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A Fine Mess: I’m a Mook? What’s a Mook?

William Faulkner on the origins of The Sound and the Fury, one of his most acclaimed novels:

It began with a mental picture. I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book. And then I realized the symbolism of the soiled pants, and that image was replaced by the one of the fatherless and motherless girls climbing down the rainpipe to escape from the only home she had, where she had never been offered love or affection or understanding.

I had already begun to tell the story through the eyes of the idiot child, since I felt that it would be more effective as told by someone capable only of knowing what happened, but not why. I saw that I had not told the story that time. I tried to tell it again, the same story through the eyes of another brother. That was still not it. I told it for a third time through the eyes of the third brother. That was still not it. I tried to gather the pieces together and fill in the gaps by making myself the spokesman. It was still not complete, not until fifteen years after the book was published, when I wrote as an appendix to another book the final effort to get the story told and off my mind, so that I myself could have some peace from it. It’s the book I feel tenderest towards. I couldn’t leave it alone, and I never could tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again, though I’d probably fail again.

I read this passage almost twenty years ago and am still fascinated by it. The idea that Faulkner created an enduring work of art and yet felt that he failed is amazing. Can a great work of art be a failure? Why not? Nothing is ever that simple. Apocalypse Now comes to mind as a brilliant movie that is also a mess. So does Raging Bull.

Martin Scorsese once said, “Raging Bull is a about a man who loses everything and then regains it spiritually.” Based on this statement, I think the movie fails as a story because I don’t think that DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta ever reaches that kind of grace, or I don’t think it was conveyed by the filmmakers in a convincing way. That said, if this is a failure, sign me up! Because Raging Bull features some of the most hypnotic, brilliant filmmaking–especially the editing and the sound editing–of any American movie. It is often very funny, though on some level, it is also turgid and humorless.

Raging Bull was DeNiro’s pet project. He had to talk Scorsese into making it and they, in turn, had to talk Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver) into revising the script. In the book, Martin Scorsese: A Journey, the director talked about what hooked him into the project:

The motive became to achieve an understanding of a self-destructive lifestyle–of a person who was destructive to the people around him and to himself–who finally eased up on himself and on those other people, and somehow made peace with life.

I used Raging Bull as a kind of rehabilitation, thinking all the time it was pretty much my last picture in L.A., or America.

It’s not really a boxing movie. It’s about Scorsese saving his own life and finding some kind of redemptive thread in LaMotta’s story. It’s about DeNiro getting so deep inside of a character–Scorsese said that he played LaMotta like a brick wall–it didn’t matter how much of a creep the character was, there was a sliver of humanity there and that was worth exploring. It is about the obsessions of both men.

Which brings me back to Faulkner, in a letter written to the editor Malcolm Cowley in November of 1944:

As regards any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do, taking my output (the course of it) as a whole. I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world…I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep trying in a new way. I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time. Though the one I know is probably as good as another, life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.

Scorsese was an emotional mess when he made Raging Bull. I think that comes across in the movie. It is a stunning work, brilliant and flawed.

For a good behind-the-scenes take, check out this long Vanity Fair piece by Richard Schickel.

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1 RagingTartabull   ~  Feb 25, 2010 10:48 am

that's entertainment

2 matt b   ~  Feb 25, 2010 10:49 am

Alex, I think Pauline Kael once said "Great movies are rarely perfect movies."

Also, I believe Francois Truffaut once said he was only interested in movies that conveyed to him either the joy or agony of creating cinema. I would say Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull both fit the bill.

3 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:02 am

2) you are so right. I mean, even though I've got problems with Bull it is dazzling. You know what, though? The scariest cocaine-Marty movie to me is KING OF COMEDY.

4 RagingTartabull   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:15 am

[3] Agreed on King of Comedy, I never thought of it that way though (wasn't he clean by then?) It definitely has the feel of a coked up maniac thinking they're the life of the party when in reality they're freaking everyone else out.

Raging Bull is flawed, like any other movie, but I'm still of the mind (if you couldn't tell already) that its probably the best American film of the 1980's. Even with the flaws, thats pretty damn good.

5 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:18 am

I don't see why the protagonist not achieving "grace" equals failure, in and of itself. If Scorcese intended that to happen - not sure that's exactly what he's saying there, but for argument's sake - then maybe he failed at executing his vision, but the finished product is anything but a failure, whatever Marty's intentions. If it's just a "happy accident" that's fine by me.

6 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:31 am

I know, that's what makes it great. Imagine Faulkner thinking Sound and Fury was somehow a failure!

I don't know, man, Scorsese might have stopped doing blow by KING, but AFTER HOURS is another paranoid, freaky movie. Always get the willies watching that one too.

I don't mind NEW YORK, NEW YORK, although that was much messier than RAGING BULL.

7 matt b   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:34 am

[5] You make a good point. I think the film has plenty to say beyond the issue of whether or not LaMotta/DeNiro achieves his epiphany.

I still say the baseball version Raging Bull is waiting to be made - the Denny McLain story.

8 matt b   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:36 am

[6] I haven't seen AFTER HOURS in ages, but if memory serves, it has sort of a Polanski vibe, too. The funny, but still scary Polanski of CUL-DE-SAC.

9 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:38 am

Maybe I'm too traditional and stuck on wanting to feel any kind of empathy to the protagonist, who, in this case, is beyond caring about for me because he's such an asshole. And the real LaMotta had a lot of sympathetic elements to his upbringing that they didn't bring up in the movie. But you are right, the examination of brutality, of street intelligence, of abuse, is still valid and interesting in this movie.

Though it does have an element of Who Cares? for me. Kael hit on that in her review when she said something like, "One guy says, 'You dumb fuck,' and the other guy calls him 'You dumb fuck,' and I'm thinking to myself, 'What am I doing watching these two dumb fucks."


10 matt b   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:40 am

[9] I think there's also that tenderness hidden in there that Schickel writes about. And, also, as part of the whole of Scorsese's career - the lives of Italian-Americans, particularly working-class ones.

11 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:45 am

Yeah, I think ultimately, I have more problems with DeNiro's character and performance than I do with Scorsese. And after working in the editing world of the movies I had a profound appreciation for the editing and especially the sound work in that movie. So inventive and expressive yet true to that crazy paranoia and jealousy of LaMotta.

12 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2010 12:26 pm

A character as potentially unappealing as LaMotta presents problems for traditional viewers but I for one am grateful for high quality films that mix it up in regards to archetypal protagonist jive and stuff like that. I mean There Will Be Blood is basically about the villain; not every movie has to have an admirable main character. Maybe it would get fatiguing after a while if there were more of it but as things now stand, it's a breath of fresh air.

13 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2010 1:29 pm

I didn't see There Will be Blood. I didn't really care for P.T. Anderson's other movies, though I admire his talent. Is it worth seeing?

14 The Mick536   ~  Feb 25, 2010 2:46 pm

Have seen the Coppola movie in all its carnations, many times. Used to know the dialogue. Loved Brando in the village, though I am alone in that category as usual. Only watched Raging Bull once. Thought about that after seeing Shattering Island. No the latter is no classic, but it is troubling. And, as the review in Time this week noted, it has another certifiable Scorcese mad man.

"It is not enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in his last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice still talking."

Faulkner lived on another level. No wonder he had Johnny Barleycorn for a friend. Brahams for the rest of the afternoon.

15 The Mick536   ~  Feb 25, 2010 2:51 pm

[6] Sorry. See after Hours again. Holds up. Also recently checked out the King of Comedy, Very undervalued, I must say. DeNiro made me laugh. Jerry was outstanding, too. Sandra played herself very well.

As for There Will Be Blood, I loved the final scene. It may be happening right now in some lobbyists bowling alley. Don't score it Donny.

16 lroibal   ~  Feb 25, 2010 3:12 pm

Artists can't objectively critique their own work, nor should they.

17 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2010 3:12 pm

[13] I thought Hard Eight was okay, I liked Boogie Nights, disliked Magnolia (for the most part) and liked Punch Drunk Love. That being said, There Will Be Blood is in a completely different class. Personally I love it and was blown away. It's a great movie. But I think even if you dislike it it's worth watching.

As someone who liked Anderson's movies more or less, I still think he turned the corner with this one.

18 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2010 3:13 pm

[16] I don't think that anyone can objectively critique other people's work either.

19 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2010 3:15 pm

[13] I should reiterate though There Will Be Blood does not follow the exploits of an admirable man.

20 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2010 3:27 pm

Yeah, I don't think protagonists have to be admirable but I tthought DeNiro's LaMotta was a creep and a bore.

21 lroibal   ~  Feb 25, 2010 3:32 pm

{18} If it's the word "objectively" that you object to, you're right, we all bring our own perspective to a work, but for an artist to detach themselves from the process and see their own work as art is inconceivable.

22 The Mick536   ~  Feb 25, 2010 3:34 pm

Is that because he copied the character or because he made up a version. I also add in the additional aspect of his opponent, a man of style and class. Then there was Carmen Basillio.

23 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2010 6:19 pm

[21] Right, I'm just saying I don't necessarily think that puts them in a worse position to critique than anyone else. We've all got our hang-ups.

24 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2010 6:20 pm

[21] Let me add and perhaps qualify that I think it's absolutely wrong to take the artist's intent/opinion as the definitive one, which some people tend to do.

25 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Feb 25, 2010 7:57 pm

[20] Agreed! De Niro was never better than as Rupert Pupkin, one of the great losers in cinema history. The scene at Jerry Langford's country home is so awkward and uncomfortable to watch.. I read somewhere that Scorsese and De Niro would tell anti-semitic jokes between takes to get Jerry Lewis riled up..not sure if true but Lewis does a slow burn that is just awesome in that scene.

26 The Mick536   ~  Feb 25, 2010 11:08 pm

Duct tape.

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