Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Mr. T, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Hulk Hogan
With close reference to ONE film of your choice and to theorists such as Yvonne Tasker and Steve Neale – explain, discuss and assess Richard Dyer‘s argument that ‘in short, the built body and the imperial enterprise are analogous’ (quotation is from Dyer’s, White: Essays on Race and Culture. Routledge, 1997, p. 165).
Essentially Richard Dyer outlines in his statement that imperial enterprise and the built body can be discussed of in a similar way. They are entities which operate around the same ideals and are linked.
More specifically they are images in film that convey a notion of the United States of America that takes root in the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s. The link is self-evident; Susan Jeffords highlights the reason for this:
“Man of the Year” in 1980, Reagan went on to become, according to the Gallup poll, the most admired man in America throughout the eight years of his presidency
(Jeffords, 2000, p.1)
It is why Reagan was so popular that we must consider, how he came to embody the spirit of an entire nation and how this transferred across to the images and characters of the cinema of the 1980’s.
Reagan was considered a tough president by many as he was physically big and strong looking. He often played “tough guy” characters like cowboys. As president of the Screen Actors Guild he dealt with one of Hollywood’s most tumultuous eras, specifically the supposed infiltration of communists in Hollywood. This is something that later established his political beliefs and made him obviously popular in Cold War politics. He was a strong leader as highlighted in his biography on whitehouse.gov:
On January 20, 1981, Reagan took office. Only 69 days later he was shot by a would-be assassin, but quickly recovered and returned to duty. His grace and wit during the dangerous incident caused his popularity to soar
(Beschloss & Sidney, 2009, p.1)
It is this “invincible” quality that transcended into popular culture; an aspect to be admired and one noticeably absorbed by the characters portrayed by actor Sylvester Stallone. Stallone became a huge star in the 1980’s due to the two primary roles that ascertained his fame; Rocky and Rambo. As a character, Rocky exemplifies all of the qualities that Reagan promoted as President. In addition the film Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982) acts as the perfect example of the analogous relationship initially outlined by Dyer. In this film Rocky faces his toughest opponent to date, the notorious Clubber Lang played by Mr. T. Rocky loses the initial fight with his adversary, only to come back after rigorous training to eventually reclaim his heavyweight title.
Rocky is the perfect example of the American “every-man” since he is working class and of white Italian American descent. He is not a deep thinker or politically biased, he is simply a champion of hard work and the result of perseverance:
In 1958, walking out of a movie theatre after having watched bodybuilder Steve Reeves in Hercules, the 12-year-old Sly couldn’t believe what he had just seen. He said to himself, “Sly do you want to be a bum or be like Steve Reeves?”
(Anon, 2005, p.1)
The choices of Stallone and Rocky are all too similar, particularly if we consider that Stallone directs himself in Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982). The character is fundamentally a strong and built male spectacle. An immensely popular trending image portrayed throughout the Reagan years by actors like; Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van- Damme to name but a few. The popularity of this new genre arose with Reagan and is epitomized by Rocky as Yvonne Tasker says:
Stallone and Schwarzenegger vied for the position of top box- office male star, presiding over what could be seen as a renaissance of the action cinema.
(Tasker, 2002, p. 91)
Rocky’s popularity is unprecedented, fans have lapped up his story over six films the most recent one being Rocky Balboa (dir: Stallone, 2006), which was released only six years ago and proves the character’s relationship with the American population is almost synonymous. Nevertheless, we must consider how Rocky represents Dyer’s stated link with the imperial enterprise and how exactly he coincides with this theory in Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982).
He does so in two ways; firstly he suffers the torture and sacrifice of training and fighting, secondly his fighting style is so wayward and unrealistic that it puts him in ever present danger.
To consider these in more detail let us begin with the idea of torture that Rocky endures. Dyer states that:
The built body is an achieved body, worked at, planned at, suffered for. A massive, sculpted physique requires forethought and long- term organisation; regimes of graduated exercise, diet and scheduled rest need to be worked out and strictly adhered to; in short, building bodies is the most literal triumph of mind over matter, imagination over flesh
(Dyer, 1997, p. 153)
Rocky is famously seen running up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching frozen sides of beef. In Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982) Rocky is forced time and time again to race Apollo Creed on a sun drenched beach and repeat his fitness regimes inside a dark and tropically heated boxing gym, he oozes sweat, aches and feels pain. This all culminates in the achievement of beating Creed in their last sprint across the beach and the realisation that he is ready to face Clubber Lang for redemption. Yet this process has to be portrayed in the fashion of the montage:
Sylvester Stallone seemed to understand that when he penned the film Rocky […]—all the exercising, jogging, sparring, and dieting—simply do not make for a gripping theatrical experience. In fact, those months of necessary training required a fast-forward montage and a musical score that culminated in Rocky’s euphoric moment atop the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, his hands held high in triumph and the audience certain of his ultimate victory. For the filmmakers as well as the audience, the more rewarding experience was the fight itself and not the grind Rocky went through to reach that ring.
(Consalvo et al, 2010, p. 382)
Although we recognise the imperial enterprise in Rocky’s intense training, we do not wish to suffer through it ourselves. It is a superhuman feet that he endures but it is what is expected of Rocky in order to win the fight ahead. The inherent understanding shows that the audience in the 1980’s recognised the goals of hard work, even though they may have been disinterested in seeing it acted out in full on screen; there is an acknowledgement that it must be present. It defines his character and has become his trade mark.
Secondly, much has been made of Rocky’s fighting style in the films, often cited as inaccurate and not a true reflection of real boxing as H. R. Coursen says:
Auditors will argue that it sounds as well as looks as though people are really getting belted in Rocky, but despite the seeming authenticity of the blows, no heavyweight champion is going to get hit by the sucker punch Rocky lands early in the fight. You might land a punch like that in a Jersey bar
(Coursen, 1977, p.1)
What Coursen states is that Rocky is strictly in the realms of fantasy violence. Yet, we can acknowledge that this is an intentional factor in the films. Often full length boxing bouts last two or three rounds, in the Rocky films the fights typically last 15 rounds with both fighters bleeding profusely and Rocky barely able to stand. Rocky is known for his famous “iron jaw”, his ability to take a beating and carry on fighting when in reality he would be out cold. It conveys the value that hard work and perseverance carry, with the moral message being that you have to suffer to win. Also, with the fantasy element we can see boxing as a high octane spectacular in comparison to the tactical precision based sport that it really is. This can then be applied to Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982), in the big finale fight when Rocky punches Clubber Lang square in the face a ridiculous seventy- seven times in the first round alone. Then in the second round Clubber Lang picks Rocky up to throw him into the corner of the ring where he can trap him and deliver a series of crippling blows. In the final round Rocky eventually overcomes Clubber Lang, bleeding from a gash below his eye and manages to knock his opponent out. Based on the previous minutes of action we have just seen we know that no human being on earth could have made it that far, again portraying Rocky as the superhuman emblem of human perfection and the result of imperial enterprise. Realistically, he would have killed Clubber Lang in the first round and the film would have ended much earlier. Dyer makes a valid link between his two chosen ideals, though we must consider to what extent this can be deemed as true as there are criticisms to be drawn from what he says.
Steve Neale in his article Masculinity as Spectacle addresses the link between male spectators and the male stars on screen and also that this is done as a means of exclusion:
A series of identifications are involved, then, each shifting and mobile. Equally though, there is constant work to channel and regulate identification in relation to sexual division, in relation to orders of gender, […] Every film tends both to assume and actively to work to renew those orders, that division.
(Neale, 1983, p.5)
We see that the male protagonists that dominate cinema exclude the notion of a woman or an ethnic minority character ever being placed in a position of power. This is enforced through repetition, repetition that is accepted because Rocky appeals to a male spectator. Neale outlines in his article that audience identification takes place when a strong male protagonist prevails on screen. There are two types of identification “with narcissism the other with phantasies and dreams” (Neale, 1983, p.4) we see Rocky narcissistically suffering through pain and anguish to win boxing bouts and so the audience gets this idea of self- improvement, if we try hard we can be like Rocky. However, considering his initial point above we can begin to question the limits of the identification in which they “renew those orders” (Neale, 1983, p.5) and is what we must look at next, specifically the fact of un-equal gender roles in film.
Gender is the first key aspect not considered as equal in Dyer’s line of argument:
Only a hard, visibly bounded body can resist being submerged into the horror of femininity and non- whiteness
(Dyer, 1997, p.153)
There is no account for strong female protagonists in cinema when in reality there are many. From the Rocky- era we can focus on Aliens (dir: Cameron, 1986) as proof of this. The lead character Ellen Ripley played by Sigourney Weaver is just as strong and capable as any male character, as Yvonne Tasker says:
Weaver reputedly dubbed her role in the second film as ‘Rambolina’, acknowledging the films rather self- conscious allusions to the Rambo narrative and persona. Aliens has Ripley, having being betrayed by ‘the company’, decked out in weaponry to do battle with the mother alien.
(Tasker, 2002, p.15)
This is the first instance in which we can point out that Dyer may have been rather ignorant in his selection of films when writing his essay. Ripley is a strong female role model; she outlives most men in the entire Alien franchise across four films and is constantly tasked to use her strength and wits to defeat the aliens. While men are often portrayed as gung- ho and lacking in intelligence, repeatedly in place for comic effect, she is the cool and collected warrior who returns time after time and continually survives. In addition, race is comparable in the sense that it is not considered across a wider spectrum of films. There is a racial division in Dyer’s work, a division that places white males at the pinnacle of film narratives.
From a structuralist perspective Edward Said’s theories have relevance to Dyer and Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982). Said, as a structuralist, works around the idea of binary oppositions. If we apply his theory to Rocky we can see that there is indeed a binary opposition that occurs. In his own words in Latent and Manifest Orientalism (Said, 1978, p. 201- 225) he states:
Thus the whole question of imperialism, as it was debated in the late nineteenth century by pro-imperialists and anti- imperialists alike, carried forward the binary typology of advanced and backward (or subject) races,
(Said, 1978, p.206)
Rocky isn’t strictly a film franchise based around the colonising and invading of other nations (we leave that to Rambo) nor is it racially discriminative, but Clubber Lang as an African- American does represent the colonised Africans who were sold into slavery. So in addition to this there is a racial issue in Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982). Rocky is representative of the white ethnic majority in America and Clubber Lang represents an ideal of black power and traditional black imagery that stems from the era of slavery. Said would argue that pitting a white man against a black man and seeing the white man win is symbolic and a repetition of a stereotype. Although he would disagree with Dyer’s exclusive theory in which he remarks “the idea of being an ‘American’ has long sat uneasily with the ideas of being any other colour than white” (Dyer, 1997, p. 149), what Said does with his binary oppositions is create difference between Rocky and Clubber Lang where none exists. We can however consider Clubber Lang as an image of Black Power:
According to Carmichael and Hamilton, Black Power encompasses a political and social agenda that would enable “black self- determination and black self- identity”
(Watkins, 2012, p.5)
In application to Clubber Lang we know this to be true; he embodies a certain African type of cultural appearance from his feather ear-ring to his Mohawk haircut. He is attempting to be individual and stand out from the crowd to make himself appear more dangerous and threatening with the use of his race. He is also loud, abrasive and confrontational in a bid to make himself conspicuous and be recognised. He is in stark contrast to the clean cut Rocky, not just in skin tone but in a semiotic and emotive sense as well. Said would have us believe that this difference is to give power to the white perspective thus making the film slightly racist and largely stereotypical. This however is not the case, some may add that Rocky is fighting a “threat from within” a supposed black power threat to white- American ideals and this takes the film to grounds that it does not exist in.
Homi Bhabha as a post- structuralist theorist pointed out the flaws in what Said had to say on Orientalism and colonisation and in turn exposes the holes in Dyer’s argument as well. As we have seen, asserting a binary difference between races creates difference and abolishes equality, equality is something that Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982) in truth actively promotes. It is then strange that Dyer seems to focus on Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (dir: Cosmatos, 1985), which is highly racially stereotypical and far more imposing of difference and inequality than Rocky. Bhabha says about Said’s theory:
The authority of that mode of colonial discourse that I have called mimicry is therefore stricken by an indeterminacy: mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal
(Bhabha, 1994, p. 122)
Bhabha is driven by a belief in racial and cultural exclusivity and that the binary logic of colonial discourse establishes an authority/ hierarchy relationship. Ultimately the use of binary oppositions fixes people and their races into categories which is discriminative in itself and does not allow for racial transcendence and the abolishment of traditional ways of thinking. Rocky doesn’t have to beat Clubber Lang because he is black but because he is dangerous and uncontrollable. As we see early on, he poses several threats to Rocky; such as when he sexually propositions Rocky’s wife in one scene:
Clubber Lang: Since your old man ain’t got no heart maybe you’d like to see a real man I bet you stay up every night dreaming you had a real man don’t ya. Tell you what, bring your pretty little self over to my apartment tonight and I’ll show you a real man
(dir: Stallone, 1982, 27mins 57secs)
He poses a personal threat to Rocky and no-one else. Also, Rocky doesn’t beat Clubber Lang because he is white and he actually loses their first fight, before seeking the help of his former adversary Apollo Creed, who is also black, to help him train. Apollo Creed is seen training Rocky for the re-match in a gym dominated with black boxers. Rocky has to learn how to think like a black boxer and take on these traits in a positive manner. Creed is faster than him at first and it takes long, hard preparation for Rocky to finally beat him in a sprint. All in all the film promotes racial equality, yes we can say that the ethnic division possibly means that the character and the film transcend liminality but as a whole Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982) appeals for white and black people to work together against the evil that can exist in society portrayed by Clubber Lang and not as a racist slur, but merely a character type. Clubber Lang is evil and is not defeated on racial beliefs. In fact Clubber Lang reverses the racial stereotypes in the film, as Dyer says “Muscle heroes are not indigenous” (Dyer, 1997, p. 156).The black built body heralds from Africa and if we take Dyer’s word we see that Clubber Lang is really the invading force and that Rocky is the indigenous character in defence of his home and family; he does not seek out his enemy. In fact Clubber Lang seeks him out and tempts him to come out of retirement to fight him.
To summarise, when deciding upon whether to agree or disagree with Dyer depends upon the perspective in which you approach his theory. Dyer’s consideration of the link between imperial enterprise and the built body stems from a white- centric approach and a lack of consideration of a wider scope of films. We note he is not racist but his theory excludes the idea of race and gender. He proposes the white male as the embodiment of social enterprise and perfection:
Equally, many of the formal properties of the built body carry connotations of whiteness: it is ideal, hard, achieved, wealthy, hairless and tanned
(Dyer, 1997, p. 150)
As explored above he tends to not recognise many films; a wider range would have given him a highly changed line of argument. By preferring to reference Rambo: First Blood Part II (dir: Cosmatos, 1985) frequently and ignore others he narrows his field of analysis, yet if he had cast his views over Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982) and Aliens (dir: Cameron, 1986) he would have found the strong basis of his theory lacking in coherent substance. Tasker and Neale consider gender in their theories and show that the built body does not represent wider society and hence applied to Dyer’s argument cannot represent imperial enterprise as a whole due it being so exclusive. Structuralists like Said however, approach the idea differently, using binary oppositions to quantify racial debates. Nevertheless, his argument agrees that race pitches Rocky and Clubber Lang into a slave and master partnership which then brings Said in agreement with Dyer. In the end though, this is highly false as post-structuralist analysis from Bhabha points out that imposing binary oppositions creates difference. Said is just placing non- white characters in line with Dyer’s exclusive theory and being self-contradicting and in fact when we look closely at Rocky III (dir: Stallone, 1982) we can see how socially aware and racially accepting it is in terms of cinema of the early 1980’s. As a film it promotes the values of hard work without imposing one ethnicity against another. Richard Dyer makes valid links between society and the built body but ultimately an adjustment of perspective shows us that yes, he does say things that are correct but only when you narrow your view of the entire argument and focus on a handful of film narratives when there are many that do not comply. Imperial enterprise relies upon more than just strong white men to define it. Gender and race must also be considered as analogous with the contemporary imperial enterprise as they too are prominent in contemporary films and society.
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Aliens (1986) Directed by James Cameron. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Brandywine Productions and SLM Production Group
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) Directed by George P. Cosmatos. USA: Anabasis N. V.
Rocky III (1982) Directed by Sylvester Stallone. USA: United Artists
Rocky Balboa (2006) Directed by Sylvester Stallone. USA: Metro- Goldwyn- Mayer (MGM), Columbia Pictures and Revolution Studios