Scorsese: Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull may be the film where Martin Scorsese’s camera digs deepest beneath the skin of his characters, and most insinutates itself into their proprioceptive purview. It’s an eccentric biopic of Jake LaMotta, an American middleweight boxer who was world champion in his division between 1949 and 1951. Scorsese’s film traces his rise, his peak, and then his decline into a life of stand-up comedy, foreshadowing The King of Comedy, his next collaboration with Robert De Niro, who also plays LaMotta here. Paul Schrader’s screenplay unfolds episodically, outlining one discrete and aphoristic event after another, intercut with highly choreographed boxing sequences, all of it gorgeously rendered in black and white by cinematographer Michael Chapman. The result is both Scorsese’s lushest and most austere film, his most refined and his most deranged, and the pinnacle of his New Hollywood period.

More specifically, Raging Bull plays as a tribute to the flamboyant aggression of Italian-American me; to the fluidity of an Italian-American public sphere that massages and mediates them for the outside world; and to the angularity with which these men hit back in turn against their community’s drive to endear itself to Anglo-American culture. The film thus occupies a Moebius strip of assimilation and exception, sociability and antisociality, reflecting a time in American cinema when Italian-American drama was poised on the very cusp between indie provocation and a recognisable brand, a marketable commodity, a simulation of itself. To make matters more complicated, Scorsese seems prescient that reaching for Mafia tropes to achieve authenticity may actually hasten this slide into simulation, so drastically had these tropes entered the general American consciousness during the New Hollywood 70s. In response, he sets himself the fractured task of celebrating both the cushioning textures of the Italian-American community and the men who railed against them.

To that end, Schrader and Scorsese ensure that DeNiro’s LaMotta is always a little too alien, brutal and unpalatable to be fully redeemed as a film character, or as a mediagenic emblem of Italian-Americans more generally. LaMotta is very emphatically not a personality boxer in the tradition of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson or George Foreman, and while the film finds a certain beauty in his brutality, that brutality also cuts against the beauty of the film. That all makes for possibly Scorsese’s most dynamic film, as he alternates between placing LaMotta at the centre of the action, and withdrawing our empathy for him, without ever quite turning him into an antihero either. Rather than rejecting the label of the “good” Italian-American altogether by devolving into Mafia cliches, or parlaying his antisocial behaviour into a cohesive media persona, LaMotta spends the last part of his career caught in a bathetic and banal space between his personality and his star image – first, as a denuded television icon, and then as a B-grade raconteur who eventually ends up doing bit parts in a seedy dive bar.

Before we reach this point, however, Scorsese imbues LaMotta, and the film, with a radically estranging volatility. Most of the compositions are very tight, with the camera staying as close to the action as a boxer would to his target, giving the impression that the characters are perpetually in combative proximity to one another. As a middleweight longing to be a heavyweight, LaMotta always feels too small for the space he’s occupying, just as he laments the fact that he has small hands, girl’s hands: “No matter how big I get, I’m never going to fight Joe Louis.” The boxing ring becomes a symbol for all the factors that make LaMotta feel cramped, trapped, boxed in – and these extend to his sexual relationships too, since it emerges that he is largely impotent, unable to achieve his full girth even in the bedroom. Most of the key romantic moments thus play out in claustrophobic spaces, whether it’s the tiny corridor of the apartment where he lives with his first wife, the putt putt course where he takes his second wife, or the crowded hotel booth where we first see his insane jealousy.

Since the boxing ring is too small for LaMotta’s ambition, its energy and volatility spills over into the rest of the film, starting with the extraordinary opening sequence, in which a regulation fight cascades into a free-for-all that sees miniature punch-ups erupt in the crowd, before large pieces of furniture are thrown and a woman is almost trampled to death. That intensity continues straight into the first scene between LaMotta and his wife Irma, played by Lori Ann Flax, a hysterical fight over soup stock that ends with him turning over a table, shoving her out of the kitchen, and yelling abuse down their tiny corridor before she throws glasses and plates out the dining room window when he emerges on the street below. In a futile attempt to contain this aggression, LaMotta asks his brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, to punch him in the face, repeatedly, with more force each time. Joey hesitates until Jake slaps him in the face and impugns his sexuality, part of a continuous, low-level, almost ambient anxiety about being gay that suffuses the film as the motor engine of its insane rage.  

Nevertheless, this volatility and violence is offset by the fluidity and liquidity of the Italian-American public sphere, which typically makes itself felt in and around sensuous depictions of water. We first glimpse this public sphere at the swimming pool where Jake himself glimpses his second wife, Vickie, played by Cathy Moriarty. As Jake sets eyes on Vickie, the dialogue is gradually overtaken by the ambient noise of the pool, the ebbs and flows of its Italian-American denizens, while the camera indulges in a long languorous pan down her leg to her foot as it gently brushes the surface of the water. The same fusion of liquidity and public ambience occurs when Jake and Vickie sleep together for the first time, except that water now takes on a series of more alchemical transfigurations. Plaintive Italian song breaks through from the street outside as Vickie licks Jake’s chest, before he stops, midway through, to apply ice to the wounds that are still raw from the night before. The scene builds to a beautiful shot of Jake’s hand resting in a bucket of icy water, in an echo of the pan down Vickie’s leg, and blooms into the only coloured sequence of the film – the Super 8 centrepiece that condenses Jake and Vickie’s marriage to them learning to dance beside a swimming pool.

Raging Bull thus oscillates between volatility and placidity, between the comforting contours of the Italian-American public sphere and the spiky bursts of macho energy that prevent it quite congealing into an assimilable and marketable commodity. Nowhere is that clearer than in the figure of Joey, and the presence of Pesci, who both plays the voice of moderation to Jake (which is weird to see given Pesci’s later performances) but who is also responsible for the single most dramatic act of violence in the film. Upon suspecting that a Mafia goon is having an affair with Vickie, Joey breaks a glass over his face, smashes him with a metal pipe, and then repeatedly slams his head in the door of a car. It takes a supreme gesture of Mafioso liquidity to counter this outburst, and for a moment this becomes synonymous with the textures of the film itself, as Joey’s rage gives way to trickling classical music, then a beautiful shot of rain falling outside the club where it went down, and finally an even more lavish shot of water boiling in a teapot, which turns out to be our establishing shot to the sitdown in which the head of the Mafia organises a rapprochement between Joey and the guy he beat up. Ultra-violence gives way to poetic liquidity which gives way to reconciliation, and yet this is also absorbed back into the more distributed violence of the Mafia, along with the violence of a studio system that has turned even the edgiest Mafia archetypes into empty simulacra.

Rather than resolving the voilatility of the film, then, this liquidity becomes contaminated by contacting it, overwhelming both Jake and Joey with a nascent Italian-American image culture that doesn’t have room for them. Following the sitdown with the Mafia, Joey runs through the heaviest storm in the film, and then huddles with Jake in the door of the pool as the rain pours down in front of the camera, obscuring their dialogue at this critical moment in the narrative. The liquidity of the Italian-American public sphere that might have once contoured Jake and Joey now occludes them, and is distilled directly into Jake’s flow of tears a few beats later, when he submits entirely to the Mafioso media machine by throwing a critical fight to ensure he has a chance at the big time later in his career. At this moment, Jake becomes an image, a prop, a puppet, and the fluid motifs of the film are reframed as figures of his grief.

Accordingly, from hereon out, the watery textures of Raging Bull are clouded, distorted and perverted. This partly occurs as the emergence of televisual textures into Scorsese and Chapman’s ultra-cinematic visual field, starting with a major argument that occurs when Jake pressures Joey to tell him exactly why he became so enraged at the prospect of Vickie cheating him, wondering whether Joey himself might have been sleeping with her as well. During this scene, the two brothers are setting up a television, and their fractious escalations bleed into the static that flickers across the box, which remains unconnected at the end of the argument. Meanwhile, LaMotta’s fights become more brutal and ungainly, and the cinematography less poetic, culminating with the final showdown with Sugar Ray. Here, the crystalline waters of the swimming pool are deformed into waves of blood, spit and sweat that scatter in an abject mess across the ring, and while the trainers try to revive LaMotta by puring water over his prostrate body, the liquid is more like an oil slick, making it look like he’s being doused in petrol for some imminent conflagration. The sequence ends with this decayed liquidity being translated straight back into televisual texture, as Scorsese pulls out to a grainy shot of LaMotta’s defeat crowned by an advertisement for Pabst Beer, the last and most depressing iteration of the liquids that have meandered their way throughout the film. With the fluids of Raging Bull, and the Italian-American sphere they represent, inextricably contaminated by the dual image machines of big business and the Italian Mafia, LaMotta succumbs to Sugar Ray, accepting punch after punch until he is disfigured beyond recognition.

For the briefest of beats this disfiguration seems extreme enough to induce transfiguration, imbuing LaMotta with the resonance of a religious icon as he waits for the beneficence of the film’s liquid flows to redeem him. The smokey cinematography does indeed recur now, but it’s dissociated from LaMotta, who is inextricably trapped in the grit and grain of his mediatised self. When we next see him, it’s in 1956, in a new career as a raconteur-manager in a nightclub that he has purchased in Miami. Finally, he has time and space to expand into his full self, but this late in his career it only produces a corpulence that increases with each passing year. He glimpses the sublime fluidity that contoured his youth in one last dazzling display of liquid light, in the form of a castle of champagne glasses that he pours backstage, all the while taking mock jabs at it like he’s back in the boxing ring. But this exquisite light display, the apex of Chapman’s cinematography, is ruptured by the flat blank heat of Florida, as Jake is interrupted by a messenger who tells him that Vickie is waiting in the parking lot. When he steps outside, the perpetual nocturne of the nighclub evaporates into brutal glare, as Vickie tells him she is leaving him, is taking the kids, and will use a lawyer if he fights her.

The last part of the film follows LaMotta as he sinks further and further from his former greatness, in a catalogue of all the ways in which the primal vitality of Italian-American masculinity can be compromised in its encounter with American consumerism. It’s hard to say which of these privations is the most humiliating. At one point, LaMotta breaks the jewels off his championship belt to pawn for cash, but ends up simply devaluing the belt, and doesn’t even get a good deal on the gems. At another point, he’s fined for allowing minors to drink in his bar, and so finds himself reduced to performing warm-up acts for a cabaret star in a New York dive bar. Still, the nadir probably comes when he’s sent to prison, where he has nothing left to do but bang his head against the wall, and then punch the wall until his hands are deformed, crying out “why, why, why” over and over again. In this devolution lies the dissolution of Scorsese’s New Hollywood visions, since each of these tableaux reprises the essence of his great 1970s studies of masculinity, but in a diminished form now, a minor key.

The last stage in this decline comes with LaMotta backstage, preparing for an event at the Barbizon-Plaza titled “An Evening With Jake LaMotta, featuring the works of Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Shakespeare, Budd Schulberg, Tennessee Williams.” At first glance, seeing LaMotta alongside this eccentric Western-American canon suggests that his stand-up career has achieved an unexpected late surge, or that he is at least making a case for himself as part of the lineage of great dramatists in the English language. Yet the very fact that LaMotta can be subsumed so seamlessly into this canon also suggests that his own voice has been swallowed up by history, and that his singularity has waned to the point where he is now palatable in the same manner as more mainstream figures (or figures, like Shakespeare, whose historical distance means that their personal lives don’t really factor into how we see their artistic achievements). Sure enough, LaMotta doesn’t end the film in his own voice, but in the voice of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” In Brando’s voice, these words generate pathos, since they speak so singularly to his unique star image, but with LaMotta the effect is closer to bathos, since this quotation indicates that he has indeed become a blithely commodifiable image of Italian-American masculinity, despite, or perhaps more disturbingly because of, all his angularities.

Scorsese and Schrader half-heartedly attempt to contest this descent into simulacra by resorting to the transcendental signifier of the Bible in the final intertitle, an excerpt from John’s Gospel. The fact that this is devoted to one of Scorsese’s teachers only make this appeal to the real contingencies of Italian-American history more poignant, and yet it doesn’t ultimately trump the hyperreality that consumes LaMotta in these final moments. Scorsese would go on to explore that postmodern outlook in The King of Comedy, the spiritual sequel to Raging Bull, before remaining aloof from gangster films for the longest period of his career to date. In fact, a whole decade would elapse before he returned to them in 1990, while every gangster film since then, from Goodfellas to The Irishman, has been unable to shake the anxieties of Raging Bull – namely, that the sheer act of continuing to make these films diminishes their primal connection to the Italian-American world, even if that paradoxically increases Scorsese’s desire to make them as well, to wrest whatever last vestige of authenticity remains of gangsterism. Call Raging Bull the central tipping-point of Scorsese’s career then – the end of his classical period, and the precondition for all his later evolutions.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: