Raging Bull - The Futility Of Small Hands

Thoughts On: Raging Bull

This is the masterpiece, the all-time classic, the seminal biopic, by Martin Scorsese that follows the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta.

Talking about Goodfellas in the previous post really got me in the mood for a Scorsese picture, and where better to go that Raging Bull? I can say with confidence that this is the best sports movie of all time. Yes, this fights with Rocky for the position of my favourite sports movie, but this is undoubtedly the better film. I don't need to say it, but I want to, Scorsese is one of the greatest directors to ever come near a camera. This film for me is his most visually poetic and cinematically stunning piece of work. The life he captures in every frame with a mesmerising dance of shadow, sweat, smoke, heat, blood and aggression has never been paralleled. Art is about emotion, using light, pictures, celluloid (in the case of film), to conjure up emotions in an audience. For me, no one, no one, can do aggression like Scorsese. The way he works between actor and camera to perfectly portray violent intent resonates with me on a level so deep it scares me. Films like Goodfellas, Wolf Of Wall Street, Taxi Driver, Casino, Mean Streets, The King Of Comedy can put the improbable onto the screen - and Scorsese does it with seemingly no effort, complete ease. He takes bottled-up anger that festers, wanting to explode, and films it like Leone films landscape, Linklater films conversation, Lanthimos (can't get away from the Ls) films the seemingly absurd or Tarantino (there we go) films exploitative fun. But, even when that bottled up anger does explode, there's no catharsis, it's never that simple for Scorsese's characters. Violence and aggression are the essence, not the peak or centre point of his films - which stops them being Die Hard, Rambo or Terminator (none of them bad films though) and allows him to delve deep into the human complex with pure drama.

There's something aggressive that is so inherent to Scorsese's best films that Raging Bull explores with quiescent grace and beauty. In short, Raging Bull is about the beauty that can be found in violence. Violence is beautiful like space is awe inspiring and nature breath taking. There's something about nature itself, about delicately constructed imperfection, that people find beauty in. With this idea, Scorsese explores violence as a compulsion, as the very crux, the very nature, of certain people. But, before we start, despite this film being a biopic I don't speak of Jake LaMotta himself, but the character constructed for the screen. Such should be obvious, but I just want to make clear that I'm not analysing a real person, just a projection of one. What's funny though is that when Jake himself and his ex-wife first saw the picture, he was depressed, he asked her, 'was I really that bad?'. The reply, 'you were worse'. That's entertainment. Anyway, on with it...

The film instantly hits you hard with its themes with the opening shot and some of the best use of slow motion in cinematic history. Jake is a boxer, he belongs in the ring - as that opening shot shows. If there's anything this film proves it's that some animals only need cages made of three ropes, four posts, twelve turn buckles and one hard mat to rest a dreary head on. But, before we go on to the dehumanisation of Jake, let's take a moment to stop for the slow motion. It's used to show the moments the character fixates on and ultimately needs. Jake, drenched in inner turmoil, but needing clarity (in and out of the ring) clutches to moments in a futile attempt for control. We so often see things in slow motion to give the illusion of this control, but only to be reminded that time can only scrape by and the seemingly inevitable has to come to pass. Jake's life is always hanging in the balance--this is a theme Scorsese always returns to: characters living on the edge of disaster and self-destruction. It always seems that in any fraction of a second Jake could take a devastating blow to the chin or give one respectively, that his home life, his relationship with his brother and wife, could explode into bloodshed and tears. The slow motion emphasises each fraction of a second, indicating that Jake is completely dependent on this idea of time and chance, that he isn't in complete control. This is the segue into Jake's dehumanisation and the film's core conflict. What Jake fights outside of the ring is the constant looming idea that he is a bum, faggot, animal, idiot. His aggression is shown to stem from his desire to make it on his own, and so, it's his aggressive ambition that defines him. In every facet of his life Jake wants what he wants, how he wants it, and he's going to get it on his own and is not at all afraid to fight for it. As Rocky says, 'you gotta be a moron to want to be a fighter, you know what I mean?'. What he means can be seen with Jake. Jake, as a fighter, wants to take on the world alone. 300 Spartans going up against 100,000 Persians makes for a cool movie, a great legend, but, God, it's a stupid one. People love to see one man face the world, we love to see the underdog step up against the odds. But, aren't the odds there to put the sensible people off? This is why 'fighter' will always come with negative connotations pertaining to stupidity and futility.

Jake's internal and external conflicts merge in such a mess because he allows them to literally manifest themselves by being a boxer and surrounding himself with violence. What this allows Scorsese to do is make clear the simplistic nature of aggression. Aggression is a retaliatory system that doesn't work in complex societies and relationships. A gorilla can beat its chest, bite a contender's ear off and earn the right to mate with all the females he can find. You stand up in front of the girl you're trying to sweet talk when another guy comes over and you beat your chest, she's going to think your nuts. You bite a guy's ear off and, yeah, you're going to prison--at the least you're getting a disqualification. Jake, having set himself up with the improbable goal of beating the world alone, has a lot of fighting to do. He can only deal with the flak he gets in his every day life for this with aggression. In short, he acts like little more than a gorilla, than a Raging Bull. This works in the ring, but not outside of it. This shines light on an interesting paradigm. Why is it ok for boxing to exist as a sport whilst the charge for aggravated battery is up to 15 years imprisonment, for street fighting to be illegal? The answer to the question is simple. Street fighting is illegal because people need each other to conform to an idea of peace so we don't have to worry about true, physical, hierarchy so much, but the complex passive/aggressive one of the civilised man. But hold on, what about the first half of the question? Why can boxing exist? This links back to our love of the underdog. Our secret infatuation with violence in a civilised society comes from the same place hope does. In the world humans have constructed for themselves, domination, winning, staying on top, is not an easy thing. We're not all billionaires because... well... I don't know why, if I did there wouldn't be much of a problems. But, I can tell you that beating up and robbing a billionaire is no way to become one. At least, it's not a stable business model. With boxing we can see the link between the lack of successful bank robbers and hope. In short, we all wish we could appeal to our base cores to quickly fix our problems - if only you could punch your boss in the face, then your life would be so much better. The chances of you getting away with that or even a scene like that in Fight Club... is more or less nil. But, we all believe, deep down, that someone somewhere has beat the system, that D.B Cooper is living it big off of that ransom money.

What this really translates to in our childish minds is that dormant plan of setting up that small business of yours, that one you dream of whilst sitting back and watching your favorite boxer/fighter/team on the T.V. Boxing, like all sports, represents the hidden (but there nonetheless) part of us that tells us David can beat Goliath. But, 'you gotta be a moron' to actually punch your boss in the mouth. And so, here we are again, we like Rocky and can sympathise with Jake as characters on-screen, but in reality we'd want little to do with them. This is why some of the most rousing and emotive cinema comes from violence. From Saving Private Ryan to Sin City to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre people love it. P.S. Sin City can die, I hate that film. Off point. Violence in cinema is so powerful because it adheres to our base cores, to the animalistic tenancies we have to suppress in the every day. This begins to explain why Scorsese can make violence beautiful. Beauty is being made to feel small. What makes Scarlett Johansson so... (weak exhale)... is that we know we simply don't stand a chance of getting her. Same with Brad Pitt and whoever else women find attractive--you get the point. Having your knees go weak, breath catch on your throat, palms sweat, chest ache, brain melt, when faced with a beautiful person is more or less the same as being in awe of the stars or the artistry of a boxer. Awe is the key term. We are made to weak--that a beautiful act, thing or place, is beyond us. This is why Scorsese's sensationalisation of violence in Raging Bull is not on the same level of the Die Hards, Terminators and Rambos. Not only does it capture a fantastical take on reality, but it does so to represent and explore something deeper--our complex relationship with violence as presented through Jake as a boxer in juxtaposition to Jake as a husband or brother. With these themes of probability and one man against the world comes the idea of fate and allows us to bring back what was touched on with Scorsese's use of slow motion.

Slow motion is used to imply Jake's need for control, but ultimately his lack thereof. The crux of Raging Bull comes with the idea of Jake's hands being too small. Jake is willing to be the underdog, the Raging Bull, and is so aggressive to the point of behaving in a stereotypically base way because he feels he wasn't born good enough. We all know of the small man complex, and with it can understand why weight is such a significant part of the film and Jake's life. Jake wants to enjoy his food, he wants to fight classes above his weight, but can't. Jake's hands represent reality and food represents self-destruction. In short, his hands are something he's never going to be able to change. He's never going to be taller or physically qualify for the higher weight divisions. The food symbolises Jake's ingrained need for more (a product of ambition) and his hubris. Eating will technically get Jake into higher weight divisions, but he won't be fit enough to fight. This is his core conflict. His aggressive ambition allows him to be the fighter, but is also what makes those fractions of seconds so significant - his life hang in the balance. What this has to do with fate is Jake seemingly being doomed to mess things up. As he asks himself near the end, punching a brick wall, in an actual prison (not his cage, his boxing ring), is, 'Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why am I an animal?'. Jake's nature makes him aggressively ambitious, but also gave him his small hands. In the same respect, you naturally have to work and you naturally hate your boss. The film's fundamental question here seems to be of why we are all intrinsically contradictory. Why are we aggressive (some more than others)? Fate is shown throughout the film to be a futile attempt toward control. No matter how much Jake smacks his wives around he's only driving them away. No matter how much he turns a cold shoulder to the gangsters, they're his only way to the title shot. No matter how much he argues with his brother, he's not going to change the reality of the boxing world. Jake scream, shouts, cries, wails, but to what effect? No amount of slow motion stops the fact that time dictates action. Slow time and you slow the action. No control, just futility. Jake can win his belt, but that doesn't change him. His past only waits to catch up. His small hands only wait to meet a wall that will not fall, that will not shatter.

This is why Raging Bull is a tragedy and Scorsese is not a 'Hollywood director'. He took the genre that gave us Rocky and produced Raging Bull. He took the rags to riches, the David and Goliath, the underdog, story and re-framed it. Inside Raging Bull is Rocky, but no matter how many of them Stallone makes he daren't capture the true breadth of a 'fighter's' life like Scorsese. There's the rise and fall, and the fall is almost never graceful. Raging Bull is tragic and slightly fatalistic to appeal to the rational argument that fighters are morons. As much as we all love aggression (myself in particular) to let it manifest itself--violence--is nothing more than pointless. All of us have small hands and we all love to eat, but you can't shape who you are beyond exercise and a bit dieting. Don't try it, punching a brick wall will only shatter the bones in your hands. Aggression is ultimately nothing more than a waste of time. But, Jake sums up boxing, the film and its ideas a little better than me with...

That is entertainment!

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