Visual Barriers in Raging Bull

While watching Raging Bull, I thought a lot about the patterned recurrence of visual barriers (namely, those that occur completely outside the realm of the ring). As I was (thematically) most interest in how the film depicted its female characters, I considered this pattern mainly in how it marked the evolution of romantic relationships. The visual boundaries that I noticed generally fit the context of scenes in two ways: moments of visual confinement signified the characters’ entrapment, and physical demarcation also emphasized their divisions.

When I think of the visual imprisonment of characters, my mind jumps to two scenes: Jake and Vicki’s first meeting by the pool, and the conversation between Vicki and Joey in the bar. In their first conversation, Jake and Vicki each appears on either side of the fence; while Vicki seems far more like the “caged” object of spectacle (to borrow Thompson’s word), given the low angle and how she approaches the fence when beckoned, both characters are, in effect, visually imprisoned. (And, as we discussed in class, each of them is, in a sense, trapped: Jake by his demons, and Vicki by Jake’s situation and jealousy/the subjective camera.) The camera does not just suggest Vicki’s entrapment, however; it eventually corroborates it. When Vicki is confronted by Joey while out at the club, she exclaims, “I feel like I’m a prisoner” – and in the frame in which she delivers this line, locked in by the mirrors surrounding her, she is.

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On the topic of divisions, I’ll center my discussion around the beginning and end of Jake and Vikki’s relationship. After the aforementioned pool scene, when Jake and Vicki first go out driving together, they remain partitioned by the pole in the car’s windowshield. (Even when Vicki obeys Jake and slides closer to him in the seat, her face remains cut off by the pole – they do not appear together). This shot frames their relationship in a way that foreshadows the persistence of division between them; the visual circularity of this image comes through in the scene when Vicki tells Jake that they are getting divorced. Once again, the bar of a car window crosses her face (this time horizontally, as opposed to vertically) and separates her and Jake. (The visual barrier, of course, physically enacts the emotional barrier evident in this scene.) The motif of the car window both foretells and cement the fate of Vicki and Jake’s relationship: they start divided, and they end divided. Importantly, instead of being on the other side of the windowpane with Vicki (like in the first car scene), as we see in the reverse-shot, this time Jake—along with the viewer—remains on the outside. He occupies the same space as the viewer, signifying that he is now a spectator of—no longer an actor in—his own life.

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