“Boxing” films traditionally mythologize the ring as place sacrosanct. When a fighter steps through the soggy void between the semi-taut ropes and onto the mat, a particularly delicate “outside” struggle dissolves and the fighter refocuses on beating his or her opponent to a pulp. Bloody eyes and broken noses replace bleeding hearts and shattered minds, if just for the half hour. No ambitious souls have yet made a film documenting a well-adjusted boxer, as the metaphor is so obvious that as a motif, the damaged fighter, has nearly outlived its storied and well-respected history. The audience knows as much and often will seek out a “boxing” film as a place to witness redemption; the ring is both dangerous battleground and safe haven. The ring is anger and the fighter is pure punches. What makes Raging Bull a cut above the rest is the manner by which the audience connects to the ring through cinematography.
Director Martin Scorsese wanted the audience to feel Robert De Niro’s overwhelming life as real-life boxer and champion, Jake LaMotta. Raging Bull, as a rightful torch-bearer for 1976’s Rocky, demonstrates boxing mythos through tried-and-true means: Jake is a man of few words, but when he speaks the world seems to rattle. He finds no inner peace in the ring, per se, but the canvas mat and attending ropes become a home through which he can channel his pervasive anger. And the audience feels this: the steady punches – tat, tat, pumpf, the off-center angles, close-ups and pan-outs, all timed as though in 7/8 time. Raging Bull is a musical without melody, thump, thump, snatch, spin. Crash. When the bell rings, skulls rattle.
The cinematography is claustrophobic and inconceivably precise – not a shot wasted on the fat of jaw-intact dramatic dance; instead only the meat and marrow off the bone. Start with the opening shot for a précis: colorless (bloodless) LaMotta shadowboxing, what, in hindsight could be him “fighting against himself,” which, told, is a boring and stale motif that is better left on the floor, outside the ring and the cutting room. LaMotta is also slowly shifting weight from left-to-right, which better personifies LaMotta than any inside-outside persona. LaMotta, as Raging Bull makes abundantly clear, cannot turn himself on or off based on his physical location. He has no channel for emotions and his story is not one of redemption. The continuous, close-up beatings show only a man who has everything to win: this is not a lost-soul period piece. But what Raging Bull demonstrates so thoroughly magnetizes is the no-win situation: does an individual have a choice in the outcome of his or her own life? The cinematography certainly takes the nihilist perspective seriously, too. The reader will notice choreographed battles demonstrate that when LaMotta wins, LaMotta also loses. Scorsese and masterful cinematographer, Thelma Schoonmaker, offer a third perspective. The audience, the reader of this very piece of media, is the real loser, because no matter the outcome in the film, the mood is apropos to a gut punch in and of itself.
The “boxing” motif lends itself to Schoonmaker’s lens and she captures the brush-stroke dust and light and the drip of human sweat as she would a tender love scene (she did that, too – though “tender” might be pushing the definition). But what makes Schoonmaker’s shots more cataclysmic in context is the script, which assumes the shattered soul complex in its ethos. A typical boxing film – think Cinderella Man, The Fighter, Million Dollar Baby, the Rocky series, etc. (tons more) – follows the broken human: the beat-up kid with no parents and no future and the hackney is scathingly obvious, but year-over-year some director assumes that this character is more interesting than the dozens before it: it’s not. Jake LaMotta, if set up as cannon-ball trajectory, would have fallen flat without the deft direction and piercing principal photography. Instead, he only falls.
This story, Raging Bull, full of scathing humanity shot in shades of grey, could have been about Seabiscuit or Meb Keflezighi and it would have felt fresh, full of fear, buoyed on a counterweight of indeterminate claustrophobia, and still would have been a lock for a Best Picture nomination. Even though Million Dollar Baby took home the top prize 24 years later for a “boxing” film, it is hard to imagine such grandiose success without the rich standard upon which Raging Bull is based.
Raging Bull did not win Best Picture in 1980, in favor of Ordinary People, which certainly means almost something including this: Rocky won too recently (1976). Even though Raging Bull is not really a Boxing film, but a “boxing” film, the associative nature of its subject matter will have bullied a voter away from perhaps the most representative film, as the decades shifted from the groovy, war-lorn 70s into the grim, technocratic 80s. Think Patton in 1970. Other films nominated – Tess, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man – certainly held a chance in this year for dramatic shots. Sadness incarnate marred the 80s as what was once free now felt bound by the square and its ropes.