Ring Cycle
Michael Koresky on Raging Bull

Raging Bull has the oddest grandness. Everyone seems to understand the basic concept about Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jake La Motta: that it’s a sports picture blown up into tragic opera, a film about a small (and often, as depicted, small-minded) person who somehow attains mythic grandeur. This happens despite what seems like constant resistance—from Paul Schrader’s grounded screenplay; from the richly pitiful performances by Robert DeNiro as La Motta, Joe Pesci as his brother Joey, and Cathy Moriarty as his wife Vickie; from the grainy, gritty Life magazine aesthetic of cinematographer Michael Chapman. Regardless of these forces striving for intimacy, Scorsese’s vision nevertheless explodes into a behemoth of a film, cinema’s ultimate boxing movie; it’s an immense tale of one silly man’s downfall—he’s the Charles Foster Kane of bruisers, the Italian-American Terry Malloy, the Scarlett O’Hara of big, dumb lugs. The difference is that Jake La Motta is no made-up character—in fictionalizing a real man, Scorsese at once elevates him and brings him down to earth. You could use the term “larger than life,” but life seems to swallow him up. As expressed in the film’s rightly famous credit sequence—in which a distant La Motta bounces and shadow boxes in elegant slow motion on the extreme left-hand side of the wide frame, accompanied by the effusive flourish of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”—he is eternally, like all of us, a small man in the corner.

In a career filled with works of uncommon majesty, Raging Bull is one of Scorsese’s most iconic films. It stands alone, and not only because it was his only black-and-white feature after his 1967 debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Yet despite it being for many The Scorsese Film, it wasn’t an endeavor that originated with the director; rather it was a passion project initiated by De Niro, who saw something appealing, challenging, and quintessentially American in a film about a prizefighter turned lounge-act sad sack. The film, as De Niro saw it, was to be an adaptation of La Motta’s 1970 autobiography Raging Bull: My Story, written with his longtime friend Peter Savage and the author Joseph Carter; Scorsese wasn’t immediately persuaded this man could inspire an entire film—and he wouldn’t be entirely convinced until Paul Schrader (who had written Scorsese’s last major sensation, Taxi Driver) stepped in to work on the screenplay, which had already been drafted by Mardik Martin (Scorsese’s scribe on Mean Streets and New York, New York). Schrader and Scorsese have always had a similar penchant for the sublime, and together they envisioned La Motta as something harrowingly huge, an anguished antihero. Though we cannot relate to La Motta on any conventional level (he’s too animalistic, too violent), we are made to understand his humanity through a vivid spirituality—Schrader refers to La Motta’s onscreen progression of self-torture as “redemption through physical pain, like the Stations of the Cross, one torment after another.”

As pseudo-religious experience, Raging Bull clearly intends to make the audience feel more than think (despite its status as one of the greatest movies ever made, it’s certainly one of the least overtly intellectual of them), and this is another way it comes across as huge. It’s an intimidating, pummeling work, and most memorably so when it’s in the ring. These were Scorsese’s versions of those fighting scenes from mammoth biblical epics and gladiatorial combat films he grew up on. Most previous boxing films (an exception, Scorsese has noted, was Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul) kept the camera at a safe distance, outside the ropes; Raging Bull gets the audience right in the thick of it, with a seemingly endless arsenal of creative camera angles, positions, and movements that allow us to see each droplet of sweat and blood as it trickles down face and chest or sprays across the ring. The credit must go equally to Chapman (who, under Scorsese’s orders, had to adjust the frames per second in the camera—between 24, 48, and 120—during the filming of the fighting matches to create a heart-pounding start-stop effect), editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and sound effects editor Frank Warner for so remarkably pulling off this reinvention of boxing-film grammar. Together they create something far more tremendous than a simple “you are there” feeling—we feel like we are inside a stranger’s skull as it’s being beaten to a pulp, while at the same time we’re on the outside looking in, being handed an X-ray. The result is a strange form of empathy; we feel vulnerable (in other words, human).

Eventually the film foregoes such wrenchingly bloody bouts. The 1949 fight in Detroit that wins La Motta the middleweight championship is surprisingly restive, a cleansing succession of religious, even slightly erotic imagery (cleansing water pouring down bare torsos, ravaged faces looking heavenward between rounds). It’s a shock when Scorsese then sharply cuts to a heftier Jake in Pelham Parkway home, his belly poking out through his unbuttoned shirt as he shakes a television on the fritz, much to the chagrin of brother Joey. The triumphant pugilist again a common schlub, scarfing down a sandwich and bickering with Joey over such unheroic matters as antenna reception and who-fucked-who. The constant fight between the big and the small goes on.

Raging Bull’s impressive scope is so deceptive that not even United Artists executives seemed to notice they had a major film on their hands, too preoccupied were they wrestling with the looming giant they had coming out that same year, Michael Cimino’s infamous, studio-slaughtering Heaven’s Gate. Yet Scorsese’s colossal portrait of a negligible man would later be crowned the best film of the 1980s in an end-of-decade critics poll at Premiere, a telling fact since today it is held up as the best kind of rigorously conceived and executed auterist vision that defined American cinema’s 1970s. Raging Bull would cut a swath through whichever era it may exemplify, however, defying all comers to stand, lonely, at the top of the heap.

Raging Bull played December 9 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.