Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 17 March 2005
Source MGM DVD
All of Martin Scorsese’s work has been a curious mix of the public and the personal: his (usually male) characters always play out their deep-seated neuroses and frustrated desires in the public arenas of the family, the neighborhood, New York, the world. Even if his latest films feel less intimate than Scorsese’s best work, they nonetheless embody the ambiguities of a man’s effect upon a much larger world, or that world’s effect upon him. Howard Hughes, Travis Bickle, Jesus Christ, and even Scorsese’s own parents (the subjects of his 1974 documentary Italianamerican) each navigate the enormous mechanisms of history, community, religion, Hollywood, or the mafia, or else are crushed under the weight of them.
In this regard, it is a wonder that Scorsese did not immediately recognize Jake La Motta as an ideal subject. Scorsese initially reacted to Robert De Niro’s enthusiasm for the boxer’s autobiography with disinterest, famously wondering what was so interesting about two men in a ring beating each other up. Of course, at some point, the director must have realized the richness of La Motta’s character, that of a man whose entire life was defined by antagonism and competition, a man whose whole world was a public arena.
At the beginning and end of the film, as a humbled and obese shade of his former self, La Motta reminds us, “That’s entertainment!” Indeed, the spectacle of La Motta’s life as well as the sports-world’s persistent complication of his personal ambition and public performance provide Raging Bull’s drama. As a result, La Motta’s world is all but entirely masculine: his close relationship with his brother, his bouts with other men in the ring, and his negotiations with gambling racketeers and boxing officials. For this reason, it is perhaps fitting (if terribly depressing) that the film gives neither of La Motta’s wives much attention. For the film’s purposes, Jake’s extreme paranoia and physical and mental abuse of Vicki is an entirely masculine affair, an indication of his sexual insecurity and complete clumsiness with all aspects of his personal life.
These inner struggles dovetail with La Motta’s performance in the ring, and the film’s artful, seemingly improvisatory construction serves to juxtapose these two worlds: the intimate, naturalistic domestic world and the smoky, expressionistic world of the boxing ring. At home and in the neighborhood, La Motta’s life veers from a fraught silence (marked by Vicki’s chilly insouciance) and explosive quarrels and recriminations straight out of Rocco and His Brothers (though with perhaps more yelling). In particular, La Motta’s interactions with his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) reveal the character’s deep insecurities and paranoia.
Interspersed with these scenes are La Motta’s fights, visions of hell more operatic and extreme than those of the domestic space. Here, Scorsese and his cameraman, Michael Chapman, employ every camera trick at their disposal (crane shots, steadicam, changing camera speed in mid-shot, and so on) to portray the blood and brutality inside the boxing ring. Announcers chatter incessantly, fights erupt in the audience, blood drips from the ropes and splashes the crowd, and there are the constant sounds of animals and punches mixed with those of the flashbulbs from the inky blackness of the arena. Everything about the film’s boxing scenes serves to emphasize the plasticity of the space, its thoroughly artificial, performed nature. The fluid ballet of the boxing ring is the “stage where this bull here can rage,” contrasting with the ugly naturalism of La Motta’s home life.
However, these two conflicting elements of the film never seem jarring or forced together, as they are skillfully intertwined by Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Similarly, De Niro’s legendary performance (astonishing not least for his gaining 60 pounds during filming) firmly holds the film together, virtually mesmerizing the viewer with intensity, pathos, and even innocence. The character that he embodies is far too expansive to be a mere impersonation of a well-known boxer. Like all of Scorsese’s historical films and biopics, Raging Bull is less about accurately representing a given period or figure and more about the deeply subjective perceptions of the individual. Scorsese’s view of history is heightened and very stylized, filtered through the skewed vision of his subjects and through his own conception of the world of cinema.
Perhaps it is for this reason that Scorsese’s latest films—grandiose Hollywood operettas of magical artifice and cursory historiography—bear a greater superficial resemblance to those of Spielberg and Lucas than to any others of his contemporaries. For some, this represents the sad downfall of a director who (perhaps more than any of his generation) has held fast to his independence and idiosyncrasies. But even if such a claim were true, Scorsese’s place in cinema history is entrenched, not only for a handful of recognized masterpieces (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and certainly Raging Bull) and a fascinating assortment of underrated minor classics (After Hours, The Age of Innocence, and Kundun, among others), but also for his unrivalled cinephilia and dedication to film preservation. His famously (and occasionally overbearing) encyclopedic knowledge of the cinema has informed several generations of filmgoers and filmmakers, and one needn’t look further than Wong Kar-Wai, Tarantino, John Woo, and Spike Lee to prove it. If his recent films seem curious and possibly empty exercises in the modern epic (or else casualties of a corruptive and backbiting studio system), Scorsese’s legacy will certainly withstand them.