Stark, beautiful and shot in black and white, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is now regarded by many as the greatest film of the 80s. Yet when it was released in 1980 it was criticised for being about a totally unsympathetic character: the boxer Jake La Motta, a brutal and violent man whose only capacity was for taking punishment. It almost didn’t get financed because one MGM executive thought La Motta was “a cockroach”.
How could anyone question how Scorsese would handle a character like this? Raging Bull is the third film in a trilogy, along with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, in each of which Scorsese presents an alienated misfit protagonist who can only express his rage and frustration through violence.
In Mean Streets Johnny Boy puts a bomb in a mailbox and fires a gun from a roof. In Taxi Driver, Travis transforms himself into an armed terrorist. In Raging Bull, Jake La Motta fights everyone, in and out of the boxing ring. All three characters are suicidal, an intent which reveals itself physically in Johnny Boy’s eccentric movements, in Travis’s paramilitary preparations and Mohawk haircut, and most astonishingly in Jake La Motta’s obesity.
When I first saw the film, I was completely fascinated by Robert De Niro’s gaining more than 100 lbs for his role. I’d never seen anything like it. De Niro had stepped beyond illusion. His breathing became short, his thighs rubbed together, his huge belly hung over his pants. He became a different person.
Scorsese says his decision just to frame the film with the older La Motta (instead of using flashbacks throughout) was because the “thin guy and the fat guy” seemed to be two different characters. I was fascinated with this fat guy for a personal reason. I grew up with an obese father and the domestic violence in Raging Bull could have been from my life. I remember arguments where he dumped a full salad bowl over my mother’s head, or kicked his way through doors. But our family life was catalogued by colour home movies filled with smiling faces, just like the home movies in Raging Bull.
Through La Motta, I began to understand my father (a stockbroker). Both men were guilty and ambivalent about sex. Their insecure masculinity led them to wall themselves in with fat as a desexualised protection against their own violence. My father had a doctorate in economics, yet he was totally inarticulate about his emotions.
Outside the boxing ring, Scorsese’s young Jake is similarly inarticulate, driven by powerful emotions that he can only express through spontaneous explosions of violence. A demand for dinner from his first wife quickly escalates; Jake flings the food over the kitchen table and storms out. His frustration at being cursed with small hands (welterweight size), a fact which makes him ineligible to fight the great heavyweight Joe Louis, causes a fist fight with his brother. After he marries his second wife Vicky, every jealous thought leads to a slap or a beating.
In the ring, however, Jake is a poet of feelings he can’t explore elsewhere. He’s a good Catholic boy who avoids the ultimate form of religious expression – confession – but who ‘confesses’ in the ring instead. Only there can this man, who finds it impossible to apologise or make amends to the people he hurts, expiate his guilt. He explains to his trainer that his first defeat by Sugar Ray Robinson was punishment for bad things he’d done in his life.
Jake’s pleasure in being punched is redemptive, but it’s also a form of sexual masochism. He goes beyond the old boxing tradition in which athletes avoid depleting themselves through sex before competition. He prefers consummation through blood. He needs release in the ring, since he feels unworthy of attaining it with the blonde goddess he’s won.
Traversing between Jake’s frustrated emotions outside the ring and their operatic expression inside, the film explores Jake’s violence from the perspective of those on the receiving end. We are in the bathroom with Vicki when Jake kicks in the door, and with his brother Joey when Jake storms into his kitchen and beats him up. During the boxing matches, however, Scorsese puts the camera inside the ring subjectively with Jake, making us identify with the loneliness, the triumph, the horror and the eloquence of this kind of violence.
Jake loses his title. His self-destructiveness triumphs. He spirals down to the lower depths: sleeping with under-age girls, gaining weight, ending up in jail banging his head against the wall crying “I am not an animal”. For the first time outside the ring, Jake articulates his problem and transcends it.
His rendition of the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront is delivered flatly, but it articulates all his sorrow and shame. It’s borrowed speech, but it’s entirely expressive, entirely personalised, and he is entirely redeemed by it.
In 1982, two years after Raging Bull was released, my father lost all his money in the stock market and jumped out of a window. I don’t know if he ever saw the film.
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