Saturday, March 19, 2011

Classic Movie Review: Raging Bull

Raging Bull is the full realization of the promise Martin Scorsese demonstrated with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. And to refer to those two seminal films as somehow less substantial than Raging Bull should automatically suggest its magnificent power.

This was the fourth of eight collaborations between Scorsese and Robert De Niro. I would say neither artist has topped himself since. It is Scorsese at his virtuoso best and for De Niro it is a complete performance, lacking nothing in terms of emotion and physicality. And I don’t say that simply because he first turned his body into that of a champion boxer and then gained 60 pounds to play the aging and overweight Jake La Motta, but because he leaves nothing on the table. This is full tilt De Niro. It’s the impulsiveness and rage of Johnny Boy and the fierce tenacity of the psychopathic Travis Bickle. Although we may occasionally get flashes of De Niro’s brilliance in some of his recent performances, nothing he’s done in at least twenty years has come close to what he brought to Raging Bull.

The film contains some of the greatest expressions of common Scorsese themes and symbols including sin and redemption, idealized virginal women, and leading male characters coming apart at the seams.

Jake La Motta wrote the book on which the film is based and also served as a consultant as well as De Niro’s personal trainer. So it’s reasonable to assume that the negative portrayal of La Motta is not far from the truth. We do know that some details were altered and characters were condensed for the purpose of making the narrative of the film more manageable. For example, Joe Pesci’s character Joey is an amalgamation of both La Motta’s brother and a close friend. The screenplay is credited to frequent Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, but reports mostly indicate that the final shooting script was heavily altered by both Scorsese and De Niro with help from another Scorsese partner, Jay Cocks. All too often when there are so many writers thrown into the mix the resulting film is a bit of a mess and lacking focus. Raging Bull is anything but that.

When we first see La Motta, he is a washed up and overweight parody of himself, preparing for a stand-up comedy routine in a Florida club that he owns. The film then vaults us back twenty years, tossing us smack in the middle of the ring for La Motta’s first ever boxing loss. Right away, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are setting up the dramatic fall of the character, taking us from the fallen hero he’d become by the mid-60s to the beginning of the end of his invincibility in 1941.

Jake is a deeply flawed human being, full of rage and violence which he often takes out on his opponents in the ring. But when there’s no prize fight on the line, it might be his brother or his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) whom he targets. In spite of this, the film demands that we care about him. That is accomplished not by showing a terrible childhood filled with abuse. This isn’t about the cycle of violence. Instead, La Motta is depicted as insecure to the point of debilitating violence. The most innocent comment might be warped and transformed inside his head until it means something completely different from its original intention.

When Vickie makes a comment about future opponent Tony Janiro’s popularity and good looks, Jake takes that as a sign that she’s thinking about other men and possibly running around behind his back. Similarly meaningless actions cause him to grow suspicious of his own brother which leads to Jake’s complete personal meltdown when he beats Joey in his own house in front of his wife and kids.

De Niro is not afraid in the least to reveal his vulnerabilities. After repeated offers of “help” by local mob boss Tommy Como (approached through a friend of Joey’s), Jake finally decides to throw a fight in order to gain a shot at a title fight. The brilliance of the plot forces us to side with Jake even though he’s violating boxing rules and basic ethical standards. We’ve seen him fight tooth and nail, beating opponents fairly, and never being offered a shot at the title. We see him refuse offers and staidly maintain his distance from the mob, insisting he do things on his own terms. It’s only out of desperation that he finally agrees to the deal. When Jake breaks down crying in the dressing room after the loss we’re right there with him and for a brief moment his other transgressions (which to that point had mostly been harsh words and threats toward his wives) are forgiven.

If throwing the fight is a low point professionally and attacking his brother is a familial low point, then his personal low point comes after the end of his career when he’s arrested for misconduct with a minor he allowed into his bar. There is no scene more devastating than seeing Jake get locked away in a solitary confinement cell and watching as he beats his fists and his head into the concrete wall. It’s devastating because now that he has no one else to exert his brute force upon, we see just what his anger has always been about. It’s been about his own fallibility and without the faculties to internalize or be introspective, he has simply lashed out at whoever is stands in his path. The concrete prison is merely an external representation of the self-imposed imprisonment of his own psyche. His pounding those walls isn’t only about self-immolation, but about trying to bust through the constraints of his own mind. He’s one of the great Scorsese anti-heroes – not nearly as reflective as Harvey Keitel’s character in Mean Streets and certainly not as psychotic as Travis Bickle, but exhibiting the marks of Catholic guilt that infect virtually all of Scorsese’s protagonists only in this instance without as much explicit symbolism.

The decision to shoot the film in high contrast black and white was somehow inevitable. Can you imagine this film in color? For me, this is a clear example of why black and white photography is the only choice for certain subject matter. Despite the aesthetic considerations, too many movies are filmed in color because it’s much more commercially viable. Michael Chapman’s cinematography evokes the time period of the movie’s setting and makes the lives and surroundings of the characters feel spare. It reflects La Motta and his first wife living a modest existence in The Bronx in 1941, but remains as stark later when he’s married to Vickie and living wealthier lifestyle.

The two greatest discoveries made by Raging Bull were the actors Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty. Pesci had made one or two films prior to this, but he was virtually unknown. Incredibly it still took another ten years before he became a movie star when he had Goodfellas and Home Alone released in the same year. He won the Oscar for Goodfellas (it seems he’s always done his best work under Scorsese’s direction, although he was also nominated for Raging Bull.

Moriarty made her film debut here playing the fifteen year old Vickie (when La Motta first meets her) at age nineteen. With her full figure and contralto voice she doesn’t make a convincing teenager, but a younger actress would not have been able to play the older more combative Vickie nearly as successfully. When she packs to leave Jake after he punches her, she has to be determined to set out on her own with two small children, but weak enough that she succumbs to his pleas for forgiveness. Jake uses the same methods (an entirely different kind of exertion of force) on his estranged brother late in the film. Both Vickie and Joey resign themselves to making peace with Jake in those moments for lack of any better outlet.

Last month when Steven Spielberg was preparing to announce the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards he said that the winner would join a list that includes On the Waterfront and The Deer Hunter. The other nine would join a list that includes Citizen Kane and Raging Bull. What that statement suggested to me was that it hardly matters which film wins the Best Picture Oscar or any other best film award, for that matter. History and posterity will determine the true classics. Ordinary People may still be well regarded as a good movie, but it’s not making anyone’s list of the great films the way Raging Bull does and is likely to continue to for decades to come. It may have taken a late-career revival for Martin Scorsese to finally win his long-overdue Oscar, but that shouldn’t diminish the stature of his earlier work.

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