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“I’m Not an Animal!” Raging Bulls and Pushing the Boundaries of the Empathy Machine…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, launched a belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Taxi Driver. This week, we’re looking at Raging Bull. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1980 black-and-white boxing film.

“So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
summoned the man who had been blind and said:

‘Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.’

‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’
the man replied.

‘All I know is this:
once I was blind and now I can see.’

By Scorsese’s own admission, Raging Bull was a “kamikaze” film.

By the end of the seventies, Scorsese was personally and professionally wiped out. The director had just gone through his second divorce. He was recovering from a cocaine addiction that had almost killed him. Scorsese had attempted to capitalise on the critical and commercial success of Taxi Driver by making New York, New York. The film was intended as an update of the classic MGM musicals shot in a New Hollywood style, but it was a critical and commercial failure.

The New Hollywood era was ending around Scorsese. William Friedkin had been brought down to earth by the critical and commercial failure of Sorcerer, which had the misfortune to open opposite Star Wars. While Apocalypse Now had become a hit, the film’s troubled production was already the stuff of Hollywood legend. Indeed, it has been suggested that Scorsese was able to sneak Raging Bull through United Artists because its production overlapped with the attempts to fight fires on Michael Cimino’s studio-killing flop Heaven’s Gate.

Scorsese was committed to seeing through his vision of Raging Bull. He wanted to make a film that satisfied him, even if it was to be the last film that he ever made. The result is a singularly abrasive piece of work. It is a biography of the boxer Jake LaMotta that paints a harrowing and horrifying sketch of an innately violent man who succeeds in alienating everybody close to him and destroying every opportunity that he has to build a better life for himself.

Even watched forty years after its original release, Raging Bull is an uncompromising and unflinching portrayal of a protagonist who is deliberately and aggressively unlikable. This is a bold and daring move. Studio biographies are often designed to soften the rough edges of their subjects, to temper biting commentary with glimpses of humanity. Even Oliver Stone’s Nixon offers a surprisingly sensitive study of a subject that the audience might expect the director to skewer.

However, this is the power of Raging Bull. Roger Ebert famously described film as an “empathy machine”, and Raging Bull seems to probe the limits of that idea. The audience spends two hours inside the head of Jake LaMotta, and sees the man with his all his flaws and through all his failings. The film then asks its audience, having subjected them to that brutality and violence, to look on Jake as a human being deserving some measure of compassion and empathy. Raging Bull accomplishes this, one of the most remarkable feats in Scorsese’s filmography.

Kathleen Carroll in The New York Daily News famously described LaMotta as “one of the most repugnant characters in the history of the movies.” The Hollywood Reporter described it as “probably the most unromanticized movie biography ever produced in Hollywood.” It is easy to see why. LaMotta is abusive and violent. Like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, he is inarticulate about his rage and his anger. The subjects of his abuse have often done little to deserve it: his long-suffering wives Irma and Vickie, his patient and devoted brother Joey.

One of the big criticisms of Raging Bull when it was released was that Scorsese refused to pathologise LaMotta. He refused to explain to the audience in clear terms why Jake LaMotta had become the man that he was. There were no childhood flashbacks, no stories of domestic abuse, no introductory sequence in a violent reform school. Raging Bull avoids the linear and explanatory structure of the traditional biographical film, declining to reduce LaMotta down a simple equation of cause and effect.

Critic Richard Brody in The New Yorker has discussed this unique approach to the celebrity biopic:

The compact, compressed solidity with which La Motta’s unilluminated, impersonal character is composed makes him not a cipher or a void but a distillation of the worst of the particular world he lives in—and a paradoxical hero whose ability to win fame and fortune from those elements is itself an indictment of the world at large. From the metaphor of fighting to succeed, he actually fights; from a radically gendered world comes his carnal possessiveness and delusional jealousy; from the discarding of traditional morality comes cavalier indifference and uninhibited cruelty; from his roots in his community comes tribalism; from the American dream of an immigrant family’s success comes a will to win at any cost; from the corruption of institutions comes obliviousness to the very notion of justice or fairness. Scorsese doesn’t dramatize the process that turned a man into a raging bull but, rather, unites the action and the character with the milieu—which is why so much, and so much of the best of Raging Bull, is less a matter of action than of inaction, of potential energy, of the storm that’s brewing rather than the one that’s unleashed.
It is an unsettling cocktail of characterisation that allows the version of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull to stand apart from other examples of the genre.

Of course, Scorsese’s filmography is populated by protagonists that are fundamentally unsympathetic – Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Jordan Bellfort in The Wolf of Wall Street and even Frank Sheeran in The Irishman. Paul Schrader, who had written Taxi Driver and performed a polish on Raging Bull, argued that Travis Bickle was to be “understood, but not tolerated.” In that sense, it is worth noting that LaMotta may not actually be the worst protagonist of a Scorsese film.

If anything, there’s a sense in which Raging Bull actually tempers some of LaMotta’s real rough edges. Following LaMotta’s passing, there was an understandable debate about the extent to which the character in Raging Bull had displaced the real Jake LaMotta in the public imagination, and the sense in which the film had been accepted as historical fact while erasing the man himself. These comparisons tended to suggest that Raging Bull flattered the boxer.

The film omits an early incident in which the boxer left a local bookie with a crushed skull. (LaMotta believed the man died, and would not find out otherwise for years.) It also glosses over LaMotta’s suspected involvement in a murder in Hastings in 1962. LaMotta himself had an interesting relationship to the screen. He complained that he looked bad in it, but later conceded, “Then I realised it was true.” When he asked his ex-wife if he was really that bad, she replied, “You were worse.”

After all, Raging Bull affords its character some small sense of pride. He repeatedly refuses to compromise himself and go along with the mobsters who run the neighbourhood, even though it would make things easier and even despite the best urgings of his brother Joey. Of course, there’s a sense in which this refusal is rooted more in pride than any innate morality, but it counts for something in the context of a Scorsese movie, where the mob exerts an incredible gravity. LaMotta’s ability to resist that pull lends him a certain dignity in spite of it all.

The film’s refusal to pathologise LaMotta also lends it a universality. Much like Travis Bickle is an expression of currents swirling beneath the surface of mid-seventies America, LaMotta is perhaps best understood as a product of his environment. While the film refuses to explain or account for LaMotta’s violence, it does suggest that such violence is simply a product of the world around him. Fighting is not confined to the boxing ring, it occasionally spills over to the crowd and it even breaks out at public dances. (At one point, a woman is trampled by brawling spectators.)

Raging Bull even hints that Jake’s violence is not unique to him. The film frequently suggests that Joey is just as capable of acts of violence. While Jake’s marital discord spills over into domestic abuse with both of his wives, Joey’s violence is left more implicit. At one point, Joey warns his wife that he is “gonna make [her] cry.” At another point, Joey warns his son to stay away from his food, “I’m gonna stab you with this knife.” He might be joking, but his brutally attack on Salvy Batts suggests that Joey is just as capable of violence as Jake.

As such, it isn’t Jake’s capacity for violence that distinguishes him from other characters, as that violence is part of human nature and is out in the world. Instead, it is Jake’s inability to restrain that impulse. As with a lot of Scorsese’s films, religion simmers through Raging Bull and with it a form of spirituality. Scorsese’s often present religion as something transcendent, a way of seeing something more than the material world. However, Jake doesn’t struggle to attain the divine. Jake struggles to assert his basic humanity.

As the title implies, Raging Bull repeatedly returns to animal metaphors. During an early domestic argument, the neighbours complain about the volume. “Crazy animal!” cries one anonymous observer. “Who’s an animal?” Jake responds, belligerently. This iconography runs through the film, most notably with Jake locked in a cell at the climax, insisting, “I’m not an animal!” At its core, Raging Bull is the story of a violent man who struggles to prove his own humanity to himself and to the audience.

Indeed, these animal metaphors extend beyond the film itself. One of the challenges in getting the studio to sign off on Raging Bull was the difficulty in convincing them to make a movie about a man that executives described as “a cockroach”:

“They were questioning us about the film… at one point the other guy said, ‘Why do you wanna make a film about this guy? This guy is a cockroach,’” Scorsese said. “It’s actually a valid question.” Then, he turned to De Niro and recalled the actor’s response: “Your reaction was articulate and grand, in a sense. You said, ‘No, he’s not.’”

This makes sense. Raging Bull was as much DeNiro’s passion project as Scorsese’s. Scorsese had hoped to close out the seventies by making The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York. It seems fitting that DeNiro’s primary drive with Raging Bull was to prove that Jake LaMotta was not a cockroach. He was a human being.

This perhaps explains why Raging Bull leans so heavily into subjectivity. Most of Scorsese’s movies are anchored in a very subjective perspective. Even documentaries like A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy are works that feel immensely personal. Indeed, it is arguable that what distinguishes Scorsese’ twenty-first century career is an ability to make crowd-pleasing epics that still feel very specific to his own sensibility.

For all that Raging Bull avoids explaining or pathologising Jake, the film very firmly anchors the audience in his point of view. This is most obvious in the fight sequences. Watching the boxing matches, it is obvious that the ring is rarely square. Instead, it stretches and contorts depending on where Jake is standing. Similarly, many of the fight sequences include extremely rapid shots of boxers charging down the camera – like they are attacking the audience.

As Michael Koresky argues, this approach was a radical departure from the conventional cinematic language of boxing:

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).

The result is put the audience in the uncomfortable position of feeling empathy with a character who is abrasive and alienating.

Jake is distinct from other Scorsese protagonists like Henry Hill or Ace Rothstein or Jordan Bellfort because he lacks the capacity to speak for himself. Even Travis Bickle, who seems to suffer in part due to his difficulty articulating what is wrong with him, keeps a diary and provides a voice-over that allows him to express himself to the audience. In contrast, there is no sophistication to Jake, no attempt to disguise what he is or what he does.

There is undoubtedly an element of class to all of this. Scorsese’s films are often populated by working class characters, but many of them manage to escape their surroundings. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill manages to live a life of comfort and luxury by becoming a gangster. In Gangs of New York, Bill the Butcher takes pride in his familiarity with the city’s upper-class inhabitants and in learning new words like “ghoul.” In The Departed, Colin Sullivan reinvents himself as an over-eager social striver. In contrast, Jake LaMotta makes no tangible effort to climb above his station.

A large part of what makes Raging Bull so compelling is the way it confronts “an essentially middle-class movie audience” with a protagonist who lacks the capacity to ability and who not provided with the sorts of Freudian excuses that typically make a character like this palatable to presumed audience members. As such, Raging Bull becomes a bold limit case to the power of cinema to generate empathy and compassion: is it possible to feel compassion and empathy for a character who offers no explanations and no excuses for what he does?

Both Scorsese and DeNiro have talked about Raging Bull as a sort of catharsis, a way to explore feelings that they themselves couldn’t quite articulate clearly. DeNiro has discussed Raging Bull with Scorsese as a film about “jealousy.” In contrast, it took Scorsese longer to come around to the idea of directing an adaptation of a book about which he was much less keen, admitting, “I couldn’t understand Bob’s obsession with it, until, finally, I went through that rough period of my own.”

For Scorsese, a director coming out of a very troubled time in his life and career, Jake LaMotta was a way to gain some perspective, explaining, “The Jake LaMotta character made me see things clearly – about the state you can get yourself into and what you have to do to get yourself out of it.” Indeed, it feels important that Raging Bull ends with something approaching a hopeful – if not entirely optimistic – end for Jake. He seems comfortable in his own skin for the first time and the film hints at a possible reconciliation with Joey.

This is the power of Raging Bull. Its central character is incredibly violent and aggressive, and the film declines to soften him in any conventional manner. Nevertheless, Raging Bull extends its empathy to Jake LaMotta. Even as sad and as inarticulate a figure as Jake deserves his dignity. Jake is most definitely a sinner, but through him the audience can see humanity in all its flawed, messy glory.

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