“The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other.”
The Apostle Paul
“I’m just obsessed with this search for a spiritual core in life. And I’m sorry to have to talk in that way about these films, but that is what they are about. I don’t know how else to discuss it other than to make a film about it.”
The filmmaker Martin Scorsese
The Guardian, December 10, 2013
My last post was about Martin Scorsese saying that he “still considered himself a student,” that he was “always looking for something or someone I can learn from,” and encouraging young filmmakers to “study the old masters.” Of course, he made those remarks in 1995, and now at age 71 I think he certainly is one of cinema’s living masters. And as he’s about to release his newest film this month, The Wolf of Wall Street—and begins to talk about retirement—he is a new old master well worth studying.
What jumps to mind is the opening scene of Raging Bull (1980). A film that in one sense he smuggled past studios on the backs of the success of the 1977 Oscar-winning Best Film Rocky. Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler produced the critical and financially successful Rocky and you can imagine them on the opportunity to produce Raging Bull saying, “Scorsese wants to make a boxing movie? How can we lose?” But Raging Bull was a very different movie than Rocky. But similar, yet different is often what gets films made.
And it’s a perfect example to use Scorsese’s words of “the director as smuggler.” Scorsese was not a boxing fan and had no interest in making a boxing movie.
“I didn’t know anything about boxing. It was always one angle on TV or in the movie theaters, where they’d show the fights on the weekend. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was sports, which took me out of the picture.”
So he made a personal film that just happend to have boxing as the backdrop.
Raging Bull was also a passion project for Robert De Niro who stars in the film as boxer Jake LaMotta. It was De Niro who convinced Scorsese to make the film—even visiting the hospital where Scorsese was fighting for his life due to physical exhaustion connected to a mixture of prescription drugs and cocaine abuse.
“In time, [Scorsese] began to recover, at which point De Niro visited him in the hospital. Like La Motta, Scorsese had touched bottom, and the actor judged his friend was ready to hear yet another pitch for Raging Bull. He was right. ‘I couldn’t understand Bob’s obsession with it, until, finally, I went through that rough period of my own,’ Scorsese recalls. ‘I came out the other side and woke up one day alive … still breathing.’ Says De Niro, ‘Mostly I told him to do it or not do it, that we had to get real. That was the ‘Come to Jesus’ moment.’ And De Niro was not going to take no for an answer.”
Brutal Attraction: The Making of Raging Bull
Vanity Fair article by Richard Schickel
Scorsese once attended seminary with the thoughts of becoming a Catholic priest, and had long wanted to make a movie on the life of Christ but was having trouble getting it financed. So Raging Bull became his spiritual story until he could finally get The Last Temptation of Christ made in 1988. Raging Bull is heavy on symbolism.
Raging Bull director of photography Michael Chapman (who also shot Taxi Driver starring De Niro) called Raging Bull an opera—“The boxing sequences would be the arias.” Even if you don’t like the opera or boxing, how can you not be moved by the beauty, elegance, and simplicity of the opening of Raging Bull?
(But a word of warning—while the Raging Bull cinematography is beautiful, the subject matter is often quite ugly. If Scorsese was making a redemptive story it was with a very small “r.” A priest friend of Scorsese once told him his pictures had “too much good Friday and not enough Sunday resurrection.”)
I made one of my first student films at the University of Miami about a year after Raging Bull was released and put a quote at the end of the film to reinforce my anti-war message. I was told this was a typical student film error. Yet, Scorsese ends Raging Bull with not only a quote, but a quote from the Bible:
“Whether or not he is a sinner I do not know.” The man replied.
“All I know is this: once I was blind but now see.”
On the director’s commentary Scorsese explains the verse applies to himself and what he learned making this film as well as what he learned from his NYU film professor, Haig P. Manoogian, who died shortly before the film was completed.
“The idea was that Jake was such a difficult character to take and I knew we’d be getting a lot of criticism as to why make a film about this kind of guy and people judging him. And I just thought that the Bible quote was the right thing to do in terms of not making judgments on people. I think the quote is evident in what it is. It’s the idea of, I don’t know anything. All I know is I was able to see through working out this man’s problems on film, or this character’s problems I should say, through the vehicle of the real person Jake LaMotta gave us the ability to see other things about life.”
Director’s Commentary on the special edition Raging Bull DVD
Since film and boxing are both about conflict, it’s worth noting that Paul Schrader, one of the credited screenwriters for Raging Bull, did not care for the Bible quote at the end of the film: “I had no idea it was going to be there, and when I saw it I was absolutely baffled. I don’t think it’s true of La Motta either in real life or in the movie; I think he’s the same dumb lug at the end as at the beginning, and I think Marty is just imposing salvation on his subject by fiat. I’ve never really got from him a terribly credible reason for why he did it; he just seemed to feel that it was right.”
P.S. I did a search on Haig P. Manoogian in hopes of finding insights from Scorsese’s mentor for a feature post but basically only found he wrote a book titled The Film-Makers Art and this fitting quote:
“It is often remarked that people listen but do not hear. What is true of our hearing is also true of our sight. We see, but do not perceive. The successful filmmaker must see for us [and] must open our eyes, provide meaning for what we see and thereby break through our isolation.”
Haig P. Manoogian
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 1)
“Emotional Catharsis”—Diablo Cody Includes the quote by screenwriter Paul Schrader (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) —“I got into screenwriting for the best of all reasons: I got into it for self-therapy.”
Writer/Director Paul Schrader —“Those Bible stories are such potent stories, and, yes, they continue to leave a mark on the things I write.”
Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69) “When you release the character from the jeopardy or whatever the situation they’re in, the audience experiences a catharsis. Pity, fear, catharsis.”—Julian Friedmann
Robert McKee vs. Richar Walter Touches on the topics of identity, personal storytelling, and emotional autobiography in filmmaking.