Cinematic Techniques and the Redemption Theme in Rocky
�Do you believe that America is the land of opportunity?� a fight promoter asks Rocky Balboa in Rocky (John Avildsen, 1976). The myth of the American dream provides the thematic impetus for the film, which suggests that we all have a potential for greatness that can be actualized--if the right opportunity presents itself and if we have the loving support of others. Linked to this theme of the American dream is a secondary theme: the transforming power of love. Being loved can change a person and provide the background support for achievement and personal growth.
Rocky, "The Italian Stallion" (played by Sylvester Stallone), represents the little guy, the man on the street, in fact, the person who has bottomed out. Yet, when fate in the guise of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) offers him a chance, he rises to the occasion and - to everyone's amazement - realizes his own power and greatness. Adrian (Talia Shire), thirty and afraid of sex, begins as a loser also. Through her involvement with Rocky, she blossoms into a beautiful woman and in return supports him in his transformation.
The opening shot of the film is of a golden picture on a gym wall of Christ. In slow disclosure, the camera zooms back to reveal a boxing ring. A wall inscription of one word is evident behind the boxers and the audience: Resurrection. The scene uses low key lighting, and it emphasizes non-heroic sounds such as the voices of the crowd and the bell signaling the end of a round. Rocky wins, but the film�s techniques make his victory seem like a loss. The film ends with a fight that fulfills the resurrection promise of this first scene. In the final scene, which gives the film a circular structure, high key lighting and glorious music enhance the climactic sense of triumph as Rocky manages to go the distance. The decor is red, white, and blue, in honor of the nation�s bicentennial and the realization of the American dream.
The film is replete with recurring images that serve to develop the main ideas. Animals are used throughout as analogs of human beings. When Rocky visits Adrian in a pet store, we see her framed through the parakeet cage. We also see a dog, a boxer in a cage, which becomes associated with Rocky. (When he begins his training, the boxer is let out of his cage.) Like these caged animals, these two people are stuck, entrapped by their poor self-image. The scene ends with a select-focus two-shot of them in a mirror. Shots of Rocky and/or Adrian looking into the mirror are used throughout to suggest the idea of identity and self-esteem.
When Rocky returns to his room after the opening fight, he is shown peering into the glass bowl that houses Cuff and Link, the two turtles Adrian sold him. They serve to underline the fact that Rocky is alone until Adrian visits his apartment, which is the next time there is a reference to them. Animal imagery is also evident in the meat carcasses where Paulie (Burt Young) works. As Rocky punches one, Paulie comments that he is breaking the ribs, which is precisely what he does in the big fight with Apollo Creed.
Posters are also prominent recurring images. Early in the film, in Rocky's room, we see a large poster of Rocky Graziano, his namesake and hero. The camera pans from this poster to a low angle shot of Rocky. Then there is a cut to the mirror with pictures framing it, and the camera zooms in to a childhood picture. The child aspired to the greatness of his boxing hero, but the mirror indicates that the adult Rocky must face the reduced state of the life he has made for himself so far. In the final fight scene, a huge poster of Rocky is prominently displayed in the background, indicating that he has finally achieved his ideal.
Avildsen assures us from the beginning that Rocky will succeed. We usually see him from a low angle shot even when we first meet him at the nadir of his life. After the opening fight scene, when he returns to the locker room, walking with Gazzo (Joe Spinell), his loan-shark employer, responding to the offer by Apollo Creed's agent, and during the final fight, he is presented as a potential hero. Of course, Apollo Creed is always shown from a low angle. The high angle shot, however, is used sparingly. When Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Rocky's manager-to-be, climbs the stairs to his apartment, he is shown from a high angle to accentuate his age and supplicant role. As he leaves after having his offer rejected, he is again shown from a high angle. The boxing ring for the final match is shown from a bird's-eye shot to convey the sense of fate or destiny at work in Rocky's life. This shot is accompanied by a trumpet fanfare.
Rocky's movement in the film is often away from the camera. After he wins the opening match, he leaves the locker room, walks out into the streets of Philadelphia past some singers, and then continues alone, walking away from the camera as it pans right to left in a long shot. This happens again as he leaves the gym after having been locked out and when he leaves Gazzo in the street. The shots of Rocky�s back suggest his feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. Also in keeping with this characterization of entrapment and dejection is the mise-en-sc�ne, which emphasizes long corridors and streets and cramped spaces, like Rocky's room and Adrian's house.
The lighting used throughout the first half of the film is low key. However, after Rocky has been in training for a while, we see him running through the streets and a montage of aspects of his training routine is shown. The lighting is high key, climaxing in his easy run up the flight of stairs that had caused him such stress at the beginning of the training. He has changed; he is now in shape physically and mentally, and the lighting reveals this improvement. It is bright daylight.
Colors are generally muted, except for the red lampshade in Rocky's room, which adds to the sensual quality of the love scene. Red is also the color of Rocky�s boxing robe and of Adrian's clothing when she gives Rocky a present of the dog. The color seems to emphasize the resurgence of life for both of them. Of course, the bicentennial red, white, and blue dominates the mise-en-sc�ne of the final fight scene. Even the ropes of the ring are bright red.
At several points throughout the film, source sound from the radio or television is heard in the background, often asynchronously, first to introduce the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, then to communicate his challenge, and finally to show Rocky as a celebrity. (We see from a picture on his mirror that Rocky is indeed a celebrity, having made the cover of Time magazine.) The first time we are aware of this sound is in the Lucky 7 Tavern where Rocky goes to speak with Paulie. They meet in a run-down bathroom, and the seedy atmosphere of the place seems ironically far-removed from anything related to the talk of championships in the background.
Asynchronous sound is also used when Mickey pleads with Rocky to take him on as manager. He says "I'm 76 years old,� and on the other side of the door, a toilet flushes. As Mickey descends the staircase, Rocky's voice is heard recounting how he has been hurt. Next is a long shot of the street with Mickey walking away from the camera. The "Rocky Theme" is heard as Rocky follows him up the street and they stand conversing, two little people in mutual need. The music signals a fortuitous partnership. There is, of course, source mood music during the love scene and a humorous use of source music - the Marine Anthem - for Apollo's entrance at the fight.
Avildsen uses silence effectively when Rocky leaves Adrian asleep in his room, goes to the boxing arena, and stands in the middle of the ring. The camera makes a 360-degree turn with him as he surveys the space. The silence and circular pan communicate the awesomeness of this undertaking and the apprehension he feels.
Through the techniques Avildsen has chosen, Rocky portrays the redemption of a loser, a nobody who regains his manhood and self-esteem, raising up all the little people - Adrian, Paulie, Mickey - around him and simultaneously embodying the myth of the ordinary man as the embodiment of the American dream.
When “Rocky” was first released, the Times critic Vincent Canby was not a fan. Although the film would go on to win the Academy Award for best picture, Canby criticized the publicity surrounding it and was none too kind to the performance of Sylvester Stallone, whom he described as “the large hole in the center of the film.”
“Mr. Stallone’s Rocky is less a performance than an impersonation. It’s all superficial mannerisms and movements, reminding me of Rodney Dangerfield doing a nightclub monologue.”
The review did hit one positive note, about the performance of Talia Shire, who played Rocky’s love interest, Adrian.
“She’s a real actress,” Canby wrote, “genuinely touching and funny as an incipient spinster who comes late to sexual life.”
But the critic got one more jab in at Mr. Stallone with his final line:
“Throughout the movie we are asked to believe that his Rocky is compassionate, interesting, even heroic, though the character we see is simply an unconvincing actor imitating a lug.”