Flickchart Road Trip: Pennsylvania
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
I would love to tell you that I took advantage of going through the meatiest part of New York state by visiting the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown. After all, it’s not far off the route if you’re taking I-87 (and some side roads) down from Burlington, VT and then meandering over toward Pennsylvania on I-88, before crossing down into the Keystone State on I-81. However, that wouldn’t be playing fair. New York state has already had its turn, even if I only drove through a small sliver of it between New Jersey and Connecticut back in May.
This past week it was Pennsylvania Time — and if that’s not a trademarked phrase, maybe I’ll trademark it now.
I have decent familiarity with Pennsylvania’s two biggest cities, both of which have quite a lot to offer. I visited friends in Philadelphia when I lived in New York, plus made a pilgrimage there each spring from 1997 to 2004 for a fantasy baseball draft. (Shh, don’t tell anyone that I went three more times even after moving to California.) As for Pittsburgh, I spent a weekend there as an ex-girlfriend was considering going to the University of Pittsburgh for graduate school. She ultimately went, which meant the end of us. Philadelphia’s got the history, but Pittsburgh’s got the je ne sais quoi, not to mention those terrific rivers. In fact, my favorite Pittsburgh story involves just driving by on a previous trip across country. I had impeccable timing, as I burst out of a mountainside tunnel right as there were fireworks going off over Three Rivers Stadium. It was one of those moments.
However, I split the difference on this trip and instead visited the town of Scranton. Why Scranton, other than it falling easily on my route? Call it nostalgia for the recently completed run of NBC’s The Office. Although the show was actually shot near my house in Los Angeles, it was set in Scranton, and the external scenes during the opening credits are real Scranton landmarks. The city clearly loves the show, as a Dunder Mifflin banner flies outside the mayor’s office and many local restaurants post signs that say things like “Eat where the Office eats.” I was glad to do so, as well as make some other contributions to the local economy while staying there for two nights. Scranton needs it, as the city was on the verge of bankruptcy last summer and has seen better days. However, it does have a lot to offer, including some interesting museums (I visited the Houdini Museum) and a handful of minor league sports teams (I attended a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders baseball game, even though the team is now a minor league affiliate of the hated New York Yankees). Joe Biden is also from here.
Also from the great state of Pennsylvania was Rocky Balboa, the fictional character at the center of my Pennsylvania movie: Rocky. That’s right, the original Rocky is a film I still hadn’t seen before last week. Informally, it has been at the tippy top of my List of Shame, the single movie I’ve been most embarrassed not to have seen. (That means I’ll now have to think of something to replace it). John G. Avildsen‘s 1976 best picture winner has a global ranking of #87, which makes it the highest ranked film I’ve seen for the first time on this trip. Adding more fuel to my shameful fire is that I’ve already seen Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. Maybe Rocky II can be the next film at the top of my List of Shame.
What it’s about
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a 30-year-old Philadelphia boxer who might have been a contender ten years ago, but didn’t receive the proper support from the trainers who were at his disposal at the time. He’s been making $40 a fight while earning the rest of his money as a low-level enforcer for a local crime boss, an enforcer who shows a strange aversion to breaking the thumbs he’s asked to break. Rocky’s also got his eye on a shy pet store clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire), who can barely raise her eyes to meet Rocky’s, and who is the sister of Rocky’s degenerate buddy Paulie (Burt Young). Rocky’s boxing career looks like it’s really on the way out when the trainer at the local gym (Burgess Meredith) gives away Rocky’s locker to another fighter without telling him. That’s until the current heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), hand-picks Rocky as the challenger in a January 1st, 1976 fight, intended as kind of a show to celebrate the country’s bicentennial. Assuming he’ll win easily, Creed picks Rocky because he shares an Italian heritage with Amerigo Vespucci, the man whose name inspired the name of the country. However, Rocky has no intention of playing along, and plans to go the full 15 rounds with Creed.
How it uses the state
This movie is probably as much a love song to a city as any I’ve seen so far on this trip. Even if it weren’t for the famous scene of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (depicted in the picture above), the movie oozes Philadelphia. However, it’s a complex love song, as a lot of the Philadelphia seen here is grubby, grimy and dilapidated. A recurring symbol of its depressed state is the drab concrete staircases fused to the side of the apartment buildings on Rocky’s block. These staircases are the epitome of function over form, sending one set of stairs off to each side of the front door, giving the place the exact opposite of curb appeal. The Philadelphia in Rocky is similarly functional, but derives from this a certain amount of shabby heart.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Pennsylvania movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Rocky will battle:
1) Philadelphia (1993, Jonathan Demme). My Flickchart: #105/3559. Global: #1034. Twenty years after first seeing Philadelphia, I still get a little choked up just hearing either Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” or Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” on the radio. Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking film brought both AIDS and homosexuality right to the forefront of mainstream culture, shrewdly using a major movie star (Tom Hanks) to make audiences deal with the subject matter rather than marginalizing it as “somebody else’s problem.” It then took that one step further and cast another major movie star (Denzel Washington) as the viewer’s surrogate. As Washington’s Joe Miller grows ever more tolerant of and compassionate toward Hanks’ gay lawyer Andrew Beckett, even the most hard-hearted bigots in the audience had to feel a cathartic swell as they let Andy into their own hearts. Philadelphia is powerhouse filmmaking that earns its heady emotional payoff.
2) Flashdance (1983, Adrian Lyne). My Flickchart: #621/3559. Global: #2784. If my #1 Pennsylvania movie was a stately, important prestige picture, my #2 is just about the opposite of that. That doesn’t make it any less great, though. (Okay, maybe a little.) The story of a Pittsburgh steel welder who wants to be a professional dancer, but works at a gentleman’s club to make ends meet, Flashdance was a huge box office sensation that became one of the most iconic films of the 1980s. Propelled by one of the decade’s most unforgettable soundtracks (“Flashdance … What a Feeling,” “Maniac”), the movie was a true oddity: an R-rated movie with such mainstream appeal, it probably inspired countless young girls to follow in the questionable footsteps of Jennifer Beals. It may mean I have to pass over such great Pittsburgh films as Wonder Boys, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Deer Hunter, but Flashdance is the kind of unique cinematic experience that justifies it.
3) Witness (1985, Peter Weir). My Flickchart: #1024/3559. Global: #713. What would a trip to Pennsylvania be without the Pennsylvania Dutch? Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch are not exactly the same (or so the interwebs tell me), but I digress. Witness is the story of an Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who witnesses a murder in Philadelphia, and one detective’s trip to return him and his mother (Kelly McGillis) to Lancaster County, where they can hide from the corrupt police officers pursuing them. As that detective, Harrison Ford‘s got the most Amish-sounding name in the whole cast: John Book. Then again, what do I know from Amish-sounding names? It’s a tight little cat-and-mouse thriller that also gives us an eye-opening look inside Amish culture.
4) Fat Albert (2004, Joel Zwick). My Flickchart: #2346/3559. Global: #30780. Hey hey hey … this movie’s not half bad. One of Philadelphia’s favorite sons is Bill Cosby, and one of Cosby’s most beloved creations is Fat Albert and his group of friends (known as the Cosby Kids), who were the subjects of an animated television show that ran for 13 years starting in 1972. Should this have made a good movie in the year 2004? Hardly, yet there are some things to like in this warm and well-meaning little movie, which transports the characters into present day, with only their 1970s reference points to help them navigate the world. There are some cute G-rated fish-out-of-water episodes and some eventual poignancy achieved by the fact that Cosby intended this as a tribute to his childhood friend Albert Robertson, on whom the character was based.
5) Lady in the Water (2006, M. Night Shyamalan). My Flickchart: #3541/3559. Global: #9343. With the way he started his career, M. Night Shyamalan may deserve a better representation on this road trip than my #5 Delaware movie and my #5 Pennsylvania movie. I love The Sixth Sense, I really like Signs and I respect Unbreakable. However, when I look at a movie like Lady in the Water, I remember that all negativity is justified. Rarely has such a silly, wrong-headed, ill-conceived, inexcusably self-important and shockingly messianic movie made it to the multiplexes. If it weren’t bad enough that Shyamalan introduces a world of mythological beings called scrunts and narfs, whose existence is somehow predicated on a swimming pool in a suburban Philadelphia apartment complex, the man has the gall to cast himself as a writer who functions in the role of God. It’s sad that a talent like Paul Giamatti would be wasted on a movie like this. Meanwhile, Shyamalan’s new muse, Bryce Dallas Howard (taking the baton from Bruce Willis), spends the movie hugging her legs and looking forlorn.
First duel: Rocky vs. Witness. Can I get a witness? Nope, I can get a boxer. Rocky wins.
Second duel: Rocky vs. Flashdance. Alex Owens might have better footwork — slightly — but Rocky Balboa packs more punch. Rocky wins.
Third duel: Rocky vs. Philadelphia. Of the two inspiring Philadelphians, Andy Beckett is the bigger underdog in his fight. Philadelphia wins.
Rocky finishes second out of the six movies.
For 30 years now I’ve known Rocky Balboa the celebrity. Now I finally know Rocky Balboa the nobody. I have to say, I love that loveable lug. Is that too many uses of the word “love”? I don’t care.
Watching Rocky was a bit like watching a prequel, since I’d already seen four other movies starring this guy, all of which took place after he had already become a household name in his world. What I found so interesting is how the movie presents characters who were already rough around the edges in the later movies, and makes them even rougher. (You’ll have to excuse the implied faulty chronology of saying that an earlier movie takes something from a later movie and “makes it even rougher”). For example, take Mickey, Rocky’s trainer. I would have expected that irascible old coot to be an irascible old coot with a heart of gold, but he really isn’t. First he unceremoniously kicks Rocky out of his locker, throwing Rocky’s personal belongings into a sack and hanging it from a peg on the wall. Then he accuses Rocky of being a bad fighter. Then, after Apollo Creed has already pegged him for a fight with a $150,000 purse, only then does Mickey slink over to his apartment and try to hitch his wagon to a star. I was severely disappointed in the Mickey I knew from Rocky III, but I also appreciated the stark 1970 realism that these character traits indicated. To give one more example of what kind of movie this is, Rocky unleashes a tirade at Mickey after he’s already left the apartment, venting his pent-up anger at a man who can only barely hear his distant yells. When Rocky finally does follow him down to the street to accept Mickey’s offer of training, their reconciliation is witnessed from a hundred feet away, forcing us to assume the content of their interaction from gestures and actions. Smart filmmaking. Most movies would milk that reconciliation for every ounce of its sentimental value, but Rocky is not most movies.
What surprised and delighted me most is how much this movie depends on Rocky Balboa himself. It doesn’t rely on crutches like being a boxing movie (there are only about 15 minutes of boxing), or being a movie about the criminal underworld (that subplot gets even less screen time), or even being a romance (a larger chunk of the running time goes to his sweet courtship with Adrian). It’s a full-on character study of this man, who is as earnest and friendly as one of your dumber breeds of puppy, but has the street smarts to bridge any other deficits in his intelligence. Sylvester Stallone is perfection as Rocky, yet his off-the-charts charisma is not even his main contribution to the movie. The man also wrote the Oscar-nominated script. Every piece of Stallone is present in this movie. He even cracks five eggs into a glass and drinks them, in one take — a take you hope he only had to do once.
Over the course of my last four states, I haven’t seen a single movie that came out after 1983. So let’s jump forward in time to something more recent as we cross into Ohio: Liberal Arts, the 2012 dramedy starring an Olsen sister (not an Olsen twin, but their younger sister) and a guy from How I Met Your Mother, who also directed. Sounds pretty modern to me.