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.