Archive for November, 2009

Gonna fly now, or not: Rocky (I)

"Rocky" is one of those words that looks unwordlike if you see it once too often.

It’s difficult to hear the name ‘Rocky’ and not picture cheesy training montages and patriotically homoerotic boxing clinches, with the grimacing visage of Reagan forever looming over the spectacle.  They were the Sunday-afternoon staples of an 80s childhood, famous lines interspersed with commercials urging parents to Buy American every fifteen minutes.  They were live-action cartoons for grownups who needed a little pro-USA comfort as the junk-bond moguls…er, I mean Commies…gobbled up and excreted the small companies that offered Middle American providers stable, lifelong employment.  Until recently, I’d never seen and entire Rocky movie in one sitting, and that was Rocky 4, the most painfully jingoistic of the bunch.

But before Rocky became an unironic Real American Hero in the 80s, he was born in a small guerrilla-style film of the same name that was firmly rooted in the gloomy American Dream Denied tradition of 70s cinema.  There’s a triumphant sports story in Rocky, and its name is Apollo Creed – a member of the oppressed minority group throughout United States history who’s risen through brains, ability, and sheer guts to the pinnacle of success.  In his triumphant career high, he claims the nation’s bicentennial for himself, staging a show fight on New Years’ Day and entering as the embodiment of America in stars-and-stripes shorts and a George Washington wig, throwing money to the mostly white spectators.  And he’s cheered for this, accepted as the new king signifier of the country that’s a bare generation away from regular lynchings of other black men who got above their allowed station.  Apollo Creed is at the forefront of the nation’s new ascendant force – and how painful it is now to see that confidence, before the crack epidemic and mass exodus of semi-skilled jobs to come all but gutted the civil rights advancements of those decades!

But this isn’t Creed’s movie.  As fleshed out as he is, given limited screen time, and clearly the traditional A-story, the narrative focuses on the B-thread, the ethnic white population painfully transitioning from the disappearing ‘working class’ identity to simply ‘poor.’  Rocky, a never-was prizefighter eking out a living as a loan shark’s muscle, clings to the lowest rung of this strata, sharing that humiliating space with the painfully shy pet shop clerk on whom he nurses an inarticulate crush.  They also share the crippling disadvantage of minimal self-awareness, unable to effectively shield themselves against and with the continual stream of insults each neighbour neurotically spews in a social scene as bleak as the post-industrial waste it resides in.

Far from the caricatures of the sequels, these characters are sensitively observed, all struggling under the same basic character arc – the need to keep up a reputation, usually when everything else is lost – but in individual ways.  Rocky provides the film’s thesis in a rambling stream-of-consciousness lecture to a neighbourhood girl.  He doesn’t speak of her potential for a happy future or successful career if she doesn’t waste her youth committing misdemeanours on the mean streets; all she can hope for is to not be remembered as a whore, or a bum.  Once safely deposited on her doorstep, she blows him off: ‘Screw you, creep-o!’

True connection, or even basic politeness, is impossible in a shifting cultural scene with no wholly respectable positions to occupy.  Nearby people are only comparisons to measure oneself against and a target to lower the bar on that competition.  The loan shark’s out-of-shape driver compulsively berates the muscle-bound prizefighter from behind the shield of their boss; the boss humiliates Rocky for not breaking a debtor’s thumbs because not carrying out threats hurts a loan shark’s reputation, calling Rocky an idiot for offering a reasonable explanation: if he ruined the labourer’s hands, he’d be laid off, and unable to earn the money to pay him back.  The shark takes a hit from an inhaler mid-rant, the show of weakness inspiring an angrier finish as cover.  Rocky’s humiliated again in the gym, losing his locker for being, as the owner announces to the young fighters surrounding them, a bum who’s wasted his talent as hired muscle.  In fact, no one has a civil word for Rocky; perhaps his longing for the clerk comes from the fact that she only freezes when he attempts conversation.

The breakthrough in Rocky’s inertia comes from two completely external sources haphazardly shoring up their own implied worth.  He gets a date with Adrian because her brother Paulie, who hopes Rocky will set him up as muscle with the loan shark and liberate him from the drudgery of the meat-packing plant, wants to do him a favour while making his sister a little less visibly weird.  It’s assumed she’s a virgin, a safe reputation in a world that’s yet to hear of that Sexual Revolution craic, but that means she’s also a dried-up spinster, a dangerous stereotype in any culture.  (Later, unable to admit his jealousy at her unexpected happiness and confidence, he rejects her as ‘busted,’ a theoretically ruined reputation rather than potentially the contented spouse of a suddenly successful local boy.)

At the same time, Rocky is plucked from obscurity by the media-savvy Creed solely for his nickname, the ‘Italian Stallion.’  Creed’s opponent in his career-crowning show bout has dropped out, and he knows he needs a white boy in the ring with him, ideally one with a clear ethnic identity.  If he fought one of the boxers in his class, who are all black, he risked his big event being rejected by the majority of working-class fans, but given someone they could identify with who had a golden-ticket shot at the title, Creed knew the fans would love him more than ever.

Rocky, pathetically, is keenly aware that both of these are set-ups most likely doomed to failure, and attempts to duck out of each.  He’s shepherded back into line, and begins to go through the motions, dully anticipating humiliating failure.  First, with Adrian, he stumbles through the least smooth first date committed to film, culminating in a problematic seduction scene.  To the script’s credit, it knows this is a horrible situation and neither character is coming off well, but it’s the only, shamefully inadequate, script their culture gives two people to come together.  I experienced this myself many times, growing up 80 miles west of Philly – the guy is expected to push, wheedle, guilt, and subtly threaten the girl to come inside, to sit close, to kiss, to submit to sex; the woman, if she is worth anything, is to appeasingly resist with all her might, but not escape.

(What a difference a generation makes; I was able to leave, to drive or walk home on my own with confidence the fella could – and would – slander me in retaliation, and no one would give a damn.)

Both characters look ill as Rocky bars her way out and announces he’s going to kiss her, and she doesn’t have to kiss him back if she doesn’t want it (it probably didn’t hurt that Talia Shire was fighting the flu as they filmed the scene).  Then, relief, they are suddenly both on the same passionate page, breaking through mutual incomprehension!  But the spectre of how horribly wrong it would have gone if they weren’t lingers through their new relationship even as Adrian begins to flourish under the genuine affection.

There’s no such connection anywhere else in Rocky’s life.  He’s suddenly got friends, all of whom want a bit of the shine (and payday) he’ll have in the ring with Apollo.  Rocky knows they’d still consider him a worthless bum otherwise, they know he knows, and it’s horribly awkward all around how they suddenly grovel for his stamp of approval on their worth.  Lunk that he is, Rocky can’t even properly reject any of them, and accepts the cut-rate friendship on offer.  By the end of the movie, with a genuine connection to Adrian counterbalancing the sub-par Machiavellian efforts of the others, Rocky is able to forget the embarrassment of being used and claim them as friends who happen to be deeply flawed.  One of the few benefits of the sequels is to show that this attitude has fruit, forging meaningful relationships on both sides.

What the sequels get desperately wrong is that they make winning the climactic fight Rocky’s high point.  In the original, though, Rocky’s triumph is when he loses himself in his training, like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus happily pushing his rock uphill, the overwhelming effort freeing him from the torture of thought.  No longer tormented by the potentially brilliant athletic career now that he’s finally putting his heart into the attempt, Rocky is both joyful and high on endorphins.  Here, he escapes from the paradigm that allows only a few winners and many losers.  Despite the heady hopes of those close to him, he knows he’s terminally outclassed.  With no chance of winning, he can only lose if he doesn’t make Creed work for it.

Through sheer ‘heart’ (a boxing term that seems to mean ‘too desperate and stupid to fall down before permanent brain damage sets in’), Rocky denies Creed a clean victory, losing by points rather than a KO.  Even as the tv cameras clamour for the image and quote that will cement his reputation, he seeks only Adrian, who’s travelled a parallel path of realising she doesn’t have to live down to her brother’s insults when she’d rather be someone’s beloved tomboy in a kicky beret.  Rocky’s won not because he’s beaten Creed, Mr T, or a monosyllabic slab of Russian beef to the mat but because, with his new self-esteem and life partner, his success will be a contented little life with nothing to prove ever again.

At least until the sequels.  Dammit.

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Midichlorian-free: The Men Who Stare At Goats

ewan mcgregor tries to make his skull pop out his eye sockets

As a kid I was a sucker for the patriotic or counterculture fist-pump, the humanised enemy representative who receives a grand rescue by White America Man, who is raging against the machine of Evil White Men Who Won’t Listen To Humanistic Reason And Probably Smirk A Lot, thus signifying that White America in the audience was ok after all – because they’re certainly represented by the good guy, not the suits, right?  Didn’t our soulful proxy just save the doe-eyed enemy, making us realise we’re really One World, Together?

Unfortunately, I grew out of that happy fuzziness into retching at smug self-effacement and wishing we were following the enemy’s story instead, getting into their head.  And I can’t help but wonder that these portrayals aren’t salt in the wounds of real individuals represented, first abused and then symbolically rescued by the dominant culture attempting to wipe out theirs.  So, based solely on a triumphant rescue scene that liberates starving, tortured, orange jumpsuit-clad Iraqi prisoners to the desert with no supplies, I can’t entirely recommend The Men Who Stare At Goats, despite this being what supposedly happened to journalist Jon Ronson in the course of investigating the US military’s experiments with New Age techniques well after the most credulous hippies had abandoned them.

Aside from this problematic thread, The Men Who Stare At Goats is an often fascinating black comedy exploring a (somewhat true) recent iteration of humanity’s continual need for mythic superhumans, those whose mental and physical abilities breech – just slightly – the limits of human possibility.  It’s satisfying to hear of warriors and sages who can, after years of esoteric study, leap great distances or see beyond the range of their eyes.  This superman defines the human by providing both a clear dividing line and the inspiration to achieve full potential by trying to leap beyond it.

The needful human relationship to myths officially goes skew-wiff, though, when people start believing they’ve achieved magic abilities themselves.

Goats brings together people of two modern eras when Americans en masse felt they’d lost the national narrative and were susceptible to magical thinking, the beginnings of the 1980s and 2000s.  Based on the real-life First Earth Battalion and the Stargate Project, which ultimately only contributed to the psychological warfare tactics of the US military, the film follows a man rocked primarily by divorce and obligatorily by the cultural turmoil following the 2001 terrorist attacks who connects with a former Jedi Warrior / test subject who believes he’s been reactivated.  Like many young adults in September’s immediate aftermath, Bob feels his personal problems should be taking a back seat to those in the larger world he’s suddenly aware of.  Unlike most of them, who attended protests and blogged furiously and ultimately realised that horrific world events went on whether they paid attention or not, Bob went to Kuwait and tried to get imbedded with troops in Iraq.

Instead, he meets Lyn – a name he knows from interviewing a local crazy / former First-Earther who claimed to have psychic abilities – and plunges into two decades of flashbacks detailing a Vietnam War vet’s immersion in post-sixties counterculture and his attempt to forge “Jedi Warriors” out of soldiers.  The soldiers themselves are mostly the typical waifs and strays that drift into military life, looking for connection, discipline, and meaning, and one spoon-bending huckster.  It’s an obvious train wreck waiting to happen, with surprising moments of sweetness along the way.  Bob tags along, unsure whether he’s uncovering a tale of classified governmental insanity or true superhumans, but sure either will establish him as a serious journalist and impress his ex-wife.

There’s a core of sadness running through the dark comedy, and the film itself would fail if it was merely a Dr Strangelove-style satire.  Only the awareness that this is based on real madness, that the potential for paranormal warfare was embraced by two presidents – one enamoured with astrology and the Star Wars movies, the other drawing strength from a mystical evangelic tradition – provides the stranger-than-fiction hilarity.  Underneath the self-delusions, however, are lonely people looking for an explanation that forces some sense onto the randomness of life.  Bill Django, severely wounded by a single foe his troop of green soldiers fail to hit, has the revelation that even trained soldiers, new to the battlefield, will avoid killing another human being.  Revering this ‘gentleness,’ he doesn’t leave the army but instead counter-intuitively seeks to bring it into the military paradigm as a combat advantage.  It’s as if being part of that system is imperative to his identity, even as his values move in direct opposition to the business of killing.

The soldiers brought into the program embrace the warmfuzzy self-actualisation exercises, despite the divergence from their military training.  They also prove to be mentally flexible enough to encompass both the military setting that has given them a recognised niche in life and the silly activities that feel good and garner them praise from authority.  There’s a snake in this doomed garden, of course, the huckster mentioned above who might believe in his own advertised powers but is far better at cynically manipulating his superiors using real-world leverage.  After a series of embarrassments, he stages a coup and pushes the old guard out of the program, which he changes to focus on practical methods of undermining and killing the enemy.

Here lies the film’s most simple and genuine journey – the mildly brainwashed Lyn, leaving the military, is ‘cursed’ by his enemy.  He feels he left himself open to that by impulsively using his powers to kill an innocent being (the stared-at goat of the title), thus perverting the life-affirming philosophies on which his new identity of a Jedi Warrior are based.  Years later, dying of exposure in the Iraqi desert, he’s saved by a goat who leads him first to an oasis, then to rescue.  He repays this implied forgiveness by rescuing a flock of military goats destined for painful experimentation (and, in the process, the tortured prisoners mentioned above, but they are a conceptual afterthought), and is able to face the end of his life in peace, with his mentor at his side.

These are men sifting through their lives for a core, heroic narrative, as evidenced by unironically taking on the identity of fictional space samurai.  They attempt to take the occasional flashes of brilliance that make mundane life interesting or just bearable and force them to become something controllable and permanent.  The constant tease of the movie is whether they’ve managed to do so, in any way, or if their belief that they have supernatural powers merely allows them to sometimes pull off impressive stunts attainable by meat and nerves.  Perhaps Lyn and Bill have, taking the long way, attained a sort of wu wei, accepting that where they are is where they are meant to be at that moment, and accomplish what anyone could without the cloud of pointless anxiety fogging their decisions (instead of a massive dose of psychotomimetics, which apparently fixes all ills).

The film ends anticlimactically, with Bob’s exposé of cruel and unusual prisoner torture and military experimentation receiving only the smallest, pettiest media coverage (that prisoners were forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur).  Inspired by the First Earth principles, however, Bob vows to soldier on and achieves the trick all others had failed, phasing through an office wall.  Or, retreats into a hallucination of doing so while he actually smacks himself unconscious.  (Why, exactly, must they keep attempting this at work, with witnesses?)  Whether they actually succeed is a moot point; only that the potential they might have becomes a fantasy-sustaining myth for the rest.

the men who stare at goats