Scorsese by Ebert

Roger Ebert,
Scorsese by Ebert.
Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-226-18202-5
Au$25.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Footprint Books

Scorsese by Ebert opens with a prophetic claim that the Chicago Sun-Times film critic made in 1973, where he declared that, “in ten years Martin Scorsese will be a director of world rank”. I can imagine at the time the statement may have prompted a few raised eyebrows. After all, in those days Scorsese was still a fresh talent with barely a handful of credits to his name, and none that outwardly affirmed the kind of genius that Ebert was proposing. Of course, any doubters have long been proven wrong, and in a way so too has Ebert. He said it would take ten years for the director to achieve world standing but when Taxi Driver (USA 1976) claimed the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1976, it had only taken three.

If Ebert’s intuitive opening remark affirms his lofty standing among American film reviewers, then what is more striking about Scorsese by Ebert is the bond between critic and filmmaker that is elucidated within the book’s introductory chapter. Born five months apart in 1942 into very different neighbourhoods (Ebert in downstate Illinois and Scorsese in Queens), the pair’s childhoods were profoundly shaped by the same twin institutions: Roman-Catholicism and Cinema.

While the influence of religious doctrine has long been seen as a trademark of Scorsese’s cinema, the affinity that Ebert has for the director’s work also seems, at least initially, attributable to his experience of the church. It’s there in his writing from the beginning, where in his review of I Call First (USA 1967) he points out the influence of the lead character’s Roman-Catholic background through his division of women into “nice girls and broads” (p. 17).

Despite the engaging biographical preface though, Scorsese by Ebert is neither a detailed account of Scorsese and Ebert’s upbringings, nor a tale of a shared passion for cinema between critic and filmmaker. Rather, Ebert’s work is a collection of previously published reviews, interviews, and more recent reconsiderations of the director’s work, spanning his debut feature, I Call First (later released as Who’s That Knocking At My Door in 1968) through to Shine A Light (USA/UK 2008).

Engaging Scorsese’s films chronologically, Scorsese by Ebert duplicates the approach adopted by a number of previous publications on the director. Mary Pat Kelly (1980, 1991) (to whom Ebert acknowledges a debt), David Thompson & Ian Christie (1989), Les Keyser (1992), Marie Katheryn Connelly (1993), Lawrence S. Friedman (1997), Leighton Grist (2000) and Mark Nicholls (2004) have all made substantial contributions to the critical examination of Scorsese’s body of work.

In those earlier publications, the key discussion points of Scorsese’s cinema tend to consistently circulate around issues of Catholicism (the dichotomous treatment of women, the emphasis on sacrificial bloodletting and penance), gender instability (provoked through male paranoia, masochism and melancholia), and the tension between Scorsese’s artistic desires and the commercial constraints of the Hollywood industry.

These tropes are again dispersed throughout Ebert’s work, although for readers unfamiliar with the canon of writing dedicated to Scorsese, Scorsese by Ebert offers a neat and accessible account of the director’s filmography. The reviews, which reveal the immediate critical reaction to Scorsese’s films are noteworthy for their astute judgement and succinct praise, and generally avoid the kinds of overblown reverie that can accompany more sustained revisionist accounts of the auteur.

In many ways though, it’s Ebert’s ‘reconsiderations’ [Who’s That Knocking At My DoorNew York, New York(USA 1977), The King of Comedy (USA 1982), After Hours (USA 1985) and Kundun (USA 1997)], which yield the more interesting critical insights. For instance, where in his initial review of New York, New York, Ebert offers a fairly forgiving assessment, in his reappraisal he is far more direct, proclaiming, “The impossible relationship [between De Niro and Minelli] poisons the entire film” (p. 51).

Elsewhere, Ebert remains committed to his original assessments. On After Hours, a work typically overlooked in discussions of Scorsese’s best, Ebert holds firm on his opinion of it as a “brilliant film” for which he still “feel[s] the same admiration” (pp. 84, 88). Likewise, Ebert maintains his judgement that Kundun, while “Scorsese’s most sumptuous” work, ultimately loses itself in its reverence for the film’s central character (p. 226).

Throughout all of his analysis though, Ebert maintains a keen appreciation for the man he refers to as “the greatest living film director” (p. 136). For Scorsese, the respect clearly cuts both ways, as evidenced by the fifty-page transcript of an interview conducted at Ohio State University in 1997. Sliding through various films, associations, inspirations and anecdotes, Ebert steers the director’s rapid-fire banter in a lively and revealing discussion.

One of the few drawbacks of this publication is that while Scorsese’s early work and ‘masterpieces’ – Ebert analyses Mean Streets (USA 1973), Taxi Driver (USA 1976), Raging Bull (USA 1980) Goodfellas (USA 1990), and The Age of Innocence (USA 1993) in this context – are given significant coverage, his more recent films [such as The Aviator (USA/Germany 2004) and The Departed (USA/Hong Kong 2006)] seem under-examined. Given the relative lack of published material on Scorsese’s later films, this does seem like a missed opportunity.

And yet to criticise Scorsese by Ebert on this basis alone is perhaps to miss the point of Ebert’s project. Rather than attempt to construct the definitive analysis of the director’s work, the charm of Ebert’s approach lies in his willingness to revise his own critical perspectives on Scorsese’s cinema. And he does so with the odd sheepish admission. Confessing to having listed Raging Bullsecond behind The Black Stallion on that year’s best film list (a decision he reflects on as “inexplicable”), Scorsese by Ebert proves that occasionally even the best film reviewers get it wrong.

Josh Nelson,
The University of Melbourne, Australia.

Created on: Thursday, 10 December 2009

About the Author

Josh Nelson

About the Author

Josh Nelson

Josh Nelson has worked at The University of Melbourne since 2002 as a lecturer and tutor within Visual Media (Creative Arts). In 2008 his PhD thesis entitled, 'Ruptures & Regenerations: Violence, Trauma, and Male Subjectivity in American Cinema (1976-2004)' was dually nominated for a Chancellor's Prize. He is currently working on a number of forthcoming publications.View all posts by Josh Nelson →