Favorite scenes: Raging Bull – Jake La Motta Wall Beating
Another chapter in our “favorite scenes” series (make sure to submit yours in the comments). This one for whatever reason is very personal to me. Whenever people tell me that De Niro is overrated, I usually become quiet because I know why they say that (much of his recent work is mediocre). But this scene and others from his earlier films haunt me like no other.
The following text is a long essay I wrote a long time ago. I have also included the embedded Youtube movie at the end so you don’t have to jump anywhere.
There was a beautiful period in college, it was right after I had pulled my hamstring at a college track event and was sidelined for a few months. No, I didn’t not enjoy the pain. But it was the feeling of being sidelined, the complete loss of accountability to the usual stock of authority, no more practices, no more coaches, no more demands.
After class, I had a half hour of rehabilitation for my injury and then I was free. Well, not every day (worked at a movie theater at nights), just tuesdays which is all I ever needed. Because every tuesday, the Symphony Space theater (uptown-New York City) used to play classic double bills. I cannot remember the pairings but I remember the movies, Avventura, Aguirre -The Wrath of God, 8 1/2, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Searchers, Virdiana, Pickpocket, La Dolce Vita, Singing in the Rain and such classics. And during the rest of the week, I would catch the Satyajit Ray retrospective at the Lincoln Center theater after work. Those were really some great times.
One evening at Symphony Space, I do not remember which played first or second but I remember the pairing made one of the best nights of cinema for me. The double billing was Bicycle thief and Raging Bull, it is incredible to even think back on it now because each movie seemed too big for a double billing.
Raging Bull is undoubtedly a great movie. Some say the finest of the finest director out there, Martin Scorsese. A director I have a very close affinity with. In my lonely male period, his films linger prominently. From the single mom and child scenario in Alice doesn’t live here anymore to the traveling squatter character in Taxi Driver to the borrowed families of Goodfellas, his films spoke to me. Raging Bull was more of the same, inability to really connect because of a fundamental arrogance of one’s own nature. Arrogance.
Jake LaMotta is arrogant, in his boxing ability and his own moral superiority. During most of the film, you are subjected to his arrogance. I bet many viewers have not been able to reach the end out of pure emotional suffocation. I know it is especially hard on women with the domestic abuse that runs prominently in the plot. A modern Macbeth, you wait for his punishment to be administered by the cosmic cycles of this world. “Give us what we want Mr. Skorzezee, have some big dude or a bunch of big dudes beat the crap out of him like they do in all the other films. Have a beautiful girl break his heart. Have his best friend or brother double cross him.” In a sense all these things happen, his brother leaves him, his wife and his kids leave him, he gets beaten to pulp by Sugar Ray, he is broke. And yet there is no satisfaction, no catharsis — the purging of emotional tensions. Many directors think it is cheap to do such a thing and sometimes they are right.
Thrown into prison, Jake fights all the way into the cell. Once inside, his fight turns inward. He goes to the wall, places his hands on it and pauses. And then slowly like it were a drumbeat, he starts to pound the wall with his head. What a gruesome sound! Faster and faster. His head, his hands, his head again, his hands, his elbow. Till he has no other body part left to inflict injury on.
“Why, why, why, why” louder and louder his angry voice gets.
With each why asking a different but same root question. Why am I am this way? Why cannot I change? Why cannot I be somebody else? Why can’t I help myself? Why am I a beast?
His cries childlike in its helplessness and the frustration.
He sits down, his face hiding in the darkness, just his arms and shoulders show.
“Why am I so stupid?” he says in the shadows. “I am not an animal.”
It is hard not to choke up. He looks absolutely lonesome in the shadows, so irrelevant. He, finally, achieves humility. Just another human being, with his set of problems, struggling with themselves. From here on you, Jake LaMotta becomes a pathetic figure. Watching the rest of the film, a cleansed tiredness overcomes me like taking a warm shower before going to bed. Jake LaMotta never gets to make everything right again. Like reality, his only reward is knowing, to understand, to do better next time even if there is no next time.
The Scorsese and DeNiro collaboration have brought some great scenes to cinema. But the stand outs are the ones created as an afterthought. The iconic “are you talking to me?” scene in Taxi Driver was an improv and I would guess the same for this scene. The writing credit for Raging Bull goes to Paul Schrader who in his own right, an incredible talent. Scorsese prefers to improv much of the dialog, and it is the same with this film as he and DeNiro (has been said) rewrote the original script and then rewrote some more on set. Good improv on film feels like powerful theater, the demarkation between the actor and the character are not so clear, each flirts with the other, guiding the other along. This film would probably not lose its stature if this scene were never made or included. With the virtuoso performance by DeNiro and almost perfect direction by Scorsese, it was destined to obligatory prominence. But this beating of oneself gives the film a heart.
In all of Scorsese films, there is wonderful loneliness that comforts me. A deep sense of connection to the world and to myself like this is the way it should always be. To be an urban monk, questioning and prodding oneself to find a truer self, a better self. Reflecting back, I do not know how much of that is true but that sort of life is a lot simpler theoretically. If had someone had asked me to explain the world, I would have at least tried, however naive or arrogant I might have sounded. Now, I would not know where to begin.