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February 23, 2009


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"Raging Bull" has never quite done it for me. I do indeed admire the hell out of it (and if fact have taken the idea that overcooking steak "defeats its own purpose" as a mantra that I never tire of repeating), but I could never find a way into it that allowed me to feel personally or emotionally all that strongly about it. The reason for this is NOT because I don't like the characters (although I don't), but more that it's simply "one of those things". So I admire it, but don't really like it.

Since I'm sure most of these comments will actually be about "Raging Bull", I won't to throw in a quick bit about whether or not we should begrudge De Niro or Scorsese the work they're doing today. My take is: absolutely in no way should we begrudge them. For one thing, Scorsese is, I think, still doing terrific work, and while it may be, on occasion, a little on the austere side, or less immediate than his early work, so what? He is still a master who can add a bit of strangeness or nastiness or even creepiness to even his most commercial work. He's not doing anything right now that he shouldn't be proud of.

De Niro is a different story, obviously, but if he never makes another movie that I like or even want to see, I fail to see how that obliterates the work he did in the past. People talk about De Niro "tarnishing his legacy", but I don't buy into that. The important thing is that he HAS a legacy, and "Hide and Seek" can't tarnish "Taxi Driver", because it won't SURVIVE "Taxi Driver". Put in THAT DVD and quit bitching about "Righteous Kill".

The First Bill C

Also, and I suppose this could be considered overly pedantic, but Kael gets it literally wrong: at no point do Jake or Joey say "you dumb fuck," to each other or to anyone else. Part and parcel of that classism, I suppose.

Mike De Luca

My grandparents grew up in the same neigborhood as LaMotta. My grandfather, who is 90, has referred to LaMotta as a "bum". It impossible for me not to recognize something familiar in the smaller exchanges, particularly the part about how overcooking the steak "defeats its own purpose".

Tom Carson

So far as familiarity with a film's milieu goes, the greatest compliment I ever heard someone pay to Scorsese came from a woman I used to date who'd been raised in the Bronx. I showed her Mean Streets, and she got exasperated: "This is like two more fucking hours out of my life with all the stupid dicks I grew up with. Who'd want to see that? You call this crap art?"


To be honest, it's a stunning film that I just can't get through. I think I could if it were about the people in LaMotta's orbit rather than LaMotta himself, because I don't find LaMotta all that interesting as a human being, or the exploration of self-destruction to be all that interesting. I know stupid people make stupid choices that hurt them badly; I've been seeing that in practice for quite a while.

Now, why anybody would stick around that guy? That I want to know.

None of which, of course, detracts from the great performances, or what for me is the supreme pleasure of the film, the editing. But I resigned myself to philistinism a long, long time ago.


Yeah, it's still one of my all-time favorite films. Dan, the funny thing about self-destructing people - they are charismatic. Perhaps to a fault. They draw you in for many reasons - usually because you think that all they need is enough love. Generally, there is something visibly burning on the inside. Jake LaMotta was a star of his little circle because he was the one who made something of himself.

Great shot: Cathy Moriarty's legs in the swimming pool. But the film is full of those. The camera speed stuff they were doing was just incredible.

Glenn Kenny

@the first bill c: Yeah, not to turn this into more of a Kael-bashing session, but there's quite a bit she got wrong, The "Cavelleria Rusticana" music does not, as she says, "swell" as Joey pulverizes Salvy, but in the transition to the meeting with Tommy, for instance. So much for the wisdom of the not-seeing-a-movie-twice rule, huh?

@Mike De Luca: My first seven years were in Fort Lee, at the time pretty much a suburb of the Bronx's Arthur Avenue. Back when Cinema Village was a rep house, the funniest capsule description it ran was of "Bull": "Watch Rober DeNiro defeat his own purpose..."

@tc: Ah, the Early Scorsese Gender Gap raises its head! Worthy, for sure, of its own separate blog post! I do, I must admit, wonder how many women from Rimini might have had the same reaction to "I Vitelloni"....

Aaron Aradillas

It's not so much the mileu, but a type of working-class ethnic male figure. It's Tony Soprano. It's Joe. It's Jake LaMotta. It's my grandfather. It's most certainly a non-WASP thing.

Springsteen once talked about how born To Run was the ending of something. He said your first 20-30 songs are about you and everything you have to say.

Raging Bull is the end of something for Scorsese. (New York, New York should've been the end of something, but that movie got away from him.) There's a reason why the book was entitled Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. If Cimino and Heaven's Gate represented the self-indulgent, bloated side of personal filmmaking. Scorsese and Raging Bull represented all that is good and energizing about personal filmmaking.

I bring this up because I have very little patience for the whole Scorsese-hasn't-made-a-movie-as-great-as-Raging-Bull-or-Taxi-Driver bullshite that always comes up during these kinds of discussions. The Aviator is just as personal a story as Raging Bull. And Scorsese's work in the 1980s is as vital and worthy of scholarly consideration as Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or GoodFellas.

Buy Raging Bull on Blu-ray. It might be the best Americna movie you see all year. (Then again, Shutter Island comes out this year.)

Steven Santos

There's a part of me that doesn't quite understand some of the guarded reactions "Raging Bull" gets when it's brought up, considering I love it now as much as I did when I first saw it. Granted, it is a movie that I think forces people to face some of the most ugly characteristics of unrestrained, self-destructive masculinity. Characteristics that are buried deep down in most men although most of us wouldn't want to admit it.

To throw a possible theory out there, I do think one's upbringing may play a certain part in it. Certainly, if you grew up around people like this, you might appreciate more what the film is getting at (although some may resent that it is being shown). Scorsese gangster films which cover similar milieu like "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas" allow you to stand outside and observe the behavior as a way of life not directly related to your daily existence.

"Raging Bull" doesn't allow that comfort, which is why some people may find the characters unlikable and unrelatable. The movie is forcing you to live beside the wife beater who you know lives in your neighborhood, but hope you would never actually cross paths with. What the film I think also does is allow you to see the humanity beneath the brutishness without resorting to the pop psychology that would often be used to explain a character's behavior in movies these days.

Also, it goes without saying that Scorsese's camera angle and movements, sound, and editing add so much to this portrait of a man, going farther to capture the essence of Jake LaMotta than the usual restraints of a biopic would ever allow. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I always get drawn in when I watch it, often choking up during the last scene where DeNiro delivers the "On The Waterfront" monologue to himself in the mirror. Yes, I know LaMotta is a despicable human being to most, but he is still a human being.

S.F. Hunger

In our current Slumdogocracy would a movie like "Raging Bull" have a chance at getting any kind of major recognition/distribution? I guess the boxing tag and the presence of an A-list star ensures that it would, but I feel like if this movie came out in 2008 instead of 1980 it would've been a very bitter pill for America to swallow, championed by a passionate few, hated by more, ignored by most ... not unlike, say, Synecdoche NY.


It's funny, but technically I had no growing-up connection beyond congenital Catholicism to the characters in "Bull" -- not ethnically, economically, geographically -- but I found it enormously powerful from the beginning. Because I felt SCORSESE'S connection.

It's an amazing movie, I think -- one I first saw in a tiny revival house on Theatre Row, and have watched a number of times since.

The work with different camera speeds (as already said), the ring footage ("James Wong Howe, `Body and Soul,'" Scorsese immediately acknowledged), the sudden explosion of right-now talents like Moriarty (or the heralding of just-breaking talents like old friends Pesci and Frank Vincent, soon to hit new peaks in "GoodFellas" and "Casino") --- how can you not love these people? This film?

There's a lot about Pauline Kael I adore, but I never understood that review. It reminds me of the knuckle-draggers who come out of a movie saying, "Eh, yeah, but you know, who cares -- I didn't LIKE any of the characters." To which I usually, embarrassingly, say, "You LIKE King Lear? You actually want to go out for a drink with Oedipus?" That you understand them is more than enough.

It's an amazing movie, and I think -- with "Taxi Driver," with "GoodFellas" -- really stands as Scorsese's best. And I think he thinks so, too. "If I'm not going to win an Oscar for `Raging Bull,' he told me years ago, "I'm never going to win...Unless I'm like Carol Reed, who finally won for `Oliver!'"

I'm being lazy and quoting for memory, but that was the idea. And while I'm not willing to say "The Departed" marked the same decline from "Mean Streets" that dancing Dickensian urchins did from "The Third Man" -- well, "Bull" as best picture still makes a hell of a lot more sense than "Ordinary People."

S.F. Hunger

Regarding Scorsese's recent work: it's good, but it seems even better when you compare it to the recent output of ANY other surviving New Hollywood director. The only one who comes remotely close is Spielberg, but Scorsese never made crap like "The Terminal." Frankly, the conventional wisdom that Scorsese's work drops off after "Goodfellas" never made any sense to me (it's only true insofar as his worst film, "Casino," was made during this period). I think "Bringing Out the Dead" is a particularly underrated gem, and I've liked everything he's made in the aughts thus far; future generations of film scholars will analyze Marty's collabs with DiCaprio as reverently as they've done for the De Niro films. Really looking forward to Shutter Island.

The Chevalier

I always thought Raging Bull didn't work because it wasn't really about Jake LaMotta. Scorsese wasn't interested in the main character. He was creating a self-portrait -- and that self-portrait is evident in the uneven struggle of the filmmaking itself. Therefore, while Raging Bull may be a document of Scorsese's expression, it's really just an expression of filmmaking technique.


Steven's comment: "Granted, it is a movie that I think forces people to face some of the most ugly characteristics of unrestrained, self-destructive masculinity. Characteristics that are buried deep down in most men although most of us wouldn't want to admit it."

Co-sign. So well put.

The first time I saw this movie it gave me a headache and I wanted to go home. The second time I realized it was a work of art. (And also quite grimly funny in parts.)

As I remember the initial mainstream reviews, they were very much focused on De Niro's work, all the weight he gained etc. And if you focus on Jake you really may hate the movie, because he is one of the most deeply unpleasant characters in American cinema. It isn't that he is pure evil, that would give you some distance. He's every casually violent, none-too-bright prick you have encountered in your life, whether you were mugged by the guy or you're related to him or you're dealing with the damage he's done to someone you love. Or, god help you, maybe you're the one who loves him. Or maybe there's some of him in you too, like the link people discuss between Jake and Scorsese. Doesn't mean you have to be a puncher as well; Jake does such emotional violence to people.

I don't think you have to have grown up around this Italian-American milieu to "get" it; Jake is hardly unique to that ethnicity, let me tell you. Growing up in the South you meet plenty of La Mottas. Only the accent is different.

I also agree with what Swhitty says about the film's technique, and I think that was part of my initial "no" reaction. I appreciated the filmmaking, I saw the references, but I wasn't comfortable with explicit violence being that beautiful. Second time around I realized I had missed the point. The lure of violence, of just exploding at will, is a huge part of the movie too. You have to see it, or you won't see the humanity of Jake.

Tom Russell

Apropos the current work of Scorsese and DeNiro, and whether they should be begrudged, I am reminded of something Joyce Carol Oates once said. To paraphrase: you're as awesome as the best work you've ever done. DeNiro's work in "Righteous Kill" might not be anywhere near his work in "Raging Bull"-- heck, I don't think it's anywhere near his work in "Stanley and Iris"-- but that doesn't effect the fact that his performance in "Raging Bull" is amazing and thus he is an amazing actor.

By that same logic, however, because of "Casino" Sharon Stone is a great actress despite, um, everything else she's ever been in.

And, I should note, it's not surprising that Joyce Carol Oates would say something along those lines when a decent-sized chunk of her output, especially in the last two decades, is not quite on par with her best. (I just couldn't get into "Come Meet Muffin".)


Nice to see the respect paid to recent Scorsese; I expected a much harsher reception here. S.F. Hunger nailed it regarding future film buffs analyzing these films. They won't have that DiCaprio baggage going in, or the idea that Marty was somehow obsessed with winning an Oscar and gaining the West Coast elite's elusive acknowledgement. They will only see a director whose visuals are as kinetic as ever, with a restlessness and resistance to convention that prevents even prestige material like The Aviator from going down too smoothy.

In ways, Gangs of New York was like the cinephile's Phantom Menace. There was no way it was going to live up to all the hype; "Marty's dream project", "25 years in the making", etc., especially when the rumored tampering by Harvey Weinstein was made public--people were looking for any signs of forced compromise with a fine-tooth comb, and then wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater because they thought Marty had been in bed with the devil to make the film (when it's unlikely anyone else would have let him make it at all).

And while DiCaprio may have seen miscast at the time, seeing his subsequent career-capping work with the same director makes his performance in their first collaboration seem less of a let down upon repeat viewings now, especially when one considers he needed to be a simmering straight man to the vulgar fireworks of Daniel Day-Lewis. It's like blaming Pacino for being a bit limp in the first Godfather film opposite Brando's iconic work, not to mention Caan's.

The bottom line is that however overcooked the screenplay, and questions about a lost "director's cut" aside, the film is teeming with life and detail rarely seen in period pics today, and filled with more superlative scenes and creative brio in their execution than most films I've seen this decade. If people now would see what IS there instead of regretting what isn't, maybe it would get a fair shake years before it's most likely to. A.O. Scott's review was the only one which seemed to recognize that the film's true value couldn't be appreciated upon release, saying "I said earlier that 'Gangs of New York' is nearly a great movie. I suspect that, over time, it will make up the distance. "


"Dan, the funny thing about self-destructing people - they are charismatic. Perhaps to a fault. "

Some of them yes, some of them no, and in this case I fall in the latter. I didn't find LaMotta particularly fascinating, or charismatic. I suppose I can see why others without context saw him that way, but to me he's just another dumbass thug, and he gets a dumbass thug's comeuppance; nothing about LaMotta's story is terribly unique except in terms of scale and arguably the redemption at the end, which always struck me as odd and just reinforces my desire to know more about the characters in his orbit.

As far as recent Scorese, the reality is, people (including a lot of critics) generally think of him as a guy who makes awesome gangster/urban rot pictures and disregard everything else. I've met people claiming to be diehard fans who can quote "GoodFellas" line-by-line or have Travis Bickle all over their walls, but look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them he made "Kundun" or "New York, New York." If he makes anything that ISN'T a gangster movie, the reaction on some level is usually "WTF is this? Where's the gangsters?"

Nick Ramsey

Does anyone else find the film, um, pretty darn funny? The previously cited line about the steak and the punchline after Jake’s fight with Janiro are the obvious examples. Someone once pointed out to me that Scorsese loves to mix horrific violence with laughs, a trait evident in even his earliest work like THE BIG SHAVE. Part of what draws me to self-destructive personalities is their inability to properly filter or check things--they often have a compulsive need to say or do something even though they realize it will probably interfere with their best interests--and how this tension frequently manifests itself as humor or a humorous situation (perhaps only to an outside observer).

Or maybe I’m just a sickie.


Nick, then I must be a sickie too, because there is a lot of pitch-black humor in the movie. One of the things I miss in Scorsese's period work is that truly sick sense of humor that is so prevalent in the gangster movies, where you laugh even as you squirm.

Glenn Kenny

Bits from "Raging Bull" that always make me laugh, although they probably shouldn't:

Joey: Hey Salvy.
Salvy: What?
Joey(mouthing the words silently): Go fuck yourself.

Jake: WHO'S an animal? Your MOTHER's an animal, you son-of-a-bitch...

Jake (performing comedy routine, to man passing stage): Hi, how you doin? (Bad stage whisper) Bald-headed fag.

Jake (to police detective): I introduce him...to men.

And so on...

Steven Santos

As most of Scorsese's best movies, there is a lot of funny stuff in it often at inappropriate times.

To add to Glenn's list, I would include "Your mother sucks big fat fucking elephant dicks!". Especially because that line comes during a particularly uncomfortable moment.


For a long time, I've felt that "Goodfellas" sort of plays like a comedy, and "Casino", its brother, plays like a tragedy. I haven't thought about it much past that, but really, almost every scene in "Goodfellas" is either played for a laugh, or has a laugh in it.

The First Bill C

Jake's whole comedy routine is funnier than it has any right to be ("You'd bring her home to dad...if he was a degenerate"), and I always bust a gut when he knocks the plates off the shelf and shouts, "Can't you stack dishes right?!"

S.F. Hunger

Lazarus, you are so right about Gangs of New York being the cinephile's Phantom Menace. Difference is, history will be kind to the former and not-so-kind to the latter. Afterwards, I think people almost felt an obligation to be disappointed by The Aviator, and it was obviously easy to talk shit about The Departed given the Oscar smoke that was puffed up its ass. It's odd that one of the two or three most revered American filmmakers of all time should also be one of the most underappreciated among currently working directors.


The line, "He ain't pretty no more," is horrifying and yet it gets a laugh out of me every time. It would take hours to figure out exactly which cinematic cues make that one amusing to me. Is it the delivery? Oh, and "They're miserable because their mothers take it up their fucking ass." Is it the playground echo there that gets me? I dunno. The movie cracks up Mr. C as well. Glad to know we have such distinguished, sick company.


And, of course, Pesci and Vincent started out as a comedy/music duo playing mob clubs in Jersey, doing songs and snappy patter.

What I wouldn't give for a CD of THAT material.


I'm so glad to be reading all this love for "Gangs of New York". I've loved that movie -- with some mild reservations (Cillian Murphy would have be fantastic as Amsterdam; Diaz shouldn't have been allowed within fifty yards of the set) -- since day one. The hatred for it has always confused and frustrated me. The Draft Riots section is amazing.


I think The King of Comedy was Scorsese's meanest film, on par with Robert Altman's Nashville which it thematically resembles. Raging Bull took American masculinity to task, but The King of Comedy took to task the entire nation's psyche.

If people have trouble appreciating Raging Bull because they can't "relate" to any of the characters then that must explain why The King of Comedy almost never gets talked about - it's way too misanthropic for them to handle.

Glenn Kenny

Just as an FYI, I loved "Gangs," too. My original review isn't online but there are snippets of it, and my most blurby observation was: "Unsparing, hallucinatory, spectacular, it's personal moviemaking on an epic scale, a vision that will take your breath away and hold it for the movie's entire running time." So there's that.

As for Pesci's logical leap as to why "they" are "miserable": It is indeed horrifically hilarious, and back in the day was for me the source of much collegiate buddy humor, in the vein of "So, let me get this straight, just why are they miserable?", etc. Another funny thing about the near-ceaseless profanity in the film is that no character ever breaches the slightest objection to it, save maybe in a perfunctory "not in front of the kids" fashion.

Steven Santos

I was disappointed in "Gangs of New York", although I can't hate something that still has many brilliant scenes. I would agree with Bill that recasting DiCaprio and Diaz would have helped considerably. I also think the movie just feels like it is trying to do too many things in too short a time.

It's probably the only Scorsese movie that I feel where the editing felt rushed and choppy. That said, I still prefer it over "The Aviator", which I can't connect to at all. I should also mention I'm in the minority who thinks "Kundun" was the strongest of his post-"Goodfellas" films. I feel that is a criminally under-appreciated film.

Also, glad Nick mentioned "King of Comedy", which is a film that also quite never gets its due. The discomforting things it says about celebrity culture and its delusional followers back then is even more poignant today.

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