Saturday, March 1, 2014

Because It Was On: The Karate Kid

          This is either the initial installment of a new series that will effectively waste a lot of people's time, or it is a one-timer. Either way, without directly doing so, it's about good, old-fashioned American laziness and our tendency to vaporize precious ticks of the click by zoning out in front of the tube, even if what's on is crummy. Even if what's on is crummy and we've seen it before. Even if what's on is crummy, and we've seen it before, and we freaking own a copy of the thing. That last piece isn't the case here, but it has been on countless occasions. It's the ultimate dose indolence when, nestled in a dusty box or bin in our basement, is a copy of the original form of a movie, but, out of sheer stubbornness and lethargy, we will sit through an edited version of it -- with commercials -- because, well, getting up and being productive is entirely too much work.


                 When we got Google Fiber this summer I never anticipated being in a situation where I was on the couch struggling to find something to watch on TV. If I’m flipping channels -- which is maybe twice a month -- I’m toggling between two or three programs, irritated that the commercials airing during each are doing so at all of the wrong times. Last Saturday, however, I was a solid three-quarters through the guide and the feeling came over me that I might be forced to find something else to do. It’d been a long day, a long, emotional week, and I wanted nothing more than to find something mindless -- or some decent comedy -- to which I could doze and arise at six a.m. to root for Team Sweden in the gold-medal game.[1]


            And then I saw it. Just underway and drenched in a runny slurry of Jheri-curl grease and Silly Putty, Danielson and Mr. Miyagi set up camp in my family room. I haven’t seen this film in years, and it was good and early in the broadcast, too. Like, before the soccer-on-the-beach scene early. So I committed. It didn’t take long before that feeling sunk in, either. You know that feeling. That experience where you realize just how bad something is in so many ways, and somehow -- in some way -- it fortifies your devotion to loving it all the more. It’s not that base of an experience, either. It’s when you dunk yourself into the chilly canal of infatuation for a thing that it becomes complex: Will I own this in public or is it best if I lie? Am I going to force my children to one day experience this thing with me in a fashion that will certainly not exceed colossal disappointment? Do I buy merch’ to put on display in my home or only admire it on the Internet?

            I’m not gonna lie. I was stoked. Much has been said about this film over the years. And I’m not talking sequels or remake. I just mean the plot, the characters and their relationships, and of course, some of the lines. I mean, if you are in your 30s or 40s and have never -- not even once -- been at a sporting event, or a sports-viewing event and heard some rendition of “Bring ‘em home in a body bag,” or “Sweep the leg,” then allow me to officially worry about your social prowess.[2]

            Here’s what I’m not interested in discussing: 1) how old Ralph Macchio is in this movie; 2) why an old man is hanging around with a high-school kid; 3) the lines. What I do want to touch on is a) trying to be a teenager; b) the ‘80s; and c) the absurd. Okay, perhaps it’s impossible to segregate ‘3’ and ‘c’, so, well…there’s that.

            There’s plenty of platforms these days that folks are already on regarding bullying, so I won’t join them. I will echo, however, the quasi-universal truth that adolescence is at best awkward, and at worst the rock bottom of the life-span existence. In this country, anyway. Maybe in the other hemisphere it’s awesome because you’re already married, expecting children, and have inherited your dead parents’ land, but here it’s a matter of trying to either apply what you’ve learned from your folks, or embrace opposition and better yourself by not following their lead.

            This of course comes atop the swirl of pubescence, cliques, peer pressure, relationships, work (if you need it), and academia (if you’re in it) (Editor’s Note: Parentheticals for looming privilege proponents that may proclaim it myopic of me to presume that a teenager would be either law-abiding by avoiding truancy, in a position to obtain employment, or both.). Throw in drugs, sports, safety, and any other life variables, and it’s a wonder most teenagers make it to 20.

            It’s the relationships part of the above list, though, that applies here. Specifically: dating. My guts rumble and my throat closes when I hear adults talk about dating. Seriously. Like, one phrase about a recent outing, or even the idea of trying to be “out there” is always a nice reminder to at least try and be thankful that I found a partner in this cold, miserable world. So when I was watching the film last Saturday, it occurred to me just how wretched it would be to be an only child of an impoverished single parent in a new town where dudes are kicking your ass every other day. And you’re trying to date a rich classmate.

            I might’ve lasted a week.

            Then there’s the ‘80s element. I’m not a fashion, music, film, or pop-culture critic, so I’m not going to sit here and bash the decade. Nor am I going to boost it. I’ll simply say that it makes sense. You’re coming out of the 1970s where hippies and marijuana and Jimmy Carter were in your cereal bowl every morning, and technologically speaking, the stretch was a bit of a lull. So it makes sense that clothes got flashy and gawdy, people were spending money, and cocaine became the drug of choice. Not to mention that it was the perfect musical tipping point for the industry to sort of say, Man if that person’s making music, so can I.

            It’s not necessary to run through the soundtrack, but it’s worthwhile to point out the two cuts that stand out from it:

Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”

and “You’re the Best Around” by Joe Esposito



            There’s only one thing to say about these two songs, and that’s this: In the film explosion that was the 1980s, it’s pretty remarkable that the primary associations with these tunes are the film in which they appeared. Granted, tons of songs are written specifically for pieces in the movie business (Note: This one was apparently penned for Rocky III but turned down for it as well as for Flashdance.), but it’s pretty amazing when you consider the number of scores composed that never would have remained unknown were they not ultimately attached to a scene.

            I think there’s another specific idea that flourished in the 1980s, and some of the aforementioned attributes of the decade perhaps helped push this along, but it’s the idea of hope.[3] For The Karate Kid, look at the people that wrote, directed, and starred in the film, and then take a step back to examine their bodies of work. With the exception of Elisabeth Shue, this was all of their career high points. It was sort of the epitomal throw-something-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks sort of project, much like the ‘80s themselves.[4] But like I mentioned, music, clothes, cars, films, you name it. The decade was like the birth of the old Sex Cannon. Like the country took a collective look around and just decided to go for it on fourth down. On every possession.

            And don’t get me wrong: That’s not always a bad thing. It’s part of the whole American -dream recipe. But enough about the ‘80s.

            When I mention the notion of the absurd, what I’m referring to in this instance is my sensitivity to the spectrum in which filmmakers either underdo or overdo a scene. More often than not, it’s underdo. Like, a movie ends, and there’re loose ends that were apparently deemed unnecessary to the big picture.[5] Or maybe it’s the notion of compression: A film jumps to a point in the future and there are significant setting or character changes at which the viewer is expected not to waver.[6]

            I don’t expect everything to be linear; when done right compression is invaluable. It’s just that it doesn’t always meet my standards. Which is fair. My standards are always picky and seldom jive with those of others. For this piece, though, it was neither. What it was was the behavior of some of the smaller roles and some of the extras. Take Ali’s friend, for starters. What a bitch. She hates Daniel from moment one, and never gives a reason for it. I guess the impression there is that high-school girls can be snobs, and if that was the case here, mission accomplished.

            There were two bigger scenes in the movie though that really left me paint-the-fence sore. The first one comes after Ali and Daniel have their spat and Daniel, having been stood up by Ali, sneaks into the country club through the back and spots Johnny -- who spots him -- planting a fake kiss on his crush. As he turns to flee, he collides with a cook carrying a vat of spaghetti and the two, along with the dish, topple. The sound gets the attention of the seated dining hundreds who, in near unison, explode into laughter at the sight of a red-sauce-covered Daniel. It’s like four or five full seconds of mass howling, which is nothing shy of preposterous. Were the scene realistic, there may’ve been an ignited buzz about the commotion, but not a cinematized roaring mob.

            The second scene that’s headquartered at Camp Absurd is the championship round of the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament wherein Daniel takes on a number of the Cobra Kai. There’s an ancillary Kai member named Jimmy, but the primary guys are Bobby Brown (Note: This name is approved by Frank Zappa.), Tommy (Note: Sweet name selections, script writer.), Dutch (Note: Oh, there we go. Wait. What? That’s Steve McQueen’s kid? Wow.), and of course, Johnny (Note: Glad we got back on the name track, there.).

            As far as this pack of tools is concerned, there’s a good theme in place that Mr. Miyagi voices: These guys are only bad because of their sensei. It was a good character move to make Johnny an over-the-top[7] bad guy, since he is the group leader, has a history with Ali, and is the initial one to get into it with Daniel. Speaking of that initial confrontation and the absurd, Daniel’s buddies collectively ditch him and cast him off as “cool people to be friends with”? Really? Not a single one of them had his back while Johnny pummels him, and then they leave him laying there with a mouth full of sand because he couldn’t stand up to a kid that’s been studying martial arts? Alrighty, then.

            The tournament, though. And the Cobra Kai. Tommy’s just following-the-footsteps bad, while Bobby’s conflicted. In one moment he wants to bully Daniel. In another he’s feeling selfish, not wanting to follow sensei’s orders to put him out of commission. He doesn’t want to be disqualified; he wants to win. Maybe even take Johnny’s spot. But, he follows orders, then apologizes to Daniel for his levied cheap shot. Then there’s Dutch, whose textbook insanity yields discomfort to the viewer in every second he’s on the screen. His faces, his speech, his awful Cloroxed hair. Finally it comes down to Daniel’s nemesis.

His body language on the mat is ridiculously aggressive. He wants to defeat this new kid in town that’s dating his ex. He wants to defend his title. He wants to win at everything. Yet he hesitates when given the order to sweep the leg. Of course he does it anyway, and then, with everything on the line, walks face first into the crane kick. He doesn’t even bat an eye when Daniel takes the stance. He doesn’t call shenanigans or even try to ice the kicker.[8] To top it off, mere seconds after defeat, he grabs the trophy from the announcer and presents it to Daniel himself, with the film-closing line, “You’re alright, LaRusso.”

All of it. Every last bit of the tournament scene. Absurd. Now, it fit the mold fine in 1984, and I don’t know that I would’ve penned it in a more compelling fashion myself, but it’s just bizarre. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wavering Bobby again, who croons like a displaced Juggalo the whole time Johnny’s doing battle with Daniel. Talk about a posse of insane clowns. This scene must’ve been inspiration for Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope to don the face paint.[9]

Enough of the couch-critic bit, though. Cheesy as it is in parts, I love the film. The 1980s remain my theater foundation, and The Karate Kid is right up there with the Star Wars series, Back to the Future, and a passel of others in terms of early movie-going memories. It was on. I should’ve gone to bed, but it’s hard to get up from under a cozy fleece blanket in the winter time when the kids are asleep and the wife’s out with friends. So I watched it. And now you’ve wasted 15 minutes of your life reading about it. For that, I thank you.
           



[1] Go fuck yourself, Canada.
[2] Please. I’m begging you. Stop saying, “Sweep the leg.” It’s high time we retire it.
[3] Don’t get any ideas, Republicans.
[4] I’m looking at you, Ronald Reagan.
[5] I.e., Lord of the Rings: Return of the Kings. What’s with the ship? Why does Frodo have to go?
[6] Hate to attack a sacred cow here, but how’d Andy Dufresne hang the poster back up in The Shawshank Redemption?
[8] That one’s for you and your Denver Bronco days, Mike Shanahan.
[9] In a shocking turn of events, the ICP founder apparently wrestled in self-constructed backyard rings in the mid ‘80s.