Tag Archives: martin scorsese

Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin

Cast:Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Film & Performance

A few years ago, Robert De Niro donated a huge collection of personal files from the films he has worked on throughout his career in order that they be available to film and cultural scholars for study. I can only imagine the wealth of information that is contained within that collection, and the insights and revelations of one film in particular, Raging Bull, must be particularly fascinating. Over the last few years, this film has emerged as clearly my favourite Martin Scorsese film. It is without doubt a masterpiece of filmmaking from top to bottom: directing, cinematography, editing, sound, and, of course, performance. It is also fair to say that without Mr. De Niro, this film would never have been made by Mr. Scorsese. According to many, including this 2010 VanityFair article on the making of Raging Bull, Mr. De Niro not only put the idea and the script into his director friend’s hands, but spent weeks in isolation with Mr. Scorsese putting in countless hours of uncredited  work on the screenplay and in preparation for the film. I think that because of Mr. De Niro’s persistence, preparation, and insistence, so much of Raging Bull is about performance.

From the opening shot, Raging Bull instructs the viewer on its nature and on the nature on its central figure, Jake La Motta. Balletic and menacing, the boxer alternately dances and prowls, a graceful but caged animal, inside the ring while the screen audience succumbs hypnotically to music and image… operatic, smoky, slow motion, brilliance. We then are transported a few decades forward to a physically altered (from transfigured to misfigured) Jake La Motta and a different warm up act, a different performance, but, we suspect, the same caged instincts in play. This time La Motta is constrained by his tuxedo and the smallness of his dressing room. The boxing ring the title sequence shot, while roped, is open and the background and off-screen space seems infinite with its flashbulb punctuation. As is pointed out on Art of the Title, the foreground ropes suggest musical bars with La Motta occupying the role of a treble clef in the right of the frame. In the dressing room, the off-screen space is tight: La Motta is squeezed into the right-hand side of the frame and a mirror is on the left and then we are taken to close-up to further emphasize that what is really containing this man is not the world outside, but himself. So, with the opening sequence of the film, a sequence not just of contrasts, but of performances, we come to understand that La Motta has survived to a peace that is literally and figuratively uncomfortable.

The film is of course bookended by these two performances and by La Motta’s stand-up stage act. The flatness of his recital of Terry Malloy’s speech from On the Waterfront (1954) is post-modern in its self-reference and meta-fictional nod from Mr. De Niro to Marlon Brandon, a taking- up of the method acting baton from one great to another. The lifelessness of the delivery of this speech only adds to its pathos. La Motta, at his mirror, addresses the speech to himself, not to his brother Joey. It has not been Joey who has denied Jake the life of a somebody; it has been his own violent, repressed, self-destructive, animal nature.

Other performances punctuate the film between the beginning and the end. The fights are dizzying examples of on-set choreography not just between the actors in the ring but between the actors and the camera and also the choreography in post-production with the editing of image and sound. The fights between La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson offer the best evidence, particularly the last one with it’s circus-like contra-zoom and the tigerish growls emanating from the soundtrack. Scorsese’s tracking shot as Jake enters the arena for his title shot is a further example of this synthesis. Like other classic Scorsese tracking shots — the Jumpin’ Jack Flash shot in Mean Streets (1973) and the Copa shot in Goodfellas (1990) — it’s purposefully showy and fits dramatically and thematically with the elements of performance — situation, character, actor, and director combined. La Motta’s home life is also a kind of performance. The kitchen sink comedy of Jake getting his steak has its audience within the film as well as in the cinema: the screaming neighbour who knows Jake’s character perfectly well (“You animal!”). Even if Jake can’t help himself, he is very aware of the ways in which performance shapes his life. He plays up the comic villain role for his Brooklyn neighbour, he fusses about his robe after a fight, and he deconstructs the scene unfolding at the pool with Vicky and the local wiseguys. Salvy and his crew are acting up for the teenage beauty just as much as she is putting on a show for them and whomever else is watching (Jake included). The dazzling pin-up poster framing of how Scorsese shoots Vicky in her introduction works hand in hand with Jake’s analytic commentary of what he sees.

In contrast to all of Jake’s types of performance stands the torment of his lack of performance and the anguish of these failures. The sham of Jake throwing a fight leaves him sobbing, banned, and publicly humiliated (this is echoed later when La Motta is thrown in jail). After successfully defending his title, barely, Vicky cajoles him into calling Joey to apologize, but Jake stands impotent and inept in the phone booth on the cusp of his inevitable defeat to Sugar Ray Robinson and his becoming an out-of-shape loser. And finally, as we are reminded time and again, his inability to perform sexually. At first it is a masochistic trial as he dares Vicky to seduce him between fights with Sugar Ray. This ends comically with him dousing his ardor with ice-cold water. Eventually, though, the impotence turns real and violent with La Motta strutting after brutally beating Janiro (“He ain’t pretty no more,” observes Tommy), and then beating his brother and then Vicky — and all this done with an audience (on the street, and in front of Joey’s kids). His awareness of performance also fails at crucial moments. One is Jake’s inability to hear the truth from Joey regarding Vicky (assuming Joey is telling the truth). Jake instead is blinded and deafened by insecurity, paranoia, and violence. Then, again, in Florida, the “reformed” La Motta is too wrapped up in his own Mr. Nice Guy persona to spot the 14 year-old girl in his club which leads to his destruction of the one remaining item of value for all the struggle and violence he put himself through: his championship belt.

A lot of attention is given to Raging Bull particularly for Mr. De Niro’s performance. This is justly so. However, what makes it so is not just the brilliance of his on screen work, but the way in which the actor’s presence threads through this film from its conception to its writing, its production, its acclaim, and its criticism.

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Mean Streets (1973) & Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast:

Mean Streets: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson

Hugo: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Invention of Martin Scorsese & the Invention of Hugo Cabret

In 1973, Martin Scorsese arrived on the New Hollywood train and opened up new tracks for himself, his contemporary peers, and the aspiring film-makers to follow. With Mean Streets (not his first feature length film), all the hallmarks of Mr. Scorsese’s craft and visual narrative-style are on display and in development. For me, however, the most notable of these traits is not the slow-motion tracking shots, not the inspried pop-rock soundtrack song selection, not the collaboration with Robert De Niro; it is instead his ability to present deeply personal films with such inviting sincerity as to make the characters and themes accessible to a range of viewers. Sure, there’s low-level gangsters and ejaculations of violence (by men against men and against women) and Catholic guilt and Sicilian modes of family dynamics, and I’ve never had to deal with any of those things. On the other hand, I’ve felt the muddy mixture of ambition and weakness that plagues Charlie; I’ve known people not as self-destructive as Johnny Boy but certainly with those tendencies; I’ve fallen for the wrong girl at the wrong moment. I can find my experience inside Mr. Scorcese’s Mean Streets just as clearly as he can find his in the characters of Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa. The same is true of Hugo, so why didn’t I connect to it? Why didn’t I love it?

Hugo  is personal for Mr. Scorsese in an academic or intellectual way rather than in the visceral way of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (1976),  Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1983). There are some similarities thematically to most of his work: search for redemption, the boundaries of small communities, family and honour, but the over-arching theme of this film is much more self-referential. It is so not to Mr. Scorsese himself, but to the milieu he had a hand in transforming, the world of film. The power of cinema on both an individual and a culture, the art of film-making, the preservation of film, the wonder and child-like adventure associated with the craft and experience, the debilitating struggles of financing and fickle audiences, all of these are apparent in this movie. Film is so important here that the film academy library is housed in a building that appears are grandiose and large as the Paris train station where Hugo lives. The difference is that the library is full of light (and knowledge) it is silent and a place of serious study while the train station is a place of toil and threat for Hugo.

I wanted to love Hugo, but as beautifully crafted as it is, it feels like a clockwork invention or a wind-up movie. I’m sure this was most definitely deliberate: the tightening of the book’s narrative (such as, cutting out the character of Etienne, softening Hugo character, playing up the part of the Station Inspector), the intricacy and depth of 3D composition, and the family-friendly redemption and healing for all at the end certainly point to this conclusion. I hope Mr. Scorsese continues to make deeply personal films, but I also hope they are about life and people rather than work and hobbies.

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A Return to School

This past week has seen the start of a new school year, and while it’s an unwelcome end to vacation time, I always look forward to reconnecting with students as they move up a grade and welcoming new students to my classroom. This year I’ve changed my non-credit film discussions classes to a more formalized credit project studies course called “Elements of Film”. I’ll be leading two groups of students (one in grade 11 and the other in grade 12) through a basic introduction to aspects of cinema in discussion-based seminars with the goal of each student producing a quality piece of film criticism at the end of the semester in June.

Here is the basic outline of the course:

A: Elements of Film Production

  • composition & cinematography
  • editing
  • performance
  • design & sound

B: Elements of Film Authorship

  • writing
  • directing

C: Elements of Film Criticism

  • realism
  • auteur theory
  • other perspectives — genre, psychoanalytic, cognitive, gender, gay

SCREENINGS

Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, dir. Orson Welles)

The 400 Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964, dir. Richard Lester)

The Graduate (1968, dir. Mike Nichols)

Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990,  dir. Martin Scorsese)

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