In trying to describe how deeply affecting “The Karate Kid” was for me as a young boy, I come up short. Yes, it’s now an obvious cable-TV Sunday afternoon snoozer, a mainstream by-the-numbers whatever. But in its time, “The Karate Kid” demolished the universe as I understood it and refashioned it anew. In the world of Daniel LaRusso, wimps blossomed into heroes, obsessives found redemption, blonde bullies were humiliated, and eccentric role models provided arcane gateways into unexpected enlightenment.
I first saw “The Karate Kid” on a rainy night in a tiny theatre in the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, accompanied by my older sister and a few other kids around our age. The film was rated PG-13, so we did what was apparently then a common trick of soliciting a random adult on the sidewalk to pose as our parent. Thinking back, that was a weird scenario, though one we and this anonymous adult then apparently took as par for the course. But those were different times.
And in the way that time operates differently when you are young, the movie itself seemed ten hours long and massively epic in all respects. And at the movie’s finale, the entire audience of about maybe three dozen rose and applauded. Yes, in a bumpkin town in Scotia on a soggy weeknight, we cheered in earnest as credits rolled the names of humans we were never to meet, never know. Those were different times.
Recently I was made aware of a strange artifact: an alternate version of the film, pretty much in its entirety, as recreated via videotaped (oh, videotape! then so new and modern!) footage of rehearsals, test scenes, etc. put together by its creators, presumably overseen by some production assistant, likely un/underpaid:
To view something so embedded in one’s consciousness, its narrative brought to life in the misty strains of nostalgia and gilded youth, yet in this version completely different — reconfigured both in style and delivery, a parallel universe — is to flirt with the uncanny. It’s the revisionism of popular culture approaching the level of trauma. It’s also compelling from a strictly cinephilic standpoint: viewing the scrappy makings of what would emerge as a pretty slick movie, with some memorable and irony-free performances by hard-working, cool young actors in a story that bludgeons every possible resonance without ever quite wading too deep into the maudlin or hokey. For me today, an adult both harder and softer, the “rehearsal version” is actually, in some distanced ways, a more pleasurable watch than the “real” movie.
And it’s sort of a mindfuck if you’re a fan. But that’s what makes the vast and ruthless cataloguing reach of the internet, and YouTube in particular, so wonderful and alluring — and, often, kind of upsetting: knowing even more about the things that have made you know what you know.
I sincerely hope kids today don’t take their culture, their “things,” for granted — that, even glutted with the greatnesses of convenience and digital glitz, they remain capable of being swept away in the enjoyment of things as fiercely as us kids so devotedly adored a thing like “The Karate Kid.” Wax on, you kids.
- Rob Benvie