Raging Bull ★★★★

I have this thing where I watch older ~classic movies that everyone has seen but I haven't, and it's always a strange sensation because it feels like you've absorbed so much by sheer cultural osmosis that sometimes it feels like you already know what's coming. This was and was not the case with Raging Bull. 'Twas the case in the sense that I thought I knew what it involved, but when it came down to it it was far less violent and much more poignant than I expected. I was anticipating a smashed table at least every other scene; there's less of that and much more hidden, unspoken rage, most of which emanates from de Niro's performance, but which was far less unsettling than it was just...sad.

This is a tough movie to engage with because it's about as quintessentially a Dude movie as I've come across. I'm not saying this to be dismissive - this is genuinely a Dude Movie. It's about male rage, self-entitlement, grandiosity, egotism, selfishness, brutishness, misogyny, and just plain weakness. These are things we are supposed to take and consider very deeply as being important, because they're things that afflict men and men are Important. We're supposed to care about Jake because he is a man, and he is suffering, and men are always important and so is their suffering and so this is supposed to seem like some towering take on a wretched and miserable existence that says a lot about the world in which we live.

Here's the thing, though - Jake LaMotta is a disgusting scumbag. He is completely without merit. You shouldn't feel sorry for him. At all. Ever. Not once. He is a disgusting scumbag, in the manner of all male disgusting scumbags, and the entire world is built upon and to serve and accommodate disgusting scumbags like this. Men who use and abuse everyone around them and project their weak-willed self-loathing onto the people in their immediate line of sight who are most vulnerable and therefore can most easily be subjugated to assuage their fragile egos. Because the world has taught them they're Important, and when they fail to accrue the status or wealth or success that reflects that sense of importance, they cannot comprehend that it could be down to some personal failing and so blame all of the people in their lives. And by people I generally mean women, because we're the easiest thing for men to take their rage out on.

Every single fucking insult in this thing is about women. You're not a good enough wife because you're not cooking my food properly. Obviously I could never cook my OWN food. You're sleeping with this other man, and oh wait maybe now my brother too. Never mind that I'm a shit husband who lost interest in you after marrying you and treats you like crap; all I care about is that I continue to be seen as a force of sheer masculine bravado to all around me. Need to upset me or insult literally any other man around me? Insult my or their mothers. Women are naught but chattel, here for us to distribute among ourselves, but only along certain predefined lines and understandings so that our collective sense of tender superiority is never undermined.

But to address the elephant in the room: this isn't a misogynist movie. It is a film that is, in part, about misogyny, but it itself is not misogynistic. It is very telling to me that it goes nowhere. (I know it's a biopic, fuck off.) What I mean by that is that there is no great redemption arc, no sudden discovery of justice or morals or decency. Its aimlessness and lack of redemption is thematically and stylistically fitting, because Jake is both aimless and irredeemable, and because this well-trodden tale of male terribleness is so pervasive in society as to be automatically devoid of purpose. We just accept it as relevant because men and their stories are automatically deemed relevant. I don't necessarily think Scorsese was going for that; I think he is purposefully trying to interrogate the way class and merit and masculinity intertwine with things like domesticity and relationships to create and maintain the many Jake LaMottas of this world. This is also a product of its time, for as much as the bravura it portrays remains very evident in the world, the structures reinforcing that have shifted.

But it is to Scorsese's credit that he holds back from glorifying Jake. Notice how, at the end, in a jail cell, he is obscured in shadow. Notice how he consumes his own rage and hatred and physically bloats out with it. His physique becomes as decrepit as his mind, and this is captured very eloquently in the shrinking spaces that meet his expanding figure. It's also quite telling, at least in my mind, that the fight sequences are shot so viscerally and with such a clear emphasis on the sensory experience - they're brutal, they're sleeker, there's a sharpness and vividness to the photography and shots that powerfully captures the sweat and blood streaking off into the crowd. They're a striking and urgent world away from the more classic, aesthetic take on home life and spaces, and this does much to wake us up to not just the spaces but the reality of where Jake feels most alive. And yet, some of his most caustic moments occur in domestic spaces - kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms - places he rages against in an effort to capture the adrenaline of being in the ring. Places he seeks to make his domain in the same permissibly violent way the ring is his domain. And all this set to a resounding classical music refrain, underscoring both tragedy and grandiosity, and the timelessness of a story about a brutish man living an empty life of rage and violence.

So, not to undermine all of the above with a TL;DR, I will finish by saluting both Marty and de Niro (and Thelma!) for [chef's kiss] levels of mastery, and the film itself as a beautifully constructed piece of cinema, but I will not salute the useless fucking world we live in for continuing to both create men like this and also imply they're important.

Grace liked this review