Thursday, March 21, 2013

KUNG FU: SEASON 1, EPISODES 10-12 (1973)

PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic* (2) *uncanny,* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*, (3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical* 


“Alethea” is a complex meditation on the interrelationship of “truth” and “error,” which flies in the face of the themes usually propounded on network television shows: that truth is a discrete thing whose revelation can banish error—as in, say, a murderer being exposed so as to save the life of an accused innocent.


Wandering through the forest, Caine hears the music of a mandolin, being played by 10-year-old Alethea (Jodie Foster).  The little girl is on her way to a stagecoach-station, to take the stage to the town of Cardiff, for a visit with her uncle, Sheriff Ingram.  The priest and the precocious child take a liking to another, as she remarks innocently on his “funny” eyes. Caine follows her on the remainder of her journey to the station.


The stationmaster passes a less than innocent remark on Caine’s ethnicity, but Alethea defends her new friend.  Moments later, when Caine drinks from a water-dipper, one of two cowboys—actually a pair of road agents waiting for the stage—objects to his drinking from a white person’s water-source.  The stationmaster echoes the road agent’s bigotry, refusing to let Aletheia drink from a dipper that a “Chinaman” has touched.  Then the stage arrives, and the road agents draw on the guards, provoking a shootout.  One of the stage-guards throws a pistol to Caine seconds before the guard is shot by one of the thieves.  Alethea, confused by the eruption of violence, thinks that Caine shot the guard, and she tells her uncle and the townspeople of Cardiff that Caine is a killer.


Caine, though he protests his innocence, is so in tune with nature that he does not seek escape from being tried by the bigoted townspeople -- except once, when a pair of lynchers are prepared to kill him extra-legally.  Caine then flashes back to his Shaolin days, when Master Po entrusts young Caine to deliver a sacred scroll to another monastery.  The scroll also concerns the confusion of truth and illusion, relating the famous Taoist parable of “Chang Jo” (as the show’s script calls him), a man who could not decide if he was a man dreaming himself as a butterfly, or vice versa.


However, while on his errand young Caine is attacked by two Chinese “road agents” (thus putting him in the position of the murdered stage-guard in the main story).   An itinerant magician named Shangtzu (whose name is very close to the common rendition of the butterfly-dreamer) happens by.  He drives off the thugs with his kung-fu movies.  Caine, though sworn not to disclose the nature of his errand, allows his unctuous rescuer to learn the nature of the prized scroll.  Shangtzu pretends to teach Caine a magic trick by having him immerse himself in a lake.  While the boy is out of sight, Shangtzu steals the scroll, thus teaching Caine a vital lesson in deception.


Adult Caine, as always professing an indifference to death, is prepared to let the townspeople execute him, because he respects the purity of Alethea’s wish to speak the truth, even though she does so in error.  But when he goes to the gallows, Alethea retracts her testimony, lying to protect Caine.  In a clever twist that shows her awareness of her elders’ prejudices, she claims she lied “because he’s a Chinaman.”  Caine tells her that for all she knows, her lie has freed a murderer.  He determines to give her back her “truth” by seeks out and capturing the road agents.


In parallel fashion, the flashback story reaches its conclusion.  After young Caine confesses his failure to Master Po, the Chinese police come to the monastery, bringing both Shangtzu and the recovered scroll.  Shangtzu protests that he did not steal the scroll, that young Caine lent it to him.  Because young Caine owes Shangtzu his life, the boy monk does lie for the thief. Master Po knows better but intercedes for the life of the scheming magician, and then meditates on the loss of Caine’s “innocence.”


In this episode Caine does not perform any metaphenomenal feats.  However, the next one, “The Praying Mantis Kills,” shows him once more exercising his Taoist charisma to call a stallion mourning its dead mate.


“Mantis” takes its name from one of Caine’s anti-killing parables: when a character kneels to pray prior to fighting for his life, Caine reminds him of the praying mantis, an insect that looks as if it is praying just before it kills.  As always, Caine’s attempts to avoid the ethic of retribution, as seen in the episode "An Eye for an Eye," cause him to be labeled a coward by those who believe that retribution is the answer to life’s difficulties.


Caine happens to be in a town when the Darrow Gang robs the bank.  The Darrows warn the people in the bank that they’ll kill anyone who identifies them.  One of the customers, Mrs. Roper, defies the thieves and they shoot her before the eyes of her husband.  Caine sees the criminals leave and gives their descriptions to the sheriff, in contrast to Mr. Roper who, like the other townspeople, fears the Darrows and will not testify.


The sheriff tells his deputy/son Martin to take Caine to their home to protect him from the robbers.  Caine, who can’t help displaying his unusual talents—horse-calming, shooting arrows to their targets without using his eyes-- takes a quasi-paternal interest in Martin.  Martin barely understands the Chinaman’s enigmatic ways.  He only wants to be a courageous defender of law and order like his father, but recognizes that Caine has unique strengths as well.



Caine also takes an interest in Roper, mourning his wife and feeling guilt for having not had the courage to identify his wife’s killers.  Caine, remembering the lessons of Master Po—that it is not cowardice, but rather “love of life,” to avoid unnecessary battle, tries to counsel Roper.  Roper, Martin, and Caine end up at the sheriff’s house when the Darrow Gang attacks.  Roper, who has never fought anyone before, manages to wound the gang-leader Hap Darrow.  The sheriff arrives and catches the gang in a crossfire, but before they flee one bandit manages to shoot Martin’s father fatally.


The bereaved Martin locks up Hap Darrow and waits for the other bandits to try to break out their leader.  Martin believes Caine a coward because in the previous scene Caine would not use a gun against their attackers.  Martin tries to get Roper to be the new sheriff, and though Roper agrees to help out, he admits that he’s a coward and is at peace with it because “it lets you know where you stand.”


Despite his admission of cowardice, Roper does stand with Martin when the robbers besiege the jailhouse. The bandits are only beaten because of Caine’s skillful intevention.  This makes it more than clear that Martin and Roper would have died without him.  Once again Caine’s ethic—that it is wrong to futilely cast one’s life away against hopeless odds—takes issue with the standard heroic ideal seen in the majority of westerns.  


“Superstition” is another naturalistic episode, even though it deals with dispelling both the ghosts of the past and the haunting spectre of capitalism.  Caine stumbles across a mining-town that seems almost deserted.  Judge Stern and his hirelings arrest Caine on a trumped-charge, so that he must join a mining-crew.  Caine learns that most of the town’s original populace fled due to superstitious fear when it was learned that the mine uncovered a tomb of Indian skeletal remains.  Lacking a willing labor force, Stern and his flunkies press-ganged both genuine outlaws and innocents into working the mine for them, under threat of torture and death.  Caine also learns that Stern has no intention of releasing any of his slaves.  Whether the workers are innocent or guilty of crimes, their enslavement keeps Stern's bank balance healthy.


Caine does not attempt to escape, accepting in Christ-like fashion the ordeal levied upon lesser men.  Sentenced, along with another man, to punishment in a “hot box,” he teaches his meditational skills to the other inmate, so that both survive the hostile temperature without suffering the usual torments.  “The prison is in your mind,” Caine advises, and his flashback deals with how Master Po taught him to transcend superstitious fears of death.


 Stern recognizes that Caine is more than an ordinary prisoner.  This is further proven when one of the miners dies in a cave-in.  The workers attempt to rebel against the judge and his armed men, but Caine refuses to fight, even though one of the miners labels him a coward.  The judge realizes that Caine is a threat to his operation; that the most formidable kind of leader is one who can infuse his followers with “hope and dignity,” because that can dispel the fear by which Stern controls the men.  Caine, in conversation with one of the miners, preaches that the miners must seek not to think in an “either-or” manner, that they must either die in the mines or by the gunfire of the judge’s men: they must “claim” their destiny as men.


Fittingly, Stern decides to propound a new “superstition” to dispel Caine’s power.  Stern’s man Bannock commands Caine to dig in a certain spot in the mine, knowing that Caine will uncover Indian bones.  Bannock then plans to kill Caine so that it will seem as though he died from an Indian curse, thus depriving men of a potential leader as well as infusing the workers with a new superstitious fear.  Bannock’s plan backfires: his attempt to kill Caine foments a cave-in, trapping Caine, Bannock, and three other men in the mine.  Caine must teach all of them—even his enemy—how to relax so as to not use up their dwindling air supply.  Above ground, the other prisoners dig furiously to reach the entombed men.  In so doing, in demonstrating their loyalty to men who may already be dead, they throw off their fear of the judge’s actions, ignoring his commands that they desist.  Stern, unable to command men with dignity, flees the mine.  The survivors are rescued.  It’s mentioned that a local marshal will be summoned to make sure the illegal press-gang never re-organizes.  But the essential struggle here has not been that of law versus crime, but of life finding ways to stave off death— which fittingly is twice represented by fears of premature entombment, both in the “hot box” and in the mine.

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