Wednesday, January 03, 2007

145. Prime

When The Godfather was released, I resented its insistence that it understood Sicilians. My father was Sicilian, and I knew a lot of Italian guys in my high school; some of them were junior goodfellas, and I felt a somehow adolescent irritation with the way they identified with the Corleones. I admit I was filled with an indignation that wasn't sure what it was indignant about; what I do recall was how satisfied I was--smug? oh, I hope not--with the awful descent Michael undergoes in Godfather II; something in me wanted to punish all those Sicilians. Maybe it was because a few of those guys in my high school were smug themselves, casual bullies who had it all figured out. And I didn't want them to be at the table on Sundays, where my father's parents fed us with expected excess. It was a world in which two helpings were barely eating, and three barely enough to convince Grandmom she didn't have to shout Mangia!--and I'll admit it; she really did that, like a Mama mia in a bad movie. And OK, Basta pasta! we cousins would yell, not really knowing any Italian but pleased with the rhyme. This wasn't a movie, though, just Sunday. But by the mid-'70s those helpings were dwindling, as Grandpop died and the family began to drift away from each other. I seemed to be losing my Sicilian-ness just as every other ticketholder in America was discovering/inventing its own.

So was my irritation with the Godfather cult a form of mourning, or the simple need to maintain a hold on a simple claim: the way my father's side of the family lived? I guess I felt that Coppola was stealing a little something and giving it to those potato-heads who thought it was cool to be Italian--when all it should've been was who they were, not an instant movie moment. These were not the best combination of half-thoughts and impulses for careful film-watching; I'm surprised I could stand the two Godfathers.

By 1976, though, something good had happened: I was two years out of high school; and, like those South Park guys mention in Bowling for Columbine, it's amazing how quickly high school falls off your shoulders. Besides, at twenty I was a bit--just a bit--less confused than at fourteen, and able to move outside the constricting circle of psuedo-goombahs with too much money and not enough brains. In fact, I found myself completely understanding Rocky--and now that I think of it, thirty years later and having just seen Rocky Balboa, maybe Stallone gave me an Italian I understood: Not a phony winner, all wing collar and sneer, but a more hesitant variety of knuckle-breaker, as ready to call pet birds "flying candy" as to shout with bitter hope, "I had no prime! I had nothin'!" Rocky filled me with joy despite myself, because there I was, still trying to figure out if movies were art or pure satisfaction--and how bad are things in your head when those two seem mutually exclusive?--and I saw in Rocky a chance to enjoy the movies without sacrificing anything. It was written and acted with a startling tenderness and excess, unafraid to be sentimental but unwilling to deny its characters their uncontrollable desires. Just consider the always-dangerous Burt Young. Stallone seems to know exactly what to do with him, this wild hair who always frightens me a little; you're never sure what Young might do: hit the other actor, or start to cry, or sing a song, or just walk off and wander into another movie. But in Rocky and Rocky Balboa he is at home, another palooka refusing to go down.

And so, protective of the delicate/brutal balance of Rocky in my head, I was unsure whether to see the new picture. Those campy sequels are emabarrassing--anyone who likes them does so because they get to laugh at them while, for instance, insisting Mr. T is awwwwwe-some; I didn't want one last smudge on my memory of 1976. But Rocky Balboa pulls off a neat trick--more like breathes a final relieved sigh--as it erases all memory of those sequels and reaches back and clamps onto the first picture with love and joy--and sorrow and regret--and makes me a present of, if not the best picture of the year, my favorite one, a brick wall of a movie that never lets itself look foolish, and keeps itself alive with enough self-deprecation to soften the blow of Stallone's patented uplift. But even that, the Bill Conti fanfare of Rocky-ism, sounds clear and unashamed. When Rocky tells his son, "It ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward," I heard Stallone explaining most of himself--as well as Rocky--without an easy out. And as Rocky leaves the ring, turning his back on it--to face the crowd--I was reminded that, while the past does follow you, you can stop looking over your shoulder, at least long enough to raise your arm in both hail and farewell, and visit your Adrian's grave to recognize how solid you can make yourself, despite time and lost favor.

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