What fun it is analyzing fiction. You’ll have noticed lately that I’m obsessed with finding the watershed scene in the protagonist’s struggle – the moment when the hero, having been knocked silly, wakes up to the facts of life. Problem is, the more well-crafted the story, the harder it is to isolate a singular moment.
In a good tale, any change in the protagonist will be latent in his character, and will have revealed itself in subtle ways throughout the story. The hero’s transformation (or unfolding) will be a seamless event. Even still, there should be a precise moment when it’s clear that there’s nothing left but for the story to rush toward its climax
While reviewing Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky this week, I wasn’t expecting much subtlety – and there isn’t much. Even still, because the film has been such a success (“Best Picture, 1976”), it must contain some story-telling magic.
Although Rocky Balboa is a reluctant hero, the screenplay doesn’t do much more than set this underdog on a course to duke it out with the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. It appears to be a ‘smoggy fairy tale’ (as Variety magazine called it), moving inexorably to its conclusion. But then something happens on the eve of the big fight to save the film from utter predictability.
Rocky gets real.
And the more I reflect on Rocky’s epiphany, the more I like it. He rejigs his expectations to align with a deeper yearning (a higher goal). This switch issues from a realization that winning the fight isn’t likely. Here’s how it unfolds:
You’ll remember the famous scene depicting Rocky’s training regimen as the theme song “Gonna Fly Now” carries Rocky up the steps to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall at dawn, where he dances his victory dance. CUT TO: Rocky unable to sleep. Leaving his girlfriend in bed, he visits the fight venue, which is all prepped for tomorrow’s spectacle. He meets the fight promoter who assures “the Italian Stallion” that he’ll “put on a good show.”
Rocky realizes his place in the scheme of things. He’s not in Creed’s league. He realizes that he’s been set up to play the gladiator. He’s nothing but meat for the lion.
Rocky returns home, sits on the bed where Adrian is sleeping, and starts soliloquizing, “I can’t do it; I can’t beat him.” To which Adrian replies, “Oh, Rocky, you worked so hard.”
ROCKY: It ain’t so bad, ‘cause I was nothin’ before.
ADRIAN: Don’t say that.
ROCKY: It’s true. But that don’t bother me – I just wanna prove somethin’ – I ain’t no bum. It don’t matter if I lose. Don’t matter if he opens my head. The only thing I wanna do is go the distance. That’s all. Nobody’s ever gone 15 rounds with Creed. If I go them 15 rounds, an’ that bell rings an’ I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know then I weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.”
Yes, it’s clunky, but the point is that we’ve isolated the watershed scene, the moment that divides the story in two. Rocky’s new goal has nothing to do with the superficialities that keep him on the periphery of life. He’s going to stand his ground and suck up the pain that goes with plumbing his depth. It’s a new man that takes the tale to its conclusion.
Of course, Rocky loses, but by losing in 15 rounds, he wins. He may be a bloody pulp but he has earned his dignity.
Does all this remind you of another story about a boxer, a loser, a bum? Exactly. Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Academy Award winner in 1954. I’ll revisit that masterpiece in my next blog.