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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sacrament of Violence: "Raging Bull"

The story of Raging Bull's production begins in the mid 1970s, the golden period of Hollywood movies, where directors had more power within the system than they had ever had before. Robert De Niro had read Jake La Motta's autobiography authored with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, and became enthralled by the character. He made the realization of a LaMotta movie his mission, and Martin Scorsese, who had directed him in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and was preparing the expensive New York, New York (1977) with De Niro, was going to be the helmer – even if he didn't know it.

But Scorsese's dislike for sports turned him off, and of all sports, boxing was to him the most illogical. For him, the only boxer who made sense was Buster Keaton, who in an early 1920s film played a fighter who grabs a chair with which to hit his opponent. A "fair" fight where two men are paid to pummel each other with fists in front of a large crowd simply does not make sense. Scorsese's memories of boxing matches on television were never enthralling; the camera remained in a wide shot outside the ring, the fight held at a long distance.

De Niro remained tenacious. New York, New York failed at the box office and was the first time that the critics pummeled Scorsese. As directors like Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, and others were beginning to get perhaps too much power and their idiosyncratic visions were threatening to be more expensive and less commercial, New York, New York being symptomatic, the studios began to gradually tug the power away from the directors. Scorsese's planned mega-production of Gangs of New York, an epic about rival gangs in 1860s New York City set to the music and starring members of The Clash, collapsed in 1978. To keep himself busy he made a film of the The Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz. He was mired in drugs and excesses, landing him in a hospital room. De Niro continued to harp on him about doing Raging Bull, and finally Scorsese began to see parts of his own self destructive personality in the boxer. The musical structures of New York, New York and The Last Waltz also gave him ideas on how to create the boxing scenes: stay in the ring, just as he stayed on the stage with The Band. He not only agreed to direct Raging Bull but he was going to throw himself into Raging Bull and Jake LaMotta as if it was the last feature film he would ever make. He deduced that his future in movies would probably be spent making small productions in Europe. As he puts it, "I used Raging Bull as a kind of rehabilitation, thinking all the time that it was pretty much my last picture in Los Angeles, or America."

United Artists was the only studio that would bankroll a project about a character like LaMotta. Two things were helpful for De Niro and Scorsese. For one thing, their producers were Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who had won Oscars in early 1977 for Rocky, a phenomenon which brought the boxing picture back in style. Rocky created a franchise for itself, and its success led to the green lighting of projects like The Main Event, Mathilda the Boxing Kangaroo, and The Champ. What more, United Artists was going to be focusing most of its resources and executive attention onto a big film titled Heaven's Gate, which would be released nearly a week after Raging Bull during the holiday season of 1980. Together, they would stand as opposing testimonies to the brilliance and excesses of Hollywood's golden period of the 1970s.

Scorsese made an audacious choice to film Raging Bull in black and white. Though disagreeable to the producers and executives, his reasons were fairly concrete. Raging Bull was not conceived as a black and white film, as supposed given how the aesthetic lends a kind of gritty, almost verite documentary sense to the material. In the wake of the Rocky movies, The Main Event, and The Champ, Scorsese did not want to make "just another" boxing movie. He knew that Raging Bull had to distinguish itself. Another reason, more unexpected, was that the color screen tests of the boxing sequences received a surprising criticism from one of Scorsese's mentors, the British director Michael Powell: the red boxing gloves were wrong (an ironic criticism from Powell, whose films The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann are legendary for their use of red). Another motivation was Scorsese's observation at the time of how color films were undergoing a crisis of preservation; the colors of the great Technicolor classics were fading, something which sparked Scorsese's legendary activism as a film preservationist. To bypass this reality, Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman knew that if Raging Bull was in black and white, its look would never fade. Only after all these points, Scorsese claims, is the period aesthetic of black and white given as a justification for its use in Raging Bull, though it is nevertheless the most convincing reason for why the film works so well (another irony of note is that among the Best Picture nominees of 1980 was another black and white film, David Lynch's The Elephant Man, photographed by Freddie Francis, which also has a scene where the protagonist has the line of dialogue, "I am not an animal!")

To further complicate things was the process of turning LaMotta's memoir into a film narrative. Scorsese's co-writer on Mean Streets, Mardik Martin, wrote the first drafts, none of which satisfied De Niro or the studio. Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, took over, giving Raging Bull a sense of framing. The picture would begin and end with LaMotta in 1964, overweight and physically far removed from his boxing excellence, preparing himself in a green room before going in front of an audience and performing his spoken word routines. The film would cut back and forth from this point in time and the turbulent years of LaMotta's marriage and quest for the boxing crown. Schrader also efficiently composited characters, strengthening the relationship between Jake and his little brother Joey, in addition to Jake's conflict with the local wise guys. Finally, there was the climactic jail scene, where Jake is alone in his cell. Schrader was like Scorsese in having his own religious scruples of guilt, and had taken a perilous path of self destruction with ill-conceived romantic entanglements throughout the last decade. He projected this into the jail scene, having LaMotta trying to masturbate, focusing on the women in his life, but the shame related to how he had destroyed all of his relationships not allowing him to sustain an erection. Though Scorsese and De Niro had found a kind of structure that appealed to them both, there were still reservations.

Martin and Schrader are the two credited screenwriters of Raging Bull, but according to all sources the final film most closely resembles a draft that Scorsese and De Niro themselves hammered out on an island location over a two week period. Then began the grueling process of casting. Scorsese neglected the wishes of Actors Guild guidelines, casting faces more than resumes. Only after numerous attempts were De Niro and Scorsese able to persuade a retired child actor, musician, and comedian named Joe Pesci to take the role of Joey. They also brought along Pesci's musical/comedy partner, Frank Vincent, to play the role of Salvy, a local wise guy who infuriates Jake's jealousy regarding his wife, Vickie. The role of Vickie was even more complicated, because Scorsese had to cast someone who could look both very young and yet almost maternal (Jake first started dating her when she was 15), and who could also project a sense of toughness, not living in fear of her oppressively jealous boxer husband. It was Pesci who saw a photograph of Cathy Moriarty at a New York restaurant, and was amazed by her resemblance to the real life Vickie LaMotta. Though she had acted in the past, she was not professionally trained and had no prospects of success. Her test won the hearts of both Scorsese and De Niro, and after showing it to the skeptical Actors Guild, she got the part.

Scorsese and De Niro then had the task of setting ahead an ambitious production schedule of rehearsals and carefully drawn-up camera set-ups, particularly for the boxing scenes (which would ultimately require a 10-week shooting schedule on their own, amazing when one considers that there's roughly only about 10 minutes of boxing footage in the film), and then, most famously, the weight. An important issue in Raging Bull is the theme of physicality, of the Body, both in its perfection and its reckless degradation, its discipline and its unraveling loss of control. De Niro would train mercilessly to have a boxer's physique and speed, but he also did not want a fat-suit and makeup to play the bloated La Motta after retirement. He believed that the best way to achieve the right emotional tempo for the character would be to gain the actual weight. The legendary status of De Niro's weight gain for Raging Bull is not simply an actor's showiness or dedication to a part; it is an integral layer to the masterful rendering of a character, his breathing noticeably heavier, his very selfhood a burden for a man to carry around. De Niro remarked years later that the weight made his connection to LaMotta more natural, his mind perfectly modified for the part by his body. To achieve this complicated process of realization, Scorsese would have to shoot the 1940s scenes and fight sequences first, then take months off as De Niro would eat his way through Europe, packing on 60 pounds of flab, which he admitted was just as exhaustive as toning up. It would be perilous to his health, and the production schedule for the fat scenes was sped up so that he could begin losing the weight as soon as possible. In addition to this, Winkler had to ensure that his crew would be getting paid for the months off.

All of the elements fused perfectly during shooting, and then more masterfully during the editing, which is where Scorsese really finds the soul of his movies. Raging Bull was the first time that his film editor was Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell's wife, and she has worked on every Scorsese narrative feature since. What is most evident about Raging Bull and its boxing scenes is how Scorsese maps out a sequence. Raging Bull was shot mostly with one camera, Scorsese drawing out the shape of a shot and how it would connect to the next shot beforehand. Though Scorsese would rehearse scenes and allow for improvisation, thereby giving his work an off-the-cuff spontaneous quality, every moment is magnificently calibrated.

Scorsese's work on the musical New York, New York, and the concert film The Last Waltz were his principal guides for approaching the boxing scenes of Raging Bull. He understood that choreography was everything, and he executed the boxing the same way Vincente Minelli would approach a dance number. Every punch was precise, most of them shot at 48 frames per second, because otherwise the speed with which they were thrown would not register on film. The most remarkable of the boxing sequences is the final confrontation between LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson. LaMotta waits against the ropes to receive his beating from Robinson. The way that Scorsese fashioned the moment was in fact based on watching the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; Scorsese storyboarded and timed every shot in accordance with Hitchcock, giving the moment a kind of surreal power distinct from any other fight either in or out of the ring. "All the fight scenes were done in drawings," Scorsese says. "It's very much like staging a dance to music. Instead of a verse with maybe twelve bars of music, it's four bars of punches. Because it's all choreography."

The choreography is the story (more than "plot" is the story), and the line that Scorsese used as his model for designing his sense of LaMotta's character was something he had read in a press clipping: "LaMotta fought like he didn't deserve to live." LaMotta's punishment within the ring is something that he subconsciously receives as punishment for the bad things he does outside. He's a masochist bathed in his own blood. "Come on!" he yells at Robinson, having given up his own fight against an opponent. Robinson's fists fling with vicious relentlessness against LaMotta's body, and Scorsese cuts to close ups of LaMotta's gloves on the ropes, then his legs with sweat and blood dripping down. After the fight's been stopped, LaMotta, shot again in slow motion (48 frames per second) taps the victorious Robinson on the shoulder. "You never got me down, Ray. You never got me down." LaMotta's face is distorted and swollen beyond measure, and yet he seems to be sardonic here, reveling in his loss, suggesting to us the sense of a man who, if he's bad, will not simply settle for bad; he wants to be the worst.

Scorsese is juggling with both form and content, something that he will do with increasing fascination in the future, particularly in the late stage of his career beginning with Casino. LaMotta's masochism and sadism have a beastly sense just as they have a Catholic blood-cult relation of Passion, of transcendent suffering. To accent this, there's hellfire in the boxing ring – far detached from documentary newsreels – where smoke rises and the image is rippling, an effect Scorsese achieved by putting a flame beneath the lens. The dynamism of the film's movement and look is wholly related to LaMotta. As Thelma Schoonmaker says, "It's not just how the camera moves, it's the emotion that it shows." Even more stirring in terms of Scorsese's filmic effects is how he utilizes the sound design of Frank Warner. During Raging Bull’s post-production, Scorsese spent an unprecedented number of weeks layering the sound of the film, inch by inch. Warner's attention to detail was so precise that no two punching sounds in Raging Bull come from the same source. Some sounds are unnaturally amplified, while others surprisingly muted. At times, the sound is drained from the picture, and we're left with silence, such as the moment before Robinson pummels LaMotta, where the camera's perspective changes in one shot: the camera physically pulls back, but the zoom lens moves forward, completely changing the primary object – Robinson – and its relation to the background; Robinson stays fixed in the same place, but the ring moves back from us. Sound and image are exhibiting surreal qualities in an otherwise brutally realistic picture. Warner also synched Robinson's breathing with the breathing of what sounds like a lion or a tiger. Animal sounds become the most important sound effect Warner and Scorsese use, in and out of the ring, as when Jake beats up Joey in a rage. Michael Chapman's camera moves with LaMotta in the ring at 24 frames per second, the sound draining out as the film speed moves to 48 frames per second, then 120. The sound comes back in and the camera manually adjusts back to 24 frames per second, as LaMotta zeroes in on his opponent with a torrent of fists – the sound effect of an elephant screeching and deafening everything else. Choreography is character in Raging Bull, and so is cinematographic style.

Our animal nature is what the film is constantly communicating, tying in with Scorsese's evocation of sexuality, in its desire (the bedroom scenes between Jake and Vickie early on, while not being explicit "sex scenes," project the rawest sense of "sexuality" imaginable) and jealousy. Near the film’s beginning, as Jake yells at his first wife and throws dishes angrily around, a neighbor screams insults from the outside, accusing Jake of being an animal. Similar insults continue throughout the picture, for example Salvy (Frank Vincent) calling Jake a "fucking gorilla." The idea is that Jake is a man unable to control any impulse, unable to reason. After raging in the ring, is he expected to act differently outside of it? With his wife and his brother, he's a selfish monster, and what more, his irrational jealousy, conceived of his machismo, is something he allows to run his life, as if he's addicted to the psychological torment it creates, though it only feeds his rage more. According to De Niro, this was basic to how the actor and director approached the material in the social context of 1979. In the seventies, De Niro says that both he and Scorsese believed that free love "hippie" beliefs were "bullshit." "It was ignoring basic emotions. It was saying you have no right to feel them, and if you do, you're a jerk, and you're not hip."

I do not feel then that it's Scorsese's portrayal of the mean streets of wise guys and prize fighters that make him the artist that he is. It's his subjective handling of small details which are meant to channel his protagonists’ mind and memory, and so lock us in. Proust in his Remembrances of Things Past used this capture of minutia in everyday life – small details that we take for granted – to portray the pangs of desire and sexual jealousy, to the extent that memories are distorted by love when a scene is recalled a second or third time. Look at how Scorsese uses Jake's perspective in Raging Bull, working on something that he previously utilized to great effect in Taxi Driver: the Point of View shots with different film speeds. To show Jake's desire and attention, Scorsese, while filming Jake at the conventional 24 frames per second, will cut to whatever Jake is looking at. From his perspective, we see it at a faster speed, often 48 frames per second. We notice this early on when Jake looks at Vickie as she tans near the public pool with the local wise guys close by. The technique is most memorably experienced at a neighborhood church dinner, with Jake following Vickie through a crowd, preparing to make his move. She disappears with Salvy, who as an object of envy for Jake is also photographed at a faster speed. A fight breaks out amongst the older neighborhood residents and the new Italian immigrants, who've only recently arrived to America. Jake works his way through them to the building's exit, seeing Vickie and some other girls in Salvy's flashy car. Scorsese takes the diagetic sound out and we hear a classic jazz track, Bob Crosby's "Big Noise from Winnetka" with its propelling drum and bass and memorable whistling. Jake's eyes follow the car carrying the object of his desire (and the object of his envy). It's like a moment outside the rest of the film, floating above everything else as Jake's mind is displaced from his surroundings. The noise of the fight breaks his focus, and he plays his part as one of the neighborhood tough guys by kicking out some of the new Italians, uttering "Go back where you came from." But this toughness is only a performative action used to hide his inflamed desire. Later on, Scorsese uses the similar technique of film speed as relates to Jake seeing in his hotel room before his Middleweight Championship bout in 1950. The local mob boss, Tommy Como, comes to see Jake before the match, wishing him good luck. As Jake agreeably walks away, Vickie gets up to say goodbye also. Tommy and Vickie formally kiss one another and he takes her face in his hands, praising her beauty. We see this as Jake sees it – 48 frames per second, the garish rings on Tommy's fingers in close up. We also notice Joey, his hands on the Tommy's shoulders, smiling next to Vickie as the goodbye kiss happens.

These are things that would not – and should not – bother Jake, given their context. But it is all tied into his insecurities and frustrations as a prize fighter. For one thing, Jake doesn't like the political hierarchy of wise guys in his neighborhood. He resents their flashy cars and the ease with which they can talk to women. Their toughness is all pretense, a kind of pompous confidence backed up by a gun, not physical integrity. "Get him in a ring without his gun, no tough guy anymore," Jake mutters. They get rich on the punches Jake takes and dishes out – and then they also get everything else. Vickie was familiar with Salvy and the wise guys before she knew Jake, and this annoys the hell out of him because he will never have their ease, suaveness, or style. Worst of all, he needs to make them happy in order to get a championship match, even if it means throwing a fight, something Jake is too proud to do gracefully. Jake is also annoyed that Joey is so close to the wise guys, and the fact that Jake sees Joey with his hand on Tommy's shoulder, smiling approvingly as Vickie kisses him, makes him something of an accomplice in Vickie's suspected infidelity.

Jake is fooled by his own eyes, and he constructs his own narrative of the world around him as he dwells masochistically in his volatile internal world. He would rather believe that Vickie is cheating on him than trust her. Beyond Scorsese's camera and how the perspective is shown, it's fascinating to understand how the actors played out the triangle of suspicion. For the scene where Jake asks Joey repeatedly, "Did you fuck my wife?", and then goes upstairs to violently accost Vickie, De Niro's motivation and psychological direction as an actor was distinct from both Pesci and Moriarty. We are given no reason to believe that Vickie has been cheating on Jake, and certainly not with Joey. This is how Moriarty and Pesci play the scene reactively, as both actors have stated there was no way that Vickie fooled around with Joey. But even years after Raging Bull was made, De Niro's perspective in interviews is completely different. He had so fully identified with Jake La Motta, that De Niro says that Jake was absolutely right about Vickie and Joey. Scorsese, meanwhile, never resolves the issue with clarity, for the audience or, evidently, his actors. The world is created by what we see, and that is one of the haunting resonances of Raging Bull as a film about filmmaking.

This is the heart of Raging Bull, beyond the animal imagery and references, beyond the docudrama and history, beyond the style, beyond the performances. Scorsese puts himself into this movie, just as De Niro did, because he believed that this might be his last film; he made it like a man who was running against a mortal enemy. There's desperation in it, a frenzied drive for accomplishment, a last testament on a story that originally did not interest him. There is a lot of seeing in Raging Bull¸ just as there is a lot of exposure – notice the cameras constantly flashing, exposing La Motta and showing a thread of shame and guilt through the story, something that Scorsese will subsequently make integral in both Casino and The Aviator. The most evocative moments in the whole film may be the 16mm home movies that play in the early section. In color, scratched, de-saturated, and complimented with only Pietro Mascagni's opera music for sound, then interspliced with black and white still frames of La Motta's fights over the next few years, Scorsese is telling us how film captures life, or maybe how it can't capture life, seeing as the mirth in these moments are so different from the moments that precede and follow them (screaming spouses, crying children, violence). But film gives poetry to life, and Scorsese approaches cinema the same way a priest approaches the Gospel. It's a sacrament, it's holy, it's a prayer aimed at grace. And this is a story of a man who seems beyond grace. The rehearsal of "that's entertainment" opening the film relates to how LaMotta's self-as-spectacle is a ritual. In A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Kolker writes, "'Entertainment' is punishment and sacrifice, or sacrament, a means to escape from the body by using the body to give or receive pain, or as a public demonstration of the private need to inflict damage." Kolker notes that Raging Bull is a preparation for where Scorsese would go with The Last Temptation of Christ.

So what of this? There are ambivalences about Jake La Motta's redemption. He's never honestly sorry, or at least can't admit that he's sorry, though he is visibly mournful about losing Vickie and estranging himself from Joey. He's too proud to admit that he's wrong and does not ask for forgiveness. He looks in the mirror at the end, quoting Marlon Brando's "contender" speech from On the Waterfront: "It was you, Charlie," he says to his reflection. That could mean he is acknowledging the terrible person that he was. Or it could mean that he still has to lash out at someone else – "Charlie" – in order feel anything. He seems more at peace with the world around him in any event. He goes on stage and the film ends.

But what really happened? Where is the redemption? The redemption, for Scorsese, is the film. It's not an expository, narrative or dramatic "scene" that carries the redemption. "I'm not that guy," La Motta says in his jail cell, "I'm not an animal." But he is that guy and he is an animal. The whole film is a consecrating holy rite of sorts, a gesture not unlike the priest blessing the table at the neighborhood celebration. Raging Bull ends with a Biblical verse: "So for the second time, [the Pharisees] summoned the man who had been blind and said: 'Speak the truth before God. We know this fellow is a sinner.' 'Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,' the man replied. 'All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see." (John IX, 24-26, The New English Bible). Then the postscript: "Remembering Haig P. Manoogian, teacher. May 23, 1916 – May 26, 1980. With Love and resolution, Marty."

Even Paul Schrader, when first seeing the film, did not understand the significance of including this Bible quote in the context of the previous two hours. La Motta may be wiser at the end, but he is hardly "born again" on a new spiritual level, certainly when compared to other films about redemption. Raging Bull's pieces don't fit cleanly together, and that's the point. Isabella Rossellini, who was married to Scorsese at the time, remembers how the director was restless one night after the film was finished. He couldn't sleep. The film was too perfect. He immediately went to fiddle with the print on his editing machine, making minute changes, to disrupt this intruding perfection. The final titles refer to Scorsese's former NYU teacher, Haig P. Manoogian, an Armenian film scholar who was Scorsese's greatest mentor and foil. Manoogian passed away the May before Raging Bull's release, and it was a devastating blow to the student, who believed that Raging Bull would bring closure to all of their arguments about film aesthetics. It was Scorsese's film about seeing, and about acceptance. It was about grace.

This bespeaks the irrationality of Christianity and the teaching of forgiveness. I've written at length before about Scorsese's similarities to the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who believed that raw, real Christianity had an absurdity to it, opposed to all "good" ethical civilization, and in order to be a real Christian and approach Christ's grace, one had to take a leap of faith into that absurd realm. Forgiveness operates similarly; it does not make any more sense to forgive someone who has wronged you than it makes sense for two men to beat the hell out of each other in the middle of a boxing ring. Indeed, the first fight of Raging Bull, as members of the audience storm the ring and begin stampeding throughout the arena, makes it clear that the divide between the boxers and the spectators is a mirage, and that the same horrible, irrational beastliness that lingers in LaMotta is in fact in all of us, and as we are complicit with Jake LaMotta's subjectivity, just as we are to Norman Bates in Psycho, to which Raging Bull alludes. We are all sinners. And yet we are all, according to Scorsese, worthy of God's love and forgiveness. The Pharisees in the Bible quote are no different from any logical, ethical (in the Kierkegaardian sense) spectator of Raging Bull: this man is a cockroach, but he is still worthy of God's love. It's not for us to judge. The dance of images, sounds, sensations, expressions, looks, touches, reactions, wind, and music all corroborate to express the spectacular mystery of an individual human being. Cinema is Scorsese's tool for seeing and thinking. Through the form of ritual, not the logic of words, he gives grace to the most grievous of sinners. It is a miracle that he pulled it off with such magisterial beauty and so ugly a framework. Raging Bull is closer to religion than entertainment, and not didactic religion either, but the symbolic rites which reconcile Man to Nature. It was Haig who enabled Marty to see, and it's Marty's vision of Jake LaMotta that allows us, assuming we are more receptive than the Pharisees, to see into ourselves.

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