This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
There is some irony in Raging Bull being called “the best American film of the 1980s.” Its placement in that decade is a mere accident of chronology – and critics calling it the best of those years are essentially saying what (little) they think of them. Peter Biskind, by naming his book on 70s American cinema Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, acknowledged an important fact: when Raging Bull came out in 1980, it was closing out, rather than ushering in, an era. To this day, it remains a kind of fault line in cinema history – before it come the acknowledged classics, after it a number of films up for grabs, many possible masterpieces or potential classics, with their adherents and detractors, but few with the kind of immediately obvious weight Raging Bull carries. It is the last of the "consensus classics," a generalization (even Citizen Kane has its critics) but a helpful one in determining the shape of critical and popular opinion, and thus a kind of cinematic historiography.
Among popular Hollywood touchstones there’s E.T., maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lynch’s unique voice has been recognized in the cautious canonization of Blue Velvet and (to a lesser extent) Mulholland Drive - though the "Lynchian" seems to transcend a single film. Do the Right Thing has its advocates, while Goodfellas and (more controversially) Pulp Fiction were huge gamechangers as far as style goes, informing everything that came afterward. Schindler’s List is probably the only post-Raging Bull film to seem just as “unavoidable,” as unquestionably important to the conversation – although it has many major detractors in a way Raging Bull does not. In recent years, only the one-two punch of 2007 (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) seem to contend that same throne.
What happened? It would require many more posts to explain in detail why consensus becomes less clear after Raging Bull. But the phenomenon is real, not imagined, and it is not a matter of time passing before the dust settles on reputations – consider that from 1962 to 1982, recent films did not have trouble making the international Sight & Sound lists: indeed, Raging Bull cracked the top three “all-time greats” within a dozen years of its release (back in 1962, L'Avventura made an even quicker jump, #2 after two years). I think there have been plenty of great films since then, but my list differs substantially from everyone else’s, as do everyone else's from one another. A certain common ground has been lost (the advent of DVD and the internet will either reverse or hasten this stasis in canonization, perhaps both; the 2012 Sight & Sound list should be interesting). What interests me here is why Raging Bull does make the cut, and what that means.
I saw Raging Bull as a teenager, in the flush of my second cinematic renaissance (the first had been more limited to blockbusters and a few select classics, when I was in first or second grade). I adored Taxi Driver, and responded instinctively to Scorsese’s kinetic style, as I still do. However, Raging Bull was a tougher nut to crack, eschewing the feverish intensity of Taxi Driver for something colder, harder. The black-and-white cinematography is not the only element of this film that is spare, bleak; the slow-boil performances, the rich but muted sound design (except in the fight scenes), and especially the gritty, unromanticized locations set the audience at a bit of a distance although other elements ultimately offset and counteract this experience.
There is something deeply romantic about Travis Bickle’s sense of alienation, as if he’s falling, falling (like James Stewart in Vertigo) into the wide and endlessly deep gap between the heroic mythos of pop culture and the confusing chaos of his daily life in the real world. On the other hand, Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, a wife-beating paranoid case who struggles between discipline and temper to get his middleweight title shot, seems to experience life in broad strokes: sheer rage, lingering paranoia, a kind of aimless lassitude. Scorsese reflects this with a kind of (barely) glamorized plainness: look at all the signs in the movie, and they seem blocky, straightforward, their form as mundane as their messages. Lush music is drowned out by arguments and fistfights, as if there’s a more romanticized Scorsese movie playing in the background of the one he’s made.
But then there are moments of startling, immersive grace or feral, raw energy. On the one hand, there are those operatic montages or credit sequences where the film seems to soar in the eye and soak up the flavor of a period or a mood, more as it is remembered than as it is experienced at the time. On the other hand, we have the fights themselves, a cacophony of explosively creative sound design (mixing breaking glass and lions’ roars) and a lightning-fast flurry of cinematic techniques (gliding dollies, jerky handheld, violently fixed framings). Between them, these two larger-than-life approaches provide the movie its extra punch, perfectly complementing the raw, focused, termitic vitality of those domestic arguments and brotherly banter down at the pool or the Copa.
And that, I think, is one of the main reasons Raging Bull has retained its championship belt all these years later. However down-to-earth, however gritty, however small-bored focused as it can be (and these factors are a definite element of its greatness), it also has the ability to seem larger-than-life, mythic somehow, tapping into a history not just of its own characters, but of the national identity, and the cinematic tradition that both reflected and helped shape that identity. In this sense, its timing is no accident – it arrived exactly at the right moment to bid farewell to a long and vital (perhaps most vital) chapter in the American experience, what one might call “the postwar years” (even though the film, and arguably these years, starts during or even just before the war).
I’ve recently been re-reading a very good book on mainstream narrative techniques, called The Hollywood Eye, in which the writer, John Boorstin, notes how little moments in a movie (say, the character parking a car outside a landmark, a fifteen-second crowd shot before we cut inside for the remainder of the scene) can be the most expensive to shoot. Yet they justify their expense, because they give the audience the sense of a greater world outside, beyond the frame, which enriches everything within. This is what Scorsese does with the bravura, tour-de-force moments in Raging Bull, except the world beyond the frame he suggests is spiritual rather than physical. These are the moments which make the movie seem more than a psychological portrait of a brutish, (perhaps) not very bright, boxer, and instead lend it the pallor of a valedictory epic.
The key is that, with two hands, the movie sums up two halves of an era. Narratively (and of course in the details of the world it portrays on screen) it recalls a “big” era and its more dispersed aftermath, the early forties (big bands, big lapels, a big war) and the era in which suburban family life, television, seedy show business (as well as the ascent of the Method) both carried and sometimes stifled the brash energy that had built up through two world wars, a jazz age, and a depression. The overarching zeitgeist is conveyed by the ever-present radio and those beautiful home movies (Scorsese said he shouldn’t have had the professional cinematographer shoot them, but it would be hard to say goodbye to their devastatingly suggestive poetry), while the profane dialogue and humble sets remind us of the more mundane day-to-day world of the “greatest generation.”
Yet while Raging Bull evokes this era, it also embraces all the stylistic fury and focus of the following era, the sixties and seventies with its rock music tempo, edgy dark humor, druggy disorientation, boundary-pushing ethos, and grimy, unvarnished sense of reality, and real-life energy. The film may be black-and-white, and its influences may extend to Italian neorealism (especially a film that provided a coda to that era: Rocco and His Brothers) and the noir fight films of the forties (Body and Soul, The Set-Up). But make no mistake about it, Raging Bull is a film arising directly out of its own zeitgeist, when the ever-increasing grittiness and naturalism of subject matter and acting were paired with a movie-movie obsession and exploration of technique: the films of New Hollywood were both more realistic than those that had come before, and more consciously stylized. In this, they very strongly echoed the impulses of the French New Wave (which helped kick off this second half of the postwar era), but with bigger budgets and perhaps an American sensibility at work, their formal panache was even more obvious.
The gamechangers have been noted before – Jaws, Star Wars, the failure of Heaven’s Gate, a shifting mood in American audiences, and so forth – but for whatever reason, by 1980 this way of making movies was borderline-dead. The stylistic skill stayed behind (although that too would, arguably, pass away until we have come to the reverse of the seventies: unadventurous content paired with a blandly accelerated, faux-realistic way of shooting, blockbusters shot like home movies instead of home movies shot like blockbusters). But, impressed by the formidable talents of a Spielberg or Lucas, critics were nonetheless dismayed at the perceived juvenilia of the subject matter and sentimentalization or simplification of the approach. Meanwhile, offbeat films received plaudits but were unable to connect with wider audiences – a changing market but also a shifting aesthetic made more of a division between “movies” and “films.”
Perhaps in American cinema, as had occurred along different timelines and at different speeds in other mediums and nations, a self-aware, spanning-the-gap modernism (in which old forms no longer seemed possible but were still recalled and evoked acutely, in a new spirit) had given way to a more settled, inevitably disconnected, and arguably smaller-minded postmodernism (in which enough time and matter had passed that the old forms now just seemed dated, encrusted in irony, the gap now crossed with the formerly disoriented-but-alive modernist safely on the other side, secure yet spent). This is not to say that Raging Bull was some kind of popular-critical hit at the time; it did not make much money, and didn’t even win the Oscar for Best Picture. But two years later, it was chosen as one of the top ten films of all time, with little controversy and in the following decades no other movies seemed to follow in these footsteps.
Meanwhile, the once-too-dark-and-dour film remains a big hit with young men who would otherwise prefer only to watch gross-out comedies or explosive superhero movies; if it did not seem immediately to have the popular touch at the time it has earned it over the years. (How its relationship with masculinity plays into its long-term reputation is also a fascinating question, albeit one that will have to be treated elsewhere.) It’s notable that if there are only two movies which can claim such widespread cross-critical-and-popular appeal in the past twenty-five years, one of them is another Scorsese movies, Goodfellas (probably heavier than Raging Bull on the popular appeal, and slightly lighter on the critical). And if the other is Schindler’s List, that says that both movies were made by filmmakers who came out of the 70s tradition, albeit in different directions (both fuse adult and adolescent/childlike sensibilities – the detailed and the iconic, in formal terms – but one emphasizes the former and one the latter). It also says that no other movie with such a strong claim has emerged in nearly two decades.
Ultimately, then, Raging Bull is not only a classic, but a canonical classic (and we can disparage canons all we want, but they must be recognized and grappled with before they can be argued against). It arrived at just the right moment. Moreover, it seized that moment with the right energy, both subject-wise – just narrow enough not to seem overly ambitious, yet with the right themes and period to appear universal (or at any rate, capturing the zeitgeists) – and stylistically – just cold and downplayed enough to earn its keep as psychological drama, just stylized and romanticized enough to achieve a mythos. It’s a great film, and a great movie, from a time when a work could be both. As such, it’s not just a reminder, but, hopefully, an inspiration, whose time will come again.