Albert Pyun (1953-2022) is not a director whose name rings bells with most cineastes. His movies undoubtedly bore his individual stamp (at least his pre-digital output) but very few would likely make the argument that he was an auteur. His start was the promising, somewhat ridiculous swashbuckler The Sword and the Sorcerer, a fantasy vehicle in which a heavily-muscled hero rescues a buxom lady from a wicked mage. It made money, and should have helped Pyun get his foot in the door. But for some reason even after the movie did business at the box office, poor Albert was kicked down to the b-leagues. He made the most of his shoestring budgets, turning in films that, if they failed in execution, at least showed verve and originality in conception. Take Radioactive Dreams. It’s about a couple of guys who grow up in a fallout shelter in the wake of a nuclear war with nothing but old PI novels for reading material. When they finally emerge into the postapocalyptic wasteland, they find it peopled by mutants, strange beyond their wildest imaginings. Undaunted, they promptly set out to become PIs, putting everything they read into practice, trying to solve mysteries on the fallout-saturated sidewalks. Pyun’s record for resourcefulness was also legendary, reaching its apogee (or nadir) with the 1990 sci-fi minimalist outing Deceit. It was shot in three days, for sixty-thousand dollars, in pretty much a single location. The film is not great, but the fact that he was able to even produce something watchable with those constraints is its own kind of miracle. Pyun also demonstrated a steady hand with action pictures. He not only wrangled credible martial arts stunt work out of the difficult diva Jean-Claude Van Damme, but actually got the “Muscles from Brussels” to genuinely emote. Jean-Claude will never be as self-aware of his limitations as Schwarzenegger or Shatner. But Pyun’s Cyborg proved that he could get much closer, when prodded by the right director, than a self-serious no-hoper like Steven Seagal. It's not just an ability to capture kung-fu, though, orchestrating elaborate fistfights, that proved Pyun’s talent. He choreographed some of the coolest, over-the-top shootouts committed to celluloid in the pre-CGI era. If you’re reading this, do me a favor and stop long enough to watch this scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ORRW1qxw8 After watching it, remind yourself that it was done simply by keeping a man literally in harness and having him crash through multiple floors of a building. Like George Miller, of Mad Max fame, Pyun preferred practical effects with the serious devotion of a purist. It’s a testament to his professionalism and foresight that no one ever got hurt on one of his sets. Neither did anyone who knew him or worked with him ever have a bad word to say about him. The critics were another matter, but they always are. Film fanatic Justin Decloux also makes the convincing argument that Pyun brought a flare for Eastern mysticism to the action genre before the flood of “Wushu” flying hero imports made it across the Pacific, and before The Matrix hit the big screen. Pyun never got his credit as a pioneer or maverick, and as the years passed, he lost also that edge, if not his passion. Rather than creating with the verve of an alchemist shouting “Eureka!” every so often, he started punching a clock, doing it for a paycheck. Some of this was down to the mercenary nature of the industry. When the producers gave him a set schedule and budget, and he came in under budget and before end of schedule, they didn’t show gratitude. Instead they simply sent him out next time with less money and time to make the same caliber of b-movie , hoping for the same results. In other words, they asked him to do the impossible, and when he failed (as fail he must) they blamed him, rather than themselves. He became a journeyman, and reached his absolute low point when he made two “urban thrillers” back-to-back in three weeks. He was working mostly with rapper/actors who lacked both lyrical and dramatic chops, using the rusted husks of post-Communist collapse Eastern European cities as stand-ins for American metropolises. And because these things were shot on digital format rather than film, they lacked the grainy charm of his eighties cheese fests. Perhaps German social critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin was right, that aura is a real thing, that original canvases contain an inherent power that mass-produced objects simply cannot achieve. Why was time so cruel to Albert Pyun, and likewise, why was the industry he embraced—the industry he dreamed of joining since childhood—so quick to reject him? Author Justin Decloux, in his bio of Pyun, comes up with some interesting insights. The most interesting of the bunch (and also the most chilling) is that Pyun loved film so much that he couldn’t help but fail. Like Edward D. Wood Jr., he was a man of boundless enthusiasm, but so enamored of the process that he never stopped to really reflect, to grow and mature. It’s certain that he didn’t have the luxury of self-analyzing his work and its motifs too closely. He was usually working under the gun. But it was a gun that in many ways he’d placed to his own head. “You don’t get what you’re worth,” the old saying goes. “You get what you negotiate.” Pyun loved being on-set, staging crazy highwire fights and coordinating pyrotechnics, but he seemed to hate the business side of the thing. That’s okay if you have a toughminded producer willing to take care of such issues for you. But if you’re fighting for yourself—and lack that killer instinct—you become easy prey for those sharks swimming the industry’s underbelly. Is there a lesson here, or at least a parallel, for a knuckleheaded writer like yours truly? I think so. Many times I’ve been so eager to see my name in print that I’ve signed shitty contracts without even reading the bold print, let alone all the subsidiary clauses and addenda. If asked to wait six months for a likely “no” from a big publisher or three months for a probable “yes” from a fly-by-night operation, you can probably guess which way I’ll go. Like a pretty girl who’s been slapped one too many times by her pimp, I’ve got a brand of Stockholm Syndrome. I lack a sense of my own worth, or rather let others tell me what I’m worth. There’s also the problem of letting my enthusiasm, my passions reign when a bit more discipline would have served me well, another Pyun-esque defect to which I’ll readily cop. Looking back on the last few years of my writing career, I’ve completed five or six novels and something like forty short stories. I edited and revised most of the novels, though not extensively, before sending them out into the world. None of them were as good or fine-tuned as they could have been, but I was too eager to get back into the fray, to create again, to spend more time editing. Those books all came back rejected for one reason or another, mostly or probably all for good reasons. In the same period I’ve written something on the order of fifty short stories, of which maybe four or five have seen print. There have been worse dry spells in the industry, but it’s been severe enough to hurt, and to make me question everything from my talent to my discernment as an editor. Like any artist, I have failed and succeeded, perceiving myself as more of a failure than a success. But I will take this time to go back over those stories and maybe those novels that got bounced back, and read them again, parse them with a fine-tooth comb in the hopes of salvaging or improving them. I will edit, prune, double and triple-guess myself, and kill as many darlings as I must. I will find the right word rather than the almost right one, distinguishing fires from mere fireflies. And if I find things beyond repair or salvaging, I will scrap them and start over. An artist only has to get it right—really right—just once, in order to consider him or herself successful. A single perfect short story—Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Raymond Carver’s A Small, Good Thing, is worth a lifetime of struggle and failure. I haven’t gotten it that right yet, and maybe I never will. The best letter grade I can award myself for anything I’ve done thus far is maybe a b-plus, and that’s being generous. Ojalá, as they say in Spanish. Maybe one day. Regardless, R.I.P. to you, Mr. Pyun, you two-fisted rogue. You fought the good fight, and did it on a tighter budget than many a lesser man. In the long-run we’re all dead. In the short run, you had some fun and made some crazy-ass movies while defying the odds in a very mercenary, bottom-line business.