Going the distance in the dark | Chuck’s World

By Chuck Sigars | Apr 16, 2014

The first episode of the final season of “Mad Men” (AMC) premiered last weekend, which should be of absolutely no interest to any of you because, statistically speaking, none of you are likely to watch the show.

But I imagine some of you do, as I have for the past seven years. It’s a fine show, well written, good acting, but I like to watch it because the creator of “Mad Men,” Matthew Weiner, has a legendary obsession with period detail.

There’s a famous story of him taking a scene involving an Etch-A-Sketch out of the show because the toy wouldn’t be introduced (in the timeline of the show, early 1960s) for a few months. That’s pretty legendary.

And it’s that period detail – those offhand references, the set decoration, the clothing, the phrases and expressions used by the characters – that drew my interest from the beginning.

Although the show has spanned virtually the entire 1960s by now, that was the era in which I was most definitely a child, and so in watching “Mad Men” I’m constantly in a state of déjà vu.

I see a lamp or a sofa or a billboard or a car, and I have the feeling I remember them. Just from a smaller perspective.

I also applaud the show for not making obvious choices when it comes to history and the artifacts of a particular time.

They did an episode on the Kennedy assassination that I thought was brilliant, demonstrating for me (5 years old at the time) what it must have been like for ordinary people, the shock and disbelief, the shared tragedy.

But they don’t punch the big stuff, and so while we hear about Vietnam and counterculture and rock music and demonstrators in the streets, they stay mostly in the background, where they were to most people living through the era.

The same goes for movies. They exist in the “Mad Men” playbook, they pop up on marquees, they’re referred to from time to time, and at least one played a minor character in an episode last season, but they’re not made more than they are, or were.

Movies are personal. No matter how important they were in the history of cinema, in the big picture they’re not that important. A movie won’t change the world, aside from maybe a nudge to culture, because most people in the world won’t see it.

We will, though, and that’s when movies become evocative moments in any story set in a particular time.

As with music and some kinds of men’s cologne, just a whiff – a stray scene, a snatch of the soundtrack – can transport us back to where and when we were.

Remember the plot? We remember where we sat, how long we waited, the annoying guy two rows in front, and mostly whom we saw it with, and why. Again: Movies are personal.

Ask us which movie we first saw together, and my wife and I will give you three: The first was sort of an accident, the second was sort of planned, and the third was an actual date. We can tell you when and where, what we felt and probably what we wore.

We’re still mildly moved by a mention of these films, but plots and actors are devices, mnemonics for important (or casual) moments. It’s what happens before the theater gets dark and after the popcorn is finished that makes them interesting.

And then there are seminal films, again very personal, ones that define a fragment of time as ours. They also define us, in a way, depending on how many lines we can quote and who around us understands.

All of this to explain why I own all six “Rocky” movies.

OK. First, they were on sale.

But ask a male-type person who was a teenager or young adult in 1976, when “Rocky” made its debut, and I’m going to estimate that 80 percent of them have a story about the Italian Stallion.

I’ve never heard the same reaction from a woman, although I know some who have much affection for the southpaw from Philly (my daughter among them).

I’ll tell you what it is and was, too. Whenever I watch "Rocky," I get a sense of my 18-year-old testosterone level floating around outside my house, now a spirit hormone, never to be corporeal again, but with its nose pressed against the window during the fight sequence. Or like that.

But it’s not about the fight. Or redemption, or lightning in a bottle, or love sitting ringside.

It’s about the training, a sequence that became mandatory for every successive film in the franchise (which got progressively cheesier, let’s be fair, except for “Rocky Balboa,” which wraps up the story in a satisfying way).

It’s about the idea that anybody, given the opportunity, could take it and run, or at least have the potential. And to an 18-year-old, that’s the Holy Grail. That’s the One Ring, the Maltese Falcon, the letters of transit, the balloon back to Kansas.

I watch “Rocky” now perched on my exercise bike, trying to pedal back to the past. It’s just nostalgia, with a hint of inspiration. I’m 55, and nobody is going to offer me a chance at the world heavyweight championship.

But part of me believes that if they did, I could get in shape, and I might go the distance, and that’s all we can ask of a movie. To feel young again, to know hope, and to finish what we start.

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