Cinema: Animal House

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Directed by Martin Scorsese

Screenplay by Paul Schroder and Mardik Martin

Now, sometimes, at night, when I think back, I feel like I’m looking at an old black-and-white movie of myself. Why it should be black-and-white I don’t know, but it is. Not a good movie, either, jerky, with gaps in it, a string of poorly lit sequences, some of them with no beginning and some with no end … And almost all of it happens at night, as if I lived my whole life at night.

—Jake La Motta in his autobiography Raging Bull, 1970

What Jake saw in a nostalgic nightmare, Martin Scorsese has put on the screen. The Bronx Bull butted his way to the middleweight championship of boxing in 1949. He “fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times I got diabetes.” He played rope-a-dope with the Mob. He ballooned to 210 lbs. (from 160) within a year of retiring, was convicted on a morals charge involving a 14-year-old prostitute, and made a comeback of sorts as a road-show Rocky Graziano. Now 59, this sacred monster is canonized and cauterized in Scorsese’s searing black and white.

La Motta was an animal, a bull in the ring and a pig outside, and Scorsese is true to both Jakes. The boxing sequences (which amount to barely a dozen minutes of the movie’s two hours plus) are as violent, controlled, repulsive and exhilarating as anything in the genre. Scorsese layers the sound track with grunts and screams, animal noises that seem to emanate from hell’s zoo. The camera muscles into the action, peering from above, from below, from the combatant’s point of view, panning 360° as a doomed fighter spins toward the canvas. Smoke, sweat, flesh and blood become Jackson Pollock abstractions as they pound home the essential blood lust of those sweet sciences, prizefighting and moviemaking.

The ring is where Scorsese’s art is most alive, because it is where Jake (Robert De Niro) lives, where he can do battle on equal terms, playing by hard men’s rules. It is where Jake’s life finally achieves meaning when he wins the title and is embraced by his idol, Joe Louis —and where the paradigmatic club fighter loses the bout, the title and several quarts of blood in his 1951 match with the stylish Robinson. Indeed, Jake has lost everything but the pride that propels him over to the new champ’s corner to boast, “You never knocked me down, Ray!”

As famous as Jake was for being able to take it in the ring, he was even more notorious for dishing it out at home. Half brutal patriarch, half petulant child, he played the suspicious sadist to his wife Vickie, his brother Joey, his best friend Pete Petrella. Pete stood up to Jake’s insults, and stood by as his hard-luck friend; later, under the name Peter Savage, he helped Jake write his autobiography and served as consulting producer to the Raging Bull company. In the film, Pete’s history is subsumed into the character of Joey (Joe Pesci): the fighter’s manager and punching bag, his Sancho Panza and lago. By insulating Jake from the Mafia men who want a big piece of his career, Joey also isolates his brother from the real world of compromise and conciliation. Everyone is an interloper, a seducer, an enemy. As long as Jake can take his resentments out on his fellow middleweights, he and Joey can survive. But when he marries Vickie, his hatred becomes too big and dangerous to be contained within the boxing ring.

Jake is not so much in love with Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) as he is obsessed by her. To him she represents unattainable class: Lana Turner, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, to his John Garfield. Vickie is the silently smoldering platinum blond in a Bronxful of greasy brawlers and dark-haired tarts. He sees her gliding in slow motion through his jerky life, smiling mysteriously, bestowing a Queen Mother nod on some old friend. But what old friend? Why did she smile at him? Can it be she’s fooling around with one of them Mafia bums? Or even with Joey? She can be. She must be. His Desdemona must be punished, like a pretty but punch-less fighter who needs a tough lesson taught. And so must Joey.

Scorsese and De Niro have been here before: in the good brother-bad brother melodrama of Mean Streets, in the story of a troubled Taxi Driver searching for his blond goddess, in the musical tragedy of two big-band musicians playing king of the hill in New York, New York. And they have faced the same narrative challenge — how to build their vignettes of domestic brutality to a satisfying climax — without ever quite solving it. From the moment Raging Bull introduces its three main characters, the moviegoer knows all there will be to know about them. Jake is the loner with a special, terrible gift he can’t control; Joey is weak, loyal and scheming; Vickie is an enigma wrapped in gilt. The first hour of the film sets up the situation with a naturalistic vigor and cinematic resourcefulness unique to Scorsese. He knows precisely how to move the camera, dress a set, direct his splendid actors, underlay the music, edit to keep the viewer off guard and consistently impressed. But Raging Bull has nowhere to go but down and out. As Jake follows the trajectory of his predictable degradation, the film threatens to become as bloated and repetitious as the fat ex-champ in his cups.

By the end it has become evident that much of Raging Bull exists because of the possibilities it offers De Niro to display his own explosive art. He trained as a boxer for months, until La Motta, who coached him, believed the actor could be a contender; he gained 50 lbs. in two months to play the aging Jake. As Jake in 1941 or Jake in 1964, as comer or loser, as raging-bull boxer or battering-ram husband, shouting obscenity or whispering apology, De Niro is always absorbing and credible, even when his character isn’t. When the film is moving on automatic pilot, De Niro is still sailing on animal energy, carrying his able, unknown co-stars with him. Perhaps this should be enough for a movie: bravura acting paired with dazzling, hyperkinetic direction. Why look a gift Bull in the mouth?

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