Martin Scorsese’s latest film Silence reportedly continues the thematic thread of faith that began with The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and continued with Kundun (1997). Looking back at the auteur’s career (now nearly half a century long), it’s easy to identify a number of recurring fixations and impulses. The director has always shown expertise at representing subject experience through form (from the unharnessed camera movement and woozy voice-over of Mean Streets  to the hyper-discordant editing of The Wolf of Wall Street ). Scorsese rarely employs a shot or a cut simply for the purpose of documentation or function, focusing much more instead on the connection between technique and subject. That the director’s technique so often draws in a tapestry of endless music cues (e.g. GoodFellas  and Casino ) or period details (e.g. The Age of Innocence  and Gangs of New York ) speaks to the ways in which environment and history form individuals.
With this cursory context in mind, I draw my attention to the many contextual and thematic connections that link Raging Bull (1980) and The Aviator (2004). First, it is worth noting that both films find Scorsese taking on the passion projects of his two most prominent muses (Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively). It’s interesting, too, that Scorsese’s reported initial reactions to both projects were strikingly similar: at the prospect of adapting Jake LaMotta’s 1970 memoir, he told De Niro that he didn’t “know anything about boxing,” and similarly he found himself musing that he knew “nothing about airplanes” when presented with the opportunity of depicting Howard Hughes’s life. By the time Raging Bull came to Scorsese’s attention in 1979, he had already enjoyed a fruitful partnership with De Niro (the duo had collaborated on Mean Streets , Taxi Driver  and the then-unsuccessful but now much-disputed masterpiece New York, New York ). Similarly, Scorsese and DiCaprio had already paired up to make the sprawling Gangs of New York (2002) before taking on The Aviator.
In addition to the context of their respective releases, the films share a number of obvious likenesses: both depict dramatic re-imaginings of real historical figures, both are situated in early to mid-20th century America, and both explore their subjects’ tumultuous conflicts between vocation and personal life. Furthermore, both films openly call attention to their cinematic characteristics, with Raging Bull openly evoking the black-and-white location-based textures of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) and The Aviator mimicking the film stock tones of its various timelines. Both works seek to defamiliarize the beautiful faces of their leads, through De Niro’s prosthetic nose and dramatic weight gain, and through DiCaprio’s burn-scarred body and unkempt facial hair in The Aviator’s later sections.
What shared thematic underpinning, then, serves to connect these two works more deeply? There are several unifying ideas worth identifying, one of which is the tenuous correspondence between public and private life. While both Hughes and LaMotta struggle through the complications and damning consequences of their careers (often played out in the form of public humiliation and, yes, emasculation), they both also privately cave under the pressure of psychological self-destruction. Scorsese evaluates these tensions through the uniquely cinematic properties of his works: in Raging Bull, he portrays De Niro delivering a flat recitation of Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” monologue into a changing room mirror. The scene, appropriately black-and-white in itself, presents a complicated inner-searching of the ways in which cinema informs self-actualization, not only in the now-fictionalized figure of the real LaMotta, but in the form of the film itself. This scene not only calls attention to Raging Bull as a cinematic exercise, but also reframes the virtually mythic images of a plaid-clad Brando wrestling moral quandaries among the docks and streets of Hoboken, New Jersey.
Scorsese explores similarly filmic representations of self-evaluation in The Aviator, going so far as to inscribe DiCaprio-as-Hughes’s naked body with the moving images of his own 1930 film, Hell’s Angels. This image makes its way into The Aviator’s almost epic exploration of Hughes’s mental illness taking its toll, depicting the anguished mogul writhing in his private projection room as the black-and-white images of airplanes explode against his flesh. Again, this representation powerfully visualizes Scorsese’s work as cinema, entombing DiCaprio as it does in his referent’s production. As an aside, it is worth noting that the auteur continues to make gestures to these vexed interrelations between film and reality, specifically considering Hugo’s (2011) thesis on film history, and The Wolf of Wall Street’s inclusion of the real Jordan Belfort in its much-disputed final scene.
Perhaps what links Raging Bull and The Aviator most vividly are the films’ respective bookends. Both works begin and end on representations of birth or futurity, albeit with differing tonal implications. Raging Bull begins with the insular image of a lone De Niro bobbing and jabbing in an empty boxing ring, haloed by the occasional flicker of flashbulb-light as the non-diegetic intermezzo of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” plays. It’s fitting that this womb-like image of an untouched De Niro is accompanied by an intermezzo, a piece of music suspended among the “living” sections of its opera. Similarly, The Aviator begins with the baptismal image of a pre-teen Hughes being washed by his mother. As he did with LaMotta in the opening Raging Bull, Scorsese foregrounds Hughes’ isolation in this scene: as the young boy’s mother instructs him, young Hughes spells the word “quarantine” aloud. Similarly, Raging Bull begins post-opening credits with isolated recitation, as a bloated and aged LaMotta prepares alone for his stand-up routine.
Both films likewise conclude with powerful images of isolation. Although Raging Bull’s true final sequence comprises of the aforementioned monologue recitation from On the Waterfront, I see a clearer connection to The Aviator in its climactic jail cell scene (which occurs just over 10 minutes before the final credits roll). Scorsese shoots the scene almost entirely in shadow, with a despairing De Niro dipping his head into one of the few shafts of light. The actor pummels his head and fists against a wall for a period of time, before dropping back into the darkness and repeating tearfully, over and over again, that he is “not an animal,” and that he is “not that bad.” This insistence by LaMotta of his own humanity leads into the ending, which also argues for the existence of some kind of future — the actor’s On the Waterfront delivery is suitably unaccompanied by music and noise, a form of reprieve after the assaultive violence of the film as a whole.
The Aviator similarly concludes with one of the most thematically rigorous and deceptively simple images in Scorsese’s filmography. Hughes, escorted to an empty restroom by his assistants, paces back and forth, repeating “the way of the future” out loud. The film folds in on itself, as Scorsese imposes an image from the previously mentioned opening sequence: Hughes looks into the mirror and sees himself as a child, his mother telling him that he is “not safe.” He then hears his own youthful self stating that he is going to grow up to be “the richest man in the world.” In a single technical maneuver, Scorsese calls out the myth of capitalism and the fictionality of cinema simultaneously: he drops the light behind DiCaprio’s traumatized face, a synthesis of subjective feeling made visible with formally reflexive gesture.
Upon watching his childhood self fade into darkness, Hughes stares again into the mirror and, barely speaking above a whisper, he continues his hauntingly ambiguous mantra: “the way of the future.” He then smiles knowingly, and repeats the phrase as if its inherent emptiness has become known to him. The film concludes with several more repetitions of the phrase, a close-up of DiCaprio’s overwhelmingly emotive face framed by darkness. Each repetition increases in volume and assurance, before the film cuts to black.
With Raging Bull and The Aviator, Martin Scorsese perfects a configuration of the biopic as self-recognized fiction. Simultaneously, he deconstructs two icons of masculinity and success, ultimately revealing within both an undercurrent of socialization and conditioning: these men have been similarly damaged and shaped by the cultures in which they are raised, and Scorsese himself acknowledges the role that cinema plays in the development of such subjectivity. The division between “past” and “future” is similarly unfurled in both works, with bookends that call viewers to take pause and consider whether the fictitious forward-momentum of cinema (Raging Bull) or capitalism (The Aviator) is as straightforward as we are led to assume. In a filmography occupied almost entirely by masterpieces, these two titles stand tall above the rest.
Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is a lifelong cinema enthusiast pursuing his M.A. in English literature at the University of Calgary. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including DarkFuse, Double Feature Magazine, Turn to Ash and the anthology Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups). He has also written numerous articles for Bright Lights Film Journal. You can contact him through his website, mikethornwrites.com.
Categories: 2017 Film Essays, Featured, Film Essays