01 January 2008

78. rocky

it is hard to see this one with fresh eyes, since it has been so stained by sequels and stallone's action hero career. the years have not been kind, have sullied our memory of what this movie was at this time in history. but the movie is really good, and it can stand on its own if you let it.

crazy as it is to think now, since "rambo", since "cobra", since "stop or my mom will shoot!", but back then, some 30 years ago, a lot of people though stallone could be the next brando. and you can see why: it is an intensely physical performance, with remarkable shots of stallone training for boxing (a particular highlight is him waking up and drinking a glass of eggs) and actually boxing, as well. beyond that, he is imposing in his scenes the way brando was in "a streetcar named desire" -- he stalks around town in his black outfit and fedora, bouncing a racquetball, smoking cigarettes; he lumbers around his apartment, seeming to fill the whole damn room up.

as physical a role as it is, he makes remarkable use of his own patterns of speech, talking nervously constantly to adrian late-night in the pet shop, the rhythms of a street thug who doesn't know how to have a conversation and ends every sentence with a rhetorical question. the script has everyone speak like the blue-collar folks they are, and it never feels wrong.

so stallone wrote this thing, too, and the writing is also really good. like "taxi driver", made in the same year, the movie is about a loner, a loser, someone who feels the full extent of urban isolation that only a big city can provide. and like "star wars", one year later, the movie taps into big universal myths. in the case of "star wars", we are talking about the hero myth, the joseph campbell archetypes. in this case, though, stallon tapped into the myth of america. make no mistake: this is a movie about america. that is why it was made on our bicentennial. that is why apollo creed wears flag-covered trunks and comes out to the ring dressed like george washington. america still thinks of itself as an underdog, a scrappy little figure that had to fight for everything it got. this is why we love horatio algiers, because it plays into how we think of ourselves as a nation, and stallone knew that and used it and it works. and when you use that, weaving a love story that actual is tender and beautiful, that's how you get a smash hit.

one final note: the use of steadicam in the movie is revelatory. this was one of the first -- maybe the very first -- movie to use steadicam, and you can see the filmmakers trying their hardest to use it in ways that would wow other filmmakers. things like the ice skating scene, where the camera seems to glide over the ice without a dolly track, must have drove other technicians mad trying to figure out how they did it. there are numerous long takes throughout the movie that are technically quite good, but also are thematically appropriate in that they allow the actors to inhabit this decaying urban environment and isolate the lonliness -- when you see a shot that's over one minute long and there's no one else on the street, subconsciously you understand emptiness.

contrast that to the legendary shot of rocky running up the steps in triumph, and you see how they used steadicam again both to show off, but to also show a man who has taken that isolation and used it to his advantage, and has now "conquered" the city and will triumph, whether or not he wins his fight.


Blogger Austin Kleon said...

great, great thoughts: I was totally blown away when I finally saw this movie (I'm pretty sure that I saw EVERY other Rocky movie before I saw the original)

7:50 PM  
Blogger ayatollah assahola said...

i agree. although, if you didn't know, stallone got the idea for the movie from the Chuck Wepner/Muhammad Ali fight. I sometimes wonder if he wasn't more luck than anything else that the movie turned out the way it did.

It's kind of funny that stallone's other franchise, rambo, followed a similar course. a solid first movie, and then garbage. although, rocky III, with Mr. T and Hogan was fucking awesome.

5:01 PM  
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