No one has done more for the art of cinema. Scorsese is America’s greatest living director, if not the greatest of all time.
…because "Raging Bull" is not just a great film about boxing – it’s one of the great American films. Martin Scorsese used every cinematic tool available to portray Jake LaMotta’s dominance in the ring and the tragedy of his personal life. Contrasting black and white cinematography with scratchy color home movies, dynamic fight sequences with static domestic shots and quick cuts with free-flowing improvisational scenes, few films have ever demonstrated a more complete command of the medium. And did we mention that Robert De Niro gave the performance of his career and created that whole physical transformation for the character thing?
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"Raging Bull" is as much a masterpiece of film editing as it is of filmmaking. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker had previously worked on documentary productions, so she had experience creating a story out of unscripted material. Her background in this genre fit the tone of the domestic improvisational scenes such as Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci’s conversation at the kitchen table. While boxing purists have criticized the famous fight scenes, the editing techniques employed by Schoonmaker and sound designer Frank Warner focus more on the psychological reality of LaMotta’s experience in the ring. Originally, Scorsese had intended for the entire film to be in color – it was 1980, after all, and color film had pretty much become the standard. However, after deciding to film in black-and-white to match the look of the original fight footage, Scorsese and Schoonmaker also included color footage that recreated the LaMotta family’s home movies, providing a stark contrast to highlight LaMotta’s destructive nature. Scorsese actually used a wire coat hanger to physically scratch the film negatives on the home movie scenes, adding to the sense of cinematic authenticity.
Robert De Niro’s performance in "Raging Bull" is about more than just the weight gain. Sure, it’s pretty impressive (although definitely against all sound medical advice) that De Niro managed to pack on 50 pounds to portray La Motta after his athletic prime. For anyone who’s ever tried to get in shape, it’s probably more impressive that he actually added the muscle needed for the height of LaMotta’s boxing career. De Niro personally trained with LaMotta until the actual boxer felt he could fight at the level of a professional. Yet for all the insane method training De Niro undertook in order to capture LaMotta’s physicality, the performance would not work without the psychological intensity. De Niro’s ability to fluctuate from brutal dominance to pathetic self-pity shows the actor’s ability to transform one of the most savage characters into a complex human being.
When he decided to shoot the film in black-and-white, Scorsese understood the importance of the camera for this story from the onset. Scorsese and his cinematographer Michael Chapman used a variety of techniques to suggest the contradictions in LaMotta’s life. They took advantage of the steadicam, a relatively recent innovation in camera equipment at the time, to film LaMotta’s procession into the boxing ring to suggest the boxer’s grandiose view of himself. Indeed, the long steadicam shots first seen in "Raging Bull" have become something of a trademark in Scorsese’s directorial style. For the actual fight scenes, Scorsese had the camera operators experiment with changing the frame speed during the takes. At the time, this was borderline technical insanity, but Scorsese wanted to create a truly dynamic effect for these scenes. To contrast the excitement in the ring, the film utilizes static shots that suggest the restlessness that drives LaMotta to torment and alienate his family and loved ones. Ultimately, the camerawork in "Raging Bull" reflects not only Scorsese’s study of other boxing films and actual fight footage, but also reveals the director’s commitment to examining the dark psychology of both the sport of boxing and the character of Jake LaMotta.
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