April 7, 2014
Scorsese by Ebert
Before the rise of the Internet, one of my favorite pastimes was reading the Roger Ebert Movie Yearbook. It compiled his reviews from the past year plus others of notable films. Getting access to the best film criticism was trickier, so having so much great writing within one book was rare. That’s hardly the case today, which raises the question about whether books compiling reviews still have relevance. Most critics’ thoughts on any film are just a few clicks away, so is there a difference on the printed page? This brings me to the Scorsese by Ebert book, a 2008 release that collects reviews, interviews, and other pieces about the legendary director. Ebert adds some new pieces reconsidering certain films, but it’s mostly recycled work. Despite the availability of this writing elsewhere, there’s still plenty to enjoy within this remarkable book that discusses classic films from the past four decades.
What makes the book shine is the way it depicts Scorsese’s evolution through the eyes of a critic who’s followed him since the beginning. Ebert’s review of Who’s That Knocking at My Door (then called I Call First) in November 1967 was Scorsese’s first. He hasn’t loved every film, but they’ve always introduced an interesting discussion. I share Ebert’s mixed feelings about Kundun, which is beautiful yet doesn’t have the same emotional connection. While I might not be as high on Bringing out the Dead, I share the feeling that it’s an underrated gem. I’m also right with Ebert on After Hours, which creates such a sense of dread within the confines of a zany comedy. Gangs of New York is one of Scorsese’s most ambitious works, yet I’m also a bit more lukewarm on some of its characters. Even when I disagree with Ebert, it’s never irritating to read his well-defined thoughts about these movies.
A highlight is the 49-page transcript of an interview that Ebert conducted with Scorsese at the Wexner Center of the Arts at Ohio State University. The 1997 discussion covers his entire career and offers so many insights about his directing approach. This book is worth every penny just to check out this amazing interview. It’s hardly a one-sided affair either. Ebert has plenty to offer with his takes on Scorsese’s films, and the conversations heads in such interesting directions. The look at Raging Bull in particular is so engaging because it reveals how essential it was in continuing his career. His comments are hardly the standard fare you’d expect and show how Scorsese looks at film. Here’s a perfect example:
“We have to be in there with him and it’s gotta be The Wild Bunch. Every punch has to be worked out in such a way, or let’s say, not every punch, but you have to do it like music. You have to do it like it’s from the musical sequences in New York, New York where three bars of music was one shot, literally. Not four cameras then you cut ‘em together in the editing room. That’s selecting, not directing; it’s a different thing, you know. But directing is…these four punches…one, two, three, four, camera tracks from left to right, swings around over the should of the guy who’s getting hit, and we see a close-up of LaMotta hitting him. And it’s gotta be a knock, shoom, like this, and as fast as the punch is.”
This quote does more than remind us about Scorsese’s rapid-fire pace when speaking about his films. It provides the glimpse at a guy who understands movie making like few others. He’s talking about a project from 17 years ago, yet it sounds like he’s describing a picture that he shot yesterday. Another bonus is Ebert’s introductions to the six parts that summarize his thoughts on each section. The final section includes his Great Movies articles on five Scorsese films, with The Age of Innocence being the surprise among the obvious classics like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. It’s a remarkable film and definitely worthy, but it rarely gets the same acclaim. Ebert has a clear understanding about why that movie and the Edith Wharton novel are so powerful. It’s another reason why he’s inspired so many young writers and continues to bring more into the fold after his passing. This book is highly recommended for fans of either guy and shows plenty about both of their fine careers.