Look at how he moves: the way he teeters between instinct and study, still learning how to be light on his feet. In the ring, he fucks up often. His body pitches without balance, flinging one way while his limbs go off in another.
But when he strikes, those moments of glory are so intense and earned that they feel paralyzing, like the legend of American manhood coming to life.
His name is Rocky Balboa, and I first saw him when I was seven years old, in 1999, on Independence Day. You may think my parents are crazy for letting me watch Rocky (1976) when I should have been watching My Neighbor Totoro, but look at any list of movies you should watch on the Fourth of July and there he is: Rocky Balboa, the debt collector with an American dream, fighting the fight of his life.
It's not hard to see why the movie is considered so seminal. Rocky is one of celluloid's most naïve distillations of the American dream: a man is born with nothing, and he makes that nothing into something. Talent is not in his blood, so he works hard to compensate for it.
And, over time, he has become America's obsession. Rocky's triumphant song, played against the image of him running through the dew of dawn and up the Rocky Steps, has become the elevator music underscoring our own petty battles.
Some of those lists recommend you watch the whole series. Others recommend you watch a select, patriotic few, like that first quintessential movie that kick-started a franchise-turned-American institution. Or Rocky IV, the ridiculous one set to the rhythms and currents of the Cold War. Or Rocky Balboa, the most recent one, because that's the one where it's easiest to laugh at Sylvester Stallone as he descends into self-parody.
But the Rocky Balboa of 1976, a man of ugly glory, was the man I wanted to become—for perhaps no other reason than that I felt, one day, I could become him. He was average; he could have been anybody. He was not terribly handsome. His breed of heroism was attainable. And the battles he won seemed like the ones I could win, too.
When I was seven, I loved everything about Rocky's story. And my love for it made very little sense, because there I was: brown skin, the child of two immigrants, living in the suburbs, and, though I didn't know it yet, gay. Those were all things that Rocky wasn't. But I loved the way Adrian, his bespectacled lover, slowly became his fighting cause. I loved the non-spectacular way Rocky fought, not with the fluid gymnastics of a trained professional but instead with the fatiguing, dedicated effort of an amateur always telling himself to try harder. I loved his broken family dynamics, where dinners would dissolve into routine shouting matches that resembled my family's own.
And most of all, I loved the justification he gave Adrian for fighting. "I just wanna prove somethin'," he mutters. "I ain't no bum. It don't matter if I lose. Don't matter if he opens my head. The only thing I wanna do is go the distance. That's all."
This was the essence of what I thought becoming an American man was: exhausting, but worth it for the privilege of getting to spit in the face of every asshole who put you down. That was glory. That was what made a man in America: effort, followed by sweet cosmic justice.
Rocky was an aspirational model for me, an underdog kid in a nation that fancied itself top dog from the Cold War onward. But what made him so easy to love, when he embodied every American ideal I would, with time and bitter experience, grow to hate?
Underdogs can turn into dicks once they win, and that's what Rocky did. He grew obnoxious once he knew America loved him.
Consider his appeal when the film first came out. America swallowed Rocky like a welcome drug in 1976, a break from the particularly harsh autumn of American movies that gave us Taxi Driver and Network and All the President's Men. Those three films, all nominated for Best Picture, spelled out for America the myriad ways it was fucked up.
But Rocky won, because its story told us a sweeter myth: that with brute force and concerted effort, you could rise up against the privileges America did not give you. It was all, of course, bullshit. No matter: Rocky had finessed the art of jingoistic schmaltz, and I was hooked.
Most critics saw right through it, but some fell as hard as I did. Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, wrote that it was "pure 30s nostalgia," a "sentimental little slum movie," a machine carefully calibrated to dredge up sentiment. Roger Ebert loved it, and he was painfully candid about the reasons why: It was a film that made him remember why he was going to the movies in the first place. Pauline Kael wrote of Rocky, the character, as "repulsive one moment, noble the next," a man who worked against America's better judgment and won them over.
That was Rocky, and Stallone's, magic. Stallone danced between two poles, one revoltingly gorilla and the other unexpectedly dignified. Listen to the way he shouts with triumphant desperation after he's bloodied and battered post-fight in Rocky's finale, clamoring for his tiny, klutzy lover.
"Adrian, Adrian!" he limps through the crowd of passersby, one eye shut and bloodied, the other just barely staying open.The words sound lodged in his throat, and in that moment we are as desperate for Adrian's arms as he is, because we are just like Rocky. He just lost the battle, but Adrian's arms are enough to make our losses feel like victories.
Sly Stallone was not Nicholson, he was not De Niro, he was not Pacino—now-fallen actors who once occupied the same, exasperating breath. He wasn't an actor with training. He was all brawns and no brain, faking his way through it, his spirit emerging triumphant in the end.
Over the course of the five Rocky follow-ups, Sly's ego mushroomed. He directed four of the movies; John G. Avildsen, the original director of Rocky, directed the fifth. Stallone's lack of directorial prowess was glaringly obvious. The glamor of the original Rocky was gone, and only the worst parts—the cloying themes and ham-fisted moralistic tidings and overly patriotic subtext—remained.
Underdogs can turn into dicks once they win, and that's what Rocky did. He grew obnoxious once he knew America loved him. I shouldn't be surprised. After all, behind Sly's bone-headed ego is a man probably insecure about the size of his dick, praying that he will be taken seriously, that people will love him. Trying to prove something to others as much as to himself. He can do this. We can do this.
Over time, the Fourth of July has become a symbol of a particularly noxious kind of patriotism for me. It's a day when we rarely acknowledge our country's ugly past and ugly present. Rocky is just like our country at its blindest moments: failing, fighting wars he probably won't win, but refusing to quit.
As I grew older in America, I realized that mimicking Rocky's upward journey was not that easy. When you are born with certain social handicaps, bobbing and weaving and dodging your opponents just to become a man is hard, no matter how much effort you put out. Sometimes they punch you. Sometimes you never really recover from the wound. But if you are born with Rocky's dogged spirit, you can keep on trying. Behind Rocky Balboa's American dream is a crisis of masculinity too proud and myopically defiant to give up.
In November, Rocky will go to the movies again, with a spinoff called Creed. Its trailer was released just a few days ago, and the response is already rhapsodic. I'm excited; it's directed by the very gifted man who directed Fruitvale Station, starring that movie's undersung star, Michael B. Jordan. Maybe this will finally be Rocky's return to form.
But while I wait for Creed, I will watch Rocky again this Fourth of July—because, like the man I once wanted to become, I just never know when to quit.
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