Raging Bull: Sounds of Obsession

The academic society calls cinema a visual art because it captures moving some slice of reality and from it creates a piece of art through manipulations of time and space.  Rarely is cinema referred to as an auditory art because the main focus in experiencing a movie is commonly in watching how the film represents reality.  The sound of a “talkie” is therefore regarded as a tagalong, an expected companion to the reality as it is seen.  One would expect a car crash in real-life to produce some type of sound, and the same expectation is applied to the big screen.

However, sound can play an important part in helping express the narrative of the film by creating a pathway through which the viewer experiences the film’s reality.  Sound can direct attention, establish mood, and even distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  Sound can be an expected partner to the visual, but it can also be unexpected (ex., two cars crashing together sounding like a quacking duck.)  The unexpected sound can change the viewer’s experience of the narrative.

Such is the case in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull where through unexpected and unusual sound the narration is spun.  Certain repetitions and parallels of different sounds through the progress of the plot give the viewer the omniscient ability to glimpse the workings of the main character’s head and thus allow the viewer to experience the story on a more subjective level.  The viewer witnesses Jake La Motta’s life from his point of view and learns why his life deteriorated into violence  because of an obsession with a woman.

A subjective sound, whether perceptual or mental, allows the viewer into the head of a character to know thoughts or emotions other characters cannot normally know.  The sounds discussed here are not true subjective sounds because the viewer does not get the sense that they are actually occurring in Jake’s head.  They are more like sounds which gives the viewer an idea of what is happening in his mind.  The sounds do not directly tell what his thoughts are, but the sounds are crafted in a way to help the viewer come to a belief of what they are and, in doing so, experience the story in a different manner had such a stylistic choice not been made.  Just as sound can be subjective, so can the absence of sound.  Silence can suggest concentration, but it can also connote an overwhelming emotion, such as rage.

In the movie, silent moments occur in relation to fights both inside and outside of the ring, but it can be argued that the motivation behind these moments, a motivation which arises from the repetition of their usage, is Jake’s concern with Vickie.  The longest period of silence occurs after Jake’s second loss to Sugar Ray Robinson when he sits in the locker room looking at his reflection in the mirror.  The intent gaze of Jake coupled with the absence of any distracting ambient noise resembles how deep contemplation can focus concentration so much that external noises become disregarded.  Since this scene occurs after his second loss and the beginning of his new life with Vickie, one can suppose in this silence Jake is contemplating where his life is.  The viewer is not allowed to actually hear Jake’s thoughts, but the absence of sound along with what the viewer just saw creates this interpretation for his contemplation.

However, the idea of silence indicating pure contemplation becomes twisted as the plot develops Jake’s obsession with Vickie’s faithfulness.  The silence still indicates contemplation, but this contemplation is mixed with the obsession and its associated negative emotions.  The twist is first evident in the scene where Jake silently watches his wife sleeping and then questions her about why she said Janiro was handsome.  Again, the silence is a moment of reflection, but the viewer is now led to believe that the reflection is about Vickie’s faithfulness, a belief which is strengthened by the conversation of the scene.

The obsession progresses to the point where silence is awash with rage.  This is first seen in the fight with Vickie and Joey in the Detroit hotel after Vickie says good-bye to Tommy Como.  In between the yelling and the slap are periods of pure silence where the viewer can just feel the rage the silence intensifies.  The rage is toned down for the next occurrence and is mixed with contemplation when Jake confronts Joey about having an supposed affair with Vickie.  Here one senses he is wondering how faithful his brother is along with having the obsession created rage focusing now on Joey.  Through the plot he has gone from trusting his wife to not trusting her or his brother, and this increasing paranoia is embodied in the periods of silence along the journey like signposts.

Jake’s obsession is also illustrated at certain times when he appears to focus exclusively on his wife.  The focus is expressed by two very different stylistic uses of sound that serve to evoke the evolution of his obsession by creating a parallelism between the differences.  When Jake first sees Vickie, before he knows her, his obsession with her seems more concerned with her body because that is the only source of information he has about her.  Thus, when he first starts lusting after her, he focuses only on watching her while the rest of the world dies down–except for the diegetic music of the scene which becomes the only sound.

The illustration of obsession through music first occurs when Jake sees Vickie at the community pool, and the shot frames her legs splashing in the pool in a slow motion close-up.  No other sound is heard but the background radio playing a drummer’s beat which increases in volume.  Perhaps Scorsese chose the drumbeat to symbolize Jake’s beginning lust for Vickie with the drums reflecting his beating heart.  In any case the sound acts like the repetition of silence, to show Jake’s narrowing down of concentration.  At the church dance a scene later, Jake again watches Vickie from across the room, and again the background diegetic music increases to be the only sound.  Coupled with the eyeline matches from Jake’s point of view, there can be no doubt that the focus is from Jake, and thus the sound gives the viewer access to his state of mind while watching Vickie.  The viewer knows he is lusting after her because the sound makes the viewer hear it.

However, Jake’s obsession reverses so that after their marriage he becomes more obsessed with what Vickie is doing behind his back.  He wants to know her every action and thought.  The mutated obsession is represented by Jake’s apparent ability to hear Vickie’s conversations with other men from across a  room.  The “ability” first appears at the Copacabana when Vickie goes to speak with Tommy.  In what are point of view shots from Jake, the viewer sees the two talking, but also hears them quite clearly despite all the ambient noise.  However, the dialogue coming out of their lips is not synchronized with the movement of their lips.  The unsynchronized sound creates the feeling that Jake is not actually hearing their conversation at all but is instead manufacturing it inside his head, allowing his obsession to affect his perception.  This affect occurs again in the Detroit hotel when Vickie says good-bye to Tommy.

Not only is the dialogue unsynchronized but the fact that it is mixed with a variety of close-ups on either person’s hands or face indicates the deterioration of his trust in Vickie because of his obsession, a  deterioration apparent in the fight that promptly follows.  His obsession is the cause of the violence he experiences outside of the ring, and the obsession is shown through uses of sound.  The viewer sees what Jake sees, but hears what Jake’s obsessed mind thinks he hears, thus giving the viewer information no other character knows.  This parallelism gives the viewer Jake’s subjective state and an insight into why his relationships with other people become strained.  In this roundabout way, the viewer learns from the main character why his life outside the ring is just as violent as his boxing career.

In addition, the violence created by his obsession can be linked to the violence he lives in the ring through the use of “odd” sound.  For this film, odd sound can be thought of as diegetic sound that has been distorted from the expected source to become pseudo-non-fidelity or it could be nondiegetic altogether.  It cannot be said the odd sound is mental subjective because there is still no indication that Jake is reacting to it.  Rather, this is another example of sound being crafted to help the viewer into Jake’s subjective state.

Usually in the boxing matches, the use of an odd sound indicates Jake’s focus winning the fight while ignoring the outside world.  In Jake’s first win against Sugar Ray there is a period of slow motion after Jake knocks the other out of the ring.  In this slow motion there are several odd sounds.  The most apparent is the wind roar which sounds like the distorted cheer of the crowd that is punctuated with two deep footfall-like thuds and two sudden bursts of noise meant to be associated with camera flashbulbs.  The footfalls and the distorted crowd noise indicate Jake’s focus on the fight to distort the outside world to almost nonexistence.  For Jake there is no reason to hear the crowd or even his feet because they are not psychologically essential to the fight.

Jake’s focus is on the fight which is emphasized by the flashbulb noises.  The flashbulbs are more a part of the fight because they indicate Jake’s acknowledgement on some level that he is now in the public’s eye for knocking out Sugar Ray.  Because he knows he’s in the public eye, he needs to focus on what is occurring in the ring and not  noises which are not directly linked with the fight.  All that matters are the knockout punches, an idea exemplified in Jake’s third bout with Sugar Ray where one of the punches sounds like an eagle screaming.  The sound draws the viewer’s attention to the hit, but also emphasizes how focused Jake is on winning; he’ll put everything he’s got in the punch because he wants to win in the public eye.  The use of the flashbulb to indicate the watchful public could be used to explain the flashbulb noise that sounds over the cut which begins the shots of Jake watching Tommy and Vickie in the Copacabana.  The flashbulb here can be viewed as part of the cause of Jake’s obsession on Vickie.  He is aware that he is now under the public eye and because of this his actions as well as his wife’s are under scrutiny.  He could lose public face if it is found out that his wife is cheating on him.

The flashbulb cut was only a small example of how the odd sounds become used to link his obsession with his boxing career.  Due to the similarity of the odd sounds between the fights in and out of the ring, the viewer learns about the violence in Jake’s life.  The most obvious and dramatic example occurs during the fight between Jake and Joey after Jake confronts Vickie about sleeping with his brother.  During this fight, there are multitudes of nondiegetic odd sounds, ranging from the same wind roar heard in the fight scenes to an inflated rubber balloon being squeaked.

These odd sounds not only serve to link the violence on both sides of the ropes but also to distinguish them.  In the ring, it is his career that causes the odd sounds to serve as a form of focus for his violence.  Here the odd sounds show how Jake focuses his violence unto the pinpoint goal of defeating his opponent.  Out of the ring, it is his obsession that causes the odd sounds to indicate the total breakdown of focus when he literally pommels his brother out of rage.  Now the odd sounds are jumbled, a mixture of nondiegetic that creates more a feeling of chaos.  Although  odd sounds appear with two distinct subjective states, it is through the parallel usage that the viewer learns about the violence Jake lives.  Even though his violent nature is seen, it is sound that hints at why he is violent, and it is the difference in the sound that clarifies the motivations for the violence as being two separate things–his career versus his obsession.

The question, of course, is why use sound to hint at the subjective experiences of Jake La Motta.  The question is readily answered.  This movie proposes to be a retelling of a real-life boxer, a person who supposedly lived through what the viewer can only watch.  The movie is a biographical account, and one of the reasons to watch a biography is because one wants to learn about the person and the person’s life being put on display.  How better to learn about someone than to actually get inside the person’s head and learn the truth from the person, to experience his or her life as closely as possible without actually living it?  In a novel, such an experience is easily done because the author can slip into the person’s head and describe what is being thought and felt in the printed word.  Subjectivity in a novel is as simple as writing: “Jake’s eyes fed his heart with longing as he watched Vickie from across the room, his mind peeling layers off the world until there was only her face and the band’s music.”

Cinema, however, is a visual art.  Not since the advent of the talkies has the printed word been used in mainstream cinema to create subjective experience, and if used, it is rare.  So, in Raging Bull, Scorsese chose to use sound as one of the pathways for the viewer to get into Jake’s head and experience  his life as he experiences it.  The use of sound to create subjective feeling creates a narration through which the viewer sees how violent Jake’s life really was and yet also understands why his world was like that.  Because of the sound, the viewer can experience his life on a more personal level and by doing this can come a little closer to understanding Jake La Motta as the boxer and the man.

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