Saturday, July 4, 2009

Politically unconscious movies

TCM's Essential for this week, airing at 8:00 PM ET tonight, is Rocky, the Sylvester Stallone movie about a boxer with a dead-end life in working-class Philadelphia who gets his chance at the big time when champion Apollo Creed picks him to be his next opponent.

Ostensibly, the movie is about boxing, but it's really more of an Everyman story about the desire to rise above one's circumstances. It's a desire that's a universal part of the human spirit, and Rocky simply happens to set this desire in the white working-class life that seems to be dying out in America's cities. In speaking to eternal human values and, combined with some superb acting, Rocky took home the Oscar for the Best Picture of 1976.

Some latter-day critics seem to have a problem with that Oscar, though. One of the other movies up for Best Picture that year was Network, Paddy Chayefsky's satire about the American TV industry and its chase for ratings that in many ways holds just as true today as it did a third of a century ago.. Network is an outstanding movie in its own right, and wouldn't have been an unworthy Best Picture winner, either. But it's also one with a much blunter "message" than Rocky, and I can't help but wonder if that sort of cynical message about America (a stark contrast with what is ultimately an uplifting optimism in Rocky), coming as it did in the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era of the mid-1970s, isn't what makes the more politically-minded want to see Network as the clearly superior picture.

It wouldn't be the first time it's happened, or the last. Art Carney won the Best Actor Oscar in 1974 for Harry and Tonto, a movie which has some echoes to Rocky in that they're both very obviously about the human spirit and man's ultimately underlying dignity. Harry and Tonto, even more than Rocky, has nothing political to say, and Carney beat out, amongst others, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, with Gene Hackman in The Conversation not even being nominated.

There's also Chariots of Fire, another movie with obvious tones about the human spirit and its uplifting side that has little to do with politics. It won the Best Picture Oscar for 1981, and is one of the movies that had a big influence on all those lush period pieces about pre-World War II Britain that have come about in the era since. But, it beat out Reds, Warren Beatty's overlong paean to a Communist apologist. And since Communists were blacklisted from Hollywood in the 1950s, anything that can be seen as trying to rehabilitate them must automatically be good. Sorry, but give me a good story about the human spirit any day instead of a turgid piece of agitprop.

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