THIS WEEK IN LITERARY HISTORY

Thomas Hardy gets wasted, sells his wife and child, and thinks, "This is an awesome idea for a novel."

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February 2005
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Chantastic

Somehow, I missed the Super Bowl Halftime Extravaganza. Instead, a friend popped in a semi-bootleg copy of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior.

Of his many virtues, Tony Jaa can crack skulls with his elbows and seriously get vertical. The man has the screen personality and acting skills of a chunk of concrete, but he’s got the action chops (so to speak), and I’m sure he’ll develop into something worth watching. There’s a five-minute chase scene in which, among many things, he slides underneath a moving car.

Great stuff, but derivative, I’m afraid. Of the Man. Of the all-time greatest action star (and my favorite movie star) ever, a man whose on-screen exploits will never be topped because nobody will even attempt to copy the insanity of his stunts and fights. Of course, I speak of Chan Kwong-Sang, better known to us mere mortals as Jackie Chan.

(Wife, who likes Mr. Chan as well, is chuckling as she reads this. “I knew you couldn’t go more than a month without writing about Jackie,” she is thinking. “Jackie, Jackie, Jackie! Enough!” This is just the first Jackie post. There will be more. Many more. Including the autograph episode.)

There’s more to this than simply the wacky exploits of a crazy movie star. All I know about writing relates to Jackie Chan, though most of it I learned elsewhere first.


One way to travel

Here’s the derivative part. In Winners and Sinners, a movie in which Jackie guest stars, he tracks down a couple of baddies who’ve stolen something or other from someone or other in a park. The problem is, they’re in a car. Jackie’s on roller skates.

To give chase, Jackie hangs on to moving cars, trucks, motorcycles. He leaps over fallen bicyles and other detritus. He barely avoids crashing about, say 80 times. He flies through red lights and barely avoids oncoming traffic. As the chase alights a Hong Kong expressway, a VW Beetle crashes, impeding Jackie’s path. It happens so quickly, there’s no way to avoid hitting it. So, of course, he flies over the Volkswagen (don’t ask how), landing on his feet and continuing to give chase.

Now this is the important point. This should be the highlight of the scene. It’s an amazing stunt. But it’s not good enough for Jackie. He’s flown over the crashed car, and is hanging on to moving one. He’s in the middle lane. The crooks are getting away, though, because Jackie can’t get to their lane. He needs to get to the outside lane. He has to get to the outside lane. But there’s an 18-wheeler blocking him.

Even Jackie can’t leap over a moving semi. The camera shoots to a close up of his face: he’s looking at the ground, beneath the truck, face intense with purpose. The shot shifts to the pavement underneath the moving tractor-trailer, and back to Jackie, who’s looking ever-more-intently at the space below the 18-wheeler, and you think,No. No. He’s not going to do that. He’s not going to do that.

Naturally, Jackie does do that. He pushes off the car he’s hanging onto, and skates underneath the moving semi. You can tell they speeded up the film when he did the stunt, but still. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

How does this relates to writing? Simple: Jackie keeps raising the stakes. It’s not enough for him to chase down the baddies on roller skates, jump over automobiles, and put his life in danger. He’s got to skate underneath a moving tractor-trailer. (And I could name a dozen additional examples from his movies.)

The same goes for writing fiction — a writer must constantly raise the stakes. A work of fiction has to keep taking chances, whether it’s making each scene more vital than the last, testing characters’ resolve, or pushing the limits of the writer’s abilities.

A valuable lesson learned courtesy of Mr. Chan.

At least that’s what I told a faculty member at a writer’s conference when she queried about my “Rumble in the Bronx” T-shirt. I’d been drinking vodka, with Red Stripe as a chaser, not a good combination at any age, much less at 37. She was drunk enough to concur that one, can, indeed, learn about writing from my beloved Jackie. She was not drunk enough, however, to confer any compliments upon my stories that she’d read earlier.

N.B.: Is there something seriously wrong with the comment system? I’ve barely been able to post to other blogs the past 24 hours. Too slow, doesn’t load, error messages. Feh.

14 comments to Chantastic

  • Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm

    Yes, the comments are problematic right now.

    Thank for the Chantastic insight. I’ve been thinking about this writing thing the wrong way. Instead of upping the ante in relation to stunts, I’ve been considering it in relation to drinking.

    This leads me to write something more disastrously embarrassing each time I go at it.

    If I were to go for the whole ballet of gracefuless and agility via Jackie then I could write…..

    Nah, I’ll stick to the disasters. It’s my angle.

    Great entry. I loved the punchline paragraph.

  • Glitzy

    You met Jackie Chan! Oh you’re gonna have to indulge me (and your other readers) with that one. I love him. I saw a special where he was explaining many of his stunts and they were so, so fascinating. Did you know he sings the Chinese version of the song from Mulan? (I’m blanking out on the name..and you probably do) I’m gonna have to find ‘Winners and Sinners’ now.

  • Michelle

    I adore Chan’s stuff. We have a free to air station that concentrates mainly on Asian, German and European films….sometimes they have Chan nights!!

    blogger is being a bastard with comments! Its not you BF

  • Ms Bees Knees

    Writer Theory According to Chan… has a nice ring to it don’t you think? Ever considered teaching? A roommate of mine years ago turned me onto JC… dude is a manic.

    Oh and yeah… eblogger has been wicked slow lately…

  • Bookfraud

    rocket: keep doing increasingly embarrassing things. great fodder.

    glitzy: sad to say, I have not met Jackie Chan, even as it remains my goal in life. the autograph involves a T-shirt, a gift, miscommunication, lots of grief.

    if you haven’t seen any jackie flicks, i’d start with something else besides Winners and Sinners. Police Story is probably my fave.

    michelle: they have entire nights devoted to jackie? i’m moving.

    beesknees: i like your idea of “jackie theory.” kind of like professor of hitler studies in “White Noise.” someone else suggested i name the post “Portrait of the Arist as a Young Chan,” which has a nice ring to it.

    I’d make a lousy academic. too busy blogging and other similar endeavors.

  • Glitzy

    I’ve seen lots of Jackie Chan movies so I’m sure Winners will be right up my alley ;)

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