Friday, March 30, 2007
I keep asking the wrong question.
Whenever I stop to look at how the years have flown by, I always ask, "where did the time go?"
Of course, what I mean to ask is "what did I do with the time when I had it?"
I asked that question twice this week when I became reacquainted with two of the biggest movies of my life.
First, I read a news story about how the Post Office is preparing a commemorative stamp for Star Wars to mark the film's 30th--no, I'm not kidding--30th anniversary.
A stamp for Star Wars? You issue stamps for dead people, not for movies that just came out...30 years ago.
I was still reeling from that shock when I sat down and slipped Rocky Balboa into the DVD player tonight. Rocky is a year older than Star Wars. My God, where did the time--? No, I'm not going to ask again.
I'm still not feeling well and I thought I'd get a few laughs watching Sylvester Stallone dredge up this character one more time. But instead I found myself crying at several scenes--like when Stallone visits Adrian's grave or when Paulie admits how ashamed he was for being so mean to his sister.
It's impossible not to think of my mother during the graveyard scenes. And I think of her when I watched Paulie break down, too, because I thought of the times I had argued with my mother and I felt so guilty.
Rocky and Paulie are really two halves of one person. Rocky is impossibly good-natured and Paulie is mean enough to be three people. But you put them together and you have one complex person who is both a saint and a sinner...like most of us.
I told my buddy Hank about my emotional response to Stallone's latest epic. He questioned me like Joe Friday on the old Dragnet show.
"You cried at Rocky?" he asked.
"Yes," I confessed.
There was a slight pause.
"That's pretty bad," he said.
Yeah, I guess. Maybe I should change the names to protect the neurotic.
I remember seeing the first Rocky movie, back in the autumn of 1976. I was a sophomore at Hunter College and I went to a sneak preview at a theater on East 60th Street. I forget the name of the theater, but I think it's still standing, unlike a lot of things from my past.
I saw with a guy from my film class, whom I'll call Ted. He was one of those people I called a friend, even though I really didn't care for him all that much. If I've learned nothing in the last three decades, I hope I'm better at picking my company.
"Women Weaken Legs!"
It's hard to think of Rocky as something new, but on that night it was. This guy shouting "Yo, Adrian!", the obnoxious Paulie, the shy, but loving girlfriend--I met these people for the first time that night.
I recall at one point two guys in theater getting into an argument because one was talking too much. Finally another guy said, "hey, just dig the movie." And it actually worked as the pair of them shut up.
The audience wents nuts when Rocky decked Apollo Creed for the first time during the climactic figth scene. When the fight ended and the two boxers embraced, Ted said to me, "I'd like to see it end now"--without a winner being declared. I think he was right; that would have been better.
But the film went on until Adrian and Rocky traded "I love you's" and we both groaned at how corny that sounded. I saw Rocky again a few months later at the Alpine in Bay Ridge and the audience applauded at that scene. Outer-borough people are too sentimental.
Rocky opened to the general public a short time after the sneak preview and it swept the country. It seemed that's all people were talking about and Stallone was everywhere. A woman in my film class said that she told her boyfriend that while she was crazy about him, she'd leave in a heartbeat if Stallone showed up.
I saw Rocky the second time with my girlfriend at the time, whom I call Lulu. She was a lot like Ted in that I thought she was someone I wanted to have close to me, but who was actually not worth the effort. Lulu had gone out with me earlier, dumped me, got dumped by the guy she dumped me for, then came back and dumped me again.
But this was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and it was great seeing a movie like that with a girl. Lulu grabbed my arm and cheered as Rocky fought back against Creed. It was a magical night.
Stallone went on to make mostly crap after that--including that hateful Rambo creature--but he kept on coming back to the Rocky character for sequel after sequel.
Rocky fought Creed again, Mr. T, the big Russian freakazoid, and then someone named Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. By then, though, I had stopped paying for Rocky movies and caught the end of that one on cable one rainy afternoon. And I still felt cheated.
Stallone is still able to squeeze something out of the story, but that's not surprising. The lovable loser fighting against impossible odds with his true love at his side--it's pretty hard to screw that up.
In this latest outing, he is certainly showing his age. He looks weird, to be honest. I don't know if it's cosmetic surgery or steroids, but Stallone looks rubbery, like a wrinkled G.I. Joe. And the fight scenes are almost laughable as this 60-year-old man gets into the ring and grunts with every punch.
But there is that drama when he hits the deck and I get angry with myself when I wince in sympathy. What do you think is going to happen, guy? We've got to have a happy ending.
In the DVD mini-feature, Stallone gives every indication that this is the end for Rocky, the last time he'll run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, the last time he'll climb into the ring.
I think that's a great idea. It's time for Rocky to fly now and not return, but I want to wish him well and say thanks for fighting the good fight.
Then Star Wars came along.
It was just a few months after Rocky when another huge movie hit the world across the face. Again, I saw Star Wars when it was new,when Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo were unknown.
I went up the train to visit Lulu in Rockland County (one of the reasons it didn't work out, but it would have bombed if we had been next-door neighbors) and this woman sitting next to me starting telling me all about this hot new movie called Star Wars.
I don't remember much about the conversation, except that this woman was very excited about the picture. And that she had a joint in her cigarette case--it seemed like she wanted me to see it as proof of how cool she was.
I took Lulu to see Star Wars at a theater on E86th Street on the day of the Puerto Rican parade. The relationship was in a death spiral by then.
There was a huge line outside the theater and when I suggested we skip the movie, Lulu whined "what are we going to do (instead)?" I guess my company wasn't good enough for her.
We got on what I thought was the end of the line and filed into the theater. As we moved I realized we had actually stepped into a gap in the line and had gotten ahead of a whole bunch of people. No one complained, by some miracle, and in we went.
I'll never forget seeing that huge battle cruiser cross the screen for the first time. The scene was awesome and I enjoyed every second that followed. The catina, the light sabre duels, the space dogfights--I couldn't get enough of that movie.
I took Lulu to lunch at a nearby diner, then down to Grand Central Station, where she got on a train and rode out of my life. It's just as well. There was no relationship there, only a bit of fiction I cooked up because I was desperate to have a girlfriend.
Now 30 years have gone by and Lulu and Ted are so distant in my memory I could almost doubt their existence. George Lucas went on to make all those sequels and I grew to hate the whole Star Wars franchise.
I saw the second part of the second trilogy and that was enough--it was just a bore, an overblown Flash Gordon potboiler. George, be like Sly and give this series a rest. There's nothing more to say, believe me.
So what have I done with the time when I had it? Not much when I think about it. I didn't reach any of my big dreams and I'm a few weeks away from turning 50.
But I'm tired of beating myself up over this; I pummel myself worse than Apollo Creed pounds on Rocky. Yes, I didn't do enough to reach my goals, I should have been more aggressive, less fearful. It's all true, but kicking myself only wears out my leg and makes it hard to sit down.
Rocky Balboa is crammed with speeches and sermons and I was cringing at most of them. At one point Rocky lecutures his son by saying "it ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!"
Yes, it's hackneyed and over the top, but I'll take it. It sure beats sitting on your can and saying where did the time go?