“When my memories come back to me,” Jake LaMotta writes in the opening lines of his autobiography, “I have the feeling that I’m watching an old film in black-and-white.” Aha, you, the observant cinephile, may note, patting yourself on the back for your own cleverness, so that’s why Scorsese filmed Raging Bull in black and white. It’s a reference hardly anyone would notice, but it makes sense. Maybe it does make sense, but it’s not what happened. “No matter what anyone claimed later, I didn’t even notice Jake’s opening sentence,” Martin Scorsese admits in a 1981 interview with Michael Henry. “My reasons for shooting in black-and-white . . . have nothing to do with this quotation.” This may be, perhaps, somewhat ego-deflating. After all, yours was a perfectly valid interpretation of something that seemed to have no definite answer. But really all that has been dashed is a conjecture into the mind of the artist; the art itself, and your thoughts on it, remain untouched. That is, until an interviewer asks about meaning rather than process.
Interpretation is a crucial aspect of any work of art. Its subjectivity, the fact that there is no right answer and few wrong ones, is what makes the experience of interacting with a work of art so meaningful. One hundred different people can watch a movie and potentially come away with one hundred different interpretations. Perhaps the most interesting interpretation is that of the artist himself, but even his is just one equally valid, if uniquely privileged, interpretation among many. To treat the artist’s explanation of his art as more valid than that of his audience is not only intellectually lazy, but self-defeating. It presents both the problem and the answer simultaneously; no thought is required on your part, and as a result your connection with the work is that much less personal and meaningful.
In the same interview, Scorsese clarifies several aspects of Raging Bull. He is respectful and reserved, and at no point suggests that his understanding of his movie is more important than that of anyone else, or that his intention trumps his viewers’ interpretations. Frequently, his answers are illuminating rather than restrictive, and enhance the viewer’s appreciation the movie more than they hinder it. However, this isn’t always the case, and I found that his interpretation of certain key aspects of the film clashed with my own. Between the two of us, Scorsese is certainly the more brilliant, but it is still my right to disagree with him about his own movie. For any cinephiles adhering to the intentional fallacy, on the other hand, Scorsese’s interpretations as stated in this interview become the primary determinant of the work’s meaning, superseding their own analyses as well everyone else’s. This may appear advantageous in some ways, but ultimately it amounts to a much poorer and less interesting approach to analysis and criticism.
That said, one of the advantages of being able to take into account Scorsese’s thoughts and intentions is the alternate perspective it brings to the film that the viewer may not have considered before. From the very beginning, Raging Bull sets itself up as a story about a fall from grace. We open with the middle-aged LaMotta rehearsing lines before his show, “An Evening with Jake LaMotta.” He is doughy, overweight, his husky, tired voice reciting the clarity of his memories of another life and humorlessly telling a self-deprecating anecdote about forgetting to wear shorts. Immediately, before the viewer knows a thing about him, he appears a pitiable figure.
This is Jake LaMotta in 1964, the text at the bottom of the screen tells us; we then cut to that other life, the two faces of the same man linked by Jake’s wistful murmur of “That’s entertainment,” and we gain a deeper understanding of just how pitiable he is when that text rewrites itself: this was Jake LaMotta in 1941. The cut takes us to Jake’s fight with Jimmy Reeves, which he quickly loses. The connection between these two scenes—in both, Jake is defeated, albeit in very different ways—should be obvious, but until you hear Scorsese explain how he deliberately structured the film’s opening to make the viewer immediately sympathize with Jake, you might not even realize you’re making it.
Another instance were Scorsese’s understanding of his film may enhance your own is in his explanation of the title card at the close of the film: the Bible verse from John IX. In his response to the interviewer’s query about the relevance of this passage, Scorsese seems to imply a personal reason for putting it into the movie; the quotation is more relevant to him than it is to the story of Jake LaMotta. “Jake LaMotta, at least as he appears in the film, is someone who allowed me to see more clearly,” he explains. Without Scorsese’s insight, the viewer would never know that the line is more a part of the world of the filmmaker than the world of the film. Despite Scorsese’s intention, however, the quotation ultimately is still applicable to the story we have just seen. Although Scorsese included that Bible passage because of what his film had done for him in real life, the ultimate understanding of self that it expresses—“All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see”—is the same realization that Jake has come to by the movie’s end.
It is at this point in Raging Bull, when the viewer exits the mise-en-scène, leaving Jake alone in his dressing room with himself, that Scorsese’s personal analysis becomes most removed from my own reading of the film. “He has found a kind of peace with himself,” Scorsese says of Jake’s status and state of mind at the movie’s end. “He’s no longer the same man. Of course, it’s not ideal, but he could have fallen even lower. His job isn’t degrading, he has stopped destroying himself like so many of his friends. He has survived.”
Indeed, the man Jake LaMotta has become by the end of the film is at peace with himself, no longer destroys himself. He has always been a survivor, and he has survived everything. But his survival is only physical: his peace is resignation, and self-destruction is no longer possible because he has already been destroyed. Jake LaMotta is a man who loses everything, and in a Florida jail cell in 1957 he finally understands the magnitude of that loss. “I’m not that guy,” he insists, crying alone in the darkness, pleading with himself for it to be true, “I’m not that guy.”
Thrown into that cell as what was left of Jake LaMotta, screaming and swearing, he leaves as someone else. The new Jake is, by most standards, a better man, one who can extend the olive branch and reconcile with his estranged brother, one who can endure the heckles of an audience member during his standup performance without flying into a murderous rage. “You’re gonna force me to make a comeback,” he quips, but it’s too late for that; as Jake later interjects into a quotation from On the Waterfront, “I was never no good after that night. . . . It was like a peak you reach, and then it’s downhill.”
In exchanging the raging turmoil that has consumed his whole life for some measure of peace with himself, Jake has also exchanged greatness for mediocrity. Having fallen as far in that jail cell as it is possible to fall, he has reconstructed himself as a hollow shell of the man he once was. The benefits of his new personality, such as it is, are outweighed by everything he has already lost: his family, his wealth, and his life’s one true calling.
Scorsese claims Jake’s new job isn’t degrading, but its whole purpose is self-degradation. He is a clown, a roughneck who recites Shakespeare for the ironic novelty of it, and people pay money to watch him make a fool of himself. The film ends with him preparing for another of these performances. Asked if he is sure he doesn’t need anything before he goes on, Jake, his eyes locked on the man staring back at him from the mirror, replies, “I’m sure.” Yet there is a part of him that still yearns for the irrecoverable glory of his past. “Are there a lot of people out there?” he asks wistfully, perhaps remembering the way it felt to have all eyes on him when he stepped into the ring. “Go get ’em, champ,” he whispers to himself, as if afraid someone in the empty room will overhear.
Despite Scorsese’s claims, there is nothing noble about Jake’s backstage pep talk. Watching this overweight, middle-aged man shadowbox in a tuxedo, alone, is heartbreaking, not uplifting; when he moves out of the frame, leaving the camera to linger on an empty reflection, and begins to whisper, “I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss,” still striking at nothing, it becomes unbearable. For me, there is no other way to read this ending; anything more accommodating sells short the tragedy of this man’s self-destruction.
Those who value Scorsese’s intention above their own interpretation, I cannot help but feel, are similarly shortchanging themselves. Raging Bull is the story of a man who loses everything that can be lost, save his life, until his heart rebels against his own nature and he decides he will sink no lower. Although he finds some measure of redemption in reaching a lasting peace with himself and his brother, this understanding comes too late for him to save the life that he has lost, and lost entirely by his own fault. This is the tragic beauty of the film’s ending: enlightenment at the cost of everything else. He knows himself, but that is all. Just as Jake LaMotta had to make this discovery by himself, cinephiles should not rely on the director to tell them what a film means. Not only does this defeat the purpose of film analysis and personal criticism, but it is plainly an unfeasible viewpoint; if the director is dead, after all, then we can never understand his film. This is what is so fallacious about the intentional fallacy: a film can mean no more or less than what it says, not what its director says it means, and what it ultimately says is what it says to you.