February 10, 2012

#4: Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese was hooked on cocaine after his success in the 1970s, but luckily was convinced to kick the habit by friends like Robert De Niro. He believed that Raging Bull would be his last film, and so he poured all his violent, drug-addled energy into making it. The result is a bloody chamber piece, telling the story of one man's fall from fame into obscurity and despair. Pretty heavy for a bright, sunny afternoon, but I'll take it. After the last one (Singin' in the Rain) it's pretty bleak up to the top of the list.

Company: Katie, spin classmate and beach-body-breakfast sous chef

Cuisine: poached eggs on a bed of kale, onion and Canadian bacon, with dill toast from Lucia's and coffee. Mmm. A champion breakfast.

Raging Bull is based on the novel of the same name, an autobiography of the middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta (portrayed famously by Oscar winner Robert De Niro). The film, shot in stark black-and-white, begins with a epilogue in 1964, when the aging and overweight La Motta practices a comedy routine. No sooner have we recognized De Niro under sixty pounds of added weight than we flash back to 1941, when La Motta loses his first match and begins his long, slow slide out of control. He and his brother, Joey (an unknown-turned-Oscar-nominee Joe Pesci), plot some involvement with local Mafia lords to get him his championship.

It's around this time that he falls for the beautiful and barely legal Vicki (another unknown and Oscar nominee Cathy Moriarty). He sees her every day at the pool, and in one of the film's most beautiful and understated sequences, he spends the day with her and finally gets her into bed. Never mind his steak-toting wife at home. After one table-smashing shouting match, she's out of the picture.

Just as he's about to ride the Vicki train, however, he has a change of heart, runs into the bathroom and pours a pitcher of ice water down his shorts. What's with the sudden change of heart? We don't really get a chance to find out before Cathy balls up and makes a move. "What are you doing? What are you doing?" he asks her, knowing full well what she's doing. He must also know why he reconsidered, but we aren't let in on this rare moment of weakness.

I guess that example underlines one problem I have with the story here: we're never really made aware of the larger relevance of Jake's story. What's the larger social significance of his pride, all his tragic flaws that make up one badly flawed human being, where's the redemption? And if the point is that there is no redemption, what are we meant to take away from the story that makes us better people for having seen it?

There are few flaws that Jake La Motta doesn't have: he's quick to anger, full of all-encompassing pride and jealousy, desperately needy but eternally suspicious of everyone around him. There's very little to like, really, which might account for the initial mixed reviews when this film hit theaters in 1980. It's gained respect and notoriety since then, especially as Scorsese proved himself to be one of the most respected and quintessentially American film directors of the last century (his Taxi Driver and Goodfellas also made this list; very few directors in the last quarter of the 20th century have three cited films), and is now regarded as one of the very best if not the best film of the 1980s. But I always hear that and think: but the 80s had only just begun! My point is, we love our central characters to have at least a shred of humanity, and it's maybe not until the epilogue portion of the film, where De Niro's La Motta is virtually unrecognizable, when we see through the cracks.

Okay well, that's just an amazing shot: a perfect metaphor for the end of La Motta's boxing career.

I know it's all autobiographical but all the Mafia tie-ins feel tacked on somehow. Maybe I just wanted this whole film to function like the middle section, where we see La Motta in the ring alternately contrasted with his rocky personal life. Do I want more joy, more redemption, more self-sacrifice? I suppose I do in real life, so maybe I want it in my movies too. Is that wrong?

My main struggle with Raging Bull is that I don't know what I'm supposed to take away from it. It's a biography, yes, and it's a sports drama, sure. I'm not a huge sports guy but I think that of all sports, boxing is the most exciting, the most visceral, and the most easily cinematic, so I can get behind the world being created here. I just don't know what the larger relevance is.

This blog entry hasn't been so much a review as it has been a looming question I'm left with. Katie and I both wondered. Anyone care to chime in? There's certainly a lot to recommend -- the film is very artfully crafted, with some of Scorsese's best direction and a legendary central performance from De Niro -- but as a whole it left me cold. Should a film ranked #4 on a list like this make me feel that way?

Chime in, please! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Next up: we'll always have Casablanca.


  1. some films just don't connect with us as viewers, some do. I've never been interested enough to watch this film, though I've read a fewed articles on it. lol... I've enjoyed about half the movies on the list. A few I've not! Especially Pulp Fiction. Ugh... Now, Tootsie, as I commented on earlier, I could watch repeatedly along with Star Wars, LOTR, Wizard of OZ, Gone With the Wind, Cuckoo's Nest... I think I'd put Groundhog Day or Lost In Translation in Pulp's place.... ;)