June 18th, 2000

Raging Bull

When the question, ‘What was Martin Scorsese’s greatest ever movie?’ arises, film buffs tend to sidestep the most plausible candidates (King Of Comedy, Goodfellas, Mean Streets) and plump reflexively for two of his worst – Taxi Driver (already slaughtered in this column) and Raging Bull.

This 1980 biopic of Forties middleweight Jake LaMotta is swaddled in hushed reverence, evoked by the spurious religiosity of the opening scene in which Robert De Niro’s LaMotta limbers up in the ring, hooded like some warrior-monk. It is regularly cited as the greatest ever boxing movie, though of course, it is more than a “mere” boxing movie. Well, for starters, as a boxing movie, Raging Bull is no less risible than the Rocky series. The ring action oscillates ludicrously, with one combatant unleashing nine unanswered punches before taking nine in return, with neither fighter apparently capable of the basic defensive strategy of putting up your dukes.

Historically, the film distorts the balance between Sugar Ray Robinson and LaMotta, making them out to be like Ali-Frazier, closely matched rivals. In fact, Robinson handily beat LaMotta five times out of their six encounters, ignoring instructions to “carry” LaMotta in their last bout. LaMotta brags, “You never knocked me down” in the movie – sure, Jake, but he knocked you in every other direction.

War has often been described as moments of appalling violence punctuating long periods of boredom and thus could Raging Bull be described. The fixed-position, relentlessly grey interior shots are mistaken by some for arthouse intensity when they’re actually exercises in mounting tedium. The courtship scenes between LaMotta and Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) are so deliberately dull you feel like going into the garden and watching wood warp instead.

Furthermore, the film suffers from a curious syndrome whereby characters can hear each other perfectly when they mumble dialogue inaudible to the viewer, but become hard of hearing whenever they raise their voices.”You fuck my wife?” “What?” “You fuck my wife? “What?” The film could have been brought in an hour shorter if everyone didn’t have to keep saying everything three times like a couple of deaf men on a train. As for the main players, Joe Pesci’s runty brother might command some sympathy if he didn’t turn out to be as inexplicably fucked in the head as his brother. The Mafiosi LaMotta defies are about as menacing as a bunch of concerned Rotarians taking an avuncular interest in a wayward protege. Cathy Moriarty plays La Motta’s wife Vickie with such bovine, peroxide sloth that, while deploring domestic violence, one hopes in vain that one by-product of her slappings might be that she comes to life a bit. De Niro, meanwhile, face with the complex psychological challenge of playing a man frequently described in the film as having a “head of rock” does his usual schtick of letting his jaw slacken, his head cock and staring blankly.

Finally, where is the arc to De Niro’s LaMotta? Does he go or take us anywhere except on a predictable journey into macho futility? The film gives no indication of any such evolution. The concluding scene in which he rehearses some clearly dire routine, involving the ”Coulda been a contender’ speech from On The Waterfront before pummelling the air implies that he’s a self-pitying washout living in the past. As if to compensate for this bathos, this petering out of a pointlessly dreary and unedifyingly violent movie, Scorsese winds off with a biblical quote of obscure relevance (“I was blind, now I can see”). His notions of Catholicity and redemption often lead Scorsese curiously astray into moral neutrality, here particularly. Finally, the strains of Pietro Mascagni’s cheap and trite operatic score attempt to bellow some solemnity into the proceedings.

The trick works. Critics, concussed into thinking they have undergone a profound cinematic experience, ascribe to Raging Bull a grandiosity it simply doesn’t possess. They discuss it as a metaphor for the “corruption of the American dream” (how?), even talk about its dramatisation of the Freudian precept that the child’s erroneous equation of sex with violence leads to later trauma. Bollocks. It’s about a thick, wife beating pug who won the title, then lost it and gained weight. Still, how often, when De Niro’s Academy Award-winning performance is cited, do they bring up in awestruck tones how he bulked up 40 pounds for the final scenes? An Oscar for getting fat! They should give me one.

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