Rocky [1976)

Here we have a great film.

From an actor with whom I was so lucky as to work on one occasion.

Sylvester Stallone.

It was an honor.

And yet, I didn’t really get it.

That this movie, Rocky, was so central to the American dream.

But it’s more than that.

It’s the backdrop of Philadelphia.

The streets.

The eggs.

The meat.

The iron gates you gotta kick open.

And the screenless door you gotta reach around.

It’s the machete stuck in the wall.

And the black leather jacket to hang over the handle.

The knife stabbed into the wall.

And the black fedora that hangs on it.

But most of all it is Talia Shire.

To offset the brutality of boxing.

A shy soul.

In kitty cat glasses.

It’s the pet store.

The failed jokes.

The parakeets like flying candy.

And Butkus the dog.

You know, I don’t hear so well…because I got punched too many times…taking my best shot at music.

And so I’m a bum…but I got into the arena for a good 15 years.

And those final four…when I was a contender.

When I met Sylvester Stallone.

I was standing next to greatness.

A great actor.  A great figure in film history.

We are taught to denigrate our American movies.

That they could never be as good as the French.

But the American films inspired the French.

It was Truffaut and company took Hitchcock from novelty to pantheon.

But it’s shy Talia.

Telling a story.  A real love.

Getting up in years.  And maybe she’s retarded.

Maybe he’s dumb.

But to him she’s the prettiest star.

And he perseveres.

However many rounds it takes.

Because fate has called him to one woman.

Why does he fight, she asks.

It’s a big obstacle.

For Rocky and Adrian to overcome the awkwardness of their collective insecurities.

For them to communicate.

But it’s such a beautiful story.

Pithy.  Gritty.

When Pauly throws the Thanksgiving turkey out into the alley.

It’s dysfunction.  Dysfunction everywhere.

Abusive meat packing desperation.

Always an ass pocket full of whiskey.

And just a favor to the loan shark.

I can break thumbs.

But you don’t wanna do that.

The protector.

In the world of crime, but not of the world of crime.

Poor, simple icebox.  Some cupcakes.

Never enough beer.  Anywhere.

And the genius of spectacle comes along.

Carl Weathers.  Like Clyde Drexler.

Reading The Wall Street Journal.

Like Trump…thinking big…and juxtaposing entities.

To speak to the sentimental.  Sentimental.

Because you don’t wanna be known as a whore.

It’s that reputation.  A hard lesson.

Big brother to a little sister.

You don’t wanna smoke.

Make yer teeth yellow.

Breath rotten.

But you gotta work.

To stay in this game.

Train.  Train.  Train.

And maybe you get one shot.

It all comes down to this.

Burgess Meredith like Rod Marinelli.

The wisdom of hard knock cracks.

But we like ice skating.

$10 for ten minutes.

A date.

A tip.

When you give life back to a prisoner of home.

When you give love to a lonely fighter.

Misunderstood.

Rough around the edges.

Desperation of poverty Pauly.

Makes us all a little crazy to be so trapped economically.

But God has called you to greatness.

And will you answer that call?

Can you imagine the career?

Is anything at all clear?

We only know tenacity.

Fighting till the very end.

Hospital and next day Pentagon basement.

Be an expert for your country.

So many skills needed for a nation to flourish.

Trust.

Go the distance is not just Field of Dreams (another great sporting film).

Going the distance.  Till the very end.  Tour of duty.

God, please get me back home.

We’re so close now.

You’ll have to cut me so I can see.

“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez” and you only want to hear her say “I love you”.

And she you.

You made it.

You lost by decision.  But you proved it to yourself.

That you could go the full fifteen rounds with the best.

The best and brightest.

That you could be the shy, awkward bum to overcome.

Don’t say that.

You’re not a bum.

We want.  Need.  That positive reinforcement.

When the whole world tells us we’re losers.

You won by keeping going.  Every day.

 

-PD

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 12 [1976)

Wikipedia generally gives a nice overview of some of these early Saturday Night Live episodes, but not in this case.

Even so, that’s alright.

We’ll make do.

It might be enough to focus on the divide between droll host Dick Cavett (his pitch for “his” Nebraska Pimp book as part of “Looks on Books” kinda sums it up) and impassioned musical guest Jimmy Cliff.

Cavett is that sort of personality that everyone likes.  Always a warm smile.  A wry smile, perhaps.  A smart guy, but not too smart.  Cavett was, in some ways, in the exact middle of the cultural road.

He was just hip enough to be marginally “with it” in a revolutionary era (witness the Weekend Update attempts to cover “war-torn” Luanda, Angola) steaming with frustration.

And so the natural way to play off his image is to have him do risqué things.  For example, the skit “Our Town” substitutes New York City for the Grover’s Corners of playwright Thornton Wilder.

Cavett describes the more prurient details of NYC.  At one point, it is fairly obvious that he is describing the old Times Square full of sex shops and massage parlors.  As always, the exercise of watching this show gives us an opportunity to reflect on days gone by.  For example, this must have been around the time of a sanitation workers strike in the Big Apple.

[Speaking of Big Apple, the home movie sent in by someone (whose name I have forgotten) makes nice use of apples (and plums) as actors in a stop-motion Super-8 experiment.]

But yes…Dick Cavett is kind of like a bathroom sanitizer.  You’re glad he’s there (when the place is sullied), but he is generally harmless and flavorless.

What is staggering about this episode is that I remember a friend from college who (on second thought) reminds me quite a bit of Cavett.  The craziest part is that Jimmy Cliff does a song in this episode which played a part in my college days (funny enough, in relation to the aforementioned gentleman).

It’s funny how the mundane can make us sentimental.  However, Jimmy Cliff is not at all himself mundane on the song in question:  “Many Rivers to Cross”.

Jimmy Cliff couldn’t be more different in persona from Dick Cavett.  Cliff delivers the first great, desperate performance in SNL history.  Sure, Simon & Garfunkel were great in the early season, but they were pretty…composed…easily poised.

On “Many Rivers to Cross” Jimmy Cliff sings like his life depends on it.  The guitars are out of tune.  The drummer is barely in control of the song.  A bongo player (who alternates on timbales…with brushes) adds a bit of flavor.  The SNL horns (Howard Shore’s band) add some nice stabs and swells of excitement.

But it is Jimmy Cliff.  Singing right in tune.  Dead serious.  Pinging each note in absolute perfection.

Closing his eyes.  Lifting his head back.  Singing so the veins bulge out in his neck.  …ending the performance out of breath.

Cliff absolutely deserved to perform the three songs he did on this episode.  However, neither of the other two match the intensity of “Many Rivers to Cross”.

And so it takes me back.

These memories I mentioned.  They’re important to me.

If I’d only chosen to have my taxes done by H. & L. Brock…I coulda been a contenda.

How do we become losers?

Is it from the very first hand we’re dealt?

Some things feel like a lost cause.

Life is unkind.  Sometimes.

But what I want to know is…will it pay off?

Jimmy Cliff was ready when the opportunity arose.

How significant was this performance for the acceptance of reggae in America?

It doesn’t matter.

Those questions don’t matter.

What matters is what each one of us feels…in little moments of reflection.

I’d like to think that I’d belt it out just like Jimmy Cliff.

That’s when you give it all you have.

It’s when your passion raises you head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s a passion.  A hunger.  Of going from nothing to something.

I think quite a few of us feel like nothings.

It’s all we ever get to be.

We’re behind.

I can only speak for myself.

No wife.  No kids.

In school for the millionth time.

And my dreams seem light years away…in the rearview mirror.

Will I find them again down the road?

Is this a loop?  A mere episode?

 

-PD

 

Monsieur Verdoux [1947)

Being unwanted is a powerful feeling.

A life devoted to a profession, and then (poof!)…

But aging is a powerful experience even when separated from an event of displacement.

Let me clarify:

Aging can make one vulnerable.

We are only all too aware that we aren’t as handsome or as beautiful as we once were.

We are made aware of this decline by way of “the spectacle” (to borrow an idea from Guy Debord).

Sure, we can read it in the glances of everyone we meet, but we must realize that those eyes have glanced upon the ideal.  Those eyes are connected to minds.  Those minds have been imprinted like microchips.

With what?  “The tyranny of good looks…” to quote the brilliant Marilyn Yalom.

The quote comes from her excellent volume How the French Invented Love (2012).  Yes, this nonfiction tome is only too relevant to the subject at hand:  Charlie Chaplin’s bizarre Monsieur Verdoux.

This one won’t have you laughing yourself into the aisle.  Not till the back nine (at the earliest).

Charles Chaplin was a rebel.  When it worked, the world loved him.  When it didn’t?  Ah-la-la…  No one can be completely spared the wrath of the public.

A quick glance at the ever-reliable Wikipedia [cough cough] tells us that Monsieur Verdoux fared better in Europe than in America.

Quickly perusing the section marked “Reception” we might come to the conclusion that audiences in the United States did not “get” this film.

So then did we merely have a cultural barrier (and its opposite) in operation as far as world reception?

I think not.  I think that Europe’s humor was forever changed by the World Wars.  Coming just two years after the second ended, this film was a litmus test.  What could be found funny in this cruel new world?

The entire world had lost its innocence.

And so the comedian was forced to make do with the sordid rubble.

It is not spoiling much to tell you that in this film Chaplin plays a serial killer.  The idea apparently originated with Orson Welles, but the treatment was no doubt a full Chaplin adaption.

Yes, it is shocking.  A bit.  Nowadays.  But then?!?  It must have been much more scandalous.

This was the first time Chaplin took to the screen in a feature film without relying to any extent upon the Little Tramp character.  It was a brave departure!

What I find most fascinating about this film is that the fictional Verdoux, like the real-life Hitler, was a vegetarian and animal lover.

Ah!  However…Verdoux was based on a real killer:  Henri Désiré Landru.

They share the same first name (and a rhyming last):

Henri Verdoux?

Henri Landru.

They also share a profession:  used furniture merchant.

It is not clear to me (without further research) whether the vegetarian/animal lover aspects were inventions of Chaplin or not.

I’m guessing they were.

In any case, they are effective reminders about the intricacy of human personalities.

Schindler’s List comes down to us as a hack film because it lacks life.  That is the message I get from reading Godard’s critique of Spielberg.  What is more, Godard seems to lament (mourn) the lack of video footage shot within German concentration camps during WWII.

Some have construed this as holocaust denial.

I don’t think that is the point.

However, Godard’s presentation of his argument brings with it a certain amount of skepticism.  Put simply, his question seems to be (in my own words), “How could the Germans be so technologically advanced (particularly in film and motion picture equipment) yet fail to shoot any footage within the camps?”

What comes down to us today is footage of said camps’ “liberations”…  Indeed, Hollywood directors were tasked with making propaganda of the hideous findings (George Stevens comes to mind) [not that they needed much help there].

And so why have I made this detour?  Simply to illustrate that the human brain is smarter than Hollywood assumes it is.

Spielberg is not a great director.  He’s merely a rich director.

Chaplin was a great director.  Monsieur Verdoux was largely a failure in the United States.

To come back to Guy Debord (and I paraphrase heavily in translation from the French), “Reality has been turned on its head…”

The spectacle reigns supreme.  Who cares if it’s true?  Even better than the real thing.  That is the message of Debord’s La Société du spectacle (published in 1967).  And that message is relevant to Monsieur Verdoux.

Perhaps it was the Letterists (of which Debord was a member)…perhaps it was the Situationists (of which Debord was the guiding light)…one of these groups boycotted Chaplin when he arrived in France.

Ah, I have found it.  Indeed.  1952.  It was the Letterists.  Their screed pamphlet called Chaplin a “con artist of sentiments”.  [translation by Len Bracken]

Indeed, that is just the role Chaplin took up five years previous in our film Monsieur Verdoux.  It is also part of the argument which Godard has made against Spielberg.

As much as I love Debord (one of my three favorite writers), I have to disagree with his early (pre-Situationist) position against Chaplin.  Godard would likely disagree with Debord and the Letterists on this matter as well (judging from the abundance of Chaplin films referenced in his magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinema).  But I must agree with Godard regarding Spielberg.  It does no honor to the memory of Holocaust victims nor survivors to give the sad event the “Hollywood touch”.

Godard has (along with most of humanity) been called anti-Semitic.  I don’t believe that to be the case regarding the most important director to have lived.  A single glance is not enough to absorb what Jean-Luc is saying in any of his films (not to mention writings or interviews).

Ah, but now I am far off-track.  I have left Verdoux in the dust.

But that is alright.

Perhaps the measure of a film’s greatness is how much it makes us think?

 

-PD