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“I’m Not an Animal!” Raging Bulls and Pushing the Boundaries of the Empathy Machine…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, launched a belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Taxi Driver. This week, we’re looking at Raging Bull. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1980 black-and-white boxing film.

“So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
summoned the man who had been blind and said:

‘Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.’

‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’
the man replied.

‘All I know is this:
once I was blind and now I can see.’

By Scorsese’s own admission, Raging Bull was a “kamikaze” film.

By the end of the seventies, Scorsese was personally and professionally wiped out. The director had just gone through his second divorce. He was recovering from a cocaine addiction that had almost killed him. Scorsese had attempted to capitalise on the critical and commercial success of Taxi Driver by making New York, New York. The film was intended as an update of the classic MGM musicals shot in a New Hollywood style, but it was a critical and commercial failure.

The New Hollywood era was ending around Scorsese. William Friedkin had been brought down to earth by the critical and commercial failure of Sorcerer, which had the misfortune to open opposite Star Wars. While Apocalypse Now had become a hit, the film’s troubled production was already the stuff of Hollywood legend. Indeed, it has been suggested that Scorsese was able to sneak Raging Bull through United Artists because its production overlapped with the attempts to fight fires on Michael Cimino’s studio-killing flop Heaven’s Gate.

Scorsese was committed to seeing through his vision of Raging Bull. He wanted to make a film that satisfied him, even if it was to be the last film that he ever made. The result is a singularly abrasive piece of work. It is a biography of the boxer Jake LaMotta that paints a harrowing and horrifying sketch of an innately violent man who succeeds in alienating everybody close to him and destroying every opportunity that he has to build a better life for himself.

Even watched forty years after its original release, Raging Bull is an uncompromising and unflinching portrayal of a protagonist who is deliberately and aggressively unlikable. This is a bold and daring move. Studio biographies are often designed to soften the rough edges of their subjects, to temper biting commentary with glimpses of humanity. Even Oliver Stone’s Nixon offers a surprisingly sensitive study of a subject that the audience might expect the director to skewer.

However, this is the power of Raging Bull. Roger Ebert famously described film as an “empathy machine”, and Raging Bull seems to probe the limits of that idea. The audience spends two hours inside the head of Jake LaMotta, and sees the man with his all his flaws and through all his failings. The film then asks its audience, having subjected them to that brutality and violence, to look on Jake as a human being deserving some measure of compassion and empathy. Raging Bull accomplishes this, one of the most remarkable feats in Scorsese’s filmography.

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“They Are Touching Things!” The Aviator, and the Yearning for Human Contact…

I was thrilled to get back invited on The Movie Palace with Carl Sweeney to talk about Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. It’s a film that I hadn’t watched in quite a while, and which had a much stronger impact on me than I expected. You should listen to the whole podcast conversation, but I had some thoughts I wanted to more properly articulate.

Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E…

The Aviator is about many things.

Most obviously, it is about famous Hollywood director and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. Hollywood had been trying for decades to bring Hughes’ life to screen. Directors like Christopher Nolan and Warren Beatty had failed to get their Hughes-related projects off the ground. Indeed, The Aviator almost feels like a work-for-hire project from Scorsese, who replaced Michael Mann as the director of this project at the behest of lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Having previously collaborated on Gangs of New York, The Aviator cemented Scorsese and DiCaprio’s partnership.

However, despite his late arrival on the project, The Aviator feels very much like a Martin Scorsese film. After all, the second half of the film is given over to an impassioned creator dragged out into the limelight and forced to justify a spectacular and costly failure while arguing for his exacting creative vision. This aspect of the film would undoubtedly have resonated with Scorsese, who had just come on to the project fresh from the debacle of Gangs of New York, which involving fighting with Harvey Weinstein over the cut of a movie “whose box office returns weren’t overwhelming.”

Still, there’s one aspect of The Aviator that feels much more pointed and resonant in the current context of global lockdowns and self-isolation. In a very fundamental way, The Aviator is a story about the paradox of touch. It is a story of a man who longs for human connection, but whose neuroses make that sort of connection impossible. The Aviator tells the tale of a man who locks himself away from the world, but must eventually find the strength to put himself back in it.

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New Escapist Column! On “The Witcher” and True Monstrosity…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last week, looking at the Netflix streaming show The Witcher.

The Witcher is an interesting show, the story of a monster hunter who drifts through a magical world that seems caught on the cusp of war. The first season is very broad and largely episodic, but it does have a clear thematic through line. The series plays with the tropes and conventions of the fantasy genre, but most pointed with the idea of monstrosity. The Witcher is the story of a man who kills monsters, but also a story about how sometimes true monstrosity comes in human form.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Millennium – Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is Darin Morgan’s last script for Millennium.

It is an interesting script. It not as straightforward (and linear) as his scripts for Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s “Doomday Defense”, but it is not as outwardly complex (and intricate) as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” These descriptors are all relative, of course. Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a Darin Morgan script through-and-through. It is clever, well-constructed, and thoughtful. It is one of the most eccentric episodes in a season full of eccentric episodes.

Little devil...

Little devil…

However, Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me remains rather hard to pin down. It doesn’t feel as cohesive or as singular as Morgan’s other scripts. Morgan tends to build his episodes around big thematic tentpoles. There are ideas and themes that reverberate across and throughout Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me, but the nature of the script means that the episode lacks the unity of purpose that viewers have come to expect from Darin Morgan. Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a rollercoaster of an episode, which seems to hop from one idea to another.

Of course, that would seem to be the point. Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a bold and experimental script in its own way. Morgan has essentially constructed a set of four interlocking (and occasionally thematically overlapping) short stories that are built around his own core themes and ideas. These are small and intimate tales, lying at the intersection between the mundane and the surreal. As such, it seems like the perfect place for Darin Morgan to take his second bow.

A demon crying on a toilet. What more could you want?

A demon crying on a toilet.
What more could you want?

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The X-Files – Herrenvolk (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

After Talitha Cumi, Herrenvolk cannot help but seem like a little bit of a disappointment.

Towards the end of the episode, the Alien Bounty Hunter hunts down Jeremiah Smith. Mulder begs for mercy, but the Bounty Hunter will hear nothing of it. “He shows you pieces, but tells you nothing of the whole,” the Bounty Hunter remarks to Mulder. It feels like that sentiment encapsulates Herrenvolk in a nutshell. Mulder goes on the run with Jeremiah Smith and sees a collection of vague but compelling things that may or may not tie into colonisation.

"Now you're thinking, 'I hope that's shepherd's pie in my knickers!'"

“Now you’re thinking, ‘I hope that’s shepherd’s pie in my knickers!'”

Like a lot of the mythology in the fourth and fifth seasons, it feels like a holding pattern. Talitha Cumi was surprisingly candid in its revelations. The aliens were plotting to colonise Earth in collaboration with the human conspirators. The date had been set, the plot was in motion. That was a pretty big bombshell, confirmed in unequivocal terms. It was arguably the clearest and most transparent that the conspiracy arc would ever be. There was a clear goal, a deadline, and a sense of purpose.

Almost immediately, Herrenvolk works to muddy the water. It stalls, it procrastinates, it delays, it evades. It is a plot structured around a collection of ominous conspiracy buzz words (DNA, smallpox, colonies, clones) without a clear purpose or objective.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

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Star Trek – The Ultimate Computer (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Ultimate Computer is the second classic produced by John Meredyth Lucas, following on from The Immunity Syndrome. (Although it is credited to him, Journey to Babel was actually overseen by Gene L. Coon.) Like The Immunity Syndrome before it, The Ultimate Computer is a bottle show, filmed on the show’s standing set. It features a relatively small guest cast, even trimming the number of extras appearing on the Enterprise sets.

It seems that these sorts of constraints and pressures brought out the best in Lucas. Lucas steps behind the camera on The Ultimate Computer, and helps to bring the show to life. Although he is using familiar sets, he often figures out ways to shoot them that feel original and fresh – no mean accomplishment two years into the show’s run. The guest cast that Lucas has assembled is superb – with William Marshall turning in one of the best one-shot guest appearances in the history of Star Trek.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

However, what is most notable about The Ultimate Computer is the funereal atmosphere that haunts the episode. There is a solemn and reflective tone to the episode, particularly during the early tests of the M-5 computer. The Enterprise is dark, abandoned, empty. Kirk is reflective. As with Bread and Circuses at the end of Gene L. Coon’ tenure, Spock offers McCoy an olive branch. In many respects, The Ultimate Computer seems to hark forward to the film series, with Kirk wondering how he might define himself if he is not a starship captain.

Appropriately enough for a series staring down the barrel at cancellation, The Ultimate Computer would have made for a pretty great finalé.

"Dammit, I told you we should have used a surge protector..."

“Dammit, I told you we should have used a surge protector…”

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Battlestar Galactica: Season 4

I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays, and I — I want to — I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to — I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me! I’m a machine, and I could know much more, I could experience so much more, but I’m trapped in this absurd body! And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way!

– John Cavil, No Exit

We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realise that for our existence to have any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your life times distressing over – your mortallity – is the one thing which makes you whole.

– Natalie Faust, Guess What’s Coming to Dinner

There’s a moment in the show which perhaps best symbolises the sense of trepidation that I felt in sitting down to watch the final episodes of the show. We had alread witnessed three phenomenal years, so wasn’t it worth getting worried about the endgame? Admiral William Adama sits in a chair beside the dying President Laura Rosalin, his favourite book in hand. He reveals that he’s never finished it. And yet it’s still his favourite book. Because finishing it would be to acknowledge that it was the end – there was nothing afterwards. You had experienced how good it had been, but that was in the past. There is another familiar sense of dread that must be acknowledged: What if the ending doesn’t live up to expectations? What if it disappoints? How can it not?

From the look of it, Giaus was about as confused as I was when he found out how this was going to end...

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Battlestar Galactica – Season 3

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”

– The “Mysterious” Song, Crossroads, Part II

The series continues to be one of the most interesting television phenomenon of the last decade as it enters what is, technically at least, it’s penultimate season. This is the point where mythology-based shows typically come apart, crushed under their own weight – the point where they have to start answering at least some of their own questions, rather than simply posing them to the audience. The problem is, as many shows have found out, answering questions isn’t nearly as fun as posing them. Battlestar Galactica, seemingly afraid of the potential comfort that giving those answers would offer, instead opts to delve even deeper into the rabbit hole – picking answers to questions suggested by earlier events and then using that to move the show forward in a fascinating momentum. Because of this weird combination of answers and deeper questions, the show somehow manages to increase its complexity and its fascination year-after-year.

Full of nebulous concepts...

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