Tag Archives: new hollywood

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.


Serpico (1973)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Al Pacino

The other night, not really craving anything to view and perusing the titles in my collection, I happened upon Serpico. I can’t remember the last time I watched it, but I do remember my first viewing of it. I must have been about 21 or 22 years old and had really just discovered the cinema of the American New Wave (the New Hollywood), my best friend Kevin and I would sit in his living room until the wee small hours drinking Coke with our eyes popping out as movies like Head (1968), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and  Serpico (to name only a few) pulsated, twitched, and ran ragged across the television screen. I remember thinking that Serpico certainly had a great performance, but seemed a much lesser film than Dog Day Afternoon and many others of that time. However, after this recent viewing I will revise that assessment. Serpico is a rich and fascinating film in which context, cinematic language, and craft work together more than being a film that is held up and held together by the performance of its lead actor.

That being said, though, let me start with Mr. Pacino. Simply, he’s great. The ubiquity of his greatness in the 1970s perhaps made audiences take him for granted, but I believe very few actors could have held the screen and the character of Frank Serpico to keep me with the feeling of being an objective observer and personally invested in this character’s well-being. Here, Mr. Pacino is not alone in his performance; the cinematic language employed by Mr. Lumet helps establish how we should feel about and view this man who inhabits the screen for almost every second of the film. The differing use of close-up is particularly memorable. Mr. Lumet uses wide angle lenses to give a false sense of size to the foreground as well as deep focus to fill out the frame. Figures attempting to pressure or subvert Serpico are notably placed in the foreground while Frank remains in medium shot.

This has the effect of making the antagonistic element seem unnaturally large and uncomfortably close. However, when Paco is shot in close-up, his face fills the screen and the effect is one of intimacy and familiarity, not least because he has a nice face, friendly eyes and is so different to everyone else in the film. Contasting this, however, is the first shot of the movie, which is a close-up of Serpico, bloody and gasping in the back of a police cruiser. He’s dying, could die at any moment, and Mr. Pacino has to convey who this man is and why we should care about him immediately and with no thought or question. The performance succeeds in relating his fear, his paranoia, and his hope without words and without gesture; it is an example of film acting at its finest.

Another aspect of the portrayal of Serpico is his placement in the environment. Despite the use of wide-angle lenses and the revolutionary editing techniques of Dede Allen*, Serpico maintains the signature gritty, syncopated realism of 1970s American cinema and the character is placed both within and against this realism. Most of the narrative action of the film takes place in extended flashback. The world is we see it, though shot with this neo American realism, is highly subjective and Frank is clearly depicted as a kind of hero/super cop. The first image of Serpico we see in flashback is a good boy in blue, a model police academy graduate, fresh-faced, clean, innocent, but he is also just a face in the crowd, one amidst many, as the camera pulls back to reveal all the cadets sitting at the graduation ceremony. This image is reflected in the last shot of the film, with a much different-looking Paco sitting with his sheep dog against another dark background. Again, the camera pulls out to reveal the enormous liner that will take Serpico away from New York, away from America. He is presented not as a face in the crowd, but as a man isolated against the enormity of the machinery and infrastructure that would carry him, and us in society, wherever it will. This perhaps the central idea of Mr. Lumet’s film. There is a constant struggle between the individual and whatever society he is part of.

Serpico is clearly very different from his fellow police officers. His gift for blending in on the streets and with his hippie/youth culture friends (as signified by his many excellent hats and fabulous facial hair) is a visual clue to this struggle between individual and society, being both distinguishable and indistinguishable, and the tension of if you’re not one of us then you are against us. In the film, this is exhibited by the corrupt cops, by his friends when they find out he is a cop, and then by Frank’s paranoia; in society, this was prevalent in the remnants of hippie culture vs. preppy culture, in race relations, in aspects of the Vietnam War, and in domestic American politics and government (it was the Nixon years, after all). It is also still with us. If our time is as divisive and edgy as the late 1960s and the 1970s, then this film is every bit as relevant as it was to its contemporary audience.

Definitely seek out Serpico and any of the work of Sidney Lumet, Al Pacino, and Dede Allen. I’m glad my mood took me to re-watch this film, and I may just follow it up with its companion piece, Dog Day Afternoon.


*For more on Dede Allen, arguably the greatest editor in American film take a look at these screen credits: The Hustler (1961), Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Reds (1981), The Breakfast Club (1985). Also, read a short piece from NPR and this essay: “Considering Dede Allen: The Editor as Revolutionary”.