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Scorsese's Redemption Through Perfection: the Raging Bull

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Scorsese’s Personal Redemption through Perfection: The Raging Bull For almost thirty years Martin Scorsese’s overwhelming film Raging Bull has withstood the test of time, and as the films’ title character Jake La Motta defiantly tells Sugar Ray Robinson in defeat “You never got me down,” so the film and perhaps Scorsese himself can never be knocked down. The director himself attributed Raging Bull to saving his life and career. The film is as turbulent in its direction as it is in Robert De Niro’s extreme method acting, which set the bar higher for all actors. As rattling and real as taking a punch to the face, not only the acting, which has been discussed in every possible light, but the directing, the editing and the cinematography have become a hallmark and template of what a truly powerful film can be. Raging Bull was going to be Martin Scorsese’s final film, his goodbye to Hollywood. Shaken by asthma and depression, and finally derailed by a massive cocaine addiction and overdose, the acclaimed director had no desire to do a sports film or anything like it. Robert De Niro had been pushing La Motta’s biography on him for years, never with any returned interest. After his overdose however, De Niro continued to insist he take up the film, finally convincing the great director on the premise the work would save his life and in the end save his career. Scorsese has also said the gritty tone of the film, and its final theme of alienation redemption for the dark soul, or lack of soul, were a direct result of his own feeling coming through the film. At the time truly believing this would be his final film, the director took great time and precision in pre and post production of the film. The film began shooting in 1979, many years after De Niro had first proposed a script. MGM studios distributed the film, and United Artists had a say on many final details. The producers were at first unhappy with the script, which to them showed no humanity or redeeming qualities in the main character. Although uncredited, Scorsese and De Niro polished the final screenplay in a matter of weeks resulting in a richer Jake La Motta. When finally released the film grossed over $123 thousand dollars its opening weekend, on just four screens. It cost about eighteen million to make, grossing over twenty three million in ticket sales worldwide. The precision and thought the director put into the film shows through in every frame. A mise-en-scene critique of the film, a favorite critique for this film in particular by famed critic Roger Ebert, shows the careful ways in which every set, every prop and costume, each beam of light, truly plays off his many themes of envy, struggle, alienation, religion, and redemption. The director also made many pivotal decisions which set the film apart from all other movies of its kind. He was set against making another Rocky, and in comparison the films are almost complete opposites. To first set the tone of not only being different but to set the mood of the film, the decision was made to make the film in black and white. The color of the boxing gloves was not coming through right at the time, color film was not lasting and was becoming an industry concern, and he was also concerned with the amount of blood to be shone. Another major factor in distinguishing the film from Rocky and others like it was in the way Scorsese decided to shoot the fight scenes, continuing a mantra of “Keep it in the ring.” Where other films had shown the fight from the crowds perspective using multiple cameras, Raging Bull puts the audience in the middle of the fight, meticulously using a a single camera technique in the ring. Seeing the punches, taking the hits, and tasting the blood, all up close and personal. The quick cuts and sweeping shots throughout the fight scenes, which only total about ten minutes of the movie, become a beautiful showing of raw power. Scorsese uses many other techniques throughout the film to set it apart. The size of the boxing ring for instance could change. When Jake is losing inside the ring, which always directly correlates to his life outside the ring, he is a small figure on a giant, bloody stage. When he is at the top of his game though the ring is tiny, and Jake towers.
He was also very particular in his sound effects, each flash of a camera bulb, which are shot and cut amazingly, are coupled with the sound effect of a unique gun shot. The punches and hits are smashed melons and tomatoes. It is said the sound crew being so proud of the unique work they did destroyed the original tapes so they could not be used for anything else. The film was nominated for awards in almost every major category. Although Scorsese was shut out, De Niro received an Oscar for his acting, which will never stop receiving acclaim. His performance will never fade, and has received every type of criticism possible. Anything from he is an animal, to he is all the lowest ugliest points of man, to he is a feminist and the movie on a whole has a strong feminist point.
In the end though there are many points of his personality which are almost ambiguous. It is obvious De Niro wanted to do this film, not just through his persistence in getting it made, but in his dedication to it. He gained over sixty pounds for its final scenes, stopping production for two months so he could binge eat through Europe. He pushed himself so far the director actually shut down production for sometime concerned with his star’s health.
De Niro also trained with Jake La Motta as to get a feel for the man. His acting, or to be better phrased his being this character, physically and seemingly mentally, he brings across the deeper themes of alienation and self loathing in ways directing alone simply cannot communicate. His show of violence over love, his violence being his love perhaps; his paranoia, envy, and self worth is stunning.
His conflict is not with others, he is his own nemesis. He truly finds that gray area where he may be more animal than man. He truly became The Raging Bull. The other Academy Award given to the film was to Scorsese’s long time friend from film school, Thelma Schoonmaker, who won for her editing. As with the writing, Scorsese was un-credited with is major role in the editing process which was mostly done in his New York apartment nights after shooting, where they cut the film together.
As the writing and even acting were not embraced by all at first, there was near universal acclaim for the editing and cinematography of Raging Bull. The quick shots and cuts in the fight scenes were groundbreaking, but even in the quieter moments of the film, each shot seems to be cut at just the right time. As great as acting may be, it cannot convey everything intended. There is a certain tension always around Jake, the way he looks at people followed by a cut at the precise second followed by whomever he may be addressing, with his eyes or otherwise, followed by a quick cut off from them back to the internally raging Jake, which builds the discomfort between him and every actor he has a scene with, but more importantly between him and the audience. In the most powerful scene of the film, and of any film before or after, all these components: the directing, the acting, and the editing are brought together seamlessly in a stunning and beautiful way. La Motta, down and out, has ended up in jail due to his own actions. Abandoned by his brother after he brutally beat him, lost to his wife and kids, forgotten by the boxing world, with no one to blame but himself, he is thrown into solitary confinement, fighting the guards the whole way in. Alone and realizing what he has done to his life, Jake begins pounding the wall of his cell as if it were a punching bag. Scorsese brings us this man, and makes us realize him hitting the wall in jail is not much different than his life outside the prison. He is completely alone and violence is his only outlet for his self hatred. “ I’m not an animal” he declares finally in a moment of redemption. The scene is mostly one shot, with only a few cuts, but they are part of a more uniform whole. The lighting as he punches the wall finally shows the man finally shrouded by more than shadows. His back turned, the light is set so he is almost broken in half, shadow and light, showing the duality of a man so close to losing his humanity. The movie and Jake change from this point on, trying to move forward, trying to change. It is an unforgettable moment in cinema, De Niro, the tone, the lighting in the black and white, and the feeling one may actually finally feel for this broken man. Although at times it may seem the film is pushed aside in the face of Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas, Raging Bull is truly Martin Scorsese’s most visually stunning, emotionally gripping film. What he thought would be his swan song, and therefore poured all of himself into, became the masterpiece forcing ultimately his projection forward. The film will ultimately be remembered all around, from the amazing cinematography in black and white, every beautiful shot, the out of the box editing, the wonderful script, the impeccable acting of De Niro, as a broken man needing to be at peace, and a broken man, Scorsese, finding his redemption through directing his most incredible film.

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