Archive for the ‘New Hollywood’ Category

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“Raging Bull,” dir. Martin Scorsese

November 6, 2010

Just over a year ago, someone asked me what was the most violent film I had ever seen. The question came up while we were watching David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, right after a bank robber separated his head from his own body with a shotgun blast.

The first film that came to mind was actually Raging Bull, Scorsese’s portrait of middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. Violence runs through the entire picture, even when its central character is far from the ring, and often times it feels real, uncomfortable and almost too close to home.

Widely celebrated today, no one wanted to make the film except Robert DeNiro. LaMotta was a role he wanted to play, but Scorsese couldn’t relate to the material and turned down DeNiro’s offer to direct. Years later, when his personal life unraveled, Scorsese finally connected: he saw himself in LaMotta, and when DeNiro approached him again, he agreed to do the picture to save his own life.

It’s not unusual for Scorsese to claim his next film to be his last, but with Raging Bull, he certainly made it as if it was his last will and testament. Uncompromising and intensely personal, he virtually exhausted everything he had to say with that one film. He later described his approach as “kamikaze” filmmaking.

The film would eventually earn eight Oscar nominations (winning two), but despite this recognition, it wasn’t a commercial success. Reviews were also mixed with Pauline Kael dismissing DeNiro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta as “a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of character inside.” Obviously, I don’t agree with Kael, but I think I understand her perceptions – it probably has a lot to do with the character itself: a boxer consumed by his emotions but who can only articulate them through violence instead of words. Scorsese conveys this brilliantly in the fight scenes, which are a visceral tour de force of sound and cinematography.

The ring delivers more than LaMotta’s catharsis: when the violence bleeds into the crowd, it’s one of the few times LaMotta ever connects with those around him. The effect of these scenes is often brutal, but occasionally beautiful (as in that gorgeous opening shot, which nearly made a convert out of one Scorsese detractor I know). It’s even more striking when we see the passion (and later paranoia) driving these scenes taking shape outside of the ring, especially in the brief, fleeting moments that drag in time.

As graphic as the boxing scenes are, the most startling moments actually deal with domestic violence, especially when LaMotta grows more possessive of his second wife. Violence pretty much defines every aspect of his life: immense pain is felt and returned in kind, impulsively and honestly. Towards the end, when he supposedly finds grace, it doesn’t feel like complete redemption, but it’s enough.

(A new 35mm print of Raging Bull is now showing at Film Forum in New York City.)

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Arthur Penn 1922-2010

September 29, 2010

The director behind Little Big Man, Night Moves and, of course, this…

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Van Morrison & The Band in “The Last Waltz,” dir. Martin Scorsese

November 26, 2009

My favorite performance from The Last Waltz, filmed on Thanksgiving Day, 1976:

Other highlights:

The Band’s performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from the same night…

…and the Staple Singers perform “The Weight” on a sound stage with the Band.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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“Jaws,” dir. Steven Spielberg • a case study in remixing

November 26, 2009

Courtesy of Stephen Altobello:

“In 2000, Jaws was remixed from its original mono soundtrack into 5.1. The result is an insult to the craftsman who won an Oscar in 1975 for Best Sound.”

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“Days of Heaven,” dir. Terrence Malick

October 11, 2009

Days of Heaven

Absolutely beautiful. This film’s typically hailed for Almendros and Wexler’s stunning cinematography, but such praise can be misleading, defining the picture as a sequence of pretty postcards.

With Alberta, Canada filling in for the Texas Panhandle, the natural surroundings have been fused with the story’s themes and characters, creating an organic mix that breaks away from the demands of conventional narrative. This is almost a wholly visual experience, where everything floats by with an air of mystery, tantalizing in an opaque richness that’s difficult to articulate even when its strongly felt.

At times, the relationship between characters and landscapes invites comparisons to Michelangelo Antonioni, but whereas Antonioni’s backgrounds seem like direct expressions of a person’s emotions and psychology, the effect here is much more lyrical and abstract. Not since Murnau has a filmmaker crafted a picture like this (and appropriately enough, the film pays homage to Sunrise on at least two occasions).

Days of Heaven
The story focuses on three characters engaged in a love triangle, and very little’s laid out in dialogue; most of the words come through voice-overs from a peripheral figure, and even then they’re not there to guide the audience. Like Malick’s previous film, Badlands, a teenage girl supplies the narration, but unlike Holly, Linda’s words have no flowery aspirations. Her tone is remote, and her cerebral, if simplistic, observations create a striking counterpoint to the passionate emotions threatening to consume the film’s central characters.

Early on, Linda recounts apocalyptic stories she’s picked up from someone in her past; when their idyllic life begins to crumble, those fire-and-brimstone images creep into her observations. The film may glow with lush romanticism, but what makes it so extraordinarily alluring is also destructive. Infatuation and marriage is fed then ruined by the same deceit and cold calculation. And just as the landscape’s natural beauty is breathtakingly gorgeous, so is its violent devastation. What seemed so elegiac at first feels more like a ravishing obscenity that looked deceptively sacred.

A perfectly-realized work from an elusive filmmaker, this is a landmark achievement that redefines modern cinema even as it reaches back to an aesthetic nearly left behind in the silent era.

Days of Heaven