A bull never stops fighting long enough to learn why it fights. It lives in a world of suspicion and fear, of blood and sweat and terrible shadows. Everyone is against it. It keeps nothing, even and especially what it has. It pounds against walls in all directions and never budges an inch. Even if it breaks down and gives up, the walls remain.
Raging Bull is about such a bull who defected into being a man, as the Greek gods did to defile unsuspecting princesses. It’s about him more than any movie has a right to be. People may talk of his objectification of women, though true, but what in his life is not objectified? He sees the true value in nothing, least of all in himself. He sees only obstacles. People may say that the central character is not developed. Why? Is it because he has no internal self, because he speaks only in bullet fragments of primal anxiety, because he can beat anyone and yet overcome nothing, least of all himself? The absence of his beating heart is as much development as we could ever need. He is the blunt force of a traumatic psyche, railing against a world without any knowledge of how to get ahead in it. The old saying goes that when the unstoppable force and immovable object meet, they surrender. Well here is the force and object in one man, called Jake LaMotta. The problem with LaMotta is not that he can be stopped or moved – he lacks no will or power necessary to complete any quest, if he could only choose one – but that even though he is his only enemy, he is incapable of surrender.
The boxing commission demands that he “dive,” a word pampered out of its hatred to mean as inoffensively as possible that the mob wants him to fix the bets by throwing the fight. If he makes it look good, he might be lucky enough to fight for his title: that thing that boxing movies care so much about. But Raging Bull isn’t a boxing movie. He wins the title fight in seconds, without trying. He looks bored, winning on a technicality. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go, in the movies.
It’s much more important that when asked to throw the fight, he can’t do it. He wanted to get this chance on his own, without the commissions and the bribes and the mobs. He gives in, but he can’t surrender. He struts out of the ring, helping his opponent back on his feet after a pulled punch, debilitating himself in the locker room for his incapacity to be weak. The bull cries his eyes out, not when his wives leave him or his life descends into a hell of meaningless obscurity, but when he throws this fight, because backing down was the one thing he promised himself he would never do.
LaMotta doesn’t fight anyone in the ring, in this supposed boxing movie. Jinero and Fox and Robinson show up, but they’re not his opponents. He doesn’t notice them. Rocky trained by punching frozen meat – LaMotta doesn’t have to, when everyone is meat to him already. His soliloquy in the barroom mirror that bookends the film is the key: his only opponent is himself.
His fighting transforms into an image of his life. When he is self-conscious of his manhood, his fights turn mythic with their willing brutality. He lets his opponents beat him until his blood is spurting, until the ropes are soaked in himself, and he lets them win the fight. But what of the fight in his head? “Couldn’t knock me down, Ray,” he brags, eyes too swollen to see the tarp, staggering. If art is a concrete representation of how the artist views the world, the fights are LaMotta’s art. He sees the world in terms of singular encounters against enemies he has to fight alone, without even knowing why he fights. Everything is a battle. He’s psychopathically opposed to letting his wife go out, and then he’s apologetic when he fears that she’ll leave him. His values are not based on love or anything endurable, but on the battles of the moment. When she calls another boxer “good-looking” he becomes drenched in jealous shadows. He slaps her around. Where does she get off saying that? She lets him rule his universe. Jake might have been the boxer but Vickie LaMotta (Cathy Moriarty) must have been more the fighter at times. History should never be so intimidated by the horns to forget the matador that braved them so well and for so long. Scorsese does not forget – Moriarty is a triumph.
Thelma Schoonmaker took home the Oscar for editing and the fights testify to it: there is no method to these matches, no information on boxing, only adrenal pounding and desperate fear. Schoonmaker dredges the matches in momentary flashes of primeval instinct. When LaMotta feels suspicious of his wife, his opponents become dramatically-lit monstrosities shrouded in smoke and slow motion and shadow. His fights are pictures of his psyche. When he feels weak, he himself becomes the monster, letting them beat him until they tire of it and then destroying them, as though their inability to beat him when he allows it saps them of their testosterone and fuels his own. There's one shot particularly in LaMotta's last fight with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) that would go on a shortlist of the best that film can offer at using the camera to describe a character's state of mind. The camera simultaneously zooms out and dollies in on Robinson, whose figure seems to remain eerily stationary while the crowd in the background falls away. It is what the battered LaMotta must be seeing: a monster that threatens his drunken state of manly self-oppression. When he later meets the good-looking boxer in the ring, he beats him until his nose is hanging off his face, until his eyebrows schism with blood and skin. “Well he ain’t beautiful no more,” a judge says with vast coolness. LaMotta doesn’t even look at the meat throttling on the tarp. He doesn’t take his eyes off Vickie the entire time.
The scene is a concrete demonstration of LaMotta’s psychology. Another film would settle for showing off a theme more obviously – there’s a similar scene of a much lower IQ in Fight Club (“I just wanted to destroy something beautiful”), a film that displays masculinity not as the self-destructive impulses of a man caught up in the current of his own life, but of a consciously vampiric hatred of all life. It is so much less poetic than Raging Bull, because it is so much more impudent.
Fight Club is a nihilistic film, while Raging Bull is not. Scorsese’s people are defaced by a valueless man but its world is not without value. That is what makes it tragic. Shakespeare’s villainous war heroes and would-be lovers were always battling a tragic flaw, which made their character destined to self-succumb in a world that deserved better. LaMotta lived such a drama, at the expense of a hot-tempered brother who happens to love him and a wife that wanted to. If Macbeth had been caught instead of killed for the murder of his king, he too would have pounded bare fists on the concrete wall of his cell, screaming “Why, why, why, why, why?!” When others make movies like this, everyone becomes Macbeth.
Jake’s brother Joey (Joe Pesci) is LaMotta’s alter ego, whose style of retaliation is angrier and lower to the ground. Someone pisses him off and he crushes him in a car door (Tarantino borrowed this, as he does, for Kill Bill Vol. 1). But someone does actually have to piss him off, where LaMotta sees nothing in his world but offenses, in glances that Schoonmaker cuts to reflect his elongated moments of sexual suspicion. Joey, importantly, is not confident in his sexuality necessarily: he just doesn’t have to prove it all the time. LaMotta is driven to beat women by his fear of them, and driven to beat his opponents by the same fear. When he only has to deal with the physical strength of other men, he’s indestructible. Yet as a lover and a man, he hates himself so much that any woman’s desire to sleep with him is automatic proof that they’re untrustworthy.
Someone once told me that you will know the quality of a man by looking at his lover. I don’t think this is true: I think you will know the quality of a man by looking at how he looks at his lover. When LaMotta sees Vickie for the first time, he sees a starlet of his era, a fifteen-year-old girl in stunning bathers and unsympathetic glances – you know that she knows the score. She knows it so much and LaMotta advances so clumsily that in the beginning, Moriarty plays so much maturity into her that she seems to vamp him, before his aggressive suspicions take hold. She is a possession to him, though he doesn’t fear to lose her (he could kill her any moment, or dump her himself). He fears to be left, to be defeated, to be cheated on – to have his manhood hurt. A montage mid-film shows their home videos in color. They are happy, in this reminder that the world is actually a colorful place in contrast to the one LaMotta sees, which could only be portrayed in black and white. But even when they make love, the paradox of LaMotta’s rage remains: the fact that she would love a monster like him, makes her unworthy of his trust. He considers killing her not because she offends him, but because of how much offending him proves that he doesn’t deserve her.
This is the performance of De Niro’s life (and Schoonmaker’s, and screenwriter Paul Schraeder’s, and Scorsese’s). De Niro looks raw and weathered. He trounces around his many apartments, which don't seem any different no matter how trashy or decadent: he has a way of leveling his surroundings. He would not be laid barer by the performance if he was an ancient Greek performing in the nude. And in that time, they would have gotten this story completely. It contains nothing more timely than human nature – that’s how close to the bone LaMotta lived, in the history of anger, suspicion, and jealousy, of which Raging Bull is as much an anthem as Apocalypse Now was an anthem to power or 2001: A Space Odyssey to intellect. It could be a fable of the whole human struggle, of the masculine complex, of the animal psyche in the man. If future generations forget all the history that you can't get from movies, there's no way they'll consider that Jake LaMotta could have been real.
De Niro doesn’t just gain weight for the present-day segments: he becomes heavy. Nothing LaMotta lacked in spirit could stop him from winning a battle that only required his fists, but in his life he became the sad commentator of other people’s idea of him (he continues to be so as the subject of a film that isolates his most debilitating flaws, rather than his athletic achievements). His story as told by Scorsese unsheathes the man, and yet reveals no sympathy. Yet I wonder if we can find any peace in the notion that the most poetically just ending possible for such a man could not change him. To my knowledge, I don’t think LaMotta ever did get knocked down. And yet I wouldn’t be surprised if he consulted on Raging Bull to pay his rent.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Paul Schrader (screenplay)
Mardik Martin (screenplay)
Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage (book)
|Jake LaMotta||Robert De Niro|
|Joey LaMotta||Joe Pesci|
|Vickie LaMotta||Cathy Moriarty|
|Tommy Como||Nicholas Colasanto|
|Lenora LaMotta||Theresa Saldana|
|Salvy Batts||Frank Vincent|
|Sugar Ray Robinson||Johnny Barnes|