PHILADELPHIA -- I was only four years old when Rocky was released. Even at a young age, I had an idea of its cultural impact; my mother kept a poster of Sylvester Stallone, muscles taut under a green tank top, in the downstairs bathroom. I didn't see the movie until I was a teenager in New York City, after the VHS revolution allowed time-shifting of films and subversion of box offices, traditional and Home alike.
I thought it was a piece of shit.
I didn't know there was a Rocky statue until I'd lived in Philadelphia for three years, after I moved there for school. It was between quarterfinal sessions at the 2001 Atlantic 10 tourney, which was always played down at the Spectrum in those days. I took a walk around the old pancake stack to stretch my legs, and there it was. Bigger than life, bare-chested, gloved hands raised in glory. The sight caught me by surprise, and because disbelief is a key ingredient in comedy, I laughed.
For over two decades, culminating in 2008, the Rocky statue stood as a powerful symbol of the city's pure, raw desperation. The Cradle of Liberty was cursed by history and location, eventually nestling beneath the specter, shadow and invisible thumb of New York City to the north -- and so it began to accept itself as second-rate. In the late 20th Century, as the fourth-largest metro area in America suffered through a long drought of sports championships, Philadelphia was so hungry for a Great White Hope that it happily accepted a fictional one -- dreamed up by a New Yorker, no less.
Rocky is such a flawed failure of storytelling, I don't even know where to begin. Especially when the protagonist's central motivation -- to simply go the distance against the champ -- isn't revealed until an hour and 40 minutes into the film, in a bedside confessional on the night before the showdown, after he runs the steps and after he pounds on the meat. Adrian suddenly switches from an ice-cold milquetoast to a rabid defender of Rocky's vague dreams in one kiss -- a character shift that's only believable in a film like The Party at Kitty and Stud's.
If Apollo Creed was based on Muhammad Ali, and the story on the Ali-Wepner fight of 1975, Stallone didn't do much character research. The Greatest would never taunt a chump, and saved his poetry for the fighters he was secretly afraid of. And don't get me started on the pacing and editing of the final fight scene... it looked like a four-rounder instead of a 16-round marathon, despite the parade of ring girls with double-digit round signs.
The Godfather, Part II is usually put up as the only sequel that eclipsed the original, but Rocky II is twice the movie that Rocky is. (Even though it wasted six minutes replaying the first Creed fight for the people who didn't have proto-HBO yet.)
Rocky, however, is startlingly germane to the topic at hand. The movie details what amounts to a guarantee game. Recall, if you will, the press conference scene in which promoter George Jergens announces Rocky Balboa as the new challenger. There's a question from the gallery about the $150,000 payoff to the "Italian Stallion," and a quick "no comment." Rocky was paid to show up and lose... and lose, he did. Creed won a split decision at the end. Rocky was a loser in the ring, we're told, but a winner in life. He lost the fight, got the girl he already had, and accepted a six-figure palooka check. Did I miss the uplifting part?
In Our Game, the little guys go up against the big guys every November and December, with big payoffs in return for guaranteed losses. In most cases, the recipient can't go the distance, but sometimes they do lose in the 15th round... er, 40th minute. Every so often, the underdogs emerge victorious. But those hits and near-misses are quickly forgotten; in this case, the end-result was three Oscars and $117 million in domestic gross.
I'm baffled by a lot of things, but the enduring universal legacy of Rocky is a real head-scratcher. As in, I want to scratch open people's heads, take medical samples of their brains, and find out what makes them think that way. Perhaps the embrace of an oversimplified underdog story is indicative of a fundamental general misunderstanding of >its template. David didn't simply "go the distance" with Goliath; the Good Book is a decent little pamphlet otherwise. The Bicentennial celebration that serves as the backdrop for the big fight couldn't and wouldn't have been possible if the framers of the Constitution had been satisfied with mere self-respect.
Or maybe in its slip-shod low budget it unintentionally spoke to a secret American desire -- deep down, we all know it always ends in a loss, and that we're small cogs in a big machine, and that the only happy ending is to lose on our own terms.
But I doubt it. A movie with a bizarre second-reel twist that involves a cute nickname couldn't possibly be designed to provide deep thoughts about Biblical history, national existence or human nature. It's more likely that Rocky escaped obscurity because of lowest-common-denominator schmalz, and that the public will accept any cheesy underdog story -- even one with a train-wreck script and a tacked-on ending. (Legend has it that Rocky threw the fight in the original draft.) If Rocky would have beat Apollo Creed, there would be no need for a rematch or sequels. Or would it have made $200 million instead?
None of that explains why there's a bronze Rocky statue at the Art Museum in Philadelphia, near the 72 steps that Sly Stallone made famous. The statue was originally installed at the top of the steps, but it spent most of the Nineties down at the Spectrum, where the final fictional fight was staged. I lived in this city for eight years, from 1997 to 2005, and I ran up those steps a few times. The Fairmount Park bridge underpass shown briefly in the famous training scene was the two-mile marker on my river loop. I walked down many trash-strewn streets that were sadly neglected and fundamentally unchanged since the movie was shot.
But most of the people I met didn't have much tolerance for coming close and failing. I watched Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and Sixers seasons come and go. By the time I moved here, Philadelphia's national identity had long been "City of Losers," and it made the residents hard and cold. I remember sitting at Cavanaugh's bar in West Philly watching Saint Joseph's lose in the Elite Eight in 2004, and sitting around for an hour while people ripped each and every one of Phil Martelli's coaching decisions. Rocky's spirit wasn't evident there, nor was it printed in the pages of the Daily News, embedded in the airwaves of WIP sportz radio, or embedded in the words of the city's deadpan-cynical leading literary voices.
I sat on the third-base line at the "J.D. Drew battery game", when Tony LaRussa pulled the Cardinals off the field because the fans were throwing projectiles at a draftee who had chosen a year of independent baseball over a contract with the Phillies. I remember sitting there thinking about how Philadelphia had to learn to love itself before it could expect anybody else to love it for what it was. And what was it, anyway? I didn't see a City of Losers, just a fractious and disoriented city, proud and wounded and generally erratic.
I found that the more I lived in Philadelphia, the less I understood it. And then it was time to leave.
I haven't spent much time here since I moved up to Rhode Island, and I've only been here for a few non-consecutive days since the Phillies won it all in 2008. The place did seem a little friendlier after that, and a guy behind the counter at a Wawa once actually asked me how I was doin' -- a total no-no among strangers during my time in the city, even in commercial settings. The whole "brotherly love" thing was ironic from the start, you know?
On a cold Tuesday afternoon in January, I arrived back in town by southbound train. After jumping out at 30th Street Station, my first stop was the Art Museum.
Even now, 34 years after the film's release, there were folks paying homage to its most renowned scene. People were running up the steps, one and two and three at a time. One young man made his way up the double-flight while a friend ran alongside, filming his progress with a digital camera (perhaps a device that featured the same Steadicam-style technology that made the scene a filmic breakthrough). When another man got to the top of the steps, he raised his fists in triumph and let loose a bit of referential dissonance. "Yo Adrian!"
In 2006, after I moved away, when the sixth and perhaps final Rocky movie was released, the statue was moved to a permanent location, a paved mini-rotunda to the right of the steps. It's now a part of the landscaping, as casual as the assorted sleek black Rodins that dot the Eakins Oval area. And there is no plaque, no descriptive text anywhere in the area; the only marking is the artist's signature on the statue's right base -- A. Thomas Schomberg. If you need to know what it is, you're in the wrong place.
And when I approached it, I had to get in line. Two ladies took pictures of each other next to Rocky, and one had to remind the other to raise her arms. Two teens traded cell phone pictures, and one wore a yellow wrestling mask as he posed with folded arms. An Oriental girl flashed a peace sign in her photo. A team of three black-clad pale men attempted to tie a t-shirt to the statue's chest, the name of some rock band or other. The stunt failed when the others in line complained.
I was overwhelmed. All this over an old movie? But by accent and general demeanor, I realized that none of these folks were from around here.
Walking back through my old neighborhood near Drexel University, I realized that Rocky in 2010 is an image of a more perfect Philadelphia, one that can only exist for those who aren't actually Philadelphians. He's a right-of-center, middle-class All-American metaphor who's not too educated, doesn't win 'em all, but tries really, really, really hard. Is there a real Philadelphia that fits that description, and was there ever? Is this an old notion now, as outdated and hokey as the films themselves? Is this city different now that the psychic weight of loserdom has been lifted?
Either way, it's a fantasy city that I can appreciate because I don't live here anymore. It's a great place to visit now, the people smile a little more, and there's a new bump or three on the skyline every time I come through. The Philadelphia renaissance, real or imagined, is something I'm more than happy to cheer for from a safe and distant distance.