is he did? Anyway, Daniel is laying there on the table, desperate to win, but Miyagi knows better, leans in and says, "You already win. No need prove anything." thereby clarifying for all of us what "achievement" really is.

I hear you saying it: But in the end of the movie, he wins!

Of course he does. We all want to be winners. This is why we go to the movies, to escape real life, and yet validate the struggle. I don't want real life in the movies. I get plenty of real life at home on the couch, going bald.