Scorsese, Raging Bull, and the American Film Industry

March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

“I’ve told you a hundred times. I don’t want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books.” – The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, directed by Vincente Minelli


Film is an art form with unique barriers: making a professional film costs a lot of money, and each is expected to make a lot more money. By its nature film is made available to the widest audience, and there is always pressure to “give the audience what it wants” (namely easy partial-truths to make people feel better about themselves, or, more often, cheap entertainment to feed base desires). There are many financially successful filmmakers who would not admit to having any ideals. They will make whatever they think will sell, no matter how banal and degrading. Consequently, hundreds of bad movies come out every year. A constant conflict exists in the honest filmmaker between making good art and trying to please an audience. Every artist feels this conflict to some extent, but because of the large-scale financial risk, professional filmmakers often experience it most.

In America, the early film industry began primarily as a way to sell vaudeville to huge audiences in a shorter time. Simple, melodramatic tales are easy to enjoy. They don’t challenge and improve a person; they only distract from difficulty. (Much of early film in Europe was different; it first sought to be art, creating beauty and original expression while it entertained. The results of that legacy are still very apparent today, especially in contrast to Hollywood.) American filmmaking continued to please the crowd into its Golden Age with the studio system, where the producer was far more important than the director. Films became formulaic. Great films managed to come out of this era anyway, but they had to fight to keep up. (Citizen Kane, a rare director’s piece from the era, flopped at the box office because of the public’s expectation of formula taught to them by Hollywood. It is now widely regarded as the most important film ever made.)

In the late 50’s and 60’s, the Hollywood studio system began to fall apart. 1969’s Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy proved that the era had ended. The directors that rose after this time were far more personal and thoughtful. They exposed their own vulnerability as they made honest films that reflected their internal struggles, learning not from American cinema but from the great directors of Europe and Japan. Many of history’s great artists have found that for a piece of art to be good, the artist must put something of himself into it or it can’t be truly compelling; Hollywood films had lost personal touch and were run by money instead of meaning. With the rise of the director, the greatest American films were made.

One of the directors that rose in Hollywood’s Second Golden Age was Martin Scorsese. With Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1972), he established himself as a director. During this success, his friend and collaborator Robert De Niro tried to talk him into making a film adaptation of Jake La Motta’s autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story. Scorsese said he couldn’t do it, claiming after reading part of it that he had no idea what it was about. La Motta seemed to him a psychotic wreck. Then, after the box office flop of his New York, New York (1977), he was driven into depression and crippling addiction. Suddenly Scorsese connected to La Motta’s own self-destruction in a powerful way, and since its release in 1980, Raging Bull has come to be considered one of the greatest films ever made.

One reason Raging Bull is great is because it is so personal – Scorsese, thinking during his depression that it would be his last film, put everything he had into it. Jake La Motta is a terrible, sadomasochistic character, but instead of pronouncing judgment on him, the film merely shows him as he is. This is a key factor in why the film is so compelling: as an audience, we can see something of ourselves in Jake, and learn something from him. Jake is like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—slightly detached from reality, self-destructive, and a bit pathetic—but we sympathize with him, because he has been driven to this state by the warped desires of the same American culture we are pressured by every day. Jake is Everyman.

De Niro’s contribution to the film in this area is as important as Scorsese’s. He holds nothing back in his portrayal of La Motta. He is never faking it, never show-acting, so the audience is never taken out of La Motta’s reality. De Niro knows the character so well that he is able to improvise many of the key scenes; intense dialogue flows with artistic reality as he takes every word personally and responds personally. He sees the connection between Jake’s pain and his own, and so is able to honestly sympathize with Jake’s downfall.

Raging Bull is also great for its cultural significance. Scorsese has been called the quintessential American filmmaker. Though most American films have little in common with Scorsese’s, he truly captures the American consciousness. America blends cultures, for good or bad. This blending can be felt strongly in Scorsese’s films without it being the main focus. Raging Bull is a perfect example. It takes a classic American film hero – the underdog boxer – and captures him in true Italian neorealistic style. Neorealism, a response among Italian filmmakers to fascist propaganda films and post-WWII Europe, defied the glamorous, white-washed standard set by Hollywood. It focused on the psyche and everyday life of the working class. Static camera shots of mundane events forced the viewer to become much more aware of the painful, stagnant atmosphere keeping the characters from growing. This can be seen clearly in Raging Bull. In one memorable scene, De Niro’s neurotic character attempts to fix a television in his small apartment as he argues with his brother. He suddenly accuses his brother (entirely without cause) of sleeping with his wife, and the argument is pushed immediately to the point of violence. The tension in this scene is unbelievable, but not because of any over-dramatic movement or cinematography. The static, medium shots give the viewer the impression that he is actually sitting in this claustrophobic living room watching this argument unfold, unable to stop its inevitable escalation. Catholic iconography and sentiments are also used effectively throughout the film to express the strange tensions influencing Italian-American culture. (It is interesting to note that Taxi Driver, another brilliant movie from Scorsese and De Niro, does the same thing for French New Wave cinema and New York culture as Raging Bull does for Neorealism and Italian-American culture.)

Raging Bull is not, however, simply a recreation of some other film movement’s style. Scorsese takes many different elements and fuses them seamlessly to make something new. Raging Bull is so meticulously filmed and edited that it is nearly impossible to cover all its technique; every shot could stand alone as an artistic achievement. Extensive use of slow-motion, complex tracking shots, and other expressionistic techniques constantly engage the viewer. Scorsese pioneered the disconcerting flashbulb cut for the film, a now-common technique. Using several such visual techniques including keeping the camera inside the ring, Scorsese created the most subjectively emotional, surreal and engaging boxing matches on film. The size of the ring subtly changes between fights to emphasize La Motta’s psychological state – he starts in control in a small ring, but then looks lost and pathetic in an oversized ring. Simple human sounds are transformed into an ominous chorus. Short segments of color film made to appear homemade intercut the high-contrast black-and-white film that first sets the tense mood. All of these techniques are the words of Scorsese’s poetry, personally crafted to tell an ever-poignant American story.

Personal films can connect powerfully with audiences because they are sincere, and they can change people because they give honest truth. So why don’t the most personal films sell the best right now? And why do many blockbusters receive mediocre reviews from critics and audiences alike? It isn’t hard to recognize that the studio system is once again a large part of Hollywood. Many major directors are actually producer-directors whose main talent is building hype. The culture of the 60’s and 70’s when the studio system first fell was more revolutionarily minded and welcomed that change, whereas since that time the culture has become comfortable and financially minded once again. But the fact that that reversion can be recognized suggests that another cultural revolution will come. There are certainly many who are fed up and want artistic independence, and independent filmmaking is always on the rise. And, if we are lucky, we could find the next Scorsese during this revolution.

By Aaron Smith, Staff Film Writer, with Irene Bernstein.


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