Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) is a warped bio-pic of a sick man. Jake LaMotta shouldn't be anybody's hero. He shouldn't really be anybody's anti-hero, either, which has led to some confusion as to just what Scorsese means by putting his life up on screen, especially in such a visually poetic way. What in the life of "The Bronx Bull," a brutal and na•ve man, justifies the slow, luxurious film treatment Raging Bull lavishes upon it? What is Martin Scorsese trying to say, exactly?
Unlike Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, I don't think the audience is supposed to sympathize or identify with Jake LaMotta, though he is the protagonist, any more or less than with any other character in the film. We see things from Jake's point of view, but not because we can or should think like him or understand the way he behaves. It's more like Walter Cronkite intoning, "You Are There." Jake LaMotta is less of a symbol of "the individual in society," as Travis Bickle is, and more of an eccentric and not-too-likable character. As Steven Spielberg has intimated, instead of idolizing or condemning LaMotta's life, Scorsese makes us instead live it with him. Spielberg's feeling of eavesdropping on someone else's real life is more what Raging Bull means to convey.
Okay, so you get the assignment: one month to write a Hollywood screenplay about an Italian boxer called Raging Bull. This fellow's big thing is that he can take a beating like no one else in the boxing game. He's also the only fighter who ever admitted he threw a fight. He beat Sugar Ray Robinson and was the middleweight champion of the world. The story arc is clear. Childhood as a hood, getting into boxing, early fights/setbacks, a little romance thrown in (with one girl--have to condense), first fight with Sugar Ray (loses), throws fight, feels terrible, second fight with Sugar Ray--we win, redemption plus the emotional climax. Little epilogue, at home with the wife and kids, everybody's happy. Change the guy's name to something like Charley LaFontana, you got a street-smart Rocky, the feel-good hit of the summer. Sure, shoot it in black and white, maybe the critics'll like it, too. This ain't Scorsese's tactic.
Like what happens in Anthony Mann's The Glenn Miller Story, the hero is never really confronted with a major problem he must overcome, as in Taxi Driver or Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore or the typical formulation of any average Hollywood film. Instead, it's cinéma vérité--the audience may learn a lesson from the life story of a former middleweight champion, but if they don't, that's not Scorsese's concern. At least they have seen the beauty, the violence, and the journey of a fighter.
And they see it, not in easily digestible chunks, but in strange little real-life sequences, long and short, which come out of LaMotta's life. The Sugar Ray fights breeze by like they must have in real life. They're plot points, and they happen. LaMotta the character portrays the proper concern, but then we see something like an argument, courting Vickie, or arguing with Joey--the simple events which show character instead of advancing the plot bang, bang, bang, like we're used to.
LaMotta is never seen obsessing over some event which makes up the whole movie. Instead, he is in the moment. I'm not sure how to describe it, but the film and its plot have the texture of reality. What is happening is happening, and what might come before or after is before or after that moment. This sounds rather suspiciously like a description of Robert De Niro's acting technique.
The Scorsese films which unfold the most like this are Goodfellas and Kundun. Goodfellas has more action, which some might call plot, but it's really just that the moments which unfold Henry Hill's life are more full of action than the life of a boxer, which is all waiting for the burst of violence at the end of the waiting. Kundun cuts nearly all of the action out. Events unfold, but they all focus on the reaction of the young Dalai Lama, and that's where all of the drama takes place: Scorsese puts us inside of his point of view, and, gradually, inside of his conscience.
Raging Bull is the beginning of this rebellion against conventional Hollywood plot structure which has intermittently been advanced during Scorsese's career. It also seems to be a rebellion against the plot structure of the crucifixion, which is very much a Hollywood plot structure. Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver all follow plot structures carefully, followed by the plotless epiphany of Italianamerican, which probably more than anything gave Scorsese the confidence to build with raw, available emotional materials rather than importing them from a prescribed, formulaic diagram. The only atypical thing about The Last Temptation of Christ is the extended epilogue, which is rather like a teaching tool, the point of the film, but completely out of its conventional structure. Scorsese probably had to make his Christ film before he could set down the structure for good.
Raging Bull is, more than anything, about the trip, the journey of a fighter who could take a punch who became an aging, unfunny cabaret performer with few people who love him. Why did it happen like that? You can make up a hundred valid reasons that'll hold up, but the evidence is up on the screen, moment by moment, shot by shot.
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