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Monday, July 9, 2018

Beyond the Canon—Girlfight + Raging Bull


Girlfight courtesy of Screen Gems/Photofest; Raging Bull courtesy of United Artists/Photofest

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature on July 21 pairs Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight (2000, 110min) with Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980, 129min).

By Monica Castillo

If weighing in for a cinematic showdown, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight (2000) would be seen as radically different contenders. Visually, the films are like oil and water. Scorsese mythologized his star boxer’s legacy on black-and-white film—even the blood and sweat pouring down his character’s face look painterly. His is an epic story of a man’s fall from grace. In contrast, Girlfight doubles down on the grimy sheen of a boxing gym. No corner looks like it’s ever been mopped. The walls are punched in or collapsing. The place surely has a caked-in stench of sweat and moldy gym equipment. The film’s color scheme looks as worn and neglected as the gym. Girlfight is the story of a fighter’s journey up the ranks to an uncertain future.

Kusama’s electric debut stars Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman, a scrappy high school girl in Brooklyn whose fists are ready to punch out the anger she doesn’t speak aloud. Her father pays for her brother to box but forbids Diana from pursuing the masculine sport. Hard-headed and determined to put her temper to good use, she pursues boxing despite the sexist assumptions from the men around her.

Raging Bull courtesy of United Artists/Photofest
As the “Bronx Bull” Jake LaMotta, Robert De Niro portrays the career boxer as a man with a desperation to win and a presence that terrorizes people in and out of the ring, including his two wives and brother. After his winning streak ends and problems with the law follow, the former champion is reduced to a bloated shadow of himself entertaining nightclub patrons. His fame and fortune are only memories he dwells on while in his dressing room waiting for his next show. Despite their differences, these two combatants share a raw and volatile energy  on-screen—a look of rage in every close-up, anger sweating out of every pore. Girlfight does a better job of exploring the abusive trajectory of domestic violence, with one set of flying fists leading to the next generation’s volatile problems. In one scene, Diana confronts her abusive father and tells him directly that he “made her this way.” In Raging Bull, LaMotta’s rage towards the women in his life, and eventually his brother, is treated more like a birthmark that’s always been a part of him.

Because boxing is seen as a masculine sport, the two characters’ experiences are inherently socially gendered. Diana could never aspire to have the sustainable—if eventually limited—career LaMotta enjoyed. For her, boxing meant emotional and mental survival; for Jake, it was also a living. Moreover, as a man, neither LaMotta’s anger nor his interest in the sport was ever questioned. His gender allowed him to feel at home in this space instead of fighting just to get into the ring.
Girlfight courtesy of
Screen Gems/Photofest
Yet Diana and Jake are tied together by other threads: their obsessiveness and their outsider statuses. They’re both from working class immigrant families—from the outer boroughs. They externalize their struggles through violence as a means of self-defense and self-preservation. When explaining why she likes fighting, Diana answers, “You’re all you got. You’re all alone in there.”

During fights, the camera doesn’t just capture the scene as a
whole, but focuses on the inner-workings of the fighters. We get
inside their heads, watch time slow down as they calculate their
next moves with shots of their footwork, swinging arms, and quick glances of the crowd. The tension between these moments of slow motion inferiority and the frenetic energy of the match
are conveyed differently by each film, but the effect has equal impact.

Multiple times in Girlfight, several characters bemoan the lack of women boxers and wish for more contenders for Guzman. That line today brings to mind the repeated calls for better inclusion in the entertainment industry. When one of the coaches in the film complains that the gym’s equality efforts have gone too far, his sentiments echo every male dominated sphere resistant to diversity initiatives. Be they artists or boxers, people want an equal shot in their “ring”—especially those who have been kept out of those arenas for generations.

Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Currently, she covers women's news and pop culture stories for The Lily at The Washington Post.

Upcoming Beyond the Canon: August 4—Set It Off (F. Gary Gray, 1996, 124min) + Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975, 125min)

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