OBJECTIVE: Watch a popular or critically acclaimed film we’ve never seen to the halfway point. Pause it. Work together to predict the ending.
RAGING BULL (1980)
THE LAST THING WE SAW: We paused at 01:04:41, just after Tommy makes Joey and Salvy shake hands.
And now… discuss!
Phil: Well, I am going to start off with this prediction: that whatever prediction I have is going to be wrong.
Ben: Don’t be so hard on yourself, you wrong idiot. Kidding. But seriously, what makes you say that?
Phil: For two reasons. One, my track record with this type of film has been bad so far.
Ben: You did call some wide shots in our previous dramas, like the “no conflict” finger-toward-the-fence in Life is Beautiful.
Phil: Indeed. Two, I have already scratched out two predictions that have since been disproved. When Joey’s brother Jake set him up to box with the new guy, Janiro, I had written down that, once their friend’s money was on the line, Janiro would be a dark horse and hand Jake his ass. Whoops!
Ben: In fairness, before you hear the convo about Joey’s plan for LaMotta domination, and if you don’t look at the runtime, it seems like Janiro might be the main antagonist.
Ben: Tell me more about your failures.
Phil: I had also written down that I thought that Jake would die in the ring (I don’t know why I think up such cheesy stuff). Then I remembered that the film started with Jake in his later years rapping to himself whilst smoking a stogy.
Ben: Ah, yes, the part when he sounds like Muhammed Ali as a nightclub comic.
Phil: Just like our last Half Flick, I’m nailing this movie. However, as far as I can tell, I think things are going to end up sad for Jake. How do we open the film? With him speaking the lines to “That’s Entertainment.” It seems like there is an ironic pathos to this scene.
Ben: Yes! The opening credits were wrought with pathos. I felt like some weeping Italian guy playing a violin was gonna pass out from despair. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I am resolute that it describes my feelings.
So, predictions: Jake can “read” people’s movements, both in the ring and in his ex-wife’s pissed-off face. That’s his past. His future is this: either he “reads” that his new wife Vicki feels bored/adulterous, or his insecurity and obsessive behavior regarding that fear make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I kinda predict both. Hear me out: Jake is too confident in his ability to read others and helps push Vicki down a wayward path.
Phil: Yeah, I feel this is quite likely. Vicki has experienced Jake’s extreme jealousy before. And in the last scene we saw, when Jake’s brother Joey beat the hell out of Salvy in the bar because Vicki was merely having a drink with him and about six of their friends, Joey’s behavior was so exceedingly beyond the pale that this might be that final act of the LaMottas’ that pushes her over the edge. She is a strong woman who stands up for what she wants, and I don’t think she’ll be taking this sort of hot-headed, self-centered nonsense for much longer.
Ben: At what juncture did she become a strong woman? I support the idea of strong female characters, but I can’t recall evidence of Vicki being one. To be honest, she started out as a sort of vapid object that emotionlessly did whatever Jake told her to do. I will agree that she is chafing under the overbearing policing of the LaMotta brothers, but who wouldn’t? Even a toady henchman would cry mutiny and throw down his Boot-Licking Union card over conditions like these. Jake & Joey are practically driving her into Salvy’s arms.
Phil: I see what you mean. I suppose I just always saw her as doing what she wanted. It happened to mesh with Jake’s intentions, but I don’t feel that she was ever out of her own control. And in the last scene she stood up for herself and never gave up. In any event, she seems in control enough to me to get what she wants, and I agree that the LaMotta behavior of late could easily push her into the arms of another.
Ben: I may have conflated character weakness with her wooden-ass emotions and painfully rote passionless kisses. But I never felt like she had an idea of her own until the brothers started treating her like unrefined dog crap. Just as Jake’s lust for Vicki makes him nuts, not being able to fornicate with her or keep tabs on her makes him even more nuts. Which drives him to be terrible, which drives Joey to be worried, which drives Vicki to be agitated, etc. Like modern interpretations of Green Arrow, Jake is his own arch-nemesis.
Phil: To go along with this, the foundation of their relationship is interesting to me. To some degree it feels like it might be purely lust and that, had he not met her at the pool and had still joined his brother at the dance the following night, he would have been lusting after a different one of the myriad other women attending said soirée. However, I do feel that the two do genuinely love each other, but his hotheadedness is really getting in the way of their domestic bliss.
Ben: They’re infatuated with each other and they drive each other crazy. Those are symptoms associated with love, not the foundation thereof. Joey describes the genesis of the relationship well: “I try to fuck anything!”
Phil: “They’re infatuated with each other and they drive each other crazy.” Reminiscent of The Notebook, I feel.
Ben: Could’ve been the tagline for its poster.
Prediction-wise, Jake and Joey’s overprotective horseshit will drive Vicki directly into Salvy’s arms and/or pants, and Jake will feel justified in trashing Salvy as he did Janiro. I felt like Janiro was effectively the manifestation of Jake’s insecurity.
Phil: Indeed. Speaking of which, my prediction for his boxing career/life is thus. As I said earlier, I feel his life will end sadly. Originally I was thinking that, through his hubris or through the LaMotta drive to win a title, Jake would lose his wife entirely, and end up totally alone—recall again that at the beginning, Jake is completely unaccompanied: no friends, no family, just him and his dolorous monologue. However, upon some reflection, I feel that this message is simply too heavy-handed for this film and for Scorsese. I feel more that his life is just going to end up being a slow burn—nothing ever too exciting, his wife and he losing their interest for each other, becoming unfaithful, but ultimately staying together in a messy and slightly dreary relationship.
Ben: Definitely on board with Jake becoming sad. Everyone in this film starts out pissy and ends up more miserable, and Jake should be no exception. Self-retraction: Vicki starts off in a sort of fun, care-free life, but gets dragged down by Jake’s… Jake-ness. In fact, everyone gets dragged down by Jake’s Jake-ness. Every character in the film would be better off without Jake, which leads me to my next point. There’s a fundamental problem with getting behind Jake: why should we? Have we been shown any reason to be sympathetic to Jake? He’s the main character, not the hero, and the distinction therein is important.
Phil: Absolutely. He’s like the anti-George Bailey. And I agree with you, as I, too, have been having trouble becoming invested in Jake’s path. The reason for this is not that he is an anti-hero, as I often find such (often cautionary) tales very intriguing. The photographer in Blow-Up, Tony Soprano, Dirty Harry, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I’d even say The Office‘s David Brent are all very interesting to me. But there is just something about all these characters in Raging Bull that has failed to capture me. They all seem to me like petulant children, constantly flying off the handle and solving their differences in barbaric and hot-headed ways, and that ceases to be interesting to me at a certain point.
Ben: I’m not sure I agree that Jake is an anti-hero per se, at least not on the level of Larry David or the characters in Watchmen. I’d describe him as more of a tragic figure. The only thing we feel for him is bad. We pity he who is trapped between “coulda been somebody, coulda been a contender” and “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” The biggest problem is this: even if Jake wins, he and everyone else will still largely be depressed about the same things they’ve already been depressed about. And he’ll still have lost 2 out of 3 to Sugar Ray Robinson.
Phil: And perhaps this is exactly what the point of the movie will be, that as much as they’re all trying to improve their situations, they just can’t do it. It feels that their personalities and flaws are getting in the way, and they completely hinder any improvement. Winning the fight, not winning the fight—none of this matters at all and will not help any of these poor people to become happier.
Ben: Being totally fair, I guess it solves the problem of “Jake wants to fight Joe Lewis (and win), but can’t/won’t.” Jake probably thinks that this is his biggest obstacle. It isn’t. Jake started breaking his own rules to be with Vicki, and now that he has, I theorize that he is losing his ability to “read” people, having compromised his integrity and discipline. His focus is consumed by his obsession. Maybe, just maybe, these people could solve their own (or each other’s) problems. But not by doing what they’ve been doing.
It would be facile to make the argument that Jake deserves to be undefeated. Why? Because he’s the best? Please. He deserves to lose because he broke his own laws and damaged everyone he loved along the way.
Phil: I think he deserves neither to win nor lose. I think all of this fighting is merely a MacGuffin, a tool used to explore people trapped in the world they inhabit, in the personalities they carry—and, even more tragically, worlds and personalities they seemingly can’t escape, MacGuffin be achieved or not.
Ben: While I do think that Jake deserves to lose, I wholly agree that it’s all pointless. The championship bout and his journey there is a tool used to explore these sad people.
Phil: Then let’s continue to explore.
AND NOW, WE FINISH THE MOVIE: