Posts tagged ‘patriotism’

childhood’s refugees: Goodbye Lenin!

Goodbye Lenin!

A hilariously touching coming-of-age story, Goodbye Lenin! not only places the protagonists at a contemporary transitional threshold of very late teens/early twenties but also defines modern adulthood as taking control of the lie you live.

Germany’s unification is shown as something driven by youth who first fear an empty adulthood perpetually waiting for poor-quality necessities but are then left adrift by a first surge of capitalism that offers no adulthood at all, only menial jobs that fund ephemeral childish entertainments. The focus is on one family who, since the father’s defection into the West (and the arms of a western mistress), have been defined by their mother’s passionate Socialist activism. Ariane, a young mother, is forced to give up studying for an economics degree and experience the business world directly as a fast-food worker. Her little brother finds a job mocking his youthful dreams of following the East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn into space, selling satellite tv door to door. The wonder of outer space has been replaced by the capitalist utilitarianism of bringing massive spectator sports events to the dull-eyed masses, each in their separate boxes.

The speed of this change is striking. Their mother, Christiane, lies in a coma for only eight months (caused by the heart attack she suffered, seeing her son arrested for striking against the state she’d devoted her life to), but her children struggle to comprehend, let alone recreate, that former world to protect her fragile health. “I can’t believe we used to wear this shit,” Ariane complains, already missing her gaudy new clothes. All the food brands their mother requests have disappeared from shelves, driving Alex to dumpster-dive for old jars to sterilise and re-use.

Despite being set a generation behind the present, this film captures a very contemporary feeling better than any film set recently: how do young people grow up when the world they’ve been prepared for is wiped away in – seemingly – moments? My own generation, awkwardly perched between X and Y, was pushed to embrace technological education (with all the debt that brings) and specialise in order to be valuable as part of a well-paid, globalised, free-moving world workforce, and when we are at the age of these siblings, that crumbled with the same finality as the Cold War Eastern Bloc.

Despite the frantic improvisation required to keep his mother (possibly) convinced her beloved state is still functional, Alex comes to see the tiny world he’s made as a quiet haven from the chaos of change outside – just as his mother is able to get out of bed and takes a stab at reclaiming her independence by going outside. There she finds a riot of advertising, consumer goods, and most bizarrely telling, a statue of Lenin being airlifted out of the city (presumably to the scrapyard), seeming to wave solemnly to her as it passes. Does she realise now what has happened, is that why she is able later to tell her children that their despised father did not run away with another woman but emigrate, expecting her to follow with his family? Deeply frightened by the police interrogation and the likelihood of losing her children if she applied for a visa, Christiane had created and wholeheartedly embraced a fantasy that made the feared communist state a beloved protector that required her constant support. This gave her a meaningful life as the go-to person in their area for help with every small problem, but deprived her children of even their father’s letters, let alone presence, and she does not know whether she truly made the right choice.

Passing this burden on to her offspring is – along with Ariane and her partner’s new attitude toward being a parents rather than reluctant babysitters – a first indication they’ve become real adults. Christiane is able to die somewhat contented, even accepting someone else’s comforting fantasy, because Alex proves he can carry it. In order to camouflage the markers of change he couldn’t hide, he’d enlisted first his cinema-mad work partner and eventually an entire circle of friends to create fake newscast videos. The first claimed Coca Cola had been discovered to be a socialist invention of the 1950s (hence why the building across the way suddenly sprouted the iconic red banner); the second explained the world Christiane had wandered into as populated by West German refugees, desperate to escape the miserable life suffered under capitalism; and his final pièce de résistance incorporated both his childhood hero (once cosmonaut, now a taxi driver) as the new East German leader and actual footage of the Berlin wall being torn down – as West Germans poured into the city to embrace the potentials of socialism while rejecting the soul-killing goals of mindless consumerism.

Christiane drifts away while fireworks and celebrations break out in the streets below, letting herself believe they celebrate a humanitarian socialist unification (not knowing that newly united Germany’s football team had just won the World Cup). Her children will not achieve their dreams of space travel, but they have synthesized from East and West their own compassionate meanings to guide them through the chaos of change. It left me feeling quite sad, actually, seeing this just after the historic US healthcare bill finally passed, among a flood of reflexive selfishness and fear-mongering. Unlike this family, my own generation seems to have claimed a much darker and short-sighted set of meanings as our guiding star.

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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.