March 21, 2005

NATURE CAGE:

Requiem for the beast: Twenty-five years after Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro unleashed Raging Bull, RICK GROEN looks anew at its defining portrayal of rage (Rick Groen, 2/04/05, Globe & Mail)

Raging Bull is essentially a character study, and the archetype under the lens is nothing less than the raw, violent male. Scorsese had explored this type before (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) and would again (Goodfellas, Casino), but never so unflinchingly, never so bereft of anything -- a vestige of charm, humour, introspection -- to shield us from the pure animal urge.

To that end, the whole of the movie is symbolically compressed into the black-and-white imagery of the opening two scenes. The first, a precredit sequence, shows the young LaMotta (a fit Robert De Niro) alone in the ring, wearing a hooded robe and throwing punches in hypnotic slow-motion, all behind ropes that cross the frame like bars in a cell. Yes, imprisoned in the cage of his own violent nature, the muscled titan is shadow-boxing -- he's fighting himself. The second scene cuts to the finish, and brazenly gives away the conclusion. LaMotta has grown old and fat (De Niro's famous weight gain) but he's still alone, this time in a seedy night club where, rehearsing lines for his clumsy standup act, he again confronts his reflection in the dressing-room mirror. The meaning is clear: The venue has changed, the body has changed, but the interior fight goes on.

Everything that follows has the sole purpose of exploring this fight in all its contradictory facets. However, since LaMotta is singularly lacking in self-awareness, the exploration has to be done without the help of voiceover insights or even much dialogue. The internal must be externalized, viciously dramatized. In the process, the violence that defines the man -- and that part of the American character he represents -- emerges as simultaneously the source of his great success and the agent of his pathetic undoing. He abuses his opponents in the ring, to cheers, and he abuses his wife in the kitchen, to sobs. Violence is his path to freedom (sound familiar?) and the means by which he liberates himself from the violent dictates of others, from the despotic gangsters who run his neighbourhood and control his sport. Yet, the same violence is a manifestation of his self-hatred and his sexual insecurity and his paranoid jealousy.

Violence, then, is his heroic strength and his tragic flaw. So girded, LaMotta lives very much in a black-and-white world. He batters and eventually loses his young blond wife (Cathy Moriarty) who, if she isn't a Madonna, must be an unfaithful whore. He beats up and also loses his loyal brother (Joe Pesci) who, if he isn't his keeper, must be his mortal enemy. This isn't violence that simmers, waiting to explode like Travis Bickle's catharsis in Taxi Driver. Rather, it's volcanic, perpetually erupting. That's why Scorsese repeatedly juxtaposes the ring brutality with the domestic brutality, sanctioned violence with its jaundiced equivalent. Watch how his flash editing works to reinforce this theme: In a fearsome cut, a gloved fist to a man's head becomes an open slap to a woman's face.

In fact, stylistically, the entire film exists in a similar state of dialectical tension -- white light competing with shadow, antic jump-cuts vying with mesmerizing slow motion, pop period music alternating with a sonorous classical score. Although De Niro's searing performance deserves its plaudits (Oscar at least gave him a prize), this is an auteur's work. Seldom has a film's direction -- each movement of the camera, the detailed attention to sight and sound -- been so inextricably tied to its message. Everything Scorsese does is intended to elevate that message, to float it in a timeless bottle. There, he argues that male violence is endemic to the beast, a social trait as enduring as the wars that continue to be fought in the name of peace. It's no coincidence that the story starts in 1941, the year of the response to Pearl Harbor, and finishes in 1964, during the escalation in Vietnam -- the picture itself is book-ended by violence, justified and not.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2005 5:13 PM
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