Sample Film Analysis 2

“He Ain’t Pretty No More” – The Story of a Raging Bull

* Contrasting with my Gimme Shelter piece of analysis, this is a more informal document about how I believe Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull might be the finest American film. Be forewarned, there are MAJOR SPOILERS in this essay! So you might not want to indulge until after you’ve seen the film. But if you have already experienced Scorsese’s masterpiece, then please, dive right in. Hopefully, you’ll want to do as I continue to do. That is, watch it again and again.

Only in a true form of art can an abysmal man, filled beyond the brim with hate and violence, inspire such an elegant, moving tribute to humanity.  Or more specifically, only in the movies.  When Raging Bull was released in 1980, it received mixed reviews and a disappointing box office intake ($23 million), not only for its dark subject matter, but also due to distribution issues, a weak advertising campaign, and an editing process that was completed only four days before the film’s New York premier.  To put it simply, Raging Bull seemed like a bomb.

Director Martin Scorsese, having already molded 70s cinema through Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, initially thought that his latest compilation with then-established movie star Robert De Niro may indeed be his last feature film.  Ever.  Over 25 years later, Scorsese won his first Oscar for The Departed.  And if it hadn’t been for a few notes of praise back in the year of our Lord, 1980, we might have been deprived of his style, presence, and substance for a stone cold 30.

After the initial confusion spawned by the screen portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta (De Niro), Raging Bull soon garnered its due ravings from Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and several others.  It was Gene Siskel’s favorite film of the year, also receiving the number two spot on Roger Ebert’s list (behind The Black Stallion?).  Ebert would later correct himself, placing Raging Bull at the top of his list for the best films of the 80s.  The overwhelming acclaim would soon come, earning Scorsese’s film an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and seven others, including wins for De Niro and Thelma Schoonmaker, whose work with the director in the editing room would provide a theoretical textbook for endless generations of film students.  Despite the perplexities of the man and the complexities of the message, Raging Bull was ultimately a success, and the career of Martin Scorsese not only secured, but uplifted with his audience.  Maybe because blood had never looked so clear in black-and-white.

And only rarely do films evoke such a great understanding of a specific time and place.  Michael Chapman, who worked with Scorsese on Taxi Driver and possibly the greatest rock concert doc ever, The Last Waltz, uses black-and-white cinematography to fully capture the essence of the 1940s New York, making it seem as though he has made a film in the era of such American classics as Citizen Kane or Casablanca.  The shots are long in duration.  The score, partially assembled by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, is an evocation of songs that would be heard during that time, as well as powerfully backed by Pietro Mascagni’s emotionally-charged main theme.  Yet this is a film full of purposeful contradictions.

The action in Raging Bull consists of nothing that could be shown in the era it displays onscreen, considering censors would never allow such material until several decades later.  These long shots are completely abandoned during the fight sequences, which are some of the most effective ever filmed.  In fact, Schoonmaker uses every piece of modern technology at her disposal to create boxing matches that are brutal, exciting, and ultimately surreal.  In other words, she captures how it would feel to be in the ring.  There is slow-mo, accelerated shots, freeze-frames, and just about anything else you could image.  Blood pours out of bodily crevices and splatters against the faces of those in the audience.  And when the match is over, there is certainly residue on the ropes.

In fact, the first match of the film introduces what is to come very clearly.  In 1941, Jake La Motta has just lost his first boxing match to Jimmy Reeves.  A riot breaks out.  In the audience, a woman falls to the ground and is trampled by fighting men, not caring as their feet run over her; not caring as we hear her back snap.  In the meantime, a woman plays the arena piano, reminiscent of those musicians’ calming ode as the Titanic was sinking far below the icy sea.  A few minutes later, we arrive at one of the film’s best scenes.  La Motta, who is having a severe angry spell following his defeat, will not calm down, even after the persistence of his brother and manager, Joey.  Joey is played with bratty perfection by Joe Pesci, another Scorsese favorite who would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Goodfellas ten years later.  But unfortunately, not for this one, for which he was equally deserving.

Jake asks Joey to hit him, and the confusion and heartbreak is written all over Pesci’s face. As an audience, we know these feelings will become worse.  Joey asks Jake what he hopes this little charade will prove.  What he fails to realize at this early point is that Jake La Motta has nothing to prove, he just wants to receive physical pain from the man who should love him most.  That is how he gets his thrill; it makes him seem like a bigger person.  A person with a name everybody knows, and this name surely gives him the right.  But La Motta gets punched in the face every day; it is commonplace.  What does not readily occur is complete emotional devastation.  When Joey later abandons his brother, Jake’s mental awakening begins.  There is no pain like that felt in the heart.

Jake begins to feel something in that sweet spot early on, or is it just the desire for a trophy?  A female to prove his self-worth, when there is nothing internal to do it?  His prize is 15-year-old girl Vicky, played with affective monotone by Cathy Moriarty.  When they first meet, there is no interesting conversation, no spark between the two that would even begin to imply the potential for a meaningful relationship.  Jake believes that his own godly presence is enough, and that is good enough for Vicky, too.  In the Bronx, she has been surrounded her whole life by rich, filthy gangsters, including those Jake hates the most, Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) and Mob boss Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto).  Outside of the Copacabana, his brother will later beat Salvy viciously, a scene that has many layers of emotional turmoil.

Jake is paranoid, convinced Vicky is having an affair with Salvy.  Joey beats him up not only to make sure nothing like that ever occurs again (if it ever did), but also to gain respect from his brother, whose affections for Joey seem to be wrongly slipping away.  But Joey makes a mistake.  He never talks about the incident with Jake; a severely wrong move when “names” are involved.  Vicky would never be involved with a man who didn’t have a name, one who didn’t have a purpose in the neighborhood.  Jake La Motta surely has one, and along with the Mob, they are all connected to this city.  And this connection is so powerful, in fact, that even when Jake arguably goes insane, accusing Vicky of cheating on him with his own brother, she does not leave.  Even when Jake marches into Joey’s house, brutally beating him in front of his wife and children, she stays with him.  She leaves only when both that name and connection are gone; when it is apparent that what Jake worked toward his whole life was completely in vain.  Despite acting like a member of the Mob, an immortal above mortals, he is still a man.  All that is left is his own internal feelings about how he has lived his life.  His realization is one of the most devastating scenes in all of movie history.

But it takes awhile to get there.  Jake has many fights first, the ring being an obvious symbol for life itself.  He has God to guide him along the way, but he largely ignores him.  There is cross above his bed with Vicky, as well as a rosary dangled around a photo of him and his brother.  Jake can make any connection he wants with New York City, but never to God or religion.  Even as he explains the photo of him and Joey to Vicky upon their first meeting, Jake seems to have little interest in what he is saying.  As yet another contrast, one of the film’s most moving sequences involves home-movie footage, filmed in gorgeous, Super 8-like color.  It is almost as if Jake La Motta has stepped out of his shoes and become an average man.  We see his marriage with Vicky, a family barbeque, messing around with Joey, and overall, the makings of a pretty decent life.  These are the things that have passed Jake La Motta by, and these are the aspects he will regret not savoring.  But we all have moments like this.  Ultimately, reality sets in, and we must fight.  And although it has devastating effects on his life, Jake sure as hell fights.

When Vickie provides a Freudian slip, claiming Jake’s next opponent “has a pretty face,” Jake makes sure that his nose springs a leak, providing the film’s best line from Tommy – “He ain’t pretty no more!”  But it is not always that easy.  Against Billy Fox, Jake doesn’t even bother to put up a fight, throwing the match and earning himself a suspension.  In the locker room, he cries like a baby, showing his vulnerability as a mere man, or maybe just the aftermath of a shattered ego.  We will see this several other times, the tears turning joyful when in 1949, Jake wins the middleweight championship title against Marcel Cerdan.  But no career can last forever.

In 1951, Jake La Motta loses to Sugar Ray Robinson in their final battle.  But throughout the process of being beat to a pulp, Jake never goes down.  Not even once.  His ego is once again too great for it; he must prove that he still has something.  But as Sugar Ray glances toward Jake for making this lugubrious claim, all he sees is a broken man, way past his prime.  A deeply wounded man who has spent all his time fighting, and none of it transcending those simple mechanics of life; none of it loving.  You must fall down to stand back up.  But Jake has never allowed himself to fall.  And as a result, he will never know what it is like to recover.  He will forever be at the top, even when no one is up there with him.

It is in his retirement that Jake realizes that life has passed him by.  His wife, brother, and children have left him.  As an audience, being told the story from Jake’s perspective, we barely even see his own children.  As he gains weight, becoming obese almost beyond recognition, he has lost almost everything.  It is 1957 Miami, and La Motta has opened up his own nightclub, a recreation of the Copacabana that serves as a subconscious reminder of a life passed by.  He is now serving a prison sentence for introducing teenage girls to far older men.  As the guards struggle to get him into the cell, they finally succeed.  Jake begins to weep once again.  As he bawls, he slams his fists against the prison walls, shouting that he is not an animal.  He is no longer in the ring, but he still fighting.  He may have no leopard-print robe, but he is still messing up a pretty boy’s face.

No, Jake is not an animal, but he has lived his life like one.  And it is this scene that absolutely floods the heart with sadness, one of the finest moments in all of cinema.  As Jake wails in his cage, we think about the portions of his life we have seen onscreen, about how he could not bear to sell his championship belt to pay his way out of this.  About how he will not get this time in prison back.  Or more importantly, about how he can never retrieve the time before it.

The film ends the way it began, in a New York City nightclub in 1958.  Jake is backstage, rehearsing his onstage comedy act.  His life has been reduced to finding love through the spare laughs of New Yorkers on a Saturday night.  Part of his act includes stating Marlon Brando’s “I coulda’ been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront.  “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit … you don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.”

Jake states his excerpt of the monologue so blandly that it is almost as though he fails to realize how it fits his situation.  But he does.  Jake wishes his brother had fully been there during those bad periods of his life, when all he had was degenerated by psychopathic violence and paranoia.  But he doesn’t blame Joey, either.  Because for the first time in his life, Jake La Motta realizes that it is his own fault.  Jake is informed that it is almost time for him to go onstage.  There are a lot of people out there tonight.  Jake gets prepared.  He shouts “I’m the boss” while rapidly punching the air.  Yes he is.  If only he had brought others along for the ride.

 

We end on a Biblical note, the religious motif of the film now becoming fully clear.

 

“So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]

summoned the man who had been blind and said:

‘Speak the truth before God.

We know this fellow is a sinner.’

‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’

the man replied.

‘All I know is this:

once I was blind and now I can see.’

 

John IX. 24-26

the New English Bible”

 

For the life of Jake La Motta, this passage makes perfect sense.  If only it hadn’t been too late.  But then, more text appears onscreen.

 

Remembering Haig R. Manoogian, teacher.

May 23, 1916 – May 26, 1980.

With Love and resolution, Marty.

 

Manoogian was one of the driving forces in Martin Scorsese’s life.  He taught the aspiring director at New York University, co-producing his first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door.  Before Raging Bull began development, Scorsese nearly died of a drug overdose.  He thought that he may never film another movie again.  On the set of The Godfather: Part II, De Niro had read Jake La Motta’s autobiography, and desperately wanted to make it into a movie.  Nobody wanted to, not even Scorsese, at first.  But then Scorsese succumbed to the desire of one of his greatest friends.

The film received its producers, Robert Chartoff and Irvin Winkler, who ironically produced Rocky, as well, a polar opposite of Scorsese’s film.  Paul Scharder (Taxi Driver) and Mardik Martin (Mean Streets) wrote the screenplay.  La Motta himself even came on set as a consultant.  It is not unfair to say that Raging Bull may have saved Scorsese’s life.  And as indicated by his decision to make this film, as well as by inscribing that final dedication, Martin Scorsese made it clear that he would not let life pass him by.  Like La Motta, he was once blind, and now he can see.

As a result, Scorsese would recognize those who have helped him along the path of life.  Because of this new mindset, Martin Scorsese’s career peaked when he was 64 years old, gaining the only Oscar he has yet to win.  He was snubbed for several decades, but it didn’t matter.  For Scorsese, it was not about the name.  It was about his newfound love of life.  As human beings, name entitles us to nothing.  Love, being what we need the most, must be given in order to be received.  It is about who we are, not what others think of us.  In a way, Raging Bull was also a reawakening for Scorsese about the nature of his films.  Despite all the darkness and violence, there is something lying underneath.  And that is appreciation of the world around him, as exemplified through the director’s revitalization of American genre.

The characters in Scorsese films don’t often consider the delicacy of life, instead focusing on how they can further their own redemptive interests.  Scorsese changed his personal focus to the former, while still making films about the latter.  That is the true definition of brilliance, living life to the fullest potential while documenting the disruption of its purity.  It was clearly the best way to convey his message.  And what a medium cinema is, that it can portray such facts of life through moving images that we can absorb and analyze.  The story of Jake La Motta is Scorsese’s reflection not only on the importance of life and humanity, but also of the movies; that they can show us such things.  Raging Bull “shows” more than almost any other American film, and for that, I am not afraid to claim it as the greatest.  As Jake La Motta would say – “That’s entertainment.”

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