Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Great Movies: "Raging Bull"

Raging Bull
Martin Scorsese, 1980

Previous Contact: I saw Raging Bull on VCR when I lived in Emporia, Kansas, and was spending a lot of time watching critically acclaimed movies. I thought it was amazing.

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Raging Bull is the movie about boxing about which everyone is obligated to say, "you know, it's not really about boxing." In a sense, that's right; Raging Bull, a biopic about ("a biopic of"?) the prominent 1940s boxer Jake LaMotta, is "about" the corrosive effects of jealously. Or, maybe it's about Italian-American life in the 1940s; that community is certainly recreated in deep and loving detail. But in the interest of common sense, I feel compelled to point out that an awful lot of screen time is devoted to very graphic, very moist, very tightly framed portrayals of men beating the living crap out of each other. So let's 'fess up: Raging Bull may be "about" several things, but one of them is certainly boxing.

Plot: In the clearing stands a boxer, a fighter by his trade, and he carries a reminder of every glove that laid him down or cut him 'til he cried out, in his anger and his shame, "I am leaving! I am leaving!" but the fighter still remains. Also, he is pathologically jealous of his wife, and this drags his life, her life, and the lives of everyone who knows him, through hell.

Images: Without taking the trouble to actually compile such a list, I can confidently say that Raging Bull would be on my list of the ten best filmed movies of all time. It's beautifully shot in crisp, starkly elegant black and white. B&W was apparently chosen to avoid the bath of red that the fight scenes would have been in color, but it also works to situate the movie in its time period; I'm told that they had color in the 1940s, but we are used to thinking of that era in terms of its monochrome photography. Interior sets and period clothing are beautifully reassembled with poignant attention to detail. The film slips into color only for a montage of "family films" spanning a gap of two or three years in the story, and although this device to denote the passage of time is a common enough trick in the movies, it is rendered here with particular grace and beauty. Where a lesser movie would have treaded water for a few minutes, Coppola Scorsese gives us a sweet, heartbreaking cinematic tour de force.

Dialog: Since pretty much everybody involved in making this film was an East Coast Italian-American, I'm going to assume that they got the conversational style of the culture of their youth more or less right. The characters are complex, carefully drawn, and beautifully acted. In almost any setting, there is popular music bumping along in the background, from the street or from the next apartment over. Did everybody just constantly keep their music blasting at full volume in the 1940s? Probably not, I think. It's an effect intended to bring the time and place to life, of course, but it's a little overdone.

Prognosis: Recommended for anyone who wants to see a really, really well-made movie about dysfunctional relationships that has lots of violent, explicit boxing scenes.


IamSusie said...

I haven't ever been able to watch this one without falling asleep.

Speaking of Scorcese, Shutter Island is totally predictable and I cannot imagine why a supposedly good director chose such obvious material for his homage to Hitchcock and other suspense directors.

Anonymous said...

I hate it when Coppola always worms his way into other's films. It's rude.

Michael5000 said...

@Critical Bill: I am honored by your careful reading.

DrSchnell said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who sometimes can't keep Coppola and Scorcese straight.....