Sunday, February 12, 2012
RAGING BULL marked the maturation of Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker with staying power. In the 1970s, he directed two masterpieces that established his reputation among the new crop of talents: MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER. But there loomed the danger of burning out or fading away, as happened to so many other American ‘auteurs’ of the late 60s and early 70s, the most famous of whom was Francis Ford Coppola. By the late 70s, the Spielberg-Lucas school’s-out-for-summer blockbuster approach to movie-making became the new industry standard. Hollywood finally arrived at the formula that would secure its newfound dominance—indeed beyond the dreams of Moguls of Classic Hollywood.
With the rise of TV and youth culture—and change of rules in film distribution—, Hollywood(dominated by the old guard and fading talents)had faced one crisis after another in the 1950s to the mid 1970s. Increasingly fewer people attended movies, and Hollywood couldn't figure out how to cater to the emerging youth market. To be sure, there were slick blockbuster hits in the 60s, especially the 007 series, but the Hollywood spectacles, by and large, were losing money. CLEOPATRA(with Elizabeth Taylor), the biggest hit of the year, still lost money. Younger moviegoers were no longer interested in Biblical and Classical epics, and older people had seen their share. War movies and classic-style Westerns weren’t winning over new audiences either. There was also the challenge of European and Japanese cinema. Though relatively few foreign films became box-office hits in America, they were instrumental in changing the tastes and attitudes of the young and urban audiences. Traditional Hollywood movies were no longer ‘cool’ and appealing. Thus, Hollywood, out of desperation if nothing else, experimented with newer talents and visions in the latter half of the 60s, allowing for such films as THE GRADUATE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, and THE WILD BUNCH.
But the key film that ‘changed everything’ was EASY RIDER, not least because it was low-budget and entirely ‘personal’ in style—as well as nakedly appealing to youth culture. Though made for less than a million dollars, it raked in huge profits, and so Hollywood began to promote new executives and court new talents, the American ‘auteurs’ of the early 70s. Though many of these filmmakers were young(and making their first films), there were veterans among this group as well: John Cassavetes, who made his first feature film SHADOWS in 1959; Robert Altman, who had several movies under his belt prior to directing the landmark ‘film event of the year’ M*A*S*H, to be followed by MCCABE AND MRS MILLER, LONG GOODBYE, and NASHVILLE; Arthur Penn, who began making films in the early 60s. The big names of the period were Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Bob Rafelson, and many others, including of course Martin Scorsese. Michael Cimino would make his name with THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT before winning even greater acclaim with THE DEER HUNTER in 1978.
The problem was the initial success of New American Cinema petered out almost as suddenly as it’d begun, more financially than artistically(though quality too suffered in many cases). There was several reasons for this turn of events. New American cinema, like the French New Wave, relied on the excitement of novelty, but nothing remains new forever. What seemed new in 1969 or 1971 was already old hat by 1973. Thus, when Dennis Hopper followed up EASY RIDER with the bolder(and more reckless)THE LAST MOVIE, it was rejected by both critics and the audience. Another problem was the Counterculture ethos centered around excess, drug use/abuse, and libertine-ism; it was supposed to unleash new freedoms and possibilities but, more often than not, it led to self-indulgent and self-destructive behavior. Sam Peckinpah, the powerhouse director of THE WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS, and THE GETAWAY was fading fast by the mid 70s, and he wasn’t alone. Cocaine especially took its toll on the artists.
Another problem was ego. Though the American ‘auteurs’ initially embodied ‘personal filmmaking’—free-spirited, quirky, and relatively low-budget—, their big egos led them to bigger projects. Perfectionism turned into gargantuanism—and New Hollywood, in its combination of Counterculture idealism and hipster greed("maybe there will be another giant hit like THE GODFATHER!") was willing to bet on bigger projects. Especially because of the great success of big-budget New Hollywood movies such as THE GODFATHER and THE EXORCIST—and the prevailing idea among some Hollywood producers that ‘BIGGER art’ will lead to more respect and Oscars—, some of the auteurs got the green light to do as they pleased. It led to one disaster after another, mostly financially but artistically too in many cases. Scorsese made one of his biggest and worst movies with NEW YORK NEW YORK. William Friedkin’s mega-budgeted THE SORCERER, a remake of the Clouzot classic WAGES OF FEAR, was a bomb with both critics and audience, lasting in theaters for a week or two. Coppola barely survived, physically and financially, with APOCALYPSE NOW, which did, over time, manage to make back its huge costs. But there were odd successes too, like Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER, but then it led to the biggest symbol of the auteur hubris, HEAVEN’S GATE, a $40 million mega-epic that sunk United Artists.
But the writing on the wall could be read earlier. Peter Bogdanovich, heaped with almost universal praise for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, kept disappointing critics with subsequent releases, finally running out of gas with the expensive flop AT LONG LAST MY LOVE. The thrill of New Cinema was gone; new talents had burnt out due to lack of ideas, direction, passion, or too much drugs(or too much unrestrained ego).
There was also the industry shift in focus from New Cinema to the New Movie as exemplified by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
JAWS was another movie that ‘changed everything’. And then, with the mega-success of STAR WARS, Hollywood understood that the summer blockbuster wasn’t a fluke. It could be formulated and repeated year after year. Though film critics, being mostly liberal, have tended to see the rise of Lucas and Spielberg as a form of cultural reaction, movies like JAWS and STAR WARS were, in reality, the fulfillment of the 60s cultural trend/spirit—no less than Steve Jobs’ success with Apple computers. The liberal elite’s remembrance of the 60s focuses on art cinema, intellectual fashions, radicalism, and etc. The notion of the so-called ‘Film Generation’ supposes that cinema—especially ‘cinema as art’—was the dominant cultural force and rallying point for the Youth Generation and Counterculture. In truth, it was Rock music and instantly gratifying drugs that defined culture for MOST young people of the 60s. Though it was fashionable for young people—especially college kids at a time when university enrollments were exploding—to sample some Godard and Antonioni films, most young people preferred the loud brashness and instant fun offered by the Beatles, Stones, and other rock bands. And though critics have categorized movies such as BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, and WILD BUNCH as ‘art films’, they were no less crowd-pleasers with bucketfuls of explosive violence, sex, humor, and/or bombastic music. The blood-soaked and steamy realism of BONNIE AND CLYDE convinced many viewers that it was ‘true’ and ‘authentic’, as opposed to false and packaged—and to be sure, it did signal a whole new style in American cinema—, but the audience were no less reacting to the movie’s Rock-n-Roll thrills and fairytale aspects. Beneath the veneer of sophistication and irony, it presented the fantasy of a glam duo with hot guns having fun. The bare mechanics of BONNIE AND CLYDE isn’t really all that different from JAWS or STAR WARS. It doesn’t really make you think about humanity, morality, or social issues; rather, it makes you go along for the ride in a revamped model of the Hollywood crime film.(If JAWS revamped the Monster Movie and if STAR WARS revamped FLASH GORDON serials, BONNIE & CLYDE was a neo-crime thriller, a bloodier version of movies like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT.) Not surprisingly, the critic who enthused most about the movie was Pauline Kael, who generally had problems with cinema-as-art-as-opposed-to-entertaiment. For Kael, BONNIE AND CLYDE was great because it was unabashedly a work of entertainment that, however, wasn’t afraid to make up new rules as it went along; it signaled a departure from Old Hollywood but was made in the spirit of the early Hollywood when the language of movies was in the process of inventing/expanding itself; Kael liked BONNIE AND CLYDE not so much because it was radically new but revived the spirit of ‘newness’ in the early Hollywood movies she grew up watching.
If traditional and/or serious critics preferred the art-as-serious and entertainment-as-fun(and trivial)dichotomy, movies like BONNIE AND CLYDE demonstrated(at least for its champions like Kael)that filmmakers didn’t have to sacrifice meaning/truth for fun/thrills or vice versa. A movie could have both. And there's no denying the abundance of eccentric, personal, and gritty elements in movies like BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE WILD BUNCH that one doesn't find in most movies of Spielberg and Lucas, whose modus operandi seems to be “give the audience what it wants and do NOT offend unless absolutely necessary.” After watching the films of Penn and Peckinpah, one feels grimy and sticky with blood and sweat, as if dragged thru the mud, smeared with the stink of life. It may not be exactly pleasant, but one feels he/she has seen and felt something of life and truth. In contrast, despite all the violence in Spielberg/Lucas movies, there is an element of soap, something like a sudsy bubble bath; you feel squeaky clean; even the blood has the fizzle of soda pop. BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE WILD BUNCH may be fairytales, but they, along with THE GODFATHER movies, are fairytales for adults whereas Spielberg/Lucas movies are fairytales for children.
THE GRADUATE was something in between, incorporating visual mannerisms of European art cinema in service of what essentially boiled down to a sex fantasy—younger man with older woman—and Disneylike fairytale of the white knight saving the damsel from the dragon; what made it ‘different’—or seem that way—were the stylistic eccentricities of Mike Nichols(who, at the time, aspired to be the American Fellini/Antonioni) and the ambiguous conceit of the ending. (Because of the hint of complexity in the final moments, young audience members could be flattered to feel more knowing. They could have the cake and eat it too: enjoy it as happy ending but also pretend, along with Nichols, that they were too wise and hip to believe in happy endings.) Thus, one could get from THE GRADUATE a feeling of watching cinematic art and having a great time. It was BLOW-UP for people who didn’t really like BLOW-UP. (Incidentally, Benjamin Braddock in THE GRADUATE says to his dad that he wanted to be ‘different’. I wonder if this partly inspired the ‘Think Different’ campaign of Apple. In a way, Ben’s feelings are embodied in the spirit of the movie itself—as a ‘new’ and ‘different’ kind of American cinema. Yet, just as THE GRADUATE was more a work of artful dodging than real art, what Apple offers to customers is familiarity than real difference. Using Apple products, one feels more a member of a connected community. It is a ‘new’ and ‘different’ social reality but where one feels more ‘at home’ at all times. This paradox was at the core of Counterculture itself. On the one hand, Counterculture was about everyone doing his or her own thing, rejecting the conformism of their parents’ generation. Yet, Counterculture, in its utopian dream of creating a new community, emphasized its own brand of unity, togetherness, and conformity, a kind of ‘gathering of the tribes’. Many Counterculturites merely substituted one community/conformity for another. Maybe nature abhors an individuality; socially oriented by nature, people feel this need to belong to a tribe, a community, to a set of values/dogma. This is no less true of fans of Ayn Rand who never seem to ask themselves why, if indeed they are such ardent individualists, they feel such powerful need to rely on Rand for all the answers. And a community that produces a movie like ATLAS SHRUGGED—and thinks it’s half-decent—is too jaded, pathetic, and pitiful to know they’re off their rockers.)
Anyway, New Movie replaced New Cinema. The 60s generation finally began to take over the industry only in the late 70s for the simple reason that movies are more expensive to make than music. A 20 yr old Rock singer in 1965 could play and cut a record, which is why pop music in the 60s was dominated by young people. But most of cinema—even movies that appealed to young audiences—in the 60s and early 70s were made by people of an earlier generation(as it was nearly impossible for most young talents to break into the industry overnight). But once the 60s generation began taking over the industry by mid- and late 70s, it turned out most of them were not part of the so-called Film Generation—or at least not entirely. ‘Film Generation’ connotes serious/intellectual appreciation of cinema-as-art and favors foreign cinema over Hollywood movies. George Lucas of THX 1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI was partly a member of the club, but he soon dispensed with ‘art’ to concentrate on fun, and the result was STAR WARS, a kind of sci-fi space rock concert. The use of quasi-classical music and ideas/themes borrowed from various myths lent it an old-fashioned or timeless(depending on whom you ask)quality, but its main appeal was speed, dazzle, and loudness. It offered sensory overload. With STAR WARS, you didn’t need drugs, and you didn’t have to think. It was movie as drug. It was as painless as SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and TOMMY. With the final implosion of New Cinema with HEAVEN’S GATE, it was obvious what the future of American cinema would hold. Coppola, who eked by with APOCALYPSE NOW, which made just enough money and garnered just enough critical support, would soon follow Cimino into cinematic graveyard with the disastrous ONE FROM THE HEART, surely one of the biggest white elephants in movie history. To an extent, Warren Beatty’s REDS was one last heroic effort to carry the torch of New Cinema, but not only was it a failure—commercially if not critically—, it was actually a shamelessly hokey, old-fashioned, and toothless epic that made David Lean movies look avant-garde in comparison.
Much was at stake for Scorsese when he made RAGING BULL. The kind of edgy and personal films that made his name—TAXI DRIVER and MEAN STREETS—were no longer the hot item. People wanted soap, not sweat. (Even 70s crowd-pleasers like the first installments of THE BAD NEWS BEARS and ROCKY had an element of sweat, of real-life personalities in a world we would recognize as like ours. But their soapy sequels washed away the grit and grime, replacing them with well-scrubbed and polished formulas. If the rule of the academia became ‘publish or perish’, the rule of the New Movie was ‘polish or perish’. This even applies to the look of 80s cinema: well-lit rooms, slick decor, shiny surfaces, sterilized emotions; a world without shadows or where even shadows have the artificial look of MTV videos. And the synthesized soullessness of 80s pop music and movie soundtracks was a fitting counterpart to 80s imagery, perhaps epitomized by the godawful series MIAMI HEAT.)
In terms of age, Scorsese is of the same generation as Spielberg and Lucas, and they share a lot of common references. They grew up mad about movies and revered the great Hollywood masters like John Ford and foreign masters like Akira Kurosawa.
But the differences proved to be more important and interesting. Both Lucas and Spielberg grew up in ‘bland’ suburbia. Lucas’s main obsession was with machines; even his sci-fi dystopian art film THX 1138 is most interesting for design and gadgetry. In AMERICAN GRAFFITI, the characters sometimes take backseat to the cars they're driving; the most memorable image, at the very end, is Dreyfus in an airplane looking down at Suzanne Somers in a white car. Though Lucas soaked up certain themes of the Counterculture—especially from the neo-fascist scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell—, his main obsession has always been technology; more interesting as computer image than character Yoda is. STAR WARS series ends with the triumph of the spirit—as represented by the Force—over the materiality of technology, but the only reason to watch those movies is to cruise around in space race cars and swing neon sabers around. STAR WARS franchising extended its universe to toy gadgetry.
Lucas hasn’t been without vision, but he’s most at home with technology.
THX-1138, like the STAR WARS saga, warns of a world tyrannized by technology, but technology is its heart and soul. The film ends beautifully just when Thx has broken out of the techno-bee-hive-underground-colony, but suppose Lucas had to make a sequel about Thx learning to become human; he wouldn’t know where to begin.
Paradoxically, the message of his films could be anti-technological because he’s so obsessed with technology; it’s like a man obsessed with women cautioning himself of the dangers of mad love; he vilifies what he's an emotional slave to.
Technology is what Lucas is in love with, and James Cameron is something of a kindred soul(less). Both Lucas and Cameron rail against technology but precisely because they are techno-addicts themselves. Even their preference for women tends to be on the technological side. Lucas’s current girlfriend looks like Michelle Obama, who looks like the Terminator machine without the flesh. And, Cameron wrote the script for STRANGE DAYS where a brilliant but ‘bland’ white guy is saved from his self-absorption by some kung fu black woman. In the black female figure, Lucas and Cameron see the opposite of everything that is overly rational, mechanical, cold, and soulless about the West. She is jungle earth goddess. Yet, on the other hand, the powerful physical features of the black female make her look like an Afro-mecha machine designed by fanboys.
If Lucas is techno-centric, Spielberg believes in the magic of movies. Spielberg is as adept at movie technology as are Lucas and Cameron, but he uses technology to recreate the magic that enchanted/enraptured him as a child while watching Disney movies. Spielberg the child was transported to lala-land, and he wants the spread the magic around—and rake in the cash too, of course. Spielberg has ambitions of being a serious artist, but even movies like SCHINDLER’S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN have elements of magic, of fairytales. In the end, despite all the brutality and horror, we leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. E.T go home, Ryan goes home; and Jews go ‘home’ to Israel too, oh goo. In terms of sheer filmmaking prowess, Spielberg at his best is almost untouchable. In the past 20 yrs, only Scorsese, Fincher, Johnny To, and maybe Paul Greengrass at their best exhibited the same level of mastery and brilliance. Despite his shrewdness in business and movie-making smarts, Spielberg remains something of a kid at heart. Perhaps, it’s crucial that among the Boomer ‘Movie Brat’ generation, Spielberg was the least involved in any aspect of Counterculture. He seemed to have gone straight from the 50s to late 70s/80s. (But being Jewish, Spielberg wasn’t as well-adjusted to his ‘bland’ childhood environment as Lucas may have been. Sometimes pushed around by gentile kids, he had more to be resentful about; hostile/vengeful feelings, channeled and used constructively, can fuel creativity. Spielberg didn’t grow up in the mean streets, but he did have to face some mean kids. And the mere fact of being Jewish in the age of Holocaustianity made Jewish kids like the young Spielberg feel more sensitive their identity, which conversely also made them more insensitive to things of non-Jewish agendas/interests. ‘Jewish sensitivity’ is about gentiles having to be sensitive about Jews, not vice versa. Even when Jews show sensitivity to blacks and other ‘oppressed minorities’, it is ultimately to serve Jewish interests.)
If Lucas and Spielberg were the embodiment of West Coast sunshine—wide open spaces, proximity to nature, safe streets, etc—, Scorsese grew up in East Coast Little Italy, a nasty place run by the mafia and in conflict with various races and ethnic groups. Though politically liberal, Scorsese’s default outlook on life is tribal. Though he eventually grew away from the blinkered reality and prejudices of NY’s Italian-American community, the umbilical cord to his origins was never severed. If Anglo-Americans are quick to expose the ‘racist’ evils and hypocrisies of their own communities—consider the dreary movie sermons of John Sayles and Robert Redford—, Scorsese depicts racial/ethnic tensions as fact of life without undue moralization. Sure, the ‘greaseballs’ had problems with the ‘niggers’, Jews, ‘chinks’, ‘faggots’, and etc, but that’s just how things were(and maybe still are). The streets were mean, and you had to learn to 'survive', and one sure way was to stick with your own kind. But given that the Italian-American community was steeped in crime, corruption, and other foulness, you couldn’t really rely on your ‘friends’ either. You had to keep your eyes and ears open, be alert to body language and be on the lookout. In GOODFELLAS, Henry Hill’s voice-over narration says as he’s being arrested that he knew the men with guns were cops because ‘only cops talk that way’. Had they been ‘wise guys’, he would have been dead without even knowing. So, Scorsese grew up in an environment where animal instinct for survival was crucial. But given the rich history of Italians and their ritual way of life, they couldn’t just act like animals. There were rules, codes of conduct, to keep it all ‘respectable’. Part of Scorsese was like the young Henry Hill. He was fascinated by the ‘men of power’ in his neighborhood and wanted ‘in’. But another part of Scorsese was too intelligent, sensitive, and of ill-health to join or be allowed in. The streets and the people around him—friends, associates, neighbors, etc—taught him about ruthless and cunning ways of survival and winning. But Italian-American life was also centered around the Church, which promised soul-cleansing and redemption. (On the other hand, the ritualization of confession-of-sins may have things worse in some ways. One could get into the habit of committing crime and then confessing. Since confessing and saying a few Hail Marys made you feel clean again, you might feel free to go out and commit more crime. It’s like Tommy says to his mother in GOODFELLAS, “I settle down with a girl every night, and then in the morning, I’m free!”)
For Scorsese, there was the second church, that of the cinema, where good guys and bad guys, virtue and sin, reality and fantasy, commerce and art battled for the heart and soul. Scorsese grew up feeling like a thief-Christ. He found the allure of power, money, and women—on the streets and in the movies—irresistible, but he was equally drawn to things of redemptive or higher nature. Sometimes, the redemptive could cut both ways, especially in the world of cinema. Art film, as opposed to Hollywood product, was supposed to be purified of the stink of commerce and greed. Yet, many art films coming from Europe were more frank about sexuality and the seamier side of the human condition. How do you resolve such paradox? The classic Hollywood movies, the products of greedy money-men, were often ‘clean’ and fit for the ‘entire family’ while the European film, directed by genuine artists striving for Truth, were rife with dark controversial subjects and content. In MEAN STREETS, Charlie wants to believe in the ‘clean’ official dogma taught by the Church, but he knows it’s 'phony' and ‘corrupt’. To truly save his soul, he feels a need to mingle with reality, to roll up his sleeves and plunge his arms into the sewer of humanity. He also wants gain a restaurant through his uncle in the mafia. It’s less tragi-comic than tragi-farcical.
Though Little Italy constituted a world of its own—where one could shut out the rest of humanity as if they didn’t exist—, it was also part of NY, the most ‘happening’ city on Earth. Thus, Scorsese grew up with one foot in the tribalism of Little Italy and another foot in the cosmopolitanism of NY. (Ethnic divisions mattered more in East Coast cities since immigrant roots went deeper. Immigrant groups arriving in ships from Europe would settle in an Italian-American, Jewish-American, Greek-America, Irish-America, Polish-American, or some such community as soon as they got off the boats. Over time, these communities had ethnically solidified in terms of territory and identity(though, to be sure, the move to Suburbia had a diluting effect on ethnic divisions). But as Americans moved westward, the various ethnic groups tended to blend and become ‘bland’, which is why there are fewer ethnic divisions(at least among whites) in the West Coast than in the East Coast. A NY Jew is really a Jewish Jew whereas as Los Angeles Jew, though very much a Jew, appears less a Jewish Jew. (It’s like the LA Jew vs NY Jew in ANNIE HALL.) Thus, New Yorkers of all stripes were both intensely tribal and intensely worldly. The so-called ‘New York Intellectuals’, for example, were mostly and unmistakably Jewish(in their interests and outlook), but they wrote of matters and issues of ‘universal’ import.
Cinema for Scorsese was both the most tribal and the most universal of the arts. A theater in Little Italy might show Italian films; though Scorsese the child grew up in NY, he could live in the mythic Italy of movie dreams and feel connected to his ancestors. Movies were also tribal in the intense loyalties and obsessions they inspired in the audience. Movie fandom became kind of a tribalism, especially among the young. Also, the immediacy of the movie experience made the viewer feel AS ONE with the people on the screen. Thus, if you watched a movie about Alexander the Great, you rooted for him, imagined you were him, imagined you were part of his victorious army/clan. When American-Indian kids watched John Wayne movies, they tribally identified with and rooted for the cowboys against the Indians(even though they themselves were Indians). When we watch THE WILD BUNCH or THE GETAWAY, we ‘tribally’ root for the criminals even though we hate real-life criminals. When we watch DIRTY HARRY or SEVEN SAMURAI, we ‘tribally’ root for the ‘good guys’. We develop instant ‘tribal’ loyalties with whomever’s on the screen. (Movies, of course, played a major role in the shift of white people’s tribal consciousness. When white women watched IMITATION OF LIFE, they identified with the tragic fate of the black mother and mulatto daughter. When white kids watched GREEN MILE, they wept for the mountain-sized Negro with a wittle bitty mouse. Jews understand the paradoxical nature of cinema. It has the power to undermine actual tribalism and replace it with a new tribalism. Thus, white people who feel tribal unity with fellow whites might go see GREEN MILE and come out feeling emotionally and ‘tribally’ closer to the Noble Negro; as a result, a white person becomes tribally less connected to his own kind. AVATAR, for instance, makes young white viewers root for giant blue Indian-Negroes against fellow white Earthlings and adopt 'race-traitor-ism' as the new moral-tribalism for 'progressive' whites. In a way, it's like the reversal of IMITATION OF LIFE where the mulatto girl identifies with whites; though half-black, she rejects/represses her blackness and tries to pass for white. There is a similar mulatto character in Cassavetes’ SHADOWS. But much has changed since then. Today, white people watch TV, movies, and sports and listen to black music and want to tribally imitate blackness. This process might be called ‘inter-tribalism’ or ‘trans-tribalism’. Indeed, many ‘anti-racist’ whites seem not so much interested in going beyond tribal loyalties as replacing their white tribal loyalty with black-or-Jewish-or-gay tribal loyalty; it’s like they wanna be honorary blacks/Jews/gays on some level. Just look at the pussyboy Ken Burns who, through documentaries like CIVIL WAR, JAZZ, and UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, wanna be accepted as a ‘good darling little white boy’ by the ‘cool’, ‘hip’, and ‘soulful’ Negro community. And Obama repressed his whiteness, and his own version of ‘imitation of life’ was to pretend to be all black; to be sure, it might have been different had his mother not dumped him when he was a child. His father dumped him too, but he was too young to recall any of it, whereas he was emotionally old enough to feel the pain of his mother’s rejection.)
Movies could be tribal but also universal because an Italian-American boy like Scorsese could watch peoples and cultures from around the world. Through cinema, he could see the stories of Greeks, Germans, Japanese, Eskimos, Jews, etc. Though the various ethnic communities in NY were often mutually hostile or distrusting, they all had theaters showing the same movies. Thus, a bunch of ‘greaseballs’ might drive a ‘mick’ out of Little Italy, but both groups could be watching SANDS OF IWO JIMA in their respective theaters. And in the segregated South, whites in white theaters and blacks in black theaters(or in segregated seats)could all be watching GONE WITH THE WIND.
But there was something more than tribal and universal about movies. There was also a PERSONAL element, especially important to sensitive kids like Scorsese and Spielberg, not least because, for whatever reason—parents, mean kids, illness, temperament, etc—they ended up spending ‘too much’ time at the movies or in front of a TV. Therefore, movies could be less a shared than a private experience, as if Disney had made PINOCCHIO just for boy Spielberg. Such feelings were heightened by the awareness that while everyone loves movies, relatively few are really crazy about them. The crazy ones don’t merely wanna watch movies but grow up wanting to make them, to control the magic on the screen. For Scorsese and Spielberg, who felt small and weak in their youth, gaining control of the big screen was the way to play out their Napoleon Complex. If they controlled the power of magic, dreams, and ‘shared reality’(of art/entertainment), even bigger kids(and their children and then their children, etc) would be transfixed by their imagination and vision. Though physically a skinny Jew, Spielberg’s creative soul has been projected onto giant screens in tens of thousands of screens all over the world. Now, that is power. People have come to see, hear, feel, and believe in Spielbergian terms. We've all shared his dreams in the Jewrassic Dark.
Another aspect of Scorsese’s creative personality/identity owes to the 60s with its Rock music, drugs, and spirit of rebellion. As with most things, Scorsese straddled both sides of the fence. On the one hand, he never lost touch with people of Little Italy, whose reality seemed locked in a time capsule. For some of the mafia guys, it was as if the 60s never happened. In GOODFELLAS, even in the late 60s and early 70s, we see the hoodlums go to the Copacabana and listen to old ‘greaseball’ crooner acts; men and women still dress up to look classy(in their own way). Inside the club, it's as though little changed since the 40s or 50s. Yet, Henry Hill, being younger than most of his associates, plants his shoes in both worlds: one in the traditional Italian/mafia community and the other in the youth culture of Rock & drugs. (That Hill is half-Italian and half-Irish, both belonging and not belonging to the Clan, underscores the multiple nature of his social-cultural identity, something Scorsese may well have identified with.) Part of Scorsese was conservative by nature. He was ethnically tribal, spiritually steeped in Catholic dogma, reverent of tradition, and believer in family/friends—he was especially close to his mother to the end. Scorsese’s profound respect for and knowledge of film culture and history demonstrate a deep appreciation for the past. But the boy from the Little Italy simply couldn’t resist all the cultural and artistic ferment happening in the 60s. Everyday seemed abuzz with something new, with Rock stars, hippies, drugs, sexual freedom, Cold War tensions, war in Vietnam, civil unrest, fashions, various causes, etc.
Even so, it’s interesting that the Rock act that he became most closely associated with was the Band, a group steeped in reviving the sounds and flavors of traditional forms of American music. The Band, having gained legendary status as backup instrumentalists for Dylan, released two rock album masterpieces, MUSIC FROM THE BIG PINK and THE BAND. And they recorded some of the greatest songs in Rock with Dylan in THE BASEMENT TAPES, which was released around the time the Band decided to call it quits with a series of grand finale Rock concerts, which became the basis for the concert movie THE LAST WALTZ, directed by Martin Scorsese. Just as Scorsese was steeped in film heritage, the Band was steeped in music heritage. They looked forward by looking backward, just like Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER drives forward but constantly looks into the rear-view mirror.
Personality-wise, Scorsese reminds me of the Duke college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. They are small men but bundles of energy. Neither has the qualities to take center stage—as actor or athlete—, so one’s a director and the other’s a coach. Both are ‘intellectual’ experts/scholars in their respective fields, and they know everything about the ‘game’. Thus, Scorsese wouldn’t have been content merely as a film scholar or critic; he has to MAKE movies. And Krzyzewski has to be a coach, orchestrating epic tribal battles on the court. Because of their stature and physical attributes, they remain on the sidelines but, as men of experience and knowledge, pick the players and call the shots.
One could accuse both men of similar transgressions. Duke has been called—and even denounced—as a defacto ‘white team’ while some critics have been troubled by the unapologetic tribalism and/or machismo in some of Scorsese’s films. To borrow a phrase from LOVE STORY, making movies, as far as Scorsese is concerned, means “never having to say you’re sorry.” Though his films abound in moral themes, they are among the least didactic in cinema history. We may identify with(and even root for)Bickle in TAXI DRIVER, but he’s no hero. We may find the boorish attitudes of the characters of MEAN STREETS bordering on the offensive, but they are unflinchingly and nakedly presented as slices of real life. The Joe Pesci characters in GOODFELLAS and CASINO are psychopathic, but they aren’t walking/talking symbols of evil. This isn’t so much a case of moral equivocation, let alone nihilism, on Scorsese’s part as a conviction that truth and honesty are moral values in themselves. Truth and honesty aren't easy to come by, as realized on a daily basis by Charlie in MEAN STREETS, but they mean more to Scorsese’s approach to art/cinema than any official truth(Catholic Church doctrine), popular appeal(Lucas and Spielberg populism), and conventional moralism(political correctness). Scorsese’s films can be dangerous for their lack of moral obviousness or clarity, and indeed some people may enjoy his films as sadistic celebrations of machismo and thuggery; and truth to be told, cinema, by its very sensual and kinetic nature, have a way of appealing to emotions and overriding morality and reason. I admit I myself have seen GOODFELLAS and CASINO many times for the sheer pleasure of watching Joe Pesci running around and beating up people like a crazy clown.
On the other hand, mind and emotions cannot be understood separately, especially when in the realm of arts & creativity. After all, we prefer to give thought to certain works of art precisely because they powerfully affect us emotionally. And before we rationalize why a movie is good, it first ‘feels’ good on the sensory-perception-emotional level. This is especially true of music. Artistic greatness is a kind of mystery, marked by sublimity, and we ‘feel’ before we understand. RAGING BULL ends with a quote from JOHN 9:25: “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” Before we ‘see’ its meaning, we ‘feel’ its presence, its power.
Like La Motta’s major fights, RAGING BULL was a make-it-or-break-it moment for Scorsese. Along with many other American auteurs of the 70s, Scorsese developed a serious coke habit and grew more erratic/indulgent. For a time, he shacked up with Robbie Robertson—formerly of the Band—, and they, like Howard Hughes(later the subject of THE AVIATOR), would shut themselves from the world and watch movies(of all kinds) all day and night. Though having burst on the scene with gritty, improvisational, and relatively low-budget movies, Scorsese, like many of his peers, had dreams of making the GREAT AMERICAN MOVIE. The artistic freedom that came with ‘independent filmmaking’ may have been ‘cool’ and ‘liberating’, but Scorsese and his peers had grown up watching and worshiping the Great Big Movies(in which every facet of filmmaking—costume, decor, art design, special effects, etc—were realized to full effect.) It’s like every free-wheeling street radical has dreams of becoming generalissimo and doing big things; perpetually staying ‘underground’ gets tiresome for the ambitious. And every architect, even minimalist ones, want to work on a big project. Most classical composers had dreams of one day writing an opera or great symphony.
Though one side of Scorsese embraced the Italian neo-realist/French New Wave ideal of working small and fast, another part of him wanted to do what De Mille, Ophuls, Visconti, and Kubrick had done(especially with 2001). This was no less true of many European film artists. Bertolucci, who burst on the scene with off-the-cuff films such as BEFORE THE REVOLUTION and SPIDER’S STRATAGEM, later worked on mega-productions such as 1900 and THE LAST EMPEROR.
If Scorsese made WHO’S KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, MEAN STREETS, and TAXI DRIVER in the spirit of New Cinema, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE and NEW YORK NEW YORK combined the new/personal with the old/genre. ALICE was like an updated “women’s movie”, a rather dull one at that. NEW YORK NEW YORK was a big production in the vein of old Hollywood; it was like A STAR IS BORN with foul language. The stylized and nostalgic nod to Old Hollywood and the in-your-face abrasiveness of New Cinema didn’t meld well; if anything, the two styles fought as bitterly as the two forgettable characters. It was ambitious and undoubtedly a labor of love but also laborious; tired and tiresome. It was like Kurosawa's ill-conceived THE IDIOT: an artist trying to be someone else. (Some of its problems resurfaced in GANGS OF NY.) It was unsurprisingly a failure with both critics and the audience.
So, Scorsese seemed to set on the same downward trajectory as Friedkin with his disastrous THE SORCERER, Bogdanovich with AT LONG LAST MY LOVE, and Cimino with HEAVEN’S GATE. (Though some of the 'auteurs' of the 70s had their comebacks in the 80s and 90s—Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA and Rafelson’s MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON being perhaps most noteworthy—, most were down and out for good, at least as artists who still mattered. Bogdanovich’s 80s movie MASK is decent but nothing more.) Indeed, even Spielberg seemed to get the message with his overly ambitious 1941, a major bomb when he deviated from his formula of ‘movie magic’.
Given the context of the times, RAGING BULL may well have been the fight of his life for Scorsese. He’d either prove he’s still a contender or a washed-out bum. As it turned out, it was a KO that sealed his status as the greatest American film artist of his generation—though full recognition came only with GOODFELLAS, AGE OF INNOCENCE, CASINO, and KUNDUN. ‘Artist’ is key here for Scorsese could never compete with Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis, and the like in popular appeal. Given his sheer talent and filmmaking power, Scorsese had the skills to make popular movies; and indeed, CAPE FEAR and THE DEPARTED were big hits. HUGO may also be a box office winner. But his two biggest box office successes are also his worst movies, with the style(heavy-handed)driving the story than other way around—maybe inevitable given their tawdry scripts. Worse, Scorsese handles them far more seriously than they deserve. CAPE FEAR and THE DEPARTED may have worked as standard genre movies—as the originals in fact did—, but Scorsese, being a film artist, tried to lend depth and perspective to two dimensional characters and plots; one shouldn't turn comic books into oil paintings.
I haven’t seen HUGO, but I have a feeling Scorsese’s innocence and magic don’t come from the heart, anymore than the token ‘complexity’ of SCHINDLER’S LIST and MUNICH came from Spielberg's. When an artist suppresses something essential to his true nature to impress a different kind of audience, the work may be technically proficient(even masterly on the surface)but missing the vital rhythms that make it come alive. I suspect HUGO is rather like the robot in the movie: dazzling as a piece of machinery but inorganic. In contrast, RAGING BULL is essential Scorsese from beginning to end.
Scorsese said RAGING BULL was originally De Niro’s pet project for which he initially had little interest. If there’s one lesson in cinema, it’s never trust interviews with film-makers. Whatever the case may have been, Scorsese was born to make this film, and it remains one of the most perfect fusions of genre styles and personal filmmaking ever achieved. The combination of contrasting sensibilities that seemed dreary in ALICE and forced in NEW YORK NEW YORK finally gelled in RAGING BULL.
For people who know something about movie history, the look of RAGING BULL constitutes a rich body of references to films of the 40s and 50s: not only boxing movies like SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME but the films of Elia Kazan, Fellini, and maybe even Bresson. (For me, the references were retroactive, having seen RAGING BULL while in the 7th or 8th grade, prior to discovering the rich trove of past cinema. I still remember the Oscar contest that year came down to RAGING BULL vs ORDINARY PEOPLE.) But then, why did RAGING BULL succeed where NEW YORK NEW YORK and RUMBLE FISH(Coppola)didn't? It’s because the references and allusions add to than serve as the basic material. (RUMBLE FISH, like Gilliam's awful BRAZIL, isn't so much a movie as a toybox of movie/cultural references.) Though one can choose to be film-reference-conscious with RAGING BULL, the dominant elements are the powerhouse performances, compelling story, and very fine script. Scorsese doesn’t mistake sauce for the main course, and he doesn’t overcook the steak. In contrast, NEW YORK NEW YORK is too much of an homage to Old Hollywood—albeit one rendered useless by the sheer irreverence of its tone—and RUMBLE FISH is pure style, a sort of state-of-the-art indulgence in nostalgia, or techno-retro.
In RAGING BULL, Scorsese was careful not to allow film references get the better of him. If the impression one gets from NEW YORK NEW YORK is ‘Scorsese must have seen a lot of movies, not all of them good’, RAGING BULL presents Scorsese not so much as a movie fan but as bruised veteran of movie mania. It’s as though he’s finally struggled and worked through the conflict between his passion for film as personal art and his love movie as popular myth, arriving at a synthesis. If with NEW YORK NEW YORK he stuffed everything into his mouth but couldn't swallow, with RAGING BULL he swallowed and absorbed the lessons of film history and movie fandom.
RAGING BULL also works because the characters, situations, and story are elemental and raw. Even though or precisely because Scorsese is filled with so many ideas about movies and society, his focus tends to be clearer with obsessive/primal characters like Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta. Scorsese expresses his thoughts and ‘theories’ best through action, tension, and violence, through extreme ‘practice’. Generally, Scorsese fails when he, using his characters as his alter-ego mouthpieces, thinks consciously—like the weirdo Jesus in LAST TEMPTATION or the villain in CAPE FEAR. (Kubrick, Lean, and Hitchcock were directors who conceived and mapped out everything prior to the shoot. Scorsese, while no less knowledgeable about details and techniques of filmmaking, is emotionally closer to Cassavetes and Kazan, whose best films convey a powerful sense of spontaneous discovery and element of surprise—as opposed to carefully devised suspense. Scorsese is at his best when he balances his abilities as ‘master’ and ‘hustler’.) The figure of La Motta is compelling(like an ‘animal’)because he isn't a thinker. So, he fights, rages, and broods, and the film lunges forward and staggers backward through his ups and downs in and out of the ring. As Scorsese said in his PERSONAL JOURNEY series, La Motta is like the Zampano character in the Fellini classic LA STRADA. But if Fellini’s film is marred by excessive sentimentality and arch-symbolism, RAGING BULL is too fierce and furious for pat truths. There is nothing sacred cow about RAGING BULL. The sheer force of the narrative stampedes and smashes all precious idols of what people came to expect from a sports movie or ‘art film’; it defies easy categorization.
Some may object to the use of intermezzo from CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA and artful slo-motion in the opening credit scene and the reference to the Gospel of John at the end, but they are well-earned bookends and cushions—or ropes—to a film packed with power. (Perhaps, opening-credits-scene tells us something about Scorsese’s relation to music. Though among the very best in his profession, Scorsese has a deep admiration and envy of musicians as the greater/purer artists. Scorsese is to music what La Motta is to inner-peace: something always out of reach. No matter how far Scorsese goes with images, they fall short of the power/sublimity of music; similarly, no matter how many fights La Motta wins, he doesn’t feel fulfilled as a human being. Movies can be direct and overpowering, but music can be purer, spiritually or sensually. Movies can overwhelm, but they’re still up on the screen whereas music enters one’s body and soul. Also, even though there is a rare quality called ‘film sense’, film is a more cerebral craft than music. Even someone without ‘film sense’ can learn to become a decent filmmaker, e.g. Ron Howard. One can learn music too, but genuine musical talent is something more elusive and mysterious—and perhaps rarer; it really is a ‘gift’. Also, even a mediocre movie is watchable whereas music works or it doesn’t. Of course, one could say most great musicians would be lousy in other arts, and so it all balances out. Even so, a non-filmmaker may be better able to understand why a movie works than a non-musician could ever understand why music works. Great musical artist must feel a intuitive connection with higher/deeper source; it’s something that cannot be learned or even understood—even by the artist himself. When a musician loses his muse, he really loses it, whereas even a filmmaker past his peak can still make good movies based on experience, knowledge, and craftsmanship. Perhaps, Scorsese feels toward musicians the way that the French scientist feels toward Roy in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS O F THE THIRD KIND. As a scientist of UFOs, he clearly has more knowledge than Roy, but Roy has been ‘called’ by the extraterrestrials; he has received the ‘gift’ and is driven by higher passion, a sacred calling of the heart. So, the scientist, played by filmmaker Francois Truffaut, says, “I envy you.” Similarly, the musician may be the most special kind of artist because his talent is the most mysterious, most like a ‘gift’ from God or some great source. And, musicians may actually be more spiritual or religious—in their attitude and outlook if not necessarily in faith—than other kinds of artists. ‘Amadeus’, the apt middle name of Mozart means ‘favorite of God’. Beethoven thought he was the creative equal of God. Wagner thought he was a god. There is the term ‘guitar god’, but who heard of a ‘pen god’? Of course, many writers think very highly of themselves, and some have tackled spiritual themes, but it’s generally the musician who feels closest to the ‘higher being’ or ‘higher source’. How many authors go around like they wanna save the world? But look at pop stars like Bono, who thinks of himself as a angel sent from heaven. And there’s Cabalah Mudonna, which goes to show the spiritualization of music can be perverse and corrupt. When John Lennon died, it was as if the messiah had died. His song “Imagine” is still a heaven-sent anthem for many—even though it asks us to imagine there is no heaven; what need for heaven when you got the Beatles? And many tomes have been written about Dylan as if he’s a modern day Biblical prophet. Filmmakers have been lionized too, but not to the same degree, especially among the mass public and young people. Even after many decades, young people know Dylan and Beatles—and many are rediscovering Jazz—, but how many have seen the films of Welles or even John Ford? It’s no wonder that Scorsese has made a series of documentaries about musicians such as the Band, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, and George Harrison. In a way, Scorsese may feel closest to Harrison because the latter was not a natural talent like Lennon or McCartney who were blessed with the ‘gift’. Harrison was essentially a competent guitarist working in the shadow of the divine duo. He couldn’t be their equal, but he nevertheless managed to compose a handful of memorable songs and even a great one: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. So, Harrison lends hope to all of us; he makes us feel there’s a bit of creative sunshine that might slip through the clouds for everyone. At the very least, we are all potential one-hit-wonders, which is better than nothing. Dylan and Lennon were giants of modern music, and when they were hot, even they didn’t know where their creative power came from; they only knew what to do with it when they had it. Somewhat similar to Harrison, La Motta was a very good fighter but not one of the all-time great boxers. He was no Sugar Ray Robinson or even a Roberto Duran. But that makes him more accessible to us. Scorsese, on the other hand, is one of the ten greatest directors ever—in my estimation—, but he can’t help feeling that his talent can never match the pure magic of the musical gift; his creative power is human, not ‘god-given’. Of course, cinema can be ‘musical’ too, and this may partially explain Scorsese’s decision to make HUGO in the vein of Spielberg. Though we don’t take Spielberg’s movies seriously on the intellectual level—with the exception of A.I., but then it owes its ideas to Brian Aldiss and Kubrick—, Spielberg has perhaps the most spiritual/sensual connection to cinema. ‘Spiritual’ here doesn’t mean something necessarily deep or profound but something that makes us feel a direct, powerful, and enrapturing sense of being possessed or moved. Spielberg’s movie magic may be for young people, but it can feel like ‘religious experiences’, like raptures. In my younger days, I went to see E.T. four times; through the odd creature, I felt ‘spiritually’ touched by heaven, a kind of Sistine Chapel for kids—though as a Freshman in highschool, maybe I should have known better. When I saw CLOSE ENCOUNTERS at the age of nine, it was like a religious conversion experience. STAR WARS was cool and exciting, but CLOSE ENCOUNTERS lifted my spirits to some divine place. Though Scorsese loved movies from a young age, I think he was THINKING about movies from day one, whereas Spielberg, as he sat watching Disney movies on TV, was transfixed as if by divine powers. The light of cinema struck him and called him, just like the UFO light hit Roy and beckoned him to Devils Tower and then to the heaven world. Maybe, there’s a lesson about false idols and gods here: Devils Tower as conduit to heaven?!? So, even though or precisely because Spielberg’s movies are more childlike, they are purer as cinematic experiences; like music, they appeal to us directly; we don’t have to ‘think’. Even if this is a path to false god and false salvation, it is a ‘religious-musical’ experience of sorts, and no one has been better at this than Spielberg. Scorsese, though powerful and compelling in style, never quite overwhelmed the audience in the same way—but then, he didn't try to. Like the Truffaut character in relation to Roy, Scorsese may both admire and envy Spielberg. Scorsese may think and know more about film art and culture, but Spielberg has the purer and more direct link to the pure magic of cinema that is almost musical in its sensual/’spiritual’ faith and abandonment.)
Scorsese is at his best when he’s lunging forward and swinging non-stop; he talks the same way. Like Camille Paglia, he thinks as he talks, or his talk is the think. He’s an action-thinker(like the Nolte character in LIFE LESSONS is an action-painter), and the same goes for his films; Scorsese's forte is not depth but speed and ability to cover/convey so much so fast; even when his films are still, there's something kinetic and crackling in the air.
Though Scorsese has great respect and appreciation for all sorts of film artists, his natural style is to throw himself into the fight than think too much ahead. He's at his best when he discovers new possibilities along the way than when he tries to map everything out. In this sense, he's a very athletic director. As in sports, there's an element of unpredictability in his best films, which is why they make for repeat-viewings; they feel fresh every time.
Like any great coach, Scorsese of course has to know everything about the game, but the game comes alive only when it's played. This may explain why one of Scorsese's favorite films is Michael Powell's RED SHOES, where the dance numbers seem, alternately or both, choreographed/preordained and primal/instinctive.
He has made near-great, reflective, and immaculately orchestrated films such as AGE OF INNOCENCE and KUNDUN, but he’s better with creative fists than crafty fingers. This isn’t to say Scorsese is a primitive director in the manner of Sam Fuller, though he clearly channels the same kind of raw power. While Scorsese understands the fine details of film art more than just about anyone, he, like Kazan—a director with whom he feels an almost spiritual connection—feels most alive with material that engages his survival fight-or-flight instincts. Kazan’s best movies are A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, VIVA ZAPATA, and ON THE WATERFRONT; they all carry the smell and sounds of the streets. Kazan was dullest when ‘seriously’ dealing with ‘important’ issues such as ‘antisemitism’ in GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT or sexual repression in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, both of which I’ve never been able to finish.
With Scorsese, we get the impression he doesn’t know what to think about the story and characters until he struggles through them, finishes the film, and looks back. It's like Jesus of LAST TEMPTATION not being able to grasp the full Truth unless he throws himself into the fray of the diseased, wicked, and obscene; it cannot be attained by meditation or ritualism alone. One has to make the personal journey and make the climb before gazing down at the path he has chosen. (The scene in Rossellini's STROMBOLI comes to mind, where Ingrid Bergman's character climbs the slopes of a volcano and at last, accidentally, miraculously, gains a view of the world that fills her heart with a measure of peace.)
Through an approach combining elaborately set up right-acrosses with improvisational jabs, Scorsese hits from multiple angles, creating psychological as well as visual fractures; instead of a single dominant truth or prevailing narrative, there are constant shifts in the way reality is lived, felt, and imagined. And even in films like TAXI DRIVER and KING OF COMEDY, where ‘reality’ is tinted with the subjectivity of a single character, the dynamic remains unstable: Bickle is passive and aggressive, moral and immoral, hero and anti-hero; Pupkin is funny/stupid, endearing/pathetic, loser/fighter, psychotic/all-American; they are at war with themselves. Though Scorsese is capable of working on the grand scale—GOODFELLAS and CASINO—, sense of immediacy has been the hallmark of his best films. His two great gangster films of the 90s are like perfectly choreographed documentaries. The lavish production values are seamlessly interwoven with realism to the point where the epic, the intimate, and the informative flow as one stream.
But when Scorsese works in grand style with mythic archetypes than with characters—as in GANGS OF NY and THE AVIATOR—, he more often than not gets lost. Despite his immense power of film wizardry, Scorsese succeeds or fails with his characters, something he has in common with Kazan(who couldn’t do much with deadweight actors such as Gregory Peck, latter-day Montgomery Clift, Warren Beatty, and Natalie Wood.) Production values of GANGS and AVIATOR bury than unearth the core material. They are more the works of art design, costume, and technical departments than of actors, who are rendered secondary(despite the heroic efforts of Daniel-Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio), or of an artist with a creative compass; it's one thing to find the direction along the way but quite another to get lost(as Coppola did too in the second half of APOCALYPSE NOW). AGE OF INNOCENCE is impressive, but Scorsese played more curator than director. Though HOUSE OF MIRTH by Terence Davies is less sumptuous, it has more heart, more human element.
While Scorsese should be lauded for his wide-ranging interests and projects, his championship belts as film artist tend to be narrow in range: generally contemporary/urban dramas populated with criminal or obsessive personalities. Just as football players generally don't make good boxers and boxers don't make good baseball players, Scorsese is out of his league when working outside the boundaries of his natural talent.
At one point in RAGING BULL, La Motta says he has small hands; he’s a middle-weight, so he’ll never fight Joe Louis. Scorsese recently said he feels relatively sub-literate compared to truly sophisticated and knowledgeable people; he’s seen a lot of movies but hasn’t read enough books. He may feel his career has been a compromise between commerce and art, i.e. he can’t compare with the pure artists(in literature, music, and cinema). So, like La Motta dreaming of fighting Joe Louis, Scorsese may want to make it as a pure artist(in the vein of certain European masters) or pure entertainer(like Hitchcock and Spielberg). Being somewhere between art and commerce, he may feel he’s never been much of anything—though many would disagree.
But, of course, the thing in life is to accept and do the most with what God gave you, and Scorsese was at his best when he followed his natural instincts and punched his heart out. Instead of thinking-about-the-material, Scorsese has done best with thinking-through-the-material; showing is better than saying. (Similarly, the best kind of morality in art is demonstrated than preached. RAGING BULL, despite its visual references to 40s and 50s movies, feels truer and fresher because of its lack of sermonizing. ON THE WATERFRONT, though great in its own right, has ‘something to say’, thus hasn't dated well. There's an element of shtick.)
For each film artist, there is a work that serves as a keystone to his entire career. For Scorsese, it’s probably MEAN STREETS, his most personal and biographical film. Like David Mamet’s HOMICIDE, it’s a work of great intelligence and gutsy instinct. LAST TEMPTATION, on the other hand, falters with its need to intellectualize its emotions(rather shabbily one might add). Perhaps all too aware of the ridiculous “let’s-psychoanalyze-Jesus” conceit, the character of Jesus was made especially grubby to keep it 'real'. The result is like a wino hippie Christ having a nervous breakdown in a shrink’s office. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t so excruciating—though there are a few great moments during the ‘temptation’ scenes.
Given Scorsese’s natural talents, it is also more interesting to watch a punk as would-be-sinner grasping for spiritual straws in MEAN STREETS than the Son-of-God agonizing to be a man among sinners. (To be sure, another director may have done something more interesting with the scenario of God becoming man and then becoming God again. It’s an interesting case of theory vs practice. God, in Jewish tradition, had become this Perfect Being, an infallible spiritual theory. But does theory have real value unless it can be put into and proven via practice? Thus, God in the form of Jesus-as-Man retests the theory of spiritual perfection through the practice of human putrefaction. If God Himself cannot live amongst mankind and demonstrate the everlasting truth of His values, then what hope for the rest of us? So, the success or failure of Jesus-as-God-as-man decides the validity of Biblical Truth. After all, it’s easy for God to tell us what to do and preach whatever because He’s all-powerful. But, would He think and do as He preaches if He had no power? It’s like it’s easy for a general to order his soldiers to go and fight with courage and sacrifice? But would the general do the same if he were a lowly soldier? In this light, we gotta give Gaddafi some credit. So, paradoxically, the true moral power of God’s words can only be proven through His action/practice without His power. God has to show that He can slide to the bottom and climb back up to the top. It’s like SUPERMAN II where he loses his power and lives as a man; it turns out, even without superman powers, he holds onto superman morality, and so he’s allowed to be Superman again. It must be said the triumph of Jesus allows for both piousness and blasphemy. If it could be said Jesus-as-Man found His way to Heaven, it implies that Man can become the equal of God, which is blasphemous. But if Jesus is the Son-of-God, His entry into Heaven next to His Father seems more acceptable. On the other hand, if Jesus-as-Man had sufficient Divine powers greater than that of any man, maybe His feat wasn’t all that impressive since the pain and temptations of His flesh could have been partially counterbalanced by Godly powers. Jesus-as-Man climbed back to the mountaintop but with special equipment. The story of Jesus also restages the entire history of religion/spirituality. It’s said that religions may have originated with mankind worshiping great individuals who, in time, were turned into legends and then were mythologized into gods. Once they became gods, they were gods forever, separate from the world of man. But in the story of Jesus, God becomes man again and must struggle to be God again, so His story becomes a restaging of the origins of religion. Jesus the Man becomes the legendary proto-religious figure that becomes a full-blown version of God. But unlike the murky origins of primitive religions, Christianity is a case of a historical figure—a man seen walking down the street and drinking wine with folks—turning into a Deity before people’s very eyes. Instead of primitive god evolving into higher god, it's Perfect God recycled into Man and then back to Himself again. To be sure, this notion of spiritual recycling may have been invented by Egyptians with their gods being reborn through the incarnations of the pharaohs. Even for ‘ancient’ peoples, their religions had origins in some mythic pre-ancient past, an lost time as opposed to the mundane present. Romans and Jews were well-established & advanced peoples around the time Jesus was born, and so they tended to divide time/history into the mythic past when strange thing happened and the ‘modern’ present when mostly real things happened. So, how strange that a Man who could be seen walking the streets and talking to people could be transformed from the ‘real mundane present’ into God? That sort of thing was only supposed to happen in the mythic time of the distant past. And given the ‘journalistic’ I-saw-it-with-my-eyes immediacy of the Gospels, it all sounded fresh and real.) Charlie of MEAN STREETS is confused, but the film itself isn’t; it has a clear understanding of the contradiction of life. In contrast, LAST TEMPTATION is utterly confused as to what it wants to achieve. It is one of the worst instances of an artist ‘thinking’ about his work. Characters don’t so much communicate as indulge in pseudo-intellectual post-modern rap sessions; they explain themselves; Jesus is like a hippie trying to explain the far-out-ness his LSD trip. It’s feels less like a film than a doctoral thesis on religion/cinema Scorsese failed to finish at NYU. Its counterpart is Sam Peckinpah’s ridiculous BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. Instead of expressing his vision through storytelling, Peckinpah painstakingly expounds on Peckinpah-ism. Self-consciousness is often the death of the artist. Needless to say, the state of film culture being what it is, both films have their champions. (The strengths of MEAN STREETS become clearer when compared to Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT, also starring Harvey Keitel. In Ferrara’s one-note exercise in spiritual porn, the main character is a S-I-N-N-E-R. He’s a walking-talking symbol of rottenness, degradation, and corruption. And the nun-raped-by-thugs is a radically pure S-A-I-N-T. Despite the lurid realism, it’s pseudo-spiritual hokum to the max. We don’t believe in the emotions—at least on the human level—because characters are one-dimensional icons. Keitel’s character can’t even indulge in drugs and sex without spreading his arms out like Christ. Hammy realism I can take but not spiritual baloney. You can figure out the monotonous trajectory of BAD LIEUTENANT from its first few minutes. In contrast, Keitel’s character in MEAN STREETS is not a Sinner. He’s a guy in the neighborhood who hangs around with punks, making him a punk too; but he has funny notions about salvation and higher truth, so he plays at being a ‘sinner’, though not without insincerity, which makes it all the more funny and touching. This duality makes the film spontaneous and unpredictable, to breathe and cough. It also finds humor in spiritual quest, and why not? In a way, there’s nothing funnier than man trying to touch God; some might even find the notion of God funny: the biggest case of man making a joke without getting it. And yet, MEAN STREETS is genuinely affecting and thought-provoking in ways that BAD LIEUTENANT is not because there are no pat answers. For all its horrors and tragic ending, BAD LIEUTENANT is an exercise in mind-numbing simpletonism; the character finds salvation in his own manner; despite his ignoble death, the ending delivers comfort and prayerful closure. There is no such resolution for the characters in MEAN STREETS. Life goes on, and Charlie’s conceit of his own private Passion Play is just another night of trouble in Little Italy. Yet, we cannot deny the element of sincerity and integrity in his tomfoolery. He may be conning himself, but he really falls for the con. There is honesty even in dishonesty, hypnosis even in hypocrisy. Consider the scene where Tony the bar owner relates a story of how Charlie got hookwinked by a priest’s supposedly real-life tale that turns out to be a convenient myth repeated by countless men of the cloth. Tony tells the story to cast doubt on the Catholic Church, but Johnny Boy cracks up without even getting the point. Indeed, the notion that Charlie, who can’t get his own act together, is going to save Johnny Boy—who can’t even be persuaded to pay a measly $20 installment of a huge debt to a mafia loanshark—makes it all the funnier... and unnerving. Because the humor is part of the real world of life and death, laughter casts sinister shadows on the turn of events. What’s true of MEAN STREETS is true of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL as well. Scorsese’s intense focus on characters, keen instinct for contradictory details/distractions of life, and filmmaking prowess prevent the story from turning into morality tales. Bickle of TAXI DRIVER is not reduced to someone like Paul Kersey of DEATH WISH, nor is he classified simply as a psychopath. He is foremost a confused person with facets of a psychotic, hero, rebel, reactionary, ‘racist’, punk outcast, etc. He is always something more and something less than all his various manifestations as would-be-lover, warrior-savior, or suicidal-sicko. He isn’t so much God’s lonely man as someone with God's lonely man complex, though the portrayal is too powerful for clinical analysis. He is reality and fantasy, indeed dangerous because he can no longer tell them apart--and also because he draws us into his private hell that is not without moral logic and a seedy glamour. Paradoxically, Bickle becomes more clear-headed as he becomes more mad. Confused and unable to cope with the world-as-it-is, he creates a myth of what he must do to set it straight; in some ways, he becomes more ‘normal’ as he becomes more abnormal; his crazy mission gives him focus and direction in life, makes him 'organizised'. This is also somewhat true of Jesus in LAST TEMPTATION, albeit in a much less interesting way; we see a terribly confused young man gain a sense of moral clarity and spiritual destiny with the crazy notion that he may be the Messiah sent to redeem mankind. What works for TAXI DRIVER also works for RAGING BULL, and one can understand why DeNiro, having worked with Scorsese on MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER, wanted Scorsese to direct. In the hands of a lesser director, the story of La Motta might have either been just another sports movie or a heavy-handed parable loaded with religious iconography. RAGING BULL needed Scorsese’s speed, agility, and power to fend off punch-drunk pompousness.)
RAGING BULL could have been disastrous in the hands of another director. Paul Schrader worked on the script, and his heavy-handed spiritual-intellectualizing isn’t entirely absent; with Schrader as director, it might have been more exegesis than story—the very problem with AMERICAN GIGOLO and HARDCORE. Lacking the cinematic firepower of Scorsese, Schrader’s films tend to be paralyzed by heavy doses of meaning, never a good thing but even worse when there isn’t much meaning to begin with—mostly half-baked themes lifted from Robert Bresson and John Ford(odd combination, to say the least) and mashed through Schrader’s degree-in-philosophy meat-grinder.
A truly great movie works with and without (our concern for)'meaning', i.e. one doesn’t have to think about THE GODFATHER, BLADE RUNNER, VERTIGO, or THE SHINING to feel their power. This is also true of PERSONA, MULHOLLAND DR., and L’APPARTEMENT. Whether we choose to analyze them or not, they fully take hold of our senses. Similarly, RAGING BULL works perfectly as a biopic of Jake La Motta. With sound and fury it connects with the audience. Of course, it is MORE than a biopic, but it works at the core level of powerful storytelling. The 'essential'(or 'conventional') isn't neglected for the sake of 'experimentation' or 'avant garde' fetishes.
One of Susan Sontag most important essays is ‘Against Interpretation’, but given her penchant for interpretation, a better title might have been ‘before interpretation’ or ‘beyond interpretation’. The ‘erotics of art’ that Sontag discusses is the mysterious power of certain works to engage, entrance, or beguile the audience. If the greatness of a work of art were to be determined by the complexities to be interpreted, then NEW YORK NEW YORK is no less a work of art than RAGING BULL is. After all, as much or even more thought and ideas went into the former as into the latter. There is A LOT to be studied and analyzed in both films, but why do we prefer to focus on RAGING BULL than on NEW YORK NEW YORK? Because even before we get down to the nitty-gritty of analysis and interpretation, RAGING BULL impresses on the primal, intuitive, and mysterious level. We feel its greatness before we understand why it’s great; and, it makes us wanna understand why it's great.
Unlike Schrader, Scorsese—at his best anyway—does not dwell on meaning; he believes the meaning will manifest through the expression, i.e. form is content. It’s like poetry doesn’t spell things out but conveys meaning through mood and imagery, through expression. (We must be careful not to confuse ‘erotics’ as Sontag meant it with mere sensory thrills. JAWS and ATTACK OF THE CLONES are lots of fun and engage our senses, but they are examples of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Similarly, something like DEEP THROAT or INSATIABLE may get some people sexually excited, but there isn’t much if anything to think about, except maybe sociologically. The ‘erotics of art' as discussed by Sontag is of a mysterious nature, something that provokes and excites the mind but which the mind can't fully apprehend and unlock. It remains a non-exhaustively seductive quality that keeps us thinking, probing, and posing more questions, that keeps revealing newer layers and angles of meanings and possibilities with every interpretation. One might say Sontag’s ideas on art are an intellectualized variation of romanticism’s anti-rationalism, i.e. a rationalist irrationalism.)
The aspect of RAGING BULL that interests me most is the theme of power, which manifests in various forms in the movie. There are physical power, mental power, emotional power, financial power, moral power, social power, aesthetic power(especially wielded by women), and ultimately spiritual power. There aren’t clear boundaries among the various forms/faces of power as they blend and bleed into one another. In many cases, one has to be tested by one kind of power to shift or gain entry into other kinds of power, e.g. La Motta has to lose physically and financially to arrive at a new kind of power(founded on the courage to confront his own demons, just as earlier he had to ‘lose’ a fight to a ‘bum’ to win the big championship fight). Even within one kind of power, there are various forms, guises, and styles. Both La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson made their reputation through physical power, but they wielded it differently. With a rock-like skull, La Motta lunged forward like a bull; in the book on which the film is based, La Motta said his style was to get hit four times to land one solid punch; since he could take the blows and wasn’t the fastest boxer, he didn’t mind getting hit. Robinson, on the other hand, fought more like a matador, with agility and finesse. Though no less brutal a boxer than La Motta, Robinson fine-tuned boxing into a science and art, which is why he’s generally considered the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time. (To be sure, Robinson’s record is inflated by the simple fact that most of his opponents were white, many of them palookas. One could argue that Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler at their peak were better than Robinson.)
The various power relationships in the movie make for an interesting dynamic. Consider the tension between physical power and aesthetic power. La Motta is so besotted with Vickie’s(Cathy Moriarty)blonde beauty that the instant he lays eyes on her, he knows he’s gonna dump his first wife and start a new life with Vickie. (La Motta first meets Vickie when she’s 15, which adds a layer of irony to La Motta's criminal charge of sexually trafficking a 14 yr old girl. In one way, RAGING BULL is about power vs authority. Power connotes something animal, arbitrary, irrational, individual, primitive, something that devours the senses or tramples on rules. Authority, in contrast, has the backing of rules, law, morality, and procedures. La Motta is all about Power. American society is about rule of Authority over Power; ideally, one’s power is limited by authorization and legal limits and procedures. Mafia is about Power but masks it with the surface appearance of Authority.) It’s like beauty and the beast. Though La Motta is ugly(and vulgar and often gross to boot), Vickie is attracted to him because he’s a famous boxer. (Similarly, the Jewish girlfriend of Henry Hill says in GOODFELLAS that she was turned on by his criminality.) Men are drawn to the power of feminine beauty, and women are drawn to the power of masculine strength.
It’s significant that Vickie is blonde because blondes are relatively rare in Southern Italy from where most Italian-Americans came. Italians, especially of the South, also traditionally have a racial inferiority complex vis-a-vis the fairer skinned Northern neighbors. Italians feel like they are the ‘niggers’ or ‘sand-niggers’ of Europe. So, blonde fair-skinned Vickie becomes for La Motta, consciously or not, a vision not only of sensual pleasure but racial elevation and cleansing. (Conversely, one could say La Motta is a substitute for jungle feverism for blonde Vickie--the closest she could get to a 'nigger' in that time and place. He may not be a ‘nigger’ but he’s a ‘white nigger’. Nigger-Sexual-Threat-Complex is featured in several Scorsese films: MEAN STREETS with its 'nigger' jokes and black dancer, TAXI DRIVER where Scorsese himself plays a jealous white guy who says he's gonna shoot his wife who's with a 'nigger', GOODFELLAS where Tommy flips out when his date says a white girl could go for Sammie Davis Jr., etc.) La Motta, the swarthy ‘greaseball’, wants to mate with the pure white woman. But, there is also an element of defilement. Just as a hook-nosed hairy Jew or nappy-headed Negro gets a perverse kick from conquering and debasing a blonde white woman, La Motta finds pleasure in the fact that a low-life scuzzball like himself gets to shove his ‘dago’ cock into a blonde pussy. She becomes an object of both purity and profanity. This is, of course, known as the Madonna/Whore Complex, perhaps stronger among Italians than any other people, not least due to their racial complexes. Vickie looks like the white pussycat in a certain TOM & JERRY CARTOON.
It's complicated by the fact that Vickie is something of a trashy whore. Though there’s no clear indication that she ever cheats on La Motta, she is not what you call a classy lady. Indeed, she begins to go with La Motta at the age of 15, and she seems to be rather close to mafia hoodies in the neighborhood. When La Motta is out of town for training, she is seen with other men at a night club. It could have been nothing more than ‘innocent socializing’, but she’s clearly not a ‘good girl’. She also seems frustrated by the fact that La Motta cannot sexually perform as regularly as she wants because a boxer must abstain from sex as the fight approaches. She is attracted to La Motta’s prowess as a beast-man but frustrated by his own version of ‘athletic puritanism’. So, there is a tangle of contradictions at the core of their relationship. La Motta loves Vickie as the symbol of purity/beauty but suspects she’s a whore-tramp; furthermore, he wants to fuc* her like crazy because he is turned on by the idea of violating what is pure and beautiful. He wants purity but to defile it; similarly, he wants to be a pure athlete in an impure sport where opponents maul each other like barbarians. He worships her pure beauty but wants to dick-slap her face. She loves his muscle and sexual prowess but can’t have it all the time because he must first and foremost be a pure athlete who must sacrifice everything to win the championship belt(which, in the end, proves to be his crown of thorns). Also, if women are drawn to athletes-as-alpha-male-winners, what happens when they lose? Vickie may enjoy being humped by Jake-the-winner but can she have the same respect for him when he loses, especially to Robinson?
La Motta loves Vickie’s beauty but also feels threatened and insulted by it because he himself doesn’t possess anything like beauty. He knows she’s with him only because he’s successful as a boxer. Otherwise, there’s nothing to attract her to someone as crude, ugly, and gross like him. So, when Vickie casually remarks that Tony Janiro, a soon-to-be opponent of La Motta, is a good-looking boxer, La Motta starts fuming jealously. He feels like a black guy with a white girlfriend who said something about a good-looking white guy. Since the ‘white boy’ is prettier, the only way for the black guy to claim his ownership of white pussy is to beat the white guy into a pulp. Similarly, La Motta makes sure not only to beat Janiro but to completely maul the pretty boy’s face. (Janiro’s nose is nearly torn off in the last round, leading one observer to say, “well, he ain’t pretty no more.”) La Motta pussifies Janiro. He doesn’t so much beat him as rape him—similar to what Jack Johnson did to Jim Jeffries, an all-too-familiar thing in prisons where the bigger/tougher Negro man-rapes ‘white boys’.
There is an element of violence or threat of violence in all power-relationships. Due to the reproductive orgasmic nature of male/female relationship, the violence inherent in the sexual act can seem 'harmonious' even though it’s a form of conquest. (Though ‘progressive’ white women yammer about equality, they prefer to put out to rich Jews because they are turned on by money or put out to muscular Negroes because they want to be made to ‘feel like a woman’ under the domination of a super-stud. Thus, feminist interracism is both ‘liberating’ and ‘submissive’. It is ‘liberated’ from the ‘racist’ patriarchy of white maledom but seeks submissive pleasure at the feet of the massive Negro or superrich Jew. There is no real equality in power. If all power were equal, it wouldn’t be power. Power means to have power OVER other people/things. Whites are finding out they cannot be equal in power with Jews and Negroes. Jews, with higher intelligence, have power of whites in media, academia, business. Negroes, being tougher than whites, have sexual and physical power over white folks.) Due to the physio-biologically complementary attributes of males and females, the violence-inherent-in-sex can become a kind of peace. Man conquers the woman, but the woman wants to be conquered. The man conquers with love, and woman is conquered with love. Sex, in this sense, is inherently sado-masochistic.
Of course, there is rape, a horrible crime, but even rape, at least as fantasy, turns many people on. We know this is true with men because they often run around raping women in wartime. And though most women certainly don’t wanna be raped, many romance novels fantasize about rape or quasi-rape, what with some ‘innocent’ woman carried away by some big-chested pirate who releases the inner-whore in her. Lots of women probably fantasized about being sexually conquered by Fabio, and many more white girls now seem to wiggling their asses to rap music where Negro punks be yapping about how they loves to treat women like ‘hos’.
And it cannot be overstated that the greatest victory of the Jew over whites has been the whore-ization of white women. White women, thus ‘liberated’, are now running off to boff and have kids with Negroes; meanwhile, white males lose pride/confidence and become pussified. And since interracism is the religion of the land, educated white women will mate only with liberal white men who officially support interracism and the castration of their own manhood. Since race is preserved by men of one race having kids with women of the same race, the ‘liberation’ of white women from white males and their jungle-feverish submission to black males is what finally sealed the end of Western Civilization, whose decline, at this point, is almost irreversible unless a sudden crisis jolts white people into white power consciousness. Though Nazis were radical scum, they were right about the sexual danger posed by Jews. Germans were right to emphasize German motherhood and German womanhood because the agenda of the Jew has been to drive a wedge between white men and white women. Jews also wanna degrade the central meaning of marriage(as the bio-moral unity of man and woman)to further erode the sense of sacred bond between man and woman. Your average Jew is like Tim Wise and James Toback who delight in the pussification of the white male and jungle-feverization of the white female. Toback has made it his special agenda to favorably feature black male/white female sexual partnerships in his films. And Tim Wise, who looks like James Toback, is ‘tick tick tick’ celebrating the demise of the white race. (And these damn Jews wonder why there’s been ‘antisemitism’ throughout history!)
Anyway, if biology/evolution has sweetened the violence between and women through sexual attraction/beauty/orgasmic pleasure, there is no such harmonic reconciliation in the violence between man and man(unless men in question happen to be homo, but even there, not quite since male bodies are not designed for male/male sex, which is why so much of homo sexual culture tends to be lewd, violent, and sick with 'fisting' and other degenerate behavior). At one point, La Motta says of Janiro, “I don’t know whether to fuck him or fight him.” If you can’t ‘fuck’ him, you gotta ‘fuck him up’, which is exactly what La Motta does. In the male/female dynamic, the male is the aggressor who seeks to conquer but the woman wants to be conquered; indeed, a woman uses make-up and sweet-talk to attract men to conquer her. (This is why a man who had sex with a hundred women and a woman who had sex with a hundred men are not the same. The man conquered a hundred women whereas the woman got conquered by a hundred men. So, feminists who expect equal respect for ‘stud’ and ‘slut’ are missing a crucial fact.) But between man and man, neither wants to submit, neither wants to be conquered. Both have dick and balls; they wanna beat the other guy, stand over the fallen victim, and win mating rights with best-looking broads.
Even so, there is an sexual aspect in male vs male relationship. In the case where one guys beats another guy, the defeated guy becomes ‘pussified’. He becomes the bitch. Consider the fight between Cain Velasquez vs Brock Lesnar. Lesnar came stomping into the cage like the biggest, toughest warrior on the planet, like someone who would never retreat or beg for mercy. But as Velasquez pummeled him, the mighty Lesnar was like a child-woman-bitch begging for mercy from the referee to call an end to the fight. Velasquez, having class, didn’t treat Lesnar like a bitch—as Muhammad Ali, Roy Jones, and Lesnar himself had done to their fallen opponents—, but there was nothing ‘manly’ about Lesnar after the fight was over. He was like a little girl molested by an adult. The white gorilla had been reduced to a scared little mouse. When penis meets penis in battle, neither wants to be the pussy, but one penis gains power over the other penis, the losing penis shrivels up and the winner-penis humps the pussy-anus of the loser—figuratively or literally(especially in prison). There is something sexual about the KO in boxing. The fist/arm, serving as a stiff penis, ‘penetrates’ through the defense and lands flush on the face-as-pussy, and the opponent drops to the canvas. He goes from prince-warrior to a prostrate Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. The defeated fighter becomes utterly passive and helpless. But even in a fight where neither competitor gains the upperhand, there is sexual element in how the two men, in utter exhaustion, do more hugging than punching and even grudgingly come to respect and feel appreciation for one another. It’s like both have been simultaneously pussified. It’s like two guys are thinking, “you fuc*ed me real good, I fuc*ed you real good, so we might as well kiss and make up.”
The La Motta of the film, while not exactly dumb, isn’t the brightest bulb around. But then, given his temperament, even higher intelligence wouldn’t do him much good. He rages like a bully and loves to fight. That’s what he does best and what gives him most pleasure and the sense of power/control. But of course, what is legal and glorious in the ring isn’t approved of outside the ring. And there’s no glory in a tough guy beating up women and weaker fellas. Worse for La Motta, physical power, in or outside the ring, is no match for other kinds of power. This is most evident in La Motta’s uneasy relationship with the local mafia boss Tommy Como(played by Nicholas Colasanto, who reminds me of Scorsese’s mother). Como is an old man, but NO ONE messes with him. Como spent his entire life being ‘smart’ and devious. He knows a lot of people and is well-connected. To use the parlance of GOODFELLAS, he’s a ‘made guy’ many times over; ‘he can’t be touched’. If La Motta were to lift a finger against Como or even say something disrespectful, he could get in a lot of trouble. Indeed, La Motta must not only respect Como but tolerate Como’s flunkies. La Motta’s resistance to Como’s influence is, at once, idealistic, self-interested, vain, and resentful. The idealist(crude though he may be)in La Motta wants to reach the top on his own merit without the help of the crime syndicate. The self-interested side of La Motta doesn’t wanna share the purse with the Comos of the world. The vain or prideful side of La Motta doesn’t wanna take the ‘dive’, even if it might open the way for the title fight. And the resentful side of La Motta fumes at the ‘impure’ power of Como and his cronies who use wit and connections to control the neighborhood. La Motta may be a bully, but there is an element of ‘purity’—ugly though it may be—to physical power. It’s like the winner of the 100 meter sprint is indeed the fastest man in the world; the power of a tiger is the power of a tiger, nothing more and nothing less. In contrast, power based on wit, intelligence, organization, and deviousness is more slippery and harder to gauge. Sometimes, it’s more powerful than it seems, sometimes less so. It’s like a poker game where one has to be really sharp and experienced to measure of the advantages and weaknesses of other players. (Robinson is quite a handful to La Motta because he combines elements of style, intelligence, and trickery along with raw physical power whereas La Motta relies on the simpler attributes of toughness and stamina.) La Motta feels power in every ounce of his muscle, but this power is no good outside the ring against the Comos of the world.
And because of his brother Joey’s(played by Joe Pesci) social ties with the mafia—and because of Joey’s sharper wit and faster mouth—, La Motta cannot trust his own brother either. Though La Motta is bigger than Joey and can manhandle him one-on-one, he feels weaker than Joey when Tommy Como is around. Joey, being closer to Como, is untouchable in the mafia boss’s presence. La Motta relies on Joey as both a diplomat to Como and a punching bag(as sparring partner or scapegoat)when Como is not around. Joey is afraid of Jake but Jake is afraid of Como. When Como’s boys come for a visit at the gym, La Motta is angry but dares not insult them, and so he takes out his fury on Joey, his sparring partner. Up against the power of intelligence and organization, La Motta feels helpless, even cowardly, and all he can do is rage against easy targets, which is usually Joey or Vickie.
In the hotel room scene before the title fight against Marcel Cerdan, Tommy Como comes for a friendly visit, and La Motta acts the good boy. Before Como leaves, Vickie pecks him on the cheek, whereupon Como returns the kiss on her lips. During the whole thing, La Motta just watches quietly, but he’s burning up inside. But he can’t act out of order in the presence of Como. It’s after Como leaves that he goes ballistic and slaps Vickie and then howls at Joey. Though Como is a shady character and La Motta doesn’t like him, Vickie and Joey feel safer when Como’s around because La Motta then has to watch himself. It’s like two weaker dogs living with a big nasty dog prefer to have the master at home. With the big dog behaving with the master around, the two smaller dogs feel safer. But when the master leaves the house, the big dog feels free to push around the smaller dogs.
The psychological dimension of the scene is captured through the effective use of subjective POV(of Jake La Motta) and slo-motion. First we see, in middle shot, Vickie bidding goodbye to Como, followed by two quick friendly ‘innocent’ kisses. Then we see it again in close-up and slo-motion through the jealous/paranoid eyes of La Motta. The kisses are no longer ‘innocent’. They are Judas kisses, an act of betrayal. Worse, between Como and Vickie stands Joey, his own brother, smiling. La Motta feels betrayed by everyone on the eve of his most important fight. It’s like even the two closest people in his life are in a conspiracy against him. Next day, he wins the belt, but there’s a part of him that feels sold to the Devil. (There’s a similar scene earlier in a restaurant where Vickie and Joey go over to Como’s table to say hello. There too, we follow Vickie and Joey’s every move through La Motta’s slo-motion gaze. La Motta is forever panicked that Vickie-as-power-of-beauty and Joey-as-the-power-of-cunning are working behind him with Como-the-power-of-organization-intelligence-and-hierarchy.)
Things get even more complicated by the power-of-morality, for as corrupt as the boxing world may have been(and still is today), there were the press and the courts to investigate flagrant violations, one of the most outrageous being La Motta’s ‘dive’ in the fight with Billy Fox, a shill-fighter of the mafia. The scandal got worse because La Motta, in his bullheaded way, tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, he cut a deal with Como that he would take the ‘dive’ and be rewarded later with a shot at the title fight. But La Motta, who’d never been floored, simply couldn’t hit the canvas. Instead, he leaned against the ropes and pretended to be hurt as Fox landed ineffective punches, losing by TKO than KO. The loss was not only fake but looked fake. La Motta didn’t feel like ‘going down for nobody’—indeed, even in his final fight with Robinson where he got mauled badly, he boasted of not having been knocked down. (It’s like Jesus accepted His agony to the end without losing resolve.)
What is useful for the Comos of the world is frustrating to La Motta. Como, who breathes and dines on corruption, accumulates his power by mixing and matching different kinds of power. He’s a businessman with keen instinct for playing all sides. He acts the wise and benevolent patriarch of the community, but he’s a player, not a fighter or crusader. He will hire thugs to commit violence when necessary; he will protect and promote people when he sees fit. He has a reputation to maintain, but it’s a matter of appearances than integrity. La Motta, though a thug and bully, could be said to possess at least one kind of integrity: he’s a tough fighter who will take on the best, win or lose. La Motta fought Robinson, the most fearsome fighter in the welterweight and middle weight division in the 40s and 50s, six times(winning one and losing five) and many others. And in his own crazy way, he is madly devoted to Vickie as the great love of his life. He’s essentially an ‘animal’ but with a human desire for respect and affection. But genuine respect remains out of his reach because, in the end, he’s not the best in boxing, and he’s too paranoid and out-of-control to win the love of people around him. Yet, one might say there’s a kind of ‘black’ integrity to his craziness. He rages like an uninhibited animal and pays for his actions, emotionally and socially. (The one man he couldn’t rage against was Como, but then Jesus, who attacked the moneychangers in the Temple, dared not rage against Pilate.)
Though RAGING BULL is filled with Christian-Catholic references, the point of the film is not to suggest La Motta is like Jesus. Rather, by drawing comparisons and contrasts between La Motta and Jesus, the film highlights the tragic conflict between animal and angel in man. According to Christianity, Jesus was the one and only Perfect Man, and so our virtues and vices become clearly etched in relation to Him. It’s like Jesus is the bright sun and we’re silhouetted objects placed before it. The good sides of us are transparent—though never completely clear—and the light of Jesus shines through while the bad sides of us are opaque and block the passage of the redemptive light. La Motta certainly is no saint; indeed, he’s a very ‘black’ character. His profession is a blood-sport where men pummel one another without mercy. He fights not for any moral cause but for money and vanity. He’s paranoid, possessive, and jealous. He’s cruel and vicious, and even when not, insensitive and self-centered. He’s the antithesis of everything Jesus stood for. He lives in a nation where people are rewarded handsomely for narcissism, greed, material ambition, power-lust, and just plain lust. Even the Catholic Church of the Italian-American community is more a cultural than spiritual institution. In one scene, a Catholic priest shows up at a night club, and one of the hoods kids, “Hey father, do you wanna get laid?” The Church has no real power here, and even the power it wields is more social/political than moral/spiritual.
La Motta’s soul lacks the transparency through which the light of Jesus can shine, but his darkness has crude parallels with Jesus’s radiance. For starters, La Motta, brutish and awful as he is, isn’t exactly evil. His cruelty and violence are too unthinking and primitive—more animal than Satanic, and therein lies its own kind of ‘black purity’. If anything, Como is the more evil character. Como knows what he’s doing and why whereas La Motta acts according to his childlike emotions. The difference between La Motta and Como is like between Tommy(Pesci) and Paulie in GOODFELLAS. Tommy in GOODFELLAS is utterly rotten, but he has the saving grace of being what he is without pretension: a thug thru and thru, with no apologies. In contrast, Paulie acts like a respectful member of the community when, in reality, he's an amoral and ruthless operator.
As with Jesus, La Motta is 100% devoted to his calling in life; the scene where La Motta is pummeled into a pulp by Robinson could be called the ‘Passion of Jake La Motta’. Jesus came to understand and accept His purpose in life; despite all the fears and anxieties, He didn’t deviate from the path that He chose or was chosen for Him. He understood it was the only ticket to everlasting glory as the King of Kings. La Motta similarly is fully devoted to winning the championship, and he’s committed to doing it his way and no other way. But, unlike Jesus, he does cut a deal with Como to earn a shot at the title shot. (On the other hand, one could argue that Jesus compromised too. He did say 'Render unto Caesar what is his', and one could say La Motta simply rendered unto Como what it his. Also, both Jesus and La Motta needed an act of betrayal to fulfill their destinies. Jesus needed Judas to betray Him, and some scholars say Jesus and Judas plotted it together, which also happens to be the narrative in LAST TEMPTATION. If true, Jesus used Judas like La Motta used Joey: conduit to the corrupt authorities. Only by His arrest and the Passion of persecution/execution could Jesus gain spiritual championship. Similarly, only by Joey's deal with Como could La Motta gain the shot at the championship belt. For Jesus to demonstrate His purity, He had to be betrayed; but if no Disciple was willing to betray Him, Jesus might have had to cut a backroom deal with Judas.) Despite La Motta's commitment to athletic/professional purity, he cannot reach the top by principles alone. And of course, unlike Jesus’s everlasting glory as King of Kings, sports is essentially about being king-for-a-day. It’s here today, gone tomorrow. Robinson’s destruction of La Motta has the feel of crucifixion, but whatever personal meaning it may have in store for La Motta—it’s as though his ‘spirit’ miraculously keeps him standing—, it can't mean much to anyone else; for spectators, it simply means he got beat up real bad. When the bloodied La Motta goes to Robinson and says, “you never got me down, Ray”, we see Robinson’s ringside assistant or manager laugh in slo-mo like a hyena. (On the other hand, RAGING BULL tells us something about the power of myth-making. As Saul/Paul expanded the tale of Jesus into a full-blown universalist religion, Scorsese/De Niro turned La Motta’s sordid story into a sort of spiritual myth. Though there were many boxers as good or better than La Motta, many more people may know something about La Motta than about fighters like Kid Gavilan or Tony Zale for the simple fact that Scorsese made the greatest boxing movie. If not for the mythologizing impact of the book/movie, La Motta may mostly be a forgotten fighter to most Americans, like Carmen Basilio.)
Jesus/Mary-Magdalene and La Motta/Vickie make for interesting contrasts. According to Christian mythology, Jesus was not only born of a virgin mother but lived and died a virgin Man. Upon seeing a bunch of men stoning a whore, He saved the woman's life and soul. She quit whoring and became one of His devout followers. As Jesus was man as well as God according to Christianity, He may have felt sexual desires. But according to the mythology anyway, He resisted the impure temptations of the flesh. He had to live and die as the Pure Perfect Man of the Spirit.
As Jesus saved Mary Magdalene from crude moralists(who tried to stone her) and from a life of sexual debasement, La Motta sees himself as saving Vickie from the no-good hoodlums of the neighborhood. He first sees her at the local swimming pool hanging with mafia guys. Her sitting by the pool and splashing her legs in the water is seen in slo-motion through La Motta’s eyes. Water, an important motif in Christian symbolism, imbues the moment with a perverse blend of purity and profanity. Vickie the blonde is the symbol of all that is beautiful and pure in the world for La Motta; he can maybe find salvation through her.
But he is turned on sexually by her flesh. Later, after they’ve become a couple, La Motta feels extremely horny on the day before a fight; he is ‘raging balls’. He wants Vickie sexually but can’t have her because he must conserve his energy for the fight, with Robinson no less. She thus becomes both his closest friend(to comfort and please him) and biggest enemy(temptress sucking out his vitality). He tells her to take off her panties and allows her to kiss his body(like a sacred temple; her nibbling on his flesh is like Communion of ‘eating’ Jesus’s flesh), but he stands up before there’s any real action and goes to the bathroom and douses his raging genitalia with cold holy water. Now, a lesser director like Ferrara—or Scorsese at his worst, as in CAPE FEAR—might have used the symbolism blatantly, reducing it to spiritual cartoon; the saving grace of RAGING BULL is the water, though potent with symbolism, functions primarily as an element of La Motta’s reality; it doesn’t impose its meaning on the audience. (The most overtly religioso-iconographic imagery involves fighters in their corners, especially Cerdan shown at an angle with water flowing down from his head and La Motta, in his last fight with Robinson, being doused with a blood-soaked sponge. It’s like worldly triumph comes with victory but ‘spiritual’ redemption comes with defeat. The victorious foe may be no angel but serves as a reminder to the loser that there is always some power that is greater than oneself. Thus, hammer-fisted Robinson, though hovering over a wobbly La Motta, delivers the punishment/lesson La Motta needs to finally deflate his hubris and arrogance. Objectively, Robinson is just a fighter doing his job. But from the rationalizing perspective of La Motta’s subjective reality, Robinson becomes like a dark angel. Robinson beat La Motta simply to win, but La Motta takes it as just ‘punishment’, if only to add some significance to the worst defeat of his career; he wasn't knocked down but it was still a TKO--and he would have gone down if the fight hadn't been stopped. Anyway, the scenes in the ring corner with slo-motion water/blood work thanks to the economy of editing and powerful sense of realism. The religious allusions don’t overwhelm the fact of the brutal nature of boxing. The visceral takes precedence over the sacramental. Scorsese has eye enough to spot grace amidst grimness but also sense enough not to conflate the two, the bane of most Christian paintings where every square inch radiates with religiosity. I especially like the countenance of the referee who walks from Cerdan’s corner to La Motta’s corner to inform the end of the fight. It’s a kind of expressive expressionlessness. The wizened/weathered face suggests he’s seen a lot of fights; he knows all glory is fleeting; maybe he himself had once been a fighter. The referee, as the authority who officiates the fight to keep it clean, is perhaps the closest thing to a priest in boxing. He has the ambiguous role of enforcing the ‘angelic’ rule of fairness upon beastly men slugging one other with demonic fury. A boxing referee is committed to the barbaric culture of fighting but does his best to keep it ‘civilized’. And when a boxer is badly beaten but won’t go down, it is the referee who steps in as the guardian angel, often embracing him.) Same goes for the use of steam and smoke, darkness of prison cell, and etc. Though they could be read as allusions to Inferno and hell, Scorsese focuses on the action than dwells on meaning.
Anyway, if Jesus said No to women for spiritual reasons, La Motta must say No to his woman—during certain periods—for physical reasons. He can’t ‘fuc*’ because he must fight. And yet, the whole point of fighting, given the evolutionary history of organisms, is the right to ‘fuc*’. In the wild, males of many species fight for territory and the right to mate, or for ‘land and pussy’. And in sports, top players get top pussy. A top Negro in the NFL gets a lot more pussy—white pussy too—than some bench-warming white player does. Mike Tyson, though uglier than a witch’s anal wart, got tons of white pussy because he was champ. Look at Sports Illustrated, and most of the top athletes are black males while most swimsuit babes are white; the message is top male is Negro and top beauty is white, and so we have increasing Negro male and white female sexual bonding. (White males may be suffering what might be called the Larry-Holmes Syndrome. If Stockholm Syndrome is where an abductee submits, physically and spiritually, to his or her abductors, Larry-Holmes Syndrome is where the white guy, having been pussified by the Negro, ho-de-do’s to the new black boss. Remember Gerry Cooney, how he was gonna be Rocky Marciano Redux? He fought Larry Holmes in one of the most hyped fights of all time. In the end, he got clobbered by Holmes and wept like a baby. Later, he became a ‘friend’ of Holmes, but it was obvious who was top dog and who was sidekick. Cooney got owned by Holmes and he meekly submitted. Similarly, remember Brock Lesnar, who used to act so big and tough? But when he got destroyed by the Negro Overeem—a soam or son of a mudshark, just like Obama, since his father’s black and mother’s white—, Lesnar was reduced to a pussyboy who didn’t talk so tough. He got hurt so bad he retired from UFC. He got reamed by Overeem. Another victim of the Larry-Holmes Syndrome.)
Anyway, the paradox of sports is it’s both intensely animalistic and highly scientific. Athletes, mostly men, go head to head to win and destroy the opponent. It’s kill or be killed. Yet, there’s a lot of methodology, training, and technique to sports, so that athletes must follow a certain regimen and control their natural desires and emotions. Indeed, the very act of training is unnatural. A tiger is tough because it’s born tough and gets his practice in the hunt and fighting. A tiger doesn’t train to be tiger. When a tiger is not fighting or hunting, it takes it easy to or looks for pussy. (To be sure, one could argue that evolution and genetics 'scientifically engineered' a tiger to be the best at what it does. It is an organic killing machine.) An athlete, in contrast, must maintain his training regimen all year round, even when he’s not competing. Athletes who lack such discipline, like the William the Fridge Perry of the Chicago Bears, face lots of trouble. And indeed, the weight problem seemed to have plagued La Motta too(as it did for Roberto 'No Mas No Mas' Duran). In the movie, after winning the championship belt—having reached the pinnacle—, La Motta eats too much and has to lose a lot of weight for the next fight, which he almost loses but for a wild reversal in the final round.
There is also a religious aspect to sports, which may explain why some athletes, like Tim Tebow, pray before the game. In football, the coach is like the wise leader and the player are like his disciples, his flock. As with religion, sports requires a lot of sacrifice. You can’t eat anything you want, you can’t be humping women all the time, you gotta train hard, etc. There is a ritualism, monastic at times, in sports; it’s like when La Motta goes to train, he’s like a monk devoted to physical puritanism of athleticism. And there are times when you need a miracle to win, which is why there’s a throw called ‘Hail Mary’ in football. Fighters like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali have almost been lionized as spiritual figures of black pride in the ‘progressive’ community. And the defeat of white athletes at the hands of blacks have been spiritualized as ‘redemptive punishment’ for the evils of ‘racism’. Thus, not only was Jack Johnson the messiah of the righteous black fist but it’s as though Jim Jeffries suffered for the sins of white folks. Thus, through ‘unforgivable blackness’ of Johnson, white liberals have found a figure of forgiveness of their ‘white racist’ sins by accepting and worshiping the ‘righteous’ and ‘deserving’ triumph of the Negro in sports as historically, morally, and spiritually(and sexually)redemptive for both races. Negro got his vengeance, and the white man, in his fallen Larry-Holmes Syndrome state, got his soul-cleansing punishment.
Paradoxically, sports is also spiritual precisely because it’s so physical. Though every young athlete dreams of becoming champ or hero, the fact is for every winner there is a loser. Indeed, there are many more losers than there are winners. And in the end, even the winners grow old and become losers. Thus, sports remind people of the limits of flesh. (If intellectuals wanna learn something about the limits/fallibility of man, they should take up sports. Paradoxically, conditioning in sports makes one stronger and faster, therefore more narcissistic and confident, but as one reaches his/her limits of endurance/strength, it also teaches a valuable lesson about humility, of one's weakness. Thus, for guys like Roy Jones, boxing did most to both inflate and deflate their ego-maniacal hubris. Anyway, because many intellectuals live with ideas and don't take up physical pursuits, they seem to think that social theories, which can be mentally molded into anything, can solve all problems. This is especially true of Jews. Zionist Jews live in a world of ideas; they and their children don't go into combat and experience war firsthand. And so, they remain idea-centric and don't believe it was their ideas that led to the failures of the Iraq War. Rather, the blame is placed on people-on-the-ground who supposedly didn't correctly implement the ideas. While some ideas, like communism and radical racism of Nazism, come to be fully tested in the world and fail spectacularly, most ideas aren't radically tested in the real world, and so intellectuals can keep believing in the perfect infallibility of their ideas. Maybe in the future, there will be computer programs simulating human reality as accurately as possible, thereby allowing various ideas/policies to be tested on virtual communities to see if they'll work or not. But then, the idea that a computer program could predict events in the real world is also a case of intellectual hubris.) One can watch a movie and fantasize about a cool hero beating up a hundred guys, but no such reality exists in sports. Thus, it is through physical defeat that La Motta finally learns and earns what it means to be human, what it takes to gain meaning in life. His loss to Robinson leads to retirement(though the real La Motta did try to re-enter the ring as a light-heavyweight, whereupon he was finally knocked on his back). After boxing, it’s a shameful scandal, legal troubles, and his stay in prison that finally break him. If Jesus ascended to Heaven after His ordeal, La Motta's troubles lead him to solitary confinement, a concrete pit of purgatory. Unable to sink any lower, he finally breaks and begins the process of crawling toward personal redemption. Whatever one’s route in life, through virtue(Book of Job/Jesus) or through vice(La Motta), the price of admission isn't free. In the end, La Motta gains a measure of peace but only after losing in both the ring and life. Jesus said something about the camel and the eye of the needle. Similarly, it's as though one has to unpack and unload one's entire pride to be allowed into God's grace.
The paradoxical nature of Christianity is one wins through surrender. In sports or war, to surrender means to lose to the opponent/enemy. In Christianity, surrendering to God means to earn His forgiveness and love, thereby winning an entry into Heaven. (There is a spiritual aspect to the very look of sports. The opening credits scene in slo-motion to opera music conveys the beauty and grace of athletic power. The meanings are both pagan and beyond-pagan. In paganism, beauty and power are almost synonymous with spirituality. Thus, primitive people have cults around powerful animals. Higher forms of paganism, such as that of Greeks, visualized gods and heroes as icons of human beauty and strength. So, when we see great athletic feats, it’s like we’re watching the pageantry of gods and heroes. Take the character Achilles in TROY; he is a beautiful and powerful god-man. This is true of boxing greats too. But there is also an ironic counter-pagan aspect to the way the film begins. La Motta’s balletic slo-mo movements in the opening scene is followed by an older, slobby, and fat La Motta in a night club dressing room, then followed by an intensely brutal fight some 23 yrs earlier. We like to idealize beauty and power as a single unity—La Motta depicted in the opening credits scene—, but power is, more often than not, ugly, cruel, and ignoble. And the hero, away from the ring or stage that lends mythic aura to his power, is without the luster of heroism; athletes past their prime seem especially small.)
Figures like La Motta, Ace Rothstein(CASINO), Charlie and Johnny Boy(MEAN STREETS), and Travis Bickle(TAXI DRIVER) aren’t so much anti-christs as counter-christs, alternative-christs, black-christs, or trash-christs. They aren’t really forces of evil but seekers of justice, redemption, and/or glory in their own twisted/misguided ways. Rothstein hopes to wash away his ‘sins’ in Las Vegas. What is illegal elsewhere is legal in Las Vegas, and so Rothstein can do it legitimately under the law, and everyone can grow rich and happy. Las Vegas is where all the gangsters and sharks can be reborn as upstanding members of society. And as Jesus saved Magdalene and La Motta tries to make a ‘good woman’ out of Vickie(in his crazy sort of way), Rothstein thinks he can make a good wife/mother out of some high class hustler/whore(played by Sharon Stone). Rothstein is not really an evil man. If anything, he seems to believe in Las Vegas as heaven-on-earth, a place where all the hoodlums can finally go straight and make legal money and become respectable. But he blinds himself to the nature of the game he’s playing and the kind of people he’s dealing with: the psychopaths, sharks, flunkies, and crooks who will do anything for “what’s in it for me?” Thuggery is in their blood; they can't be saved anymore than end of Apartheid and Democracy can save naturally savage Negroes in South Africa. And the bond between Rothstein and his wife is materialistic; he loves her for her looks/style, and she only marries him for money and can’t break her habit of dependence on drugs and the high life. When Peter denied Jesus three times, he felt real bad afterwards. But ‘friend’ betrays ‘friend’ in CASINO without guilt and remorse since everyone’s in it for power and money. You can’t be a cash-cow Jesus--and this is as true of cheeseball mega-mall preachers as for businessmen(now mostly Jewish)who run Las Vegas.
Travis Bickle is a sort of alternative-christ. Though seemingly without clear faith or conviction, he finds the world full of scum and sin; he then sets about creating his own mythology, embarking on his own mission of redemptive violence by mutual destruction. He ruthlessly mows down bad guys, fully expecting to die in the baptism-by-blood. Confused, lonely, and alienated from the world around him—yet fascinated by it as well—, he wants to do something big and eventful(assassinating a presidential candidate)to send a message to the world that ‘someone finally did something’. After failing at this mission, he compensates by attacking a den of pimps to save a young whore who doesn’t exactly want to be saved. Bickle may believe or want to believe that his motives are pure, but they derive from personal angst and resentments, much of it sexual. And, it’s hard for us to imagine how the world can be saved or redeemed by the killing of a politician, let alone a pimp. Bickle convinces himself that he’s doing it for humanity or some higher good, but he’s really doing it for himself. He’s right about the rottenness of the world, but he can't admit that he's part of the rottenness and madness. Indeed, he didn’t even know there was something wrong with taking a date to a porno movie until Betsy the blonde(Cybil Shepard) pointed it out.
Bickle’s relation to Betsy is, in a way, like La Motta’s to Vickie and Rothstein to Ginger(Sharon Stone as blonde shikse temptress to the dark-haired Jew). She is the blonde goddess, the image of purity, and the answer to his prayers, but also someone who needs to be saved from shallow/phony people around her—not least the weaselly NY Jew played by Albert Brooks—by a true knight, who would be Bickle himself; I must say, there was something Bickle-ish about Steve Jobs in his messianic intensity, as if the world simply wouldn’t be right without his input; and Jobs had some weird ideas about purity and order, especially ironic since he was so unstable and unpredictable. Bickle wants to win her love, to possess her; he wants to feel complete through her, and supposedly she would too through him. But if La Motta could win Vickie with his success as a fighter and if Rothstein could buy, at least for a time, Ginger with his status and money, Bickle has nothing to offer. And unlike Vickie and Ginger, Betsy is not some tramp but an educated woman from a good family. Though Iris, the 12-year old hooker(Jodie Foster), is the very opposite of Betsy, Travis warms to her because they are fellow outcasts. She is sex meat, he is a loner cabbie. She is also naive and young, and so Bickle can find a degree of authority and meaning in the role of adult. She can be ‘fooled’ by him, and he can fool himself with her. She is an innocent child corrupted by perversion, and he is an impure adult seeking restoration of purity.
Perhaps, most interesting from a ‘spiritual’ angle is Johnny Boy of MEAN STREETS. Johnny Boy is what one might call a ‘black saint’, to borrow Jean-Paul Sartre’s designation of Jean Genet. Sartre’s point was Genet was everything awful in terms of social morality—crook, drug user, thief, gigolo, liar, cheat, etc—, yet in his unflinching, unswerving, and unapologetic devotion to a life of transgression, there was a kind of integrity. Genet wasn’t just some crook looking to fool people or steal money. Rather, Genet was as purely devoted to breaking all the rules. Moreover, Genet didn’t just break rules merely for personal gain but an act of principle; he broke rules even when there was no palpable gain. Thus, his purity of badness was a kind of ‘black’ sainthood. Counter-similarly, for a person to be a white saint, he must obey higher spiritual laws even if he has to pay dearly for his goodness. A black saint acts bad even when it’s counter to his self-interest, and a white saint acts good even when it could get him killed.
Johnny Boy is an utterly rotten creature. He lies, cheats, insults everyone, commits vandalism, and worse. But there is a purity in his utter devotion to madness. He’s a punk, and he’ll be punk no matter the stakes or odds. Even when Charlie tries to do him a favor and save his life, Johnny Boy plays it his way right to the end. This drives Charlie crazy, but in a way, Charlie is drawn to Johnny Boy precisely because, on some subconscious level, he is awed by Johnny Boy’s black purity, which, for all its sociopathic lunacy, is a kind of principle—like getting straight F’s is a kind of perfection, however dubious it may be. Even as Charlie tries to ‘save’ Johnny Boy, he may, on some subconscious level, feel cleansed in Johnny Boy’s presence because Johnny Boy is ‘pure’ in a way that Charlie, who tries to have it both ways, can never be. Charlie tries to be good in a bad world, or he tries to do the right thing doing the wrong thing. In some ways, Charlie feels truer than the priests because, like Jesus, he goes amongst and mingles with the sinners, the lepers of social morality, the hoodlums. But he hasn’t the courage of Jesus to ever really say No. Instead, he tries to negotiate among various sides as a kind of street saint, except sainthood doesn’t work that way; you don’t hustle yourself to Heaven. Johnny Boy is rotten but devoted to rottenness with an almost heroic fervor. Unlike Genet, Johnny Boy isn’t a thinker/artist, so he never formulates his way of life into a ‘principle’, but, on an instinctive level, he knows what is and isn’t ‘real’. He knows he feel most real and alive when he’s breaking all the rules and shitting on everyone. He was born a jackal and is gonna live as one to his last day.
Black sainthood is like a shadow-parody of real sainthood. Saints aren’t perfect; indeed, their salvation comes with the realization that their virtues, real though they may be, cannot compare with the pure perfection of Jesus. When Jesus was arrested, the Disciples all fled, hid, and denied any relation to Him. But they felt awful bad afterwards and gave their lives to the spreading of the Faith. Thus, they gained sainthood. They couldn't be Christs but they could walk toward the light.
But in CASINO, the disciples of Nicky Santoro(Joe Pesci) later beat him to a pulp with baseball bats. And there is no guilt, no conscience.
Be that as it may, there was one thing that was ‘true’(pure in its anti-pureness)about Las Vegas when the Mob ran the place. It was sin city as sin city, shamelessly so. People who went to Las Vegas knew it was R-rated for adults looking to gamble and drink, not PG-rated for the whole family. Though Rothstein at the end of the movie laments what became of Las Vegas—sort of Disneyland for the whole family—, the new Las Vegas is only a fulfilment of Rothstein’s own dream: a perfectly legalized gambling city with no fuss, no guilt, no problems. New Las Vegas is a place where the ‘sin’ of capitalism has indeed been ‘cleansed’. Gambling, long regarded as a terrible vice throughout history, and Jews, long regarded as a bunch of money-changing leeches throughout history, found their dream come true in Las Vegas(and Wall Street, which is also Jewish-controlled and operates like Las Vegas). Gambling is no longer associated with vice and sin, which is why every city wants its own casino. And Jews are the lords of gambling in both Las Vegas and Wall Street, and NO ONE seems to associate Jewish involvement in big finance and big cash with greed and evil. But washing away the ‘sense of sin’ doesn’t mean that sin itself has been washed away. If anything, the inability to see sin as sin may be the worst kind of sin. It’s like most Americans have come to accept pornographic culture—not only in porn but in pop music and on TV—as okay, natural, and healthy. So, does that mean sexuality has been washed clean of ‘sin’ and ‘guilt’? Or have we become blind to the vice-filled rottenness of our culture? Hideous Jews don’t just take your money but use your women as whores turned onto Negro studs. White women not only no longer feel any shame in going with Negroes but feel great pride, both sexual and moral. Sexually, a mudshark thinks, “I got me a big muscular black stud who gives me massive orgasms while YOU ‘racist’ white women still have some flabby faggoty white boyfriend” and “I’m morally superior to you conservatives because my jungle-fever-ism means I’m ‘ant-racist’ and blessed by Jews and MLK, the holiest people on Earth.” That is the new morality and ideology in Jew-ruled America.
In some ways, RAGING BULL was the anti-ROCKY in the way that PLATOON was the anti-RAMBO. On the other hand, it might be more accurate to say RAGING BULL is more like the counter-ROCKY. If PLATOON has a clear political and social message about the Vietnam War and politics(in the Reagan era), RAGING BULL is not a message film. But given the popularity of the first ROCKY movie and its sequel ROCKY II(that came out two yrs before RAGING BULL), they make for interesting contrasts. ROCKY is colorful and bright, a fairytale movie about an Italian-American lug who’s strong but sweet. Working as a collector for a mafia hood, he can’t even make himself break some guy’s thumb. He’s also very gentle and loyal to his woman, Adriane.
The first ROCKY has some of 70s American Cinema grit and vitality, but it basically gives the audience what they want. In a way, both ROCKY and RAGING BULL are the children of ON THE WATERFRONT—the first love scene between Rocky and Adriane is almost identical to a similar scene between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint. ROCKY is like the good child and RAGING BULL is like the bad child of Kazan’s movie. ROCKY took the warmest, gentlest, and most formulaic aspects of WATERFRONT and molded them into a crowd-pleaser, with just enough real-life elements to lend it some pungency. RAGING BULL, in contrast, took the darkest elements of WATERFRONT and added things Kazan couldn’t touch in the 50s. After all, WATERFRONT, for all its power and raw edges, has a lot of stock villains, cliched situations, preachy sermons, and an uplifting ending. It handles the dirt of life but ultimately baptizes with Holly water. Greyness yields eventually to black and white morality, and we know what the character must do to become a hero, and we know he’ll do it.
RAGING BULL, in contrast, remains grey from beginning to end. La Motta is neither a tragic hero or arch villain. And we must make up our own minds about the various characters who move in and out of La Motta’s life. If PLATOON, as an anti-RAMBO, set out to prove, “this is how it really was”, RAGING BULL merely says, “this is but one take.” RAGING BULL is powerful filmmaking, not definitive moralizing.
One obvious difference between ROCKY and RAGING BULL is one is fiction and the other is ‘based on a true story’. So, ROCKY sequels can pretend that the Italian-Stallion can beat up a whole bunch of black guys—during the era of Ali, Holmes, Tyson, and Holyfield—while RAGING BULL cannot pretend La Motta won fights he didn't. Though the boxing in the first ROCKY seemed at least half-believable, things got more outrageous with each sequel, especially ROCKY IV, almost a parody of Reagan Era patriotism.
Fight sequences in RAGING BULL, in contrast, feverishly pit physical realism against psychological realism. The fractured editing keeps us disoriented, pulling us in and out of the fight, alternating torrents of blows with a short bursts of slo-motion, reeling into sudden close-up snaps of the head, spinning into panicky focus, popping into overhead shot of the fallen fighter.
Scorsese understood the element of surprise is key to the feel of boxing. Punches connect when fighters least expect them or see them. Even the quick-footed and lightning-reflexed Robinson was caught by surprise when floored by La Motta on two separate occasions. Speed and surprise are the basic elements of boxing, which is why guys like Robinson, Ali, and Leonard were able to defeat bigger and stronger men. RAGING BULL, more than any boxing movie, conveys what boxing looks and feels to the fighters themselves. The element/impact of surprise is mutual between fighters as even the puncher doesn’t know when and which of his punches will connect and do the most damage. When a punch connects and a man goes down, the winner is as thrilled as the loser is stunned. The perfect punch is like a goal in soccer: the rare moment of truth that no one really expects until it happens.
RAGING BULL is all the more amazing as a sports movie because it has relatively little boxing. (One could argue it's more a film about a boxer than a boxing movie, just as GOODFELLAS is more a film about gangsters than a gangster movie.) Also, unlike in ROCKY MOVIES where the story leads to the Big Fight, RAGING BULL's plot structure isn't geared for a cathartic climax. The greatest triumph in La Motta’s career, his win over Cerdan to take the Middleweight title, is neatly summed up in about a minute, if that. The most physically detailed and thematically important fight in the film, the final one between La Motta and Robinson, is only slightly longer, and even after it ends, the story goes on for about another half hour. La Motta may have poured his heart and soul into boxing, but RAGING BULL convey the sense that one’s life story cannot be redeemed or fulfilled by a single event. ROCKY movies all end with the feeling of Happily Ever After, but life just goes on in RAGING BULL. And if La Motta gained a measure of peace in his life, it wasn’t because of a single fight or moment in his life. Rather, he just grew humbler as life just wore him down. From this angle, one might argue the quotation from the Gospel of John is out of sync for it suggests spiritual summarization/conclusiveness when the film itself seems to indicate otherwise. Yet, I found the use of the quotation more suggestive than definitive. And given the brutal honesty of its emotions(if not in the biographical sense), I thought the film earned the right to associate the story with some larger meaning at the end.
It’s not so much that ROCKY is a fairytale whereas RAGING BULL is a parable. RAGING BULL is essentially a slice-of-life story, reeking with the sweat and stink of the streets and the ring. But just as a dazed fighter, after a crushing defeat, has every right to ponder the meanings of it all, RAGING BULL, after a bruising telling of La Motta’s life, gained the right to pose the larger question—and wisely without the conceit of being able to answer it. (Incidentally, the most traumatic kind of defeat may be when the good guy loses, which is why almost no movie has good guys losing. Defeat may be traumatic for the nasty bad guy, but at least he can find inner-peace in having learned a valuable lesson: the foolishness of hubris, arrogance, and meanness; he got whupped because he deserved to. But what happens when the good guy loses? What is the lesson there? The lesson could be God doesn’t care about goodness or maybe there is no God to watch over us; or gods are on the side of evil. The only hopeful message when good guys lose is there may be a higher form of goodness; good people may lose in This World but vengeance is God’s in the Next. Job the good man was awfully confused when he got clobbered because he didn’t know why God would allow such horrors to befall a decent and devout person such as himself. But then, Jesus showed the way of how a good guy can lose in this world but gain victory in the other, the higher, world. The Jack Johnson/Jim Jeffries fight is one of the most perversely ‘moral’ combats in American history. On the one hand, Jack Johnson was a disgusting bully, a ‘nigger’ of the lowest kind, an arrogant ape, and jigger-jiver. Jeffries, in contrast, was more the gentleman, at least for a boxer. So, Johnson’s victory over Jeffries was a case of bad guy beats good guy—thug defeats man of dignity. On the other hand, given the racial discrimination faced by blacks during that era, the fight is seen by most white liberals as a great victory of racial justice where a courageous black hero defeated the symbol of white ‘racism’ and supremacism. Moral history is funny that way. Meanings change with contexts.)
RAGING BULL is a cinematic victory about losing everything in life, a winner about a loser. In the final scene, we see La Motta staring at a mirror, reciting the lines of Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT—where Brando's character tells his brother(played by Rod Steiger)that he was never the same after taking the ‘dive’. There is a parallel between Brando’s character and La Motta because La Motta also took a dive at the behest of his brother with connections to the mob. But the difference is crucial. If taking the dive ruined the Brando character’s career, it was the dive in the Billy Fox fight that secured a title shot for La Motta. Also, La Motta knew exactly what he was doing and why. So, La Motta is not a victim like Brando’s character. He not only understood the implications of what he was doing but was handsomly rewarded for doing so. Also, his brother Joey was loyal and did look out for him; if anything, it was La Motta who turned on his brother. (Though Joey isn't always honest with La Motta, there's no indication that he did anything to hurt or betray his brother. Even when Joey lies, it's to ease the tension, to watch out for both La Motta and Vickie, as well as for himself since he tends to get caught in the middle. La Motta needs to take his rage and frustration on something or somebody since he's always filled with anxiety about the fight or what may be happening behind his back. He needs to feel justified, and so in one particular scene, he tries to coerce Joey to admit that he slept with Vickie; and he virtually forces Vickie to 'confess' that she slept with everyone. In a confusing and troubled world, we need to fix the blame on something and someone for all the problems. It's like how the Sean Penn character pretty much forces the Tim Robbins to 'confess' a crime the latter didn't commit in MYSTIC RIVER. We want clarity and closure, and we'll forcibly pry them out even when we know we're looking for scapegoats. Jews were targeted this way through history, but Jews have also targeted others this way. In America, the religion of PC says we cannot discuss the reality of racial differences, and so Jews force false 'confessions' from experts and scholars to explain the nature of the problem; we are told social problems are not due to racial differences but to 'racism'; so, the person who dares speak the truth is blamed for the problem, e.g. if you say racial violence is due to blacks being tougher and more aggressive than whites, the problem isn't black racial violence but your daring to speak the truth. You must 'confess' the lie and suppress the truth. Spirituality is appealing for it offers a path out of the darkness of fear, panic, and suspicions, but human nature being what it is--and given that spirituality is a manifestation of an aspect of human nature--, religions also need scapegoats. So, many people were forced to 'confess' their roles as agents of the Devil and then burned at the stake. And even after eradicating all the capitalists, Communists had to keep searching for 'capitalist roaders' and 'bourgeois elements' to keep the simple faith of the ideology alive.) So, it’s odd that La Motta would recite the line from WATERFRONT as if it applies to his own life-story. It suggests that, even with a piece of hard-earned wisdom, the need for self-justification still remains. It also demonstrates the power of mythology. ON THE WATERFRONT was one of the most important movies of the 50s, and many men defined their lives and manhood in relation to Brando’s personas on the big screen(as young people did in relation to James Dean). Just as every mafia hoodlum in the 70s saw himself as Don Corleone, many men in the 50s and early 60s saw themselves reflected/enlarged by the mythic characters played by Brando.
The mythic impact of ON THE WATERFRONT was somewhat ironic since Kazan crafted something like an anti-mythic myth. It tried to be a new kind of movie, influenced by Italian neo-realism and down-to-earth honest about real people. Yet, in the end, it offered the feel-good cathartic release of the Hollywood movie; it made you feel good; you knew whom to root for, and when Brando, after getting whupped, gets back on his feet and carries his cross to the end, there's an overwhelming sense of clarity and victory—not much different than the ending of Frank Capra movies. Good triumphs over evil. Also, Brando plays the role of palooka beautifully, infusing it with the stuff of poetic tragedy; it’s a winner performance for a loser character.
(Btw, the mirror scene at the end sums up the ironic nature of acting. La Motta is doing a lousy job of reciting Brando's lines, but De Niro is doing a great job of La Motta doing a lousy job. It's great acting of lousy acting, or De Niro the great actor reflecting the lousy actor La Motta reflecting the great actor Brando reflecting the lousy world of proles. It's like art is a mirror reflecting the prosaic into the poetic. Though realism is the opposite of idealism, the REAL in realism is also a kind of idealism. Brando's character in WATERFRONT is just an ordinary guy, a palooka, but also something more; he's a palooka as fallen angel. And though he speaks in plain language, there's stark poetry to his lines, especially when he explains himself to his brother. It's realistic but also more real than real. Similarly, SCHINDLER'S LIST is both grimly real and poetic-real. The horrors are nerve-wracking as reality-before-our-eyes but also immaculately prepared and prepared as the picture-perfect Holocaust.) Thus, La Motta’s identifying with Brando of WATERFRONT is kinda like Scorsese/Schrader’s tragic/parodic paralleling of La Motta with Jesus. Myths serve as warped mirrors of reality. Not all myths are perfect or about perfection, but even myths about imperfection lend an element of perfection to imperfection. People are drawn to Brando’s persona in ON THE WATERFRONT because he isn’t just a palooka-loser but the perfect palooka-loser with the heart of a golden lion. Thus, his failures in life aren’t merely failures but imbued with tragic heroism, even sainthood and martyrdom. Thus, the paradox of perfect imperfection draws La Motta to ON THE WATERFRONT. It is soothing and 'elevating' because La Motta, in real life and in Scorsese’s film, was merely imperfect. Myths add meaning to our lives. Without personal mythology, La Motta's terrible defeat to Robinson is just that; but through the prism of mythology, it can be rationalized and given significance as the first step on La Motta's road to redemption by the way of perdition.
ROCKY and RAGING BULL are also interesting for their Italian-Americanness. Though Rocky movies take place in the 70s, 80s, and beyond, the name ‘Rocky’ was inspired by the legendary Rocky Marciano, the heavy weight champion from the early to mid 50s. There was a burst of Italian-American movie talents in the 70s—Coppola, De Palma, Cimino, Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, etc—, and Stallone would become one of the biggest stars, shattering box office records in the 80s with ROCKY and RAMBO movies.
The place of Italian-Americans in American society and politics is complicated.
On the one hand, the rise of Italian-American talents parallels the rise of Jewish-American talent. They were both Ethnic-Americans as opposed to Wasp-Americans, the original Americans. If Jews were associated with radical politics and subversive ideas, Italian-Americans were associated with tribalism and thuggery. Both groups had a huge hand in organized crime, but if the more intelligent Jews graduated to legal and institutional power, many Italian-Americans remained dependent on crime and illegal corruption; legal corruption is a lot safer and more effective—just ask the Jews on Wall Street, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., law firms, etc. Italian-Americans and Jewish-Americans were partners in crime—especially during the Prohibition and in gambling—, but they also had significant differences. Catholics generally didn’t like Jews, and vice versa. To Jews, Italians looked like dumb swarthy version of Jews; and to Italians, Jews looked like clever weasel-like version of Italians. Their similarities drew the two communities together but also repulsed one another since self-loathing defined both communities.
Both had their eyes on the American Apple Pie baked by the Wasps, who seemed like a cleaner and more pleasant people. Yet, Wasp power and privilege also filled both Jewish-Americans and Italian-Americans with resentment and contempt(Jews came to see Wasps as less intelligent, Italians came to see Wasps as bland, and both groups came to see Wasps as naive and do-goody). In LOVE STORY, Erich Segal the Jewish author made Jenny an Italian-American girl. In GODFATHER II, Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth collaborate against Wasp power but also plot to kill one another. It’s a partnership in crime, not an alliance of trust.
Though both groups began as Democrats, Italian-Americans turned more Republican and conservative than Jewish-Americans as time passed. Paradoxically, Jews remained liberal precisely because they succeeded so much and so fast. Flush with success, Jews could move out of black/poor/dangerous areas and live in safe places. In contrast, the dimmer Italian-Americans had to worry more about integration with ‘moolies’, and so they were more likely to become ‘racist’. Jews, having moved up in the world, found upper crust Wasps to be their main obstacle to complete power. Jews understood the power of Moral Guilt, and used ‘anti-racism’ as the main weapon against Wasp power/privilege, and this meant Jews had something to gain with a political alliance with blacks. So, Jews, while segregating themselves from blacks, championed justice/power for blacks as a moral cause. By breaking the wall of Wasp power with the ‘anti-racist’ battering ram, Jews could enter into the very center of power. Some Wasps thought that if they allowed Jews in, Jews would turn conservative. But Jews didn’t simply wanna be admitted into the Wasp club as guests but to take total power and gain mastery over Wasps. If Jews made peace with upper crust conservative Wasps, they would lose their Moral Hammer and would just be sidekicks and partners-in-crime with the lily white elite. Especially due to their tradition of radicalism and the Holocaust cult, Jews decided to stay with liberalism. They didn’t have to worry about black crime—unlike poorer whites did who couldn’t afford to move to safer neighborhoods—, and besides, liberalism allowed Jews to win as both whites(economically and socially) and anti-whites(morally and politically). The liberal Jewish narrative says, “unlike most white peoples who used their power and privilege to serve their own narrow/prejudiced interests, Jewish whites NEVER FORGOT where they came from because of their tragic history of victimization and deeply moral tradition. Therefore, even as Jews became rich and powerful, they supposedly continued to care about social justice and commit themselves to helping the downtrodden. Thus, Jews could have the cake and eat it too. They live better than anyone in America but still act like they are down in the trenches with poor oppressed folks. This aspect of Jewishness is mostly cunning but could have therapeutic value as well. It may be traumatic for some Jews to have gone from so little to so much so fast. George Soros, as a young boy, was running errands for Nazis but now he’s a gazillionaire who controls the president of America. It’s like he went from the pits of hell to the peak of heaven in a single bound. And one of the Google Boys was born in Russia and started with little, but now he’s one of the richest people on Earth. For some Jews, their great success may feel like too much too fast; it seems unreal, and so, in order to feel real—to feel the ground under their feet—, Jews may feel a need to be reminded of ‘injustice’ all around the world; it's like even after Ben-Hur is freed from bondage, he doesn't forget the evils of slavery. Jews are used to seeing themselves as victims; so, how could they have become so rich and so powerful almost overnight, just a few decades after the Holocaust, the greatest calamity to befall them? Unable to face the fact of their power, they associate their power with the powerless.
Italian-Americans, especially from Southern Italy, have long felt an inferiority-complex when it comes to Northern Europeans but not exactly as a victim group. Besides, if they were victimized by anything, it was their own pettiness, crime, and corruption. And though Italians like to see themselves as victims of German ‘racists’ in WWII, the fact is Italians were happily allied with Germany til the war went badly, whereupon, in typically oily Italian fashion, they switched alliances. (Never trust a ‘greaseball’.) So, even though the hairy hook-nosed Jew resented the better looking ‘Aryan’ and the swarthy curly-haired and oily Southern Italians resented blonde Northern Europeans, the hostility was less poisonous among the Italians. Dark-haired Italian men may have been hankering for blonde pussy, but they didn’t see themselves as special victims of the ‘Aryan’ race, whereas Jews did, especially after the Holocaust.
Also, machismo was a part of Italian culture in ways it never was with the Jews. If most Jewish men felt like geeks—though they could be awful pushy in their own chutzpah way—, Italian men had swagger and threw their weight around. And given that some Italians have some ‘nigger blood’, they made good runners, boxers, and baseball players. Given their machismo, Italian-Americans had less physical fear of Wasps than Jews did. If a Jew saw a tall golden wasp, he not only felt uglier but wimpier. In contrast, an Italian-American might feel uglier but didn’t necessarily feel intimidated physically. It’s like Joe Pesci character takes on everyone in GOODFELLAS and CASINO. Though Jews can also be crazy, they are generally too smart to be reckless; they have more patience and look at all angles. Italian-Americans tend to be more hot-tempered and leap into action without thinking. This can get them into trouble or it can really intimidate people. Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS/CASINO is not the biggest guy around, but everyone’s afraid of him because he'll do anything to get his way. Jews are like weasels, Italians are like badgers. (Militarily, however, Italians are like chicken whereas Jews in Israel make good soldiers.)
Because of the importance of physicality in Italian/American culture, Italian-Americans were more likely to feel threatened by Negroes. Jews accepted that they were no match for Wasps or Negroes in physical prowess, so they focused on brains and wit. But Italian-Americans, obsessed with macho swagger, felt their pride depended on whupping everyone. But the fact is in most fights between ‘niggers’ and ‘guineas’, the ‘niggers’ won. This pissed off the ‘dagoes’. Italian-American men were also pissed about ‘moolies’ because Italian-American women tended to be more trashy and sensual than women of other ethnic groups, therefore more likely to go looking for ‘niggers’ for sex. Just look at the pop star Mudonna, the biggest mudshark in the world. This racial animosity was bound to make many Italian-Americans more conservative. Just look at the mafia guy Michael in MEAN STREETS when Tony says the girl Michael likes was seen ‘kissing a nigger’.
Also, even though anti-Catholicism once defined American religious/political culture, the fact is Mainline Protestant Churches lost touch and its members as well. And most elite Wasps turned liberal and irreligious. In the South, there was the Evangelical Church to uphold conservatism. With the implosion of conservative white Protestantism in the North, Catholic Church moved in to fill the void. Thus, Catholics came to define much of northern American conservatism after WWII. Since Italian-Americans were heavily Catholic, many of them were bound to become prominent forces in conservatism: consider Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Given the more culturally fluid nature of American society & politics, it wasn’t difficult for Catholics to become the new leading lights of American conservatism, especially in the Northeast Coast. It was as if the long enmity between Catholics and conservative Protestants had never existed. Though neoconservative Jews and Evangelical Christians formed an alliance of sorts, it wasn’t anything like Catholics taking the reins from Protestants. While neoconservatives may be the single most powerful elements in the GOP, Jews are still overwhelmingly liberal and at war with the Christian Right. And while Catholics and Protestants on the Right agree on core values and key cultural issues, neoconservative Jewish alliance with Evangelicals is almost purely opportunistic. For starters, most neocons are not right-wing Orthodox Jews but ex-leftists and former liberals who gravitated to the Right because they found the GOP more amenable to Zionist foreign policy. Whatever differences there may exist between Catholics like Pat Buchanan and Evangelicals in the South, they are agreed on the basic tenets of cultural conservatism. But most neoconservatives are either amused or offended by the core tenets of the Christian Right and only tolerate them because Christian Zionists are the most committed backers of Israel. Neoconservatives also gravitated to the Right in the 70s and 80s because of the Cold War and Soviet Union’s discrimination against Jews and support for Arab nations. But with the end of the Cold War and with America as the lone superpower and committed to Israel, there has been less of a reason for most American Jews to gravitate to the Right. So, even ‘right-wing’ Jews will never feel ‘at home’ with the American Right as Catholic Italian-Americans do. Protestants and Catholics believe in the same Father and same Son. Jews and Christians believe only in the same Father, and most Jews now believe God loves ‘fags’. Thus, Jews always feel like guests in the Christian World.
In some ways, Jews are closer to Italians culturally and racially. Italy, along with Spain, came under considerable contact with the Middle East and North Africa. At one time, especially during Muslim colonization of Italy and Spain, Jews often moved back and forth between two worlds. But Jews and Italians are different in a fundamental sense. Jews have always been the People of the Book, the believers of the one and only God; they were anti-pagans. In contrast, Roman Italy was once the center of the greatest pagan culture/power the world had ever seen. In food, arts, music, dance, and idols, Roman-Italians celebrated pagan sensuality and glory to the hilt. Thus, ancient Romans and Jews couldn’t be more different, which is why Romans especially had a difficult time in Judea. It was ultra-pagans vs ultra-monotheists. In time, Romans adopted Christianity, and Italy has remained Christian ever since, but Italians never lost their sense of pagan glory. Architecture of the Vatican is steeped in pagan styles, and the Renaissance was rebirth of pagan culture. Thus, Italians were steeped in both paganism(or paganesquery) and Christian spiritual purism. Traditionally, Jews favored simple clothing, simple foods, and strict rituals whereas Italians loved pageantry, rich flavors and spices, and music/dance rooted in the pagan past. (Since the Jewish religion forbade Jews from indulging in pagan riches, beauty, and glory--idolatry--but allowed Jews to do business with pagan goyim, Jews accumulated lots of 'sinful' pagan objects and properties. Since Jews could not use or partake of pagan materials as fitful elements of Jewish culture/community, they came to accumulate and regard the wealth of pagan/goyim culture as possession and property. For pagans, statue of a Greek god wasn't just a piece of property but a part of their culture; for Christians, a painting of Jesus was a part of their history and heritage. To Jews, such things were sinful and foul as pagan or goy idols. Yet, since they had monetary value, Jews accumulated as much of them as possible. In time, as secular Jews, they came to appreciate pagan/goy culture. Even so, Jews had developed such a powerful habit of seeing goyim and goy materials as 'financial' property to OWN than something integral to Jewish people and culture. This explains why Jews essentially see us as chattel and our wealth as something to take and horde for themselves. Jews don't even regard goy minds as real minds but as putty to own and mold into their own property. Given the utter gullibility of so many goyim to fall so easily under the sway of cunning Jews, maybe Jews have a point.) Though Northern Europeans were racially more distinct from Jews, their stark and colorless form of Protestant puritanism made them, in some cultural and spiritual aspects, more like Jews. They tended to be more sober-minded than Italians. Jews were also known for a degree of sobriety. And given the simplicity of Protestantism--as opposed to the elaborate quasi-paganistic ritualism, aesthetics, and hierarchy of Catholicism--, its followers tended to be more focused on key points and issues and less distracted by ornamentalism and showmanship(to be found in Catholicism, something that Protestants denounced as idolatry and cult fetishism bordering on superstition).
On the other hand, given the Semitic origins of Jews, they tended to be more haggly-waggly and devious than the more ‘bland’, straightforward, and earnest Northern Europeans. And since Jews were outsiders, they saw things from multiple angles. Among themselves, Jews were more like Northern Europeans united by fundamental sense of truth and clear sense of faith. Jews were pure Jews among Jews, and Protestants were purified Christians. In contrast, Catholics were Christians practicing faith in manner that smacked of paganism. But when dealing with non-Jews, Jews were more like Southern Europeans. Just as Italians negotiated between Roman paganism and Christianity, the Jew-as-middlemen had to straddle between Christians and themselves, sometimes between Christians and Muslims, sometimes between Protestants and Catholics. So, Jews tended to act more like Germans at home(with fellow Jews) and more like Italians outside the home(with goyim).
In a way, the relation between Jews/Italians and Wasp-Americans can be better understood when we consider the relation between Jews/Italians and black-Americans. The big difference between Jewish-Americans and Italian-Americans is the former got to own the blacks whereas the latter could not and did not. In THE GODFATHER, one of the heads of the five families says drugs should be sold to the ‘colored’ but not to fellow Italians. Italian-Americans saw a need to do business with blacks. And some Italian-Americans came to manage Negro athletes and the like. But Italian-Americans never thought to use blacks as a battering ram against Wasp Americans. Italian-Americans weren’t big in radical politics, Civil Rights Movement, and the folk music protest movement. Italian-Americans saw blacks as ‘moolies’, a people who had musical and athletic talent; this led to both love and hate. Both Italian-Americans and Negroes were more expressive, brash, criminal-oriented, machismo-obsessed, musical, and louder than most other groups. Sometimes, Italian-Americans aped Negro styles and mannerisms. But Italian-American felt they could never be as good as Negroes in dance and sports. I mean Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were pretty cool, but many more people—including many Italian-Americans—were getting into soul, doo-wop, and rock music.
But, Italian-Americans were also troubled by the impression that they were not really white people but a bunch of ‘greaseball white niggers’. The more Italian-Americans acted like ‘niggers’, the more they hated the ‘niggers’. And though gangs of Italian-American boys could take on most other groups, they were scared shitless about taking on ‘nigger gangs’. Consider the scene in THE WANDERERS where Italian-Americans promise to fight ‘niggers’ but then get massive cold feet.
Rocky Marciano’s most legendary fights were against blacks Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott. And the bane of La Motta was Sugar Ray Robinson. Especially because Italian-Americans were so obsessed with manhood and toughness, they felt threatened by the damn ‘moolies’ who were even tougher.
Jews, in contrast, always relied on their brilliance and cunning above all. Even in Israel, Jews relied on better technology and organization than on mere manpower or muscle power. Having risen in the political, economic, and social hierarchy of American society, Jews needed insurance for their power, and it was ‘white guilt’ regarding the Negroes. Instilled in the cult of racial guilt, white people(of all classes and ethnic background--with the exception of Jews of course)would never even think of uniting to challenge the power/privilege of the Jew. Jews made whites think white power = pure evil. To maintain the potency of this insurance policy, Jews needed to serve as social doctors constantly injecting white people with dosages of ‘white guilt’. MLK cult is not about more freedom, equality, and liberty for all Americans. It means more power for Jews to silence whites and to keep them drugged on political correctness. Worshiping MLK, white people dare not say anything that is ‘racist’. Thus instilled with Eternal Guilt, they dare not think in terms of white interest and survival; they dare not take on the Jews. So, even though Jews and Negroes are by far the greatest enemies of the white race and have caused by far the most damage, white people instilled in ‘white guilt’ and the MLK cult are too busy worshiping the Noble Negro(and Holocaustianity) to wake up and do what’s necessary.
And given the Cult of the Black Stud in pop music/porn and Black Hero in sports, white folks are too busy masturbating to rap, porn, and football to ever wake up and think what is really being done to their race by the alliance between Jews and Negroes. Thus, Jews don’t own blacks merely for profit in sports and music industry but as symbolic moral weapons to use against white society. MLK was indeed a Jewish creation. And Obama even more so. By owning blacks, Jews have also come to own whites. Jews not only use ‘white guilt’ to paralyze white pride/power but use ‘white jungle lust’ to addict whites to blackness. So, white males are addicted to black-dominated sports. White boys worship Negro athletes and would give anything for an autograph from their 'heroes'. And white boys and girls are addicted to Negro music and shake their booties to rap and hip hop, jazz, and etc. And white girls are addicted to Negro studs for jungle fever sex, and white boys are addicted to interracist porn for bigger orgasms. (White boys love interracist porn and indeed constitute its biggest consumers.) So, since both ‘white guilt’ and ‘white lust’ are intertwined with blackness and since Jews own the entertainment, media, and sports industries that promote and cater to both 'white guilt' and 'white lust', Jews not only own blacks but own whites who are addicted, morally and sensually, to blackness.
Italian-Americans never thought to amass that kind of power, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have had the brains and brilliance to pull it off. Indeed, it’d be interesting to speculate where blacks would be in American politics and society if it weren’t for Jews. Without Jews, there wouldn’t have been MLK cult and Obama. There might have not been porn, especially interracist porn. There would be far fewer privileges and influential blacks in media, colleges, and government. There might not have been ‘affirmative action’. Many blacks rose ABOVE whites with the help of Jews, and Jews helped the Negroes for their own interests. (Even the ANC in South Africa was created and led by Jews like Joe Slovo.) Jews rose way above blacks and then morally/sensually used blacks against Wasp society.
Italian-Americans, slower to make the socio-economic climb, were more likely to find themselves in close proximity with the ‘moolies’. Also, Italian-Americans, unlike Wasp-Americans, were less likely to feel any ‘guilt’ about Negroes. Italian-Americans arrived long after the Civil War, and they were too busy surviving and making a new life in America to worry about justice for ‘moolies’. Also, a whole bunch of Italian-Americans were robbed or murdered by ‘moolie’ thugs in big cities. What reason did the ‘guineas’ have for feeling guilty about the ‘moolies’? Also, Italians tended to be less ‘conscientious’ about doing ‘social good’ than Northern Europeans. Though Swedish-Americans were NOT involved in the slave trade—if anything, the historical crimes of Swedes were against other Europeans during the age of Viking plunder—, by the very nature of their do-goody and guilt-heavy Protestant consciousness, they feel a need to be liberal and ‘progressive’. Italian-Americans felt an instinctive sense for family, clan, tribe, ethnicity. They weren’t gonna bend over backwards for no ‘moolie’ or ‘save the world’ do-goodiness.
The hideously cunning Jews were like both Italian-Americans and Wasp-Americans. On the outside, they acted ‘conscientious’ and made a lot of noise about making a better world. But unlike Wasp-Americans who really made sacrifices that undermined their own group interest, Jews used the politics of ‘conscience’ to gain more power for themselves. Jews used universal-justice-ism to serve their ethno-tribalism. When Jews talk about ‘white guilt’ and ‘responsibility’, they mean white GOYIM must sacrifice more of their power/privilege/interest for non-whites while Jews themselves gain ever larger share of the pie. The hideousness of the Jews knows no bounds. In behavior and manners, Jews are more like Italian-Americans on the outside(obnoxious)and Wasp-Americans on the inside(sober). But in political ‘conscience’, Jews are more like liberal Wasps on the outside(idealistic)and more like Italian-Americans on the inside(tribal). (Of course, given the Anglo-Americanization of majority of Italian-Americans, many of them have become just as suicidal, decadent, and stupid as white liberals and do-goody ‘compassionate conservatives’. As for Italian-Americans who imitate Jewish culture like Joy Behar, they are nothing but shameless running dogs for Jews.)
Italian-American relation to ‘niggers’ also came to define their relation to Wasp society. For Wasps—traditionally at least—, Italian-Americans were like ‘white niggers’. When Jim Jeffries lost to Jack Johnson, that was a white guy losing to a ‘nigger’. But if an Italian-American boxer fought a Negro, the dynamic was something different for Wasp-Americans. If the Italian-American won, Wasps could take pride in a white guy beating a Negro. But if the Italian-American lost, Wasps could say it wasn’t really a white guy but some ‘white nigger’ who lost to a ‘nigger’.
If black popular culture was too risque for some lily white parents in the past, Italian-Americans were useful substitutes. Italian-Americans had darker skin, expressiveness, and colorful personalities, but they were still officially white. (Better than 'tall, dark, and handsome' meant Latin lover than Negro stud.) You could get some ‘niggerishness’ from Italian-Americans without the whole ‘nigger’. Though Elvis was not Italian-American, there was something greasily Latin and Italian-like about his ‘white niggerishness’. And, when the first phase of Rock n Roll ended in the late 50s, there was the Teen Idol craze where a lot of stars were Italian-Americans like Frankie Avalon. And GREASE was about a blonde Wasp girl and a greasy oily Italian-American boy. It was more acceptable than a golden girl going off with some ‘nigger savage’. (How times have changed. Today, the new ideal peddled by Jews is Golden Girl with Ebony Boy. Of course, Jews in the past knew that whites would freak out if Jews pushed interracism too fast and too hard. So, Jews initially buttered up the resistance by focusing interracism involving white males and non-white females--white men with Asian women or white men with squaw--, which was less threatening to the white race as a whole. Before there could be Negro boy and white girl, there was ‘greaseball’ boy and golden girl. Personally, I don’t have anything against mixing with ‘greaseballs’, but I’m just saying Jews gradually dragged white race into the mudpool of race-mixing, to the point where white women shamelessly and proudly ended up mixing with Negro males while white boys feel so ashamed of what’s happened to them that they either pretend not to notice or give it full support to convince themselves that racial progress is happening as a result of their magnanimous and willing consent in the name of equality and sexual justice; it’s really Larry Holmes Syndrome. But then, what can white males say or do? If they openly oppose interracism in full view, they will  be called ‘racist’ and ostracized  beaten by the tougher Negro while the white skank laughs at the white boy  appear inadequate and whiny as he’s been reduced to bitching like a beta-male pussyboy with wounded pride. For the white male, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.) For Wasps, Italian-Americans were once both entertaining as substitute ‘niggers’ and useful as bulwark against real ‘niggers’. If you didn’t like to see a bunch of ‘niggers’ but still wanted to see a bunch of lunatics acting wild, Italian-Americans fit the bill. Consider Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS and CASINO. And though Pacino played a Cubano in SCARFACE, it was really a ‘nigger greaseball’ act. Wasp actors can be tough too, but they lack the flavor, expressiveness, and intensity of the Latin loonies. Imagine Matt Damon or Robert Redford as Tony Montana. It just wouldn’t work. (Jewish James Caan, an ethnic actor, made a great ‘dago’ in THE GODFATHER. Though Brando was Wasp, he had the ripe lips of Elvis and a swagger that was almost Latin in appeal. If he'd been a woman, he would have been more like Sophia Loren or Jeanne Moreau than pale face actresses like Katharine Hepburn or Cate Blachett.) The aspect of ‘niggerishness’ among Italian-Americans filled them with both shame and pride. Shame because they were seen as less pure whites, as curly haired swarthy mooks contaminated with some ‘eggplant’ blood--as many modern day Greeks feel contaminated by Turkic blood. But given the colorfulness, musicality, and toughness of Negroes, Italian-Americans could also feel pride as the ‘badass whites’. In the 40s and 50s, when many Wasps had long given up boxing, there were many Italian-American top contenders and even champions. Thus, when an Italian-American saw a ‘moolie’, he saw both everything he didn’t want to be and everything he wanted to be. He didn’t wanna be no ‘coon’ or ‘gorilla’. He wanted to be a bona-fide white person. But he also wanted to be slick, hip, and tough like the ‘nigger’.
Though Tony Janiro wasn’t a Wasp, the fact that he was ‘good-looking’ and had an aquiline nose made him a ‘white boy’ target for La Motta the ‘greaseball nigger’. In the film, Janiro LOOKS like a Wasp golden boy whereas La Motta, with his snubby nose, looks like a ‘dago’ ape. So, La Motta’s mauling of Janiro has some of the intensity of Jack Johnson’s mauling of prettier white boys. And La Motta makes sure that Janiro’s nose got disfigured. La Motta is like a vandal smashing a Greek statues. Being ugly and beastly, he destroys something pretty/beautiful that reminds him of his own ugliness. There are two enemies of the Idolatry of Beauty: beasts and puritans. Puritan anti-idolatry has its roots in the Ancient Jews and their worship of the one and only God. It favors spiritualism over sensualism, and it could have partly been the result of Jewish feeling of ugliness in relation to other peoples. Since they couldn’t compete in the looks department, their narcissism became spiritual. But Idolatry of Beauty is also resented by beastly thugs who resent the power of beauty. Thus, black thugs love to manhandle pretty white boys, and La Motta pummeled Janiro into pulp. And the vile Genghis Khan and his gross-looking Mongol barbarians went around smashing things of beauty, art, and civilization wherever they went. And dirty stinking Germanic barbarians plundered and smashed the treasures of Rome. You can see this sort of aggression with children too, especially boys. When confronted with something beautiful like a flower garden, some of them don’t know what to and just stomp on it. Smashing something beyond their power to comprehend or appreciate simplifies things. The violence can also be anti-intellectual, as when Red Guards in China smashed and burned anything beyond their simple-mindedness and ignorance; though they acted in the name of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’, it was ignorance—a form of intellectual ugliness—striking out at the beauty of ideas. This dynamic is more interesting with the Nazis because they smashed so much beauty and art in the name of beauty and art. In their dogmatic agenda of stamping out ugliness and sickness in culture, Nazis acted ugly and demented. And in their narrow concept of beauty, anything that was beautiful/special in a different way was either said to be inferior or to be destroyed as evidence against the supremacy of 'Aryan Beauty'. So, Hitler planned to raze all of Moscow--not because there was nothing of beauty to there but because there was. Just like the monotheistic religion cannot stand any god but the one and only God, mono-aesthetic ideology, like the queen in SNOW WHITE, cannot accept any beauty but its own. The result for Nazi Germany was a concept of beauty without depth, richness, meaning. Postcard beauty for pigheaded beasts.
Of course, the beastly is also drawn to beauty but to rape, pillage, and plunder than to preserve and appreciate. Thus, liberal Jews and Negroes look upon white women as shikses or ho’s to ‘dick slap’, ‘cum in the mouth’, and ‘ram up the ass’. They lust after white beauty but as something to plunder. If Jews turned MLK into the icon of Negro soulfulness and charisma, they turned the Marilyn Monroe into a symbol of white whoredom; the message is white women make good sexual-sacrifice whores for Jews and Negroes.
MLK, the sexual degenerate and wild Negro, has been deified into a neo- or post-Christian icon of Negro Nobility and black moral/spiritual superiority, while the image of the blonde woman, via Marilyn Monroe, has been defiled into pagan-whore-skank-goddess-of-shikse-whoredom. That the Monroe statue in Chicago and MLK statue in Washington D.C went up around the same time tells us what the Jews have in store for us. MLK statue is in marble and stands for permanent ‘white guilt’ and the necessity of white moral subservience to Negroes and Jews. Monroe statue, made of plastic and plaster, suggests that white women are disposable sex-meat to be sold and marketed like commodities, especially for the pleasure of Jews and Negroes. (Jews own sports, blacks play the game, and white girls shake their asses for Negroes. Jews own Hollywood and music industry, blacks sing rap, and white girls are encouraged to wiggle their asses to ‘nigger’ music marketed by rich Jews.)
Israel is one of the centers of white slavery where thousands of blonde Slavic women are sold to disgusting men from all over the world. Thus, a Russian woman is made to spread her legs to filthy Jews, Arabs, Asians, Africans, etc. This is how most Jews regard white goyesses, and Jews supported Obama mainly to pussify white men and jungle-feverize white women, albeit in a fancy ‘clean-cut’ way. For trashy lower-class white women, Jews promote interracist hip-hop and porn culture. For upper-class white women, Jews promote haute interracism in the tradition of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. The devious and hideous Jews act sophisticated and civilized, but their agenda is really fueled by resentment of white beauty and hatred of white males, whom Jews seek to castrate and pussify. Inside every Jew is a Ron Jeremy or Erica Jong. When Jews promote ‘transgenderism’, they aren’t merely asking us to be more tolerant of male freaks who dress like women; instead, they are promoting it as a figurative ideal, especially among whites, of course. Thus, white women are praised for being more manlike while white men are praised for being more womanlike or ‘metrosexual’. SWPL ideal is for white males to act like a bunch of straight fairies like the insufferable Ken Burns.
RAGING BULL is one of those films that ends but has no ending; ‘life goes on’ and there’s no finality until one dies. Indeed, it ends where it begins, in 1964, when an older and fatter La Motta is in the dressing room rehearsing his lines(Ali-like rhymes)for the night’s act. After the scene in the dressing room, the film jumps to 1941 with a much younger La Motta in the final round of his first professional loss. Had the film begun with the fight, our expectations might have been more along the lines of ROCKY. We would have expected a story of an up-and-coming fighter working his way to the championship, with the story ending, in conventional narrative style, with triumph or tragedy. But the first scene in 1964 reminds us from the get-go that there’s more to the life of La Motta than his career as a boxer. And indeed when we finally get to the big championship fight, it’s summed up in minute or two. Life goes on, no glory is everlasting and permanent. Yesterday’s victory is like yesterday’s paper. What ‘should’ have been The Ending(in a typical sports movie)is anything but. Then, we might expect the final Robinson/La Motta fight to be the Ending, with La Motta utterly defeated and learning the great lesson of life. But that too isn’t the Ending. Next we see the retired La Motta by the swimming pool with his wife and family. He says he’s happy and there’s nothing more a man can ask for. That might have served as a conventional Ending, a man who finally settles down to a peaceful life. But the story goes on, with La Motta getting in serious legal trouble. Later, we see him reuniting, if for a moment, with his brother, and that might have been the Ending, with the message of forgiveness and let-bygones-be-bygones. But the story goes on again. The film refuses to ‘end’ with an ‘Ending’, with a final bell. Life is one long fight to the very end.
The photo session of the retired La Motta with his family by the swimming pool is suggestive of ‘life’ as presented in the film. Flashbulbs flare on and off, and we hear them popping out and rolling on the ground. It’s as if life is a never-ending series of moments, incidents, events. We’d all like to freeze a special moment, especially of triumph, bliss, or comfort, and frame it forever, but there is no ‘eternity’ in life. Life flows on, and everything in life is just a snapshot in a countless series of snapshots. La Motta’s winning the belt was a snapshot, his TKO defeat by Robinson was a snapshot, his happy retirement was a snapshot, his reunion with his brother was a snapshot. Traces of the past linger, but time exiles us from what we hold dear. It is the rare man, like Jesus, who does something so profoundly great that his deed becomes the stuff of immortality. What Jesus did 2000 yrs ago is more alive to us than what people did 50 yrs ago.
RAGING BULL’S final scene, an ending without an Ending, is quite memorable. La Motta stares into the mirror in the dressing room, both confronting and evading who he was/is. He’s made partial peace with himself, accepting that he’d hurt a lot of people and that he’s a has-been, reduced to clown-acts in the second-rate showbiz circuit. He’s become a nobody, a bum, with nothing to lose. Even so, he was somebody once, something the Brando character couldn’t claim for himself in ON THE WATERFRONT—though I suppose he does win a more important fight at the end. (In some ways, De Niro’s playing the young La Motta and old La Motta was both an encore of his role in Bertolucci’s 1900 and rehearsal for his role in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, playing both young and old versions of his character. There is also a famous mirror-in-dressing-room scene in Leone’s masterpiece where Noodles and Debra confront the reality behind the myth.) Staring into the mirror, La Motta is both seeing himself for what he is and as something other—it is a dressing room, after all. The mirror both reflects the naked present and functions as the projection of a wounded ego. La Motta both damns and justifies himself. He knows he’s a beast but pleads, with himself and with the imaginary audience, for sympathy and understanding. As with many people, La Motta’s mea culpa has an element of self-obsession-and-justification. A person demonstrating self-hatred could well be asking for sympathy. It’s like how Germans go around and go boo-hoo about how guilty and lousy they feel about the Holocaust, implying we should give them a hug and commend them for being so ‘conscientious’.
The mirror scene in RAGING BULL is reminiscent of the mirror scene in TAXI DRIVER where Travis Bickle stares at himself and says, “you lookin’ at me?”
Like La Motta, Bickle is ‘rehearsing’; also like La Motta, Bickle’s biggest problem may really be with himself. Though Bickle is pretending to talk to someone else, he is also face-to-face with his own demon as his biggest nemesis is himself. “I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”
There is such a bundle of contradictory emotions in the last scene in RAGING BULL. As he readies to take the stage, the suited La Motta bends over his potbelly, throwing flurries of low hooks and upper-cuts, huffing and puffing, grunting like an animal. He's just preparing for a nightclub act, but his fighting instincts are back. Whatever wisdom he may have gained, his root instinct is to box and trade blows. He’s a fat aging nobody, but he still has the moves, even some of the speed. Of course, it’s pathetic sight too, and, in a way, it’s as if he’s trying to purge himself of his animal instinct as well as revving himself up for the show. From fight club to night club, so much has changed yet so much remains the same. Life goes on, and that’s entertainment.
A scene of comparable power is the ending of Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER, which, for the most part, is a conventional sports-drama. Though powerful, compelling, and in-your-face, most of the film looks familiar, especially for fans of independent cinema. Yet, the ending, maybe the most moving in a sports movie, lifts it to the level of art. In a blend of tragedy, triumph, and farce, everything about the man, his life, and his sport crystallizes into a ‘moment of truth’. He’s a former star of a fake sport, albeit one in which the ‘athletes’ commit themselves with purity of devotion. They need to believe that they matter, that they too are involved in something real. It’s like the ‘porn stars’ in BOOGIE NIGHTS need to believe they’re part of a glamorous world with its own dignity, stardom, and power. Though the fights are fixed and rehearsed in professional wrestling, the ‘fighters’ go to extremes, even making themselves bleed, to fool the audience and themselves that they are giving their 100%. They are not phonies but ‘real phonies’, like Holly Golightly. And the world of professional wrestling has its own culture, community, and fanbase, which, no matter how tawdry, fuel and feed on the vanity and delusions of those involved. Though it’s a fake sport, it’s a culture where everyone trains and performs ‘for real’ and give it their all. Thus, the rehearsals takes on the aura of choreography. Thus, fake blows and strikes do involve real contacts and falls causing real pain, sometimes worse than in real sports.
The main character(Mickey Rourke)is a has-been. What was once a fun joke is now a sasd joke. And he’s made a mess of his life and has no one left to turn to. Thus, in a Twilight Zone-like ending, he tries to gain something real for the first time in his life in a comeback fight. But then, professional wrestling isn’t real; there are no real winners and no real losers. He lost everything in real life, and in the ring, which defined his reputation and self-image, he never really won and never really lost; as a wrestler he was and is a phony in a make-believe sport. So, in the comeback fight, he decides for once to fight for real, except that his younger opponent doesn’t get what’s going on. Ironically, the Rourke character, by trying to be ‘real’, is cheating and violating the real spirit of professional wrestling, which is to be unreal. His opponent is obviously upset, but as Rourke’s character is aged and visibly ill, the opponent takes pity and plays along. Rourke, wanting to win for real but finding himself dependent on the opponent’s pity, is both grateful and hateful. Hateful in his rage to win real for once and grateful that his opponent, out of professional courtesy and personal decency, is giving him a break. There are so many emotions running in this scene that it almost saves the entire film.
It must however said that unlike the last scene of RAGING BULL, the ending of THE WRESTLER is a real Ending. What the two films have in common is a gamut of emotions that run and clash in so many directions.
Though the b/w cinematography of RAGING BULL has an element of ‘post-modernism’ in referencing the social-drama-movies of the 40s and 50s, it is neither mere cleverness nor a nostalgic paean to cinematic past. It has an expressive purpose in its own right. If anything, the texture of the film is closer to ANDREI RUBLEV than to American b/w movies of the 50s. RAGING BULL is to old Hollywood movies what ANDREI RUBLEV is to most historical spectacles. RAGING BULL uses the same material as movies like BODY AND SOUL but for the purposes of artistic exploration than fulfilling genre expectations. (Similarly, GOODFELLAS is a film about gangsters than a ‘gangster movie’. Scorsese is fascinated with myths but no less interested in the reality behind the myth.) Scorsese penetrates into the human mind wrapped inside myths. Generally, we are used to looking at myths straight on and taking them at face value. Thus, there’s the myth of MLK as total saint and Hitler as pure villain. To access the deeper truth, we have to scrape away at the myth. But artists like Scorsese go a different route. Instead of wiping off the false paint of myth, they penetrate into the truth behind myth and explore the feel of ‘reality’ from WITHIN the myth. Oliver Stone’s greatest film NIXON works in the same way: a sort of ‘Raging Presidency’. Mere demythification of Nixon would have been easy since he'd long been exposed as a crook, fraud, and monster even when he served as President. Of course, one could argue that the ‘bad Nixon’ also become a kind of mythic figure, a symbol of everything evil, crooked, and dark about American politics. So, Stone penetrates the myth of Evil Nixon and accesses the human Nixon. But had he stopped there, NIXON would have been just social-political docu-drama neatly separating truth from fiction, a pat sermon as dreary as Robert Redford’s QUIZ SHOW or John Sayles’s LONE STAR. What makes Stone’s film special is the psychological penetration into the inner Nixon, the man with grandiose ambition, vanity, and plans, a man so wrapped up in his power and legacy that he comes to confuse reality with destiny. We like to believe people are real and myths are false, but psychological reality is never that simple. Real people enter into mental zones of ‘greatness’, ‘invincibility’, or ‘destiny’, and so, they live in an unreal reality drugged by ego’s desire and delusions. (This problem seems to be especially acute with people with either too little or too much. People with too little power, like Diane Selywn in MULHOLLAND DR., withdraw into their sad little worlds and imagine a fairy tale one. But then, there are people like Michael Jackson and Muammar Gaddafi who gain so much money or power that they indulge in fantasies to the point where mythology becomes reality. It could be Jackson and Gaddafi were special cases because they suddenly went from having nothing to having everything. They went from mythic-fantasization-of-those-with-too-little to mythic-fantasization-of-those-with-too-much. Same was true of Hitler and Mao.)
In RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS, Scorsese penetrates the lives of people who think they are ‘breed apart’. Great boxers see themselves as modern warrior heroes. Gangsters see themselves as a special class of people with the ‘right’ to cut in front of the line and live like thug-kings. As Henry Hill says, he wanted to be a gangster ever since he was a little boy staring out his bedroom window and watching local gangsters living the life with fancy cars and suits; they were like the Hollywood stars of the neighborhood. It’s like gangster paradise. But then, reality eventually catches up with him. Having been a movie nut from a young age and with dreams of becoming a artist/controller of shared dreamworld of cinema, Scorsese surely understood where Henry Hill's amoral mindset. Scorsese too didn’t want to be part of the 9 to 5 routine. An artist is like a creative gangster who makes his own rules and lives in his own world. And given all the goings on in Hollywood, being part of that world meant lots of cash and prizes. Given the complexes and dreams going back to his childhood, Scorsese was the perfect director for TAXI DRIVER, a story about a guy seeking entry into the pantheon of saint-warrior-heroes. And KING OF COMEDY is about a loser so hungry for fame and celebrity that the TV set turns into his version of Alice’s looking glass.
Like RAGING BULL is more than a boxing movie or biopic, ANDREI RUBLEV is more than a historical epic with what the genre implies. Rather, Tarkovksy used the camera like a time-machine that transports our senses to Medieval Russia. It’s not history as mounted spectacle but history as recovered dream. At the end of Tarkovksy’s sci-fi film SOLARIS, the man from Earth psycho-geologically recreates the memory of his home on the mysterious planet. It doesn’t merely look like home; it feels like home. Most historical epics don’t make us feel rooted in a different time and place. If anything, they conform to our fantasies and assumptions. History becomes myth flattering modern sensibilities. The past is brought to us than the other way around.
What about the deeper reality that has been lost, forgotten, hidden within, and is suggested by the mythic remnants of the past? One way to access past-reality is through research of archaeological materials and making the film as faithful and realistic as possible according to historical/anthropological evidence. But all human realities are psychological as well as material. Thus, the artist needs to access, via imagination, how things may have FELT to the people of the past, a people trapped in their own time with its values, hopes, convictions, etc. An artist needs to access lost history(like the man in LA JETEE revisits the past via time-travel-of-dreams), as if with the metaphysical aid of a medium; and, no historical film achieved this as powerfully as ANDREI RUBLEV. When Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky(as co-writer) conceived the project, they had at their disposal the great works of Rublev, about whom almost nothing was known. With such lack of biographical material, the only option was creative empathy and imagination as a set of keys to meditate and conjure dreamlike the reality preserved and locked within the symbolism and imagery of the paintings. One might say Tarkovksy’s method was the opposite of Rublev’s, i.e. Rublev turned reality into symbols and Tarkovsky translated symbols back into reality. On the other hand, cinema doesn’t merely convey reality but mythologizes/symbolizes what it shows, and therefore, ANDREI RUBLEV is both a realist demythologizing and an imaginative mythologizing of Rublev and his world.
The mythic Rublev is eternally frozen in the frescos of Orthodox Churches, but who was the real Rublev and what kind of world ignited and fueled his imagination? Thus, ANDREI RUBLEV is one of the most psychological of historical epics—not psychological in the individual sense(as we know almost nothing of Rublev the individual)but in the socio-historical sense, of the fears, aspirations, and dreams that defined the spiritual mindset of a people and culture in a particular time and place--particular but imbued with their own notions of the eternal, especially rooted in nature and Christianity, themes that continued to link modern Russians, even during the atheist Soviet era, to the past. (If Americans think in terms of the Eternal future, Russians seem to think in terms of the Eternal past.)
In physical terms, the world is presented as brutal, pitiless, and grey. Brother betrays brother, noblemen oppress the peasants, Mongol hordes rampage through towns, Christians and pagans are at war. Not a world very conducive to dreamers, sensitive souls, and artists. Yet, there’s a sense that Rublev couldn’t have achieved greatness with his skills and imagination alone. He had to be tested, dragged through the mud of reality. Bruises ache but also make one feel alive; bruises have color. Athletes get banged up too, but they come back for more because there’s passion and intense meaning in the heat of competition. And though reality rudely shakes us awake, what need for dreams if the world weren’t so brutal?
And therein lies the parallel between RAGING BULL and ANDREI RUBLEV though La Motta is a thug-brute and Rublev is an artist-poet. The violence, cruelty, and horror are crucial in elevating or intensifying their awareness as sinner or artist. It’s the tragic price of admission for spiritual redemption or greater imagination.
And, what would sinners be without artists and vice versa? La Motta in the final scene recites the Brando’s lines in ON THE WATERFRONT. Without artists like Kazan and Scorsese—or Homer and Shakespeare—, brute warriors and men-of-power, however impressive their achievements as kings-of-the-hill in their lifetimes, are condemned to be forgotten. It is the artist who turns life/reality/history into myth(and it is the greater artist like Scorsese who conveys not only the myth but reality behind the myth). On the other hand, without men-of-power, brute warriors, and sinners, what would be the subject of artists, prophets, and visionaries? What would Jesus have been if not for His persecutors and tormentors? What would Scorsese’s career have been if not for gangsters, psychopaths, and fighters? And what would have been the subject and inspiration for Rublev have been had he lived in a perfect bubble of peace and comfort? Even in moral condemnation, artists and prophets need something to condemn, something to grapple with and ponder, something to slap them upside their heads and force them to take measure of the larger/deeper reality.
No one wants to undergo horrors, but there’s no greater lesson or inspiration than the traumas of life and history; while some people are destroyed, others gain new insight and imagination. It could be Scorsese has been the greatest and truest director of his generation because he grew up in the Mean Streets of Little Italy and saw so much of everything(often ugly) while, at the same time, thinking about morality and salvation. You can’t have one without the other; you can’t have medicine without the disease.
Maybe the problem with some directors is their having grown up with excessive comfort and ‘privilege’. For George Lucas—and even John Milius, who talks tough but grew up as a surfer dude—, reality has always existed within the bubble of their own imagination. If Lucas wants to see blacks as a bunch of Noble Negroes, he could do so for the simple fact that he never confronted reality outside his cloistered world of privilege and comfort. But Scorsese, even as a young boy, understood ‘survival’ came down to Italians vs ‘moolies’, Italians vs ‘kikes’, Italians vs ‘micks’, Italians vs ‘chinks’, and Italians vs Italians. Yet, Scorsese also possessed the heart and mind to see beyond the narrow-minded prejudices and limitations of tribalism, machismo, and personal obsessions. While remaining true to his origins he didn’t sacrifice his curiosity for the larger world, and in pursuing his ambitions he never forgot where he came from.