Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Rocky/Creed Saga (1976-2018)


(I like writing, but it's difficult. I prefer images. I hope to one day make video essays. With some imagination, you can almost see it below. Please take some time to reflect on the screenshots. Thanks for reading!)


"All eight films remain firmly optimistic about relationships, life, and possibility. They are emotionally honest, frequently looking in the mirror."

Self-Reflection is threaded through the whole narrative: 
"That's the toughest opponent you're ever going to have to face"  is the Rocky franchise Credo (Latin for Creed).

After watching eight Rocky/Creed films over ten days, nothing stands out more than how affectionately these characters are written. They are deeply loved by the writers, actors, directors, and fans. Even when an episode is lacking (or just plain awful), characters like Paulie or Duke or Bianca can remind us why we are still watching. Every character has their own fight, contending with disabilities that often mirror our own. Taking the time to visualize these qualities is also a strength of the series. The streets, housing, gyms, stairways, pet shops, meat factories, ice skating rinks all reveal something of their inner lives. Paulie wears his emotional poverty, Adrian her shyness, Apollo his ego, Mickey his beaten heart, Bianca her hearing loss. And of course, Rocky and Adonis are both clothed in their fear and insecurity, often looking both strong and weak in the same image. It seems impossible to disguise vulnerability in the Rocky universe.

"I'd like to kill the freaking guy who broke this mirror" says Paulie, himself fractured and sharp.

Each of these individual deficits are also opportunities for connection. Rocky defines it this way:

Paulie: [talking about Adrian] You like her?
Rocky: Sure, I like her.
Paulie: What's the attraction?
Rocky: I dunno... she fills gaps.
Paulie: What's 'gaps'?
Rocky: I dunno, she's got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.

Thousands of books have been written on relationships and "intentional" community, but Rocky's summation doesn't require a PhD in idealism, only honest intuition. They meet each other's needs. It's how the characters survive, how they love, and why they fight. Through conflict, failure, forgiveness and grace, they become community, and eventually family. Even into the first Creed, "If I fight, you fight" becomes the mantra between Rocky and Adonis. Rocky wrestles through cancer, grief, and loneliness. Donny needs a trainer and a father figure to believe in him. Together they fill gaps.

All eight films remain firmly optimistic about relationships, life, and possibility. They are emotionally honest, frequently looking in the mirror. Whether a Rocky/Creed film was released in a cynical, optimal, or (currently) nihilistic era, they stay true to their humanity. The series never embraces self-pity politics, but holds securely to self-reflection (and maybe surprisingly to some, spirituality).

Resurrection Athletic Club

The first image we see in Rocky (1976) is a Christian icon of Jesus offering the Eucharist. The shot (above) pans down to a sluggish Rocky boxing with Spider Rico at the Resurrection Athletic Club in Philadelphia, PA. The image of Christ hovering over Balboa stands as a prophetic invocation. Rocky will soon learn to contend with possibility, mystery, and fantastic opportunity. Like Christ, he must suffer through the pain of being himself, sharing in communion with messy, imperfect folk who believe in him. From faith and blood comes his trial. One where true victory happens through losing. A baptism of sweat and determination purposed for connection, not conquest.

The theme of death and resurrection is a core part of the Rocky formula (liturgy), where various forms of loss or losing must be experienced before any kind of winning can happen. In Rocky III, Clubber Lang let's everyone know he is going to crucify Balboa. In Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI), his final fight is described as the last supper, with Spider Rico reading "It is not by strength nor by might, but by His Spirit that we have already claimed victory". In Creed II, Rocky takes Adonis to the desert for fasting and training. Rocky tells him he must go through Hell (Apollo said the same to Rocky in part III) to be prepared for Viktor Drago. While running through the desert, Adonis collapses on the road, Rocky whispers "get up kid", and Donny dramatically rises. A baptism by fire.

Adonis in the desert, confronting his demons.

Stallone's Catholicism is ultimately more hopeful than the "Catholic Guilt" found in the films of Hitchcock and Scorsese. It's what allows his characters to expose their insecurities, confront their fears, and contend with something bigger than themselves. They are willing to look in the mirror. They are able to submit to forces they can't control. In Rocky II, Rocky spends most of his time chasing chickens or praying in hospitals. Mickey is impatient with both, but he has a great moment of reconciliation with Rocky in the hospital chapel. He says, "This guy (Apollo) don't just wanna win, you know, he wants to bury ya, he wants to humiliate ya, he wants to prove to the whole world that you was nothin' but some kind of a freak the first time out. He said you were a one time lucky bum! Well now I don't wanna get mad in a biblical place like this, but I think you're a hell of a lot more than that kid! A hell of a lot! But now wait a minute, if you wanna blow this thing, if you wanna blow it, then damn it I'm gonna blow it with ya. If you wanna stay here, I'll stay with ya. I stay with ya. I'll stay and pray."

Creed II offers a similar sentiment through Ivan & Viktor Drago. An unexpected surprise that I barely noticed the first time I saw it. After the second watch, I realized I wanted to see an entire film about the Drago saga. By sidestepping the current Trump era politics, the Dragos become real people. Their story plays quiet, told visually with emotional nuance seen mostly in their faces. [Spoiler] Though once designed to be superhuman, Ivan is now capable of making the empowered decision to "throw in the towel" (recalling and/or reconciling Rocky's regretful inaction from IV). This choice is layered with humility, grace, and forgiveness. It's his version of "if you wanna blow it, I'll blow it with you". He doesn't leave Viktor's corner in shame. They stand together in their own "lose to win" narrative.

Some of the Viktor Drago sequences in Kiev resembled Henry Cavill in "Man of Steel".
Strong visual literacy & direction. I definitely wanted more of those images.

Who knew the saga would continue like Wu-Tang? Rocky & Creed built a cinematic universe. For that I'm grateful. Apparently Stallone has said Creed II is his last rodeo, but I am inclined to be skeptical. Regardless, Michael B and crew are heavyweights themselves now, and I am already anticipating a Creed III. From early childhood I have watched these films with my father, and now with my own children. None of us are boxers, but we have our own battles. It helps to see them reflected on screen with such dynamism, character, and A1 quality. Many thumbs up! At least sixteen I guess.

Gonna Fly Now.

"If I fight, You fight."


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Video Essay: Coen Circles


Author Adam Nayman (The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together) explains how The Coen Brothers use circularity as a motif in their films - both structurally, in terms of how their stories are told, but also as a visual motif.


Sunday, November 25, 2018

Monday, October 29, 2018

First Reformed (2018)


"...Maybe something as simple as a relationship, feeling loved, connecting with a cause or a person, and truly caring about defending the future is sufficient. Among climate scientists who are prone to negative mental health effects from being awash in the latest, and frankly alarming, news about climate change’s impacts, research shows that a sense of community and working toward a shared purpose confers a sense of camaraderie, resilience, and solace."


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Robby Muller


Paris, Texas (1984)

"When I choose to work on a film, the most important thing to me is that it is about human feelings. I try to work with directors who want their films to touch the audience, and make people discuss what the film was about long after they have left the cinema." Robby Muller, Cinematographer