Rightwing Film Geek

Jake LaMotta and RAGING BULL

When I learned this afternoon about the death of Jake LaMotta, my thoughts naturally turned to RAGING BULL. I can’t think of another case where an athlete’s image is so thoroughly the result of a formally-fictional biopic about him. RAGING BULL is one of my all-time favorite films (Top 20 list here). I’ve seen it 14 or 15 times, and I once tweeted that it’s a 129-minute film that feels like 29.

I jokingly refer to myself on my Twitter bio as “the Jake LaMotta of #FilmTwitter,” a reference to my late-in-life hobby and more. The first time I ever sparred, I went 4 rounds with a professional Muay Thai fighter​, obviously a vastly superior man who was holding back more than I even realized at the time. I went up to him after the last bell and said, Jake-style, “you never got me down, Nate … you never got me down.” He laughed indulgently.

This scene here that I’ve linked, of the Janiro-LaMotta fight, not only was the moment I said to myself on first viewing “this movie is great,” but it shows how Scorsese’s knowledge and ignorance of boxing both contribute to the film. He has openly said that he doesn’t enjoy the sport and that making RAGING BULL and getting to know LaMotta IRL didn’t change that. But look at the technique here … the goosing of the soundtrack especially. This is as primal and raw as a bare-chested activity needs to be. And when Jake knocks down Janiro, the camera starts tilting and follows Janiro down to the canvas. When you fall over dizzy, whether from a punch or otherwise, the sensation isn’t “me falling over” but “the floor coming up at me,” a sensation Scorsese’s tilt produces. Genius.

200px-LaMotta,_JakeOn the other hand, about Scorsese’s ignorance, the fight is played as a KO and as Jake torturing Janiro. Which isn’t what happened — it went the full 10 rounds to a decision (a fact you can just hear on the soundtrack, but that’s not how the images play). While LaMotta was obviously a great fighter, a world champion, he wasn’t the feared KO artist Scorsese paints him as. And Janiro was too good a fighter to be manhandled like LaMotta is shown doing. But for the purposes of the movie’s drama, it doesn’t matter. The scene is not about a fight as an athletic contest (or even a personal grudge). “The Janiro fight scene” is about Jake being so pathologically jealous that an offhand comment from his wife that an opponent was “a good-looking boy” would prompt him to needlessly punish a wholly innocent man as an object lesson. Notice who Jake is smiling at at the end of this scene. That’s what matters. Indeed, while RAGING BULL is in fact the greatest sports movie ever, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that it isn’t “really” a sports movie at all because the outcome of the Big Game / Fight etc., isn’t what the film is about or aiming toward, or even really contribute all that much to what it IS about.

Even before LaMotta’s death today, I can’t think of the last act of RAGING BULL, roughly everything after the last Sugar Ray fight, without tears welling up. It may be the most profound movie about sin, ever, because Jake’s post-ring collapse is so utterly deserved, and he KNOWS it. His punching the jail-cell wall, and ruining his fists, is obviously a highly symbolic form of self-abuse but people do that when they hit rock-bottom. And the “reconciliation” with Joey is perfectly played, with DeNiro all puppy-dog eager and Pesci polite but stand-offish — never saying “yes” or “no.” Whether it’s from residual fraternal love or fear based on what had happened earlier is … uncertain. Exactly. RAGING BULL is the story of a bad man whose sins ruin him, leave him wanting and needing redemption, but never certain if it has come. IOW, RAGING BULL is the story of man.

“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know. All I know is once I was blind and now I can see.”

RIP, Jake.

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September 20, 2017 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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