New Raging Bull DVD offers look at Scorsese’s first Oscar loss

By Pat Brown

I’m sure the irony was not lost on Martin Scorsese on Oscar night – he lost the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars to a tragic boxing film. No, considering that the greatest accomplishment of his career is such a film, he was probably thinking, “Why didn’t that work 25 years ago?”

Raging Bull (1980) was recently released as a 2-disc Special Edition, conveniently coinciding with Scorsese’s most recent Oscar snubbing for The Aviator (2004). Those who were upset that he didn’t win this year will be pleased when they see Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece Special Edition DVD, with three tracks of commentary and a whopping six documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes. The meticulousness with which Scorsese shapes the black-and-white environment of Raging Bull helps to cement its position as one of the best films of all time.

Like any good boxing movie, Raging Bull is not about boxing – it is about a man. It tells the true story of boxing legend Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta (Robert DeNiro), a middleweight contender from the ’40s and ’50s who had many famous matches with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes).

As the nickname suggests, Jake is an angry young man who “wants to make it on his own.” He resists ties to the mob, with whom his manager/brother Joey (Joe Pesci) is involved, and turns all of his relationships into violent, tumultuous ones. His sexual insecurity is the root of his trouble: he is constantly suspicious of his wife, the beautiful, young Vicky (Cathy Moriarty). Eventually, this obsessive jealousy goes from simple insecurity to near insanity.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this movie is its manipulation of time as a tool for telling the story from Jake’s perspective. Slow motion is used to show heightened awareness – we almost understand Jake’s suspicion as he watches Vicky kiss male friends on the cheek. The horrible beatings Jake gets in the ring seem to take forever, while a scene of triumph in which Jake actually knocks Sugar Ray Robinson out of the ring is played in fast motion. This mirrors the life Jake leads outside the ring – the good times are outweighed by the bad, or are soon soured by them. In fact, the only part of Raging Bull that can be said to be completely happy is a montage of home videos the LaMotta family made, which is also the only scene in color.

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The facade of happiness in the color montage implies that what happens in black and white is what’s “real.” This is ironic, as black-and-white film is inherently a more expressionistic medium than color film and Raging Bull is a prime example of a stylized black-and-white movie. Take, for example, the opening credits. They are set against a shot of Jake, in the ring, warming up for his match. Surrounding the ring is a gray cloud of smoke. There is a crowd somewhere behind this smoke – we know this because of the flashbulbs that occasionally go off behind Jake – but we can’t see them. This smoke appears in all the fight scenes to a lesser extent, creating a sense of isolation that could not have been accomplished in color because the smoke would not have been captured in the same way. The composition of the movie fits a black-and-white picture so perfectly that it is hard to imagine it being in color – though if anyone could pull that off, it would be Scorsese.

Interestingly, the film that beat Raging Bull for Best Picture and Best Director, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), has yet to get a treatment such as this on DVD, proving that the Academy can be shortsighted about which movies are going to stand the test of time. Perhaps Martin Scorsese, like greats such as Hitchcock and Kubrick, does not need an Oscar to be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time.