It’s not worse than Transformers 2, but only because it’s a law of physics.
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An Education is more a self-indulgent character study wrapped in a memoir than a gripping narrative, but its central question is an interesting one: What is an education, and what’s the point of earning one anyway?
Jenny is one of those teens so gifted that her choices and future are entirely in the care of self-appointed responsible adults, and just as preternaturally poised and self-confident as we generally choose to remember our adolescent selves. Her teachers and nervously middle-class parents push her toward Oxford (encouragement many bright girls of the time would likely have envied), but exactly what she or they expect to come of it is a mystery. Worse, her parents’ rigid repression proves to be only a flimsy shield protecting deep insecurity and social isolation – they epitomise the cliché that truly respectable people don’t have to work at it – and they are more susceptible than their young daughter to the charms of an obvious conman who brings a glimmer of novelty and respect to their drab lives. Because she keeps up her grades while melting effortlessly into David’s world of spiv glamour, jazz clubs and auctions and minor larceny, they offer no resistance to unchaperoned weekends across Europe. In fact, they’re pleased when he proposes to their 17-year-old daughter, and advise her to abandon the collegiate plans they’ve spent their lives planning – after all, why bother with Oxford when she’s already found a wealthy husband?
There’s little conflict in the narrative, and it doesn’t even inspire the anticipatory dread a modern audience would be expected to feel at what would now be considered paedophilia. The older man, while a criminal and schoolgirl fetishist, is a bit creepy but clearly not a rapist. Her parents and friends know who she’s with and where and are impressed rather than punitive. The ages when a woman would be “ruined” by a sexual affair are passing, and those few who voice that opinion are patently ridiculous.
Jenny’s brief engagement to her paramour is only a speed bump – she’s able to return to her studies with a newly kindled academic passion and does, in fact, get into Oxford, where she pretends to be naive – because, after all, she’s getting a good education so that she can be whomever she wants, and “prematurely jaded pseudo-sophisticate” is no longer to her taste. Much of her new enthusiasm for had work is inspired by a visit to a former teacher’s quite awesome spinster apartment, a space full of intellectual adventure, funded by the secure paycheck that allows a woman to be and be with whoever she has the guts to pursue. Has Jenny truly found who she wants to be, or is she merely following someone else down another attractive path?
What is an education, and why bother to get one? Middle-class girls today are expected to have more to their future than “teacher, wife, or civil service,” but it’s still a worthwhile question rarely contemplated before the middle of an expensive course of study. Why not leap directly from girl to woman, especially when your culture offers no definitive threshold between childhood and adulthood? And is a degree or two still primarily a bulwark against the fickleness of male partners?
My inadequate answer: if you’ve got the motivation to learn without external prodding (and the patience to suffer through demoralising teachers and fellow students to get to the excellent ones), further education is the opportunity to take on adult responsibilities and pleasures in chunks, and enjoy a much greater variety of both. And at the end, hopefully, you won’t expect anyone else to give or deny you a weekend in Paris.
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.