Monday, January 9, 2017

1980 Week: Raging Bull



          Alongside Nashville (1975), Martin Scorsese’s almost universally revered character study Raging Bull is one of the few “great” American movies that I simply don’t get. To be clear, I have no difficulty appreciating the film’s artistry, craftsmanship, intelligence, and passion—Scorsese obviously bled his soul into the very grain of this picture, letting his visual imagination run wild even as he wrestled with personal demons through the prism of professional boxer Jake LaMotta’s rise and fall. Intellectually, I understand that the movie is a significant accomplishment. Emotionally, the movie leaves me so cold that I get bored every time I try to watch the thing. Perhaps because Scorsese and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader elected not to illustrate the central character’s formative years, I can’t connect to the movie’s version of LaMotta. He comes across like an ignorant thug who surrounds himself with awful people, which means his adventures are unpleasant to watch and not, to my eyes, edifying.
          Robert De Niro’s leading performance is supremely committed, so the pain that LaMotta feels as he stumbles his way through life is palpable. Alas, because the pain is mostly self-inflicted, for reasons that utterly escape me, generating empathy is challenging. Compounded with the excruciating brutality of the boxing scenes and the numbing repetition of coarse language, the opacity of the leading character makes me feel like I’m the one receiving constant jabs and left hooks while the movie unfolds, rather than the onscreen pugilists. The funny thing is that I should love Raging Bull because artistically, chronologically, and thematically, it’s the apex of the grungy loser movies that flowered during the ’70s. Yet there’s a world of difference between the humanity of films along the lines of Fat City (1972), a boxing picture I enjoy much more, and the relentless ugliness of Raging Bull. I take it on faith that Scorsese knows whereof he speaks when depicting the anguished lives of Italian-Americans stuck in the quagmires of male identity and religious guilt, and I freely acknowledge that his various movies about New York underworld types speak to a lived experience far outside my own frame of reference.
          Yet at the same time, I look at the way I’ve made connections with movies about other cultures that are foreign to me, so I feel comfortable saying that the problem with some vintage Scorsese—and specifically with Raging Bull—runs deeper. I believe the right word is fetishism.
          It often seems as if Scorsese simply can’t tear his eyes away from scenes of thick-headed men destroying themselves, mistreating women, and starting pointless battles with enemies and friends alike. There’s more than a little bit of a pain-freak voyeur in Martin Scorsese. In the best of times, this tendency allows him to reveal truths in places other filmmakers find too frightening to explore. And, presumably, that’s what his advocates would say he does throughout Raging Bull. In any event, the unassailable elements of the movie include Michael Chapman’s muscular black-and-white photography, which is energized by Scorsese’s unexpected shifts in frame rates and his wizardly camera moves, as well as Thelma Schoonmaker’s meticulous editing. Viewed strictly from the perspective of how the filmmakers exploit and manipulate the very medium of film, Raging Bull is extraordinary. So let’s leave it at that.

Raging Bull: GROOVY

10 comments:

Peter L. Winkler said...

You're not alone. I didn't enjoy it at all.

JKruppa said...

I'm pleasantly surprised to read this review, because this is very much how I feel about Raging Bull. It's too technically well made to dismiss, but it doesn't engage me the way Taxi Driver does. In fact, as you say, it's off-putting. Scorcese was in some sort of frenzy at this point in his life, so there's probably a lot to be mined from the "artist's autobiography is in his work" angle.

Dale said...

I'm completely with you on this one. Just don't get it. The fact that De Niro put himself through the wringer does not make me enjoy this film. It portrays a group of assholes you have no reason to care about. Kudos for the mention of FAT CITY and if I may add a shout to a non 70s boxing classic,THE SET UP.

Hal Horn said...

I've rewatched TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY, both very uncomfortable films to watch, a half dozen times apiece. Have only watched RAGING BULL once, and never had a desire to revisit it. I've also watched FAT CITY multiple times.

Jeremy said...

man, you guys are ALL WRONG WHAT THE HELL

Will Errickson said...

There was a time I watched RAGING BULL twice a day, rewinding the videotape after a viewing and starting it again. Whew. You've made great points about what you dislike about the movie, just not ones I think I agree with. Maybe there's less to RAGING BULL than meets the eye (I do yes prefer TAXI DRIVER). But I'll be thinking about your objections the next time I watch RAGING BULL.

And yes, I agree: FAT CITY is a fine, fine film.

Dale said...

Hey it's only opinions. If you like the film,enjoy!

Allen Rubinstein said...

Actually, this is my initial reaction to many Scorcese films. Something about his movies requires multiple viewings for me to see the genius and get into the rhythm of the piece. Happened with Taxi Driver, Casino, Raging Bull and Wolf of Wall Street. Still warming up to Mean Streets and The Departed and I'm not sure I'll ever come around on Age of Innocence, The Aviator or The King of Comedy. Fortunately, Goodfellas blew me away the first time out.

Dude's made a lot of movies.

Joe Brizzi said...

Raging Bull is a 5 star out of 5 star film. It's a masterpiece.

Guy Callaway said...

Martin Scorsese: the thinking man's Andy Milligan.