Sunday, January 25, 2009

Yo, Rocky

Yesterday being one of those days where one needs to take things slooooow (know what I mean?), I came upon the last half hour of Rocky and the first half hour of Rocky II on AMC, that once-estimable channel. I have gone on record arguing that Rocky IV is a telling crystallization of certain liberal-militarist public sentiment (or hegemony) but I don't recall if I've ever written a word about the other films in the series. (And I didn't see Rocky Balboa.) I don't want to argue in favor of the Rocky movies; I don't think they're underrated. But I do think that the first two movies exhibit some small virtues that were once common in popular film, and are now exceptional.

White ethnicity, that is, working class 'whiteness' that is markedly separate from WASPishness within that larger category, seems to get no play in movies anymore. (I welcome counter-examples: this is my impression, not a categorical claim to fact.) Irish kids from Southie seem to be the rare exceptions; but semi-literate neighborhood wiseguys (Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Greek) trying to make a buck? Puh-leeze. To represent a character like this today, I feel, one would need to forestall him having charisma, and one would try to tie all his intelligence to his literacy. But Rocky is the kind of people marked by slang, local dialect, streetwise ways of not only of communicating to other people, but of conceptualizing one's own relationship to other sentient beings. The scene with the realtor in Rocky II is entertaining for this reason. Of course American English is becoming ever more standardized (but not more beautiful or learned) and we are impoverished for it, though it suits the new business mold and its functions in global commerce, where various Englishes must cohere to aid transactions.

(Let's recall, too, that Andy Rector's blog is called Kino-Slang, and he explains why in one of his very first posts...)

The entire Rocky series is a fairytale but its roots are in the working-class everyday. It's a story about proletarian self-improvement, the kinds of things about which Jacques Rancière sometimes writes. Contrast this with Good Will Hunting, which is also about proletarian self-improvement, but on a much more fantastic level. The scene in the Van Sant film where Matt Damon tells off the ponytailed grad student by overwhelming him with knowledge is pure wish-fulfilment. The janitor-bricklayer asserts himself over the upper/middle-class guy via mastery of the area conventionally held by the latter. Rocky himself jumps into the wealth, too, but it's through a different route: work hard, keep your head down, and if you get lucky, you get lucky. Will Hunting, in the Clinton '90s, first holds a job where he cleans floors at MIT—of all the places to clean—and then when he quits it, he can work construction. Bills aren't a problem. Rocky Balboa, on the other hand, aspires to a desk job (and its concomitant financial security) which he can't get, and must beg around for menial labor in the recession '70s. He gets a job hauling beef and promptly loses it for reasons of budget. Choices are made, in Rocky and Rocky II, on the basis of a dream, sure, but also in light of setting food on the table; the latter in the contemporary-liberal "working class" Hollywood fantasy is more likely to be excised from the picture, replaced with pap about realizing one's true potential, etc.

One more thing: the scene in Rocky II where Rocky's got to read off of cue cards while he's filming an ad for aftershave. "It—makes—me—smeel mainly." When he's chastised for misreading, Rocky yos his way into a defense: 'Does this stuff smell manly to you? In my opinion it doesn't smell very manly.' This is something vestigial, and something which I feel like I never see in commercial movies these days (and perhaps not in culture more generally, as refuge from billboards and big box stores is, in America, the privilege of the rich only): working-class incredulity towards advertisements and commercialism. This is different from the middle-class activism against these things, which is often couched in terms of renunciation of an omnipresent vermin on our quotidian existence, a blight on the life we deserve. Working-class incredulity comes from the perspective of the little guy knowing full well he's on the losing end of a rigged con; it's more pessimistic, maybe defeatist, but has a harder core because it's not necessarily a "political" cause.


Joel Bocko said...

This is an excellent post. I wonder if the roots of the lessening class consciousness comes, not so much from society changing (it hasn't changed THAT much) as from creative types being culled further and further from the working class or, if they come from there, being too fully "assimilated" into the educated elite through higher education and the ghettoization of intellectuals.

And oddly - or not so oddly - enough, the decline of a more "real" perspective in films coincided with the rise of the Reagan Democrats, in which the working-class ceased to be a full-fledged member of the liberal community, i.e. ceased to rub shoulders with the academic types in any meaningful way.

I don't know; just speculation here - but this was a very thought-provoking write-up.

Anonymous said...

hey Zach,

If anything, this is the reverse of what you pointed out (Rocky's cool rejoinder about his "mainliness") but this made me laugh (sadly) and your post came to mind. Maybe because I'm a Philadelphian, the inner Rocky in me let out a "yo!" when I read this in the NYTimes, in a popular article (it's on that stupid sidebar that lists the paper's often stupid most-emailed articles) on lithium in Bolivia:

--Workers here were in a frenzy to meet that goal during late January, laboring under the sun around half-finished walls of brick. Over a meal of llama stew and a Pepsi, Marcelo Castro, 48, the manager overseeing the project, explained that along with processing lithium, the plant had another objective.

“Of course, lithium is the mineral that will lead us to the post-petroleum era,” Mr. Castro said. “But in order to go down that road, we must raise the revolutionary consciousness of our people, starting on the floor of this very factory.”-----

blah blah revolution, worker blah; that llama stew must taste like shit without a pepsi to wash it down!

And the final, moving paragraph of the piece:

--“I’ve heard of the lithium, but I only hope it creates work for us,” said Pedro Camata, 19, his face shielded from the unforgiving sun by a ski mask and cheap sunglasses covering his eyes. “Without work out here, one is dead.”---

cheap sunglasses suck. really though, am I pessimistic nut to respond in this way? The word "pepsi" was hyperlinked!

blog on,


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