I watched it the other night, before the discussion of American Beauty broke out. The main images that stuck with me the next day were the two I posted, of the Raging Bull’s Nemesis Sugar Ray Robinson closing in for the knockout. Seen from the Bull’s POV after having been beaten up thoroughly, Sugar Ray is luminous, almost daemonic in his power and violence. From a contemporary interpretive context we could say that Sugar Ray is the viewer, the real Raging Bull taking our pleasure in witnessing the violence done by, and done to, the Bull.
In this film we see the Bull repeating the same behavior patterns again and again, with never any insight into the cause ever dawning on the Bull, nor is it ever revealed to the audience. I found this useful when considering the truth-versus-bullshit value of fiction. We have no way of knowing first of all whether this biopic accurately depicts the real-life subject of the film, Jake LaMotta — who almost miraculously is still alive and alert at age 90. But even if it accurately shows facts from LaMotta’s life, including his violence and jealousy and so on, without any attempt to explain or interpret it, does this count as truth or just reportage? So I’m thinking about it a bit.
It came to mind while I was typing, so I’m not wedded to the idea. But “old post-modernistic” wasn’t that old for 1980. I think, though, it’s that occasionally we’re given a glimpse of the world through Jake’s eyes, in the context of a fight, in which everything moves in slow motion and is illuminated in the unworldly glare of the arena. It’s often said that top athletes find that the game slows down for them. If we were being given a Haneke reflexive scene here we’d be watching not Sugar Ray but rather the audience, drooling and cheering as they’re spattered with Jake’s blood. To the contrary in this film though: the audience is shown recoiling and revolted as they witness this violent scene.
No, I’m retracting my initial PoMo suggestion that Ray is a stand-in for the film viewer who’s out for blood. I don’t believe that’s what Scorsese had in mind. I have nothing important to say about this movie. I found myself unmoved by it, to tell you the truth. This image of Ray stuck with me, so I put it up. The film is mostly a chronicle of Jake’s jealousy over his wife, interspersed with graphic fight scenes. It’s all about the big physical and emotional explosions, rather repetitive really, almost monotonous, as if the viewer is being subjected to 10 rounds of punches to the face and stomach that eventually wear you down. Well crafted and well acted, but not particularly engaging emotionally or thought-provoking.
Tomorrow or the next day I’ll put up clips from a movie that I found both more entertaining and more interesting.
I think this film is De Niro’s finest bit of acting. This might be Pesci’s best role as well. After Goodfellas, he was more or less typecast as the out-of-control, psychotic mobster. In this movie he’s more of the voice of reason, trying to talk sense into his brother. The brotherly dynamic between the two of them is very believable as well. The woman who plays De Niro’s second wife, the blonde, is also brilliant.
As for the directing, Scorcese’s pacing and cinematography are characteristically flawless. He is able to pull off the period piece as well as any other director I’ve seen. All the different times depicted feel real and distinct. He was able to do this later in Goodfellas and Gangs of New York (a film marred by DiCaprio’s underwhelming performance and the needless Cameron Diaz role).
I regard Raging Bull as a standout example of a biographical film. It is not exceptionally profound in any sort of philosophical sense. In terms of the film’s themes, I would probably identify the main elements as fraternity, the relationship between two brothers; blind, dumb rage; and an almost Othello-esque jealousy embodied by La Motta.
Thanks presenting your review, Ross, which I believe accurately captures the expert consensus. I agree. Certainly I admired the filmmaking and the performances. The themes are classic, as you observe, or even timeless. Maybe it’s this archetypal depiction of a real human that I should allow to draw my interest and engagement.
There’s a scene near the end where Jake, having just been thrown into a prison’s solitary confinement, begins banging his head against the cell wall. Why why why, he rages; I’m not an animal. Now I suppose this could be taken as the central insight of the film, or rather the central lack of insight. Throughout the whole movie, watching the rage and jealousy erupt again and again, with inevitable consequences that ensue, I repeatedly am left wondering why. Scorsese gives us no psychological insights into unique motivations or scarring experiences in childhood. Jake is left as clueless as the viewer. We could depict this movie as an allegory for capitalism and so on, with individual agency always diverted and destroyed by competition, but that doesn’t seem true to the story as told. In keeping with Scorsese’s body of work we can see Jake as an embodiment of the inner-city immigrant culture of fraternity, rage, and jealousy, and I think that’s the case, but the depiction offers no explanation.
This film depicts events in the life of a real man, someone who is still alive and who can confirm or refute elements in the story. Yet the film is presented in classical terms, as if Jake were a kind of tragic hero. The details of his personality or motivations fade into the background. The events of his life — fighting his way up the ladder, wooing and losing the girl, loving and alienating the brother, collaborating with criminals, winning the title, the fall into obscurity — are stereotypical, and could apply to practically any boxer, real or imaginary. Rocky, which preceded Raging Bull by 4 years, deploys many of the same story elements but ends happily. The title implies that what we’re seeing are the raw instincts of the human animal, which when stripped of biographical details are almost numbingly monotonous and predictable. But I’m not an animal, Jake insists, and the classical context suggests that he’s right. He is a hero, an archetype, a demiurge, a pure embodiment of some titanic ideal that’s more than human, that hearkens back to a primal glorious age that precedes the merely-human. He is a carrier of primal qualities, and so he is a lightning rod for inescapable Fate. I think this interpretive framework is closer to what resides inside the film itself: the tragedy of the human caught between the beasts and the gods, between blind instinct and heroic destiny.