Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas earned accolades as one of 1990’s best films. But two equally compelling projects the director worked on last year can’t be seen in a movie theater — or even on videocassette. They’re available only on laser discs, the glittery, LP-size platters that look like big CDs and can deliver digital sound, sharper pictures than standard VHS cassettes do, and ”jitterless” freeze-frames.
Scorsese himself is an ardent laser disc fan. So he enthusiastically agreed when Voyager, a small company specializing in deluxe versions of notable movies, asked his help in creating a pair of special discs built around Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Scorsese’s two most powerful collaborations with actor Robert De Niro. Thanks to the unique capabilities of the laser format, these are much more than excellent new video transfers of the movies. For one thing, Scorsese provides running commentary as the action unfolds on-screen. (His rapid-fire remarks are on an alternative audio track; via remote control, viewers can listen to either the original movie soundtrack or Scorsese’s commentary.)
Moreover, each of these two disc releases includes a section of ”supplementary material”: still-frame folios of storyboards, screenplay drafts, and production photographs that you can click through one frame at a time. (Still frames on these laser discs don’t yield the sort of snow-flecked, jumpy images you get with many VCRs; instead, they’re rock-steady and viewed on quality TV sets approach the clarity of 35-mm slides.) Together with the alternative audio tracks, these supplementary materials provide a terrifically entertaining audiovisual guided tour of two brilliant movies, brimming with insights into the exhilarations of moviemaking.
Taxi Driver, available for rental on cassette in a dim, smeary-looking version, is a different film on disc. Director of photography Michael Chapman supervised Voyager’s transfer, and he imbues shot after shot with a vibrancy that is a revelation. Lurid greens and hot pinks beckon from the neon signs of New York’s Times Square. Rich, creamy yellows abound when Travis Bickle (De Niro) steers his Checker cab through the city’s scummy streets.
Taxi Driver‘s climactic shootout — so red with blood that the colors had to be toned down to avoid an X rating — remains scaldingly brutal. In his commentary, Scorsese seems unperturbed by the carnage, talking at a furious pace about the complex photographic process by which he drained color from shots to give them ”the look of a tabloid.” He clearly finds it easier to detail how he achieved this imagery than to consider its implications.
Examine Paul Schrader’s screenplay, the entirety of which follows the movie on disc in still-frame form, and Scorsese’s predilection for discussing form over content makes perfect sense: His contributions to Taxi Driver were chiefly visual. While he did allow dialogue changes — De Niro’s ”You talkin’ to me?” speech, for instance, was the actor’s improvisation — Scorsese treated the script’s structure as a sacrosanct blueprint. Even the storyboards he drew for the finale basically just translate Schrader’s descriptive prose. ”It had a truthfulness about it,” Scorsese says. ”What that truth is, I can’t verbalize.”
Schrader, who provides vocal commentary during some key scenes on the disc, proves a more eloquent analyst. He says that when Travis shoots a pimp only after failing to assassinate a political candidate, ”Society assigns him the role of a hero because he got lucky and killed the right one.” In another segment, he recounts how he churned out Taxi Driver in 10 days, in the wake of a painful divorce that had him living out of his car. ”It sort of sprang from my head like an animal,” he says. ”I wrote [it] essentially for myself, as therapy.”
Scorsese’s portrait of boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull is another harsh character study, with poignant echoes of Taxi Driver. While Travis, for example, prepares for a murder spree by holding his forearm over a Bunsen burner, La Motta psyches up for a bout by getting sexually aroused and then dumping ice water down his drawers. As Scorsese explains on the disc, he and De Niro strived to portray a man who, after gaining the middleweight championship, ”systematically takes his whole life apart, as if he didn’t deserve it in the first place.”
The disc’s high image quality faithfully captures a myriad of rich black-and-white textures and tones lost in MGM/ UA’s tape version. But where the Raging Bull disc really KOs the cassette is in its supplementary sections. Browse the shooting script and you’ll see that in scene after scene, Scorsese cut dialogue as the actors’ brilliant physicality rendered words redundant. In marked contrast, storyboards for the fight scenes show they were shot almost exactly as choreographed, punch by punch. There are also a recent video interview with 69-year-old La Motta, scenes from other movies that inspired the director and star (such as On the Waterfront, parts of which La Motta recited in his nightclub act), and still frames from a few of the color wardrobe and makeup tests that convinced Scorsese he should shoot in black and white.
Each of these laser discs offers a more richly rewarding way to watch and re-watch Scorsese’s work than any theatrical reissue could. By lending his voice and archival materials to Voyager’s efforts and convincing several key collaborators to contribute as well, Scorsese has helped transform two movies about violent, unsympathetic characters into engaging, thought-provoking, and intensely pleasurable experiences. Both discs: A+