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Rocky Dennis and the Fall of Troy

posted by Mickey on 9/06/02

My favourite book about movies to have come out in the last 10 years is “This is Orson Welles,” the transcript of a series of interviews that took place between 1969 and 1972, where Welles discussed his career with a young film maker named Peter Bogdanovich, who was then at the pinnacle of his commercial success and seemingly poised for a brilliant career as one of the major directors in American cinema.


Peter Bogdanovich

I admire both film-makers extravagantly, and while the spotlight is obviously on Welles in “This is Orson Welles,” if you read the book attentively, there is plenty there to be learned from it about Bogdanovich as well.

PB. Do you enjoy cutting?
OW. It’s like writing- it’s lonely. You need a huge capacity for common drudgery, total drudgery – ten hours a day, every day, month after month.
PB. It’s instinct when you’re cutting, isn’t it? Deciding on the exact frame.
OW. A sense of rhythm- that’s what it’s all about. The true shape of a film is musical.
PB. And you can’t teach it.
OW. Oh, you can teach it up to a certain point. If I’d ever try to teach film-making, I’d hold most of my classes around the moviola.

It seems to me there is a certain musical pattern in just this little scrap of conversation. The way Welles lures Bogdanovich into eager agreement, as if they were two fellow spirits, before flatly contradicting him, suggests two musical instruments, perhaps a piccolo and a bassoon, trading little frills of melody until the passage is abruptly ended with a huge discordant fart from the bassoon.

Now, W-D prides itself on being the home of Rocky Dennis studies on the Internet, and the reason I have begun this post with a few comments about Bogdanovich’s views on editing is that I want to make one single edit in Bogdanovich’s “Mask” the subject of this post. That is right. I reckon I can spin a few thousand words out of a single snip of the scissors. Hell, John Wayne Bobbitt launched a whole career as a porn star from a less promising beginning than that.

The scene in which the cut occurs takes place almost exactly half-an-hour into the film (not counting any previews or warnings about video piracy on the copy of the movie you might be consulting) and immediately after the celebrated “Moustache Rides” scene. Rocky is at his new school, sitting in a history lesson, when the teacher asks if anyone knows how the Trojan War started. Now, I would guess that apart from Rocky Dennis, no-one in the whole room, including the teacher, gives the shadow of a flying fig about how the Trojan War kicked-off. If my grade 9 history teacher had put this question to his students, then we would all have understood that he was talking in code and that although the curriculum might have required him to pretend that the theme of this lesson was meant to be the Trojan War, actually the vast majority of the remainder of the class was going to consist of Mr Lindsay reminiscing about his own experiences in the Vietnam War. After a few short minutes had passed, we would be away from the burning plains of Troy and safely onto a clearing hacked out from the jungle, where Mr Lindsay, the last man on the last helicopter out, was still mowing down commies with a machine gun (substituting the class feather duster for an actual machine gun, as he staged a reconstruction of the combat). While Mr Lindsay was enjoying his jungle flashback, his class would meanwhile have been engaged in normal activities, e.g. secretive eating of Cheezels, graffiti and other disfigurement of classroom furniture, drawing the AC/DC logo onto the back of exercise books, engaging in competitive flatulence, and making plans to flush the heads of unpopular students down toilet bowls during the luncheon recess. Mr Lindsay, I really should add, was a genuinely nice fellow, and a good teacher, and I have no reason to believe he wasn’t a brave soldier. He was even able to stick to any historical topic that wasn’t too martial in nature; but as soon as feats of arms were involved, the bugles inside his head would go off, and then he would be very vividly back into the thick of battles from the past, which had clearly been the biggest adventures of his life, and were moments he was very pleased and proud to revisit.

Anyway, Rocky’s teacher asks if anyone knows how the Trojan War began. No one’s hand goes up, except Rocky’s.


He said “Trojan”

TEACHER. “Can someone tell me how the Trojan War began? Those lightbulbs over your heads are blinding me. OK, Rocky, give it a shot.”

Rocky gives it a shot. He is in medium close-up, and since he is sitting at the back of the classroom, the only thing behind him is a window with some Christmas decorations pasted to it. To tell you the truth, I had never noticed these before, but this detail must be of some archaeological significance, surely, to real students of the film, as establishing that these events are occurring a full 6 months before the “New Year’s Eve in July” celebrations at the Blind Camp, unless they celebrate “Christmas in May” or some other tricky variation on the orthodox holiday season at this high school. I have gone to a lot of trouble to transcribe what Rocky says, and here it is:

ROCKY. “Well, there was this huge wedding, right, and all the beautiful goddesses in the world were invited, all except for this one goddess. She got really pissed off. Now that’s the fact part. Now the myth part is that she sent this golden apple that said ‘for the most beautiful’ to the wedding, and this dude named Paris was supposed to judge who should get the apple, right? Kind of like a Miss Goddess competition. He was the only judge. He was a lucky guy. So, of course, all the goddesses want to get picked, right, so one of them goes up to Paris and says, ‘Look, man, if you pick me, I’m going to give you this really hot wench called Helen.’ Except Helen was already married to someone else. Didn’t matter. Paris saw her and flipped out ‘cause she was just so beautiful. She had a perfect body and this face … the face that could launch a thousand ships. Some body said that.”


Hot wench

It is at this point that the edit occurs. We cut to the teacher, who is nodding, as if to say, “Yes, somebody said that. I don’t know who, but somebody said it.” The artistic point of having the cut here, obviously, is that the speech has reached its culmination. Rocky, of all people, the guy with the face that could cause a thousand nightmares, is the only one in the class who knows all about the face that launched a thousand ships. The most striking thing about this speech, aside from invitations being sent to all the beautiful goddesses in the world being described as “the fact part,” is the reference to the Judgement of Paris as a Miss Goddess competition. That is a nice touch of poetry, even though Paris’s choice lacked some of the traditional components of a beauty pageant. Actually Rocky’s remark reminded me of the 1994 Miss USA competition, when Miss Alabama responded to the question, “If you could live forever, would you chose to do so?” as follows: "I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever." OK, my memory of this is not especially relevant to “Mask” except that if Miss Alabama had been a goddess, she could just have answered, “Der- I’m already going to live forever, that’s what it means to be an immortal,” and brought a lot less infamy down on her sweet home state.

After the teacher’s nod, we cut briefly to another reaction shot, of Dempsey and a girl whose name I didn’t catch, who are both looking attentively at Rocky. Rocky’s speech restarts as a voiceover for this shot, before, only a few words into it, the camera comes back onto him again, on a wider shot than before, as he continues:

ROCKY. “So, anyway, our old man orders this huge hollow wooden horse built and puts all his armies into it and wheeled it over to Troy and says, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got a present for you. Open the gates’ They open the gates, wheel in the horse and say, ‘Wow, big horse.’ And they all fall asleep. Night time comes and the horse opens up and all the armies come out, then [Rocky mimes throat being slit]. And that’s how the Trojan War began. Something like that.”

[Applause]

TEACHER. “Thank you Rocky. Very impressive.”

ROCKY. “Thanks.”

TEACHER. “Now along those lines let me read you something from a book that’s not your regular text book.”

And from there, while the teacher drones on reading something from a book that’s not the regular text book, we focus on the negotiations between Rocky and an evidently impressed Dempsey on what kind of a fee Rocky will charge to tutor him. As I have already indicated, I am only writing about a couple of frames of this film, so I am going to return now back to that cutaway to the nodding teacher, pausing only to point out a few things. Firstly, the name of the Greek leader who ordered the construction of the Wooden Horse was Agamemnon, not “our old man” and, to be fair to Rocky, this may have been what he said, although I rewound the tape to this sentence perhaps 20 times and it still sounded more like “our old man” than “Agamemnon”. Secondly, “Wow, big horse” is not an actual quote from “The Iliad” or any other classical text. Thirdly, the Trojans are obviously so excited by the big horse that they feel the need to catch a bit of shut eye quick smart, since they have all fallen asleep even before the sun sets. These are quibbles, nothing more. No, the reason I have reproduced Rocky’s speech, and whole secret of appreciating the strikingness of the cut, is to be found in the penultimate sentence of Rocky’s speech.

ROCKY. “… And that’s how the Trojan War began.”

Because, actually, that’s not how the Trojan War began at all. To be precise, that is how the Trojan War ended. Whether or not you know anything about Ancient Greek Mythology, I invite you now to re-read Rocky’s description of “how the Trojan War” began, putting yourself, if necessary, in the same position as the ignorant Dempsey and/or Dempsey’s ignorant anonymous girlfriend. Imagine you are someone who has no idea how the Trojan War began, but is anxious to find out. I put it to you the transcript above, considered as an answer to the question, “How did the Trojan War begin?” stops making sense at precisely the same point as the cut.

And here is beauty of the cut (and, mind you, it is a cut, not an all-too obvious DISSOLVE-OUT/ DISSOLVE-IN, but a very palpable cut): it is there to signal to students of Greek Mythology, and “Mask” obsessives, that in that blink, time has passed, and in that lost little blink of time, Rocky has recounted the entire story of the Trojan War, beginning at a point well before the beginning of “The Iliad”, and going on well after the end of “The Iliad” too. By the end of Rocky’s narrative, ten long desperate years of siege have passed. The anger of Achilles has flared and sputtered out. Hector’s body has long been cut loose from Achilles’ chariot, and buried in accordance with the ancient rites. Achilles is dead, struck down by the fated arrow from Paris’s bow. Paris himself is dead, struck down in his turn by the fated arrow from Philoctetes’ bow. Oenone has cast herself onto his pyre, so that her ashes might be mingled with his. Priam is dead, or soon will be. The faithless Helen is now to be returned to Menelaus, while the Trojan women, including poor Cassandra, who foresaw all of it, and was powerless to prevent it, are enchained and await their fate.


Heroes of the ancient world

So, why the Trojan War? Of all the knowledge Bogdanovich and his screenwriter, Anna Hamilton Phelan could have called upon for Rocky to display, why did they pick the Trojan War? I mean, Rocky could probably have wowed what appears to have been a pretty underachieving class just by knowing the name of the then-President of the United States. In one sense, the answer is obvious, and has already been answered. The film-makers wanted to underline the pathos of Rocky’s situation by contrasting poor Rocky’s ugliness with the beauty of a wench who was so hot that immortal deeds of gallantry were enacted for her sake and in her honour. OK. But, after we have gotten to this point, why does he go on? Helen isn’t even in the second part of his speech. Why does he tell the whole story? Why is there the cut that allows him to do so?

My theory is that the cut is there to enable a deeper allusion that the filmmakers wanted to suggest between the characters of “The Iliad” and the characters of “Mask” than would have been possible if the scene had ended with Paris developing a bone for Helen. (By the way, Anna Hamilton Phelan doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her contributions to “Mask”. She was inspired to write the story by bumping into the real-life Rocky Dennis in the corridor of a hospital. I don’t believe Peter Bogdanovich ever had the pleasure. “Mask” was her first script. Hamilton went on to pick up an Oscar for “Gorillas in The Mist” and more recently was involved in almost sinking Sandra Bullock’s career with “In Love and War”, and for floating Angelina Jolie’s to a new level with “Girl Interrupted.” According to the website I just learned everything in these parentheses from, she is currently involved in writing a musical version of “Mask”!)

I do not want to be silly with this. I am not trying to suggest that “Mask” has the same kind of source-material connexion with “The Iliad” that “Clueless” has to “Emma”, or that “Bedazzled” has to “Dr Faustus” (en passant, it was Christopher Marlowe, the author of this play, who gets his title character to say, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilion?”). It is true that in lines 48-50 of the 24th book of “The Iliad,” Homer describes his hero, Achilles, as being “like some lion/going his own barbaric way, giving in to his power,/his brute force and wild pride;” but apart from the lion-like bit, this isn’t much of a description of Rocky.


Rocky accepting the award for Achievement in History

But if you step back, and look at the matter more broadly, (like the camera moves back for the second extract from Rocky’s retelling of the Legend of Troy), there are some similarities between the heroes from this episode of Greek Mythology and the characters of “Mask”.

There is a character of great nobility. (Greek Mythology: Hector. “Mask”: Gar)
There is a character who doesn’t mind putting it about a bit. (Greek Mythology: Helen of Troy. “Mask”: Rusty)
There is a character who is as strong as an ox, and as stupid. (Greek Mythology: Ajax. “Mask”: Bulldozer Higgins)
There is a character who is the victim of sharp practice by a wily opponent: (Greek Mythology: Philoctetes. “Mask”: Ben).
There is a character who is fated to die. (Greek Mythology: Achilles. “Mask”: Rocky).

The big wedding at the beginning of Rocky’s account of how the Trojan War started was between Peleus and the sea nymph, Thetis. The wedding had a special significance for Zeus, the King of the Gods, whose contribution to populating the age of heroes by sleeping around with every half-attractive nymph in sight, like an Ancient Hellenic forbear of Brandon Walsh, is legendary. (For instance, he turned himself into a swan in order to get into the pants of Leda, resulting in the pregnancy that produced Helen of Troy). Zeus had had the hots for Thetis but decided not to pursue this particular seduction after learning that it was fated that Thetis’s son would be greater than his father. The son in question was Achilles. Despite the best efforts of his mother to exempt him from military service by a stratagem that would later be used to comic effect by the makers of “Sorority Boys,” Achilles went to the Trojan War with the foreknowledge that the war could not be won until he had died.


Say, get a load of what this curved metal does to my reflection

If they had just wanted a lion, perhaps the filmmakers would have gone for Heracles, who went around performing all his tasks with a lion’s head stuck over his own, making him one of the most recognisable characters on Greek vases, which, in terms of cultural transference, were Ancient Civilisation’s version of a video store. I believe the reason Bogdanovich and Phelan decided to use the Trojan War as the story which would showcase Rocky’s ability to elucidate historical events was because the story of the Trojan war is both a story about tragic destiny, and a story about how strangely humans are affected by beauty. I also believe that I am now officially the person who has thought about this issue for the longest time of any person ever in the history of the world; and I think the time has now arrived for me to think about something else.

Mickey.
mickey@whatever-dude.com

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