Raging Bull (1980)

2015 #88
Martin Scorsese | 124 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

It would be boring if we all liked the same stuff, wouldn’t it? I’m sure there’s at least one ‘universally’-loved classic that we each dislike. Heck, tends to be every ‘universally’-loved classic has at least one Proper Critic that dislikes it. The flip side of this is that, in my opinion, if you don’t like something that everyone else does, there’s a fair chance it’s you who’s missing something. That’s a rule I apply to others, naturally, but I also try to bear it in mind myself (and, at the risk of sounding terribly arrogant, I think a few more people could do with thinking the same).

Given that introduction, I guess it’ll come as no surprise that I didn’t get on very well with Raging Bull. We’ve established before that I don’t like boxing (see: Million Dollar Baby, which (I’ll say now) I didn’t like more than Raging Bull, but has a higher score because I was softer back then), but I don’t think that precludes me from enjoying a film set in that world. Anyhow, I wouldn’t say Scorsese’s biopic pitches the sport as an aspirational one full of honour and wonder or something. And indeed, the boxing scenes were some of the bits I liked the most — they’re very well done; immensely effective. Unfortunately, they make up barely ten minutes of the running time, and it was the rest I didn’t care for.

Robert De Niro stars as wannabe-a-contender boxer Jake LaMotta, as he grows in stature — both his reputation and physically — and also grows ridiculously paranoid, which is probably the kind of thing that happens when you spend years being repeatedly punched in the head. This arc seems to unfold through interminable scenes of people mumbling semi-unintelligibly at each other, realised with a style of camerawork, editing, and acting that seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism, which has both pros (realism) and cons (s’boring).

The aforementioned fights, on the other hand, are full-on Cinema, and glorious for it. The make-up is also very good. Relatedly, De Niro’s physical transformation, from lithe boxer to washed-up fatso, is remarkable. Decades before the likes of Christian Bale and his Machinist/Batman Begins flip-flop, De Niro gained a then-record-setting 60lbs.

Mixed technical success aside, I was never sure what the film was really meant to be about. Things turn up and go nowhere — like, what happened with that 14-year-old girl in his club? One second he’s been arrested, then it’s a couple of years later and he’s slumming it as a stand-up in New York; then, just as fast, he’s doing some kind of literature recital to a packed house. I mean, what? I would say that this is a film only of interest to people who are already fans of LaMotta and want to see some of his life on screen, but clearly that’s not the case. That’s certainly how it felt to me, though; and it’s what I would believe too, were it not for 35 years of widespread appreciation that demonstrates I’d be wrong.

Based on where we find him at the end, I guess LaMotta would appreciate a Shakespeare quotation. For all the film’s “greatest of all time” acclaimedness, this is the one that came to my mind:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

You can’t win ’em all, right?

3 out of 5

Raging Bull was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, but I missed it. I’ve righted that as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

6 thoughts on “Raging Bull (1980)

  1. Brave of you to take a partially negative stance on the Bull; hopefully this won’t result in a slew of ‘oh you just didn’t get it’ rants from its champions. I know exactly what you mean also; there are many so-called great works of cinematic art that just haven’t agreed with me – Breathless, to give one example, and in fact French New Wave generally sort of leaves me cold – and I’m tempted to avoid discussing them altogether because it feels like it’s me who has the problem, rather than the film. That said, if you can say you’ve made your argument then that’s fair enough, right, and that’s exactly what you’ve done here.

    I do really like this one though. The physical transformation of De Niro, the sort of extreme performance that has become more usual in more recent times (why anyone would wish the severe weight loss endured by Christian Bale in the name of art for The Machinist is anyone’s guess, but there you go), is one thing, the arrangement of scenes from domestic violence to the same in the ring is another. Rightly, as you say the boxing scenes are just sublime. Scorsese knows implicitly how and when to use sound; the bit where La Motta invites Sugar Ray to beat him to a bloody pulp on the ropes is wonderfully done, the background noise turned down, just this guy facing his nemesis head on and knowing what’s coming and welcoming it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mike. It can be tricky having a dissenting opinion on something where there’s such an accepted view, but I think it can also be productive to hear such different takes. One thing I often observe on popular blogs when the author posts such a piece is a raft of “oh thank goodness, I thought it was only me” comments. Not that I’d expect that, but it just goes to show: sometimes there’s a silent large-minority.

      Raging Bull is definitely one I’ll need to give another go one day. Probably on a timescale measured in decades rather than weeks, months or years, knowing me (I’ve been meaning to give Tokyo Story another chance for nigh on nine years), but one day.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Its a tricky thing visiting such ‘classics’. Time can do so much damage. People who didn’t see BLADE RUNNER on its initial release cannot appreciate the impact it had back then, and generations grown up on STAR WARS or, later still, AVATAR, cannot really fathom the impact/importance of 2001 (and indeed the general fast pacing of all films today makes 2001 seem particularly strange to current audiences). So while it may be difficult to fathom just why exactly a film was ever considered a ‘classic’ it has to be accepted that you can’t really divorce a film from its release date and the ‘world/society’ that created it. Returning to my examples, the fascination today in 2001 is how it reflects how the 1960s saw its future, or in how BLADE RUNNERS future LA is a 1980s future.

    Certainly some ‘classics’ haven’t aged particularly well, but they still have to be granted some slack/respect. Something made them worthy of the ‘classic’ monicker afterall. But times change and impact fades and later filmic achievements cannot help but have an effect on how fresh eyes assess these films.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think that’s a very good point. Funnily enough, in my notes after viewing L’Atalante the other week, I’ve drafted something fairly similar! Sometimes a groundbreaking film is going to have its innovations subsumed into the regular moviemaking toolbox, and after years of other filmmakers finessing the things that were deemed to ‘work’, the original can look primitive/old/etc. And yet it’s always impossible to recreate the experience of what it would’ve been like to see a before-your-time film on its first release. You can try to imagine it, of course, but it’s not the same as feeling it.


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