Wednesday, January 11, 2012

UNLEARNING THE TOP 10 CONSERVATIVE LESSONS OF ROCKY IV

Forget the politics, how are these two motherfuckers even in the same weight class?

I'm no stranger to banging the drums for weird, or even bad, movies. Two of the most enduringly popular posts in the history of this blog are the one consisting in large (and aesthetically central) part with advocating for Ocean's Twelve as the great unappreciated studio picture of our time, and the one where I discussed my lifelong love for the cinema of Chris Tucker. Tilting at windmills is shitloads of fun: Cervantes was on that hundreds of fucking years ago, and all he did was coin the phrase, not the concept. But the important thing to remember in all this is that down is not up, making an idiosyncratic critical argument requires a critical approach, and that assumptions are not facts. Not even that whole “come on, let's keep it real, we all know [x]” fallacy, where x = a simplistic generalization based on a cynical, pessimistic assumption masquerading as realism.

Also, we need to be careful to remember that movies are movies, not containers into which we can pour our political biases. This brings me to a post on the blog Big Hollywood, wherein the writer outlined the Top 10 Conservative Lessons of Rocky IV. It violates every single principle listed above. It posits that reality is something other than it is. It presents assumptions and opinions as facts, with plenty of “come on, we all know” bullshit. And nine of them are completely untrue.

Before breaking down the list, a bit of historical context is necessary. Rocky IV came out in 1985, the first year of Ronald Reagan's second term, which he won in one of the biggest electoral landslides in American history. There was no way of knowing that in only a couple years, Communism would collapse, and so popular culture was consumed with the Cold War and the Soviet threat. Not only the fight against Communism but money and cocaine as well pushed Hollywood rightward, and the industry cranked out movies where American supermen prevailed over all odds. Sometimes they explicitly fought Commies, sometimes proxies. But Rocky IV fell squarely within that trend, with Sly appropriating Rocky to, like his Rambo franchise, fight Commies. Considering Sly's success at the box office, and the theme, this may have been the easiest green light in the history of Hollywood (and, given the climate, getting the studio to sign off on the line “Hey, we don't keep our people behind a wall with machine guns” was not even a thing that needed to be done, so if the writer ever gets to ask Sly how he pulled that off, she should expect a blank stare). It was not a rebellious island in a sea of craven liberal capitulation to the Soviet beast. It was a conservative movie in multiple senses of the term. That understood, let us proceed:


“1—Communism (let me be succinct and find the right word here) sucks.”

We can skip the assertion that the assertion that Rocky IV is the greatest movie of all time is not an opinion but fact, because as much as I could get all bent out of shape about logical fallacies and the difference between opinion and fact, the writer was kidding, to a certain extent. And this is the one lesson that doesn't have a rebuttal. Communism, in every practical application, did suck. As a philosophy, it's like running the wrong operating system on a computer. Even though it's possible to split hairs and point out (as countless college freshmen have) that all of the ostensibly Communist regimes in history have been top-down dictatorships where ultimately one dude was in charge, and that “pure” Communism has never been implemented, pure Communism is completely untenable outside small, completely homogenous groups, because it's one of those things that sounds cool in theory but is completely antithetical to human nature in practice. Which is why everyone who wanted to try it made a couple strategic edits to the philosophy, and brought guns.

Problem is, a lot of anti-Communists didn't know when to leave well enough alone, and attributed every perfidious act by every person in every Communist regime to Communism as a philosophy. The writer mentions the Russians cheating and shooting Dolph up with drugs, which Sly didn't just pull out of his ass. The Soviets and other Eastern Bloc countries did that shit all the time. But it had nothing to do with Marx. It had to do with people living in a system that was simultaneously fundamentally broken and obsessed with the glory of the state. That desperation backed people into corners where they had to make the choice between being unethical or facing pretty severe consequences. This isn't exactly a contradiction of the drugged-up Dolph point, it's more that when you imagine Dolph as existing in a real world, he's someone to be pitied rather than loathed. That said, the assumption that, in the 80s, he'd be on his way to a Siberian labor camp just for losing to Rocky is faulty. He might not have even been sent to Siberia for his outburst of cartoonish individualism—I mean, if he'd pulled that shit during the Stalin era someone would have shot him in the head in the ring, but then again, if it was the Stalin era, Rocky wouldn't have been allowed into Russia in the first place—either. Nothing terribly fun would have happened to him. Dolph's life would have sucked til Communism fell, but the likelihood of it sucking somewhere relatively near Moscow or Leningrad was better than you'd think.

One final point about lesson 1: the assumption of knowledge of Brigitte Nielsen's character's inner life is entirely without merit. You'd need to perform feats of rhetorical alchemy to convince me that her character had an inner life at all, let alone that her leaving Dolph was a fait accompli. Assumption, not fact.


“2—There are wealthy people who are also (gasp!) perfectly good people.”

This is where the lessons devolve into silliness. It's easier to count mainstream Hollywood movies without wealthy or well-off protagonists than it is ones with same. Just about the entire romantic comedy genre is either about rich women trying to find love or not necessarily rich women trying to find love with rich guys. The default state for protagonists, in any mainstream genre, unless the plot requires otherwise, is to be middle class. Sure, middle class people aren't rich, but they are privileged. Material success is portrayed in Hollywood as either matter of fact, or aspirational. To assert otherwise requires a lot of cherry-picking, carefully ignoring almost every movie released by a major studio.

I'm not going to touch the literal reading of this assertion, that there are wealthy people who are perfect at being good. That would be excessive shit-starting. Also, all evil white guys in suits jokes aside, it is theoretically possible that there is a wealthy person out there who is perfectly good. But I highly doubt s/he would vote Republican.


“3—Traditional family values are beautiful.”

They're also a myth. Concocted by Hollywood. The mythical 1950s-ish world to which conservatives want to “return” never existed. Getting married and being loyal to your spouse is good, but it is not the most important thing in the world. And there is no conflict whatsoever between straight people getting married to each other and gay people getting married to each other. Marriage is an affirmation of the strength of one's bond with one's partner. Note the absence of gender pronouns there.

Also, Rocky is a guy who punches people. The reason why he's the avatar of the American way in Rocky IV is because Sly wrote a script where Rocky is the avatar of the American way, and Sly did so because Sly was going to be directing Sly in the lead role. He has a wife because his relationship with Adrian generated audience sympathy in the first movie. The reason she's in the fourth movie is because she was in the first three. She does not help Rocky punch people.


“4—Patriotism.”

All fine and good. America's pretty rad, no argument there. But . . . wait a minute, what comes next?

“Three words: APOLLO 'effing CREED.”

Oh, boy. This is followed by a whole bunch of bullshit about how awesome it is that Apollo Creed loves his country and drives liberals crazy because he's wearing red, white, and blue. That didn't really bug me, but I'm not a “liberal,” which must explain that. What's telling is the writer going on and on about Apollo Creed being “[o]ne of cinematic history's greatest characters, period” because he doesn't care about racism, ignoring a couple important points, first that he's not a real person, and second, that he's a fictional character written by a white guy. Apollo Creed not feeling like he's the victim of racism is because a white guy doesn't feel like Apollo Creed is a victim of racism. This lessens the impact of Apollo's patriotism a bit, and makes the next lesson—


“5—Color-blind race relations are the way to go.”

—even more ridiculous, which is impressive considering how stupid the last one was. This whole “color-blind” fallacy is not unique to conservatives, but conservatives have massive boners for it. For a bunch of purportedly grounded realists, claiming that ignoring race is, ipso facto, eradicating racism is like sticking your fingers in your ears and going “LALALALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU RACISM LOOK I SHUT MY EYES TOO SO I CAN'T SEE YOU SO YOU AREN'T THERE LALALALALA.” The worst part is, none of the accompanying text with this lesson in any way refutes the existence of institutional racism. Apollo training Rocky to beat Clubber Lang doesn't refute shit. Clubber Lang was a fucking asshole. But was he a fucking asshole inherently, or was he made that way experientially by a country that hated him on principle from birth? Would Apollo Creed have still chosen to be a boxer if he'd known there were other options? Muhammad Ali became a boxer basically because he had to, and Muhammad Ali was the basis for Apollo Creed in the first movie, which was inspired by the 1975 fight in which Chuck Wepner took Ali 15 rounds. It should be noted that Muhammad Ali never subsequently trained Chuck Wepner, and until Parkinson's robbed him of his ability to speak as freely as he once did, he was as outspoken a critic of institutional racism as ever existed in American public life. Turning Muhammad Ali into Apollo Creed and writing him further and further into compliant, apolitical impotence as Sly did over the course of the Rocky series is borderline sinister (writing it off to intellectual laziness, which I do, is extremely generous), and then killing him off to get the audience on Rocky's side is sickeningly fucking gratuitous.


“6—There is no room for moral relativism.”

Well, sure. It's propaganda. Actually what I think the writer might mean is: “There is no room to disagree with what I'm saying.” But this is also clearly not the case. What have I been doing thus far?


“7—Faith in God is paramount.”

No, faith in God is Warner Bros. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh man am I the best or am I the best. Seriously, though, Rocky is a guy who punches people. God doesn't punch anyone in this movie. And the writer clearly hasn't seen Warrior if she thinks fighters praying before a fight would be edited out today. Wait, bad example, no one saw Warrior. But she mentions Tim Tebow, and all you need to know about Tim Tebow and atheists is, I started that fuckin guy on my fantasy team all the way to the playoff finals, when I second-guessed myself and started Mike Vick instead because I thought Tebow had a bad matchup. I mean, I still would have lost even if I'd started Tebow because my opponent had Aaron Rodgers, who is better at football than Tim Tebow, but I'm not burning copies of the Bible because I lost. These things happen when one guy is better at something than another guy.

The conclusion to this thought—“Judeo-Christian beliefs are as American as apple pie”—only requires a reminder that what originally united the various states of America was a philosophy based almost entirely in Enlightenment thinking. Some of the Founding Fathers identified as Christians. Others, like Thomas Jefferson, did not (he was a Deist, and famously owned a copy of the Bible with all references to the divinity of Jesus Christ excised). The government was specifically designed to be separate from any institutional religious influences. But then again, apple pie came from Europe, so the writer may be indulging in the pleasure of the non sequitur.


“8—Manliness personified.”

While I'm certainly not going to criticize the author for liking butch guys, being a man means having a dick. That's it.


“9—Think for yourself rather than going with the tides.”

On the surface, not a bad piece of advice at all, until the punchline, which makes it clear that supporting Barack Obama is being equated with not thinking for oneself, presented without any correlation and with a bit of a sneer. The last Rocky movie came out in 2006, which means Rocky has never existed in a world in which Barack Obama would have been on his radar (of course, assuming that any presidential candidate would ever be on Rocky's radar, which is a stretch.) Also, Rocky is a guy who punches people, not a politician or a pundit. Who he supports for president has nothing to do with anything.


“10—If you apply yourself and work hard, success is attainable i.e. the very essence of capitalism.”

The big finish! Though what capitalism has to do with Rocky is unclear, when at the beginning of the series of movies, Rocky is working hard and not getting anywhere until by an enormous coincidence he's selected at the whim of Apollo Creed to fight in what Apollo basically regards as an exhibition. Which is straight-up Horatio Alger: in Ragged Dick, the protagonist is hustling for his subsistence until a series of rich people all go “why, look at that lovable scamp, I'm going to rain opportunities and the luxuries of privilege on him.” That has nothing to do with applying yourself and working hard. That's people being handed success. I mean, shit, if you're going to advocate the importance of focused diligence, why not use the example of someone who actually succeeded due to focusing and being diligent?

It is true, though, that the American system affords victors a whole lotta fuckin' spoils. For all that's wrong with it, America does rock when you're in position to take advantage of what it has to offer. But, as in all things, there's a catch. It really, really helps to be a healthy white heterosexual male who belongs to a Protestant Christian denomination and whose family has money. With each qualifier removed, the likelihood of success diminishes, as each removed qualifier is replaced by institutional barriers. That is reality. That is the way things are on Earth. The reference to the Occupy movement is ridiculous, as no one in Zuccotti Park or any other Occupied space, is asking to be given anything. Ironically, what the Occupiers are after is a system in which applying oneself and working hard actually are rewarded proportional to the work done. Also, it bears mentioning yet again that Rocky's participation in the capitalist system is entirely to the extent that people pay him to punch people.


The author concludes by calling Rocky IV “the greatest unintentionally-conservative film ever made, and not coincidentally, a cultural masterpiece.” I'll leave the latter assertion alone for a minute, but Rocky IV is most certainly conservative absolutely on purpose. Even without all the shit the author projects onto the movie, it absolutely serves a conservative purpose: the Russians are BAD! The Americans are GOOD! Sly is the EMBODIMENT OF VIRTUE! Dolph is REIFIED PERFIDY! It's a morally black-and-white bit of “fuck the Commies” propaganda.

And yet, here's the thing. The Rocky movies are completely successful at doing what they do. As much as the unintentional (cutting Sly massive amounts of slack) racism bugs me, the first picture in particular and the sequels to diminishing degrees are marvels of cinematic button-pushing. Putting everything else aside, the primary criteria for judging whether a movie is good or bad are first determining what the movie is setting out to do, and second determining how well the movie succeeded in doing that thing. You don't compare Rocky to Citizen Kane. They're different pictures made for different purposes. Rocky set out to make American white people feel good. Rocky made a lot of American white people feel good. Thus, Rocky is a successful movie, and a successful franchise. This is born out in the massive amounts of money each picture made (even the Tommy Morrison one made lots of money). But let's cool it with the cultural masterpiece bullshit. The aesthetic goals of the Rocky series, especially by the time we get to Rocky IV, even though met are extremely modest, and one simply cannot walk in the room with the amount of racial politics swept under the rug. Rocky IV is a crystalline cultural artifact of its time, the preoccupations of that time, and it has a bitchin' montage, but give me a fucking break. And pick 10 things that actually have something to do with the movie next time.