Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Raging Bull (1980)

WHO: Martin Scorsese directed this.

WHAT: First, let me quote from an extensive article on the film by Richard Schickel:

It’s typical of very potent movies that we tend to remember their most explosive scenes—in this case the vivid carnage in the ring, the cringe-inducing scenes of domestic violence. They often blot out sequences of a different, indeed contradictory nature. I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but if you re-encounter Raging Bull today, after a long absence, you will find it far more tender than you remember—even, at times, rather sweet-spirited.
Having that in mind, perhaps the most explosively memorable scene in this biographical film on boxer Jake LaMotta is the depiction of his loss of his championship title to Sugar Ray Robinson. Scorsese & his team shoots and edits Robert De Niro in a torrent of sweat and blood, with a flurry of bright bulb-flashes that pushed the scene into the visceral territory of an experimental filmmaker assaulting the eyes of the audience. It's also a scene laden with allusions to the Bible and its visual representations over the years, from the trainer's insertion of a guard into De Niro's mouth as if a Eucharist wafer, to the boxer's arms extended, almost Christlike, over the ropes of the ring, an iconography-influenced interpretation of LaMotta's recollection that he was too exhausted to keep his arms up on his own by the thirteenth round of that fight. The scene has been interpreted as a moment of martyrdom for De Niro's character; unable to beat Robinson, he allows himself to become a punching bag, absorbing countless brutal punches but refusing, at least, to let himself be knocked to the mat. "You never got me down, Ray!" is the famous (if ahistorical) quote.

It's frequently said that when Scorsese made Raging Bull he expected it to be his last movie, at least for Hollywood. Whether because he saw his place in a rapidly-changing industry disappearing in the late 1970s, sped along by the financial failure of his 1977 musical New York, New York, or because he expected to be physically unable to direct after his recent health scares after prodigious cocaine usage, it does seem like Scorsese became revitalized by the project, bringing everything he had to the production, from collaborators like screenwriter Paul Schrader and Thelma Schoonmaker (both had only worked on one of Scorsese's films previously, but had their association cemented by this film), to all his most major cinematic influences. One can easily see shadows of Alfred Hitchcock, John Cassavetes, Buster Keaton, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Elia Kazan, and Pier Paolo Pasolini in this film. Sometimes they all seem to appear at once.

Of all of these influences, however, it's Pasolini whom I think may have been foremost in Scorsese's mind in constructing sequences like the one described and pictured above. Glenn Kenny has written eloquently about Raging Bull and Jake LaMotta as being a kind of "savior" for Scorsese at this point in his life, but he doesn't mention this particular scene, or Pasolini's influence, which has been most succintly summarized, I think, by a pseudonymous Mubi commenter who called it "secular appropriation of religious iconography".

WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Castro Theatre at 2:30 & 7:00 PM.

WHY: If you've checked out the UPS-truck-wreck that is The Canyons this week at the Roxie (where it will continue for another week after this one) you may want to see something to redeem your feelings about its director Paul Schrader. Though he has had "a film by" credit on some great films (I'm a big fan of Blue Collar and Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters for instance), he also has, let's face it, a better track record writing for other directors. (Scorsese, De Palma, etc.)

I mentioned Pasolini above. In a month's time, both the Roxie and the Castro will be participating in a weekend devoted to 35mm screenings of films by the crucial Italian auteur, surely one of the most exciting cinema events to come to Frisco Bay in September. As I've previously noted, the Pacific Film Archive is expected to have a Pasolini retrospective in the Fall, but as yet it's not been announced how encompassing this will be (it seems, however, that 22 of the director's films are available on newly-made 35mm prints, so I'm optimistic). But the weekend of September 14-15 will include in-person appearances by scholar Barth David Schwartz and Pasolini's frequently-cast actor Ninetto Davoli, parties, and an opportunity for intense immersion in Pasolini's world for a weekend, as six films will screen in just over a 24-hour period. Titles include his second feature Mamma Roma starring Anna Magnani, Medea with Maria Callas, the entire "Trilogy of Life" (all featuring Davoli) and the notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. I'm blocking off this weekend to participate in as much as I can, and if you like Pasolini or the many filmmakers he influenced (not just Scorsese but Derek Jarman, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are certainly among his disciples) you might consider doing the same.

HOW: Raging Bull screens in 35mm, on a double-bill with The King of Marvin Gardens, which will screen from a DCP.


  1. Why do you repeatedly spell the lead actor's name as "DiNiro" and not the more commonly used "De Niro?" Has he reverted to the traditional "old country" spelling?

    I chastise you for being tardy in your daily posting and you respond by skipping a day. Is it the first day in 2013 you have not posted?

  2. Thanks for the correction on De Niro's name spelling. I attribute this only to a brain fart. It's now fixed.

    Yesterday is not the first day I have not posted. I also skipped last Monday because I was out of town and was unable to have something prepared in advance. I ultimately back-filled my post on Computer Chess in the slot, before it had left the Opera Plaza, and linked it on my twitter feed once it was posted. It seemed worth doing as it might still be useful to someone who was on the fence about seeing it, or unaware it was still available to see in a cinema. Perhaps this was dishonest of me to do in this way without noting it at the time. I am considering back-filling yesterday's gap as well, with another film that leaves local cinemas tomorrow. Perhaps I shouldn't bother.