Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Marx, Finch, De Niro, Stallone and Brando.

So far this weekend I've knocked off another two films on my AFI Top 100 project: Network (1976) and A Night at the Opera (1935), and so far it's been a fantastic weekend.

I know I should write more about these films, but really, you've gotta see these to believe 'em. When someone told me that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was just Aaron Sorkin drawing Network out into twenty-odd episodes, I scoffed – and now I totally believe it. It makes me even more depressed that there will never be a second season of Studio 60, but I believe it. In a way, Studio 60 is an odd mash-up of homage and meta-level remake: a story decrying the sins of television on television and eventually killed by television. TV scholars everywhere should have been curling up their toes with glee at the synchronicity between the common theme of network interference between Studio 60 and Network and the network meddling that wound up resulting in the show's feeling so wildly uneven, which, of course, led to its untimely demise. (30 Rock didn't help much either, of course, but now I wonder if the green light for 30 Rock was given so that the executives could present the American populace with an option as to which philosophy of television they'd rather believe. That the so-called "TV Generation" would pick the more upbeat candidate should come as a shocker to no one.) Network is now, as I suspected it would be, one of my favorite films ever. Absolutely fantastic writing, acting and message, with a great blend of workhorse framing not getting in the way of the dialogue and narrative and real knock-down awesome cinematography where needed (most notably in Ned Beatty's boardroom scene). Seriously. Well worth the money.

A Night at the Opera, of course, is one of the Marx Brothers' most timeless classics. The Marx Brothers, like Laurel and Hardy or Chaplin, are, I think, a sort of Rorschach test of humor – I myself found Groucho and Chico's one-liners priceless but Harpo's screwball visual gags less interesting – still, in toto I loved the film completely and can't wait to experience more of their work. Laura, on the other hand, didn't warm as much to the film, which makes me suspect the 'Rorschach Test' theory. It's also the case that my own sense of humor is, well, odd, and somewhat anachronistic – many contemporary comedies hold very little appeal to me, but I find the old stuff wonderful. I like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau more than Jon Heder and Efren Ramirez, for example; given my choices, I'd rather see old Marx brothers movies than Harold and Kumar. I liked the movie, but I liked A Night at the Opera much more.

I suppose the common element to both movies that I appreciate the most, which should surprise absolutely nobody, is the writing. Verbal wit beats slapstick in my book, and compelling, intelligently-written and brilliant dialogue coupled with a great, heartfelt message presented well will get me to make a beeline for the theater. I enjoyed Raging Bull, but I liked Network much more perhaps due to my own preference for intelligent plots; of course, at the same time, I think I liked Raging Bull a great deal more than Rocky (which I also watched last week) because De Niro is clearly a better actor than Stallone and the character was simply more complex. On the Waterfront proves that a character can be far from the sharpest crayon in the box and still complex and endearing; of this "Pugilism Trilogy" I think I may have liked On the Waterfront best, followed by Raging Bull and then Rocky. What do you guys think? Bill?


Okay, first of all, I'm going to wade into a minefield by saying I haven't seen On the Waterfront yet. I too am engaged in an effort at filling in my missing films, though I'm working through the classics of film noir first (inspired by the "Out of the Past") podcast).

But limiting my evaluation to Raging Bull (which I only saw for the first time last year myself) and Rocky, I find it hard to make a comparison. Certainly, LaMotta is a more complex character than Balboa (and DeNiro certainly a better actor than Stallone), but the two really are like apples and oranges -- other than the fact that they both concern boxing, they're very different films. Put in classical terms, it's tragedy versus comedy. And while I can readily appreciate that Raging Bull is a better-made film (I mean come on, it's Scorsese, for crying out loud), I also look at which one I actually have in my DVD collection.

Raging Bull is a fascinating study of the "tragic hero" that is Jake LaMotta, and the scope of the story (not to mention the black-and-white photography) really make us believe this is real. This is the tragedy that is life, these are the flawed characters who inhabit it. Glory can be fleeting, and it's hardly the cure-all that we would hope it to be. Not only does victory come only after a long and bitter struggle, but life doesn't end on that high note.

Rocky, on the other hand, is a fantasy. It's a movie that inspires repeated viewing, and not for academic reasons -- it taps into that part of us that loves a well-earned adrenaline rush, a rush born not only of feeling a part of the action, but in truly identifying with the beaten-down underdog. Let's face it -- the catharsis at the end of the film is damned hard to beat.

And, of course, the movie ends with the final bell. (The later films would go on to explore the realities of life after victory, at least in the case of the first sequel, but I'm just looking at the original film here. Besides, the films -- with the possible exception of the latest, which I haven't seen -- rapidly descended into hackwork.)

I'd also throw in a word about the character of Rocky -- true, he's anything but complex. But Stallone the writer/actor and Avildsen the director manage to show us that simple people are people too. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is Rocky's acknowledgment that despite his pretense that the attacks on his intelligence haven't hurt him, he's been lying. Yes, he's simple, but he's human, and suffers just like the rest of us.

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