Author’s Disclosure: I’ve been friends with Chris Poggiali for years so I can’t write an objective review of this book. However, I can write a subjective essay that might provide a different kind of insight. It is presented here as an alternative to the usual book review.
One of the first online friends I made when I began writing about cult movies was Chris Poggiali – and it’s always been a pleasure knowing him. He’s a unique combination of qualities: super-knowledgeable about cult ephemera of all kinds (movies, music, books, you name it) and possessed of a sophisticated take on these things but also likeably unpretentious about his formidable pop culture chops.
If you ever get to meet him, like I did at an Atlanta drive-in event, you’ll discover he’s an easygoing, personable raconteur who you can chat with for hours without experiencing a dull moment. He’s also a fantastic researcher and writer with countless zine and magazine articles, interviews, commentary tracks and video supplements to his credit. Combine all of the aforementioned qualities and you’ve got the kind of wingman that you’ll want to accompany you when you delve into the mysteries of cult cinema.
In the time I’ve known him, Chris has quietly pursued a number of book projects so it was a thrill to see one reach the publishing stage. Said tome is entitled These Fists Break Bricks and it is a history of the kung fu film’s cycles of prominence in American popular culture. It’s a collaboration with Grady Hendrix, who has been covered at Schlockmania before. Hendrix has recently enjoyed success with a string of post-modern horror novels but he’s also a veteran scribe when it comes to cult ephemera, with expertise in everything from vintage horror paperbacks to martial arts films. He’s as skilled as Poggiali at both research and writing so the two make a powerful team in their new book.
These Fists Break Bricks was originally designed to be a book of kung fu film posters with a little accompanying text. You can see that element of its original conception in the finished product’s lavish graphic design, which incorporates an array of mind-blowing vintage poster designs drawn from several martial arts film fans’ collections. However, the two authors realized they were onto something bigger and more impressive than just another coffee table book and put their writing/researching skills to the test.
The result is something better than I was hoping for. For starters, you get a breezy, entertainingly written history of how martial arts films became a profit center for American distributors in the ’70s, with Five Fingers Of Death getting the ball rolling and Enter The Dragon cementing the trend’s popularity. Everything you would expect to be covered pops up: Bruce Lee‘s short but highly influential career, the wave of Brucesploitation flicks that followed, martial-artist-turned-star careers from Ron Van Clief to Chuck Norris, the comet-like career and ultimate self-sabotage of Jim Kelly, how grindhouse distributors exploited the trend with an array of re-edits and re-titled films, Japanese imports like Sonny Chiba, the ninja trend – including everything from Sho Kosugi‘s career to those notorious mix-and-match cheapies from Godfrey Ho and why it took such a long time for Jackie Chan to break big in the U.S. There are colorful tales for all of the above, drawn from painstaking research and fresh interviews alike, as well as plentiful eye-popping posters and stills to fire the visual part of your imagination alongside the text.
However, what really makes These Fists Break Bricks satisfying is the way Hendrix and Poggiali delve beneath the surface facts to explore the cultural and sociological factors that fueled the cycles of the genre’s popularity. For example, you’ll get fascinating insights into how the development of martial arts in America had to battle with racism at various stages, like Pearl Harbor-related anger at Asians curtailing the early development of martial arts schools and the New York Times publishing phony stories about roving gangs of black martial artists targeting white people.
You also get insight into how black and Latino viewers became the core of the martial arts film audience, responding to its central theme of disenfranchised people fighting institutional corruption and how they influenced several black and Latino viewers to become professional martial artists. The connection between martial arts films and the development of hip-hop is also explored (note: RZA wrote the introduction for this book) , with the book making a case for how minorities abandoned by their city government in places like the Bronx had to create their own culture by reshaping it from the culture they could get their hands on, like soul records and kung fu flicks.
That said, the most interesting thing about the book is how the martial arts movie is revealed to be one of cinema’s most resilient genres because it has the creative fluidity to incorporate the input of a variety of people and sources as it constantly reshapes itself to meet the needs of the here and now. Asian films come to the United States, young men and women inspired by those films go to Asian countries to get into martial arts films, movies are recut and have new material added to appeal to different cultures, martial arts films incorporate elements of other genres to create hybrid films… and round and round the sample-and-remix cycle goes, keeping the genre fresh and colorful.
Simply put, this book has plenty of colorful anecdotes and flashy graphics but it’s the way it sneaks up on you with its narrative about different cultures inspiring and influencing each other that gives it staying power. It’s an achievement with multiple levels and it pleases me to no end for an old friend be one of its architects. It easily lives up to the standard of quality Poggiali has established in his articles and supplements (Hendrix is no slouch, either) and I hope it is the first of many Poggiali book projects to come. I look forward to reading whatever’s next.
These Fists Break Bricks will be released in September – you can preorder directly from its publisher Mondo Books by clicking here.