The Magazine

Down for the Count

Brutality, boxing--and what else?

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By KYLE SMITH
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RAGING BULL has been acclaimed as a great American movie since the day it was released 25 years ago. Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby found it "a big film, its territory being the landscape of the soul," while Newsweek's Jack Kroll called it "the best American film of the year" and the best film about boxing ever.

If Martin Scorsese's adaptation of middleweight boxer Jake La Motta's autobiography was initially heaped with praise, today it is buried in it. Among its eight Oscar nominations, it won two (although not Best Picture, which went to Robert Redford's family drama Ordinary People). Today, Ordinary People is derided as pretty and emotional, if it is remembered at all. Raging Bull was called the best film of the 1980s by Siskel & Ebert, Premiere, USA Today, and a poll of film critics published in American Film. A 2002 survey of directors by the British magazine Sight & Sound called it the sixth best film of all time; the American Film Institute survey of film professionals ranks it 24th, ahead of every film that has come out since except Schindler's List. The November 25 issue of Entertainment Weekly declares that "any list of greatest movies begins with Martin Scorsese's black-and-white epic about Jake La Motta."

But is any allegedly great movie so unpleasant to sit through? With its corrosive language (the film's favorite epithet appears 128 times, reports EW), its claustrophobic scenes of family brawls, and its greedy eye for ring violence--the scene in which sportswriters are splashed with what looks like a gallon of La Motta's blood is particularly grotesque--Raging Bull is a 129-minute storm of hostility. After a quarter-century in which I could sit through only portions of it on television, I finally managed to endure the whole unnerving experience for the first time last winter, when the movie was rereleased in Manhattan in an effort to guilt-trip Academy members who have never awarded an Oscar to Scorsese into voting for his latest, and far more nuanced, release, The Aviator. The ploy didn't work.

Raging Bull's interest is brutality. But just as a film about boredom shouldn't be dull, this one shouldn't make the viewer feel as though he's taken a pounding. After a brief introduction, Scorsese bursts into the middle of La Motta's life. The fighter, ferociously played by Robert De Niro, suffers a beating in a fight; then, in his kitchen, starts a screaming match with his wife over a steak. Out of control, La Motta flips over the kitchen table.

The pattern continues throughout: professional violence followed by the recreational kind. Only about 10 minutes of the film actually take place inside the boxing ring, but La Motta fights in nearly every scene, either with his second wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) or his brother Joey (Joe Pesci). He finally alienates both so much that he is left to pound away at himself. In the climactic moment, when La Motta is jailed on a morals charge, he attacks the stone walls of his cell with his fists and his head, crying, "Why? Why? Why? . . . They said I was an animal. I'm not an animal."

But that is exactly what he is; De Niro himself, Scorsese says in a documentary included with the DVD, compared the Bronx Bull to a crab, and animal noises such as an elephant's roar frequently appear in the sound mix when La Motta is in tantrum mode. For all of its technical mastery--the sound effects by Frank Warner and Michael Chapman's black-and-white photography are monuments to their craft--Raging Bull is not what Roger Ebert called it: "an Othello for our times." Tragedy presupposes downfall, but a roach can't fall. Nor is the film an investigation into evil; this guy is just a jerk. At the beginning he is a fit jerk, at the end he is a fat jerk, and he is a jerk at every point in between. Even when La Motta wins the championship belt, neither Scorsese nor De Niro can locate much triumph in the moment. Jake goes home and accuses his brother of sleeping with his wife. He scares away one, then beats the other.

Has any character study shown so little interest in character? Who is La Motta? Why is he so angry? Is he insane? Where did he come from?

Scorsese made a conscious decision not to tell us any of these things, or even to hint at them, because he thinks to do so would be a cliché. Tackling La Motta's background, the director says in a commentary to accompany the DVD, would have "smacked of kind of an old-fashioned way of making movies and writing stories which made the audience feel, let's say, at ease. . . . You would feel that, 'Well, okay, he came from a bad neighborhood, he became a thief in order to survive. Now we understand that.' . . . It kind of makes them stop thinking . . . the idea was we wanted to make it more powerful and do him as a human being. Accept him as he is. Or not. And not relying on antiquated ideas of motivation because nothing's that simple."

Bravo for rejecting the idea that a wayward individual is just a feather on a polluted breeze. But in stripping away any hint of what is going on inside La Motta, Scorsese goes too far in the other direction. Motivation is not "an antiquated idea," but the essential component of character, and the boiling anger of De Niro's performance does not "do him as a human being." That makes the film, for all its beautiful images, shallow. It is a celluloid bimbo, because Scorsese doesn't care what's going on inside his protagonist.

"Why should anybody say anything came from anywhere?" Scorsese asked the Times in 1980. "Reasons? We never discussed reasons." That existential shrug is chilling.

Does any allegedly great film have less inventive dialogue? Even the most ardent fans of Raging Bull do not walk around with its words on their lips, because the lines are so utilitarian, so undistinguished, that if you cited them in conversation no one would guess what movie you were referring to. There is "Shut up, I'm gonna smack you in the face" and "You f--my wife?" and "You're so stupid," and much more of the same. Even 2001, a film whose dialogue is tightly rationed and purposefully anodyne, has its "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"

Critics of Raging Bull generally find its barbarism vital: Some people are like this, they say. It doesn't take long to figure out which people they are talking about. Wrote Kroll, "Scorsese shows the whole 1940s macho Italian Catholic Mafia culture of the Bronx as an inside-out world, a Vatican of violence . . . violence is the sacrament of this culture." Canby praised the film for refusing to "explain away in either sociological or psychiatric terms, or even in terms of the Roman Catholicism of [La Motta's] Italian-American heritage." So Canby thought the three possible reasons for La Motta's outbursts are: He's poor, he's nuts, he's Catholic.

De Niro and Scorsese's La Motta is so lacking in awareness of himself or his achievements that, when he needs bail money, he mindlessly hammers the jewels out of his championship belt one by one instead of taking the whole belt to the pawn shop. Only for one moment does he seem to reflect. After he is robbed of a victory on points, La Motta tells his brother, "I done a lot of bad things, Joey, maybe it's coming back to me." That's early in the film. By the end, when he's tired and fat and reduced to giving halting performances of the I-coulda-been-a-contender monologue from On the Waterfront at night clubs, he has, Scorsese tells us, learned nothing. The Terry Malloy speech is about how throwing a fight destroyed his life. In choosing Malloy's words, La Motta seems to reveal that, after a lifetime of thuggery, he still thinks the only thing he ever did wrong was to take a dive against Billy Fox.

Contrast the character's lack of perception with this man's:

It's impossible to describe the smell of a tenement to someone who's never lived in one. You can't just put your head in the door and sniff. You have to live there day and night, summer and winter, so the smell gets a chance to sink into your soul. There's all the dirt that the super never really manages to get clean even on the days when he does an hour's work, and this dirt has a smell, gray and dry and after you've smelled it long enough, suffocating. And diapers. The slobs who live in tenements are always having kids and naturally they don't have the money for any diaper service, so the old lady is always boiling diapers on the stove and after a while the smell gets into the walls.

That's La Motta, in his book, Raging Bull. In a few lines we understand everything about this man: who he was, where he came from, the color of his soul. He sees and he feels. The film lies. He is not an animal.

Kyle Smith is movie critic for the New York Post.