Only in the last few years have I become aware of the ongoing ‘Taxi Driver vs. Raging Bull’ debate. It is, in short, an argument over which film is Scorsese’s best, and it seems that most critics are staked on the side of the boxing film. This is something that amazes me; as far as I’m concerned, it’s totally self-evident that Taxi Driver is the superior one. Both are matched blow-for-blow until we get to the narrative and the thematic power of each film, and there Taxi Driver is leagues ahead of its successor. This is not to say that Raging Bull is in some way a flawed or deficient picture; rather, it is a straight biopic, and as curious and troubled as its protagonist may be, it just isn’t as nuanced and layered as Taxi Driver. I wanted to open by planting my flag on the Taxi Driver side of the debate because, despite that dispute over the two, Raging Bull is simply a terrific picture—one of Scorsese’s finer works and, like Taxi Driver, one of the best American films ever.
Raging Bull is a technical masterpiece more than anything else, a directorial tour de force where just about everything visual and aural is flawless. This side of the film—the camerawork, the soundtrack, the fight choreography—is what propels it into the pantheon of great movies. The superficial things are just as spectacularly done as the film’s subtler qualities. The makeup, for instance, is incredible; the bloody, pulpy, bludgeoned faces are incredibly well realized, and the black-and-white film—used, we are told, because Scorsese didn’t want the movie to appear too bloody—in fact heightens the violence on display, the monotone being so crude and visceral. And we cannot avoid mentioning it: Robert De Niro’s weight gain for the scenes involving the older LaMotta (he ballooned up to 215 lbs) was, for me, crucial. In his prime, LaMotta is unlikeable but is at least skilled and dedicated to his craft; in his twilight, that veneer is stripped away and the human he always was is finally revealed: a broken, deplorable, fundamentally weak individual. That transformation wouldn’t be as impactful without the physical change De Niro endured for the role.
As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, Scorsese does some of his best work with set pieces in small, well-defined spaces. The romance scene in Who’s That Knocking at My Door was that film’s best moment; see also the pool hall fight in Mean Streets and the ending gunplay in Taxi Driver. His skill pays massive dividends with the boxing scenes in Raging Bull, which is, I think, where the film shines most. The camera is the key player in the ring—it is totally fluid, dancing in and out and close and away with the fighters. Scorsese’s tricks are all obvious, but they are executed with complete precision: the strange angles he picks to show us a fighter’s discomfort; the changes in film speed; the way he drives in when a punch lands to show us facial bones cracking and blood spurting out of noses and above eyebrows.
Hidden beneath that is a less noticeable, though for me more interesting, component of the fights: the soundtrack. Without us actually realizing it, the audio sets the tone for whatever’s happening on screen. For instance, when Scorsese cuts the crowd noise the fight becomes tenser and feels more brutal. Without any other input, we’re left only with the impact of punch after punch, a display of sheer violence which feels like it could last forever.
Even that is a relatively basic technique compared to what else Scorsese does. Critic Roger Ebert notes that the director “combines crowd noise with animal cries, bird shrieks and the grating explosions of flashbulbs (actually panes of glass being smashed).” Some of the sounds are so outlandish that they seem not to fit, but as aforementioned, and as Ebert himself goes on to say, we don’t necessarily notice each individual noise. But we feel it—we feel the tenor of the fight through that raw wave of sound that Scorsese throws at us. The sound is a marker for everything that happens—for the relative strength behind each punch that lands; for the direction that the fight is headed in. It is done to perfection. Mute the sound on the fight scenes and you’ll see—they’re toothless without their aural accompaniment.
As noted at the top, Raging Bull is pretty much a straight-shooting biopic. It isn’t terribly nuanced, and unlike Taxi Driver there’s no deeper meaning to the dialogue (and nor is there any visually-based subtext), though that hasn’t stopped commentators from treating the two films as if they have equally rich narratives. I certainly understand the appeal of the LaMotta character: he’s troubled, and he’s struggling to get along, but despite that I don’t find him to be especially remarkable. Open up even the most mainstream articles on Raging Bull and you’ll see a mention of something like the Madonna-whore complex, in reference to LaMotta’s trouble with women and his low opinion of himself. All that may be true, but I’m not so sure Scorsese’s implementation of those themes is as meaningful as some are suggesting it is. It may make the character more interesting, but he’s still a brute, and for me, his foibles in no way engender sympathy for him.
Scorsese does with LaMotta what he did with characters in his previous films (and did with characters in his future films): he fuses violence and sexuality. LaMotta has all kinds of things going on—there’s some suppressed sexuality in there; a smattering of self-worth doubts also—and he channels it all into the ring. The obvious case is where Vickie says the boxer Janiro is good looking, and LaMotta proceeds to smash his face into shards of bone and flesh. But, just as with the Madonna-whore aspect of the character, Scorsese never really does anything with it. It’s all descriptive of what and who LaMotta is, but none of it ever flows into a deeper theme about violence or love or sex or boxing or anything else. It’s all just a fact of LaMotta’s existence, and that’s fine, but we can’t pretend that it’s a big thematic revelation of some sort. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all evidence for how flawed he is, but none of it amounts to anything else.
That’s not a criticism of the film—the protagonist remains interesting, and all his sides ensure his character is never boring. Rather, I’m challenging the notion that there is some deeper meaning to LaMotta. He doesn’t need it, and the film doesn’t need it: it is still a masterwork, even if it doesn’t have the subtext and motifs and themes of something like Taxi Driver. Raging Bull is a technical wonder. The overwhelming majority of filmmakers could only dream of reaching such a pinnacle. Like Taxi Driver, it is a rare film, and it only gets better with age. Savor it: the film medium is much better off for having this great work.