Allegory of the Ring
Grudge Match, a seemingly silly film about two geriatric boxers played by Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro, turns out to be the most interesting film this holiday season. Alas, not many will go to see it, because people are trained to see the surface of things. Instead, what I want to propose is that we read the film as an allegory for film history. Indeed, the makers of the film seem privy to at least some of the joy in their high concept idea. Stallone, of the Rocky franchise, and DeNiro, the star of Raging Bull, play boxers who had an intense rivalry when they were young men in the early 1980s. Now, over thirty years later, they agree to a bout to decide once and for all who is the better boxer.
These are not just accidental casting choices. Stallone is an iconic Hollywood action film star, whose six Rocky films defined the dynamics of feel-good popular cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Conversely, DeNiro is the iconic art film star, whose appearance in a string of Martin Scorsese masterworks, from 1976’s Taxi Driver to 1980’s Raging Bull set the gold standard as to what great cinema could accomplish.
The original Rocky and Raging Bull could not be more different in their intentions or execution. Stallone’s script for Rocky captures white working class discontent with upwardly mobile African-Americans: his loser with a heart of gold is given a chance at the title fight as a lark by Apollo Creed, a Muhammad Ali showman who enters the ring celebrating the bicentennial of the United States dressed as George Washington crossing the Delaware. John G. Avildsen’s journeyman direction of Stallone’s straight-forward script results in a film that is quintessentially American, gritty and heartfelt. It is a great popular film, so effective that my working-class family cannot begin to fathom its lowly status in the halls of academe.
For its part, Scorsese’s Raging Bull is the greatest film of the 1980s. The film opens with an operatic presentation of the ring as one of the great cinematic sites for the exploration of masculinity. The greatest deconstructive bio-pic since Citizen Kane, Raging Bull bookends around the has-been Jake LaMotta preparing for his sleazy nightclub act in which he declares that, while he is not Olivier, he did face Sugar Ray Robinson four times. At the film’s stunning ending, LaMotta stands in front of a mirror, rehearsing the cab scene from Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), in which a failed boxer berates his brother for having made him take a dive to earn money for gangsters, rather than getting the title shot his talent earned him. We know from watching the last two hours of Raging Bull that the fictional On the Waterfront has taken its story directly from the life of Jake LaMotta, who ruined his career exactly in this way.
Punch for punch, Raging Bull offers art cinema’s challenge to Rocky‘s popularity. While Rocky is shot on grainy color film stock to celebrate the triumph of a hero, Raging Bull is shot in crystal clear black and white to allow Scorsese his usual critique of masculinity as destroyed in cauldrons of violence. As Sugar Ray Robinson nearly beats LaMotta to death during the 13th round of their fourth fight, Scorsese’s camera tracks in close-up down one of the ring’s ropes to find Jake’s chocolate-colored blood dripping in slow motion. Rocky features a triumphalist ending in which the great white hope, while not defeating Apollo Creed, does prove his mettle by going the distance with the great champion. The film concludes with Rocky embracing his wife Adrian, shouting “I did it,” without a dry eye in the house.
Scorsese treats ironically the very same plot circumstance. After LaMotta taunts Robinson to keep hitting him, Jake walks over to his corner and declares, “You never knocked me down, Ray.” In the thirty remaining minutes of the film, Scorsese demonstrates that LaMotta does the knocking down to himself: he loses his fortune and his family to whoring and boozing, ultimately earning a living by performing with a stripper in sleazy bars. If Rocky is a film that believes in the American Dream, Raging Bull studies the underbelly of this nefarious mythology.
Thus, when we watch Grudge Match in anything other than derisive mode, we are not just watching a mildly funny film about two elderly actors clowning around with the conventions of the boxing film. Instead, we are witnessing a deeply important allegory as to what American cinema could and should be. And, against all expectations, Grudge Match finds the beautiful sweet spot between frivolous popular and heady art cinema. Of all things, this is accomplished not by Stallone and DeNiro, who represent the opposing poles, but Kim Basinger. For Basinger represents a completely different 1980s sports film, The Natural, Robert Redford’s popular adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s brilliant novel about the death of the American Dream on the baseball diamond. The combination of Malamud’s depressing novel—in which our hero Roy Hobbs strikes out—and Redford’s film—in which he hits a home run to redeem himself, and in the process shatters the lights in the stadium, bathing the film’s ending in transcendent luminescence—creates the ideal nexus of American culture. The American Dream is the best possibility we have for advancing human possibilities, but it is a possibility that is nearly impossible to achieve.
In The Natural, Basinger plays Memo, the femme fatale, a corrupt woman who seduces Roy Hobbs for the gangsters so that he will throw the final game of the season. In Malamud’s novel, perfect at rubbing salt in the wound, Hobbs decides to swing away to win the game, but because of his crippling injuries, fails while trying his best. Basinger’s role in Grudge Match is the film’s best idea. She plays Sally, a woman with whom Stallone’s character Razor Sharp was deeply in love. Because he trained non-stop for years to beat DeNiro’s Billy the Kid, he effectively abandoned her. In a fit of pique, she sleeps with Billy and gets pregnant. This causes Razor to cancel their rubber match, each having won one fight. As the old men prepare for the deciding bout decades later, Sally makes contact with Razor and apologizes to him. Their reconciliation results in the allegorical resolution to the conflict between Stallone and DeNiro. Via The Natural, Grudge Match proposes to use conventional Hollywood film style to express both the character complexity of Raging Bull and the emotional energy of the popular Hollywood film. And, because Grudge Match is such a quiet film, it manages to deliver the subtleties of art cinema while not sacrificing its emotional tenderness. It is not a great film like Raging Bull, but it leaves us with the optimistic possibility that people can change for the better. It is not a simplistic hero story like Rocky; it understands that every one of its characters is defined by such demons as those who haunt Jake LaMotta. In short, Grudge Match deserves far better than the reception it is getting in movie theatres: My son and I were two-thirds of the audience in a theater with 300 seats. It is a film that demands its audience understand film history; indeed, it contributes reconciliation between the modes of American cinema that foolishly divide us.
– Walter Metz