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The Hidden Lesson of Chosen One Stories

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Gardner Mounce

We all love “Chosen One” stories like The Matrix, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, in which a person (usually white, usually male) is selected by fate or the universe or Laurence Fishburne to do the thing that needs doing. First off, it makes things so simple. Imagine if the next presidential election was decided by which Ivy Leaguer could pull a sword from a stone–or Congress’s head from its ass (zing! bow! topical!). It also buys into the idea that life is dictated by a higher power, which is comforting. But these stories also teach a horribly stultifying lesson: if you’re not the chosen one, you should just sit down and quit.

Like most of you, I was raised on Chosen One stories, and thereby raised on the idea that heroes are chosen for an arbitrary reason (like dead parents and messiness of hair). And that if you are the chosen, you’re going to have an easy time of being a sweet fighter, and if you’re not the chosen, then you’re going to be a minor character who does nothing but offer the chosen one advice. Writers of these stories like to say that, thematically, these stories teach perseverance and hard work. But they don’t, really. They usually have very little to say about the fact that being good at anything takes a lot of really hard work. And nobody’s chosen. There’s privilege, sure, and certain anatomical proclivities that may make one person a more natural basketball player than another, but no one is choosing people as the next great anythings, and to become good at something you have to work very, very hard at it.

Chosen One stories pay lip service to hard work via the montage. Watch this scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Lupin teacher Harry the Patronus charm. At the top of the scene Lupin says, “You know this is very advanced magic well beyond the ordinary wizarding levels?” …and then Harry nails the charm in four minutes of screen time. Of course, the reason movies don’t show the realistic amount of time it takes to master something is that it takes practice, and practice is boring to do and boring to watch.

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We all have to learn the hard way that those montage scenes where Rocky gets good at fighting after punching a cow six times are representative of months or years of hard work. This sounds obvious now, but when I was a kid I was absolutely baffled by how hard it was to learn to play the guitar. The strings hurt, the neck was too wide, my fingers wouldn’t do what they were supposed to do, and I always dropped the pick after the fourth note of “Barbie Girl.” I was ashamed that I sucked so bad. I expected it to come easily to me, because I had this image of myself as the next Chosen Guitar Player in a sweet music video full of lightning bolts and side boob. It never happened.

The other lesson these stories teach is that the Chosen One always wins. So, as a kid, when you can’t seem to play “Barbie Girl” on guitar the first or second or twelfth try, you figure you’re just not meant to play it and so you quit. Meant? What the hell does meant mean? Who means for you to play “Barbie Girl?” The question is: do you want to play “Barbie Girl?” Then play “Barbie Girl,” you beautiful, confused rock star.

Clear your mind of all that Chosen One nonsense and learn a new mantra:

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If you want to be the chosen one, start working. We should all remember this the next time we take on a new hobby or job. You want to play the drums? Awesome. That’s so cool. You’ll have tons of fun. Just expect to really suck at it for a long time, because you’re not the chosen one. Don’t be embarrassed of that. Don’t go into music stores and not play drums because you’re embarrassed of how bad you suck. Be a proud learner.

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A friend of mine who was a piano performance major told me that becoming a good piano player is like watching your hair grow. You won’t notice yourself improving day-by-day, but look back in six months or and you’ll be astounded (and hairy!). So, next time you watch Harry Potter nail that Expecto Patronus after four minutes of “hard work,” say to him, “You’re not actually a wizard. You’re Daniel Radcliffe. And Daniel Radcliffe can do an Expecto Patronus as well as I can.” You’ll feel much better, unless you’re an actor who also auditioned for the role of Harry Potter. And then you’ll just feel like shit. Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Worst Best Picture: Is Rocky Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1976 winner Rocky. Is it better than Crash?

Network and Taxi Driver both came out in 1976, the same year Sylvester Stallone cemented his place in pop culture with Rocky. There is absolutely no question that the endurance of Rocky as an underdog story and the permanent representation of boxing is deserved. It’s Rocky. You don’t need me to tell you what Rocky is.

It’s strange, though, to consider it as a “film great” against Network and Taxi Driver. They’re both better movies, but not to the degree that this is some kind of historical slight. I’ve never heard anyone call 1976 a travesty in the way people talk about Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love or The English Patient beating Fargo. The official Oscars website has a big picture of Frances McDormand on their page for 1997 despite the loss, but 1976 belongs to Sly and Rocky.

There are many movies on this list that I’ve never seen, but there’s only a few that seem strange to me to have missed. Until a few days ago, I had never actually watched all of Rocky. It’s a weird thing to do for the first time. I’ve seen so many parodies and homages and references to it, but I’d never seen the source material.

The overwhelming thing about Rocky is that you just about can’t understand a damn word Sly Stallone says. Rocky the character is supposed to be a sleepy, kinda-dumb-kinda-not every-man, of course, but it’s weird to have heard so many impressions and then hear how much weirder the voice actually is. Sly’s the same weird guy in every movie, but as Rocky he’s full-on marblemouth. You probably already know that, but it’s no less weird to finally hear it happen.

He’s a boxer who never got a shot and then he gets one. He fights the heavyweight champ. He gets the girl, though he’s always had the girl. It doesn’t need to be more than it is. It’s Rocky, the feel-good punching story of our lives. It’s not the chilling tale of Taxi Driver and it’s not the risky parable of Network, but it’s fine. Rocky shouldn’t be what we have as the history of 1976, but it’s no huge insult to its betters, either.

The Best Part: The climactic fight is great, of course, but it’s the bit you already know: the training montage with the art museum steps and the glass of eggs and the train tracks and the song. The movie wanders around Rocky’s love life for a long time and they spend too much time establishing that you should feel bad for this lug, but the montage is iconic for a reason. It’s hard not to get excited, even though you know what’s coming.

The Worst Part: I spent a lot of time thinking about Talia Shire, the woman who plays Rocky’s love interest Adrian. She’s trapped in a weird place in Rocky. Rocky genuinely loves her and her life’s a mess, so it’s probably for the best that she falls for him, but she still doesn’t really get a lot to do. No one other than Rocky himself really gets much to do, honestly. There’s nothing really below the surface for anyone else, and some of the “emotional” outbursts from other people feel strange because they’re mostly ciphers.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I’ve mostly used this space to assault Crash as a dumb, hateful view of race in America. It’s definitely that, but it’s also the story of unlikable people becoming likeable and vice versa. Crash wants to play with your emotions; the good guys aren’t always good and the bad guys are usually complicated. Crash gets a lot of hate because it’s ham-fisted, but it’s trying to do something complicated. Rocky isn’t trying to do anything complicated at all. If these were both made with the same amount of care, Crash would be the far better story. They’re not, though, and Sly Stallone’s love-song to underdogs is more compelling.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image credit: here.