Central Snark

Crouching Tigers and Other Pet Peeves by mattresspolice
Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 8:46am
Filed under: Pop! goes the Diesel

Note: This week Diesel has been replaced by Serious Diesel. Serious Diesel was either the result of a cloning experiment gone horribly wrong or the universe’s attempt to balance its Yin with its Yang, depending on your point of view.


Despite being a big fan of action movies, and despite the fawning of critics, I didn’t particularly like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If I had to sum up why I didn’t like it, I’d have to say that it was unrealistic.

What?! You howl. Aren’t you the guy who just told us that Batman Begins is the best movie ever? Are you going to try to convince us that a caped crusader vanquishing flamboyant evildoers in Gotham city is realistic? You know what your problem is? You’re biased against movies with Asian actors and subtitles!

Probably. But there’s more to it than that.

I was a philosophy major in college. This admission prompts chuckles from certain types of people, who seem to think that philosophy has something to do with contemplating why the sky is blue or how many Kate Mosses can dance on the head of a pin. Contrary to the belief evidently held by the majority of small bookstore managers, philosophy is not the discipline that falls between Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and the Time-Life series Mysteries of the Unknown. Philosophy — Western Philosophy, anyway, is mostly about logic and assessing the validity arguments.

Starting with Plato and Aristotle, philosophy has been all about breaking human knowledge down into discrete units and then trying to put them back together in a way that seems consistent with reason. Philosophy, in this sense, is the forerunner to Humanism, the Enlightenment, and the modern scientific method.

Eastern philosophy is a whole different thing. Eastern philosophy is about seeing patterns, and balance, and cycles in reality. Eastern philosophy tries to look at things as a whole, to get a sort of intuitive sense of reality, without trying to break it down into comprehensible chunks. Eastern philosophy is the kind of stuff that makes sense when you’re high, and then mysteriously stops making sense once you are in full possession of your rational faculties. This may be because drugs free your mind to embrace the hidden reality of the universe. Or it may be because nonsense seems to make sense when you’re f—-ed up. You may sense a slight bias on my part.

Where am I going with this? Good question. It occurred to me recently that the dichotomy between Eastern and Western philosophy explains a lot regarding the differences between Eastern and Western movies. Action movies, in particular.

Practice Makes Perfect

What bugs me about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is that it doesn’t adhere to any internal logic regarding what’s physically possible. Sure, Spider-Man can stick to walls, but that’s because he was bitten by an irradiated spider. Wolverine can get shot in the head and live because he’s a genetic mutant with a metal skull. Batman can kick ass because he’s fueled with righteous anger at evil-doers; he’s traveled the world studying obscure martial arts techniques; and he’s a billionaire with access to a lot of cool toys. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the only explanation for the fact that characters can soar 50 feet through the air or stand on a hair-thin bamboo shoot is that they’ve practiced really hard. Huh? Even more frustrating, sometimes characters seem to be bound by mundane forces like gravity, while at other times they are not.

I have the same problem with the Kill Bill movies, which borrow heavily from Eastern cinema. They don’t make any freaking sense. Kung-Fu training may explain how someone can punch their way through a plywood coffin, but Kung-Fu doesn’t give one the ability to dig one’s way out of a six foot grave with one’s fingers. For that matter, why would any semi-sane individual try to kill another person with a snake? Snakes are incredibly inconvenient to carry around, and make lousy weapons, as a rule.

In other words, Western movies may not be more realistic, per se, than Eastern movies, but they tend to devise a set of rules and then stick to them (and movies that don’t adhere to their own rules are generally excoriated by critics). Eastern movies don’t feel bound to make sense on the same level. They may make sense thematically, but the mundane details don’t necessarily fit together. So yes, I’m biased against these kinds of movies, but my bias has more to do with my analytic nature than race or language (although I am of course, the product of a Western culture with a strong analytic bent).

The real offenders, however, are those movies that don’t trust either tradition enough to stick with it. Take the Matrix films for example. The first movie was a Western twist on the Gnostic notion of reality as illusory and evil. It frames its themes in Western sci-fi staples, but its theme (“there is no spoon”) is an Eastern one. The second and third films go rapidly downhill as we are subjected to unnecessary explanation and elaboration on the sci-fi themes (not to mention tiresome quasi-philosophical discussions about free will, determinism, destiny, etc.). The filmmakers pull the curtain too far back, revealing a clockwork universe with little mystery. That’s the problem with Western filmmakers taking on Eastern themes: They are so ensnared in the Aristotelian mode of thinking that they assume progress consists of explication, as if a magic show could be improved by revealing the secret pocket in the hat where the rabbit was hiding. They make the allegorical into the literal, sucking the life out of it in the process.

The latter Star Wars movies had the same problem. Who wants to know that one’s aptitude for using the force is determined by the “midi-cholorian count” in one’s blood? Not I. Perhaps the best example is Highlander II, in which we learn that the the race of immortals struggling for dominance of the world are in fact exiled aliens from the planet Zeist. Sigh.

Highlander II

And, of course, there are plenty of examples of Western-style films that degenerate into pseudo-mysticism when they get into a scientific/technological bind. The sci-fi genre is particularly rich with examples. I’d come up with some, but I’ve got to leave some work for you, don’t I?

I suppose I should wrap this up and make some kind of point. So here it is: If you’re making a movie, pick a cinematic “language” and stick with it. You may feel compelled to create a system of rules governing your universe, or you may decide to risk being more freewheeling in what you allow; it depends what effect you’re trying to achieve, and who you’re making the movie for. You can even play around with mixing genres and themes if you want, but don’t simply switch from one cinematic language to another to disguise the fact that you’ve run out of things to say. Mark Twain didn’t lapse into a rural Southern dialogue because he had painted himself into a corner with Yankee English. You don’t improve on mystery by breaking it into digestible pieces, and you aren’t fooling anybody by explaining away technical inconsistencies with pseudo-mystical gobbledygook. Well, not many people anyway.

Believe in what you’re saying, and how you say it, or nobody else is going to either.

~Serious Diesel


22 Comments so far
Leave a comment

you know, i really like “Serious Diesel”, because “Serious Diesel” makes me think. seriously.

as for the “language” of film? wow. i’m sure i’ve never given it more than a passing consideration/acknowledgement. oh wait, that’s not quite true. i think i often am willing to suspend my own credibility, because i enjoy the fantasy of film, which is how i perceived “Crouching and Hidden Tigers and Dragaon and Bears, Oh My!”.

but then, there’s the “Matrix” – well the first Matrix, which i think is about as perfect a film as was ever made. but that’s because i found the aspect of the “dream” the citizens of Earth to be “living” not unlike the “dream” of life, as explained by the Ancient Toltecs. now, maybe the Ancient Toltecs have no place in Philosophy, i mean, what are they? (besides “ancient”, i mean?) Western? Eastern? South of the Border-n? Alien? i don’t know. but, for me, at any rate, the “Matrix” is a beautiful tangible example of the “possibility” of a real life, in which all things are possible.

i could go on, but then maybe i’m getting too serious, and you’re just pulling my uneducated film-lover’s leg (for i am SO a fan of the Kill Bill movies, but only because i find them “empowering” in that i lovelovelove how Uma Thurman’s character gets to kick ass and right so many wrongs. it’s just bloody good fun for a Cretan like me!)

thanks for the thoughts, Diesel, serious and/or otherwise. good fodder for discussion today. and i mean that, seriously. xox

Comment by One Hot Puppy

Interesting. Kind of reminds me of the film appreciation class I took in college. Going to the movies was never quite the same after that.

Excuse me while I go question my feelings on all the movies mentioned. And to think I actually loved those Kill Bill movies…damn.

Nice job Diesel…no, really.

Comment by BoBo

I’m with you, Diesel. Sometimes I go to a movie and I want to suspend belief to entertain myself for a few hours, but it seems my mind sets parameters, limits, for how far it’s willing to go, even in a fantasy world, and Crouching Tiger went over board.

As for Highlander, I don’t EVEN want to talk about it. I was one of those die hard Highlander fans, until they screwed it up with the sequel.

Comment by Pavel

Boy, it is quiet in here, isn’t it? Sorry, Snuppy, I guess this wasn’t the crowd-pleaser you were hoping for.

Yeah, the first Matrix is a good example of a movie that does a good job of blending Eastern and Western traditions. The underlying theme is Eastern, but the trappings are all Western. Like the phones they use to move between the Matrix and the real world (I forget what they called them), for example. That’s a clear, Western-style rule of how the Matrix universe works. Unfortunately everything got out of whack in the next 2 movies. Did you notice how in the first film, fighting an agent was completely unthinkable, but by the 2nd one Morpheus is holding his own in a swordfight? That’s the kind of crap that bothers me. But what bothers me more is the way that they overexplained everything in the 2nd 2 movies, so there was no air of mystery any more. That’s the American way of making sequels: Bigger, better, more!

Bobo – I’ll admit that I’m biased against movies like Kill Bill and CT,HD. I realize that some people don’t have a problem with these kinds of “rule-breaking” movies, but they just bug me. But what would be even worse is if they did Kill Bill 3, in which you found out that Uma Thurman’s character is such a great fighter because she was the result of a genetic engineering experiment. In other words, Kill Bill may not be my cup of tea, but at least it’s not a cup of tea mixed with Budweiser.

Pavel – Exactly. I mean, if you want to tell a mythical story about immortal beings battling for supremacy, do that. If you want to tell a story about aliens who are exiled to earth, do that. But don’t freaking switch from one to the other between movie #1 and movie #2 because you ran out of ideas. That’s just insulting.

Comment by Diesel

For some reason CTHD was one of my favorite films ever. I’ve always believed that I defy all laws of physics, but that my subconscious mind just hasn’t realized it yet. I figure if I watch it enough, I’ll be able to climb trees like that as well (I’ll leave the fighting part to others though, I just want to run up trees).

Comment by Anita

Considering CTHD may have been the last “adult” film that I saw in the theatres, it holds a special place in my heart. Okay, I’m kidding but moviegoing seems to be slanted towards bringing the kids in the past few years. I usually like stories in film told a bit more realistically, but I found this one to blend the magical/mythical so beautifully. I loved the fight scenes and found it all a bit mezmerizing. Of course, we’re going back ten years, so my memory is shady outside of that. I have a better memory for odd details such as the fact that we had Thai food before we went to the movie. Perhaps you should try that. I don’t think that it’s so much that the makers of the film “didn’t believe in what they’re saying” but more that you didn’t like “how they said it”.

I haven’t seen the others and don’t feel too driven to do so, even though they have gotten rave reviews – by Snuppy whose opinion I respect highly. But if they happen to be on HBO, say, I’d DVR them and get back to you.

Comment by Lampy

It just occurred to me after reading this. If you cross “An Inconvenient Truth” with “Happy Feet” you’ve got “Kentucky Fried Movie”. (“Crouching Drumstick Hidden Biscuit”)

Thanks, Diesel! I was confused. But now I see.

Comment by Al

By the way, in Hollywood, they’re Newton’s Three (Ummm) Guidelines of Motion.

Comment by Al

Yeah, yeah – you know I like CTHD, and I’ve known you don’t like it. I can appreciate the lack of consistency bugging you. As for Shaolin monks somehow being able to skip across water and jump over buildings, my guess is that the “reason” for their ability is, yes, “training” – like Yogis are supposedly able to fly or hold their breath or lie on a bed of nails, etc. Admittedly, this explanation is so-so, mainly because the fact remains that the characters’ extraordinary abilities aren’t explained _in the movie_.

For me, liking CTHD – or Hero or Kung Fu Hustle or even House of Flying Daggers – has to do with the effect (expression) and less to do with realism or consistency. In House of Flying Daggers, for example, there’s an inconsistency that would just bug the bejeezus out of you: Zhang Ziyi’s character is blind, and there is an amazing scene in which she stands in the center of a large room, encircled by drums. Someone throws beans at her and she relies on her finely tuned hearing to knock them around the room at the drums. Despite being unrealistic, it’s a very colorful and impressive scene. Toward the end of the movie, however, we learn that the girl is not really blind. Grrr. Nevertheless, the movie has other things going for it. In this case, the visuals are extraordinary. I also enjoyed the love triangle story, and the different character’s struggles with loyalty, but those elements are pretty cliche for a Chinese movie.

How do you feel about Tom Cruise executing a bootlegger off the front wheel of a motorcycle, shooting a pistol at the same time, and hitting his target, a car apparently laden with 100 gallons of gasoline? I enjoy it, but my reaction is as much a chuckle at how over-the-top the action is as it is “sweet!”

I once dated a girl who dismissed all sci-fi movies since they “could never happen.” If we held ourselves to that standard, how many movies could we watch? And of those movies, how many would you want to watch? (BTW, this girl now makes a living as an artist!)

By point of comparison, do you think you apply the same level of criticism to the music you listen to?


Comment by Glacial Spain

yo’ Diesel: NOT a crowd pleaser? dude, this happens to be great fodder for conversation! i think part of what you’re saying (and/or complaining about) is the lack of consistency within any given storyline. funny, i once heard Kevin Costner (of all people) launch a tirade about the same thing. and you’re both right (you knew you had something in common with him, right?). there is NOTHING more annoying and/or insulting than a film (or TV show, for that matter) in which the director/producer has tried to “fit” in some plot device that absolutely doesn’t work and/or make any real sense, simply because they can’t keep track of thier own story. i hate that. i mean, i HATE that. i really do.

as for Uma’s character, “B”, in Kill Bill? eh, i figure she just managed to, somehow, transcend the normal trappings of gravity/physics everyone else on planet Earth is forced to adhere to. probably due to an over-abundance of adrenalin coursing through her vengeful veins, ya know? like a super-charged super-pissed-off version of the grandmother who can lift Mack truck in order to save a kitten, trapped under a wheel. like that. xox

Comment by snuppy shalit

Ok, just to clarify my admittedly muddled point: Basically what I’m saying is that I don’t particularly like movies that don’t establish and follow a set of internal rules. I admit, however, that this is a personal preference, like preferring rock music over classical. On the other hand, some movies just SUCK, and one way to make a movie that sucks is to muddle the cinematic language that you use to tell the story. So CTHD isn’t my favorite movie, but it’s far preferable to a piece of dreck like Highlander 2.

So what you all are saying about liking CTHD doesn’t really contradict my main point. You like it because of the symbolism, the emotional impact, the visuals, etc.; the inconsistencies are a minor issue for you. Personal preference.

Glacial Spain – Interesting that you would bring up that scene, which I believe is from MI:2, directed by John Woo. And yes, it bugs me, but if it’s sufficiently cool I can overlook it. I couldn’t stand Face/Off, however, because the premise was so absolutely ridiculous. I have an easier time believing that Lois Lane can’t tell that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person than believing that Joan Allen can’t tell Nicholas Cage from John Travolta. Hell, I’ve never met either of them and I bet I could tell them apart in the dark by their smell.

Snuppy – Yeah, I just don’t buy it. Just like I didn’t buy Michele Pfeiffer turning into Catwoman because she fell out of a window and got woken up by kitties licking her face. Tim Burton is one American directory who isn’t inflicted with the need to explain things, that’s for sure.

Well, I’ve got to go fight with Windows Vista some more. Here’s hoping my mystical training has prepared me sufficiently.

Comment by Diesel

CTHD was highly overrated in this girl’s mind. It sure as hell was no Batman Returns!!

Comment by littlebluepill

So, Diesel, you’re not willing to simplify suspend your disbelief for the likes of a Jerry Bruckheimer or a Bryan Singer? Well, then, might you be willing to consider renting it to them?

I hear some movie reviewers command a pretty nice price for theirs.

Comment by Al

Interesting, Diesel. Your take on eastern vs. western philosophy brought to mind the exchange between Saruman and Gandalf in The Two Towers.

(The book, that is; after the guy got shot in the eye through his glasses in the climactic rubout of The Godfather, I decided I was not going to allow myself to become sufficiently desensitized to accept cinema gore as “entertainment”, and have seen very few movies since. I still shudder at that image.)

The one where Saruman shows up in a “white” robe woven of multicolored fabric. And Gandalf retorts: ” … he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” A very Eastern thought in a very Western book.

A mixed message? Maybe, maybe not. After all, in Middle-Earth it is the Fëanors, the Aristotelian analyzers, who keep getting snared by the Dark Lord and his servants …

Comment by oceallaigh

LBP – That would be my personal opinion as well. One of the things I loved about Batman Begins was the way it sets up its milieu and then plays around with its limits. For me, it makes for a more satisfying movie when the protagonist is able to overcome the obstacles set before him without breaking the rules that have been established. Batman transcends the limitations of ordinary human (fear, the allure of revenge and wealth, feelings of inadequacy in the face of his father’s legacy, etc.) without becoming superhuman.

Al – Bryan Singer, yes; Bruckheimer, no. I have no problem with superhuman mutants who can fly, control the weather, etc. But I just can’t buy NASA sending a bunch of oil drilling yahoos into space to save earth from an asteroid (which apparently has earth-level gravity!). Also, Bruckheimer/Bay movies tend to be overwrought, badly written, poorly acted, and overly loud. Although, one of the things I disliked about Superman Returns (the movie Bryan Singer deserted the X-Men for) was the fact that Superman seems to overcome his kryptonite weakness in the end. You just can’t DO that. Them’s the rules.

Oceallaigh – Interesting. I don’t recall that line, but it certainly does sum it up. Westerners want to break everything down to understand it, not realizing that you lose something in the process. LOTR always struck me as a little anti-rational (it’s certainly anti-industrial). If I were there, I’d have been with Boromir: Give me the damn ring, you stupid midget. I’ll show you how it’s done. 🙂

Comment by Diesel

Diesel: i think i’m the one who needs to clarify my muddled view of your decidedly not muddled view, tho’ “muddied”, perhaps, but that’s beside the point. huh? where was i?? oh yeah — muddled views: i NEED continuity. so i’m with ya. WITH YA, i say, WITH YA. i really wasn’t a humongous fan of Hiding Tigers Crouching on Dumpy Dragons (tho’ i thought it was shot beautifully). that said, is it wrong that i did and *do* like “The Rock”? i mean, when Sean Connery said the line “Welcome to the rrrrock”, i howled — and sank deep into my chair, in order to enjoy a completely stupid-yet-highly-entertaining flick.

actually, my sister once pointed out to me that sometimes the crappiest films are the most fun to watch, as long as there’s a lot of good ass-kicking going on. in other words, we get out our aggressions without leaving our chairs (much kinder on the nails, as well). which explains, i suppose, her own love of all those Die Hard films. oh wait, i like ’em, too. and Joel and I adore watching Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks, if only to add in our own demented dialogue. (i know, we’re weird, what can i say?) xox

Comment by snuppy shalit

Bravo, Diesel!
All that movie reviewing and a Philosophy 101 lesson too. I’ll watch almost anything as long as it is not boring. I don’t like the CTHD, KB’s for the same reasons. Additionally I’d say that the KB movies were just too violent for me. Not a fan of blood and guts…well except for Alien and Predator movies and then I hide my eyes during the gross parts.

Comment by Claire

You make excellent points. I must admit, though, that I’m easily razzle-dazzled by scenery, and Crouching Tiger had me by the tail. When the lights go down, I just go with it, I guess. I get more into the characters than the forces around them.
(I was an anthropology major. Don’t know why.)

Comment by actonbell

Snuppy – Those “crappy” movies that you like probably aren’t crappy. They’re just not “Oscar-worthy,” and you know how I feel about that. I love The Godfather, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, North By Northwest, etc., but I also love Die Hard, The Transporter, and The X-Men. And I’ve always thought that a good comedy has to be much harder to make than just about any drama. I’d put Tommy Boy and the 40 Year Old Virgin up against The English Patient any day.

Claire – Yeah, the violence bothered me too, but mostly because it was pointless. Blood gushing from severed necks like lawn sprinklers, ha ha. Not funny, not dramatic, not anything.

Actonbell – Well yeah, I’m enamored of spectacle too. I love explosions, but I’m picky about how the explosions are to be arranged in a meaningful thematic framework. 😉

Comment by Diesel

so you won’t think less of me (and Bobo) for never seeing The English Patient? whew. and speaking of great comedies that don’t get their proper due, for MY money you can add in “The Wedding Crashers” to that mix of “40-year old Virgin” and/or “Tommy boy”. oh yeah, and “South Park, Bigger, Longer and Uncut” — ‘cuz that was one hilarious film. (for the record, you had me at “NOT Oscar-worthy”) xox

Comment by snuppy shalit

Wow, Serious Diesel, you be rilly smart.

I agree that, if one is creating one’s own universe, viewers of that universe have every right to expect, nay demand, consistent logic and governing precepts. That’s why I’m pleased every time Lucy pulls the football out from under Charlie Brown. That’s just how it’s supposed to be.

Comment by Jocelyn

*hugs Diesel*

just becuase she didn´t like “Kill Bill” nor “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
This here Penguin thinks that people are too easily pressured into accusing a film of brilliance, when they don´t really know what just happened to them after leaving the cinema.
Despite popular belief, peole are very aware of their own short-comings and stupidity, they quickly assume if there is something they don´t get it must be brilliant and therefore the best way to avoid dissplaying ignorance is nominating something for an Oscar or Globe….
I donæt get it, but then again…I am aware of my short comings too.

Comment by Penguin

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