Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thinking about David Carradine

David Carradine's death comes as a sad surprise to me. Though the actor was 72, I always see him as a young man, shorn of hair, home, and most possessions, wandering the American west as a Shaolin monk in the 70s television series, Kung Fu. I guess you could say that Kwai Chang Caine served as the yin to James Kirk's yang in my childhood understanding of how one responds to conflict.

As a kid, I identified with Caine's preference for non-violence, particularly as I was raised by my mother, a true child of the sixties, to regard pacifism as the only appropriate response to bullying. I wasn't strong and I had no taste for blood. It always confused me why some people truly seem to enjoy inflicting pain upon others.

I remember when my mom invited several kids who tormented me in middle school over to our apartment to share - I swear it - tea and biscuits. When one of them asked cheekily if he could bum a cigarette, she passed one over without blinking an eye. I don't recall having any further problems with those dudes afterward. I learned from her - and saw in Kwai Chang Caine - that kindness generally does turn back a cruel heart.

Of course I also learned - as did Caine and my mom - that sometimes one finds no other alternative than to fight. And there, David Carradine's character possessed such grace and composure, more than I ever did in my own petty school confrontations. If only real life could dissolved into hazy slow-motion poetry as Caine's did in Kung Fu!

I also remember those burning sunsets that served as backdrop for the wandering soul, tramping across an endless desert. I saw myself there too, and today I have a special place in my heart for desolate environs. Indeed, I think our family's tradition of "silent walks" (learn more) was born from watching Kung Fu.

I try to forget most of Carradine's later years: those awful spin-offs, those insipid commercials. Aside from his star turn in Bound for Glory, there seemed to be little magic left to his art. And then came the Kill Bill movies, with Carradine presenting such a subtle balance of kindness and malice that I had to think, there's so much more this guy has to offer.

Too soon, too little time later, he is gone.

I cannot judge his life or his ending, but I know that my regret for Carradine's death is also balanced somewhat by my appreciation for the characters he gave us. It's a rare job that allows you to help other people define who they are. David Carradine's Kwai Chang Caine did that for me.

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