Takes and Tastes on Cinema & Literature

-on board with Thomas Baslé-


I-Rocky,Stallone & me

II-Rocky and the American Dream

III-Léos Carax on "Paradise Alley" (in Cahiers du Cinéma, n°303, Sept.1979)

Rocky, Stallone & me...

 

 “I gotta go out the way I gotta go out”

Rocky Balboa

 

So, this is it...this is the end...the end of Rocky. It’s over.

I won’t hear Bill Conti’s famous score any more while watching each letter from that name appear onto the screen, I won’t get goose bumps when the violins seem to be crying of joy, you know, just after the brass wind fades out.

Of course, I will, but it’ll never be some new experience, from now on, it’ll be a retelling, the repetition of something done, something behind.

 

My words might get a bit confused. I’ll try to make them understandable, but I want to let my heart write down the Rocky effect. So, please bear with me :

 

I saw Rocky Balboa yesterday.

I can’t remember when was the first time I experienced a Rocky movie, but does it matter ? What matters is that I’ve been living with Rocky since I’m a kid, as far as my memories might go back, I’ve always known Rocky : I’m 31 years old, I was born during the shooting of the first Rocky that was released in 1976 in the middle of the Bicentennial year. I’ve always been enjoying the Rocky movies, all of them, they were great fun, and every time they were on tv I would be ecstatic.

There are very few childhood emotions that remain exactly the same when you grow up that there’s certainly a need for me to analyze the wherefore of this emotional persistence that stems from the Rocky movie franchise.

 

What I felt yesterday amazed me. I almost cried. Had my wife not been sitting right by my side in the theatre, I would have let everything out and tears would have run onto my cheeks like sweat on Rocky’s muscles.

So many deeply emotional –or let’s say, melancholy related- factors intermingle in the very core of this last piece of Rocky’s personal story :

       this movie was directed by Stallone himself, which acknowledges the fact that Rocky equals Stallone (a truth that he was reluctant to tell the audience after the over-the-top box office success of his character)

       this movie looks and feels like any Rocky movie, it starts the same way with the letters of the name and the brass wind music

       Adrian’s dead...

       Paulie’s not...

       nothing really happens during the course of the movie, nothing’s going on, there’s no script per se, there’s nothing but Rocky and his personal quest coming to an end, which makes the movie a sort of long and slow travelling shot on his life

 

I analysed from a sociological point of view the importance of Rocky in the psyche of the United States when it was released in the seventies, the major impact that it had on the audience, making clear to the poor, to the white blue collar[1], that the American Dream hadn’t disappeared and could still happen, no matter how dull and grey the harsh realities might be. I also explained through the analysis of the first Rocky, written by unknown Sylvester Stallone (directed by John Avildsen), that the rags-to-riches tale it was opened the hearts of millions of Americans to Stallone himself, who personally embodied the universal underdog, becoming a millionaire and an Oscar winner almost out of nowhere.

Of course, not being an American, I wouldn’t refer myself to this American Dream explanation, but I would certainly agree on a universally shared out feeling, that is the love for the outsider, the love for the unlikely to win, the love for the ugly dog. This appeals to everyone and to me in particular.

The first Rocky, with its gloomy atmosphere, feels like a black and white movie. There’s nothing pretty or shiny about it, it portrays a second generation Italian immigrant in the dark and dirty streets of Philadelphia. This was no blockbuster, and yet it started one of the most successful franchises in film history.

Rocky transcended the movie he was in.

And even if he got a bit lost with the other episodes (mainly III and IV), it must be written that Rocky was following the psyche, the thoughts, the aspirations of his own country (the Reagan money-king years, the anti-communist decade, etc, alongside Rambo by the way, although with a less genuine approach), and that with Rocky Balboa, everything fits. Everything feels right.

 

Yes, everything does feel right.

Just like in the first movie, in this last part, Rocky doesn’t win, and yet he does, because this is how winning is defined (according to him):

“The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done.”, he says to his son.

 

We watch all the references that make a Rocky movie : the eggs being drunk at 5 am, the Marines type training, the running up the steps, the running with converse shoes (which is, it must be said, a hazard for your back, hips and ankles), etc.

 

The whole movie feels like the tour that Rocky and Paulie follow at the beginning : a memory tour... Rocky does it to remember his wife, his trainer Mickey, through all the places they shared together[2]. Remembrance of things past in a way...

Watching the tour with him, we, as spectators, are following the same tour.

This is the reason why emotions remain as strong.

And that’s why I cried yesterday.



[1] There would be many things to be said about the white blue collar in this last Rocky movie. The tone is less optimistic, and the Mary character shows that the situation for her class (and her gender) is probably worse than what it was back in the seventies. Besides, there’s Paulie who’s fired. From a political point of view, there’s no hope. Only people can help, and when they do, help is questionable. This white blue collar portrayal also shows (again) the gap with black people, or other minorities. Rocky is a white centered film, but oddly enough, it never feels racist. It just states that people are separated in the US, it’s just a fact. Cf Rocky’s reaction toward Mary’s son: he can’t imagine he’s the black kid, but when he knows, no big deal, he just shows his American lack of culture.

[2] Cf these lines : Rocky Balboa: Ya know they always say if you live in one place long enough, you are that place. Paulie: I ain't no talking building, Rock. All that part between Rocky and Paulie is beautifully done, thanks to brilliant actor works.

"Rocky": the American Dream on Screen

The American Dream on Screen : a ‘fraudulent’, class-free society ?

The American Dream…the idea that anyone can achieve success and prosperity in America through his or her own efforts. As we said in the introduction[1], this belief is still widely held among the population, and especially the poorest segment. The idea that American society is an open society, where birth, family and class do not significantly circumscribe individual possibilities, has a strong hold on the popular imagination, on the popular motion pictures.

The so-called American Dream is fundamentally American in the sense that –though every human being in the world longs for success and happiness-, what does distinguish the American’s pursuit of success is the particular significance he attaches to its achievement. As a matter of fact, its roots are found in early American Puritanism : the achievement of material success would prove who is ‘chosen’ [by God] and who is not, because material accumulation is linked to formal, ethical goals and restraints, and thus material well-being was to be viewed as coupled with piety, as a sign of Grace. This Protestant ethic presents the ‘mobility ideology’ ( =the American Dream) as a moral equation : success is a reward.

 

The Myth of Success

Richard Weiss defines the American Dream as a « myth of success » : « the success myth has always joined the promise of material rewards to a supernalistic cosmology and remains rooted in the belief that in a universe of reason and law, man is free to decide his own fate »[2]. In a country where the name of God can be read in the Declaration of Independence[3] as well as on coins and bills[4], society relies heavily on a religious system, which explains that the American Dream is of a ‘belief’ nature. The Dream is to be believed in order to be lived…or should it be lived in order to believed in ? What is the truth of it ? As Weiss put it, it is a myth, so that its truth itself is not relevant for the American believers. French critic Roland Barthes once defined ‘myth’, in his essay « Myth Today »(1954) as « a mode of signification, a form[…]it can consist of modes of writing or of representations  not only written discourse, but also photography, cinema, reporting, shows, publicity […] »[5].

Cinema feeds this myth and keeps the spectator in a state of believing by showing on the screen individuals actually fitting the myth.

These success stories illustrate the American ideology of mobility, and are commonly labeled as « from rags to riches » of « from the log cabin to the White House ». It is a deep-rooted tradition whose literary icon would be Horatio Alger[6]. His « works do not rank high by literary standards, but they remain classic expressions of the rags-to-riches ideology in post-bellum America »[7]. Hollywood has been capitilizing on this nineteenth-century rags-to-riches tradition centered around the ethical maxims of industry, frugality, and prudence (i.e. the behavioral patterns enjoined by the Protestant ethic, so that the ‘ success story’ has been a most common narrative structure among Hollywood fictions.

 

Rocky (1976)

The prototypical rags-to-riches American film in post World War  America is probably Rocky, directed by John G. Avildsen, but written by Sylvester Stallone who also had the title role[8]. Rocky is a realistic look at a small-time, second-rate boxer who fights in cheap clubs for pocket money on weekends and the rest of the time is a collector for a Philadelphia loan shark. He is a failure as a collector too, because he is too softhearted to make good on his threats to the shark’s deadbeat clients. Rocky Balboa is on a treadmill to oblivion when, through a quirk of fate, he is plucked from obscurity to fight the heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed –for the title. Creed wants a sure-win title bout with a born-loser, as part of a Bicentennial public relations stunt, but unfortunately for the champion, Rocky trains for the fight like a man whose life depends on the outcome –which, in a way, it does. In the end, Balboa battles Creed until the ultimate 15th round and only loses with the judges’decision.

This film was merely a contract for director John Avildsen, but for thirty year old unknown Stallone, it was a life-time opportunity, a similar do-or-die project to his character. Stallone was Rocky, and United Artists’s[9] well calculated publicity campaign stressed the ‘Cinderella story’ of its writer/star, insisting that the story of Rocky Balboa’s victory (metaphorical victory since he actually loses) over incredible odds closely parallels that of his creator Stallone.

And this might be the very point of the movie’s huge success at the box office[10] : the identifying process between the audience and an Italian-American experiencing the American Dream. Screen only mirrors life, and Stallone’s personal rags-to-riches story matters as much as the film screenplay.

Stallone once said :  « I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism, who believes in the American dream »[11], which stresses the importance of ‘believing’. On the ‘fiction side’, it is interesting to notice that Apollo’s last name is Creed. The two opponents fighting for the title illustrate the American Dream as a belief come true : Apollo is the icon of an African-American who made it through sports, and through the American Creed –and the fight itself is part of a Bicentennial Celebration : Apollo’s pair of shorts are made with the American flag, and he arrives on the ring in a replica of the Mayflower, addressing the spectators with « I want you ! », referring to Uncle Sam war ads campaigns.  America is the Land of equal opportunity : black or Italian, it doesn’t really matter, for Rocky (as well as Apollo) perfectly personified this American Myth that promises monetary rewards for hard work and initiative, this ‘success’ that even the stupid can achieve in the Land of the Free.

Looking at the dialogue itself, we see that there is a bitter awareness though of this so-called achievement : during a TV reporting, Apollo says to the viewers :« Sports make you grunt and smell. Stay in school, use your brains. Be a thinker, not a stinker. » And Rocky answers to Adrian (his girlfriend) who asks him « why do you wanna fight ? », « because I can’t sing or dance » . The way matters less than the will, and showbusiness or sports fill the Dream of individuals who could still succeed in a stratified society that had lost its sense of individual worth. Rocky’s victory became a victory of the underclass, « I can’t beat him. But that don’t bother me. The only thing I want to do is to go the distance, that’s all. Because if that bell rings and I’m still standing, then I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I wasn’t just another bum from the negihborhood », Rocky says to Mickey, his coach.

Rocky and its immediate sequel Rocky II(1978) are ‘success stories’ demonstrating that anyone can make it if he runs far enough.

But what is « to make it » ? What is Rocky’s victory ?

After all, it takes Rocky two films and 30 rounds to beat Apollo, and when he does, his victory is one of endurance and attrition rather that dazzling skills. There’s no dramatic knock-out in the last round  instead, both fighters fall to the canvas exhausted. Rocky is the winner because only he is able to drag himself to his feet. ‘Success’, in Rocky’s world is not so much winning as surviving. Thus, the American Dream is here ambivalent : it seems in the end much more attached to Sylvester Stallone himself who shot from bits and supporting roles to worldwide fame and recognition. Being the writer, he is the author, and one must acknowledge his writing skills, as he was nominated for four different screenplay Awards.

He came indeed from a background of poverty –New York City’s Hells Kitchen district- as well as emotional and physical handicaps (suffering permanent nerve damage to the left side of his face/he was put in a foster home)[12]. Like Rocky, he is a second-generation immigrant living out the dreams of success, and he mirrors completely the Horatio Alger myth. The fact that his film was a sleeper hit and praised by the critic and the Academy[13], shows how the American spectator believes (or « buys ») the myth of success through hard work, brute strength, and single-minded determination, i.e. the Protestant ethic as still being relevant.

*

*       *

The question for this kind of film, and eventually for American society is the same : is it « believable » ? Is it still possible to believe ? It’s about giving pledges of credibility, and Rocky succeeds in doing so. Precisely –the rags-to-riches hero only exists on screen, and cinema may be what is left for America to believe in. But, if American cinema should supposedly reflect an image of America to herself in which to believe, it doesn’t mean that every film submit to such a pattern : the reflected image might be consciously distorted.

 



[1] See note 79 p.24.

[2] Richard Weiss, The American Myth of Success : from Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale, Basic Books, New York, 1969, p.15.

[3] « […]all men are created equal […] they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ».

[4] « In God We Trust ».

[5] in  A Barthes Reader, ed. By Susan Sontag, Hill & Wang, New York, 1982, pp. 93-4.

[6] Horatio Alger (1832-1899) wrote 107 books, the sales of which have been estimated at 17 Million.

[7] In Richard Weiss, op.cit., p.52.

[8] S.Stallone is the only actor along with Orson Welles to have been nominated the same year for Best Actor and Best Screenwriter at the Academy Awards. The film had 10 Academy Award Nominations, it won 3 (Best Director, Best Editing, Best Picture). It won the Directors Guild of America Award for outstanding directional achievement. It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and was nominated for 5 more. It won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association  Award for Best Picture.

[9] The producing Studio.

[10] A $1.1 Million budget film, it grossed $117.235 Million on its original release and was followed by four sequels.

[11] As quoted by Marsha Daly in Sylvester Stallone : an illustrated biography, Zorba Books, London, 1984, p.11.

[12] Ibid., pp. 12-16.

[13] Oscars do not prove a film’s artistic, intellectual, or political merit, but they do give it Hollywood’s stamp of approval, improve its box-office performance, and provide its makers with clout and credibility for their next project.

Léos Carax on "Paradise Alley"(1979)

1946 : trois frères, les Carboni, ritals newyorkais, orphelins adultes, partagent un logement misérable dans un des quartiers les plus pauvres de la ville : la taverne de l’enfer[1]. Cosmo (S.Stallone) est un magouilleur, toujours à la recherche de l’argent qui lui permettrait de fuir le quartier et de devenir célèbre ; Victor (V pour Victoire) est livreur de glaces en blocs, sa carrure est aussi impressionnante qu’inaltérable sa bonhomie ; Lenny est l’aîné, infirme de guerre, tourmenté, il connaît la vie (et la mort : il est embaumeur).

Cosmo cherche à convaincre Victor de devenir lutteur professionnel dans une boîte privée, le « Paradise Alley ». Avec l’argent des paris gagnés, les trois frères pourraient enfin quitter ce quartier de minables. Lenny s’oppose d’abord, puis accepte. L’argent s’amasse. Lenny et Cosmo aiment la même femme, et Lenny pousse Victor à se battre maintenant contre l’avis de Cosmo...

Le pressbook indique que la première version du scénario écrite par Stallone en 1970 était très noire. Malgré son sens constant de l’humour et de la dérision, malgré sa fin optimiste, le film réalisé ressemble à un long cauchemar. Les scènes de quartier et de nuit, l’éclairage, le choix du plan fixe (pratiquement aucun mouvement de caméra) et des fondus enchaînés (trop fréquents), tout participe d’une mise en scène codée du cauchemar. Sur ce point, le générique (très réussi) est clair : de toit en toit, Cosmo et un membre du gang Mahon font la course ; la scène est filmée de nuit, au ralenti, et découpée en plans fixes ; chaque entre-toit (pris d’en bas, en une contre-plongée verticale) est un trou d’air qui guette les coureurs ; les visages sont déformés par l’effort. Et tous les plans du film sont, à l’image du générique, des efforts poussés à l’extrême, mais comme ralentis, dans le vide et sans prise. On se démène de plus en plus, on emploie toujours plus de force –la surenchère dérisoire- mais le plan fixe vous laisse sur place. Les personnages luttent pour arriver au bout de  chaque séquence et la caméra de S. Stallone ne les aides jamais, au contraire (…). Cosmo ne peut pas rentrer chez lui sans se faire agripper (ralentir) par des clochards (qu’on ne voit jamais vraiment et dont il se débarrasse en frappant à l’aveuglette : le quartier tout entier est un vaste cauchemar) (…) LA Taverne de l’Enfer est un cauchemar d’orphelin.

 



[1] Cf The New York Times : (Nov 8th 1979) : “set in New York’s Hell Kitchen in 1946, though it often looks like the Lower East Side in 1933 and San Francisco’s Barbary Coast in 1890...in any case, it’s a place to escape from” (NDLR: note de Thomas Baslé)

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