Stallone as director 3: Rocky III (1982)

Rocky III

In between fight scenes on Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone would feel light-headed.  At this point he was subsisting on twenty-five cups of coffee a day, a few scoops of tunafish and a kind of oatmeal biscuit made from brown rice.  It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving on such a small level of food whilst at the same time performing a physically arduous role AND directing a huge blockbuster motion picture.  You have to return to the days of silent movie making to find directors who pursued physical perfection alongside artistic intent.  For that alone, Stallone should command respect.

Within his body of work, Rocky III stands as a picture of interest as it chronicles a performer wallowing in hubris.  Balboa has become convinced of his own talent; he becomes a shill for cheap products and lazily challenges unworthy competitors in the ring.  It is a document of the excess that comes with the ‘new’ money of the eighties.  The parallels between Balboa and Stallone can be easily drawn.  For Stallone, the only guarantee of legitimacy and glory is to return to your roots and conquer your own demon of self-loathing.  It’s a chronicled deconstruction of himself; a rejection of a simplistic vision of masculinity and denial of any intrinsic value of adulation.  It is a path of forensically detailed self-examination that he would deny himself in the years to come.  Balboa has always been an avatar for Stallone; an opportunity for his to explore his hopes and his fears.

Equally, he turned this perceptiveness onto the supporting cast.  He began to respond to the representation of black culture in the previous instalments.  Where previously the African-American members of the cast were presented at best as an alien ‘other’ and at worst, the villain, he begins to show how other cultures share as much in the struggle of survival in America as working-class Italian immigrants.  Both Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang are presented as more deserving holders of the title belt; their determination and sacrifice are shown to be greater than Balboa’s.  They understand the struggle you have to face to gain and maintain success; Balboa takes it, as most white people do, for granted.

Many of Stallone’s visual prompts come into play.  There are low angled shots at the beginning of the film.  Dialogue scenes are framed in close-up.  There are freeze frames and slow-motion employed during moments of tension or suspense.  Heavy shadow is used to show internal anguish.  Sepia flashbacks are used to recall an earlier time.  These are fairly superficial devices to be used.  But Stallone is a workmanlike director.  His priority is direct storytelling.  He seeks to visually represent internal conflict; this results in a pure aesthetic effectiveness.

But Stallone was determined to push cinema into a new decade.  He is pioneering in this regard as he sought to reject the dour reality of seventies American cinema and replace it with a dynamic, glowing attractiveness.  The colours become heightened, and he regularly employed soft focus to create a dreamlike haze to scenes (the transfer on the BLU-RAY reveals the gauze applied to the lens in order to achieve this effect.  Rather than appear distracting, if gives the scenes an almost pop art, Lichtenstein quality).  Stallone escalated his use of montage; no longer restricted to training scenes, it became a narrative device used throughout the movie.  Inspired by the burgeoning music video movement that sprung up with the rise of MTV, Stallone set these sequences to dynamic music, most notably here, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.  Stallone was determined to move direction along with his audience; he understood that their aesthetic was changing, and there was no need to deny them this in cinema.

Despite the gruelling diet, Stallone has never appeared more beautiful.  The lumpy awkwardness of his youth has been replaced by a lean grace.  His lack of body fat ensured his slightly exaggerated bone structure came to the forefront.  Coupled with an almost feather like haircut, he became a figure of elegance and desire.  Few actors put as much effort into the physicality of their part as Stallone; Balboa is almost an entirely different person to John Rambo as Rambo is a physically distinct person to Cobra.

With its focussed runtime, aesthetic inventiveness and intelligent skewering of conventional masculinity, Rocky III represents the high point of the franchise, and a towering achievement in regards to physical magnificence on the part of Stallone.

Stallone as director 2: Rocky II (1979)

Rocky II

As much as the Rocky sequels will come to be defined by their 1980s freneticism, Rocky II feels firmly rooted in the seventies.  It is made in the spirit of The Godfather Part II (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola – Talia Shire’s brother), a sequel that deepens the themes and ideas of its predecessor.  For Stallone, Rocky II provided an opportunity to take full control of a movie series that he had created.  In that sense (and Paradise Alley can viewed in a similar manner) Rocky II is almost a complete remake of the first film, only minus the Rocky and Adrian courtship.  (Sam Raimi would pull the same trick with Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987)).  At times, it possible to forget which of the films we are watching, so similar is the plot of Rocky II to Rocky – Italian-American amateur boxer overcomes poverty to defeat a Muhammed Ali stand-in.  It could easily be read as a shameless re-tread.

However, Stallone is making an essential point.  So often in life we place huge value on moments or decisions we make – ‘if I get this new job I will be happy’, ‘If this person loves me, I will feel okay’ we tell ourselves.  But the happiness these outcomes give us are often only fleeting, and Rocky II demonstrates that achieving a goal – going the distance with Apollo Creed – does not bring any significant change in circumstance.  Rocky is still poor, still an outsider, still unfulfilled.  Stallone’s empathy for the human condition has always been underrated; I think ‘we fill each other gaps’ remains one of the purest expressions of love that cinema has ever given us.  The re-tread is not out of laziness; it exists to underline how material change does not inherently lead to joy.

In his attempts to root Rocky II in seventies independent American cinema (ironically Quentin Tarantino regards Rocky as one of the death-knells for this period), Stallone employs a limited soundtrack and muted colour-palette for the first half of the film.  The camera is rarely placed at Rocky’s eye-level, as if he cannot look us in the eye after failing to transform his life.  Balboa is living an existence with little meaning or excitement.  Only Adrian, characteristically dressed in red (a key visual signifier for Stallone), brings a graphic stimulus to the screen.  It is only once Rocky starts training for his final showdown, that the film comes alive, and Bill Conti’s extraordinarily uplifting soundtrack kicks in.

It soundtracks one of Stallone’s key visual tools – his use of montage.  The shift into the third act – Rocky faces Creed again – is driven by an extended montage of Balboa training for the match.  It is a longer montage than we initially suspect, because halfway through, Stallone slows down one scene to show Rocky caring for his new-born child.  In fact, much of the first two acts of the film feel like a moderately languid montage.  Scenes feel like selections of short moments designed to emphasise a purposeless life.  With his use of montage, Stallone seeks to emphasise that there are no short cuts in life, by sardonically employing a visual short cut himself.  Rocky, and by extension Stallone as writer/director/highly physical performer, have had to put in hours of hard work to achieve success.

Rocky II sees Stallone continue his exploration of the Italian immigrant experience in America.  Despite achieving the impossible in the first film, Rocky is still an outsider.  He is unable to access employment due to his lack of education.  The minor victories of marriage and childbirth are the only sources of happiness in his path.  As admirable as this exploration is, it comes slightly at the expense of a fair portrayal of the African-American experience.  By casting Apollo Creed (a clear Muhammed Ali substitute) as the nominal ‘bad guy’ (and Creed’s ‘sins’ of arrogance, vanity and neglect of children are relatively tame), he reduces a great sporting hero to a punchbag.  But Stallone is trying to underline the values of his ancestors, a generation who never much sympathised for a man who threw off his slave name and refused to fight a phoney war.  Stallone’s sympathetic choice to show Creed reading piles of hate mail, underlines the truth that success doesn’t mean shit in the Western world if you’re black.

For the confrontation between Creed and Balboa, Stallone places his camera outside the ring, choosing the shoot the match in mid and long shots.  For the first few rounds, the camera only enters the ring between rounds, and only cuts to close-up of reaction shots from the two contenders and their hollering teams and family.  This is a necessary choice made by Stallone due to the false perspective used to give the verisimilitude of punches landing, but Stallone cleverly drops this technique, bringing the camera alongside the actors, and using a quicker cutting style as the fight progresses.  He is underlining the escalation of the match, as we watch two contenders refuse to give in.

The film begins and ends with two of Stallone’s greatest tools as a director.  The opening minutes of the film are a recap of the events of Rocky.  It underlines Stallone’s intent to document a life over several movies, much in the same way that Francois Truffaut followed an aging Antoine Doinel across several films beginning with Les Quatre Cents Coups in 1959.  And the final moments see Stallone employ slow-motion, as the epic Balboa/Creed rematch comes to a slightly contrived conclusion.  For Stallone, it is an opportunity to revel in micro-gestures, those moments where our face and limbs betray our innermost thoughts.  It drives up the tension, forcing the audience to become embroiled the uncertainty of a boxing match.  It is the glory of the sport, that it can be over in a few seconds, or last a seeming lifetime and that at any moment, the whole contest can turn on a dime.  A boxer on his last legs can deliver a knockout punch.  By finally allowing Rocky the victory, Stallone emphasises his own success; he was now a true movie star, and able to choose whatever projects he wished.  It’s interesting to see what he chose to do with this power and influence.

Stallone as director 1: Paradise Alley (1978)

Paradise Alley

As an actor, Stallone has had the number-one box office film in five separate decades.  As a writer, he is known for redrafting the scripts to all his films, ensuring that they explore thematic concerns relevant to him; his notion of masculinity, the immigrant experience, and the struggle to maintain integrity in the world.  But as a director… Stallone is frequently ignored.  In this arena, he is easily accused of the excesses of vanity, and thus, he is neglected as a canonical auteur.  But Stallone has brought a unique visual style to the eight (and a bit) films he has directed across his career.

 

Much of Stallone’s early work seems to be a response to the diluted vision of Rocky (1976 – John G. Avilsden).  Much has been made (not least by Stallone himself) of the struggling actor gambling everything on starring in the astonishing script he bashed out one weekend.  Stallone realised that success would only come to him if he took full control of his career.  Despite all the achievements of Rocky, Stallone seems to have been profoundly affected by his inability to direct it, and his first films of Paradise Alley (actually written before Rocky) and Rocky II (1979), seem to be driven in a large part by a response to the work that made him a cinematic icon.  They employ many of the same cast and crew (here a score is provided by Bill Conti).  They rephrase and revisit the story of an outsider (played by Stallone) overcoming personal adversity to achieve success in their chosen sporting field.  It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Stallone was drawing on his own personal experiences when crafting the script…

Whilst Paradise Alley features Stallone as the lead character (and the movie is very much marketed on the charisma of the burgeoning star), he does not participate in the sporting events in the same way as he does in Rocky.  Here he is Cosmo Carboni, fledgling manager to his hulking brother Victor’s wrestling career.  Carboni, shares Balboa’s quick-witted, non-stop sliver tongue, but here, because he has no real talent of his own, he remains un-appreciated.  What is charming in Balboa become irritating in Carboni.  Paradise Alley is unique in the Stallone canon in that it allows us to see him in a thankless role; Stallone will come to craft roles that are, without exception, individuals at the top of their game, respected by everyone around them.  Conversely, here we have an unexceptional man, despised by most (including members of his own family) and only redeemed by his integrity in protecting his savant brother.

 

As much as we associate Stallone with the overblown excess of action movies in the eighties and nineties, it’s important to recognise that his formative work comes in the distinct director-led American cinematic landscape of the 1970s.  He establishes himself in the same decade as Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin et. al.  These films are realist, feature morally questionable protagonists and usually feature downbeat endings.  Much of Stallone’s early work is dedicated to exploring the experience of Italian immigrants into America in the twentieth century, a not thematically unsimilar vein to at least two of those above directors.  He demonstrates an enormous sympathy for the struggle of poverty and intolerance that they were experiencing in this time.  As an actor, Stallone was dedicated to the dominant style of naturalism that was found in cinema; his mumbling and stream-of-consciousness dialogue are a deliberate choice, and not, as has sometime lazily been referred to, as a product of ineptitude.

Visually, Stallone reflects this allegiance to New Hollywood cinema in many of directorial choices.  Aided by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the film has a soft focus, high-contrast look.  Found regularly in seventies cinema where films were set in the past, this diffused and desaturated style is used to provoke the nostalgic ‘look’ of a faded photograph.  In addition, Stallone begins to employ many of the stylistic flourishes that will make his name.  Slow-motion is liberally employed during moments of action, designed to make us reflect upon the emotional trauma of physical punishment as the motion is prolonged.  During dialogue scenes, he employs single-shot close-ups of actors – there are very few reaction shots, for instance – he is in this regard, an actor’s director, allowing performance to take centre stage.  He begins to employ elements of montage to show the passing of time; uniquely he superimposes dialogue scenes hanging in the air above some of the wrestling matches.

But there are some unique touches to the film.  He shoots the matches from deliberately low angles, cutting out much of the parrying and balletic back-and-forth, and focusses on the painfully crushing body-slams.  He employs elements of near-fantasy to heighten the drama of these matches – one round is filmed during torrential rain in an outdoor arena, the splashing of water only emphasising the brutality of the sport.  Most affectingly, Stallone employs a significant use of the colour red throughout the film.  There are scenes set in nightclubs that are entirely suffused with the colour, red lampshades appear in significant scenes, and not unexpectedly, red appears as blood during the matches.  Stallone uses this disruptive colour to indicate the unobtainable – women, success, life – in the face of trauma.  It is a stylistic flourish that prefigures his music-video aesthetic that will erupt in the coming eighties.

As much as Paradise Alley is Stallone’s attempt to dominate a version of Rocky that he was somewhat side-lined for, the deliberate choice to re-engage with the themes and plot of his star-making movie cause Paradise Alley to diminish in its light.  Much of Stallone’ appeal comes from his extraordinary physicality, and placing himself in a supporting role in this regard, means the film loses much of his potential appeal.  Rocky II will be in some ways a correction of this fault.  Sometimes we expect too much for our directors; certainly, neither Scorsese, Coppola or Friedkin’s first films are masterpieces.  But actors have a significant advantage over directors; they are able to observe a number of people at work, and adopt the practices that work, and disregard those that don’t.  Paradise Alley is no masterpiece, but it gives an indication of the visual tools that Stallone will employ throughout his directorial career.