I just re-watched Martin Scorsese’s 1980 boxing film on the life of Jake LaMotta, one of boxing’s greatest sluggers and one of its most resilient, durable brawlers with a chin of iron. The film uses a flash-back and flash-forward set-up, but generally follows the events of LaMotta’s life from his earliest bout as a professional boxer against Reeves in 1941 through his legendary bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson throughout the decade and into the 50s, and climaxing with his downfall, his incarceration, and his time slumming it as a second-rate comedian playing to ten people at a time in seedy dive bars.
I don’t really know what to say that hasn’t already been said about this film. It’s cinematography- by the great Michael Chapman- ranges from gritty, French new wave realism to film noir-cum Bresson compositions; from meditative, hypnotic states of transfixed awe to reflective, slow scenes emphasizing an important detail like blood dripping from the ropes after a particularly gruesome exchange. This film is a meditation on the life of a self-destructive, paranoid, abusive, but powerful, willful, and driven man whose life story serves many as both an inspiration and a warning.
In LaMotta’s fifth bout with Sugar Ray Robinson, the thirteenth unlucky bout arrives. Both fighters are battered, bruised, and beaten. Robinson is exhausted and near-defeat, when LaMotta purposefully drops his guard and lets Robinson rain down punches upon him like a force of nature and by the will of God. The noise of the crowd fades and we are left with Scorsese’s hyper-focus, his go-to method of eliciting a reflective mode of viewing in the mind’s eye of the viewer. All else behind Sugar Ray and LaMotta’s silhouettes fades to black and the figures take on titanic proportions. We watch LaMotta absorb blow after blow. His face swells, his cuts open, new ones form. Blood splatters by the pint. Robinson regards LaMotta with confusion as he regains his energy and his breath. Then with one blow he plasters LaMotta’s blood across a row of judges behind the ring. LaMotta could have beaten Robinson if he had wanted to, but he challenged Robinson to floor him, to K.O. him, and Robinson was still unable to oblige through all the destructive force of his blows. LaMotta loses by T.K.O. as the referee calls the bout to end the needless bloodshed. Robinson was unable to ever knock down his greatest opponent, though LaMotta floored Robinson many a time.
Later in life, LaMotta would open a bar where he performed a comedy bit routine and kept a host of beautiful women around. He gets in trouble with the police for letting in minors, one as young as 14, who has presumably suffered some physical-sexual abuse from some of the men LaMotta introduced to her. He spends a stint in the stockade. The scene erupts with guards dragging LaMotta, fighting all the way, into solitary confinement. Once inside, he approaches a wall. The now bloated, older, pitiful LaMotta headbutts the wall repeatedly, then proceeds to launch a steady flurry of punches. He breaks down and questions his own stupidity, his own helplessness to stop himself. In a scene bringing immediately to mind Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” he sits in shadow, while Scorsese directs some of the most haunting chiaroscuro lighting ever put to celluloid.
The Bronx Bull, The Raging Bull, the man obsessed with proving something in the face of the nothingness and meaninglessness of dilapidated, disturbing New York Streets. The one-time boxing champion of the world. The breaker of homes and of faces. A man who not only grappled with his demons, but seemed to become one time and again. I’m just riffing and musing, there’s no great point to take away here, there’s no one lesson, because this film is a testament to the life of one who acted with no finesse, who performed all duties- fragile or otherwise- with a hammer (as in the greatest traditions of art, of music, of philosophy, of writing), and who is an example of life lived in action and opposition. And all of this is opposed to the sterility of base thought without physical extension in the world.
If you don’t yet understand, think of your own dead-end job, your own meaningless and so-so actions, your own ineffectiveness that calls upon your spirit at 6 am and cries out “Why go on?”. “Why go into work when I could end it all now and submit my trivial pains to the void?” Watch this film and think about it. Then, stop thinking. Live and fight and claim what you can. You have hopes and dreams and desires and goals. And if they’re worth their salt, they’re worth giving it all you’ve got, and leaving a little blood on the mat if you have to, even if its your own.
In memoriam Jake “The Bull” LaMotta (1922-2017)
[To check out a film that helped inspire this one click here: The Set-Up]