Monday, March 04, 2024

Requiem for a Training Montage: Or, Everyone's Crazy for a Self-Made Man

The other day, out of a combination of nostalgia, insomnia, and tribute to Carl Weathers I decide to watch Rocky III. I am not sure why I picked this one. Perhaps because it is one of Weathers' best as he goes from rival to partner, it is also where Rocky goes from scrappy seventies film to full on eighties excess, a process that would be completed in Rocky IV. It also got me thinking of training montages.

In Rocky films the training montage is not something before the big fight. They are the real fight, the real battle, the battle with oneself, one's doubts, and one's body; what happens in the ring is just the conclusion of this battle. We know how Rocky's first fight with Clubber Lang is going to go because we have already seen it play out in the montage: we see Clubber angrily sweating it out in the dirtiest gym and Rocky turning his workout into an extended publicity tour. 

We also know how the second fight will go when we see Rocky find an even dirtier gym to train in and more, importantly, find a new mentor in his old nemesis, Apollo Creed. In the Rocky films the darker, dirtier, and more desperate the gym, the better the training. This starts in the first films where Rocky's training used the immediate situation of his working class life, pounding on sides of beef and chasing chickens. In subsequent films he will need recreate his own hardscrabble roots in a Machiavellian return to first principle, remake himself as the underdog by stripping away luxury and technology. 

This trajectory reaches its apotheosis in Rocky IV in which Rocky eschews a gym altogether for training via agricultural labor. Rocky's workout of sawing wood and hauling rocks is intercut with Drago's scientifically monitored and artificially enhanced workout. It has been said before that the dream of American movies of the eighties was to be the Vietcong, to defeat a technologically superior enemy by fighting harder and, to some extent dirtier; Rocky IV does this one better by making Rocky the true heir of the Russian Revolution, the peasantry storming the Winter Palace of Soviet Technology.


As someone who teaches Gilles Deleuze's film books I am often caught between what montage meant at the beginning of the history of cinema. Deleuze’s theory of montage was developed in relation to efforts by pioneers of early cinema, such as D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein, to transform our very perceptions of action and time. That is not what my students think of when I say the word montage though. The montage lives on in Hollywood in a mostly bastardized form in which it is generally used to compress time, to suggest by a series of images a longer transformation, such as the training montage in boxing and martial arts films. (In the general shift in which much of the movies has moved to television, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are one place in which the montage still takes prominence). Gilles Deleuze argues that montage is an indirect image of time, as the different images and sequences present an overall temporal transformation.The images and sequences of individual acts add up to a larger transformation of the whole situation that exceeds them. Montage is a visualization of the process by which quantitative change becomes qualitative change. 

Montage is often an image of work. In the case of the training montage this work is necessarily collective. It takes a gym to make a boxer, a dojo to make a fighter. It is from this perspective that we can chart the decline of the training montage in contemporary film. This chart takes two paths. One is through the superhero film. While some of the early entries in the genre such as Raimi's Spider-Man and Nolan's Batman Begins had their montages, and it even returned in The Marvels, for the most part the collective labor of training is not need when powers and abilities come bottled in a serum or via a mechanical suit. I realize that Iron Man had its montage of construction and testing, but this was very much a solo effort of a self-made man.

The second path is mapped out by The Matrix in which training is replaced by downloading. The Matrix can be considered in some sense a montage about the end of the montage, as disks replace dojos, downloading replaces training. I think that The Matrix has to be understood as an anti-work film in the broad sense, with all the sort of contradictions that it implies: it is both about escaping the confines of the cubicle, of a life free from the particular matrix of an office layout, and about escaping the constraints of work altogether, a dream of radical transformation that comes at the push of a button. 

All of which brings me to my final point, John Wick and before him Jason Bourne, are two figures in the action film who come to us fully formed, the product of a training that we never see. It is clear that Keanu Reeves has put in the work, in the dojo and shooting range, to become John Wick but that is only seen in the behind the scenes videos. Keanu Reeves commitment to the work is perhaps why he has the unique status in contemporary film of being the only actor to portray to different action heroes with very different martial arts backgrounds, various styles of kung fu in The Matrix and Jiu Jitsu, judo, and aikido in John Wick. In the films we only see the result, not the work. Moreover given that John Wick's skills come from styles in which training comes with a partner, in aikido we say you get good by working with people who are better, John Wick's legendary status as a kind of Baba Yaga of the Russian underworld comes from effacing the very conditions that have made him possible. 

If the training montage was a representation of work, and of collectivity, in the Reagan era that tried so hard to deny it, what then do we make of its effacement in current action films? Have our action heroes become the self made men (and women) that we are told to consider ourselves to be, or am I reading too much into it? 

Updated 4/12/24

This might just be a matter of confirmation bias, but I was delighted to see that Monkey Man not only returned the training montage to centrality, it is the training montage that makes all of the difference between the first failed attempt at revenge, and its badass repetition in the final act. Moreover, it is through the montage that the collective nature of Kid (Dev Patel's) plan is made clear. In this case the community includes street kids, stray dogs, and most importantly members of India's Hijra community. I must admit that I feel unqualified to say much about the politics of Monkey Man, especially as they seem to be use Hindu myths and stories in their critique of Hindu nationalism.  However, I was glad to see it restore the training montage to centrality, and in doing so, provide an image of collectivity its individual journey of revenge. 

1 comment:

Amiri said...