Friday, January 02, 2009

Another Bum From The Neighborhood

This is my first post of the new year, 2009. As I'm still achy from this flu, I snuggled on the couch this morning and was lucky enough to stumble upon the film Rocky and watch it in its entirety.

As Sylvester Stallone's career took such a bizarre, unexpected and disappointing turn after those first few Rocky movies, the lustre of the original Rocky wore off for me in the wake of Stallone's real life decisions over the years, both professional and personal, which seemed to call into question the universal truth of despair and triumph he so perfectly captured in his first major box-office success.

Yet 32 years later, I'm seeing the film with fresh eyes again, and have been mulling over what made it such an astronomical hit back in 1977, when I was a teen. Aside from his perfectly written script and flawless direction, it's Stallone's true-blue characters that are at its core.

Rocky himself is a product of his low-brow, working-class neighborhood, where opportunities are few for the uneducated, and he starts out in the film as a "leg breaker" for a local loan shark. To walk with him through his transition from thug to champion can't help but pull at the heartstrings of anyone aching in the human condition, for whether you're rich or poor, smart or leadheaded, strong or weak, Rocky--both the film and the character--makes us believe that any of us, with just that one lucky break, with just a modicum of chance, could rise to the heights, provided we have a dream and are willing to work doggedly to make it happen.

What's also lovely about this tale is Rocky's relationship with Adrian, a woman unseen by most men because of her shyness and the fact that she buries herself deep under sweaters and behind her glasses. In developing this romance, Stallone didn't miss a beat, which is why women adored this film as much as men did, as many of us could see ourselves in Adrian. She perhaps wasn't a standard beauty at first, but love ultimately morphed her into the beauty she was all along (surely a skilled acting turn for Talia Shire).

As the story unfolds, we begin to see what Rocky sees. Her skin is peaches and cream; her hair is flaxen; her eyes are innocent and pure. And never once in the film is Rocky not sensitive to her plight. Back in 1977, and right up until this day in fact, it's a relief to see a love story where the female protagonist isn't a Hollywood beauty distorted to look ugly, like Charlize Theron in Monster. While Theron's transformation into brutishness was masterful, while her acting was impeccable, we all knew while watching the film that at the Red Carpet event touting its release, Theron would go back to being a stunner.

Would an actress who really looked like Aileen Wournos have been given the chance to make the film? Of course not, which is why it's so touching that Stallone even cast Shire. She's real-life pretty--at times looking haggard and older than her years, and at others, positively luminescent.

That's why it was such a disappointment that in real life, Stallone abandoned his longtime marriage and hooked up with a string of Hollywood starlets and models, seeming to discard the very life lesson he taught us, which is that undiscovered feminine beauty (and masculine beauty, for that matter) is all around us if we only have the eyes to see it.

Perhaps the most poignant scene in Rocky is the night before the big fight, where he lies in bed with Adrian, saying that no matter whether he wins or loses, he will always feel like "just another bum from the neighborhood."

To those of us who grew up in the likes of Rocky's environs (in his case, the row houses of Philadelphia, and in my own, the streets of Newark), a little of that always lingers, no matter how far or wide we stray, and when Rocky made these utterances, he hit a very old, very personal nerve.

This unending decade of physical trials (which actually started long before 1999) has often tapped into some vague dread of mine that I will never really triumph over my own worst fears about myself--that I'm one of the chosen few who simply gets barraged with unfortunate events because of some unspoken demon curse that hangs around my neck like an anchor in a stormy sea, forcing me to battle ceaselessly the elements and live a life that, at times, has made me wonder if it's even worth staying alive for.

But then today there was Rocky, running along the Philly waterfront in his tattered clothes, towards a future where his own unlucky streak could change on a dime, and in a sense, already had in his newfound romance with Adrian. He had the eyes to see the possibility in her, which opened his eyes to see the possibilities within himself.

What I also love about the film is the element of chance, which plays like a central character. In looking through the pictures of amateur boxers to fight, Apollo Creed could have easily missed Rocky's photograph and chosen another. But Creed stumbled upon the Italian Stallion, and so Rocky got his chance to prove to himself, and us, that winners are made, not born, provided we have the courage to say yes to life.

Roman philosopher Senaca said that "luck happens when opportunity meets preparation." But even opportunity itself can often be random, and some of us get more of it than others.

Rocky could have just as easily continued with his leg-breaking career, save for the break of a different kind--a chance to beat the heavyweight champ of the world, which, let's face it, has as much of a chance happening to some poor soul as getting struck by lightening, probably less. That's why they call it luck; it doesn't happen often. And in this case, that's why they call it fiction.

I've been weepy today, probably because I've run out of painkillers and because I have the flu on top of everything else. But the tears started after Rocky did his majestic stair-climb, when it was clear that his luck (and the luck of Sylvester Stallone for that matter) had turned for the better.

I suppose I could take my own long run along the Hoboken waterfront, then charge up the stairs of City Hall while listening to the Rocky theme on my MP3 player, but I'm a bit out of shape. My flamenco dance lessons start next week for an intensive month of study, which will be a challenge for a body that's been so sedentary for the past year.

Back in the days when I had a break in the pain, I remember walking through the Broadway district one afternoon after a lesson to go buy a new flamenco skirt. I remember thinking, "Wow, I'm a dancer in New York. I'm doing it. I never even knew that I wanted to do this, but I'm right here, right now, and it feels amazing."

That was my own moment of Rocky-like victory, and one I intend to have again.

Pan shot to me doing some flamenco victory spins in Times Square.


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