AFI Club: Raging Bull, A Commentary On The Perils Of Hypermasculinity

Warning: This article has content that may not be suitable for children. If you’re not old enough to watch the film, you may not be old enough to read this recap. Also, spoilers ahead.

Welcome to The Wisdom Daily’s AFI Film Club! Each month, I will be counting down the Top 10 American Film Institute’s list of Motion Pictures (the 2007 update) and exploring an American ideology/ theme in a recap. Why AFI? Why here? Why Now? Why Me? Click here for a brief rant on my connection to the catalog (insert inappropriate “the list is life” joke here). Enjoy the post and comment (about the film please- I already know that I’m terrible at the kazoo).   Here is AFI’s #4, Raging Bull:

There’s one moment in Raging Bull that is distinctly painful. It’s not iconic, like when Jake LaMotta, the 1940’s Bronx boxer, loses the match against Sugar Ray Johnson, or when Joey, his brother, betrays him, or when he’s all alone in a dank jail cell, wailing. It’s an instant on a stage in a dirty NYC bar, when an aged and stout LaMotta, performing a dry stand up act, is heckled by the vagabonds that frequent the place. Lamotta tries to shrug it off, but the hecklers respond to his retorts, and he submits to their taunts. Jake’s round brown eyes lock together, staring nowhere in particular, gleaming with pain and vulnerability.

For another viewer, this could be a redemptive beat, affirming that even though the anti-hero’s a jerk, he’s human too. Personally, my tolerance for self-destructing white dudes ended with Don Draper finding his zen, the power of the look is not likeability. Here, De Niro’s expression speaks to the realization of utter irrelevance. He is a person who’s experienced all there is in life, and then some… fame and prestige, and now it’s all over. Full wrap.

It’s a sobering thought for where I am in life, a twenty-something on the cusp of the cusp of  success, punching up at conventions and stingy paychecks. There is so much more space to conquer, that LaMotta’s age and failure seems unlikely, if not fantastical. Yet, this reminds my millennial sentiments that there is a reckoning underneath layers of Insta-stories and chai tea; we all have an expiration date on this earth, the fear is that we will still be around once we’ve soured.

It is this, and many other viscerally heartbreaking cuts, that keeps Scorsese’s work endlessly relevant.  I’ve never been a huge Marty fan, and I didn’t enjoy Raging Bull, finding myself bored and unsympathetic to the character ‘s troubles. Still, it’s one of the finest and most deserving films on this list, excelling at elevating every shot into an emotional outburst.

This summary won’t come close to capturing the endless longing that laces every scene, a moving picture is worth tens of thousands of words, after all, and this will only be 1500. But, for the sake of context and convention, here’s a brief summary of the 4th placer on the AFI list, Raging Bull:

Jake LaMotta, a young spry middleweight boxer, has a great left hook, but seldom gets a win. His dark horse status earns him a strong fanship, which attracts the interest of local Mafioso, Salvy Batts. Jake’s brother and manager, Joey (Joe Pesci), is down for this collaboration, but Jake is more hesitant. His winning streak will be based on whomever the gangsters bet on that day. Outside of the ring, Jake meets 15-year-old Vicky, and proceeds to seduce her, eventually marrying her.

Even with this major life change, and success in his career, Jake is unhappy, becoming ever suspicious that his wife is unfaithful. His doubts are not unfounded, as Joey, Jake’s brother, did spot Vicky out with Salvy when Jake was away, but Joey kept this event to himself, fearing it would distract from Jake’s career.

Jake then wins the middleweight championship, getting the prized gold belt. But even with all his success, his paranoia continues. He starts suspecting the Joey is having an affair with Vicky. Joey denies it, but Vicky confirms, she’s been sleeping with his brother — and everyone on the block. Jake goes after Joey, beating him maliciously, swearing that their relationship is over. Vicky decides to stay with Jake, and flash forward a few years: the LaMottas are living in Miami, with Jake running his own nightclub. Troubles follow him down there, as he gets arrested for serving alcohol to teenage girls, landing him in prison. Then, Vicky leaves him and takes the kids with her. Once he gets out of prison, he heads back to NYC, continuing to perform on the stage.

There is some riveting boxing too, but it’s not really about that.

In fact, the whole film is a hoax, a wolf in sheep’s clothing to get men to talk about their feelings. It’s about a guy who was a pretty good fighter, but whose inner demons are ever consuming, destroying every relationship he’s ever had. Scorsese makes the emotional aspect central to the film, commenting on the toxicity of a hyper masculine Bull. He may be a star, but he’s nobody to admire. All this rumination leads into another uncomfortable topic not often breached by sports movies: bad sex.

Bull has one of the most erotic, French new-wave influenced, sex scenes in the American canon. Before a big match, Vicky and Jake are messing around, and he seems willing to break his rule of celibacy before a fight. Vicky lifts his shirt and kisses his chest, stomach, belly button, until she goes low enough for Jake to tell her to stop, explaining he needs to maintain his nerve. She keeps kissing him and he embraces her before turning her away.

Vicky leaves him and has a very oddly placed stain on the lower part of her nightgown. Scorsese implies that he did climax, just not inside of her and that this is a continued missed connection in their relationship. Interestingly, Scorsese uses a similar shot when LaMotta is in the rink, lingering on De Niro’s chest as the sweat drops off  it, only to be greeted by delicate towel dabs-like kisses-on his body.

When he’s in the rink, his central goal is to make contact, punching, and kicking, and running towards danger. For Jake, violence is intimacy, it’s the only language he understands. It’s the only way he knows how to touch and once married to Vicky, he hardly has sex with her, instead choosing to  beat her.  One of the only times we see Jake try to be romantic is when he pins her to the floor and kisses her, as if she was another guy in the ring. Vicky clearly wants more from men, she wants to feel desired and young and loved. Jake cannot understand that.  Violence is both the thing that makes him special and popular, and that cripples him and turns him into an abuser.

While Jake’s behavior to Vicky is abhorrent, the real tragic love story is between him and Joey. When we first find the brothers, Jake is trying to convince Joey to hit him. Joey doesn’t want to, but Jake keeps on insisting, unnerving Joey.  This may be how Jake shows love, but it’s not how Joey shows love, which is why he is ultimately more successful in wooing Vicky and talking to the mafia bosses.

Jake seems to both resent, and want to understand, Joey’s affection. This becomes even more apparent when Jake finds out Vicky and Joey are sleeping together and beats up his brother. Even in this act of pure hatred, he’s sitting and riding him. It’s both an act of destruction and of desire.

At the end of the film, when Jake leaves the bar where he’s heckled, he runs into his brother Joey, who he hasn’t seen in a decade.  Jake calls out to Joey, who refuses to turn around. He then follows him into a parking lot, and forces Joey into a hug. Joey blows Jake off, leaving him blubbering about family plans that will never happen. In this scene, Jake finally tries to interact more conventionally, hugging instead of hitting, making plans instead of berating his brother, but it’s too late; their relationship has expired.

Even so, Joey’s devotion to Jake’s career is the lasting dream in their dead relationship. In the final scene, Jake sits in his dressing room, getting ready for his next “Night with Jake LaMotta” performance,  staring at himself in the mirror. He’s reciting the Brando’s monologue from On the Waterfront (another AFI pick) where he confronts his brother for being unsupportive of his boxing dreams:

“It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night!’ My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit.”

Of course, Brando’s story about wanting to be a boxer and being discouraged by his brother is quite the opposite of Jake’s story and yet he sits there, with a cigar in his mouth, saying it into the mirror. There’s truth to this comparison, between Charley and Joey.

Jake never seemed to be as interested in boxing as Joey was, he didn’t need it the way others needed it for him.  Perhaps his sadness, the one revealed in a standup routine at a New York bar, comes not from living past his prime, but never finding his prime fulfilling. He wasn’t nearly as motivated to box, but he strived over the way people celebrated him, and the way he felt instantly loved. He never had to work on winning people over, they only wanted him to be one thing; a raging fighter. Joey and Vicky needed him to be in tune with their emotions, and that he could never grasp.

Now, looking at his reflection, he’s older and he’s fatter, and he needs new admirers. That’s why he’s performing this little show. Scorsese brilliantly refuses to cut to the bar room crowd waiting for him, choosing instead to show LaMotta in his dressing room, pumping himself up in the mirror.


–with the only person who knew how to love him.

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