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The first Rocky film was being made when I was a mere fetus. I’m only bringing this up because when you’ve only discovered the Rocky films at the age of 38, it’s rather tempting to watch the whole series for insights into just how much the world has changed over the course of your life. With a whole new spin-off film franchise in the making (no, not the fight-of-the-fossils flick, Grudge Match, but the forthcoming Creed, in which Rocky will train the grandson of his first boxing adversary) this temptation is likely only to intensify.
Rocky’s release in 1976 came at a rather dark time for America. As noted in this article, the combative but optimistic spirit of the civil rights era had all but completely fizzled out and an awful backlash had begun. A new political type was emerging: the resentful working class white male. Rocky himself is not this type; he cannot be resentful because, of course, he has a heart of gold, and is utterly committed to the ethos of individual achievement. Nevertheless, in the film’s long and unvarnished shots of gritty Philadelphia, you can see the conditions that might give rise to a certain hopelessness or anger. If you don’t somehow transcend this, the film suggests, you really are a loser and a bum.
No matter what criticism can be directed at the first Rocky or its sequels – the racism, the neo-liberalism, the naked patriotism, nostalgia and manipulative sentimentality – it would be hard to argue that these films aren’t important. It would also be hard to argue, I think, that there isn’t a heckuva a lot of talent on display here. Stallone’s screenwriting, at least in the first two films, is absolutely top-notch. The acting, not only Stallone’s but also that of all supporting stars, is naturalistic and compelling. You’ve also got to respect Stallone’s audacity. Having successfully found a studio to buy his screenplay, he insisted that only he – a total unknown – play the lead, otherwise, it was no deal. We’re talking about a man who was at the time so poor that he had to sell his beloved bull mastiff for fifty dollars.
There is a rather compelling parallel here between the rise of the fictional Rocky Balboa and the rise of Stallone himself. This probably explains why scores of tourists every day run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pose with the Rocky statue. Genuine rags-to-riches stories are hard to find and they don’t get much better than this.
When Rocky opens, we see our soon-to-be-hero, almost thirty, struggling against another pugilist in a small, grubby cigarette-smoke filled arena. Even though he wins the fight, the general consensus is that he’s a has-been, no longer taking on any real contenders. He’s also broke. He makes only forty dollars from his night’s work. His real job, if it can be called that, is helping an unscrupulous loan shark collect on debts.
About an hour passes and everything reinforces our initial impression that Rocky is not only a bum and a loser but also quite thick. However, one thing he most certainly isn’t is a quitter.
Rocky fancies the woman working at the pet store where he goes regularly to buy food for his pet turtles and fish. Despite the woman, Adrian, delivering about one nervous word to every fifty of Rocky’s, a romance blossoms. Adrian still lives with her brother, Paulie, one of the oddest characters I’ve ever seen in American film. Paulie is a drunk, he’s lazy, he treats his sister deplorably, and yet he’s there, with all his flaws, totally irredeemable, in all six films. He is the resentful working class white male type that Rocky never could be. I think it’s fair to say that characters like Paulie’s are rarely portrayed in film at all, let alone as unsympathetically as this.
It is, of course, rather obvious that Rocky is going to make good—that’s the whole premise upon which the film has grabbed our hearts. Yet Rocky is one of those rare films in which the fact of its happy ending at no point diminishes the intrigue of every scene. Simply watching melancholy Rocky in his squalid home talking to his fish and turtles has more entertainment value than all of the Fast and the Furious films put together. At one point, Rocky grabs the fish bowl and places it next to the terrarium so that his animal friends won’t be so lonely. Like so many moments in this film, the poignancy makes you want to cry.
When eventually Rocky gets his break, it’s from Apollo Creed, a veteran heavyweight who doesn’t have any viable opponent for the time being. So he schemes up the idea that he’ll fight a total unknown in Philadelphia on the bicentenary of America’s founding. That unknown, of course, is Rocky—his face and profile appealing to Creed as he flips through a guide of potential contenders.
This plot contrivance is the franchise’s most brilliant move, and it has to be said, nothing in the following five films can quite match it. Creed himself gives away the whole theme: it’s a shot at the American Dream. Despite these being lottery-style odds, the film still makes Rocky’s break seem inspiring to us, because, you see, he still has to work hard to cash in on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There’s a lot of skipping rope, a lot of running, a lot of weights, a lot of sparring – not to mention the quitting of smoking cigarettes – to be able to stand a chance on the Big Night.
When Rocky was released to widespread critical praise and public adulation, it seemed that a new type of leading actor had emerged. Sure there had been actors who had carried movies with an impressive physical presence (Marlon Brando, most famously), but never before had an actor been defined first and foremost for his athleticism. Stallone, quite simply, became ripped. No actor had ever been ripped quite like this. Furthermore, he claimed to represent an old fashioned kind of masculinity, one that was reputed to be disappearing. He said to the New York Times:
”If macho means I like to look good and feel strong and shoot guns in the woods, yes, I’m macho…I don’t think that even women’s lib wants all men to become limp-wristed librarians. I don’t know what is happening to men these days. There’s a trend toward a sleek, subdued sophistication and a lack of participation in sports. In discos, men and women look almost alike, and if you were a little bleary-eyed, you’d get them mixed up. I think it’s wrong, and I think women are unhappy about it. There doesn’t seem to be enough real men to go around.” New York Times.
There is a fantastic scene in which a swooning TV reporter comes in with a cameraman to record one of Rocky’s stranger training routines. He quite literally punches animal carcasses hanging from hooks. “Do you know of any other boxers who pound raw meat?” the TV reporter asks. Without even a hint of irony, Rocky replies, “No, I think I’m the only one.”
Rocky is not aware of how silly this sounds but more to the point, because he’s a real man, he doesn’t even seem to be aware of, let alone question, his sexuality. Of course he’s desirable, but to even think so would be vain. He loves his wife: that is all. And he is a fighter, that’s all he ever was and will be. This definition of masculinity, with Stallone as the standard-bearer, narrows even further as the 70′s give way to the 80′s and Arnie, Van Damme, Segal, etc. join the pantheon of the blockbuster bruisers.
But Stallone mapped this territory first, and Rocky is not a combat-robot, or simply a muscle-bound jock with an unbeatable work ethic—he feels like somebody who might have actually existed in a given neighbourhood at a given moment in time. And so his rise to the top really does seem—even if farfetched—nevertheless plausible, and it is earned. As viewers, we cannot help but cheer for him.
I can’t imagine there are many readers out there who, like me, were Rocky virgins up until the year 2014, but just in case there are, I’m not going to give away the ending of Rocky I. But I’d be remiss to not point out that after the Big Fight, one of the first lines out of Rocky’s mouth, as his beloved Adrian rushes into the ring to embrace him, is “Where’s your hat?” (Her posh hat fell off in her mad dash through the crowd). It’s thanks to lines like this that Rocky makes for such great viewing. You always think you know what to expect, because the story line is predictable, but Stallone’s writing is weird enough and specific enough to consistently serve up memorable, unrepeatable moments.
And there’s the rub. Stallone did attempt to repeat the magic of Rocky. Again and again. And so we have Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982) Rocky IV (1985) Rocky V (1990) and finally Rocky Balboa (2006). Stallone directed all of them except the first and the fifth one, and penned every screenplay. This is quite a body of work. In that 1976 interview, he articulates the kind of legacy he hopes for:
“I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism, who believes in the American dream. Right now, it’s as if a big cavernous black hole has been burned into the entertainment section of the brain. It’s filled with demons and paranoia and fear.” New York Times.
In Rocky II, we quickly learn the cautionary tale that fame and money can quickly be frittered away. Rocky’s rather pathetic attempts to do commercial endorsements are a failure. Out of financial obligation he must accept the challenge of a rematch with Apollo Creed. Drama, soul-searching and gut-checking ensue. We’re on very similar territory here to Rocky I, only with fewer memorable moments.
Rocky III introduces us to that 1980s icon, Mr. T. By this point, Rocky is filthy rich and wearing nicely-tailored suits. Early on, the ever-shiftless Paulie asks him for financial help. Rocky gives him a stern lecture about how “nobody owes anybody anything.” When he climbs into the ring with Mr. T, known here as Clubber Lang, he is soundly pummeled into defeat. But we viewers know he’s had a lot on his mind. His beloved trainer has succumbed to a heart attack. What follows is yet more soul-searching and gut-checking—even more than in Rocky I or II—because now Rocky is exploring the meaning of “believing in yourself.” Can he beat Clubber Lang in the rematch? Not without a stirring pep-talk from beloved Adrian, and not without the wisdom and advice of Apollo Creed, who is now a friend, not an adversary. There’s a strange moment when Rocky goes to Los Angeles to train in Creed’s gym. Everyone in the gym is African American and, as to be expected, that seething ball of white rage, Paulie, doesn’t like it. Rocky admonishes him. “Well maybe these guys don’t like you either.”
Rocky IV is barely worth discussing. I am pretty convinced that everyone involved, Stallone included, must have snorted wheelbarrows full of coke before making it. Yes Stallone is still very ripped, but he’s also become a caricature of himself. He’s pitted against a seemingly superhuman enemy from the Soviet Union who, to make things really high-stakes, outright KILLS Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky of course must get vengeance. He travels to Russia, which actually just looks like rural Minnesota or something (presumably because no one could be bothered to actually location scout in the Evil Empire) and, well, look, this paragraph is already longer than I had wanted. If you have to skip one Rocky film, make it this one.
A little bit of Rocky’s mojo returns for the fifth installment. An up-and-comer called Tommy Gun seeks out Rocky as a trainer. But then an unscrupulous manager, who must surely be modeled after Don King, lures Tommy Gun away with the promise of lotsa money, not to mention women with large breasts and bad make-up. Rocky V has a pretty kick-ass ending, which basically sends the message: “the old dog still has a few tricks.”
Which brings us to Rocky Balboa, which, we are to believe, is the final film in the series. It is easily the saddest, and for that reason, perhaps the most interesting film outside of Rocky I. His wife now dead, Rocky gets platonically involved with the woman he gave a scolding to when she was just a girl in the first film, telling her not to be a slut. Philadelphia by this point looks almost post-apocalyptic. His new woman friend lives next to a house that’s been gutted and boarded up. The street corner is desolate. Rocky’s son is miserable at his job and tired of living in his father’s shadow. Thanks to a computer simulation that enacts a hypothetical fight between Rocky, star of the 1970s and 1980s, and Mason Dixon, the current champion, public interest in Balboa is reignited. People want to know, is Mason Dixon a champ of the same calibre as Rocky?
This is where Stallone decides that even though he appears to be taking this film very seriously (unlike the coke-binge/MTV-video style of Rocky IV) he is prepared to throw in the towel when it comes to plausibility. George Foreman famously won his last heavyweight title aged forty-five, but that’s still a far cry from the travesty that viewers are asked to swallow here. Stallone looks every bit his sixty years. His face is as craggy as Mars. Sure he can bulk up like a prize bull who eats steroids for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the notion that he can even last three rounds with Mason Dixon is outright preposterous.
But we get the sense that Stallone doesn’t care. He wants the perfect sentimental ending. He’s still got just enough of the old writer’s instincts to shoot for symmetry and so Rocky Balboa climaxes much the same way Rocky I climaxed. But it doesn’t work. From 1976 to 2006, everything has changed. Where before the American Dream seemed attainable, by 2006 we’re almost sneering with derision that anyone still expects us to buy this crap. I did admire the way that Stallone was prepared to show us what a shithole so much of urban America has become, but if anyone is looking for a “take-home” message here, it would basically be: quit while you’re ahead.
Yesterday I watched Cinema Politica’s premiere of The Coca-Cola Case, a documentary that follows the efforts to stop Coca-Cola’s complicity in labour relations abuses, including murder and torture of union members in Colombia. I was primed for the film by this blog post at Art Threat, where you’ll learn that Coca-Cola sent a legal letter to Cinema Politica in an attempt to stop the Canada-wide film tour.
A particular scene from the film really sticks with me (among numerous very strong scenes). It’s when there is a small pro-Coca-Cola rally at the University of Chicago. One student shows up with a placard that reads, “Fuck Human Rights.” He then explains that, basically, everyone should be free to drink Coke, and that if there are human rights abuses in Coke’s bottling plants, well, that’s just capitalism, that’s how it goes.
At the film’s conclusion, you wish that Coke were not such a corporate behemoth that it can so often dodge the activist lawyers and filmmakers who try to hold it to account. It is remarkable the number of times in the film where Coca-Cola’s representatives are public no-shows; they always insist on doing everything behind closed doors. When Ray Rogers, anti-Coke activist, presented his case at the University of Chicago, filmmakers captured the whole thing. Many of those in attendance were anti-Ray Rogers and pro-Coke. Nevertheless, when Coke personnel showed up for their part of the debate in the same lecture hall immediately afterward, they demanded that the cameras leave.
Even within Coke, there are shareholders who are aware of Coke’s widespread complicity in criminal behavior. We hear them expressing their uneasiness directly to Coke’s CEO at a shareholders’ meeting. You never actually see the shareholders; it is an in-house production of Coke’s and the camera stays immobile on the CEO’s stony face. He sips some Coke (of course!) every now and then, and refuses to give any straight answers.
I have very few quibbles with the film. A few more factual details would have helped bolster the cause. There is a very revealing interview with two very young men who drive Coca-Cola delivery trucks in Colombia. Their working conditions sound deplorable: 13-hour days, they are responsible for any losses and breakages and hold-ups and robberies that occur on the job – the money is taken directly from their own pockets – and in exchange for all this, they earn $1/hour. I can imagine some crusty old capitalist codger saying, “But $1/hour must be a small fortune in Colombia!” It would have been nice for the film to furnish more details such as what exactly is the buying power in Colombia of $1. But the looks of mischief on the faces of the young men after a Coke security guard comes along to see what they’re up to, well, that is priceless!
I am working on a new story, Chat Perdu.
In other news,
Find out more about what the USA got up to in the “War on Terror”. Still 10 months after his election, Obama has not ordered the criminal investigation of any senior member of the administration responsible. And for all we know, the same atrocities are still happening — albeit more discretely — under Obama.
Glenn Greenwald breaks down the issue surrounding the release of the CIA report concisely:
“To those blithely dismissing all of this as things that don’t seem particularly bothersome, I’d say two things:
(1) The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle — all things that we have always condemend as “torture” and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies (“torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .”) — reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.”
Whole article is worth a read.
I have not seen Inglourious Basterds, but I’ve read so much about it to have become disconcerted — yet again — by Quentin Tarantino’s propensity to turn violence into sheer entertainment. I’m beyond thinking it’s harmless fun. Brad Pitt’s monologue on the film trailers, where he smirkingly barks to his men that he wants to terrorize the Nazis and take their scalps pretty much encapsulates the spirit with which Tarantino approaches every project: utter irresponsibility. He doesn’t have anything to say about anything. He simply wants people to enjoy gratuitous bloodshed and laugh at brutal violence. It might have been excusable in some crime caper like Pulp Fiction, but when applied to a world war, it makes one question the seriousness of the audiences and critics everywhere that heap praise on him.
Ever since this genre started showing up – I believe SAW is credited with being the first – I knew I wanted to avoid it. Only the sickest people would want to sit for two hours, enjoying popcorn, their loved one snuggled next to them, watching the spectacle of people being tortured slowly and lingeringly, until, in some cases, they are dead.
Yesterday, because I was transcribing an Eli Roth interview for a friend, I decided to take a break and check out some clips from his films. If you’ve not watched torture porn, don’t start. Ten minutes of this stuff was all I could take. In the most misogynistic and gratuitously sick scene, a young woman is literally strung upside down and gagged. Then, another naked woman reclines in a bath underneath her, and uses a scythe, I believe it is, to slowly carve her victim open and bathe in her blood. The female victim is like a butchered pig in an abattoir. With the added perversity that Eli Roth makes a woman sadist stand in for his own masturbatory pleasure.
There is no amount of “subtext” that this artistically illiterate director can invent to excuse himself from a gross dereliction of responsibility to audiences everywhere. We’re at the point of serving up human suffering-as-entertainment on a grand scale not seen in the western world since the dying days of the Roman Empire. At least in the medieval times of public hangings there was some vague notion – however primitive – that justice was being served. But once you venture down the road of enjoying the torture and death of complete innocents, via an entire plot seemingly stitched together to achieve nothing more, you find yourself in a very, very dark place indeed.
Let’s not even start on Quentin Tarantino, from whence all these peddlers of twisted, teenage fantasy smut get their inspiration.
Here is Susan Sontag on the connection between popular culture and the passive acceptance of imperial powers that visit real-life torture upon the world.
Watched the new-to-DVD film, Eden Lake, a short while ago. It was a horrific experience. It’s rather like Lord of the Flies meets Straw Dogs — a very pessimistic cautionary tale about the savagery of humans. I have some reservations about whether they pushed the premise of the film too far by bringing in the parents of the feral kids at the end, but besides that, you couldn’t ask for a more tightly-directed or more unnerving film experience.
Yesterday I came across a trailer for a new film by Lars Von Trier — it’s called The Antichrist. It reminded me how excited I was by the Dogme 95 films when they first started to appear; von Trier was one of the creators and signatories to the manifesto. Today I found the following clip from Festen, the first Dogme film, and to my mind, the best. Festen is about a family reunion that goes horribly awry when the successful restauranteur, Christian, confronts his father with allegations of abuse. The story has the power of a Greek tragedy (it was subsequently adapted for the stage) and director Thomas Vinterberg does not make a single false move in bringing together the complex strands of the many personal stories of the main characters.
Harrowing, but at the same time, strangely beautiful; over 10 years since it was released, Festen seems just as fresh and vital a film as ever.
I know that I get too carried away by a good debate sometimes, so instead of taking another swipe at RiP! A Remix Manifesto I’m going to indulge in a little copyright theft of my own and share Susan Sontag’s essay “Pay Attention to the World.” It’s an inspiring read about the moral imperative of narrative.
Many thanks to Ezra Winton at Art Threat for engaging in the debate. It was fun. Ezra is the founder and director of Cinema Politica, which has screened countless important movies, not only here in Montreal, but also in many other places in North America.
For a film I watched only reluctantly, and reviewed with even more reluctance (I’m honest here, despite my apparently gleeful attack on the film, I debated with myself for hours before writing anything, because I hate to be publicly negative about projects that others have clearly poured effort into) RiP! A Remix Manifesto has furnished me with some great conversation this week, both at the National Film Board of Canada (where I’ve been working) as well as online. Ezra Winton’s response at Art Threat is thorough-going and articulate and because I still hold to pretty much all my original arguments, I’d like to continue to debate with him in the next few days. Stay tuned.
Rip! A Remix Manifesto, directed by Brett Gaylor, is a co-production of the National Film Board of Canada and Eye Steel Films. It cost approximately $1 million to make, and over the past few months, has been garnering awards on the festival circuit. This week it opens in many theatres across Canada — but the NFB has made it available in full on their website, and in keeping with the ethos of the enterprise, it would be a lost opportunity to not post at least one small serving of the film here.
If this is the future of film, time-transport me back to the past. RiP! is to film what a scramble is to eggs: satisfying to some, but hardly a creative use of the raw materials. The issues had so much potential: the stranglehold by corporations over copywright law; the invasive spread of patent to include living organisms; and the perennial favourite, “what is art?”
The apparent protagonists of this film — remix musician Girl Talk, and Brett Gaylor himself — know in advance the answers to all the questions they raise. They are listless and strangely incurious people, not interested in the relationship between capitalism and innovation, or in modes of production, or in questions about art’s responsibility to represent, question, challenge, or subvert reality. About the most subversive artistic act evoked in this film is sticking cartoon features on evil George W. Bush’s face.
In the worldview of RiP! our planet is teeming with ideas and cultural artifacts like a giant museum, except this museum is, like, fun. All the world needs is to stop with the oppression, let everyone inside this museum of Cool, let people mess around with stuff, and new and even cooler things will emerge. At every opportunity, we are forcibly reminded of just how cool the protagonists in this struggle are, thanks to Gaylor’s incessant use of the word “cool” itself, or only slightly less ham-handedly through visual cues: Girl Talk posing with Paris Hilton; or how about Girl Talk and his girlfriend in bed, interspersed with images of a frumpy employee of the Register of Copywrights. Young, sexy, and dancing = Good; middle-aged, overweight, awkward, wearing a suit = Bad.
When he’s not using the imagery of body fascism to make his point, Gaylor simply bludgeons you with circular logic. “Girl Talk’s music is obviously creative,” he states matter-of-factly. It’s obviously creative because it draws on the “Remix Manifesto” — the origins of which Gaylor never truly explains.
Obvious? Obviously not obvious to the frumpy copyright expert, who diplomatically says, “You can’t argue your creativity when it’s based on other people’s stuff.”
Ah ha, but Gaylor has History to back him. Muddy Waters sang other people’s songs, as did the Rolling Stones — except those rascally Stones then turned around and sued The Verve for stealing the score for “Bittersweet Symphony.”
“Nothing is new under the sun” of course. Who can argue it? Artists borrow, reinvent, adapt — some even flagrantly steal. The central problem of RiP! is one of scale. Gaylor presents some of the greatest hits of corporate stupidity over the last decade — major corporations suing poor little families for downloading two dozen songs, as if this is a genuine battle of David and Goliath, and we all know how that one turned out. It would be reassuring, were it not for the fact that thus far, outside of a few lost music royalties, Goliath is actually enjoying a largely uncontested battlefield. We live in a corporate kleptocracy of ever-greater audacity — wherein a good portion of the loot is swindled right in front of our eyes — and there’s damn little the download generation has done about it.
I digress. It would be unfair to not point out that there are parts of RiP! that, at the very least, are informative. It’s interesting to discover the changes in copyright law, and to learn that the Unites States used to permit the wholescale reproduction of foreign authors’ works with no compensation, the profits of which sometimes went to supporting homegrown authors (the example cited is Charles Dickens sales enabling Mark Twain’s success).
Nevertheless, these nuggets are buried in a film that is a sloppy mess; its very structure proving that a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks method will rarely work.
I have often felt that film is a kindred spirit to the novel both in scope and ambition. Both succeed primarily by virtue of their powers of narrative persuasion. RiP! falls flat because, by any conventional measure of a narrative, it has no plot. Don’t look for conflict or struggle in the story of Girl Talk and Brett Gaylor. They start the film in love with themselves and each other; they finish the film the same way. No epiphanies, no engagement with their adversary, no struggle.
At one point, Gaylor gushes enthusiastically at the spectacle of a Girl Talk show, saying, “What these kids are doing on this dance floor are unravelling that control [of the past over the present]. The future and the past are duelling it out right here on the dancefloor. Whoever wins gets to decide if ideas will be determined by the public domain or private corporations.”
If you believe getting high at a rave is the required effort for Change, or that clicking a cursor to rip off some new Arcade Fire tune is an act of rebellion, then RiP! might well be inspiring.
What truly boggles the mind is that RiP! failed to even answer the following question: how does art continue to get made if nobody pays for it? Brett Gaylor solved this problem by finding a public agency prepared to pony up taxpayers’ money for his project. Sadly, this is not a solution that will work for everyone; nor is it a solution that Gaylor even acknowledges with any gratitude in his film.