PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Featured: Top of Home Page

The Animal Inside: 'Raging Bull' (Blu-ray)

This is an epic tragedy, with a hateful anti-hero at the center whose flaw may be a total lack of redeeming social or personal value.

Raging Bull

Rated: R
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana
Extras: 9
Studio: MGM
Year: 1980
US date: 2011-01-11 (General release)
UK date: 2011-01-11 (General release)

It's an annual argument, an aesthetic splitting clash that pits two great films against each other in yet another pointless exercise in superiority. On the one side sits Robert Redford and his astonishingly good Ordinary People. As a study in suburban malaise, as a movie that dared turn a darkened light on the crumbling elements of the once mighty nuclear family, it became the Best Picture winner of 1980, additionally giving the former screen idol his one (and only) Oscar as best director.

And on the other side, of course, is Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese's blistering bio-pic of self destructive pugilist Jake LaMotta and his stupendous rise (and fall) in the world of professional boxing. To this day, many have felt the Academy got it wrong, kowtowing to a known Hollywood name while ignoring the far superior film and filmmaker. While one can argue the merits of both (unlike, say, Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan), what's clear is that both men made masterpieces, with Scorsese's monochrome opus a terrifying, timeless classic.

When we first meet LaMotta (Robert DeNiro, in a staggering physical transformation that earned him his own Oscar accolade), he is an overweight, middle-aged night club anomaly. Washed up, but never fully down for the count, he entertains former fans and the curious with bits of recitation and bad stand-up shtick. In flashback, we see where his once promising life went wrong, from his stubbornness to stay outside the local crime family influences in his sport to his horrific temper and tendency toward shocking physical abuse. In the ring, such a streak helps him win the Middleweight championship. Out of it, it destroys everything he (supposedly) loves.

This includes put upon brother Joey (an amazing Joe Pesci) and his seductive second wife Vikki (a stunning Cathy Moriarty). Always suspicious of those around him, Jake's personal paranoia fuels his eventual self-destruction and downfall. First, he drives away his sibling with an senseless accusation. Then he alienates his spouse as he spends more time wining and dining the cruel customers at his nightclub than trying to play family man. As his weight balloons and his options dry up, LaMotta becomes a casualty, a victim of his own insular idealism, a man coldcocked by his cruelty and his inability to see beyond himself.

Let's get the Oscar argument out of the way right up front. Raging Bull deserved to win every little gold statue is was nominated for. As Picture, it surpasses Ordinary People, if only by the smallest of margins. Scorsese deserved his directing honors, even if no one (even the DGA) thought so then. Pesci and Moriarty should have joined DeNiro in the acting acknowledgment, and the stunning cinematography and sound should have walked away with wins as well. As it stood, DeNiro and Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker (editor) got their communal consideration.

There are well reasoned answers to all the "whys", however. Redford was old school Hollywood. Scorsese was the brash New York post-modernist. People spoke to the still new issues of familial dysfunction fracturing the late '70s. Bull was a neo-neorealist biopic. Pesci and Moriarty were newcomers. So were winners Timothy Hutton and Mary Steenburgen - so it was a wash. As for director of photography Michael Chapman, he was the unfortunate bystander in a desire to champion a fallen film legend (Tess' Geoffrey Unsworth died before the ceremony).

So there were reasons why Raging Bull didn't walk away with an armload of awards - though none are that easy to swallow. From the moment we see its first black and white images, the movie makes its classical intentions known. This is an epic tragedy, with a hateful anti-hero at the center whose flaw may be a total lack of redeeming social or personal value. It's a tough sell, one made much easier by the passing of time and the tendency to excuse such seeming cinematic excesses. In 1980, such a heel was hard to swallow, no matter how much weight DeNiro lost or gained to realize his problematic portrait.

However, Raging Bull has a hidden moral compass that, at first, is not readily apparent. This movie is not out to pardon LaMotta, but paint him as the pathetic animal he really was. We are supposed to sympathize with his many missteps because he doesn't know any better, because his of limited avenues out of his stifling New York dead end. This is a man who makes a living as a contemporary gladiator, putting his body and humanity on the line for the sake of a criminally skimmed purse. There is frustration in LaMotta, a lack of escape that turns inward and angry. When he explodes - and it's often outside the ring - it's terrifying. This is someone with the capability of killing and yet not fully understanding why such a response is bad.

As he has done throughout most of his career, Scorsese glamorizes this galling male anomaly while simultaneously setting him within a world of warranted right and wrong. As in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino, he views crime and criminals as the ugly underneath are seemingly civilized social order. They are the mechanism that makes the cities vibrate, the coal inside the inferno of ethical disarray. Thanks to the clear visual cues of black and white, LaMotta is even further defined, the scarred jester of a sport celebrating the kind of sadism he would often bring home. The scenes inside the square circle are key, since they illustrate the artistry many find in the fight game. But it's in the living rooms and kitchens of the neighborhood where the real Jake comes out - and it's riveting to witness.

Indeed, all of DeNiro's scenes with Pesci are prophetic, arguing for a partnership and acting collaboration that would mark at least two of the artform's greatest efforts. Joey is not a doormat, though the pummeling he takes from his sibling would suggest otherwise. He is the pragmatic yin to LaMotta's hot tempered yang, an attempted voice of reason where few are listening to the words. Similarly, Moriarty does something very smart here. Knowing that Scorsese will shoot her as some manner of blond goddess, she trades on such visual cues, allowing Vikki to also be seen as the no nonsense local girl she is. While LaMotta may put her on a pedestal, she's more than happy to kick at him from such a perch.

The results radiate off the screen in such a way that few films can even fathom, let alone match. Scorsese's camera is everywhere - in lock-ups between fighters, in corners covered in blood. It swoops through the streets of New York like a resident, illustrating the aging beauty of the city's many traditional facades. He frames his actors in telling compositions, LaMotta almost always in the back, ready to move forward at the first sign of disrespect. He also experiments, using faked Super 8 footage to show the passage of time while interesting cutting and assemblage methods make the fighter's rise to the top all the more meaningful.

All of this is captured brilliantly in the new Blu-ray release from MGM and Fox. While a standard DVD version of the film is also available in the package, it is the high definition update that shows Scorsese's true talent. The visual element here is haunting, carrying powerful imagery put on screen even further. There is a timeless quality to the black and white work here, something that harkens back to an era when Hollywood enjoyed the stunning two sides contrasts more than the multi-tinged crassness of color. Along with a remastered soundtrack that allows more of the tricks in Raging Bull's polished presentation to stand out. Along with an equally enigmatic collection of added content (including three amazing commentaries, four new featurettes, and full length documentary), this is one of the best blu-ray offerings out there.

Naturally, none of this makes the 1981 losses any more tolerable. Watching both Raging Bull and Ordinary People some 30 years later reminds one that period and initial responses are more determinative than eventual consensus. Then, Scorsese's brutal vision was seen as just that - perhaps too harsh for words (or awards). Similarly, with Kramer vs. Kramer in its award winning rear view mirror (now there's a Best Picture winner wasted), the further dissolution of the American brood was destined to dig up some solid support. If the Academy ever releases the results of their voting, it would be curious to see how close these two films are. Both are very, very good. In the end, Raging Bull is better.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.