Sunday, December 21, 2008

Raging Bull (1980)

We all know the classic underdog story - a young, up-and-coming athlete with a troubled past upsets a formidable opponent to be crowned the new champion. Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull turns this formula on its head, depicting a talented boxer who wins the championship but alienates his friends and family, eventually becoming a fat drunkard who performs terrible nightclub acts. Raging Bull is a biopic, telling the true story of Jake LaMotta, but it is so much more than a simple memoir. It is a story about failure to communicate, and about sexism, and about family. It is also a textbook example of acting, editing, and cinematography - all in service of a deeply human story.

After a brief scene in 1964, in which LaMotta (Robert De Niro) rehearses his nightclub routine, the film cuts to a fight in 1941 between LaMotta and Jimmy Reeves. Immediately we can see that Scorsese is not interested in toning down the violence. The fights in the film are brutal - blood flies, sweat drips, smoke drifts, and lightbulbs flash. At times, unconventional sound effects like swooping birds are used as LaMotta closes in on his prey. Slow-motion is used to great effect, and the sheer violence is striking - not only for the combatants, but for the fight's audience as well. After a controversial decision in the first fight, a brawl erupts in the audience that culminates in several women being trampled by men. In another fight, LaMotta throws a punch that sends blood splattering into several spectators' faces. But even in their brutality, many of the images in the fight scenes have a certain beauty to them. In one slo-mo shot, water is poured over LaMotta and it gently cascades downward. In another shot, the rope boundaries of the ring literally drip with blood. These masterful, unrelenting sequences lose little of their effectiveness today, even though they have been aped countless times in other films.

Soon after the first fight, Jake's brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) introduces him to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a beautiful 15 year-old whom Jake becomes infatuated with, despite having a wife at home. Jake's relationship with his wife is abusive - he screams at her for overcooking his steak, throws tables around the house, and threatens her. His relationship with Vickie is downright gentle compared to his abusive relationship with his wife. It is only when he actually marries Vickie that his attitude changes. Jake expects Vickie to obey him blindly - to fetch him coffee and be a nice little housewife with no social life of her own. When his brother Joey asks Jake to apologize to Vickie, Jake can't do it. He doesn't understand that Vickie feels like a prisoner, and instead of apologizing he just starts making out with her. To Jake Vickie is just an object, a disposable pleasure rather than a serious partner. Needless to say, the marriage turns to distrust, abuse, and eventually separation by the end of the movie.

Another pivotal relationship in the film is the one between Jake and his brother Joey. On the surface, the two are very similar, with hot tempers and loud mouths. But Joey is fundamentally different from his brother. He cares more deeply about his family and is far more reasonable than Jake. At one point, though, Joey's temper gets the better of him, and he gets into a huge bar brawl with a man he suspects of sleeping with Vickie. It is abundantly clear that Joey deeply loves his brother, but it seems that the only way he can express this love is through blind rage. The same is true of Jake. In one scene, Jake has the preposterous idea that Joey slept with Vickie, and he barges into his house to fight him. When Vickie later urges Jake to apologize for this misunderstanding, Jake can't do it - even over the phone. There is a real inability to communicate between these two characters, and by the end of the film Jake has completely alienated Joey.

De Niro is fascinating to watch in the scenes that depict Jake's later years. It is well-known cinematic lore that De Niro put on a significant amount of weight to play this role, but the performance goes beyond physical transformation. De Niro perfectly expresses a sort of phoned-in happiness that masks a layer of sorrow. In his later years, Jake fools himself into believing that he is happy, when it is clear to everyone else that he is not. We first see the older Jake in 1956 Miami being photographed for a newspaper. He sits by a pool, explaining why he is happiest in retirement - how he doesn't have to worry about weight and can spend more time with his family. Minutes later, of course, we see a drunken Jake telling unfunny jokes at his nightclub, we see Vickie finally announce that she will leave him, and we see Jake thrown into a jail cell, where he smashes his head against the wall, screaming "Why? Why? Why?" And in the final scene, before he goes on stage, he addresses himself in the mirror: "Go get 'em, champ." He still thinks he's a champion, even when no one else does.

I notice that I have spent a lot of time describing the characters and relationships of Raging Bull without critiquing it very much. But there is really not a whole lot to criticize about the movie. My only gripe, perhaps is that the film feels disjointed at times. The storyline skips years at a time without seeming like any time has passed at all. This is particularly problematic for Cathy Moriarty, who plays the crucial role of Vickie. The actress, who was 19 at the time of shooting, seems far older than 15 in the early scenes and far younger than 30 or so in the later scenes. Still, her performance itself cannot be faulted.

Raging Bull is truly a film where all of the elements come together. De Niro is rightly praised for his performance, but the film's success belongs equally to Scorsese, to the other cast members, to the screenwriters, to the editor, and to the cinematographer. It is rightly revered as a masterpiece, and 28 years later it regularly tops lists of the greatest films of all time. Funny, then, to think that Raging Bull nearly never got made. Scorsese repeatedly turned it down, and fell far behind schedule during production. But he prevailed, and delivered a true masterpiece.

Verdict: A

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