Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)



The ambivalent reaction I felt upon first seeing Raging Bull in 2004 has managed to linger in my memory as a kind of general malaise that snowballed into greater and greater suspicion about the movie’s actual thrust and merit (a sensation I experienced much more strongly with the same director’s Taxi Driver). Nothing, though, could have prepared me for how violently I would react upon screening the film a second time for the AFI 100 project this week. No idea what made me forget how horrendously nasty and pointlessly brutal Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus is; maybe I blocked it out. The parts of me that didn’t check out emotionally after ten minutes of watching Jake La Motta (ballooning bonehead Robert De Niro) berate his wife and throw things and experience Catharsis in the boxing ring were left hating humanity for allowing the movie to exist, hating myself for not turning it off. If a movie this well-regarded has the power to make me question so intensely whether I really want to do this at all, we’re in for a long hard road.

Raging Bull is a technical marvel, of course; it’s well-photographed and ingeniously edited, two things I noticed immediately upon first seeing it. Those positive impressions haven’t changed, of course, and they are considerable — the balletic blocking and staging of the fight scenes is quite fascinating in a certain calculated manner. Narratively, though, the thing is feeble beyond belief, and finally desperate to wring meaning out of the journey of the man at its center. Like many movies centered around sports figures, its chief problem is it’s a story with little illumination and dimension to offer: a man’s sort-of-stratospheric rise and stumble back down to earth, with a lot of bitching and whining and banging heads against walls along the way. The man in this case is Jake La Motta, who was the Middleweight Champion of the World for a little while, then he wasn’t. Then his wife left him, and one time he went to jail and cried. Years later, he played at nightclubs.

The structure is facile, opening with the non-event of La Motta rehearsing for an awkward recitation at a comedy(-ish) show. After a whole lot of loud business, the film doesn’t go much of anywhere and reveals nothing by its conclusion that its initial ten minutes didn’t make abundantly clear. La Motta doesn’t change as a human being; his condition only changes in the sense that at one point people are willing to tolerate his rampant violence and emotional immaturity, and eventually they’re not anymore; he only struggles with how the world around him falls short of his empty-headed, myopic desire for everything to operate on his terms. The guy’s an asshole, poorly drawn by the film and especially by the team of screenwriters led by Paul Schrader, and we have no empathy or understanding of him. Martin Scorsese thinks this all says something interesting, and I suppose you can read a fair bit into it, but what’s here is dull on the rare occasion that it’s not extremely annoying.

Maybe no element of the praise afforded this movie is as incomprehensible as that dedicated to the writing, the dialogue; it’s primarily devoted to arguments about steak and carrots, macho pissing contests about the “breaking” of “balls,” and of course, the legendary scene in which as De Niro repairs a TV set he confronts his brother (Joe Pesci) on the matter of his hearing of “things” about a fight the latter had some time earlier. “I’ve heard things,” he bellows. Asked what “things,” he can only respond that they were, indeed, “things.” Director and writers all seem to relish the dramatization of La Motta’s violent streak (if they don’t exactly promote it), which is blatantly evil — no metaphoric power about it, nothing “universal,” he’s a wife beater, a jealous dog. I don’t give a flying fuck if he felt powerful and free and great in the boxing ring.

Raging Bull is positioned as a Big Statement — and a part of that is, of course, the complete sexist disregard among its chief characters, whose directions we’re supposed to have some investment in, for all of the women in their lives. Because it’s all an expression and an explication of Masculinity, of wronged-male needs and lashing out, of growing up and having it all and losing it. Much is made of the idea that this story is deep down — and it has to be deep down, because on the surface it’s not about anything; there’s no climax aside from a man breaking down crying and banging his head — about “redemption.” That’s it, the redemption of a man who realizes the extent of what he’s fucked up in life. The problem is that there’s no significant depth to the character for a redemption to be earned; he’s a stereotype depicted with stark and direct precision, and slightly decorated with the actor’s various personal embellishments. There’s no start or end to his cruelty, so what do we care about what he “realizes” or “learns” about himself? Or how he ultimately matures, which we’re given no reason to believe he does?

Scorsese doesn’t give his audience much to discover or interpret, hitting us over the head with his constant and terribly unsubtle religious and sexual symbolism, a set of motifs that really provide the only real impressionistic verve to be found here. Because otherwise, he’s attempting to make us believe La Motta is a complex character; he’s not, he’s terribly simple, but because the movie treats him otherwise it feels that much emptier. The only room for psychological analysis is really that of the director himself, since the script is basically artless. You get three distinct possibilities for why Scorsese lingers so obsessively lovingly over La Motta’s battery of those he loves and destruction of all of his adult relationships:

– Scorsese is enraptured by La Motta’s awful display of unfettered barbaric masculinity, which makes this glorified action-boy porn.
– Scorsese is disgusted by and loathes La Motta’s awful display of unfettered barbaric masculinity but wants us to watch it for hours, which makes this a scold.
– Scorsese feels nothing either way about La Motta and is just presenting him as-is, a catalog of scenes illustrating a rather empty thesis since he’s not much of a character. Given the other Scorsese films I’ve seen, I see this as the most likely scenario.

No one would dare dispute that Robert De Niro put a good deal of work into his performance, that Cathy Moriarty accepts her monstrous fate, or that Joe Pesci approaches his brutish role with some degree of welcome naturalism. None of them can make the barking back and forth of these people interesting, and De Niro’s bravura showcase is largely just Method excess; it’s impressive that he put on weight to play the “fat and old” version of La Motta, but is that really “acting” or is it a gimmicky stunt? Great Acting is defined by movies like Raging Bull (and The Godfather, come to think of it) as a lot of bombastic outbursts, a Kirk Douglas performance — nay, Performance — with a window dressing of faux-realism, except that Douglas really seemed to want us to care about those he portrayed. The actors themselves are helpless when the real protagonist is Scorsese and Michael Chapman’s conspicuously pretty camerawork; the contradiction in all of the director’s major works is a collision of fluidity and intrusion, and this seems the quintessential example save Goodfellas, the fight scenes (in and out of the ring) in particular.

There’s so much about the film that’s ingenious in a cerebral fashion — Scorsese loves cinema with a passion most of us can’t even understand, but he doesn’t give us much to pore over when examining ourselves, unless he just wants us to look at our own reactions to all this brutality, in which case the barren, hopeless feeling that results isn’t instructive. Regarded as a film that truly worms its way into the male mind and sets up camp in its disgusting recesses, Raging Bull isn’t any model of “subjective” cinema. It’s a cold and detached maze for an angry lab rat, a playground of supposed psychological exploration with nothing to really prove or disprove.

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