Friday, April 29, 2011

Raging Bull (1980)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, Pete Savage, Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin
Photography: Michael Chapman
Music: Pietro Mascagni
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Johnny Barnes

With careful study I have come to some appreciation for Raging Bull, which critical consensus hails as Scorsese's best ever and also as the greatest film of the 1980s. But it hasn't been easy. I'm not typically opposed to film fare that revels in the grotesqueries of its characters and/or stories—I like both Glengarry Glen Ross and There Will Be Blood, for example, to name two off the top of my head that don't offer a lot of carefree qualities. Nor do I have anything against the fashionableness of Scorsese's critical adulation. In fact, I am aligned with the consensus on his next-highest ranked, my favorite by him, Taxi Driver (which we will be getting to in good time).

But I have to say that something about Raging Bull just puts me off. The brutality of the boxing, the ever pointless aggressiveness that animates everything in the life of Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro with an intensity that virtually atomizes the entire school of method acting and its 30 years of history to that point), the seeming one-note preoccupation of the entire thing with the concerns of a wild, stalking animal in possession of barely an iota of impulse control. It's a kind of case for despair, implicitly asserting the foolishness itself of even attempting humanity or compassion, and all too convincing at that.

The animal theme, indeed, is entirely central to Raging Bull, sounded early and often, starting with the title, a variation on the mid-20th-century middleweight boxer's nickname, the Bronx Bull. "The Raging Bull" came to be used nearly as often and served as the title for LaMotta's memoir, the literary property that De Niro insistently brought to Scorsese's attention as early as 1974. De Niro already sensed in many ways that it was going to be a role he was born to play.

There's an early scene where LaMotta is fighting with his first wife in their tenement apartment and an unseen neighbor leans out of a window and calls him an animal, an insult that throws LaMotta into a rage. There's a powerful climactic scene with LaMotta imprisoned in isolation, furiously denying that he is an animal even as he terrifyingly demonstrates just how much he can act like one once caged.

And I use the term "sounded" deliberately, as some documentary materials on the DVD package that proved useful for me get into the amazing sound design overseen by Frank Warner, revealing just how thoroughly permeated by animals that this production is: horses, leopards, lions, and even elephants can be heard in the dense mixes inflecting mostly the boxing scenes. Also discussed in the interviews, there's an equally brilliant use of silence, interjected at crucial points such as the last moments of LaMotta's last fight with Sugar Ray Robinson, in order to maximize the ongoing emotional wallop, which is not inconsiderable.

Certainly Raging Bull looks good too—the clarity of its black and white is nothing less than stunning, and I have known people to express surprise when reminded that it is shot in black and white, so seamlessly and artfully is that aesthetic integrated and used that they had simply forgotten or failed to notice. The DVD extras also get into how elaborately staged and shot the boxing scenes are, each for the most part putting the camera right in the ring with the fighters, but otherwise altering the look and feel of each fight by playing with various elements such as the size of the boxing ring. For one, banked fires were created just below the bottom of the frame to capture distortions of heat waves and imbuing the scene with thick smoke and an overall hellish feel.

Another clarifying point I found in the interviews was that Scorsese is not particularly a fan of sports at all, let alone boxing, and that in many ways he shares my aversion to boxing. At the same time, he obviously brings a deep appreciation for conventions of the film subgenre of boxing movies, an appreciation I do not particularly share. He even goes so far as to finish Raging Bull on a flat intonation by LaMotta of Brando's famous On the Waterfront soliloquy, which I must say was perfectly, even startlingly, effective the last time I looked.

As for the players, Joe Pesci as LaMotta's brother and manager is about as likeable as I've seen him outside of My Cousin Vinny, younger and more vulnerable and not nearly the monster he has played to such great effect in other Scorsese pictures. Cathy Moriarty never went on to do much of anything else (although, as with Soapdish and Matinee, I liked some of her choices), but not even 20 years old in Raging Bull she is more than adequate as LaMotta's second wife Vickie, playing off the strengths of her unusual voice with a New York cool, all coiled guardedness and flashing rages.

De Niro, like LaMotta himself, is a force of nature here. The dedication to his craft that he evinced by putting on 60 pounds for the post-boxing career LaMotta was no stunt, which becomes clear the moment you see him onscreen so heavy and bloated. There was never going to be any way that prosthetics and makeup would convey the internalities of the fat LaMotta. De Niro knew he had to beef up and he did. In just such fashion, it's a thoroughly remarkable performance. As with so many of his best roles, De Niro's success is less a matter of his limited acting abilities and more one of his uncanny knack for an undeniable, and unsettling, presence—he is an icon, in other words, and here his persona and his role are spectacularly matched.

Last, maybe, there seems to me to be less music here than I'm used to seeing in Scorsese pictures, so many of which practically qualify as soundtrack movies in their own right. Pay close attention and you'll note that apt songs of the day are sprinkled through, but as with the silence in the sound design I think Scorsese's dialing back of his typical soundtrack instincts is a deliberate choice, and the smart one. The one exception is the theme music by Pietro Mascagni. It plays over the opening titles and appears elsewhere as well, though sparingly, and it is haunting and lovely, setting the stage perfectly.

I guess if you care about cinema you need to confront Raging Bull sooner or later, and I will even say that it rewards revisiting and patient viewing. But I still can't go so far as to actually recommend it. There's just too much of it that I just viscerally don't like. So you're on your own there.


  1. Interesting thoughts. I do not share the critical consensus of this as Scorsese's greatest film, and think you get at some of the reasons.

  2. This is a very thought provoking post JPK.
    I come at Raging Bull from a different perspective to you because I've always been a big boxing fan and while I admire LaMotta as a boxer, he certainly isn't or wasn't a very likeable human being.
    In fact if you ever read the book on which the film is based (also called Raging Bull) Scorcese actually omitted some of the more unsavoury incidents in LaMotta's life.
    I do own the special edition DVD but it's not a film I watch very often for a lot of the reasons you mention in your post. It's definitely a film you need to be in a certain mood to watch.