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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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Non-Review Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya is a biopic for the post-truth era. It is also brilliant.

The subject of I, Tonya will be casually familiar to most viewers, the figure skater Tonya Harding who was implicated in an attack on fellow figure skater Kerrigan. The incident was a flashpoint for the nascent twenty-four hour news cycle in the early nineties, although most people remember it as a warm-up for the O.J. Simpson case only shortly afterwards. As such, I, Tonya feels like the perfect window through which to examine the modern era’s obsessive celebrity-focused culture and the desire to turn our heroes into monsters for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Putting her own spin on it.

I, Tonya is fascinating on that level alone. Its characters repeatedly break the fourth wall in an attempt to steer and control the narrative, but occasionally do so to indict the audience for their complicity. I, Tonya is a film that understands it cannot be about this media maelstrom without being part of this media maelstrom. There’s a canny knowingness to I, Tonya, an understanding that a movie about culture’s slipping grip on the idea of reality cannot be too earnest or too sincere.

I, Tonya repeatedly suggests that its story may stray into the realm of fantasy and fiction, but the movie still packs a real punch.

Get your skates on, mate.

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The X-Files – Bad Blood (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.

Despite a notable absence of Darin Morgan, Bad Blood makes a much more convincing case for Vince Gilligan as the heir apparent to Darin Morgan than Small Potatoes did at the end of the fourth season.

Bad Blood finds Gilligan touching on some of the same broad ideas as Small Potatoes – how Mulder is perceived and how he perceives himself, a sly awareness of the show’s tropes and conventions. However, Bad Blood feels a lot more honed and focused than Small Potatoes. It felt like Small Potatoes only got to the meat of the story it wanted to tell in its final third, while Bad Blood is shrewd enough to put its core concepts front-and-centre. While Bad Blood has the same broad humour of Small Potatoes, it feels a lot more convincing when it comes to characters.

The tooth is out there...

The tooth is out there…

It could be argued that Gilligan drew quite heavily on the work of Darin Morgan in some of his scripts. There is no shame in this. After all, Darin Morgan is perhaps the most widely-praised writer to work on The X-Files. In this context, Bad Blood is something of a spiritual successor to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Gilligan’s script is not quite as structurally or philosophically ambitious as Darin Morgan’s final credited script for the series, but it does hit on the same fundamental idea that truth is an inherently subjective construct.

Bad Blood is essentially an episode that is not only about how Mulder and Scully see each other, but how they see themselves.

Mulder knows what's at stake...

Mulder knows what’s at stake…

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Grand Larson-y: Nick Swardson and Being Critical of Comedies…

This type of thing happens every once in a while, to the point where it’s almost not really news at all. Kevin Smith took to twitter to lambast critics of his (admittedly) disappointing Cop Out, and studios have a habit of releasing potentially divisive films around critics (look at how they sold G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). Nick Swardson, who has only come to my attention of late with a solid supporting role in the perfectly adequate but unexceptional 30 Minutes or Less, has taken to lashing out at the critics who didn’t respond especially favourably to Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star. He suggests:

I knew the critics were going to bury us. It was a softball. They were waiting, waiting to hate that movie. It’s kind of funny that they get their rocks off on reviews like that. They review The King’s Speech, then they review Bucky Larson.


It’s a lot of work and a lot of reviewers aren’t going into that movie to like it. They don’t want to like it. None of those reviewers was psyched to see Bucky Larson and laugh. They go in with the mentality, fuck these guys for making another movie. They go in there to kind of headhunt. It makes me laugh because it’s just so embarrassing. It makes them look like such morons. You can’t review Avatar then review Bucky Larson. Comedy is so subjective, you know what I mean? To sit there and technically pick it apart is so stupid. We’ve never made movies for critics, so we could give a f***.

There’s obviously more than a hint of bitterness (the last line is very much “well, we don’t care what they think!”), but does Swardson have a point about the difficulty of reviewing comedies?

Bucky bites back...

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