‘You never knocked me down Ray…‘ I’ve never particularly cared for Raging Bull. It’s a shocking admission as on paper it should be among my favourite films, what with that triumvirate of Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro in the driving seat, particularly when the latter was at the peak of his powers. I’ve always suspected that the film was ahead of me, that I lacked the insight and wisdom to fully appreciate it when I first saw it as a teen, and again through a handful of revisits over the intervening years. I could always appreciate the craftwork, Schoonmaker’s astounding assembly of the punishing fight scenes, Scorsese’s dizzying camerawork, and of course De Niro’s method madness with the weight gain and boxing regime he undertook to don those gloves of pugilist Jake La Motta, a commitment to the physicality of a performance that has since acquired mythic status. I’ve always wanted to revisit this on the big screen, an approach which could activate the revelatory experience this classic, and I have conducted some research into the films history which might also contextualise the film not only in the Scorsese oeuvre, but also in the wider channel of American cinema as it came to that crossroads of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Even if you accept 1/10 of what Biskind alleges in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls reportage this was a turbulent period. Scorsese’s private and artistic life was in crisis after the immense financial and critical failure of his previous film New York, New York and his tempestuous romance with the rarely stable Liza Minnelli was in freefall. Plagued by insecurities during a terrible shoot he’d worked with De Niro with the last three movies and wasn’t jumping at the chance for another failure, and as was the environment they were all seriously hopped up on deep coke habits – Schrader was doing four grams a day – and after a Telluride festival a combination of contaminated powder, his asthma medicine and overwhelming exhaustion Scorsese experienced a medical convulsion and almost died, and during recuperation in a New York hospital he had what addicts term ‘a moment of clarity’ and poured this destructive angst into a project he could now see from the inside out, the self destructive impulses, the aesthetic impotency and growling, Neanderthal, masculine insecurity – these are the hammer blows of Raging Bull.
Amusingly the film went into production the same month as Cimino’s Heavens Gate which struck the death knell of the decade, where Raging Bull can be considered its artistic apogee. Long time Scorsese scribe Mardik Martin made a first pass on Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, but something pivotal was missing. Schrader’s second assault introduced the tension between brother Jake (De Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci), inflaming the jealousy that was absent in the book but forms the dark nucleus of his life and the carnage he wrought in and out of the ring. At first the United Artist executives were nervous, they didn’t feel such a reprehensible character won’t exactly entice in the ticket receipts, but Rocky had made all boxing projects hot properties, even shorn of their triumph of adversity plot predictability. Scorsese insisted on a tabloid feel, highly influenced by the work of photographer Weegee (a patron of Kubrick’s early Time career by the way) hence the insistence on the black & white palette which while problematic was a little more receptive to the suits after the relatively recent success of The Last Picture Show. Crucially this was also the first collaboration of arguably the greatest director and editor team of all time, Scorsese hiring Thelma Schoonmaker, although I’m sure you fact fans will be fascinated that the previous two films of his had been cut by a certain Marcia Lucas, wife of George, who was instrumental in the craft of New York, New York and a little modest picture called Taxi Driver – more on that later….
Raging Bull opens with a framing device in 1964, the corpulent once champion now fallen from grace, muttering his street soliloquy to a mirror before cutting back to his physical and celebrity prime, Thus the scene is set for an epic fall from grace, a man demolished by his own demons and insecurities, an aligned marriage of career and substance that pushed Scorsese to his artistic borders. The environment is a vividly reconstructed New York once again, Scorsese intimate since birth with those sweltering summer sidewalks, the red brick townhouses and tenement ambiance of overlapping arguments and domestic distress, a cacophony of constant barking animals and shrieking sirens. In this way the film is constantly, well, its angry and energetic, there are few calm asides nor allusions, a maelstrom of near constant flux and threat. This was Cathy Moriarty’s first film and she by her own admission completely ignorant of the practice of filming, but she had that undeniable chemistry with De Niro on screen, she wasn’t intimidated by him and handled herself admirably by tossing lines back during improvised scenes and sequences, so it seems a shame she never had much in the way of a subsequent career. Also look out for Frank ‘shinebox retrieval instructor‘ Vincent in his screen debut.
Older and wiser in the ways of cinema I can now recognise something of the street confessional, the raw virtue of early Pasolini which was an evident influence, channelled through the earlier pulses of the home countries Italian Neo-Realism. Bit Scorsese took this influential infrastructure and strained the character through a specific American lens of the punishing dream, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and achieving victory at all costs, no matter the impact on your marriage or soul. To have as your main character a narcissist, misogynistic self hating abuser, a man so paranoid he accuses and beats his own brother was a tough sell as you never sympathise with LaMotta and his distressing antics, but De Niro keeps you glued to the screen through sheer force of personality and profundity. As Schrader frequently attests for him character is action, what they do marks who they are rather than relying on the techniques of long soliloquys or illuminating dialogue, and we are in the orbit of a thoroughly odious, yet curiously understandable ogre. Whilst the contemporary parallels are evident Raging Bull strums deeper than surfaces, it has a wider breadth to suggest how we all fight, sometimes against ourselves and our own self destructive impulses and instincts, in the theatre or boxing ring of life. This being Marty we are treated to an expert entrance steadicam shot, the fight scenes took ten weeks alone to shoot, two and a half months, improvisation utilised to keep the energy and tempo consistent through what was a gruelling experience.
After the exhausting shoot was tapped out the post production schedule was almost as brutal, the sound mix alone took six months, Scorsese in perfectionist mode as he insisted on delicate completion of the Foley signalled rifle shots into melon to replicate the assault of flashbulbs and punches. Seen now the thundering editing in the fight scenes are intoxicating, in terms of sheer physicality these are among the greatest fight scenes committed to celluloid, dizzying, delirious and deadly. Crucially the camera stays in the ring with LaMotta during his dance with his opponents, a third character ducking and weaving through the melee, with special, almost expressionistic designed sets expanded beyond the realistic curtilage, giving every fight scene it’s own individual schemata that represents a different stage of LaMotta’s career as it closes in and fails. These were all specially designed and storyboarded in pre-production, Scorsese not opting for a traditional three line camera crew covering various angles, but instead resorting to one camera, perfectly choreographed like a dance movement with high speed interludes and expressionistic touches like the blood literally dripping from the encircling ropes.
At this stage in his career and psyche Scorsese assumed this would be his last film, and he’d retreat into teaching or academia after the films assumed failure, and I love how he termed it as ‘kamikaze film-making’, hurling everything into the picture and going for broke with nothing to lose. The results are there to see even as much as it simply still doesn’t connect with me, as much as I can fully admire the immense craft and dedication. It remains a text which you can’t deny for the sheer sweat and passion, crucial to the bruised and battered body of work, even if it doesn’t still engage on a personal level. Seeing it on the big screen at last revealed some of the films sheer technical prowess which leaves you shell shocked on a visual level, punch drunk and reeling from the sheer assault of sound, image and intensity, and that alone ensures its seminal status in the lexicon. Now, we all know how P.T. Anderson lifted the final monologue for that notorious final scene in Boogie Nights, which in turn traces a lineage through Kazan’s On The Waterfront of challenging characters throughout American cinema, all human beings, wrecked and wracked with their own failures, struggling to be better men despite their own burdens;