Friday, April 20, 2012

Film # 79: Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: three or four (last time – about 5 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Real-life boxing champion and general dealer in violence Jake LaMotta doles out serious beatings to opponents in the ring, as well as to his closest family members outside the ring.

Extended Summary (More detailed synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

It’s the early 1940s, and middle-weight boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is coming into his own. A bruising, tenacious fighter from the Bronx, New York, LaMotta makes up for in sheer will and toughness what he lacks in grace and technique. His punishing style of boxing has him on a path towards a championship title fight, except for the fact that his way is blocked by the New York mafia, which controls boxing in order to manipulate outcomes to its own advantage. Jake’s manager and younger brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), tries to convince Jake to relent and allow the mobsters to help them get their title shot, but the eminently stubborn Jake refuses any outside assistance.

Jake soon becomes infatuated with a fifteen-year old neighborhood girl, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), for whom he leaves his wife. After a few years, the two get married. Jake grows ever more jealous and controlling of Vicki as the years go on, relentlessly questioning her every move and suspecting every man around her as trying to take her from him. Through it all, Jake continues to win fight after fight in the ring, though he is still refused any shot at the title. Even after two solid fights, including a victory, against the other prime fighter of the era, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake is blocked from championship contention by the corrupt powers that control the sport.

Joey and Jake, sweating it out in a training session. Despite Jake's prodigious in-ring toughness, the mafia blocks their title shot for years.

Jake continues to win in the ring, with his main rival Robinson now in the army. He even pummels a supposedly handsome up-and-coming young fighter into a bloody mess, after Vicki offhandedly calls him “good-looking”. Shortly after this fight, with Jake out of town, Joey spies Vicki in a bar with a few local men. Though her evening out is innocent enough, Joey loudly proclaims that Vicki is embarrassing his brother, and he demands that Vicki go home. She refuses, Joey becomes enraged, and attacks one of the men she’s with, local Mafioso and former friend, Salvy. The fight is soon straightened out by the local Mafia boss.

Jake is then allowed his title shot by local gangsters, but on one major condition – he must throw the fight so that the mob can make a killing by betting against him. Jake reluctantly accepts. Throwing the fight, though, is easier said than done. His opponent, Billy Fox, is far inferior to Jake. Jake almost knocks him out on accident, and then refuses to fall down at any point in the fight. The fight is stopped and victory briefly given to Fox, but an investigation in launched and LaMotta is banned from boxing for a time. However, when the ban in up, he receives his first true shot at the title, winning convincingly against current champion, Marcel Cerdan.

Three years pass, and Jake manages to retain his title throughout, though maintaining his fighting weight becomes more and more difficult. One day, he begins to question Joey about the fight that he had with Salvy. Jake, now so obsessed with jealousy over his wife, suspects that Vicki has been having affairs, including with Joey himself. Joey refuses to answer the interrogation and leaves. Jake then begins to question Vicki, who is frustration sarcastically screams that she has had affairs with every man in the neighborhood, including Joey. Jake, too enraged to see that his wife is being sarcastic, storms over to Joey’s house and begins to beat him unmercifully. Vicki catches up and tries to stop Jake, but Jake knocks her out with vicious punch to the face. When the dust settles, Vicki starts to pack up and leave Jake, but decides to stay after Jake apologizes and begs her forgiveness.

Jake wins his next fight, and tries to call Joey afterwards, in order to try and mend their broken relationship. The attempt fails, though. Jake’s next fight against Sugar Ray Robinson is a bloodbath. Jake, either outmatched or simply in a completely masochistic temper, allows Robinson to land vicious blow after vicious blow, though he refuses to fall down. The fight is stopped, and Jake loses his championship title.

The Bronx Bull, in the midst of getting mangled by long-time rival, Sugar Ray Robinson. It all goes downhill from here for the champ.

Several years later, Jake is tremendously out of shape and with his family in Miami. He has retired from boxing and opens a night club, where he spends his evenings drinking hard and doing bad standup routines. Vicki soon divorces him and takes their children with her. Jake’s life slides down even farther, as he gets arrested for serving under-aged girls and introducing them to older male patrons in his night club. In an attempt to raise bribe money, Jake even hammers the gems out of his middleweight champion belt, but all for naught as the gems without the belt are far less valuable. Jake does several months in a Miami-Dade county prison, in which he breaks down and wails in despair at his own stupidity.

Jake is eventually released, and he returns to New York, where he does more shoddy standup routines in dive bars. He runs into his brother Joey, with whom he tries to reconnect, with very little success.

The last we see of Jake, he is preparing to do a stage performance for a modest crowd in New York. He gives himself a pep talk, as if he were still the fierce fighter of his younger days.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

One of my all-time favorite films, and the one that I think is Scorsese’s best. And that’s saying something.

The real-life story of Jake LaMotta, as Scorsese tells it, is arguably the most artful and profound sports movie of all time. It exhibits the psyche of an athlete as it spills into his personal life, and does not blanch for one second at showing you the ugliest parts of it.

I don’t know that every person would feel as I do about this movie. For one thing, it helps that I find boxing fascinating. I’m no expert, but I know a little bit of my history and went through several years in the 1990s when I followed the sport rather closely. Though it’s one of the most brutal of popular sports, there is an undeniable artistry to it. More than this, I am enthralled by the psychology of stepping into a ring and voluntarily exchanging blows with another human, until one of you is likely knocked unconscious. Raging Bull gives us a shocking and entrancing look at a man who was, even by boxing terms, a unique specimen.

Though a disaster in his personal life, Jake LaMotta was arguably the toughest middleweight fighter in boxing history.

Boxing has been called, by the sports’ devotees, “the sweet science”. What Jake LaMotta did, though, was neither sweet nor scientific. He walked towards his opponent, took every punch they could dish out, and never backed away. His ability to take an unholy number of punches without going down is admirable in a way, but it does make the stomach turn. Though filmed in a less visceral black-and-white, Raging Bull is shot in a way that conveys the brutality not only of boxing, but especially of La Motta’s style, which of course earned him his nickname, “The Bronx Bull”. The ever-present smoke, sweat, and dark pools and rivers of blood seen during the matches threaten to choke the viewer. Every time I watch this movie, I feel like toweling myself off.

While the in-ring scenes are brilliantly filmed (my only gripe is that there are more than a few “phantom punches” that are easily noticed), the real tale is what goes on outside of the ring. LaMotta’s personal life is what vaults this movie to a higher plane of film. Scorsese’s approach strikes me as something akin to the way Stanley Kubrick would have made a boxing movie, or the way that Darren Aronofsky approaches his major theme of obsession in all of his films. The darkness in La Motta’s soul, which we see as irrepressible jealousy and unstoppable rage, is the stuff of universal fascination. As disturbing as it is, it’s hard to look away from it.

I compare Raging Bull in certain ways to Kubrick and Aronofsky, but there is a major difference that is all Scorsese – the dialogue. As with all of his New York films, Scorsese nails the urban language dead on. There is a pace, rhythm, and vulgarity that can be wonderfully entertaining to listen to, and Scorsese has always been well aware of this. This is also where we get moments of levity. Let’s face it – these characters are generally not very bright, and it’s easy to laugh at them much of the time. And when we’re not laughing at them, we’re laughing at the insults that they hurl at each other. These moments keep the movie from becoming a two-hour slog through bloody violence and depression. In other words, it’s an incredibly well-rounded story, with many of the elements of real life, good and bad.

Many of the exchanges between the LaMotta brothers (De Niro and Pesci's first film together, by the way) are as funny as they are insightful towards their relationship.

Every time I watch this movie, the time flies. The story, scenes, and character interactions are so gripping that I will continue to watch this movie every few years for as long as I live. This is the reason that it is one of the very few DVDs that I personally own. Whether a sports fan, boxing fan or not, as long as one can stomach the gritty violence in the picture, I feel that nearly any mature film lover can watch and appreciate Raging Bull.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research.)

There are all kinds of great little documentary pieces on Raging Bull. The ones I mostly delved into came on the bonus disc of the special DVD release in 2004.

The story of the film’s making is rather interesting. It basically was made because of Robert De Niro’s fascination with LaMotta’s autobiography. De Niro approached Scorsese repeatedly to do it with him, but Scorsese was ambivalent, not being any find of sports fan and knowing virtually nothing about boxing.

Eventually, though, Scorsese took interest, wanting to do something a bit different. After a crash course in boxing, Scorsese took the story of La Motta and found the universality in it. He described how he saw it in 2004: “The hardest opponent that you have in the ring [of life] is yourself.” Who better to exemplify this than the tragically unaware La Motta?

Around 1977, there was a renewed interest in boxing films by the viewing public. This, of course, was due to the 1976 smash hit, Rocky. While some of the producers of Raging Bull were initially interested in doing another Rocky film, they were intrigued enough to sign onto De Niro and Scorsese’s project.

De Niro, a noted practitioner of "The Method", felt strongly enough about LaMotta's story that he famously put on a solid 60 pounds of weight, just as the real LaMotta did in his post-boxing years.

I was stunned to learn how little interest in or knowledge of boxing Scorsese had. It’s a tribute to the man’s dedication and artistic genius that he managed to bring a novel approach to filming boxing matches as they happen. He employed several very clever visual special effects to create various moods and convey La Motta’s psyche. These and the strange and evocative sound effects add immense power to the fight scenes. To give an example, in some scenes the ring was expanded to give a sense of openness and freedom, while in another it is obscured by smoke and distorted visuals. I never quite realized the effect that these components were having on me, but they are absolutely true.

Another interesting note about the visuals is the decision to film it in black and white. Why did they do this? The main reason is that Scorsese didn’t like the way that the colors were coming through, particularly the bright red of the boxing gloves. Once they talked it over with the crew, everyone was on board. Also, it helped distinguish Raging Bull from the four other boxing movies coming out that year.

Upon the film’s release, the initial reviews were very mixed. Some reviewers didn’t know what to make of it, and they even advised MGM not to distribute it. Alas, they did. The movie was a modest commercial success, but really garnered attention at the Academy Awards, being nominated for eight awards and winning two.

Maybe the most interesting story I heard about the film’s release comes from Jake La Motta himself. In 2004, the real Bronx Bull recalled going to see the movie upon its release in 1980. He had brought his ex-wife Vicki, also prominently depicted in the film, to watch the portrayal of Jake as the relentless, brutal, thuggish character that we can all see. After the film was over, Jake asked Vicki, “Jesus, was I that bad?” Vicki looked at him and replied, “You were worse.” When you see the movie Raging Bull, you will see why this is a rather stunning announcement.

Hard to believe after you watch the film, but the real Vicki told her ex-husband that he was worse in real life than the film's portrayal of him.

The other fascinating notion I heard came from Scorsese. It had to do with sports culture, and boxing culture in general. There is a very unreal expectation thrust upon prize fighters that few fans of the sport are willing to accept – we demand that the fighters be relentless, vicious, and violent inside the ring, but tend to act with shock and reprehension when they behave that way out of the ring. (Mike Tyson, anyone?).

In Raging Bull, it is clear as day that the man inside the ropes and outside the ropes cannot easily be separated, if at all. This is why, to me, anyone who revels in the violent aspects of certain sports has little room to criticize any of the athletes in those sports when they behave similarly outside of the lines. These are the kinds of topics that a great movie like Raging Bull brings up, and it is why it will not fade into obscurity for as long as more violent sports like boxing or mixed martial arts remain popular.

That’s a wrap. 79 shows down. 26 to go.

Coming Soon: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982):

This is the second in a break-neck 1-2-3 sequence of movies: Raging Bull, E.T., and then Blade Runner. This middle flick was one of the first ones that I remember going to see in the theater multiple times. It’s been a while, but come on back to see how it holds up to me.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.