Alongside Nashville (1975), Martin Scorsese’s almost universally revered character study Raging Bull is one of the few “great” American movies that I simply don’t get. To be clear, I have no difficulty appreciating the film’s artistry, craftsmanship, intelligence, and passion—Scorsese obviously bled his soul into the very grain of this picture, letting his visual imagination run wild even as he wrestled with personal demons through the prism of professional boxer Jake LaMotta’s rise and fall. Intellectually, I understand that the movie is a significant accomplishment. Emotionally, the movie leaves me so cold that I get bored every time I try to watch the thing. Perhaps because Scorsese and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader elected not to illustrate the central character’s formative years, I can’t connect to the movie’s version of LaMotta. He comes across like an ignorant thug who surrounds himself with awful people, which means his adventures are unpleasant to watch and not, to my eyes, edifying.
Robert De Niro’s leading performance is supremely committed, so the pain that LaMotta feels as he stumbles his way through life is palpable. Alas, because the pain is mostly self-inflicted, for reasons that utterly escape me, generating empathy is challenging. Compounded with the excruciating brutality of the boxing scenes and the numbing repetition of coarse language, the opacity of the leading character makes me feel like I’m the one receiving constant jabs and left hooks while the movie unfolds, rather than the onscreen pugilists. The funny thing is that I should love Raging Bull because artistically, chronologically, and thematically, it’s the apex of the grungy loser movies that flowered during the ’70s. Yet there’s a world of difference between the humanity of films along the lines of Fat City (1972), a boxing picture I enjoy much more, and the relentless ugliness of Raging Bull. I take it on faith that Scorsese knows whereof he speaks when depicting the anguished lives of Italian-Americans stuck in the quagmires of male identity and religious guilt, and I freely acknowledge that his various movies about New York underworld types speak to a lived experience far outside my own frame of reference.
Yet at the same time, I look at the way I’ve made connections with movies about other cultures that are foreign to me, so I feel comfortable saying that the problem with some vintage Scorsese—and specifically with Raging Bull—runs deeper. I believe the right word is fetishism.
It often seems as if Scorsese simply can’t tear his eyes away from scenes of thick-headed men destroying themselves, mistreating women, and starting pointless battles with enemies and friends alike. There’s more than a little bit of a pain-freak voyeur in Martin Scorsese. In the best of times, this tendency allows him to reveal truths in places other filmmakers find too frightening to explore. And, presumably, that’s what his advocates would say he does throughout Raging Bull. In any event, the unassailable elements of the movie include Michael Chapman’s muscular black-and-white photography, which is energized by Scorsese’s unexpected shifts in frame rates and his wizardly camera moves, as well as Thelma Schoonmaker’s meticulous editing. Viewed strictly from the perspective of how the filmmakers exploit and manipulate the very medium of film, Raging Bull is extraordinary. So let’s leave it at that.
Raging Bull: GROOVY