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Raging Bull: A Film by Martin Scorsese
Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta
Films by Martin Scorsese
Control as the Thread
In 1978 Martin Scorsese was finishing New York, New York.
During the post production of New York, New York, circumstances had lead Scorsese to shoot The Last Waltz, “The Band’s” final performance. To supplement the live footage, and to structure it more like a movie, Scorsese added interviews, backstage footage, and placed it within a historical framework. Consequently he had two feature films in post production simultaneously.
New York, New York alone was an overwhelming experience for Scorsese. There was an incredible amount of footage due to the experimental style of the film. Scenes were entirely improvised and often led away from the structure of the story. There was an early cut of the film that was almost five hours in length to incorporate all of the tangents that were created during the actors’ on screen improvisation – which all needed to resolve independently for the story to run its course.
On top of these two features, while Scorsese was already exhausted, he had also accepted a job directing a play, which he had never done before. Ultimately he was unable to complete the project and it was handed over to a new director.
With the workload that Scorsese willingly accepted he was either overly confident, capable beyond all known limits, or a sadomasochist – looking deep to punish himself.
The workload ultimately led to Martin Scorsese’s marriage breaking up and it left him in the hospital. Not negating over confidence or excessive capabilities as factors, but the idea sadomasochism seems to have played an equal role in determining Scorsese’s path. This is further underlined by the characters that Scorsese chooses to delve into – in this case, Jake La Motta, the Raging Bull.
At this time, while New York, New York and The Last Waltz were nearing closure, Gangs of New York was tentatively on the table. Robert De Niro, however, had given Martin Scorsese the book, Raging Bull, written by Jake La Motta, Pete Savage, and Joseph Carter – an (auto) biography of Jake La Motta. The book was apparently not very good. Scorsese had said in Scorsese on Scorsese that he thought that the writers had attempted to over explain and justify every bad decision that Jake La Motta had made, and delved too deeply into La Motta’s guilt. He did feel, however, that there were “a few interesting incidents in the book and that’s what the script was based on.”
With the encouragement of Robert De Niro, Scorsese was convinced that it was something that he could do.
Paul Schrader wrote the script for Raging Bull (and also wrote Taxi Driver.) With Scorsese’s illness and broken marriage, he apparently needed something to sink his energy in. He described the making of Raging Bull as the “Kamikaze approach,” where you put everything into the movie and don’t worry about what happens to you afterwards. Ironically, this “kamikaze approach” isn’t the only parallel between Scorsese and the movie representation of La Motta.
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese began working on Raging Bull, Scorsese’s bio pic about the legendary former boxing champ, Jake La Motta. They started by reworking Paul Schrader’s script.
“I was fascinated by the self-destructive side of Jake La Motta’s character, his very basic emotions. What could be more basic than making a living by hitting another person in the head until one of you falls or stops? Bob (Robert De Niro) and I then decided to take Paul Schrader’s script, with Paul’s blessing, to an island – which is hard for me, because as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one island, Manhattan. But Bob got me through it, he’d wake me up in the morning and make me coffee, and we spent two-and-a-half weeks rewriting everything. We combined characters and in fact rewrote the entire picture, including the dialogue. When we got back we showed it to Paul, who didn’t care for it all that much, as he wrote in a telegram to us when we began shooting, “Jake did it his way, I did it my way, you do it your way.”” Scorsese on Scorsese Page 77
Visually… Black and White Film… Major Stylistic Choice…
One of the major stylistic choices in the film was to shoot it in black and white. The catalyst was some 8mm footage Scorsese shot of De Niro in the gym, boxing. At a living room screening on the wall, it was pointed out that the gloves were too red, especially for the era that La Motta was fighting in.
Scorsese coupled the solution to that problem with another issue he was having, which was the poor quality of film stock. At that time, the film would rapidly lose its color and fade. He shot Raging Bull in black and white to both make a point about color film and to protect the quality of Raging Bull.
After Raging Bull, Scorsese went on tour promoting the need to increase the quality of film. (He actually got Akira Kurosawa to join this movement in exchange for Scorsese playing Von Gogh in Kurosawa’s film, Dreams.)
Theme dictates Visuals…
In Raging Bull, Scorsese explores this self-destructive behavior, depicting Jake La Motta as a character who is consistently punishing himself. La Motta’s character is a character who won’t allow himself to have anything; a wife, kids, a family, and ultimately he doesn’t even allow himself to keep the championship. He has them, but he has to destroy them all systematically.
This does not seem too unlike Scorsese taking on two feature films and a play and working himself into a broken marriage and the hospital.
Jake La Motta saw the beatings he received as strategically playing possum where Scorsese saw it as La Motta welcoming as much punishment as he possibly could, leaving the minimal time and energy to still win the fight. For example, In Raging Bull, after the opening credits and La Motta’s (De Niro’s) dressing room monologue, we jump into the ring under the announcer declaring “the Bronx Bomber is taking a lot of punishment this fight.” We soon learn that we entered the fight in the ninth round of a ten round fight. Jake La Motta has been taking a beating from Reeves for all nine rounds. In the corner, his brother Joey and the rest of the corner team reprimand him for letting it go this far. Now he can only win by a knock out.
As Jake La Motta enters the tenth round it becomes clear that he could have won the fight anytime he wanted. La Motta knocks Reeves down three times in the tenth round, but Reeves is ultimately saved by the bell and wins the fight based on the judge’s score cards. The question should then be raised, what is the benefit of playing possum for nine rounds if you could have won the fight in the first or second round? Why was it important for him to win in the last round? Scorsese establishes La Motta as a character who takes punishment through the majority of the rounds (his life) and then tries to win during the closing seconds of the fight. La Motta tries to punish himself to the limits of what he can control – He punishes himself as much as he can without losing everything.
As the opening fight foreshadows, if La Motta is constantly playing that close to the line, he is always risking stepping over that line – beyond the confines of his control – and he will start losing things in the same manner as he lost that fight.
Basically, if La Motta attempts to control every aspect of his life and the lives of those around him, he will never have any sort of honest mutually fulfilling relationship with anyone. He always opts to emotionally guard himself, and keeps people close through physical control. This is what drives the choice of compositions in the film – the visuals.
We are introduced to La Motta through the barrier of the ropes.
We are introduced to his relationship with his first wife while they are kept in separate shots, and he sees her through the internal framing of the kitchen window. When they are in the same shot, it is during a moment of violence, after which they are immediately separated again by a glass door with translucent curtains. We watch her silhouette pace in what seems like a cage.
He meets his next wife, Vicky, through a chain linked fence.
When La Motta does finally get a date with her, Scorsese frames it so that they are driving in a car where the front windshield is made of two separate panels, visually giving them both their own separate framings.
Planting the Seeds of Failure…
Scorsese uses these visual motifs to underline the boundaries and obstacles that La Motta regularly places in front of himself. Every relationship is doomed to fail. La Motta begins every situation and relationship with a destructive seed, ensuring that nothing positive can grow from it. When things do seem to go well, whether it is with his wife or brother, he separates them from each other and violently accuses them of lying or cheating.
The first real moment that he spends with his brother, Joey (played by Joe Pesci,) he makes Joey punch him in the face over and over, while he stands there, “I want you to hit me with everything you got. I want you to f---in’ lay me out.” Through this scene, La Motta reveals his bitterness at not being big enough to compete as a heavy weight due to his size. As a heavy weight, he would be able to prove that he is the greatest in the world. Through this he could control people’s opinion of him, as opposed to just developing honest relationships with them. Joey’s blows are intended to alleviate the insecurity that is at the root of his need to control, this need that dominates all his relationships.
We learn that La Motta’s real interest in Vicky, his second wife, is the fact that one of the local mobsters is also interested in her. Either La Motta doesn’t get her, or he does but with the animosity of a “big shot” constantly shadowing the relationship.
The one positive goal that La Motta has is becoming the boxing champion in his weight class (despite his insistence on taking a beating during the beginning of the fights.) La Motta, however, is not even able to get a shot at the title, regardless of his record or who has beaten, unless he pays his dues to the local mob boss – the only thing he really wants and ironically someone else is implementing control over the situation. He cannot even get the bout without relinquishing control.
He “stubbornly” holds out, wanting to do it on his own (control) without the help of the mob boss. Ultimately, he realizes that he will never get the fight he wants without paying his dues. The mob boss puts him in a fight where we has to take a dive in the fourth to a “bum.”
La Motta stands there in the ring, crying, allowing his opponent to land blow after blow. The referee stops the fight as La Motta does not return any of the blows. The opponent’s punches more resemble the nuisance of gnats than a professional fighter throwing punches. The crowd riots as it is clear that La Motta intentionally threw the fight.
Following the fight, La Motta has a complete melt down in the dressing room, as the one thing he had was taken from him - control.
La Motta finally gets the fight he wants and wins, but now seems to hate fighting as much as he hates himself. Not being able to get there through willpower and endurance – implementing his will – control – has taken all value away from it.
Now, without boxing, regardless of being the champion, he completely self-destructs - doing irreparable damage to all his relationships. He verbally and physically brutalizes his wife and his brother (conveyed in part during the famous scene where De Niro broke Joe Pesci’s ribs, kicking him while he crawled across the floor.)
Like the beginning of the film, where La Motta would try to walk as close as he could to that line, taking as much abuse as he could, leaving just enough room to win the fight, La Motta would walk the same line with his relationships. He abuses them as much as he can without losing them. Unfortunately for him, he was not aware of the receding line of tolerance until he drove everyone away. He could no longer bring them back with his excessive apologies.
In prison La Motta is forced to face himself as the one that has been driving the wedge all along.
After prison, La Motta finds himself in the dressing room of a strip club. He practices Marlon Brando’s famous On the Waterfront monologue, before heading to the small stage that he will share in front of the very few drunk and abusive patrons. He wanted to exert control to force people to stay close to him, but instead drove everyone away.
La Motta is completely alone by the movie’s end, as was Scorsese after New York, New York and The Last Waltz.
NOTE: For the scenes where La Motta had put on a lot of weight, Robert De Niro took off from the production for four months, traveling through Italy and France putting on the weight through endless bowls of pasta. During this time Scorsese and the editor put together all of the non-fat scenes while they waited for De Niro to return.