Thursday, September 19, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.7: Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 100/A

Raging Bull is one of Martin Scorsese’s most personal movies, so it’s surprising to know that the director initially didn’t want to make it. Scorsese wasn’t a sports fan, and had little interest in boxing in particular. “The idea of ‘Let’s get two guys into the ring and let them hit each other’ was something I didn’t—couldn’t—grasp.” The film was instead a passion project for Robert De Niro, who believe there was something fascinating and moving within the story of Jake La Motta’s poorly written but striking autobiography.

Flash forward to 1978- Scorsese was coming off the failure of New York, New York, and worked nonstop to finish The Last Waltz and American Boy. To top it all off, Scorsese was in the depths of cocaine addiction, which turned the excitable filmmaker into an angry, self-destructive mess. An overdose sent him to the hospital bleeding from every orifice. De Niro approached him in the hospital and pushed him to do the film, to occupy himself with work. This time, Scorsese understood what the story was about.

It’s a great story, one that posits Raging Bull as the film that saved Scorsese’s life. It’s true, but that somehow still undervalues it. Raging Bull is the work of a man who realizes that he might not ever get another chance again, so he’d better use every trick he has up his sleeve. It’s the work of a director who’s seen the worst in himself and has decided to exorcise his demons through his art. It’s Scorsese’s most emotionally charged film, simultaneously operatic and realistic. It’s a technical tour de force that’s also giving to its performers. It’s perhaps the greatest of all film tragedies (I’d put it higher than The Godfather), but it’s also a deeply moving redemption story. Simply put, Raging Bull is Scorsese’s crowning achievement, which would put it as one of the four or five greatest movies ever made.

The film tells the story of Jake La Motta (De Niro), the former middleweight champion of the world, whose battles outside of the ring were as punishing as those within it. La Motta goes from being a hungry contender to a slipping champ to a bloated has-been, but his real failures are in his personal life. Emotionally and physically abusive, La Motta pushes away everyone who cares for him- his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), his brother Joey (Joe Pesci)- until he hits rock bottom.

Raging Bull is Scorsese’s most thrilling mixture of the formalistic and realistic. The film switches back and forth between simple but powerful compositions that focus on the actors and bravura tracking and crane shots that would make Orson Welles and Michael Powell proud. The unflinching intensity of the domestic scenes recall John Cassavetes at his rawest, while the ultra-precise, heavily storyboarded boxing scenes are among the most viscerally exciting sequences ever put on film.

Cinematographer Michael Chapman spoke in an interview with Vanity Fair of how Raging Bull could be viewed as an opera, with the fight scenes as arias. Scorsese plays to that idea in the opening shot, in which Jake stands alone in the ring before a fight, shadowboxing, as the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana plays. It’s like an overture for a great opera, showcasing Jake’s worst enemy: himself.

Scorsese wanted to make the fights feel different from any other boxing films. Instead of using multiple angles for the fight, he put the camera in the middle of the action, as if it were another fighter. He also plays with perspective and focus to make each fight reflect the psychological state of Jake- where one fight uses clear medium shots to give Jake plenty of room to move, another uses tighter close-ups and hazy shots (achieved by lighting a fire around the ring), which make him look trapped and less sure-footed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s quick edits heighten the brutality of the battles- the cuts pummel the audience like punches, making each beating feel longer than it really is (Schoonmaker would go on to be Scorsese’s most important collaborator, and has edited all of his narrative films since Raging Bull). There’s no inherent glory in fighting- this is a nasty way to make a living.

Contrast that to the master shots Scorsese utilizes in the domestic scenes- Scorsese knows that too much showboating here would not only distract from the performances, but take away from the psychological intensity of the scenes. We’re placed in the middle of Jake and Vickie’s shouting matches like neighbors dragged to a couple’s house at the worst time possible, and the often static shots give us no escape.

And yet the sense of discomfort never dissipates, even when Scorsese breaks out of the intimate locales and takes Jake and Vickie to a night on the town. Jake is visibly uncomfortable in crowds, and Scorsese often isolates him, using subtle slow-motion dolly shots to imply his vision, his disconnection from the world, and his jealousy whenever Vickie speaks to another man.

Still, Scorsese is as masterful a director of actors as he is a technical virtuoso, and he’s aided by three of the best performances of the 80s. Joe Pesci was a former child stage actor with one film to his name at the time of filming, but one wouldn’t know it from watching the film. As Joey La Motta, he’s as social as Jake is antisocial, a funny, relatable guy who’s seems totally comfortable with people. That’s not to say that he isn’t prone to fits of anger and violence- his beating of Frank Vincent’s Salvy would certainly prove otherwise- but he mostly does it as a way to defend his brother. This is a guy who’s completely in his brother’s corner (pardon the pun), but who has to accept that this comes with a certain amount of difficulty and abuse.

Cathy Moriarty had never even acted in a film before, but she’s just as good as Pesci, and her ability to improve with De Niro makes her a natural fit in this world. Moriarty’s role is a familiar one, that of the put-upon wife, but she invests it with a mixture of warmth and toughness that sets her apart. She’s a woman who does love Jake, but who has to put up first with being idealized by him, then with his intense jealousy. Moriarty shifts from being a sweet teenager to a woman forced to walk on eggshells to a symbol of resilience. It’s a shame she would rarely get the chance to how such range again.

But above all else, this is a showcase for De Niro’s finest performance. Much has been made about how he put himself in peak physical condition for the boxing scenes and gained several pounds of flab to play the bloated, older Jake, but here’s a rare case where it feels like far more than a stunt. De Niro method techniques use the weight gain as a way to internalize the character and make it muscle memory rather than mannerism. More importantly, it’s ultimately just a part of the performance. The real feat is how De Niro perfectly embodies Jake’s raging inadequacy, his inarticulate anger, his deep-seated jealousy and guilt, often through expression as much as through his words.

When Jake loses his first fight, he takes out his aggression on his first wife, hectoring her about a steak when there should otherwise be no conflict between the two. When he laments about how he’ll never be able to fight Joe Louis because he’s only a middleweight, he picks on his small hands, with a look on his face that practically says “I’m defective”. When he’s forced to throw a fight, his pride keeps him from going down, but the look of deep shame on his face is unmistakable. Producer Irwin Winkler had doubts about Raging Bull, and compared Jake La Motta to a cockroach. De Niro’s response: “He’s not a cockroach”. Repugnant as much of his behavior is, De Niro does sympathize with the man, and he recognizes that his actions are borne out of self-hatred.

One of Scorsese’s greatest influences as a director was Elia Kazan, who similarly combined cinematic expression and revolutionary realism. Raging Bull is, in a sense, a reversal of Kazan’s masterpiece On the Waterfront. Both deal with former contenders turned has-beens, the deep guilt over past misdeeds, troubled relationships with brothers, and tender women coupled with inarticulate, brutish men (complete with similarly angelic blonde hair). But where the earlier film shows a man who had reason to blame mob connections and a brother’s betrayal, Raging Bull shows a man who blames the world as an externalization of how much he loathes himself. It’s not a mob’s demands that end his career, but his self-destructive actions. It’s he who pushes his brother away, not the other way around. And while Scorsese stages many of Jake and Vickie’s scenes together to evoke On the Waterfront, the early tenderness gives way to intense emotional cruelty and alienation.

There’s a striking scene near the end of the film’s first act where Vickie kisses Jake’s bruises and cuts from a past fight, and the two look as if they’re about to make love. Jake eventually pushes her off, goes to the bathroom, and pours ice water down his underwear. It’s just one scene of punishment for his own sexual desires. Often in Scorsese movies, men see women through a Madonna/Whore complex (see: Travis in Taxi Driver), and Raging Bull is no different. Jake goes from seeing Vickie as an angel to being poisoned by his self-loathing.

If she loves someone as disgusting as me, he thinks, she must be just as disgusting. Friendly gestures are misinterpreted, beatings are given. Vickie’s offhanded remark about a good-looking fighter stokes Jake’s insecurity, and when Jake gets in the ring, he punishes the man for what his wife just might see in him. Jake doesn’t just beat the man- he picks him up from falling down to further brutalize him, breaking the man’s nose, making it squirt blood, then looking at his wife as if to see if the message got through. As one mobster says to the other, “He ain’t pretty no more.”

There are a number of seemingly minor scenes between Jake and Joey in which Jake takes everything Joey says as a potential knock against him (example: “the only way you wouldn’t get a title shot is if you died” “What do you mean if I died?”). It’s all a lead-in to the famous “You fucked my wife?” scene. Jake threatens to kill somebody if he ever catches Vickie messing around, at which point Joey finally loses patience and tells him to go kill everybody, including himself. But what could that mean? Did Joey fuck Vickie? Obviously not, and the look of shock, then pain, then disgust on Pesci’s face in the scene is perfect (apparently De Niro asked off camera if Pesci fucked his mother in order to get a reaction).

Jake misconstrues everything as an attack on him, whether it’s Joey’s “kill me” or, after he slaps her around, Vickie’s brittle, sarcastic “I fucked them all”, at which point he finally pushes his brother away. It’s a terrifying scene, one where Jake turns on the man who tried best to help him. But then, anyone who loves him, wife or brother, must be shit, so he doesn’t think twice about marching over to his brother’s house and beating him in front of his wife and kids. Jake looks disgusted with himself later on, and he can’t call his brother on the phone out of shame, but it’s too late.

 Or is it? Frank Capra once said that Christianity is about second chances, and Raging Bull is packed with religious imagery- Vicky framed as an angel, a cross above a bed Jake believes has been defiled, the baptism of water before Jake’s championship fight. Jake might have a shot at redemption, but before redemption comes penance, and it comes hard in his final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. Jake’s corner tries to wash him, but the water is filled blood. His trainer puts Vaseline on his cuts, but it looks like he’s giving him his last rites before death.

And then comes a virtual crucifixion as Jake stops fighting, his self-hatred reaching its peak. He wants to be punished. Scorsese edits the scene to rhythms modeled after the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the effect is just as punishing to the audience’s sensibilities as it is to Jake. Blood squirts from every cut, flash-bulbs burst, ropes are soaked with blood, and we can’t escape the fury of Jake’s punishment. “No man can endure this pummeling,” says the announcer. Jake has been physically broken, but his pride remains as he boasts to Ray, “You never got me down.”

If the film’s second act is about Jake’s sins and physical retribution, the third act depicting a bloated Jake hitting rock bottom is about his spiritual penance. Jake continues to punish himself with food, and De Niro’s real heaving breaths only further the his pitiable state. But it’s not enough. Jake has to drag himself through the depths, indulge in his worst tendencies after his wife finally leaves him. It’s hard not to feel happy for Vickie as she finally escapes his abuse, or that Jake deserves everything he’s getting. But the emotional power of her exodus still hits like a brick, as Jake is left behind, alone in the world as her car pulls away.

Then, after Jake’s depravity leads to an underage girl in his club “meeting some men” (the insinuation is skin-crawling), comes the most powerful scene in Scorsese’s oeuvre, with Jake locked into solitary confinement, raging against the world. His self-hatred reaches his peak as he has no one left fight but himself. Scorsese’s camera zooms in slightly, then pulls out as Jake hits his head against the wall, then punches, screaming at his own stupidity. It’s like Jesus’ scene of anguish in Gethsemane. He’s in near-total darkness, illuminated by a slight chiaroscuro scheme that plays like a hint of holy love, a sign that even at his lowest ebb, when he’s been broken emotionally, that he hasn’t been abandoned. Crying to himself, “They call me an animal…I’m not an animal…I’m not that bad…”, Jake finally realizes his own humanity. Maybe he deserves better than he’s given himself credit. If he can forgive himself, maybe he can be forgiven.

It’s going to be a tentative move towards grace- Jake’s reunion scene with Joey is uncertain. Joey won’t hug him back, but it’s clearly an emotional reunion, one where he’s trying his damndest not to cry. The final scene is also somewhat ambiguous. Jake recites the famous “I coulda been a contenda” scene from On the Waterfront (badly), where Brando rebukes Rod Steiger for betraying him. But he notably says it to himself in a mirror- he’s not talking about his brother. He recognizes what he’s done, and that he’s the one responsible for being a bum. Whether or not he’s resigned to loneliness for the rest of his life, he has a chance at redemption.

That relates also to Scorsese’s own redemption- from a cocaine addict who wanted to push himself to near-death to a man who found his passion for filmmaking again, from a man who thought Raging Bull might be his last film to being one of the most respected directors in all of cinema history. Raging Bull is his most nakedly emotional movie, and it ends with a fitting quote from the Bible, dedicated to Scorsese’s late mentor NYU Haig Manoogian. “Once I was blind, and now I see.”

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on

No comments:

Post a Comment