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 Slow Motion Misogyny in Raging Bull

Since its theatrical release in 1980, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull has received uncountable praise reviews. The gritty biopic has been called “the most significant boxing film ever made” (Briley 100), “the best film of the 1980s” (Tomasulo 176), “the greatest sports film ever made,” and “one of the greatest films of all time” (Hayes 1). Todd Berliner sheds some light on why critics love the film in his article “Visual Absurdity Raging Bull,” wherein he comments on the director’s eclectic and self-described “kamikazie way of making movies: pour everything in” (42). “Everything” includes his utilization of Eisensteinian montage, Renoir-esque long takes, asynchronous sound, long lenses, and fire and smoke as a way of creating a hazy image in boxing match scenes. This essay will strive to study Raging Bull “inch by inch,” as Berliner prescribes, by focusing on one such technique in particular: Scorsese’s use of slow motion cinematography.

            The most obvious and easiest-to-analyze slow motion filming occurs in the fight scenes. Quite frequently Scorsese slows down the action to heighten tension and suspense when Jake LaMotta enters the ring and either goes for the kill or anticipates blows from his opponents. Todd Berliner focuses on the famous shot when Sugar Ray Robinson prepares to pummel LaMotta with a haymaker. He believes the image of Robinson towering above Jake “appears more strange because of slow-motion cinematography,” adding that “Such absurd and implausible images permeate the film” and that such absurdity is “one of the primary reasons that critics and audiences find the film so compelling” (41). Hayes also spotlights boxing sequences, noting Raging Bull’s referentiality toward the opening fight sequence in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) due to Scorsese’s use of slow motion fight scenes (9).

Scorsese’s use of slow motion cinematography in fight sequences interests critics due to its likeable implausibility and intertextuality with older films, but what about the slow motion shots in LaMotta’s domestic life? After all, Grindon reports that only 19 minutes (15%) of Raging Bull consists of boxing matches, and even Scorese claims the film is not a boxing movie; that genre in its standard form greatly disinterests him (Grindon 21-22). Frank Tomasulo and Peggy McCormack take up the moments that Hayes and Berliner forget. McCormack applies Laura Mulvey’s feminist theory of the oppressive male gaze to early scenes in which LaMotta’s stare at Vickie’s cheekbones, legs, and hair “anatomizes” her (94-95). Tomasulo recognizes the similarities in the fighting and non-fighting slow motion shots. He lists as examples moments such as “when Jake spots Vickie getting into a Cadillac convertible with the local Mafioso,” when he “sees her greeting Salvy” or sees her “kissing the neighborhood at the Copacabana” (178). He analyzes these moments closely, examining how “the rapturous slow motion shows both his subjective entrancement by Vickie and his jealous perception that he is being dealt an emotional blow both by her Desdemona-like ‘unfaithfulness’ and by a male rival” (Tomasulo 178).

While this essay vouches for the validity Tomasulo’s astute observation about the dramatic effect of the slow motion – a means to emphasize the protagonist’s anger and suspicion toward both his wife and his brother’s friend – this author parts from Tomasulo at the moment when he damns Raging Bull as a sexist movie that “[perpetuates] old Hollywood clichés” (180). Just because the fictional version of Jake LaMotta patronizes the women in his life and reinforces traditional gender roles of male domination and female submissiveness does not mean the film itself agrees. Few women in the movie actually submit to their husbands. In fact, Raging Bull ought to be viewed as a feminist-friendly text due to its focus on bold women who fight back against abusive husbands by leaving with little-to-no notice (Irma, Jake’s first wife) and taking the kids with them (Vickie, Jake’s second wife).

Tomasulo would have been correct in labeling Raging Bull misogynistic if it had ended differently. Suppose the conclusion smoothed over the domestic conflicts, ending with the wives forfeiting their personal sovereignty to their spouses. Suppose Irma and/or Vickie had simply grinned and bore Jake’s frequent yelling and face-smacking. If that were the case, then Martin Scorsese would deserve scorn from Tomasulo. Yet Irma and Vickie curse at Jake, condemn his hypermasculinity, and leave him. While Scorsese’s film sympathizes with LaMotta for his struggle with his inner demons, it does not encourage or accept his wife-abuse, and it opposes sexism instead of perpetuating it.

The content of the non-boxing slow motion shots confirm this essay’s classification of Raging Bull as a feminist-friendly picture. The first use of slow motion besides the opening credits occurs in the LaMotta residence: a New York City tenement. Lounging in his living room while she cooks in the kitchen, Jake complains to Irma about not receiving enough recognition as a boxer. The camera zooms in on her face and dollies right in slow motion as he talks, but she seems not to care enough to look at him until he’s almost finished speaking. The slow motion creates a concern on Jake’s part that his wife is inattentive and does not care enough about his problems, and a moment later, he demands for his steak, even though she insists it needs more time to cook. Thus, the film establishes Jake’s dissatisfaction with his cheerless wife early on, and already the filmgoers sympathize with her. Her job is worse than his because she accept a servile role in his household. At least Jake has a shot at glory in the ring.

 The technique manifests again when Jake sets eyes on Vickie at the public pool.  The male gaze a la Mulvey’s famous essay and the “anatomization” a la McCormack’s are hard at work when the camera very slowly zooms in on Vickie’s face for seven seconds as she kicks in the pool. By the seventh second, her pale skin and golden hair fill the screen in close-up. Another shot beginning eight seconds later focuses more on her legs. The shot begins centered on Vickie’s thighs, then edges rightward toward her toes over the course of seven seconds. This progression suggests that Jake enjoys taking his time ogling Vickie, one small part at a time, as if he were studying her anatomy. While these shots may appear visually pleasing on some level due to Cathy Moriarty’s youthful beauty, they also clearly objectify her. They divide Vickie into a series of pretty body parts instead of a whole person with a personality. A feminist might look at these slow motion close-ups and side with Tomasulo’s negative opinion of Raging Bull. This essay, however, argues that these shots are part of the auteur’s statement about the seductive ease of falling into sexism, and how objectifying women by gazing at them is a double-edged sword. On one hand, staring at beautiful women is enjoyable, but at the same time, one can realize the harm in equating women to aesthetic objects. 

Fast forward to a scene at the Copacabana. Scorsese presents a series of shot/reverse shots, cutting from Jake staring and Salvy and Vickie drinking at a table across the room. The shots of Jake’s troubled face are filmed in regular time, but the interaction Jake watches between Salvy and Vickie (all the odd-numbered shots) transpires in slow motion, amplifying the viewer’s awareness of Jake’s surprise and frustration at their semi-intimate relationship:

  • Shot 1: 3 seconds – The screen shows Jake’s line of sight as he looks through a crowd of people dancing in slow motion. The camera dollies left.
  • Shot 2: 3 seconds – The camera focuses on Jake’s stunned, mouth agape facial expression.
  • Shot 3: 3 seconds – We see the same angle and direction as Shot 1, except this time the camera has moved forward. It continues to move leftward.
  • Shot 4: 2 seconds – Jake’s face looks the same as in Shot 2.
  • Shot 5: 4 seconds – Similar to Shot 3, but moved even more forward. Vickie and Salvy are clearly seen. Salvy smiles at her and makes conversation. The camera zooms in on Vickie.
  • Shot 6: 5 seconds –Jake confirms to Joey that he sees Vickie and Salvy across the room.
  • Shot 7: 3 seconds – Vickie and Salvy converse at their table, this time backed up slightly from its position in Shot 5, but still closer to the other end of the room than in Shot 3. Again, it dollies left.
  • Shot 8: 5 seconds – Jake still looks troubled, and Joey suggests from offscreen to “go ahead.”
  • Shot 9: 3 seconds – Vickie stands up and heads toward the exit with Salvy.
  • Shot 10: 4 seconds – Jake is already on his feet, storming toward the exit.
  • Shot 11: 2 seconds – Salvy and Vickie reach the bottom of the steps. The former looks up, sees Jake and points in his direction without making eye contact, then keeps moving.
  • Shot 12: 29 seconds – Several shots show Jake trying to wade through the thick crowd and catch up with Vickie.
  • Shot 13: 3 seconds – The camera dollies left with the movement of Salvy’s fancy car and also zooms in on Salvy, Vickie, and the people in the car with them.
  • Shot 14: Jake watches them drive away, stunned and blank-faced.  

The slow motion in the odd numbered shots illustrates Jake’s intense perspective. The girl he adores and the man he hates not only meet up at the Cope for drinks, but also leave together. Jake loathes his lack of control over the situation. He can only watch in disbelief and frustration as the man he suspects of wanting to exploit him for money drinks, laughs, chats, and leaves with the woman he desires. This happens all in a matter of seconds, but his skewed perception lengthens the exchange. An alpha male competition that Salvy may not even acknowledge persists in Jake’s mind. Jake yearns to dispatch the other male and claim the stunning beauty as his prize. This primitive scenario of the machismo-fueled man desiring to steal a woman earns Tomasulo’s skepticism of LaMotta, but not his harsh critique of the film and its makers. The film does not side with LaMotta by virtue of his status as protagonist. On the contrary, burying objectivity under LaMotta’s point of view is Scorsese’s way of demonstrating firsthand the egregiousness of Jake’s sexism.

Later, Raging Bull uses slow motion to show Jake’s jealousy of other men kissing and complimenting his wife; his suspicion of his own brother; and his iron will to prove his virility to Vickie by winning the Middleweight Championship. Whether or not the genuine Bronx Bull matches Paul Schrader’s screenplay character, the Jake LaMotta that Raging Bull depicts constantly wants to assert his manhood and dominate women. He sees the world in slow motion and interprets every minute detail. To Jake LaMotta’s paranoid mind, people’s actions always require pessimistic interpretation. “Anything is possible,” as he says several times. His eye for detail, as shown via slow motion cinematography, causes multitudes of possibilities to furiously zigzag and crisscross in his mind, often causing him to suspect people of wronging him and sullying his masculinity. Jake’s inexcusable abuse of his wives and brother is the product of his insecurity. Acting out animalistic fury is LaMotta’s flawed way of compensating for his shortcomings. 

Raging Bull deserves its place in the pantheon of outstanding boxing and sports movies, great 80s movies, and all-time lists because of its significance as a period piece and a time-transcending work of art. Thanks to the film’s highly surreal mise-en-scène and filming techniques, Scorsese creates in Raging Bull a timeless landscape of universal symbols. Using Jake LaMotta’s slow motion misogyny as an example of how not to behave, the film condemns not only the machismo present in mid-20th century New York City but also domineering males’ degradation of women of any time and location.

 

WORKS CITED

 

Berliner, Todd.  “Visual Absurdity in Raging Bull.”  Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  Ed. Kevin J. Hayes.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  41-68.

Briley, Ron Rev. of The Boxing Filmography: American Features, 1920-2003, by Frederick V. Romano.  Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 35.2 (2005): 99-100

Grindon, Leger.  “Art and Genre in Raging Bull.”  Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  Ed. Kevin J. Hayes.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  19-40.

Hayes, Kevin J.  “Introduction: The Heritage and Legacy of Raging Bull.”  Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  Ed. Kevin J. Hayes.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  1-18.

McCormack, Peggy.  “Women in Raging Bull: Scorsese’s Use of Determinist, Objective, and Subjective Techniques.”  Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  Ed. Kevin J. Hayes.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  92-115.

Scorsese, Martin, dir.  Raging Bull.  Perf. Robert De Niro.  1980.  DVD.  MGM Home Entertainment, 2004.

Tomasulo, Frank P.  “Raging Bully: Postmodern Violence and Masculinity in Raging Bull.”  Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media.  Ed. Christopher Sharrett.  Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1999.  175-197.

 
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