Posts Tagged ‘Martin Scorsese’


“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.)


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!


“The Searchers,” dir. John Ford

October 29, 2009

Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) sees her brother-in-law, Ethan (John Wayne)

Despite its canonization, The Searchers has had its share of detractors, and I always felt that the skeptics outnumbered the devotees in my generation. Compared to many of the Westerns made in the past 20 years (the revisionist Unforgiven, the off-beat Dead Man, the politically correct Dance with Wolves), I can understand how someone can dismiss it as “off-putting to the contemporary sensibility.” But such a statement betrays some historical arrogance in one’s taste.

The first time I saw The Searchers, it looked uneven – I thought there was too much shlock, and I believed Ford’s approach was too broad. When I saw it again a few years later, and again a few days after that, all those alleged flaws appeared deceptive, and that’s when I really noticed a subtlety in craft that was powerful as it was economical. The build up to Lucy’s terror, the traumatic moments that are never seen but completely felt, the hatred conveyed in one chilling close-up…Ford knew how to get under your skin without any emotional bullying. But Ford could also be sentimental without crossing the boundaries of taste, and The Searchers can be surprisingly moving. One of the most tender scenes comes near the beginning, when you realize what’s there between Ethan Edwards and his brother’s wife, Martha. A silent, understated miniature, it’s all the more poignant in the way Sam Clayton chooses to witness it. Classic Hollywood has always been lauded for its “invisible style,” an approach to editing and composition that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but this scene is an extraordinary example of this.


Unfortunately, films with a reputation like The Searchers are often burdened with misguided expectations of perfection, and to be fair, there are some awkward moments in The Searchers. (The wedding near the end comes to mind.) But the biggest mistake you can make is to count the number of flaws instead of appreciating the weight of its merits. For me, it’s one of the first great depictions of racism in a Hollywood film – ambiguous but unflinching and accurate in its complexity. Some critics have even accused the film of racism, a credit to the film’s lack of didacticism.

The story of two men who look for a girl kidnapped by Comanches, The Searchers makes it clear that if she’s alive, the Comanches will probably make her one of their own. As the picture shows the lengths some will go to preserve what’s acceptable in civility, the division between what’s savage and what’s civilized appears more and more precarious.

That wedding may have been clumsy, but it leads up to a startling confrontation between Laurie Jorgensen, arguably the sweetest character in the whole picture, and Martin Pawley, the adopted brother of the kidnapped girl. One-eighth Cherokee, Martin and Laurie are/were lovers, and it’s all the more disturbing that she would say those things to Martin considering who he is.

If there’s anything else I’ve grown to appreciate about The Searchers, it’s John Wayne’s brilliant performance, proof he can be great despite his limitations. No one else could have brought the same weight to Ethan Edwards, one of the most fascinating, enduring characters in cinema. He’s the embodiment of everything mythic and virulent about the Old West – every bit the alpha male while flirting with psychosis.

But when the film ends, he appears unexpectedly vulnerable. Ethan and Martin put everything on the line to find Debbie, sacrificing years without knowing how many more would be spent. They’re the ones who restore their family, but unlike Martin, Ethan can’t be a part of it. He’s always known it, that this was a way of life could never be his, but that doesn’t stop him from ever wanting it. That one small gesture, grabbing his arm before he turns and leaves, tells you everything you need to know. Not many people would consider it a desolate ending – he’s found some measure of peace – but it always seemed tragic to me. Ford films it beautifully, mirroring the beginning, and I don’t think any film has ever had an opening and closing shot more perfect than The Searchers.