America in the ring

Rocky is not a simple film character, but a figure who carries the aspirations of the white and virile man in the American popular culture fantasy of a nation which always prevails against the Black and the communist.

How to understand the success of the saga Rocky and the way in which the character created by Stallone freed himself from the fictional world to join the Hall of Fame legendary pugilists? This is the ambition set by Loc Artiaga, historian of popular and media cultures, in his work which covers the eight films of this saga of astonishing longevity (the two cycles which compose it were filmed over more than forty years) and, in a to a lesser extent, the derivative products it inspired. The author's ambition is twofold. It is primarily a question of proposing a sociological approach to this success, as the subtitle of the book explicitly announces. white people's dream of revenge, but also to reflect, in doing so, on the dynamics of exchanges between media productions and the social sphere. The author presents his approach as that of a historian, collecting and analyzing source artifacts () with the same meticulousness as classic archivesto write the biography of a character, certainly fictional, but who is nonetheless a very real barometer social dissatisfaction, racial fears, virile fears (p. 33).

Rocky or the revenge fantasy of a declassed America

The first opus of the saga presents us with Rocky Balboa, a mediocre Italian-American boxer from the poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia, who, through force of will and at the cost of relentless training, comes close to victory against one of the best pugilists in the world, Apollo Creed. In the following episodes, this honorable failure gives way to much less ambiguous victories against a series of adversaries who are both those of Rocky (the personal component not being absent from his fights) but also, as the author shows, those who gave himself Reaganite America, mainly the black and the communist and, secondarily, the woman.

If the first episode, crowned with success when it was released in 1976, was able to benefit from a certain critical goodwill, even attracting the favor of progressives who saw it as the journey of a working class herothe following films, pitting ever more caricatured characters against the hero and espousing a Reaganite ideology, quickly alienated them.

L. Artiaga, disregarding any aesthetic judgment, embraces the entire successful saga in which Rocky, Italian stallionoffers white America a sports uchronia (p. 21), a fictional branch, which allows him in passing to restore a virility put in danger at the same time byempowerment women and gay culture in a context of homophobia accentuated by the AIDS epidemic.

The choice of boxing is in no way neutral to the extent that, as L. Artiaga shows, the ring is the place par excellence for the confrontation of races and nations (p. 13), transforming into a violent spectacle the oppositions of race, class, religion, nationality and giving them a temporary outcome (p. 25), hence the particular importance given to this discipline during the Cold War. Boxing would crystallize in this case this revanchism white including Sylvie Laurent, cited by the author for her essay Poor little white man: the myth of racial dispossession (2020), finds traces in popular culture (see also the article “Clint Eastwood or the grunts of the white man”).

As a biographer, L. Artiaga first looks at Rocky Balboa's youth and in particular at the director's significant choice of Philadelphia. The Art Museum, whose protagonist climbs the steps during the intensive training he undergoes in a scene that remains legendary, thus offers him a clear view of the City Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed. On the other hand, it makes invisible the quays, factories and working-class neighborhoods where he spends most of his time and where different communities coexist, often with difficulty.

RockyJohn G. Avildsen (1976)

As L. Artiaga points out, the racial diversity encouraged by urbanization policies is in fact seen by many Italian-Americans as the cause of a deterioration of their living space. By fictitiously taking over from Rocky Marciano, crowned world champion in Philadelphia in 1952, but who retired in 1956, to whom he undoubtedly owes his name, Rocky, the proletarian, could appear as the instrument of revenge of this white working class against which she experienced as a humiliation. From this point of view, notes L. Artiaga, Rocky fits into the logic of boxing films from the 1930s like Winner takes all (1932) or Kid Galahad (1937) highlighting white cellulod pugilists in fictions aimed at countering the rise of black boxers, whose filmed victories over white boxers were deemed dangerous and therefore prohibited from theatrical release by local and regional authorities. If these boxing films flourished during the Great Depression, underlines the essayist, it is undoubtedly because they featured champions who thus escaped social poverty and embodied a masculinity of control, power exercised over oneself as an antidote to downgrading, a form of relegitimization through the blows given (p. 24), from which Stallone takes up the torch in the context of another crisis, that of the 1970s, by adding a aestheticization of violence and a vengeful tone which previous films lacked.

L. Artiaga, however, recalls that the character played by Stallone does not take up the racist discourse, contenting himself with deploring the poverty that is rampant in his neighborhood (everything stinks here), but it shows that the success of the character nevertheless takes on its full meaning in the context of symmetrical hatred of the real good Mohammed Ali in the 1960s and 70s. The latter is not only the Greatestwhom no white boxer managed to defeat, but also a militant of the Nation of Islam and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. His successive victories are experienced by White America as so many snubs to which only fiction seems to be able to respond, as the illustrious boxer himself explains in an interview with an American journalist: For the Black to prove superior would have been against American values. I was so great that they had to create Rocky, a white representation for the screen to counter what I represented in the ring. America must have white icons, no matter where it looks for them (p. 28).

Even if social criticism is not totally absent at the beginning and end of the cycle, L. Artiaga believes that these films never confront the ideological foundations of the world of boxingthe suggested answers remaining conform to a reactionary political horizon (p. 217). If Rocky's victory over the Soviet Ivan Drago allows Stallone's character to raise the values ​​of his country (especially since by beating him, he avenges the death of Apollo Creed, his former adversary who became his friend, who died on the ring against the Russian champion), more generally, he embodies, in his very flesh, the hard bodiesstrong, masculine, heterosexual and white that the New Right celebrates (p. 104). This virility is, however, a controlling masculinity, since Rocky, far from the sexual disorders of boxing stars widely commented on by the press, devotes unwavering loyalty to Adrian. This ethic makes him the undisputed champion of the general public (p. 193), while critics turned their backs on it from the second opus of the saga, and it inspired derivative products of which L. Artiaga gives examples in the final chapter of his work, entitled fiction as occultation: two novelizations, a musical comedy, video games, parody sequences in television programs or in the cinema, but also, in a more trivial way, the reproduction of the character's clothing, objects in his likeness or reproducing certain replicas from the film or still the rise by fans of the film Rocky steps Philadelphia.

The final credits of the film Rocky Balboa (2006) dramatizes its own legend.

A historian in fictional territory

In fact, the author constantly points to the constant overlapping of reality and fiction in the phenomenon. Rocky, of which he provides some valuable elements of contextualization. He thus recalls that at the origins of cinema, boxing fights, which were very popular, posed insoluble problems of live capture, and that they were therefore replayed by real champions in front of the camera in cinemas. fake boxing movies of which Philadelphia, in fact, became a major center of production.

In 1982, Time Magazine brings together Rocky and the real boxer Gerry Cooney, one of the sources of inspiration for the character.

Lessayiste gives several examples of this clever interweaving of the real and the fictional which helped to forge the character of Rocky. He mentions in particular the way in which real boxers were asked by the media to analyze Rocky's fights (often noting their implausibility and the latter's technical mediocrity) or to imagine fights mixing real pugilists with fictional characters from the saga (Mike Tyson himself got in on the action by detailing his likely victories against Italian stallion (p. 25)). The character created by Stallone has also given rise to various political recuperations and, in this too, it is less the life of a fictional man than a collective fantasy (p. 37) that L. Artiaga questions.

This bias implies, on the part of the historian, the adoption of a singular approach which is not surprising on the part of the author of Fantmas. Biography of an imaginary criminal, co-written with Matthieu Letourneux and published in 2013 by the same publisher. The author does not, however, choose the novelization or imaginary amplification of the universe of Rocky, but rather proposes to bring to light latent content or put forward a certain number of hypotheses to illuminate gray areas of the saga, in line with the interventionist criticism by Pierre Bayard whose author claims affiliation. Fond of sociology and above all concerned with critical experimentation, L. Artiaga also places himself in the wake of Ivan Jablonka, believing, like the latter, that research in the social sciences involves formal research and that it can be implemented a method in writing.

This investigation, presented by its author as a learned feintnourished by valuable information on pugilistic art, therefore not only analyzes media objects as a reflection of the social issues of their time, but also shows how they act in return on reality, which supposes considering cinema not only as a corpus of films, but also as a social practice, hence L. Artiaga's interest in the material circulation of these films, like these VHS of Rocky IV sold on the black market USSR and in Poland in the 1980s, where the resumption of motivational speaking of Rocky in the world of body art, a further sign that he has become a pop icon inspiring the behavior of a community of fans.

By approaching the life of a fictional boxer as a historian, L. Artiaga makes radical methodological choices which may leave some readers wanting more, even though he fully accepts them. Indeed, as he provocatively states in his foreword, he neglects the elementary knowledge of narratology as well as all or almost everything that concerns the staging (p. 35), but also abstracts itself from the history of cinema (farewell to the New Hollywood) which could nevertheless have usefully nourished the work of contextualization in which it engages. The effectiveness of the filmic narrative depends largely on these three components, we may regret the radicality of such a bias, but the work, original and well written, nevertheless remains very stimulating to put the saga and its reception in the context into context. Zeitgeist of the eighties.