2019 Film Essays

Backlash: A Decade of John G. Avildsen

Though the New Hollywood period sparked a group of young filmmakers to self-apply the term “auteur,” that concept is almost never invoked in the context of journeyman director John G. Avildsen. Generally considered a sure-enough hand behind the camera, Avildsen is most well-known for helming one of the 1970s’ biggest hits, the underdog boxing film Rocky (1976). Avildsen’s name is almost incidental to that film’s reputation, of course; when Rocky’s authorship is considered, it is given to the film’s screenwriter and star, Sylvester Stallone, who went on to play the character in seven subsequent films, often with himself behind the camera. However, Avildsen is the only director in the Rocky series other than Stallone to direct more than one installment — he also stepped behind the camera for the much-maligned Rocky V (1990). In the original film, Stallone’s boxer is more than the lovable underdog he has come to represent through cultural shorthand. He is a much vaunted Great White Hope, a stand-in for white working class people (especially men) across the country, anxious about the hard-fought battles waged by the counterculture, civil rights activists and feminists. Though the surprise success of Rocky came in the middle of the decade, Avildsen’s output in the New Hollywood period demonstrates that Rocky’s backlash politics cohere across a number of his films. In Joe (1970), Save the Tiger (1973), Rocky and Neighbors (1981), Avildsen chronicles the characters standing against the rising tide of change in America’s tumultuous 1970s.

Avildsen’s Joe is one of the decade’s angriest films, which is saying something in the context of a number of New Hollywood films driven by cultural outrage and despair. The simmering rage suffusing the entirety of the film’s running time anticipates 1976’s Taxi Driver; that film, scripted by Paul Schrader, looks evenhanded by comparison to Joe. Schrader’s screenplay, combined with the performance of Robert De Niro and the skeptical cinematographic eye of director Martin Scorsese, invites criticism of Travis Bickle. His racism, misogyny and violent behavior are all represented, but render him an outcast. The film sees Travis as a problem without a solution. Joe’s titular character, played by Peter Boyle (who also has a small role as a cabbie in Taxi Driver), is a solution in search of a problem. When he first appears in a dingy New York City watering hole, Joe Curran, a literal embodiment of the “guy-at-the-end-of-the-bar,” rants and raves about welfare and ungrateful kids protesting the Vietnam War. When he turns to violence at the climax, the film stops short of condemning him.

Joe’s reactionary posture is evident in its narrative structure, which begins with an intimate scene in a ratty Greenwich Village apartment inhabited by Melissa (Susan Sarandon) and her sleazy drug dealer boyfriend Frank (Patrick McDermott). Liberation from the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code is apparent; within minutes, both Melissa and Frank are naked in a bathtub, which Frank eventually steps out of to shoot heroin. Though Melissa and Frank are important characters, they aren’t the film’s protagonists. That honor belongs to Melissa’s father, Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), and Joe, both of whom aren’t even introduced until well after the film is underway. Bill enters the narrative after Melissa has a bad reaction to some pills, and ends up in the hospital. Upon visiting her apartment to gather some of her things, Bill gets into an argument with Frank and beats him to death. He first meets Joe in the aforementioned bar, and confesses to killing a hippie, whom Joe says deserved it. The two men begin an unlikely friendship that cuts across class lines, and culminates in a journey through the New York “drug-and-free-love” scene that ends with a violent confrontation at an upstate commune.

The opening scenes between Melissa and Frank are meant to inspire disgust. Avildsen uses a close-up on Frank’s arm as he injects heroin in the apartment that captures the intensity of intravenous drug use that would have been prohibited on screen just a few years earlier. He similarly uses production design to critique these two representatives of the counterculture; on their walls, there is a photograph of a naked woman. Elsewhere, there is a bumper sticker that reads “Maintain Law and Order,” an obviously ironic shot at authority. Emphasis on this totemic mockery portrays Melissa and Frank as profoundly disrespectful of society’s institutions, which their drug use and, implicitly, open sexual relationship, flagrantly defy. Melissa defies the rule of law further a few scenes later when she trips out in a drugstore, knocking consumer items off of shelves with aplomb over the shouted objections of the square proprietor. Avildsen shows Melissa what he thinks of her when he opens the drugstore scene with a lengthy shot of her staring at herself in a vanity mirror, as though her drug use was nothing more than a gateway to her own inherent narcissism.

Though her father Bill’s murder of Frank, brutally done with his own hands, sets much of the film’s narrative in motion, it is Joe who makes the largest impression. He is the film’s working class hero, the laboring white man whose country is slipping away from him. As he lumbers home from the factory where he works, an original song written for the film gives voice to his inner monologue, asking in folksy sing-song, “Hey Joe, don’t it make you wanna go to war?” The “it” of the lyrics refers to just about everything Joe sees. In the bar, he bemoans his own lot in life, emptying his spleen of racist bile to the other patrons, who do their best to ignore him. In his home, over a meal of Chinese food with Joe’s wife Mary Lou, and their invited guests, Bill and his wife Joan, Joe laments the loss of the culture, which has been taken over by the young. Though Boyle is much younger than Patrick, the dialogue suggests they are both veterans of World War II. Joe’s basement is full of guns, his gut is full of beer. During a night on the town with Bill, Joe accompanies the wealthier man to a higher-class bar than he’s used to frequenting; Joe’s resentment of those he perceives as getting ahead of him is completely absent, despite the fact that he is surrounded by richer white men, all of whom regard him with a degree of contempt. He is one of John Steinbeck’s “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” more attuned to focusing his anger down the societal ladder than aiming it upward.

Though Joe and Bill seem hollowed out by the changing of the guard, they take the first opportunity available to them to see how the other half lives. Out looking for Melissa, who has disappeared after learning about her father’s murder of Frank, the two go undercover in Greenwich Village, eventually ending up at a low-key party that begins with a little communal pot and escalates into a lot of communal sex. Though Joe and Bill make awkward matches with the much younger women, their excitement at the sudden availability of ready and willing sexual partners betrays their curiosity about the new world that has excluded them. Things get much darker, however, when a few of the partiers make off with their wallets, sending Joe into a frothing rage. He beats one of the women into submission until she confesses that the thieves have escaped to a commune outside the city. Joe and Bill follow the trail until they reach the country home, surrounded by snow. Joe pulls a shotgun from the trunk and hands Bill a rifle, insisting they’ll just scare the kids. Before long, Joe has gunned down everyone inside the commune, a massacre of drugged-out hippies, bleeding on the floor of the home they shared. Avildsen’s camera offers no sympathy for these dead young people. His eye is focused entirely on Joe’s rage and Bill’s reluctant participation. The film concludes with Bill pulling the trigger on a fleeing woman, a bullet ripping through her back. It’s Melissa. Viewers don’t see Bill discover her identity — Avildsen ends the film before that. His choice to forego the moment of Bill’s tragic realization that he has killed his own daughter leaves a lingering impact that weighs the climax down with bitter irony. Melissa was consorting with these thieves and druggies, after all. Bill receives no comeuppance, does not stand in judgment before anyone. The absence of the denouement shields him from blame. The final impression is the intensity of the rage that led to this moment, which Bill has finally embraced. He and Joe are united in their anger and in their willingness to act on it.

Avildsen’s 1973 lion-in-winter effort Save the Tiger thematically picks up where Joe leaves off, with the central character again a middle-aged veteran of World War II, a struggling Los Angeles businessman named Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon, in an Academy Award-winning performance). The film covers roughly 24 hours in Harry’s mid-life crisis, as he weighs the moral consequences of burning down his failing tailoring shop for the insurance money. He is married, but bored, and has a daughter, but she never appears in the film; it is as though Melissa, killed at the end of Joe, has become an absence that carries over into another character’s life on the opposite side of the country. Lemmon, a star of an earlier era, infuses a Classic Hollywood ethos into a New Hollywood setting, as Harry navigates his way through a changing California. He picks up a hitchhiker early in the film, Myra (Laurie Heineman), with whom he later reunites and shares a many-splendored evening of sex and marijuana in a friend’s empty beach house. When he first opens the car door to let Myra in, he asks her where she’s going, and she says she just rides back and forth down Sunset Boulevard with whoever will take her. Harry’s commitment to a life of purpose is difficult for him to reconcile with Myra’s carefree approach to her day; she literally has nowhere to be, nothing to do, no one to see.

Myra’s aimlessness contrasts mightily with Harry’s perpetual motion, as he moves from one meeting to another for much of the film. He has a series of frank conversations with his business partner Phil (Jack Gilford) as the two debate the arson scheme. Harry must first pacify a panicky regular customer before setting him up with a desired female companion, and then rescue the customer when he has a mid-intercourse heart attack. He must meet with a shady crook who takes impromptu appointments in the balcony of a downtown porn theatre to set up the fire. Throughout it all, Harry’s sadness follows closely behind. He keeps the cultural totems of his age alive through his car radio, always tuned to big-band era jazz. In a post-coital battle of wits with Myra, he challenges her to a kind of rapid fire game to see who can name the most popular culture figures in quick succession. With names like Frank Sinatra and Willie Mays rolling off his tongue, Harry beats her by a mile.

Save the Tiger is a long lament for a bygone way of life, a posture cemented by the repetition of the central image that gives the story (and the novel it is based on) its title. Outside the porn theatre, Harry is asked by a charitable organization to donate to save the tiger, an endangered species in need of help. The metaphorical implication is obvious, but made more so by Avildsen’s camera, which lingers on a giant placard of a majestic Bengal tiger, staring out of a shop window. Harry steps into frame, his own face merging with the tiger in the reflective surface. As Avildsen sees Harry, he is an endangered animal, full of great power and ability, but threatened by the changing environment around him.

The heart of Save the Tiger’s conservatism beats through its elegiac tone. If Joe is anger, then Save the Tiger is acceptance. Harry is bewildered by the modern world, but not really resentful of it. He seems to wonder why the culture is so consumed with the politics of The Vietnam War when he still wrestles with his own post-traumatic stress, unresolved nearly 30 years after his own combat experience. He continually brings up his own service in conversation; in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Harry has a breakdown in the middle of a speech to a group of fellow industrial tailors in a crowded hotel ballroom when he imagines bloody combat veterans sitting amongst the audience. Harry’s carefully prepared speech falls away, and he is reduced to a babbling, sobbing mess before he is led out of the spotlight and offstage. Later, Harry visits a California beach and imagines himself back on the beaches of Southern Italy, hearing the sounds of explosions and gunfire ringing in his ears. He says, “The last time I was on a beach like this, it was covered in blood.”

Baseball is central to Harry’s diagnosis of his own irrelevance. In a long opening scene with his wife, he laments the loss of pitching form, demonstrating the acrobatic windups of hurlers now retired. In the film’s final scene, he finds himself looking over a baseball field where a bunch of young boys are playing. One hits a ball out to the chain link fence near him, and he picks it up. Harry reenacts the windup from earlier in the film and heaves the ball back in towards the field, except the ball sails way over the kids’ heads and over the other fence. One of the kids, peeved, asks, “What’d you do that for?” Harry answers, “I just thought you should see it once.” Like the tiger, Harry himself acknowledges his increasing rarity. Something is being lost, and Harry knows that despite his best efforts, he can’t stand in the way of change.

While Harry’s unmooring from the sporting world motivates his despair, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) fights to reclaim his spot in it. Within Rocky’s mid-70s setting, boxing is now dominated by Muhammad Ali-stand in Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), a fighter with a powerful punch and a mouth to match. In the context of the film, one of Creed’s offenses appears to be that he dares to wear the Stars and Stripes on his trunks in the ring; implicit throughout the film is Creed’s usurpation of the imagery of American pride, as though he has stolen it from its rightful owner — someone like Rocky. Creed further transgresses through the film’s setup — he loses his opponent to injury for a fight marketed around the bicentennial, and reaches down to grant Rocky, an unknown, an opportunity to join the champion in the ring. He invokes Rocky’s Italian heritage in the context of Christopher Columbus, freighting their battle with racial overtones, crucially giving Creed an opening to reestablish American identity for black men, something which the long history of the United States denied to them through his defeat of Rocky. His adoption of a George Washington costume in the lead-up to the final fight is represented by the film as a mocking stunt, as though Creed were stomping all over American history on his way to the ring. In other hands (like, say, Ryan Coogler’s 40 years later), Creed’s gambit might be portrayed nobly, but in Avildsen’s, it is the too-forward act of an overreaching antagonist. A black man offering the chance of a lifetime to a white ethnic man (“The Italian Stallion”) upends the perceived racial order of things for those in Rocky’s social circle. A bartender at one of Rocky’s hangouts watches Creed swaggering his way through a television interview, and asks, “Where are all the real fighters? Now all we got is jig clowns.” The barman’s racism is a product of the backlash politics of resentment, and Rocky will become his avatar in the ring.

Though the film’s inspirational musical theme, written by Bill Conti, along with its genre-defining montages ripe for parody, have turned Rocky into a feel-good underdog story, that smacks of revisionist history. The first installment, animated as it is by the tensions between Rocky’s white fan base and the stereotypical reduction of Ali-as-Apollo, is a film that looks uglier than broadly perceived upon closer examination. At the time of Rocky’s release, Ali was only five years removed from an equally long battle with the federal government over his refusal to enter the draft for combat service in Vietnam that finally ended with the reinstatement of his boxing license, but also the irretrievable loss of crucial years of prime fighting time. Stallone had not yet directed a film — that would come two years later with Paradise Alley — but in Avildsen, he found a director well-suited to handle the backlash politics of his screenplay. Avildsen’s experience chronicling the rage and pathos of American white men in the counterculture era was an expert match for Rocky’s symbolic shouldering of both those impulses. Personally without rancor towards Creed, Rocky more closely resembles the bewildered, beleaguered Harry Stoner than Joe Curran; and yet, in his ability to step into the ring with a black fighter, Rocky acts as a vicarious avenger for the millions of Joe Currans watching around the country from their barstools. He avenges his own personal humiliation at the film’s outset, as well. Early on, Rocky’s locker at the gym is taken away from him; when he breaks the new lock and opens it, he finds pictures of black women taped to the inside of the door. A black fighter has moved into the space Rocky marked as his own.

In the climactic fight, Rocky’s desire is not to defeat the bigger, stronger and better-skilled Creed, but simply to match him round-for-round, to “go the distance” against him. Rocky’s lowered expectations (which he will exceed in subsequent films, of course) demonstrate that he has internalized his own culturally diminished position, but refuses to be pushed any lower. Rocky may not be able to stem the tide of racial upheaval by himself, but he can act as a symbol of the many white men in Avildsen’s work standing athwart history and yelling stop. Rocky’s audience feels his objective deeply. Rocky’s surprise uppercut to Creed in the first round, which knocks him down, is matched with a cut to a bar, where a gathered crowd of white Philadelphians erupts in cheering at the sight of Creed laid out on the canvas. Near the end of the fight, both Rocky and Creed are beaten to a pulp, but Rocky won’t stay down. He surprises Creed once again by staggering to his feet, which Creed responds to with an incredulous bow of the head. Rocky has withstood the onslaught from Creed, and handed it back in equal measure. Creed’s victory is announced by the judges, but the camera never leaves Rocky in the scrum in the ring; the film makes its allegiances clear.

Avildsen’s final New Hollywood effort, 1981’s bizarre nightmare-comedy Neighbors, starring Saturday Night Live wunderkinds Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, feels maddeningly incoherent, a seeming result of the improvisational energy between the two stars, resuming their collaboration after the success of the previous year’s The Blues Brothers, which channeled their shared sketch-comedy background into an episodic thrill ride. This time, Avildsen’s by-now familiar middle-aged shlub is named Earl Keese (Belushi), a suburban businessman with little excitement in his life until bleach-blond Vic (Aykroyd) and his femme fatale maybe-wife Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) move into the abandoned home next door. To describe Neighbors at all is to betray its madness, which builds a governing tone of lunacy that at times verges on the incomprehensible.

At the risk of attempting to impose a too-ordered reading on a project so clearly intended as an exercise in anarchy, if Neighbors is about anything, it is the alienation of the middle-aged man from the modern world, which he previously considered his domain. This thematic preoccupation places the film firmly in relationship to a number of Avildsen’s other works from the era. Earl’s typical suburban home is well-kept, unlike the empty one next door, which is overgrown and in a state of general disrepair. Vic, who alternates between wacky and menacing, brings chaotic energy to the neighborhood, if you can call it that — the two homes, side by side, are the only ones on the otherwise empty cul-de-sac. In Neighbors, nothing makes sense to Earl, whose boring but secure life with his own wife, Enid (Kathryn Walker), is threatened by Ramona’s sexual energy, which she wields against Earl out of a mixture of boredom and malice rather than genuine attraction. Avildsen throws back to an earlier era of filmmaking when he shoots Ramona with an exaggerated halo of unsourced white light shining down on her blonde hair. And yet, her sexually aggressive behavior, including showing up naked in Earl’s bed, tempting him openly, feels more like the sexually free women of Avildsen’s Joe and Save the Tiger, who brought their male counterparts much anxiety. Earl, sporting exaggeratedly graying temples meant to make the early-thirties Belushi seem forcefully over-the-hill, finds himself simultaneously flummoxed and aroused by Ramona’s invitation. Like Avildsen’s other men, he is repelled by and attracted to the forbidden and unfamiliar; his initial contempt for her gives way to fascination.

Likewise, Vic is a contradictory figure with a foot in the past and the present. His platinum blond hair, sticking straight up in the air, raises eyebrows when he reaches for a book on Earl’s shelf, The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, seemingly satisfying the curiosity piqued by the swastika emblazoned on the spine. If Vic is an escaped Nazi soldier, the film doesn’t dwell on it for long. Instead, it offers a series of elaborate scenes of mental and physical torture, as Vic begins to gaslight Earl for, like Ramona’s intended sexual conquest, no obvious reason. Avildsen again echoes the bifurcated depiction of Ramona in Vic when Earl spies him grooving to The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” in his kitchen, while making a spaghetti dinner. An overt auditory recall of the music of the counterculture intrudes into Earl’s quiet life on his quiet street, a hallmark of the very people, ideas and changes he must have moved to the suburbs to avoid. Finding no refuge in his home, Earl burns it to the ground in the film’s final moments, abandons his wife, and heads out on the road with Vic and Ramona, taking off for parts unknown.

Though these four films do not represent the totality of Avildsen’s 1970s output, they do offer a glimpse at the contemporaneous backlash that would reshape the United States at box office, and at the ballot box. At the center of each is a white man (or more than one) doing battle against a world that is changing around him. Some of Avildsen’s men turn to violence. Some of them turn to crime. Some of them turn inward. All of them know that somehow, some way, they must turn. They cannot survive, let alone win, without surrendering some part of themselves. All of them resent the imposition of change, and are reluctant to give in to it. Joe Curran and Bill Compton see themselves locked in a death struggle with the counterculture youth, and lash out in a kind of microcosmic genocide — the only good hippie is a dead hippie, in other words. Harry Stoner knows he’s the last of a dying breed, and settles for making a structurally insignificant but personally meaningful mark on an indifferent culture. Rocky Balboa, before Stallone’s subsequent sequels elevated the character into myth, finds purpose in matching his superior opponent, if not actually defeating him, as though the Great White Hope finally learns to accept his limitations. And Earl Keese — befuddled, put-upon and harried — completes the cycle with a symbolic surrender of all he has worked to build by setting it ablaze. Guiding each character is the directorial hand of Avildsen, finding sympathy for these men left behind by a changing world. It can be tempting to misremember the entirety of the New Hollywood era as a collection of films in the mold of Dennis Hopper’s landmark 1969 film Easy Rider, which sided firmly with the counterculture. But the same cultural forces that opened cinema up to orgies, acid and Jimi Hendrix also shaped films made by people who were anxious about them. Those films, Avildsen’s chief among them, gave voice to the so-called “silent majority,” a collection of Americans on the verge of rediscovering their power to speak.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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