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|October 16-22, 2008
Rockying the boat
by Dale Bridges
Last week, I woke up feeling like someone had filled my skull with vanilla pudding and then forced me to deep throat a cheese grater, so I did what any normal person would do under the circumstances: I sat at home guzzling cherry-flavored cold medication and watching all six Rocky movies.
You don’t find many film critics chomping at the bit to defend Sylvester Stallone’s cinematic legacy these days. Part of the reason for this might be because Stallone has slapped his name on some awful, awful shite over the years (Oscar, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Brigitte Nielson, etc.); part of it might be his recent conversion to Christianity (which snotty intellectuals like to make fun of); but the main reason film snobs despise Stallone is because he makes popular movies. One of the worst things you can do if you want to be a “serious actor” is to star in movies that appeal to mass audiences. This is why balding academics with ponytails won’t shut up about David Lynch even though none of them can explain what the fuck Eraserhead means, and it’s why Bill Murray hasn’t made a true comedy since What About Bob? but he can still get laid at Sundance.
I will be the first to admit that the Rocky series gets progressively suckier after the first one. The original movie was a near-perfect underdog story: an impoverished boxer gets a shot at the title and shatters everyone’s expectations by going the distance. It’s inspirational and cathartic without being overly cheesy. Everything went downhill from there. But it’s the surreal, fanatical digression of the Rocky movies that sort of makes them transcendent. They appeal to America’s persecution complex and our deep-seated fear of a changing world that we can’t control.
If I were a black man, I think I would hate Rocky Balboa. Every Rocky movie features a white hero fighting a black villain (except Rocky IV, which will be discussed later). There is no other way to interpret the popularity of this plot device except that white people are scared to death of black people in America. This is at the core of The Rocky Paradigm. The white man is always the underdog. Always. Even when he becomes the heavyweight champion of the world and makes millions of dollars and owns a talking robot, Stallone (who wrote every movie in the series) still finds some way to make it appear as though we should cheer for good ol’ Rock and boo the cocky black man he’s fighting.
Historically, black men have been dominating boxing ever since Irish-Americans stopped drinking and started driving Volvos. No matter what the sports writers say, boxing is primarily about desperation and anger, which is why the poor and marginalized have always controlled the ring. (Mike Tyson didn’t knock his opponents out with good manners.) It’s this type of desperation combined with the freedom to take chances in our quasi-democratic society that has made ordinary men extraordinary throughout American history.
But Americans aren’t as desperate as we used to be. Especially white Americans. We’re soft and weak and we spend our time shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond instead of getting punched in the face by large, sweaty dudes. We fear black people (and Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Canadians… OK, maybe not Canadians) because they have the look of hunger and indignation that we no longer possess. In the Rocky universe, this look is called the “eye of the tiger.” There’s even a crappy song about it.
Of course, after a while, beating up on minorities loses its luster, and you have to look around for a bigger scapegoat. Which brings us to Rocky IV.
In this country, the archetype of the persecuted citizen overcoming impossible odds dates back to Plymouth Rock, and it permeates every aspect of our culture. This is why Stallone doesn’t have to alter his narrative formula in order to take on the Soviet Union in the most melodramatic movie of the series. When Rocky fights Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, he becomes the personification of the American Dream. Drago is younger, faster and pumped full of steroids; therefore, Rocky must rely on his pure heart and his strength of character to pull himself up by his bootstraps. And not only does Rocky beat Drago like Ike used to beat Tina, he wins the respect of the entire Soviet Union in the process. Mikhail Gorbachev even gives him a goddamn standing ovation.
Interestingly, The Rocky Paradigm uses the same logic loopholes to denounce communism as it does to resist affirmative action. There are no moral ambiguities here. In the fictional world of the Italian Stallion, the American Everyman will always be the underdog, and he will always kick your ass in the final round.
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