The ‘Rocky’ road of John’s geography

The ‘Rocky’ road of John’s geography August 18, 2015

I liked Gregory Hoblit’s delightfully creepy movie Fallen, with Denzel Washington and John Goodman. But it’s otherwise seamless atmosphere of haunting doom occasionally falters for audiences around here. We’re taken out of the story not by the writing or the performances or the direction, but by the movie’s geography.

The movie was filmed here, in Philadelphia and the region, and the familiar locations can make the story more vivid for audiences who regularly walk those same streets. But that familiarity also creates occasional problems for Philly audiences. (And I don’t just mean the film’s most audacious geographic innovation — spoilerish hint alert — relocating Sunset Boulevard in the South Jersey Pine Barrens.)

In one scene, for example, we see Denzel encounter the villain in Center City. He gives chase, on foot, rounding the corner to … Manayunk. He turns a corner and winds up, suddenly, seven miles away. That was a bit jarring.

I’ve seen countless examples of similar nit-picking complaints from movie audiences in New York or L.A. or the Bay Area, criticizing the Escher-esque movie geography of many stories filmed in their cities. San Franciscans have been attempting to map out the classic car chase in Bullitt for decades — a task as impossible as trying to figure out how many gears Steve McQueen’s Mustang actually has. But those of us here in the Philly area don’t get to play this game as often.*

We do have one classic, iconic example though: Rocky Balboa’s training montage run through Philadelphia in Rocky II.

Dan McQuade of Philadelphia magazine offered the definitive retracing of the Italian Stallion’s steps a couple years ago — “How Far Did Rocky Go in His Training Run in Rocky II?” — identifying all the locations in the montage and using USA Track and Field’s distance-measuring tool and Google to map out Rocky’s route. Total distance: 30.61 miles.

And that doesn’t even account for the three miles it will take him to get home from the Art Museum.

Here’s McQuade’s map of that absurdly long training run, which has now become the route for an unofficial annual 50K race:

Dan McQuade’s definite map of the training run from “Rocky II.”

The route, you may notice, makes little sense. Rocky cuts through the Italian Market on his way up to Kensington, then comes all the way back to South Philly before turning around to make his way back up to Kelly Drive, near the Art Museum. At this point he’s run nearly the distance of a complete marathon — but he’s not done yet, so he passes by the museum steps, racing back to Center City and Independence Hall before turning back to sprint all the way up the Parkway back to the museum.

The screenshots accompanying McQuade’s article allow us to nitpick further. Rocky sets out in the early morning, and the sun is still in the east as he races along Kelly Drive more than 25 miles later. But he must have slowed down a lot in his final jaunt back to Center City, because the sun is low in the west as he celebrates atop the museum steps with his battalion of incredibly fit schoolchildren.

McQuade’s geographical dissection of this scene in Rocky II is, in many ways, similar to the kind of thing that biblical scholars often do when they study the ancient texts of the Christian Bible. Like McQuade, they’re taking a closer look than the casual movie-goer or devotional Bible-reader who just wants to get swept up in the familiar story. (And, like McQuade, they tend to do this because of their enthusiasm — their love — for the thing they’re examining.)

We saw this recently in discussing the story of “The Day the Sun Stood Still” from the book of Joshua. Paul Davidson approaches that story in precisely the same way that McQuade approaches the beloved Rocky run. He maps out its geography on a map of the real world, finding a route that doubles back on itself inexplicably and covers staggering distances in an implausible time frame. Even Rocky Balboa and the Olympic-class ultramarathon schoolchildren of Philadelphia couldn’t have raced the hundreds of miles that the story tells us Joshua traveled in a single day.

And that brings us to Davidson’s newest post, wherein he gives the Rocky/Joshua treatment to the book of John and “The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel.”

“If you pay close attention,” Davidson writes, “the geography of Jesus’ travels is often confusing, if not downright contradictory.”

That may be an understatement. The geography of John’s Gospel is so mixed up that scholars have suggested a host of possible ways the text itself must have been mixed up. Literally mixed up — as in the suggestion that “an early manuscript [was] dropped and the pages put back in the wrong order.” Retracing the text’s “strange geography and chronology” led the theologian Rudolph Bultmann to “propose that ch. 7 originally followed ch. 5, in which Jesus is is in Judea; and that both followed chs. 4 and 6, in which Jesus is in Galilee.”

There are at least three things about that which will make conservative white evangelicals howl in protest. First is the admission that there are problems in the text of the Gospel; second is the suggestion that it might be possible to reorder the text to make better sense of it; and third is the mention of Bultmann — a name that is, to conservatives, synonymous with infamous, scandalous, liberalism.

But Bultmann’s suggestion — right or wrong — shouldn’t be any more scandalous or radical than McQuade’s discussion of Rocky’s training run. Watch that montage again:

That final, canonical version of the scene was written, directed, and performed by Sylvester Stallone. It’s not outlandish to suggest that Stallone and his film crew didn’t actually trace the entire 30-mile route McQuade maps out. They didn’t set up all their equipment in South Philly, schlep it all up to Kensington, and then drive back down to shoot the scene in the Italian Market. We don’t have to be film scholars or professional movie-makers to understand that its far likelier that the sequence of the final film is the product of the editing process.

That editing process might be less visible to viewers who aren’t familiar with the real-world geography of Philadelphia, but for someone like Dan McQuade –someone who recognizes all those locations and their relationship to one another — the work of those editors is an obvious and unavoidable fact suggested by the film, the text, itself.

Similarly, one doesn’t need to be an expert on the geography of the Holy Land to see some editorial hand at work in the Gospel of John. All you really need to know is that Jerusalem and Galilee are not across the street from one another.

Film editing is a form of the art of storytelling. Movie editors thus make their choices based on what will best serve the story they are telling.

In a sense, then, nitpicking criticism of movie geography is unfair and beside the point. The training montage in Rocky II wasn’t filmed to be a road atlas of Philadelphia. It was filmed to tell a story. And the meaning and effect of that story isn’t necessarily dependent on or diminished by the real-world accuracy of the geography it portrays. McQuade’s geographical dissection, in a way, tempts us to misread the story — to misrepresent it to ourselves and thereby to misunderstand it.

The same is true for that classic chase scene from Bullitt. If you treat it like a geography lesson or a road atlas, you’ll come away with the sense that it’s nothing more than an inept geography lesson and an inaccurate road atlas. And you will thereby miss the point — the most important thing about the scene, which is that it’s a thrilling, remarkable piece of cinematic storytelling.

The first time I watched Fallen I saw Denzel turn that seven-mile corner into Manayunk and was momentarily jarred out of the story by its impossible geography. A few months later, though, I went to see some friends playing at Grape Street and wound up having to park somewhere right around where that scene was filmed. I was alone and it was dark there under the bridge at night, and if someone had stepped out of the shadows singing “Tie-ie-ie-ime Is on My Side” I would have collapsed and soiled myself.

Despite its fictional movie-geography,the story worked. It worked partly because of its impossible geography. The story needed, above all else, for Denzel to round the corner and find himself on a shadowy, creepy street, and locating the ideal such location — the best possible shadowy, creepy street for the purpose of the story — was more important to the storytellers than settling for a location that was more geographically realistic.

In other words, sometimes impossible movie-geography may result from a mistake, and sometimes it may result from an artistic choice. And sometimes it may be both of those at the same time.

We should keep that in mind when we consider things like the mixed up geography and chronology of John’s Gospel. Are we seeing a storytelling choice made to advance the story? Or are we seeing the result of someone dropping the pages of the manuscript and then putting them back together out of order? Or both?

We haven’t yet touched on the biggest difference between Rocky’s ridiculous run and Jesus’ implausible hopscotching about the Holy Land in John’s Gospel. One is a movie. The other is biblical canon. Neither Rocky II nor the Gospel of John purports to be suitable replacement for Google Maps or a GPS, but the latter does purport to be a true story and not a work of fiction. Imaginatively implausible geography in service of a fiction story seems less troublesome than the same sort of imaginatively implausible geography in a story that asks to be considered a true and reliable account.

Here, I think, it’s vitally important to remember another huge difference between these two stories. Rocky II was released in 1979.** John’s Gospel was written in the first century — in another language, in another world.

The 1970s may seem like a long time ago now, but really that’s the blink of an eye. Heck, Rocky’s Philadelphia is coming back to our movie screens in November. The past of 1979 looks different, but it’s not incomprehensible to us. Go back further, though, a generation earlier to the 1927 boxing movie The Ring. That’s an artifact from the silent movie era — cinema that employed a very different style of performance and writing than the realism of the 1970s. The stylized approach of silent-movie actors seems alien and strange to those of us engaging such storytelling today.

But silent movies, while strange, are still recognizably part of our modern world and culture. The Ring is Hitchcock, after all — the work of a familiar artist from the fairly recent past. Go back further. Read Hawthorne or Dickens and you’ll encounter more that is strange — storytelling conventions that seem a bit less familiar to the conventions of our time. Go back further and dip into Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. That’s a work of history — of non-fiction — but works of history from two centuries ago employed methods and conventions that were wholly different from those employed today.

Go back further, to Shakespeare, and further, to Chaucer. Chaucer didn’t write in English as we know it because English as we know it didn’t yet exist. He didn’t write novels or short stories because novels and short stories didn’t yet exist. He was writing in a language now long gone and in a genre now long gone.

We tend to remember this when we approach The Canterbury Tales. We tend to forget this when we approach the Gospel of John — which is vastly older, stranger, and less immediately accessible to us.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore the geographical and chronological confusion in the Gospel of John, or the many ways it is incompatible with the accounts we find in the Synoptic Gospels. But it is an important thing to keep in mind — a caution against assuming we can easily assess or evaluate what we’re encountering in a text that was two times older to Chaucer than Chaucer is to us.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Many of the best movies set in Philadelphia — Blow Out, The Sixth Sense, Trading Places — offer a fairly faithful rendition of the city’s geography. (So do Mannequin, National Treasure and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but we try not to speak of those.) So we’re stuck with nitpicking about the geography on TV shows like It’s Always Sunny or Cold Case.

Let me note, though, that Steve McQueen’s first leading role was filmed right here in Chester County.

** The first Rocky movie came out in 1976, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also won for best director and best film editing, and collected seven other Oscar nominations — including two for Stallone for acting and screenwriting.

The fact that Rocky was chosen over Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men has produced a lot of critical resentment over the years, but that’s mainly a reflection, I think, of the way that all of the Rocky sequels wound up diminishing the reputation of the original. Ignore those sequels and that first movie, by itself, really does deserve to be listed alongside those others as a classic of 1970s American cinema.

In fact, if you want a simple case study for the difference between that classic period of American movies and the decline that followed in the 1980s, just watch Rocky and then, say, Rocky IV.

But my point here in this little tangent isn’t simply to defend the quality of the original Rocky. We often talk about these distinct epochs or eras of American cinema — the auteur-driven 1970s vs. the blockbuster-driven 1980s. We have no trouble recognizing that time passed and time changed. It seems logical to us that the expectation of audiences and the approach of storytellers could have changed, significantly, over the course of a decade — ten whole years. We don’t approach movies from the 1970s with the same set of expectations we bring to movies from the 1980s. And yet we approach the Bible — a collection of texts more than two millennia old — as though it shouldn’t be any different from something written last week.

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