Religious Pulp, or the Incredible Hulk
by Pauline Kael
As Jake la Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grow them—he grew everything else. He developed a thick muscled neck and a fighter s body, and for the scenes of the broken, drunken la Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left. What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable. De Niro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with, his La Motta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some semi religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt. He has so little expressive spark that what I found myself thinking about wasn’t La Motta or the movie but the metamorphosis of De Niro. His appearance—with his head flattened out and widened by fat—is far more shocking than if he were artificially padded. De Niro went from his usual hundred and forty five pounds to a hundred and sixty for the young fighter, and then up to two hundred and fifteen for La Motta’s later days. (No man has ever made a more dramatic demonstration of the aesthetic reasons that people shouldn’t get bloated.) And the director, Martin Scorsese, doesn’t show us the trim, fast fighter and then let us adjust to his deterioration; he deliberately confronts us with the gross older La Motta right at the start, in a flash forward.
At first, we may think that we’re going to find out what makes Jake La Motta’s life special and why a movie is being made about him. But as the picture dives in and out of La Motta’s life, with a few minutes of each of his big fights (he won the title in 1949), it becomes clear that Scorsese isn’t concerned with how La Motta got where he did or what, specifically, happened to him. Scorsese gives us exact details of the Bronx Italian neighborhoods of the forties—everything is sharp, realistic, lived-in. But he doesn’t give us specific insights into La Motta. Scorsese and De Niro, who together reworked the script (by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book Raging Bull, by La Motta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage), are trying to go deeper into the inarticulate types they have done before; this time they seem to go down to pre-human levels. Their brutish Jake is elemental: he has one thing he can do—fight.
Raging Bull isn’t a biographical film about a fighter’s rise and fall; it’s a biography of the genre of prizefight films. Scorsese loves the visual effects and the powerful melodramatic moments of movies such as Body and Soul, The Set up, and Golden Boy. He makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out The scene is like one of a series in an old movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series. And his neutral attitude toward La Motta is very different from that of forties movies. An idle remark by Vickie—that Jake’s opponent in his next match is good looking—makes Jake so jealous that he goes in and viciously, systematically destroys the kids face. The movie doesn’t throw up its hands in horror; it just looks on. Jake, who enforces long periods of sexual abstinence before his fights, becomes obsessed with the idea that Vickie is cheating on him; you feel that he wants to catch her at something. His suspicions lead him to smack her around and to beat up his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), who is his manager, sparring partner, and closest friend. The questions that come to mind (such as why Vickie stays with Jake, or why she leaves when she does, or even whether in fact she is unfaithful) clearly aren’t germane to Scorsese’s interest. Vickie doesn’t react much; she accepts Jake’s mounting jealousy passively.
Scorsese appears to be trying to purify the characters of forties movies to universalize them. Vickie is an icon—a big, lacquered virgin-doll of the forties. Tall and strong looking, Cathy Moriarty has a beautiful glassy presence, like Kim Novak in her Man with the Golden Arm days, and the same mute sexuality. She recalls other iconographic presences—Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, and the knowing young Gloria Grahame—but she’s tougher and more composed. Sitting at the edge of a swimming pool, her Vickie is a Life cover girl of the war years. She has sultry eyes and speaks in flat, nasal Bronx tones. It’s lucky that Moriarty is big, because when Jake comes at her angrily, like a slob Othello, she looks as if she could take care of herself; there’s no pathos. Joe Pesci’s Joey is stylized in a different way: he may bring to mind the brother in a movie about a show-biz family. His speech sounds like patter, as if he were doing a routine with Abbott and Costello or the Three Stooges; he has the vocal rhythms of a baggypants comic from burlesque, and though his lines aren’t especially funny, his manner is, and the audience responds to him gratefully, because he’s so much saner and less monotonous than the Neanderthal Jake. It’s Pesci’s picture, if it’s anybody’s, because we can understand why Joey does what he does. Even when he goes out of control and smashes a taxi door repeatedly against a mobster who is caught half in, half out, we know that he’s doing what Jake charged him to do. (As the big, gentle mobster, played by Frank Vincent, who’s quietly effective, is having his bones broken, voluptuous, forlorn Mascagni music rises. Here, as in much of the movie, Scorsese’s excesses verge on self parody.)
Scorsese is also trying to purify forties style by using the conventions in new ways. If you look at forties movies now, the cliches (which bored people at the time) may seem like fun, and it’s easy to see why Scorsese is drawn to them. But when he reproduces them, he reproduces the mechanical quality they once had, and the fun goes out of them. The cardinal rule of forties-studio style was that the scenes had to be shaped to pay off. Scorsese isn’t interested in payoffs; it’s something else—a modernist effect that’s like a gray out. Early on, when Jake’s first wife is frying a steak for him and he complains that she’s overcooking it, she hollers and picks up the steak as if she were going to throw it at him, but instead she puts it on his plate. The violence in the scene is right on the surface (she doesn’t hold anything back), yet nothing comes of it, and shortly after that she disappears from the movie. We don’t get the explosion we expect, but we feel the violence. Scorsese shows us Jake—snorting to himself, and with his belly hanging out -going to see Vickie to get his World Middleweight Championship belt so he can hock the jewels from it, and the scene withers away. Yet we remember his banging on the belt to pry the jewels loose. Scorsese’s continuity with forties movies is in the texture—the studio artificiality that he makes sensuous, thick, viscous; there are layers of rage and animosity in almost every sequence.
Raging Bull isn’t just a biography of a genre; it’s also about movies and about violence, it’s about gritty visual rhythm, it’s about Brando, it’s about the two Godfather pictures—it’s about Scorsese and De Niro’s trying to top what they’ve done and what everybody else has done. When De Niro and Liza Minnelli began to argue in Scorsese’s New York, New York, you knew they were going to go from yelling to hitting, because they had no other way to escalate the tension. Here we get more of these actors’ battles; they’re between Jake and Joey, and between Jake and Vickie. Listening to Jake and Joey go at each other, like the macho clowns in Cassavetes movies, I know’ I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb f— k,” and Joey says, “You dumb f—k,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think. What am I doing here watching these two dumb f—ks? When Scorsese did Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver, the scenes built through language and incident, and other characters turned up. But when he works with two actors and pushes for raw intensity, the actors repeat their vapid profanities, goading each other to dredge up some hostility and some variations and twists. And we keep looking at the same faces—Jake and Joey, or Jake and Vickie. (They’re the only people around for most of this movie.) You can feel the director sweating for greatness, but there’s nothing under the scenes—no subtext, only this actor’s version of tension. Basically, the movie is these dialogue bouts and Jake’s fights in the ring.
The fights are fast and gory and are shot very close in. We’re not put in the position of spectators; we’re put in the ring, with our heads right up against the heads of the two fighters who are hammering away at each other, with slow-motion eruptions of blood and sweat splashing us. We’re meant to see the fists coming as they’ see them, and feel the blow’s as they do; the action is speeded up and slowed down to give us these sensations, and the sound of the punches is amplified, while other noises are blotted out. These aren’t fights, really; they’re cropped, staccato ordeals. The punches are a steady series of explosions—a drummer doing death rolls. The pounding immediacy is grandiloquent—almost abstract.
The picture seems to be saying that in order to become champ, Jake La Motta had to be mean, obsessive, crazy. But you can’t be sure, and the way the story is told Jake’s life pattern doesn’t make much sense. When he loses the title and gives up fighting, he opens a night club, where he’s the m.c. and the comic, clowning around with the customers. I had no idea where this cheesy jokester came from: there was certainly no earlier suggestion that Jake had a gift of gab. And there is nothing to prepare us for the poster announcing that he’s giving readings from Paddy Chayefsky, Shakespeare, Rod Serling, Budd Schulberg and Tennessee Williams; we’re in a different movie. At the end, before going onstage for his public reading, Jake recites Brando’s back-of-the-taxi speech from On the Waterfront while looking in his dressing-room mirror. Scorsese is trying to outdo everything great, even the scene of De Niro talking to himself in the mirror in Taxi Driver. What does it mean to have La Motta deliver this lament that he could have been a contender in stead of a bum when it’s perfectly clear that La Motta is both a champ and a bum? (Is it a deliberate mockery of the simplicity of Schulberg’s conception?) The whole picture has been made looking in a mirror, self consciously. It takes a while to grasp that La Motta is being used as the fighter, a representative tormented man in a killer’s body. He’s a repulsive, threatening figure who seems intended to be all that and yet to have an element of greatness. He’s a doomed strong man—doomed by his love for his wife and by his ability to fight. It’s all metaphors: the animal man attempting to escape his destiny. When Jake, in jail on a morals charge, bangs his head and his fists against the stone walls of his cell and, sobbing in frustration, cries out, “Why? Why? Why? It’s so f— king stupid! I’m not an animal.” it’s the ultimate metaphor for the whole film.
The tragedy in Scorsese’s struggles with the material in both New York, New York and Raging Bull is that he is a great director when he doesn’t press so hard at it. when he doesn’t suffer so much. He’s got moviemaking and the Church mixed up together; he’s trying to be the saint of cinema. And he turns Jake’s life into a ritual of suffering. In the middle of a fight, Jake is sponged by the men in his comer, and he has been injured so much that the water is dark: they’re washing him in his own blood. Scorsese is out to demonstrate that he can have for his hero a brutish hardhead, a man with no redeeming social graces, and make you respect him. He must have been drawn to La Motta’s story by its sheer plug ugliness: here was a fighter who didn’t even look graceful in the ring—he crouched and slugged. And Scorsese goes to cartoon lengths to establish that Jake is a bad guy: Jake actually threatens to kill and eat a neighbor’s dog. Scorsese doesn’t want us to like Jake, because he wants us to respond on a higher level—to Jake’s energy and his pain. He wants us to respect Jake despite everything we see him do. We re supposed to believe in his integrity. The Mafia bosses force Jake to throw a fight before they’ll let him have a chance at the title. He throws the fight by just standing still and taking the blows; afterward, he weeps. It’s a fall from grace: he has given up the only thing that counts. We re supposed to think, Jake may be a pig, but he fights. Scorsese appears to see Jake as having some kind of loony glory. But if you respond, possibly it’s not to La Mona’s integrity but to De Niro’s; he buries the clichés that lesser actors might revel in, and is left with nothing to anchor his performance. He does some amazing things, though. In the ring raking punches. Jake seems to be crying, “Crucify me! Crucify me!” With anyone but De Niro in the role, the picture would probably be a joke. But De Niro gives you a sense of terrible pain that is relieved when he’s in the ring. The film’s brutality doesn’t seem exploitative; it’s mystical.
The magazine Film Comment has a feature, “Guilty Pleasures,” which it runs intermittently: movie people list the works they wouldn’t try to defend on aesthetic grounds but have enjoyed inordinately. When Scorsese offered some of his favorites in 1978, a thread ran through many of his selections. He says, “Play Dirty isn’t a sadistic film, but it’s mean. The characters have no redeeming social value, which I love.” Of Always Leave Them Laughing, he says, “I admire the guts it took for Berle to make this autobiographical film about a completely dislikable guy.” Of the hero of I Walk Alone, he says, “He has only one way to deal with his problems: brute force.” Of Dark of the Sun, he says. “The sense of the film is overwhelmingly violent: there’s no consideration for anything else. The answer to everything is ’kill.’” Scorsese likes movies that aren’t covered in sentimental frosting—that put the surliness and killing and meanness right up front. But Raging Bull has the air of saying something important, which is just what he loved those cheapo pictures for not having. By making a movie that is all guilty pleasures, he has forged a new sentimentality. Raging Bull is about a character he loves too much; it’s about everything he loves too much. It’s the kind of movie that many men must fantasize about: their macho worst dream movie.
Scorsese is saying that he accepts totally, that he makes no moral judgment I think that by the last fight we re not supposed to care whether Jake wins or loses—we’re supposed to want to be in there, slugging. Even the black and white is macho: it has something of the flashy, tabloid look of the original Naked City movie. But it’s so hyper that you’re aware of the art, which kills the tabloid effect. We don’t get to see the different styles of La Motta’s opponents: Scorsese doesn’t care about the rhythm and balance of fighters’ bodies. There’s no dancing for these fighters, and very little boxing. What Scorsese concentrates on is punishment given and received. He turns the lowdown effects he likes into highbrow flash reeking of religious symbolism. You’re aware of the camera positions and of the images held for admiration; you’re conscious of the pop and hiss of the newsmen’s cameras and the amplified sound of the blow’s—the sound of pain. Scorsese wants his B-movie seaminess and spiritual meaning, too. He wants a disreputable, lowlife protagonist; then he suggests that this man is close to God, because he is God’s animal.
By removing the specifics or blurring them, Scorsese doesn’t produce universal—he produces banality. What we get is full of capitals: A Man Fights, A Man Loses Everything, A Man Bangs His Head Against the Wall. Scorsese is putting his unmediated obsessions on the screen, trying to turn raw, pulp power into art by removing it from the particulars of observation and narrative. He loses the lowlife entertainment values of prizefight films; he aestheticizes pulp and kills it. Raging Bull is tabloid grand opera. Jake is the Brute Life Force, and the picture ends as he experiences A Surge of Energy. It’s a Felliniesque ending: Life Goes On. The picture is overripe, ready for canonization. An end title supplies a handy Biblical quote.
The New Yorker, December, 1980