Thursday, May 8, 2008

Movie Moments, 5: Rocky Offers Adrian a Donut

The year I was twenty-three (1984), I worked as a janitor for Landmark Theaters, the chain that now shows indie and foreign films.
Then it mostly showed old movies--double features, retrospectives, different films every day or two.
It was a great job: as an employee, I got to see as many movies as I wanted, for free.

Little did I know this was the end of an era.

I love being able to watch movies whenever I want on DVD, but one of the great losses in the age of electronic media is the chance to see old movies at movie theaters, on the big screen.

Landmark is showing a series of UA (United Artists) movies on Wednesdays this spring, and last night I went to see Rocky on the large screen for the first time since it came out in 1976.

What a gorgeously gritty ashcan movie this is. It's beautiful like a George Bellows painting. In the opening fight, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) even wears purple trunks, like in the Bellows painting (left) "Dempsey and Firpo" (1924).
Surely not by chance. This is no dumb movie.

The unrelenting urban poverty, the bleakness of Rocky's life, is warmly lit--even if the light comes from an garbage-can fire on a street corner, or from a dim bulb as Rocky stands in the glow of his refrigerator, cracking raw eggs into a plastic glass at 4:30 in the morning.

...Or from the red-paper lampshade Rocky has hung over his one-room apartment's bare bulb. Is this in homage to Vivien Leigh's Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire, who hangs a similar lampshade in a similarly dead-end room and declares, "I have created enchantment"?

It seems like an accident or a mistake, this fragile, fringed lampshade, but the camera frames it, front and center, in an otherwise torn and dirty room, early in the movie when the battered Rocky returns home from a crumb-bum fight. He turns on the light and feeds his turtles under it, telling them, "I done real good, you shoulda seen me."

"You shoulda seen me." Rocky says this over and over, but nobody does--he's an invisible man. Or they see him as a nobody, a guy who even loses his locker at the sweat-soaked local boxing gym.

But he sees people, and he sees beauty. He lectures a scruffy girl he pulls from a street corner on the importance of self-respect, and gets called a "creep-o" for his efforts, a label he accepts.
And he sees Adrian (Talia Shire), the pathologically shy woman in the pet shop. He stops in every day to chat and joke with her--at her, really, as she can barely respond to him.

The evening before Thanksgiving, Rocky stops in the pet shop while Adrian's feeding a cageful of parakeets, and he comments, "Those birds look like candy. They look like flying candy." Then you know that lampshade wasn't an accident--you can imagine him buying it in the street market he later runs through, saying, "That's real pretty," and taking it home and hanging it up. It looks like candy too.

Stallone blends Blanche's vulnerability with the hyper-masculinity of Marlon Brando's Stanley (left). The same T-shirts cover the same physique.
Rocky works as a collector for a loan shark, and while the movie shows him disobeying the shark's orders to break a forklift driver's thumb when he can't pay his loan, you know that plenty of other times he carries out his job.

"I'm not emotionally involved," he tells the lucky loanee, but you know he doesn't mean it any more than he means his constant protestations that the humiliations heaped on him don't bother him. He absorbs them like the boxing blows which leave him, he tells Adrian, wanting to call a taxi the next morning to take him from the bed to the bathroom.

"To you it's Thanksgiving, to me it's Thursday." --Rocky

The next evening, Thanksgiving, Adrian's brother has arranged for Rocky to take Adrian out, without telling her. She only goes because her brother bullies her so badly, throwing the turkey she was baking into the backyard, she wants to escape him.

Rocky tells her he doesn't care about the turkey, to him it's just another Thursday. He takes her ice-skating and then home to his apartment, where she is very leery of going. He gently lures her in, basically reassuring her he won't rape her (you see the fear on her face): "Is this a face you can trust?" he asks her, and you think, yes, and she thinks so too.

So here's the "moment" I choose to represent the whole movie:
Adrian warily comes into Rocky's pit of an apartment and stands stiffly inside the door.
He, a regular gymnast of verbal patter, is desperately trying to make her feel comfortable, and asks her if she's hungry.
She says no, but he enumerates what he could offer her to eat. "I got donuts," he says. "And cupcakes." Looking around, he mumbles something about having some chocolate somewhere too.

Rocky lives on sweets and beer and cigarettes, and it seems entirely normal to him to offer a girl some donuts at night. This is normal food for him--his very nonchalance on the matter proves how impoverished this guy's life is. His efforts to get her to stay prove how much he wants it to be otherwise. His gentleness when he kisses her proves he's no Stanley.

Rocky bellowing "Adrian! Adrian!" at the end of the movie's big boxing match mirrors Stanley's famous cry of need, "Stella! Stella!"

But when Adrian finally makes it into the ring, the first thing Rocky says is,"Where's your hat?" something Stanley would never ask because he would never notice.
Adrian's bright new red hat has been knocked off as she fights her way through the crowd to get to Rocky, and he sees that, even with his eyes swollen almost shut.

He sees her and she sees him and the movie ends not with his arms raised in victory--in fact, he loses the fight--but with them wrapped around her, the two of them holding on to each other in this new, brightly lit place where they aren't going to be invisible anymore.


ddip said...

Great movie review! love the comparison to "Streetcar." "Rocky" becomes Streetcar 2, where Stella doesn't end up in the nuthouse and where Stanley has some way to express emotions other than through brutality.

And hey, I hadn't thought of movies as the most obvious way for us to witness each other's lives. If no one in Philly "sees" Rocky, then we do as his movie audience. And we "see" him over and over and over again as we run up those same steps and claim victory at the top (a popular Philly destination, even to this day). And we "see" him when we exclaim "Yo Adrian!" if we run across Stallone (in a recent public radio interview, he says that's what everyone exclaims when they meet him for the first time). Aren't movies grand?

ddip said...

Addendum: well, okay, boxing is pretty brutal, but let's just say that Rocky's not limited solely to boxing as the outlet for his emotions. In "Streetcar," you never get the sense that Stanley's anything other than a brute, even with Stella, whom you know he loves, but who accepts his brutality and who, we infer, "likes it rough."

ddip said...

Addendum #2: I just realized that I wrote that Stella ends up in the nuthouse at the end of Streetcar. It's Blanche who gets carted away at the end. Just to clarify that I'm not nuts (in mixing up my characters).

fresca said...

Thanks for you comments--yeah, I knew you knew it was Blanche. : )

Yeah, and even Hillary Clinton "sees" Rocky when she compared herself to him during the PA primaries!

I think Rocky has a different baseline personality than Stanley. Yeah, Rocky can be brutal, but you don't sense it's his natural language so much as that his physical strength has always been his only route to any sense of self, since he was always told--and believed--that he's stupid. He's no academic, but he's actually a genius at psychology!

I went to see the movie with A.F. who had never ever seen it before. Afterwards A. said, "Now I understand all the references to it people make all the time!"

It really has become key to American culture, and I didn't realize till I saw it this time that that's partly because it refers to many American cultural precedents.

I know pretty much nothing about Stallone and don't know how much this was conscious and how much he was a conduit (certainly some of it had to be conscious)--I want to read up on the history of the movie now--but I like writing these little moments off the top of my head first. Anyway, given that Stallone wrote, acted in, etc. this movie, I think he's a genius too!

bink said...

You pull out some great comparisons. I'm glad to have read your writing before I put Rocky on Netflix and see it again... I'm sorry I can't see it on the big screen! Good job!