Raging Bull: I watched this rise-and-fall boxer epic because Victor loves it so much. And it has every virtue I expected from his praise: plunging, visceral fight scenes; the inevitable, desperate remorse of an unreflective man. If you speak only with your fists someday you’ll have to confess with them too.
De Niro conveys this unreflective character perfectly, and throughout most of the movie there are no hints that Jake LaMotta has or even wants hidden inner depths. He pinballs through his life, striking people and bouncing off of them, and then he’s surprised to find himself so far away from everybody he ever touched. He eventually knows that it is his fault in some sense, but that remorse doesn’t change him. I like this; I like movies where remorse changes people, but I like also the occasional one that reminds you that it doesn’t have to, remorse isn’t magic, nothing’s inevitable inside of you no matter how many inevitabilities slam into your dented chassis.
What surprised me the most is that this is also a story about an entertainer. We see this from the very beginning, LaMotta’s revival, first as a schlocky emcee and then as an actor (??) doing excerpts from like Shakespeare (???). He wants badly for these performances to work. We suspect they won’t. They’re attempts to create a reaction in other people, to touch, and he’s not gonna. He seems to have pinballed into this job too without thinking much about why. The unreflective pugilist is a pretty common film feature; the unreflective artist, much less so. This focus on image, celebrity, and even (probably unsuccessful) artistry made me realize the best double-feature sparring partner for this movie would not be, like, Body and Soul, but I, Tonya.
Drunks: A good, not quite great, ensemble film about one night at and around an AA meeting. Many beloved actors and especially actresses (Amanda Plummer; Dianne Wiest!). A sharp sense of what it is like to go to AA. A verrrrrry sharp sense of what it is like to watch an AA meeting rather than to participate in one. There’s some sly anti-audience aggression here, is what I’m saying, and I liked it. Why did you come down the stairs tonight? What did you hope to see? I would have liked the script to be a touch subtler with the character who most articulates that perspective (the man who likes to be “fuzzy”), to stop before you’re totally sure what his deal is, but I liked having him there. And in general liked how the film shows AA not as a single institution or experience, but a shifting kaleidoscope of the needs and attitudes of the people within it.
Last line is very, very poignant.
Clean and Sober: My notes about why I wanted to watch this movie say, “Say what you will about Clean and Sober but apparently Harvey Keitel is fantastic as the lead,” and yeah, that is basically the selling point. Sentimental ending; too much sentiment in general, too many good intentions; otherwise notable mostly because it’s rare to see a movie that isn’t about labor unions, where somebody casually talks about her union.
Monsoon Wedding: A Delhi wedding as the crossroads for India and the diaspora, rich and poor (or lower middle-class, everything’s relative), parents and young adults and children, men and women; those who know the family’s genuinely awful secret, and those who don’t want to know. It is all handled with an eye toward the inevitable happy ending, which means it can only go so far in asking to what extent the family protects and guides its children.
And I was most invested in the servants’ romance, so I wanted the film to do the thing it briefly hinted it would do, of symbolically/aesthetically allowing that lower-class romance to shadow and critique the upper-class one. Instead the movie offers the poorer characters what it presumes they want most, i.e. entrance into the rich folk’s celebration. This is a fleet, gentle movie, and I enjoyed it; but it’s also a movie where the servants will always prefer to dance with the employing class, rather than suggesting that perhaps the employers might dance with them.
Dave Made a Maze: A weird little gem. The kind of horror flick that isn’t great-great, but is simultaneously so of its era and so individual in its vision that it will get brought up later in lists of underrated indie horror of the 2020s. Dave’s girlfriend is out of town, so he builds a cardboard maze in their living room. By the time she gets back, he’s lost inside it. Wonder, creepiness, mythic hints, mild mockery of low-hanging cultural fruit, and sheer oddity ensue. I never knew what would happen next, and I very much enjoyed the ride. Streaming on Shudder.
A Serious Man: The Coen brothers retell the Book of Job… stopping a few chapters before God shows up. It’s a flawed movie even if you’re okay with the bet-hedging decision about where to stop the story: several characters are cartoonish in a bland way, not a vivid way, and the Korean character’s subplot is painfully “white person thinks Asians are inherently hilarious.” (Between this and Jesus in The Big Lebowski I’m inclined to say that the Coen brothers are phenomenal at intraethnic caricature and should just stay far away from the interethnic kind.)
On the other hand, what is good here is fantastic. I enjoyed the suburban moral dilemmas. I enjoyed the reworking of Job’s comforters as e.g. a junior rabbi blathering about the beauty of the parking lot. (He isn’t wrong!! Within the world of the movie itself, he is not wrong, this is so perfect since the whole point of Job’s comforters is how often they say true things in a false way.) I enjoyed the intense, extremely familiar Jewish bourgeois ethic, that world where even the mystics are orthodontists.
And I loved the Tale of the Goy’s Teeth. This parable is worth the (exorbitant) price of admission. The Goy’s teeth are a message from God–nobody doubts this. And yet everybody falls all over themselves not to know what it means! Desperate to hear God and equally uninterested in listening. Very relatable! A parable of unwisdom which in fact reveals certain true and poignant things… a message which can be read in at least two ways, neither of which anybody notices… perfect. And, pace Victor, who I think misread this movie pretty drastically, imho the film works hard to keep its portrayal of universal Jewish folly from becoming blasphemous toward Jewish religion; the fact that the bar mitzvah debacle ends with a correct recitation is maybe the strongest piece of evidence that this was an intentional choice. Similarly, it’s important that the Canada bit is a dream but the poolside soul-baring which precedes it is explicitly stated to be real. This is a movie that would not allow its characters to flee; Jews don’t get to free themselves from one another, and covenants are only broken in the kind of dream from which you’re grateful to wake up.
Photo of boxer who is not Jake LaMotta via Wikimedia Commons.