Here's a treat—Joe Flaherty's 1981 Inside Sports piece on Jake LaMotta:
All lives are failures in some degree or another. Somewhere along the line we fudge the pristine youthful dream. Even when we achieve, the compromises we’ve made, the injuries we’ve inflicted sully the prize. But most of us can live with this, since we deal in minor declinations of the soul.
Not so with Jake LaMotta. LaMotta’s fortunes and misfortunes have been so cosmic they could be considered godlike if it weren’t for the sacrilege implied. The ruin he has heaped on himself, and on many of those who’ve come in contact with him, seems pagan. Those who lament LaMotta would have you believe Attila the Hun would have to move up in class to get it on with Jake.
When you go in search of the good word on LaMotta, no soft, illuminating adjective is forthcoming. Since most of the naysayers are from within boxing, the word is even more damning. The ringed world is awash with evocations of loving motherhood, guiding priests and golden-hearted gladiators. Cauliflower corn pone bows only to the jab as the basic element of boxing.
But when the talk turns to LaMotta’s character (his boxing ferocity is always lauded), the usual benediction of hot water turns to spit. The only bow to grace is that no one wants his quotes attributed, though this “nicety” could be interpreted as fear of retribution, since no one believes the 58- year-old LaMotta has mended his savage ways.
The story includes a sharp take on Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull:
MARTIN SCORSESE defends his unrelenting, unprobing film portrait of LaMotta by declaring he didn’t want to apply tired psychology, that he found LaMotta to be an “elemental man.” By which I gather he means a man unfettered by influences. It’s a quaint notion: The Abominable Snowman Comes to Mulberry Street. The director’s peg tells us more about Scorsese than about LaMotta.
Numerous articles have related that Scorsese was sickly child, consumed by movies and movie magazines, looking down from his window on those mean streets below. As a man, the same articles tell us, he is still house bound, running endless private tapes of movies in a more spacious, affluent setting. This sequestered life comes through in all Scorsese’s films, the art of a meticulous voyeur.
Scorsese gets the mannerisms, the speech patterns, the language and the interiors precisely right. What formed the tableau seems beyond him. From a bedroom window—his first viewfinder—barbaric action in the street with an opera record playing in the background might indeed look like the rites of a primal society.
The only way to dispel reverential awe was to know those streets. Saloons and poolrooms were not pagan temples, merely colorful neon way stations in a drab culture. Bright bars were concrete equivalents of the neighborhood’s best painted women, and a rack of pool balls cascading under fluorescent lights transported the shooter into a colorful galaxy. People didn’t die gothic deaths on those streets. Life was drained by the dullness. If LaMotta’s hook were a little slower, his temper a shade less manic, he would have been the Friday night undercard in the local beer joint, not a celebrated “Raging Bull.”
For Scorsese to plumb LaMotta’s psyche he would have to have a narrative curiosity, and that is not the art of a window kid for whom stories take place down below—on the streets. Talk is the province of the comer guys, the verbal spritzers who gaudily throw it around in lieu of money, dreams or hope.
And, of course, narrative is interruptive. It breaks up, sullies the purity of the scene. To visually oriented artists such as as Scorsese, narrative is as sacrilegious as inserting dialogue balloons on a Magritte
So Scorsese took an astringent tone in his film. With Raging Bull, he effectively holds boxing films such as Champion and Body and Soul, which explored Social beginnings, up to ridicule. Through attempts at reason and understanding, these films made overtures to the heart. To Scorsese, obviously, these were cluttered films, weakened by sentiment. So he used his camera as an unsympathetic X-ray machine, the bed boy finally making his bones.