BY ROB FELD
ON THE ROPES: Julian Schnabel says the strains of
Cavalleria rusticana over the opening credits announces
instantly that this is something tragic and epic.
Putting Cavalleria rusticana over Robert De Niro jumping in slow motion instantly creates a hero," observes Julian Schnabel, watching the opening credits of Martin Scorsese's black-and-white classic Raging Bull (1980) from the comfort of a bed in his New York home and studio. The romantic strings of the Italian opera swell as De Niro's robed figure floats between the horizontal ropes of a boxing ring. "It gives you the sense of something epic and tragic right off the bat. The typeface of the credits feels personal and modest, but you get a sense of high art because of this incredible music. Sound is very important in this movie."
A painter-turned-director (Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Schnabel can't recall the first time he saw the film about the rise and self-destruction of middleweight champ Jake LaMotta, but he guesses he's seen it some 20 times and references it and draws inspiration from it for his work on both films and canvas.
Raging Bull, Scorsese's fourth collaboration with De Niro, follows LaMotta from his early days in the Bronx in the 1940s with his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci). Even before the film gets going, Schnabel, who grew up in Brooklyn, notes how familiar the details of this world Scorsese created feel to him. Jake is a respected fighter but is stymied by his refusal to throw a fight for the local mafia boss, who in turn won't give him a title shot. Jake leaves his wife for a sultry girl from the neighborhood, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), but over time his jealousy and violent temper cause him to lose Vickie and his brother. By the end of the film, Jake is alone, overweight, and ruined, performing a sad nightclub act reciting Shakespeare and Budd Schulberg to heckling barflies. This is where Scorsese introduces Jake—in 1964, stumbling through his lines in his dressing room.
"The first couple of seconds give a lot of information," says Schnabel. "Marty shows where this guy went and what he looks like now. How did that happen? And boom, you're there and you care and you're curious. The editing in this movie is so powerful; it's been on, what, a minute now? Then the abrupt, noisy sound of boxing gloves and you're in it," he says, as Jake, suddenly 20 years younger, takes a jarring shot to the head in the ring.
Sitting up in bed, Schnabel reaches for the remote to stop the film and discuss, but his eyes never leave the screen. He speaks slowly, deliberately, with long pauses.
"This first fight scene has a movement, a rhythm of tight shots, wide shots, things that go from slow motion to regular speed. All those juxtapositions totally immerse the viewer in the film. In so many movies there's just the over the shoulder and two shots."
As Scorsese weaves action in the corners of the ring and the crowd with the fight, Schnabel stops to observe. "The notion of simultaneity of time is also really understood and presented," he explains. "Look at what's happening to that woman as the crowd steps on her; you see all these little stories with each of these moments." And as Jake's defeated opponent is carried out of the ring, Schnabel notes, "That looks like a descent from the cross."
Back in his Bronx apartment, Jake bickers with his wife and threatens her, but then he talks quietly and emotionally to his brother about his career frustrations. Pausing the action for a moment, Schnabel says, "The intimacy of these conversations is amazing. The black-and-white film gives an authenticity to it but the performances Marty gets are what do it. Many movies have been made with people talking in a room but the dynamic and communication between Jake and his wife is so radically different from the way these two brothers communicate. And that's the way life is."
In the film, conversations with Jake's brother (Joe Pesci) have an amazing intimacy.
Scorsese spends a long time setting up Jake's courtship of Vickie (Cathy Moriarty)
so that later the audience will care about his inability to have a relationship.
ON THE ROPES: Julian Schnabel says the strains of the opera Cavalleria rusticana
over the opening credits as Robert De Niro dances in the ring (top)
announces instantly that this is something tragic and epic.
At its core, Raging Bull is a character-driven film and Schnabel points to an extended sequence in which Jake woos Vickie. After having Joey introduce them at the pool, Jake takes her for a drive, to miniature golf, and finally to his father's empty apartment.
"I think of this as all one moment," says Schnabel. "The director is spending a lot of time now so later you'll care about this guy's inability to have a relationship; his sense of loss and desire to be liked. It's a genius performance from De Niro, who understood what it was like to be alone with a girl in that house. 'Da-Dy!' Schnabel intones along with De Niro, as Jake calls out to see whether his father is home. "The intimacy you see in moments like these is rarely achieved, and it's not just based on what they have to say to each other, but the authenticity with which they say it, the sounds of the neighborhood through the windows, the details of the apartment, the way the camera holds on them. The understanding of the language of this particular neighborhood is extraordinary.
"When I look at it I don't really take it apart in a mechanical way," notes Schnabel when the action moves t Jake's first fight with Sugar Ray Robinson and Scorsese does an in-camera fast-motion effect, decreasing his frames per second as Jake knocks Robinson down. He then jacks up the fps for a slow-motion moment as Jake retires to his corner, then slowly brings the camera back to normal speed as Jake jumps back into the ring to take out Robinson for good.
"What touches me is the way Scorsese is conveying emotion," says Schnabel. "He links his camera movement with the subject matter and dialogue, and the speed of the camera movement with the volume and quietness of the movie. That's how he plays his instrument. I guess the thing about this particular movie, or great movies, is the awareness that you can't extract the meaning from the method. In Marty's movies there's a very active camera but in Raging Bull it's in a sense naturalistic, in concert with what's going on in the scene."
As the action again moves to Jake and Vickie home alone, Schnabel holds up his hand in appreciation of the full ecosystem that can be heard through Jake's bedroom windows, behind their soft murmuring and kisses: cars, dogs, whistles, radio music, passersby, kids shouting. "Sound is aural memory," Schnabel says. "As a New Yorker, hearing what's going on in the street in this scene is certainly informing your whole experience and the believability of the storytelling. The detail of the sound and the understanding of the quietness in the room are great. The intimacy of it makes it almost embarrassing to watch."
The film's subtle, layered sound mix took many months to complete with engineers working 12-hour days, seven days a week, and it is easy to see why. "It's interesting how Marty has a quiet scene like this that could be equal in impact to a loud, noisy, or violent scene through juxtaposition and syntax," Schnabel continues. "It all works like a piece of music, and what's really unusual about this movie is where the viewer is positioned, because the story is not first-person; it's as if you were eavesdropping. It's where Scorsese puts the camera, the way he's moving it. It's his perspective that he's sharing with us, sometimes like God's point of view. For instance, during the fight scenes, very little is shot from outside the ring.
"This music is so beautiful," Schnabel says, as the film takes a narrative break for a home movie montage—Jake and Vickie's wedding, raising kids, Joey's rooftop wedding, middle-class life in the Bronx—that intersperses color film scratched and weathered by hand. "To use this 16 mm film and fuck with it is very painterly. Have you seen Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso? It's a movie that Marty likes a lot and there's all this kind of stuff in there. I think for Scorsese every moment is an opportunity to locate a particular memory, and there's also something that's very, very personal. Their marriage on this roof, this whole sensibility feels authentic. And, in fact, this is authentic to Marty. I'm sure he was at a wedding on a roof in Little Italy. The scene really tells a story of New York and New Yorkers."
Having laid the groundwork for Jake's jealousy and temper, Scorsese now follows Jake's psychological decline. Every comment and action Vickie makes gets scrutinized for infidelity. When the mafia boss, Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto), visits Jake's hotel suite before his title bout, Scorsese shoots slow motion close-ups of hands and faces as Tommy kisses Vickie goodbye.
"It's a very expressionistic film, you know?" says Schnabel propping himself up. "Marty's thinking about what he can do to each frame. He's showing what Jake is focusing on. She kissed Tommy Como on the lips, which is something he can't abide. Why did she want to go say goodbye to him? He's threatened by it. He's jealous of everything. Again, the simultaneity of time, catching those guys in the mirror as Jake confronts her. You see a guy committing suicide, making all the wrong choices.
"And this shot," Schnabel goes on, as Scorsese runs a long take that follows Jake from his prep in the locker room all the way into the ring, "is again intimacy, loneliness, and isolation." The camera floats up, above the ring. "It's not Jake's point of view, it's that same point of view that's been there the whole time, again, as if God was watching. There's a witness."
After the fight and glory of winning the championship, though, Scorsese cuts directly to Jake's living room where he's struggling to fix the TV antenna, about to go on a violent, jealous rampage against Vickie and Joey. His behavior will alienate Vickie and his brother.
"You see the difference between what's public and what's private here," says Schnabel. "It gives you the sense that we are all just stuck in our own skins no matter who we are."
Out of shape, isolated, and in decline, Jake faces Sugar Ray again in a sequence for which Scorsese studied Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. "Marty wants to surprise you with something; a variation from scene to scene," says Schnabel, as animal-like groans sound over slow-motion footage of Jake, exhausted and bruised, cradled and seemingly receiving benediction from his corner team. Now, in a bold move, Scorsese takes out the crowd noise, creating a private moment between LaMotta and Robinson, monstrous shadows changing his face, raring for the kill. "You've got to think of the effect of this in a theater, letting the sound go out and then come back. Jake's getting pounded, but see how Marty keeps you with the people-watching: his brother at home, Vickie in the crowd. And then he leaves you with the blood dripping down from the rope, which says everything."
After his defeat, all that's left for Jake is to gain more weight, decline into decadence, lose his wife and children, and find himself in prison. Watching that, Schnabel turns to the big picture. "Marty's camera is a character in this drama but it's subordinate to the story," he reiterates. "It's really about people's performances, people being there
and the agreement of all of them that makes this a seamless fiction. The great thing about De Niro and Scorsese is that they've built this understanding and trust with each other, and out of that an actor can be extremely vulnerable and go out there. Then it's your job as a director not to let them fall through the cracks.
"Obviously you have to think about all the different elements in the frame while you're doing that, but what I want to dissuade somebody from thinking is that if you know the technique you could make the magic. I think what I realized in watching the movie is that, like all art, it's about the human condition. The things that make you appreciate the work, or feel something, is the acuity with which all of those details add up. The combination of all those people working together, the director's vision, script interpretation, language, landscape, the actor's understanding of what the director is saying and what's going on in the actors' lives that they bring to it, and how the film somehow transcends the combination. I wouldn't want to minimize the alchemic and chemical combinations that go beyond something that's simply well constructed. I think this movie is really the result and culmination of somebody that's leaning toward the divine light and then got hit by it."