Friday Editor’s Pick: Raging Bull (1980)

by on December 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Dec 9 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


The “See It Big!” series at MOMI (curated by Reverse Shot editors Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert) continues to offer prize viewing opportunities, including this recently restored print. As Amy Taubin notes of Raging Bull, “Its sculptural weight can only be appreciated on the big screen.”


Taubin continues for the Village Voice:

An anti-blockbuster about a guy who busts blocks legally for a living, Raging Bull makes pain the measure of manhood. Not only pain inflicted, but pain endured. As unsparing of its audience as its protagonist is of his opponents, his family, and himself, Martin Scorsese’s biopic of former middleweight champ Jake LaMotta alternates scenes of violence at home and violence in the ring. The film is brutal but also austere, like one of Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures.


From the first shot in Raging Bull of a nearly disembodied Robert De Niro, alone in the ring, jogging in slo-mo, his face obscured by the hood of his robe, like a monk in Rossellini’s The Little Flowers of St. Francis, you know that for Scorsese, this is the big one, the title fight, and it’s only art that’s at stake. The sense of risk is palpable and the payoff is exhilarating. There’s not a single pulled or wasted punch. The film is a perfect match of form and content.


Despite an initial flurry of rabbit punches (most of them from the Kael wing of the critical establishment), Raging Bull is now treasured as an American masterwork, a fusion of Hollywood genre with personal vision couched in images and sounds that are kinetic and visceral, and closer to poetry than pulp.



Ben Walters for Time Out (London):

‘You was my brudda. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit… I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum…’ When the washed-up Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) quotes ‘On The Waterfront’ to himself, it tells us as much about his self-pity as the actual parallels with Brando’s Terry Malloy. Not just a contender but a champ, La Motta’s fall stemmed not from outside pressures but inner weaknesses, stunningly realised in De Niro’s colossal performance; both he and Scorsese have arguably never been better. Following from 1941 to 1964 the explosively jealous and narcissistic middle-weight, his brother-manager Joey – Joe Pesci, great in his breakthrough role, first of the badabing pairings with De Niro that would define his career – and Jake’s tenderised wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), ‘Raging Bull’ is a masterclass in pain inflicted on oneself and one’s loved ones, as well as one’s opponents. The use of pop and opera and the black-and-white photography (by Michael Chapman) are exemplary, the actual boxing a compulsive dance of death.


Steve Dollar for The Wall Street Journal:

No mere biographical drama or sports epic, “Raging Bull” is a signal moment in American movies. The film continues to stand as a high point in the careers of director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro—the capstone on an extraordinary decade of American filmmaking, and nothing less than an abiding miracle of cinema.


The film’s uncompromised glories are manifold. Michael Champman’s cinematography, whose black-and-white palette emulates the street photography of Weegee, is at the top of the list, along with Thelma Schoonmaker’s crisp editing and the meticulous sound design. The dialogue, which ducks and jabs in cadences distinct to the Italian-American vernacular, spits forth like inchoate poetry. The ensemble cast steals any moment Mr. De Niro doesn’t hold through sheer magnetic force: then-newcomers Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty, in particular, who, as LaMotta’s trainer brother and long-suffering wife, give as good as they get. Ms. Moriarty, who first appears as the 15-year-old Vicki beside a Bronx public pool, enjoys a luminous debut. A pale blonde with a husky voice, she’s a vision of alabaster and smoke. Even now, 30 years later, “Raging Bull” pulls no punches.



Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York:

It’s the big three-oh for Martin Scorsese’s bloody, beloved black-and-white biopic of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (De Niro), and the film’s ineffable strangeness hasn’t diminished. As conceived by director Scorsese and his collaborators, LaMotta is less of a character than a hollowed-out, spiritualist plaything. The church, of course, is cinema: Many have noted LaMotta’s affinity to Roberto Rossellini’s Saint Francis of Assisi (he does indeed look like a hopped-up fighter monk in the film’s incredible title sequence). And you can see Scorsese lovingly aping his boxing-film forebears—Robert Wise’s despondent The Set-Up is holy writ for the hallucinatory in-the-ring brawls.


But when has a performer as fully and uniquely sacrificed himself to the moving-picture cause as De Niro? He leeches LaMotta of soul and conscience, making him a purely physical creature sculpted in sinew for the glory days, then padded up in lard for the declining years. No makeup assist—De Niro did it all himself with exercise and added calories. It’s the human body as special effect, very much of a piece with, yet also a DIY rebuke to, the tent-pole blockbusters that were then asserting themselves in the public consciousness. His transformation has a mysterious purity about it that imitators (say, Christian Bale, who fluctuates masochistically between waist sizes) have never been able to attain.



Alt Screen’s Matt Connolly for Slant:

Film criticism seemingly doesn’t get more banal than commenting upon Martin Scorsese’s “fascination” with violence. Then you re-watch Raging Bull and you remember that all those cocktail-party bloviations have their roots in one of American cinema’s most complex visions of physical brutality: its communal roots, hypnotic realization, and corrosive legacy. Scorsese sees the glamorization/moralization of filmic violence as irrevocably fused together, revulsion and fascination informing one another equally. And just as crucially, he finds a similar connection between the subjective experiences of those committing violent acts and the sociological factors that deem those acts acceptable (and often assumed). To watch a Scorsese brawl or gunfight is to find a director working through all these multifarious ideas and attempting to get them all on screen—often in the same scene, sometimes in the same frame.


Scorsese might never again find a subject as ideal as Jake LaMotta, the Bronx-based boxer whose public bouts and private demons Raging Bull chronicles with such bruising acuity. Internalizing the aggressive machismo of his surroundings but lacking the awareness to control it, LaMotta is all brute physical action, throwing hard punches and harder stares at a world made up of objects to be possessed and obstacles to be pummeled. He can be observed, contemplated, judged, but never really understood. When we first meet him, Jake has long given up his lifelong battle with the bulge. His ballooned body stuffed into a suit, he puffs on a cigar as he recites a rhythmic little poem about his past life as a prizefighter. “That’s entertainment!” Jake says at the end of his piece, repeating the phrase in a lower, perhaps more contemplative tone as Scorsese cuts from a close-up of his bloated face circa 1964 to a matching shot of him in 1941, leaner and about to be decked by opponent Sugar Ray Robinson in the boxing ring. Such a structure would seem to indicate a certain ruminative quality to Raging Bull, as the LaMotta of later years recalls the path that ended with him fat, alone, and working as a floundering nightclub performer. One of the triumphs of both Scorsese’s direction and Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin’s screenplay comes from how fascinating Jake remains despite him gleaning little to no awareness regarding his inner rage and crippling sense of sexual insecurity. So many biopics insist on squeezing their real-life subjects through the pop-psychology strainer and catching whatever meager insights dribble out: canned recapitulations of damaged childhoods, meteoric rises, and substance-addled downfalls that reveal more about the schematics of contemporary screenwriting than truths about the individuals at hand. The extent to which Raging Bull sidesteps such reductionism is remarkable.



Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Inner struggles dovetail with La Motta’s performance in the ring, and the film’s artful, seemingly improvisatory construction serves to juxtapose these two worlds: the intimate, naturalistic domestic world and the smoky, expressionistic world of the boxing ring. At home and in the neighborhood, La Motta’s life veers from a fraught silence (marked by Vicki’s chilly insouciance) and explosive quarrels and recriminations straight out of Rocco and His Brothers (though with perhaps more yelling). In particular, La Motta’s interactions with his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) reveal the character’s deep insecurities and paranoia.

Interspersed with these scenes are La Motta’s fights, visions of hell more operatic and extreme than those of the domestic space. Here, Scorsese and his cameraman, Michael Chapman, employ every camera trick at their disposal (crane shots, steadicam, changing camera speed in mid-shot, and so on) to portray the blood and brutality inside the boxing ring. Announcers chatter incessantly, fights erupt in the audience, blood drips from the ropes and splashes the crowd, and there are the constant sounds of animals and punches mixed with those of the flashbulbs from the inky blackness of the arena. Everything about the film’s boxing scenes serves to emphasize the plasticity of the space, its thoroughly artificial, performed nature. The fluid ballet of the boxing ring is the “stage where this bull here can rage,” contrasting with the ugly naturalism of La Motta’s home life.

However, these two conflicting elements of the film never seem jarring or forced together, as they are skillfully intertwined by Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Similarly, De Niro’s legendary performance (astonishing not least for his gaining 60 pounds during filming) firmly holds the film together, virtually mesmerizing the viewer with intensity, pathos, and even innocence. The character that he embodies is far too expansive to be a mere impersonation of a well-known boxer. Like all of Scorsese’s historical films and biopics, Raging Bull is less about accurately representing a given period or figure and more about the deeply subjective perceptions of the individual. Scorsese’s view of history is heightened and very stylized, filtered through the skewed vision of his subjects and through his own conception of the world of cinema.



Bruce Bennett recently interviewed editor Thelma Schnoonmaker, also for The Wall Street Journal:

Thelma Schoonmaker recently recalled a pivotal moment in the gestation of Martin Scorsese’s 1980 magnum opus “Raging Bull”—one that brought with it a wonder bordering on astonishment, if not dissociation. With principal photography completed and an initial footage assembly in place, the director and his editor sat down to survey what they had already accomplished and what lay ahead in the cutting room.

“Marty and I looked at the first rough cut we had done, and it was so strong,” Ms. Schoonmaker said over the phone from Britain, where she and Mr. Scorsese are currently working on their 17th collaboration, a 3-D film called “Hugo Cabret.” “We just came out and we said, ‘My god. Who did that?’ Even from the beginning, it was just burned into the screen. I don’t know—there was something about it that was just … special.”


“You can’t really describe how it’s done in a way,” she said. “It’s just got a power of its own. From the minute I started working on it, I could feel that. I said in my Oscar speech that it was pure gold in my hands. It was. Every single frame of it was that way. It was like putting together the best jigsaw puzzle you’ve ever seen in your life. I can’t tell you, it was just heaven.”


Chris Cabin, also for Slant:

It’s important to note that the film does not end on the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, which could conceivably be seen as the key moment of LaMotta’s public life. Scorsese goes onto depict the downward spiral that LaMotta faced after that final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson, including his weight gain, a bumpy career as a lounge owner and entertainer, his divorce from Vickie, charges of serving and fondling an underage girl and a gloriously awkward reunion with Joey in a New York parking garage. (LaMotta’s stint as an actor is omitted but there are certainly comparisons to be drawn between Raging Bull and Robert Rossen’s classic The Hustler, in which the pugilist made a cameo as a bartender.) DeNiro and Scorsese, who both got into epic tears with Schrader over the trajectory and structure of the story, were dead-set on following LaMotta into the depths, if only to make that final round of shadowboxing that LaMotta uses as a preshow ritual in his dressing room hit with the full weight of what has transpired. A performer and an athlete has survived his tortures and like any memorable artist, his most prominent scars come from the wounds that were self-inflicted.


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