The Theory of Chaos

Monday, October 16, 2006

Yo Adrian, I shoulda quit while I was ahead!

Why does Rocky work? I’m laid up in bed sick today, and on Friday I saw the kind of ghoulish trailer for the latest sequel-no-one-was-asking-for, so I went back and re-visited the original. As moviegoers we have a tendency to sort of mush the whole Rocky franchise together, so the music video slickness and buffoonish villainy of the later editions reflects back poorly on the first.

In the 80’s, Rocky Balboa was the Reagan zeitgeist’s heavy man –
thrill as he beats the Red Menace with his own two fists! He became a kind of gleaming luddite fetish object, acting out science-spurning fantasies of self-reliance; this despite the fact that it always took Adrian, in her obligatory Big Scene, to shake the mope out of the big lug in time for the final throwdown.

And the original breaks one after another of the supposed “rules” that govern what makes a screenplay work. It is clutzy in how it tracks its various storylines, commits the cardinal sin of having its hero announce his own character arc, and holds off the hook of the entire story – that said hero learns he’s been offered a shot at the heavyweight championship as a publicity gimmick – for nearly an hour. To top it off it is near shamelessly obvious as it cranks up the underdog heartstring-tugging, you can almost hear the plot template, after decades of Hollywood overuse, crying “
Oil can! Oil can!

But, viewed in isolation, it is really quite a winning little movie, and it can still create that surge of triumph. Part of it, I think, is that its characters, not yet carved into wax caricatures of themselves, give the movie power to charm. Rocky is not the likeable protagonist Hollywood usually insists on – he’s nearly illiterate, not even successful enough to be a has-been, and he breaks thumbs for a local mobster. And yet there’s sweetness to him, an awkwardness and a kind of core decency. Those contradictions do not cancel him out, they define him for us and make him more real.

And then there’s Paulie. I can’t help but think that Sylvester Stallone knew someone like Paulie – someone so thoroughly miserable with himself that he seeks people to spread his misery around with. Paulie is a frightening bully but just pathetic and needy enough that you understand why no one can completely cut him out of their lives.

Most movies these days are terrified to ever make you feel bad, even for a second. They’re terrified to present loneliness that can exist in everyday life, or the kind of fear that comes from never knowing when someone under your own roof might lose control and hurt you. Not so this movie, which presents a tiny marvel of a domestic scene where Paulie comes home late and drunk, tries to break off his friendship with Rocky, trashes his own living room with a baseball bat, humiliates his sister by accusing her of being “busted”, and then on a dime pivots and starts whimpering about the state of his own life, saying “
You’re supposed to be good to me!” The movie presents no solution to the problem of Paulie, but that hopelessness is part of what you struggle through life with. Audiences recognized that.

Stallone was an unproven actor who insisted on starring in his own screenplay –studios wanted Burt Reynolds or Ryan O’Neal, neither of whom could have gotten into the skin of someone so down on himself as Rocky. To keep risk down the budget was very low, and they wouldn’t have many shooting days. Director John G. Avildsen, who at various times in the studio world has been writer, assistant director, director of photography, and editor on films, and has conducted himself ably at all jobs, made the crucial choice that I think helped this movie get over on its audience. He demanded a long rehearsal period so the characters could be worked out by the time they started shooting.

This takes explaining about the way Hollywood works: Agents negotiate actors’ deals, which include how many days they will rehearse and how many days they will shoot. An agent earns more money the more gigs they can book their client into. And so their incentive is to crush the rehearsal period into nothing and have the actors on and off the set in as few days as possible so they’re available for another gig. This flatters the actors, too, who can be told that their natural gifts, their intuitive process of discovery, will make the magic happen on set without silly accoutrements like “analyzing the script” or “meeting your fellow actors beforehand”.

Nowadays some productions might feel lucky to have two days of rehearsal with certain actors, who will not even memorize the script and instead have the lines read to them through an earpiece while the camera rolls. And you wonder how movies end up bad.

But here, instead, you had exploration, discovery, and a comfort level that helped you believe these peoples’ lives were bound up in each other. Watch the little behavioral details, like how Rocky will unconsciously start bobbing and shadowboxing at certain moments. What territory did the conversation enter that led him to grab hold of that routine for security? And watch the way Adrian ice-skates next to him – self-consciously, but occasionally working up speed. When is she enjoying herself? When is she hoping to impress him?

Nearly every actor in this movie – save perhaps Burgess Meredith, whose C.V. is too long to dismiss with a generalization – gave the most rounded, detailed performance they would ever give in a movie. Talia Shire’s introversion is almost painful to watch.

Also worth noticing is the way that Rocky
talks. I’m not referring to his famously muddy way with the consonants of our alphabet, but the words he chooses to express what’s in his brain. It’s more odd and fascinating than you’d realize until you start paying attention to it. As he tries to woo Adrian he announces, encouragingly even: “I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts – I'm dumb, you're shy, whaddaya think, huh?” There’s guilelessness there, low self-esteem too, his mind is whistling in the dark. You could see that line coming out of Ernest Borgnine in Marty, and Stallone dusts it off with conviction. He drops caveats and modifiers into everything, avoids complex ideas. When asked where he got the nickname “The Italian Stallion”, he just says “Oh I made that up one night while I was eating dinner.” All the more contrast, then, when he finally confesses, without caveats, what he knows in his heart – that he cannot win this fight.

was a movie about losers. Losers who struggle, pay the bills however they can, never let themselves believe happiness could be theirs. It was not, like the sequels, about a movie star who finds the muscle to pound a scary person into submission, it was about someone who has been pounded on for his entire life, who has bottled up his anger at the world for doing it and his anger at himself for taking it. Who clowns around and drinks and smokes and almost, almost passes up the chance to actually fulfill his potential. And finally he accepts that you can’t get around it, but you can be a winner just by taking all they give you and staying on your feet. Like all great sports movies, it finds a way to be about something bigger than the big game/match/whatever. Like its hero it can be clumsy as it goes about it, but its sentiment, its eagerness to please, is genuine.

Or hell, maybe it’s the cold medicine talking.


  • Great stuff ... You're right that Rocky is a rare breed among American movies for just that reason ... I can't believe there's yet another one coming out soon, but I'm a sucker for it, so I'll be there

    By Blogger Reel Fanatic, at 1:33 PM  

  • Thanks fanatic. Inevitably I'll be there for the new one as well.

    By Blogger Nick, at 1:58 PM  

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