I recently saw Raging Bull again, a movie I haven’t seen in over fifteen years. It’s an amazing film. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, the screenplay is sharp, Scorsese hadn’t yet succumbed to over-directing (though some might argue that the seeds of it are planted in those exquisite boxing scenes that draw equally from cinematic impressionism and expressionism), and Robert De Niro gives a performance that reminds you why he was once considered among the best actors in America, if not the best. What energizes De Niro’s performance, and what seems to be missing from the mainly flaccid performances he has given in the past twenty years, is his intense focus. Even when De Niro’s Jake Lamotta is seemingly relaxed, we see in DeNiro’s eyes a fire that is frightening. Whenever Jake is alone with his wife Vickie, one is never comfortable—we glimpse in De Niro’s eyes Jake’s explosive temper lurking just beneath his placid surface.
In fact, it is the focus of Jake’s eyes that especially disconcert. There is a point in the film, after marrying Vickie, when Jake becomes consumed by jealousy, “the green-eyed monster” as Iago characterizes it. Everything seen through jealous eyes is tainted green, a poisoned vision where nothing is seen but as it seems to be, and it seems rotten. Consumed by the green-eyed monster, Jake sees what he wants to see—even if he really doesn’t want to see it. In a thrilling scene, Jake sits at a table in a crowded restaurant, craning his neck to watch Vickie say goodnight to mob boss Tommy Como, and Scorsese shows us the encounter through Jake’s eyes, magnifying significant details in close-up, slowing down time when necessary for seeming clarity of vision: Vickie and Tommy engage in easy conversation that seems too easy, too familiar, there’s laughter; Tommy touches Vickie, does he hold her waist?; and he kisses her on the cheek, perhaps lingering just a fraction of a second too long. We cut back to Jake stewing. We know what he saw, but we know it is only what he saw.
As Jake’s jealousy intensifies, his vision turns more directly inward, exemplified when Jake and his brother Joey are talking, Jake unsuccessfully trying to tune in his television—suggesting that Jake’s on a whole different wavelength from everyone else—and Jake, in essence out of the blue, asks Joey if he slept with Vickie. Jake begins to see Joey in a different light when Joey, understandably offended by the question, won’t dignify it with an answer. Following up on his suspicion, Jake beats what he thinks is the truth from Vickie—what really was a sarcastic confession aimed at the ludicrousness of the question—and then he replays a movie in his mind of what took place, seeing what unquestionably isn’t there, before racing to Joey’s house to beat him as well.
But in a way, Jake’s jealousy is a warning to us all, because in the end, nothing is seen but as it seems to be. We think we’re seeing what is, when what we’re really seeing is the label we’ve put on something, our judgment of it, our reaction to it. The world perceived is but a phantom of the world, or as the protagonist of J. G. Ballard’s dreamlike novel The Drowned World refers to it, “a strange incubus on my mind.” It is the Ghost at the beginning of Hamlet, an illusion haunting us as long as we think it’s real.