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."