Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Raging Bull (#84)

The Favorites - Raging Bull (#84)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Raging Bull (1980/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #84 on my original list.

What it is • Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) slowly punches his way to the top in the 1940s, and quickly falls to the bottom in the 1950s. Most of the film chronicles his boxing career and troubled marriage as a young man, with the infamously overweight De Niro only clocking in for the final half-hour - but all the seeds for his downfall are planted during that long period of hunger, aggression, and paranoia. During the eight long years between the opening fight and his championship bout in 1949, the Bronx Bull's life is frequently a mess. He is abusive to his first and second wife (whom he seduces when she is still a minor), frequently frustrated by missed opportunities and his own missteps, and resistant to the criminal milieu around him, which demands he must take a fall before he's allowed to get his shot. But there's a prize to keep his eyes on and somehow that holds everything in place and gives him a purpose. Only after he is crowned middleweight champion of the world does everything begin to crumble. Raging Bull is often described as a tale of redemption, but that's a stretch given what we actually see onscreen and how it's structured. Jake's attempts at reconciliation are pathetic at best (the same old "let's be pals now" routine he gave his first wife at the beginning of the movie), his self-awareness still seems incredibly dim, and the world around him is pretty unblinkingly unforgiving - at least in the two or three post-downfall scenes we get. Better to call this a tale of survival ("You never got me down, Ray"), of a man who is still standing after fifteen grueling rounds with his most brutal opponent: himself.

Why I like it •
The fight scenes are as hypnotic as they are brutalizing. The dialogue effectively mixes hilarity and terror. But the very first time I watched Raging Bull, much of the movie left me cold. This was around when I initially viewed Taxi Driver, which struck a raw nerve, but Raging Bull seemed as restrained as Taxi Driver was passionate, as harshly distancing as the earlier film was deeply subjective. Although many shots are from Jake's point of view, the character's crude worldview is potentially alienating and at least on paper there's something flat and coarse about his story. Yet here is the film on my list after all. It didn't take long to get there - as a teenager I loved this movie not long after my difficult first viewing. This is one of those rare favorites that I admired before I enjoyed; objective appreciation was my gateway into personal investment. Knowing the film would not be an immersive fever dream like Taxi Driver, I returned to absorb its more Apollonian appeal (along with the occasionally, aggressively Dionysian violence): Scorsese's bravura techniques in the fight sequences, unblinking gaze during character interactions, and occasionally operatic flourishes. My favorite such flourishes are the "Intermezzo"-scored title sequence, with Jake shadowboxing in slow motion - one of the most beautiful shots in the history of cinema - and the midway montage that manages to evoke an entire era, both personal and historical, by mixing color 8mm home movies of everyday events and black-and-white still shots from the ring. Although largely sustained by a fierce, focused intensity, Raging Bull's moments of grace and grandeur suggest an entire world on the periphery of the protagonists' blinkered vision, and perhaps Jake's greatest tragedy is that he can't allow himself to experience this too.

How you can see it • Raging Bull is on DVD from Netflix. It is also available through these streaming services. It has also featured quite a few times on this blog. I wrote a full-length review of Raging Bull - particularly focusing on its status as possibly the last "consensus classic" - as part of my series on "The Big Ones" in 2011. I included it on my cinema-retrospective series Remembering the Movies, in which I discussed movies that had come out on a particular date. And I included a clip at 5:55 in "'Neath the Marquee Moon" (a chapter of my "32 Days of Movies" video series).

What do you think? • Is this Scorsese's masterpiece? Is it the greatest film of the 1980s? Is it Robert De Niro's greatest performance? Why do you think the movie has won so many accolades and maintained such a canonical status? Do you feel it is the last movie to achieve this sort of undisputed status? Do you feel its overrated, if so why (meaning what don't you like, and what do you think others are overvaluing) - and which Scorsese films, if any, do you greatly prefer? Are the fight scenes in this film too stylized (especially if you are a fight fan)? Is this a great "boxing movie" aside from its value is drama? Is the film too sympathetic towards Jake? Not enough? Do you find him interesting, repellent, boring, all of the above, none of the above? And why is Frank Vincent so perpetually punchable, at least when it's Joe Pesci doing the punching?

• • •

Previous week: Schindler's List (#85)


Anonymous said...

Took me a while to like this one. Like you, I admired it before I loved it.
Couldn't quite make sense of the slower, more static moments of LaMotta's life outside of the ring. The tragic poetry of it eluded me for a long time. Feeling alive only when working at one's own destruction. The feeling one is not worth of his own salvation and ultimately understanding that the person standing in your way was your own self.

Jesus! That title fight entrance tracking shot of DeNiro walking from the back-room towards a packed, smoke-filled, beautifully lit ring for his title shot...

I'm also very much in love with the mid-film montage of colour 8mm home-movies and black-and-white still shots.
Reminds me a lot of the similar montage half-way through Kurosawa's "Dersu Uzala" (1975). Wonder if that could have been an inspiration for Scorsese and what the earliest instance of such a montage in a film is...

Joel Bocko said...

Very well-stated. And that's a great question (I haven't watched Dersu Uzala yet, unfortunately).

I think the unusual tempo of the film - alternating those visceral fight scenes and the slow-burning domestic stuff - is one of those "whole great than the sum of its parts" type things. Good (and/or challenging) as each element might be on its own it is even stronger when held in juxtaposition to the other. And it's interesting how it resonates on a thematic level, as you outline, and also kind of a meta-cinematic one with Scorsese coupling the kinetic frenzy of montage and camera movement with the more subtle power of an observational camera captivated by gesture and dialogue.

Thanks for commenting!

Search This Blog