Thursday, January 4, 2018

Sly Watch: Rocky (1976)

Watched:  01-02-2018
Format:  Amazon streaming
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1970's

I know, I'm as surprised as you are that I'd never seen this one before.  For some reason I'd seen Rocky IV something like ten times, but I've never been very interested in the rest of the series.  Through sheer osmosis, I knew some of the story beats and knew how it ended.  Later I heard it had won a pocketful of Academy Awards and been nominated for a bunch it didn't win.  Moreover, I found out Stallone had written the thing as well as starred in it.

And, yeah, even for the 70's, a standout decade for cinema, it's a standout picture.  Turns out Stuart was quite right (y'all, Stuart loved Rocky).

Notably, Rocky (1976) was a studio film - but doesn't look or feel like one, made under unusual circumstances, including the low budget.  It's an interesting entry in the same era that was delivering Scorsese's street-level early work and would get a very different boxing picture in Raging Bull a few years later.

I don't think you can say Rocky has been copied and repeated, and like so much of the film of its era, it still feels fresh.  It's not a film tied to twists and turns, and, in fact, feels much more like a short story or novella from a plotting standpoint - and that is a feature, not a complaint.

If the movie eschews deep plotting, it focuses on characters, and here they're sharply defined.  Despite intentionally repetitive dialog that's delivered in a style we'd call mumblecore twenty-something years later, everyone has clear character arcs.  No one is a villain, exactly - and if you don't love Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed in this movie, I don't want to know you.  But in sparse, spartan moments, and thanks to Rocky's shot at the 1/3rd point, an old boxer gets a whole new opportunity to make amends and recapture some of the glory.  Rocky gets his chance to prove he's not what the bum he and everyone else knows he is.  Adrian gets a chance to break out and break free of a life that's slowly strangling her.  And her brother Paulie gets to live large, if just for one night, just like he dreamed - and flex his creative juices a bit.

And every actor turns in a rock solid performance - making it worth noting how the film's director wound up with an Oscar.

This is a 40 year old movie everyone but me has seen, so I won't belabor the point.


Sometime during the movie I started thinking a bit about what Stallone was doing and the theatrical and cinematic precedent for stories of struggling, working class people.  For a sort of sardonic take on what I'm talking about, you can look to either Sullivan's Travels or Barton Fink as films about guys who want to make films about "the common man".  But that very real concept of "the people's theater" brought us a lot of what made up theater and portions of cinema of the 20th Century.  Think On the Waterfront to Flashdance.  And it changed acting styles - think John Garfield, Brando or what Stallone was doing here. 

I'd say "I'm not sure what it says that White-produced American cinema no longer shows White people as struggling or working class while seemingly have no problem doing same with Hispanic or Black Americans", but I have some ideas about why that might be.  It's a college thesis, but I think you can fill in the blanks.

That's all a much longer discussion for another day, but suffice it to say, yeah, I regret putting off watching this one for so long.


Stuart said...

I have way too much to say about this movie. I’ve found with each subsequent viewing that it not only holds up but gets better.

I first saw Rocky as a kid, and at that time thought it was a little slow. I loved Rocky III, but really only watched the first two to be a completist. Everyone seemed to think the original was the best, but I didn’t get it. Seemingly nothing happens for long stretches until we get to the iconic training montage and final fight. Why do we spend so long following Rocky around doing nothing? I get it, he’s poor and depressed.

Of all the characters in this film, I used to identify the most with Adrian. I had no frame of reference for what it feels like to watch your life and dreams pass you by. But I knew what it was like to feel utterly alone and not good enough.

There’s no way I could’ve understood Rocky when I was ten. I had no idea what real failure or regret felt like. As an adult though, every moment that used to pass me by unfazed comes into devastating focus. Watching this movie destroys me now. I almost can’t take it. I cannot make it through the scene where Mickey comes begging for a job without uglycrying.

You mentioned there are no bad guys in this film. This is set up from the beginning in the locker room with Spider Rico. After a bitter fight where Rocky loses his temper, they’re like weary soldiers, pawns stuck in a battle over which they had no say. Everyone is damaged in this film. Everyone is hurt by other characters, profoundly, devastatingly. But at the same time, everyone is doing the best they can.

Rocky treats everyone like a friend, even when it’s his job not to, even when they end up hurting him to for taking the time to look out for them. He doesn’t understand how to hate. He doesn’t understand bitterness. He’s not motivated by ego or ambition. The only thing he wants is to truly believe that he deserves to be here. Something I used to take for granted, but now profoundly comprehend.

Anyway, yeah. Rocky's great. Glad you finally saw it.

The League said...

I agree that, had I seen this even in my high school or even college years, when everything is "I am building toward greatness, just watch", I would not have really grasped the film except as beats and how they tie together. While Rocky certainly isn't the only movie that I react to very differently now than I would as a younger person (and I have some opinion on even Star Wars: The Last Jedi and how some folks aren't quite grokking the film because they haven't yet had enough life experience to quite put it all together), I am glad that I saw it later so I'd be open to it in a way I know I wouldn't have before.

Stuart said...

By the way, I actually think this makes a great double feature with Rocky Balboa (2006).

Not that the other sequels are bad, but they're going in another direction. II and III are directly related to Sly's own struggles with sudden success and fame. And those are great stories, don't get me wrong. But the sixth film ties back directly to the original in ways the others don't even attempt.

The League said...

It's been so long since I watched III that I think I'm gonna just plow through them in order. I am curious to see how they work, because I know Rocky Balboa and Creed got terrific notices.

Jake Shore said...

I love this movie. And yes, I'll add my obligatory, "I cannot believe you haven't seen this before." I watched these films all the time growing up.

I would add that Rocky II and Rocky III are excellent. Rocky IV is where the series really departed from the spirit of the original. I loved it as a kid, and it's highly quotable, but my Gosh, it's so ham-handed and dumbed down. And Rocky V is just awful.

I think Stuart is spot on in his assessment. Rocky Balboa (and Creed) circle back to the same sense of failure and even disconnectedness and loneliness.

I wonder, Stuart, how this film resonates with kids today; the youtube generation obsessed with clicks and who grew up playing sports where non one kept score? Like this:

Can they relate to that failure and regret you mentioned; the resignation to ones low circumstances?

Jake Shore said...

"I'd say "I'm not sure what it says that White-produced American cinema no longer shows White people as struggling or working class while seemingly have no problem doing same with Hispanic or Black Americans", but I have some ideas about why that might be. It's a college thesis, but I think you can fill in the blanks."

This is a great point, and question to ask, Ryan. I certainly don't have the answer. But it does remind me of a story from last year:

Chris Pratt was "crushed" on social media for making this controversial remark:

“I don’t see personal stories that necessarily resonate with me, because they’re not my stories,” he said. “I think there’s room for me to tell mine, and probably an audience that would be hungry for them. The voice of the average, blue-collar American isn’t necessarily represented in Hollywood.”

The ensuing outrage at least hints that perhaps honest films about white, blue-collar Americans are not welcome to those outside urban centers. Presumably because of Trump's election and what people in the media business believe that says about white, blue-collar folks. And the current climate of intersectional politics that would likely not tolerate sympathetic portrayals of poor whites which are not either cartoonish or wildly patronizing.

I suspect that if Rocky were released today, it would be deluged with criticism over its choice of a poor, white male protagonist at a time when Blacks Live Matter, the #MeToo movement and the concerns they reflect are so prominent in popular culture. I can just hear the criticisms: "Tone deaf," "Out of touch," and ironically, evidence of "white privilege" in Hollywood.

The League said...

Interesting points, Jake. There's definitely a ring of sense to what you say. Tie that in with the change in *who* is working at studios since the corporatization and influx of Harvard suits treating studios more like product lines than narratives. Even in the best of circumstances, I'm not sure there's any POV they come from that would get them to wrap their heads around anything like that not made specifically for Oscar contention.

Anyhow, I've been pondering this a lot lately.

But yeah, I have no idea what this would look like to today's kids. I will say, "The Boxer" was pretty recent and was well received, and entirely constructed for Oscar contention.