Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—R is For

Raging Bull

Or is it the fact that my head feels like a Bull just rammed it, as I tried to fastidiously figure this one out.

     This is going to be a long one. "R" ushered in one of the most spirited competitions yet. Fortunately, I could immediately eliminate one of my favorites. There will be no Raider of the Lost Ark. I already sneaked that one in (check "I"). However, there's still a dozen other great "R" films that I'm considering. My head is about ready to explode (thank you Bull). 
      There's Hitchcock's Rear Window, one of his finest masterpieces of suspense, and then there's Rebecca; not only is it one of the most thrilling psychological tales ever to be witnessed, but it's an illustrious remnant of the Golden Age. The competition does not lesson in intensity from here because I have to consider Howard Hawk's extraordinary western, Rio Bravo (Tarantino's favorite film), which is Hawk's and John Wayne's magnificent response to the allegorical message posed by Zinnemann and Foreman's High Noon (my "H" pick)A few years prior to this western clash, the incredibly influential Akira Kurosawa gave the film world the gift that keeps on giving with one of his first-rate masterpieces, Rashomon—you know, the whole "Rashomon effect." And speaking of one of Kurosawa's most gifted admirer's, I have to consider Quentin' Tarantino's directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs. It was a masterful debut, not merely because we marveled at QT's imaginative and ambitious bravura, but the film introduced us to the spectacle that is Tarantino's infectious love for cinema. However, the love fest doesn't carry over to my selection.
      I haven't included a Terrence Malick reference, which is a shameful admission because he is a true auteur (and I absolutely cannot wait for Tree of Life). The Thin Red Line is one of the rawest and most powerful contemporary war films, aided by marvelous battle sequences, and an aesthetic composition of unrivaled, awe-inspired imagery. Malick's truest gift, without reproach, is his ability to wield luscious, vibrant, inescapable visual scenery. Then there's the great Super Bowl of "R" films; a formidable trio consisting of Rudy, Rocky and Remember the Titans. As much as I love these movies particularly Rocky, I can't crown either one of them with the Lombardi Trophy. How can I forget Road to Perdition? Sam Mendes' beautifully imagined film narrowly misses the cut despite a cast featuring Paul Newman (one of my favorites and one of the greatest actors of the last 60 years), Tom Hanks (one of the giants of the last 25 years), and an impeccable script driven by superb direction, breathtaking cinematography and a wonderful story. And finally, there are sentimental films for me such as Rain Man and Raising Arizona. I love the former because Dustin Hoffman is too hard not to like, and Tom Cruise was one of the purest, most captivating movie stars of my time until he went all cuckoos on us (blame L. Ron Hubbard). And I love the latter because it was the first film that introduced me to the quirky, offbeat tandem known as the Coen brothers. 
      Oh, and I even enjoy Rush Hour just because I always wanted to see Smokey as a cop. And even James Dean deserves an honorable mention for Rebel Without a Cause. As you can easily discern, "R" presented an arduous challenge. Ultimately, there was no way I was going to do this Alphabet without highlighting at least one Scorsese film. He is my favorite contemporary director. The Irishman (currently in-development) can't come soon enough.

      The film opens with the spectacle of an aged, declining Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) practicing his woeful 1960's night-club act. But Scorsese's character study doesn't just dwell in the hoary of a now decadent De Niro. Following this vintage 60's sequence, Scorsese transports us (via a flashback) to the 1940's, when Jake's career seemed destined for championship dominance. Despite seedy and growing pressure from local mobsters, Jake entrusts his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) with his honest career track. Jake wants to secure a title bout against Sugar Ray Robinson; the Mob, however, will not suppress their grabby chicanery. Not only does Jake score his championship match, but he charms his way into a second wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a beautiful, blonde teenager. Neither success in the ring nor personal reparatory can purge Jake's peripheral demons, even as he unleashes his seething rage in the ring. Soon, Jake's tormented psyche leads to the dissolution of his marriage. He alienates Vickie and fractures his relationship with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci). And then there's his disastrous weight gain. After hitting rock bottom, however, Jake emerges with a gleam of self-awareness. Scorsese brings us full circle through Jake's agonizing life, back to that iconic moment in his dressing room. This time, in an undeniable state of acute consciousness, Jake rehearses Marlon Brando's famous On The Waterfront speech: "I coulda been a contenda, I coulda been somebody."
      Its Mean Streets are no physical landmark. Much more poignantly, the Taxi Driver mastermind negotiates the roads of the soul. Raging Bull is an incisive, rough character study of real-life professional boxer Jake La Motta. Working with a script adapted by Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver screenplay) from La Motta's memoirs, Scorsese and De Niro sought to make an uncompromising portrait of a detestable man, who's defined by his ruthless profession. Eschewing the upbeat tenderness of Rocky conventions, Scorsese's Jake is relentlessly vicious and self-destructive. The only peace he can broker, occurs, not in the ring, but with himself.
      Martin Scorsese chronicles the rise and fall of this complex, headstrong brute with a deafening shrillness. La Motta is a violent man and Scorsese treads the depths of his villainous ferocity with both surgical precision and unflappable sincerity. Scorsese's steadfast direction ensures this is no routine boxing tale. Instead, it's a human tale characterized by excessive, but poetic violence, and, finally, an unsentimental humanity. Marty realizes that the truth inherent in abhorrent figures cannot be disclosed unless the audience understands the intensity of their darkness. Consequently, there's nary a moment in Raging Bull where the intimations of mortality do not color the landscape. Though it's a movie fraught with anger and physical violence, the effect of Raging Bull is lyrical. To witness Jake's fury is to absorb the emotions of your favorite team trying to win it all in the bottom of the ninth or last minute of the fourth quarter. It's breathtaking and a little scary. 

 The might of that punch speaks to the power of Raging Bull.

      Often cited as the best American film of the 1980's, Raging Bull's powerful cinematography is defined by black-and-white photography, which creates documentary/tabloid realism. With the exception of crimson in the title credits and several color home-movies that provide bridges within the narrative, Scorsese's character study is captured through black-and-white aesthetics. The fight sequences are sometimes displayed in granular, realist detail and sometimes in a series of stills. The world, through Jake's eyes, is observed in slow motion—phantasmal sequences that are in sharp contrast to the blusterous chaos in which most of his life is lived. With a confident stewardship that is as rewarding as it is rare in films, Raging Bull moves back and forth between the objective viewpoint and the subjective. 
      The entire film is played at a bottom of the ninth-inning, two-outs, seventh game of the World Series pitch. It can be exhausting. But it's also wholeheartedly enthralling. The mystery of Jake—owed entirely to De Niro's career performance and Scorsese's brilliant direction—separates Raging Bull from other fight movies, and that is an achievement to be lauded. With violent bouts of paranoia and jealousy, Jake brings his ferocity from the ring to his family life. But Scorsese also illustrates a gentle, nostalgic side of Jake. 
      De Niro's legendary weight-gain is not the most apt descriptor of his stunning performance. What's more impressive is his utter disappearance into Jake La Motta's flesh, as if seeking to ferret out that miniscule shred of substance. La Motta's a monstrous character: furious, mean and inarticulate. But he is also a Bronx-bred fighter whom Scorsese refuses to completely define. He's not mobilized by his milieu, his bawdy demeanor or by his faults, but by something far more mysterious. Towards the end of the saga, Scorsese beautifully hints at an answer. Jake, now a flabby and delirious shell of himself, is thrown into jail. Filled with self-pity and distorted rage, he beats his head against the wall of his cell. "Why, why, why?" he roars, and then whimpers, "I'm not an animal." It's a daring, but pivotal moment that actually pays off. Though he's behaved like an animal the entire course of the movie, Jake, like the rest of us, is the kind of animal who can still look inward and attempt to address his degradation. 

      De Niro's performance is arguably his finest work. Aside from the dedication involved in gaining 60 pounds, he intricately captures the essence of Jake—a dual composite of evil and compassion—with utter conviction and believability. La Motta is a complex soul, a man of harrowing tenacity, and vile fugacity. But De Niro wonderfully captains this tragic figure, capturing his diverse make-up. Not only is he captivating, but he is detestable. Also, Joe Pesci is brilliant as Jake's brother and manager. It was one of his first films, which renders his prodigal performance, all the more impressive. Unquestionably, Joe loves his brother, but he's also disheartened and tormented by Jake's uncontrollable rage and manic nature. The rest of the cast, particularly Cathy Moriarty and Frank Vincent, deliver credible performances. And the editing was flawless; standard operating procedure for the wonderful Thelma Schoonmaker.
      It wouldn't be too farfetched, perhaps bold, to claim that Raging Bull is one of the most powerful films of all-time. Nor would it be blasphemy to proclaim that it is the cumulative product of America's greatest generational director and its greatest generational actor. Scorsese is a true auteur, unrivaled in many respects, but most vividly, for his ability to portray a character. He doesn't always project the rousing theatrics or effects of some other technically proficient directors, and seldom does he conjure up that childlike sense of wonder and nostalgia. But what he does, pitch perfect at almost every turn, is examine the inward and outward motivations of his characters; an incisive examination that not only allows the audience to empathize with them, but witness in sheer terror, their sometimes wretched motivations. The end result of his labors precipitates the finest of achievements from his actors. In totality, Scorsese is a daring and ambitious tour de force of provocation; a visionary, not in style, but substance.

*A fine trailer for the unforgettable Raging Bull


  1. how do you find the time to write these mammoth posts of yours, Matty :)

  2. I'm almost too embarrassed to comment. I haven't ever seen Raging Bull. I know, I know, I'll go sit in the corner for awhile and think about why I'm so lame.

    I think I've seen most of the other "R" movies you mentioned, though. I agree there were a lot of great choices for this letter.

  3. You have certainly named some great R films and I am utterly torn between Raging Bull and Road to Perdition. I don't think I can choose and if I did, it would be Road only because I love gangster films. That being said, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Raging Bull.

    This film not only is about a boxer, but watching it is akin to being in the ring with LaMotta. It is a singularly relentless film that keeps you off balance as though you are dodging punches. I have only seen it twice because it takes such a toll on me mentally to watch it.

    DeNiro absolutely bleeds Jake from his pores. I have not seen him in a performance like this since maybe Cape Fear, in which he was also directed by Scorsese. Oh my God, The Irishman cannot come fast enough.

  4. Raging Bull is an amazing film and undeniably De Niro's best performance! He was fantastic in this film. I can agree that "Raging Bull is one of the most powerful films of all-time." Brilliant Review!

  5. @ Dezmond

    Haha Dezz! I'm the Superman of the blogosphere, what can I say.

    Actually, I stay up an hour late to write. Then edit my posts during my lunch break, and voilà, HIT SEND! I don't want to sound pompous, but writing comes easy to me and I love film, so it's not much work.

    @ L.G.

    Wow, really? Well, there's a lot of great films I've not seen, so I understand your predicament. Hopefully, you'll give it a go soon.

    @ Melissa

    Thanks! Scorsese and De Niro are the dynamic duo. Their collaborations are pure cinematic gold.

    I love Road to Perdition for so many reasons, but I had to honor Scorsese!

    And De Niro's performance in Cape Fear was incredible. Similar to La Motta, he was dark and disturbing. He was really in his prime during the 80's.

    And The Irishman should be fan-TASTIC!

    @ Nicole

    Thank you! Glad you agree with my rather bold proclamation! Scorsese is never one to shy away from daring cinema.

  6. Not an evening spent with the most pleasant of people, but time well spent for sure. A masterpiece - daringly black and white at a time when people were still getting away from black and white TVs in the home. Scorcese is the maestro, unexposed film is his orchestra, and we are all in the seats behind him as he conducts us through each and every master class he puts before us. No surprise here - a rollicking good post! Nice!

  7. I hate to admit that as much of a movie fanatic as I am, I have never seen Raging Bull.

    You listed some great movies here. Though I have to say you really did stretch it by using Raiders of the Lost Ark under I. Especially since the purists know the original title in no way referenced Dr. Jones.

  8. Hey Mathew,

    Found your blog through the A-Z challenge and I'm glad I found another young dude who's as avid about film as I am. You see, I, too, am wild about movies, and though I intend on entering the biz through my writing, I am absolutely, positively crazy about it nonetheless. :)

    I followed so I can keep up with your blog, and I'd like to pick your brain on various movie stuff - like, do you wish to be a director, actor or producer...?

    Have an awesome weekend!

  9. @ Craig

    Haha exactly! If you can deal with the overt darkness of La Motta, it'll be one epic, worthwile experience. And great description of Scorsese, liking him to a maestro. Well-said.


    @ Karen

    You're neglecting your cinematic palette. Everyone needs to watch this film. I won't extoll Scorsese' virtues again, but I will say that the film will rock your world.

    Haha, I did "stretch" the rules a bit, but it was out of an imperative need. Besides, it's just semantics, after all.

    Thanks for the comment!

    @ T.D.

    Thanks man! Same here. I could never amass enough obsessive film-going friends to share insights with.

    I just want to get involved in the film business in a substantive way whether as an actor, screenwriter, producer (and down the road, maybe director)! This blog allows me to pour out my love for film with others of equal passion.

    And I wish you the best of luck in your writing pursuits. I'll certainly check out your blog!

  10. I'm sorry to say I've never seen this classic. (Never saw Chinatown either...Yikes!) I need to get busy and change my status. As for letter "R" movies, one of the best I've seen lately is Revolutionary Road. It just happened to be on a movie channel last fall and I was captivated. Very intense. I read the book afterwards and I think the movie was better, which doesn't usually happen. It brought the cast of Titanic back for an encore performance: Leo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates. Leo was amazing...for me this was his best performance to date, until Inception.

  11. @ Luana

    Really. I'm surprised by how many people have not seen Raging Bull. I wonder if it has to do with the sheer violence and darkness of the film. Then again, I'm sure a ton more people have seen Taxi Driver, and that is equally dark.

    I haven't seen Revolutionary Road, partly because my friends were bothered by it. I don't normally let anyone's judgments hamper my viewing experiences, but in this case, I did just because there seemed to be unanimous disapproval. Maybe, I'll take your word for it and give it a go. I have so many movie to watch already.

    Love the Inception comment. It was my second favorite movie from last year!