Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Method.

Every now and then, there are certain books, films and/or music, which I have always enjoyed, that I return to whenever I am feeling in an emotional trough. I often hit these troughs...perhaps more so lately because, as I approach my middle 30's I find myself feeling less sure of myself than ever. I can't explain what it is...well...perhaps I can. There have been a number of critical incidences in my life that I can relate that have surely shaped me into the person I am now. It is the books, the movies and the music that I have grown up with that serve me well as a therapy. They lift me up or, alternatively, they allow me to wallow for a time in my sadness or otherwise. Even sadness can be a point.

The 'Rocky' series of movies are just one example.

I first saw Rocky back when in first premiered on television in the early 1980's. Testament to the impact the movie had on me, I still have the VHS recording I made of it, complete with the 1980's era ads which are an absolute tripper to watch even now, some 25 odd years later.

Last Friday night, after the family had packed themselves off to bed and I found myself with free reign over the lounge room, I rifled through my DVD collection looking for something that I could indulge my 'lost in the wilderness' mood. I happened upon 'Rocky 2' - the one where Rocky wins.

For, like an hour and a half I was transported yet again - back to a simpler time where the world wasn't so complicated. There was Sylvester Stallone's Rocky, arguably his most successful creation, fresh from his monumental bout with Apollo Creed - basking in the glow of heroic recognition, of having gone the distance with one of the greatest heavy weight boxers in the world.

Rocky 2 sees Rocky Balboa on a journey of seeking his identity. Following the climatic bout from the first movie he is thrust into a world of celebrity. He marries his sweet heart, Adrian. He is about to become a father. He wrestles with trying to make a life for himself beyond the boxing ring but finds the world an even harsher, unforgiving place. All of these events serve as sign posts for Rocky to discover who he is as a human being. Though he encounters conflict from everyone - especially those whom he loves the most - Rocky comes to the realization that his identity is that of a fighter and to try and deny this is to deny a core individual truth.

And no matter how distasteful that may be to some, the importance of himself, knowing who he is becomes paramount in this hero's journey. Without having that jewel of knowing who he is, he cannot be the successful husband, the lover, the father.

This quest for identity is one factor that lifts Rocky up and helps him to prevail in the emotionally charged re-match at the end of Rocky 2.

Through my tears of getting wrapped up in the hero's journey of Rocky 2 (I mean c'mon! Men are allowed to cry at movies!!) I began to recognize the significance of the choice I made last Friday night in selecting Rocky 2 over all the other films in my collection.

The themes portrayed in that film mirror the emotional point I find myself at right now. I find that worthy of I will discuss it!

In 2006, DK books put out a fantastic companion piece to the Rocky series on the back of the release of the (?) final movie 'Rocky Balboa'.

By the time the final credits had concluded with that ubiquitous dedication to the memory of Jane Oliver, I had plucked the book out and was examining it in my newly charged reflective state of mind. It was then that I made the exciting assertion that the Rocky films 1 through 6 encapsulate what I regard as my 5 stages of man.

These are maturing from youth, the quest for identity, identity challenged, relationships and the dignity of relevance.

I should stress here that these 5 stages of man are not to be confused with the 5 stages of man from Greek Mythology. And I should also add here that in discussing these stages, I have the works of Joseph Campbell, particularly 'The Hero's Journey', in the back of my mind.

'Rocky' (or Rocky 1 - as the purist will call it) can be regarded as a metaphor for the hero maturing from his youth. In the beginning we see Rocky Balboa as a young man from Philadelphia, a two bit club fighter with limited resources, limited education but a limitless (if unrefined) skill in the art of boxing. He emerges from a disadvantaged youth with potential but no means to focus that potential. It becomes the role of the wise sage - in this case, the grizzled boxing coach Mickey Goldmill - to refine Rocky's potential and then to focus it towards a transcendental event - once in a life time shot at the title of the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World.

During this stage of his journey Rocky deals with the truth that he has to leave behind the reckless attitudes of adolescence and mature into a more considered human being. That, in order to achieve you have to work, to sacrifice, and to grow. Getting by on a front of smart arsed charm will get you nowhere because despite what you think you know, you actually know nothing.

For some, this maturing from youth takes a long time to realize. Rocky Balboa, himself, is a young man in his late 20's when we first meet him. I came to the realization of my limitations a few years earlier in my 20's. At that point I began a process of sitting up, taking notice and pulling my shit together.

Rocky goes the distance with one of the most unforgiving boxers in the world against all the odds. And despite losing the bout on points Rocky attains a new level of respect from the crowd his opponent and his manager because he has, in his struggle, matured beyond the callowness of youth and become a man. This milestone of maturing from youth hits a critical point in the early years of manhood but the stage itself persists throughout life.

I have already explored the quest for identity as it relates to 'Rocky 2' so the natural progression of this is the identity challenged as is portrayed in 'Rocky 3'.

With the "Hero's Journey" in mind we explore the notion of identity being challenged in 'Rocky 3'. Challenged by success, by celebrity and adulation, by loss and grief and finally by rediscovery and redemption.

Celebrity and adulation, the spoils of success can be seen as a blessing and a curse. Rocky's success brings with it the nobility of being able to provide for his family, to invest in a future and to indulge in the finer things. But in doing so he becomes complacent. Rocky, perhaps unconsciously, leaves important career decisions to others - to his manager Mickey Goldmill, to his accountants, to his wife even. For his own reasons Mickey, in particular, takes it upon himself to protect Rocky by vetting his opponents. By only putting Rocky up against men whom he's sure Rocky can defeat easily. Because he knows there is, out there, a challenger who can defeat Rocky, a challenger who possesses a clearer sense of self than Rocky does at this moment.

Rocky himself embraces the celebrity he has achieved. He uses it philanthropically and thus admirably in making life for local youth better than his own youth. But Rocky also indulges - training for his bouts in swanky hotels, in front of cameras and fans that lap up his avarice.

All the while we watch a new challenger, Clubber Lang as he studies Rocky, watching how complacent Rocky has become.

Rocky's identity is challenged by complacency. He has lost focus of who he is - a fighter, a man whose greatest skill is embracing challenge.

When the wise sage, Mickey, falls critically ill prior to Rocky's first confrontation with Lang, Rocky realizes that he is faced with awful truth that he has neglected his identity. That because he has allowed others to carry his 'self' he has put at risk that quality which he struggled so much to covet.

With the death of Mickey and his crushing defeat at the hands of Lang, Rocky has lost himself. He grapples with the realization that all which he has achieved is nothing without a surety of self. He feels alone and unsure of how to proceed.

A chance for redemption comes in the form of his former opponent Apollo Creed. Creed recognizes during that disastrous last bout that Rocky's identity has been challenged to brink of total loss.

Apollo begins the process of Rocky’s rediscovery of self by helping Rocky to see that they now share a common experience - that of their identity being challenged by complacency.

In order to redeem himself Rocky must deconstruct himself, to relearn that which made him a champion to begin with. He must go to the dirt, the filth and the sweat of the old school gym. By stripping away the complacent layers of himself Rocky can confront the truth of why he lost himself.

And it is during that quest that Rocky realizes that he can longer rely on the wisdom of older, father figures like Mickey to guide him as a man. It is his contemporaries, his friends Paulie, Apollo, his loved ones - most significantly - his wife Adrian who provide counsel. But where he had been guided before, Rocky can only consider their advice now and make decisions himself. He realizes that he alone must confront the greatest challenge to his identity - fear - in order to redeem it.

Rocky Balboa endures these challenges as part of a process of continued personal growth. He ultimately prevails because he recognizes that his identity - his sense of self - is more important than materialism and celebrity. His victory over Clubber Lang at the conclusion of 'Rocky 3' represents not so much a victory of endeavor but a victory of identity.

This is the salient truth which I have applied within my own experience.

I'll skip over Rocky 4 because, in my mind, it has little to offer this discussion.

Rocky 5 though regarded as the weakest film in the series, nevertheless offers useful material with which to explore my fourth stage of man.

The relationships that we form throughout our lives are pivotal in helping us to define who we are. Though it can be said that the importance of relationships is a theme that carries through the entire Rocky series, Rocky 5 valiantly, if somewhat unsuccessfully, attempts to focus upon the familial relationships that sustain Rocky Balboa.

Rocky's son, Robert has grown up in the security of wealth. He has never wanted for anything. He has been given the kind of parental love and attention that was so sorely missing from Rocky's own childhood.

When an unfortunate turn of events see the collapse of Rocky's wealth and security, he is forced to move his family back to where it all began - the mean streets of Philadelphia's south side.

For his son Robert, this represents a seismic shift from that which he is accustomed. The relationship with his father becomes paramount in this unfamiliar environment as he tries to adjust to a harsh school, limited friends and an uncertain future.

For Rocky, the loss of prestige and wealth are devastating but, as always, his embrace of the struggle, the fighting instinct allows him to find a path forward. He returns to the gym that was left to him by his manager Mickey, one of the material assets that he hasn't lost. Rocky searches for meaning once again in the sweat and the leather and finds it in the form of a promising young boxer Tommy Gunn.

Rocky takes it upon himself to train and manage Gunn and they quickly forge a bond reminiscent of that which was held between Rocky and Mickey. They travel the country, spending long periods away from the family. Success comes to this new duo and Rocky indulges in the limelight of it. It is a chance at redemption though this redemption is more material than soulful.

Rocky's son, who is struggling at school with fitting in and dealing with bullies, is desperately trying to reach his father. Robert is at that tender age where his father is his hero but with Rocky completely absorbed with the protégé Gunn, Robert begins to feel neglected. He begins acting out in a vain effort to reach Rocky, but Rocky fails to understand the significance.

Gunn on the other hand is growing restless. Despite achieving an unprecedented level of success under Rocky's tutelage, he is growing ambitious, impatient, and arrogant. Gunn wants more than he feels Rocky is able to give him. He begins to talk to a rival management that offers riches and prestige beyond that which Rocky is able to provide. Again Rocky is blind to these goings on.

Inevitably events take their turn. Gunn walks away from Rocky and Robert confronts his father. Rocky finds himself at a cross road. In trying to capture a past glory he has jeopardized one of the most important relationships in his life. It was always Rocky's wish to have the kind of relationship with his son that he himself had missed out on. He realizes that, in focusing all his attentions on Gunn he has neglected Robert at perhaps one of the most impressionable times in his life. It is with heartfelt humility that Rocky bows before his son and acknowledges his failure and seeks forgiveness.

Of all the relationships that we have throughout our lives it is the relationships with family that endure. They may not take the form that is represented, admittedly through celluloid rose colored glasses, in Rocky 5 but they are the relationships that shape us, define us and indeed sustain us throughout our lives.

We live in a time where the issue of age is consistently talked about and debated. We are told that we should value our older citizens and allow them to continue to contribute to our society if they can do so. Yet the statistics do not bear this out. Age-ism has become a part of the modern vernacular. Older people are consistently passed over for jobs in the pursuit of younger people - even if those jobs end up never getting filled. The opinions of older people are often discounted as the rantings of 'old farts'. Society tends to treat its older citizens with a certain degree of condescension.

In that vein it is useful to explore the notion of the dignity of relevance as my fifth stage of man using 'Rocky Balboa' - the final film in the series to provide context.

In it, we see Rocky several years on from his boxing career. He is older, wiser and more serene. Adrian, his beloved wife, has recently passed away and for the first time in almost three decades Rocky finds himself alone. Though his son is still around, the interceding years has seen a sort of distance develop between them. Robert has had difficulty defining himself in the shadow of his legendary father and that has been a wedge that has not totally come between them - but it has caused tension. Rocky owns a local restaurant 'Adrian's' - monument not only to Rocky's illustrious career but to his wife, his greatest support and confidant.

Rocky is dignified in his station in life. He is productive, he is a provider, he is successful. But there is something missing. Rocky knows deep down that his journey is not yet complete.

A chance event put on by a sports television network - a computer simulated fight between the current Heavyweight Champion, Mason 'The Line' Dixon and Rocky himself - determines that, statistically, Rocky would defeat the Champion. This touches off something in Rocky but he initially pushes it away. He is approaching 60 years of age. Though he is not entirely unfit, Rocky acknowledges that the likelihood of him ever stepping into the ring again is remote.

The simulation however generates interest, burgeoning at first but it quickly develops into fever pitch as the nation begins to become fascinated by the possibility of translating the simulated fight into the real world.

Rocky is approached by representatives of Dixon to participate in what will essentially be an exhibition bout. The offer becomes too irresistible to refuse. Rocky's decision to accept the challenge is met with derision and ridicule by almost everyone - including his son.

"You're too old", "You're way past it", "You're a senile fool" are the refrains the Rocky encounters.

Rather than submit to the consensus opinion, Rocky begins to ask the question - why should age alone be an impediment to endeavor? If a man feels he still has something to give, should he not be free to contribute? "You think you ought to stop trying things 'cause you had too many birthdays? I don't."

In his journey towards the ring for his final bout Rocky asks us to consider the dignity of relevance - the idea that human potential should be an inalienable right of us all, no matter what age we are. It is this notion that encourages his son, Robert, to rediscover his father as the heroic figure he always was and allows him to shake off his own selfish shackles to embrace the pride he has for his father and for himself.

When Rocky steps into the ring for the emotionally charged final bout he becomes the personification of the dignity of relevance writ large. He carries an initially skeptical crowd along with him through 15 rounds of a bout that becomes a serious battle to prove to them, to the Champion, Mason Dixon, and to himself that he still has "something in the basement".

At the end, though he loses the bout on points, Rocky wins the battle of hearts and minds because of the fighting spirit that has defined him throughout his life. Rather than having been defeated Rocky imparts an important lesson - that is we can all contribute, prevail and achieve no matter what age we are. This lesson is not lost on the young Champion Mason Dixon who realizes what it is to be a real champion. He honors Rocky with the respect that the dignity of relevance yields and he has grown himself because of it.

I have long had an affection for the Rocky series of films because of their ability to inspire. But it has only been recently that I have come to the realization that, as a sociological document, Rocky Balboa's journey is a powerful exploration of man's journey through life that can be used as a template to understand what it is to be a man - indeed what it is to be human.

My five stages of man - maturing from youth, the quest for identity, identity challenged relationships and the dignity of relevance - provide for me a contextual basis from which I can understand myself and how I fit. Though I find myself in the third stage of this journey, I feel a sense if peace in knowing that I can face my own continuing journey with a direction inspired by continuing self reflection...

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