Retro Daddy

The Past Isn't Over - It Isn't Even Past
DECEMBER 12, 2008 5:54PM

Scorsese by Ebert, or Ebert by Scorsese?

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scorsese by ebert cover


Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert's late reviewing partner, asked him, “When are you going to write your Scorsese book?”

He hasn't written it yet.

My problems with Scorsese by Ebert are (1) it's too short and repetitious, (2) it's not a coherent analysis of Scorsese's work, and (3) I got tired of Ebert's theological hobby-horses.

Ebert says he's “not a long-form writer” and the book is padded with introductions that recapitulate the information from Ebert's two- and three-page reviews (some of which are decades old). There's a lot of repetition. That's helpful when you're writing newspaper reviews years apart about a director's work—it's good to remind readers about a filmmaker's obsessions and recurring themes. But Ebert says the same things in the same words every few pages.

Even the last section, “Masterpieces,” is a collection of short, already-published reconsiderations of what Ebert considers Scorsese's best work: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and The Age of Innocence.

It is interesting to read what Ebert first thought of Martin Scorsese's films, but I'd hoped for a long, comprehensive, retrospective study of Scorsese's films. Ebert could certainly write that book, but it would take a lot of time. These old reviews merely prove that Ebert recognized the appearance of a brilliant filmmaker and said so at the time.

scorsese die faust

One of Scorsese's First Christ Figures in Boxcar Bertha (produced by Roger Corman, the Pope of the B-Movie Drive-In)

I've noticed before in reading collections of Ebert's reviews that he likes to take moviemakers to task for what he sees as theological lapses. It gets boring.

Ebert is an example of the tiresome kind of Catholic who goes on about how the nuns inculcated him with a sense of Good vs. Evil and gave him a better education than the pagan public-school students got. He doesn't mean to be morally superior, he just can't help it. I just heard Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly on NPR radio doing the same thing. It gets old.

It's interesting to compare Ebert's introduction to the book to the foreword Martin Scorsese contributed.

In the first paragraph of the introduction alone Ebert mentions: “Roman Catholic schools,” “churches,” “pre-Vatican II days,” “Latin,” “Mass,” “mortal sins,” “venial sins,” “sanctifying grace,” “fires of hell,” “Baltimore Catechism,” and “God.”

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Judas and Christ? Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

I lost count of how many times Ebert referred to the “pre-Vatican II” Catholic Church in this book. I'm sorry he was traumatized by the priests and nuns before the so-called “liberalization” of the Church (which never really took hold), but once you reach puberty and start thinking for yourself you should be able to put it behind you. Sometimes I just wanted to tell him, “Grow up!”

Scorsese himself—the filmmaker supposedly obsessed with sin and redemption—doesn't talk about religion as much. In his foreword to Ebert's book, Scorsese mentions Catholicism as an “emotional contact point” between himself and Ebert, but Scorsese says it was “in the realm of aesthetics that [they] bonded perhaps more closely.”

Anyway, it's the theme of nonspecific religious guilt that inspired some (not all) of Scorsese's films, not Roman Catholicism. Otherwise why would Paul Schrader (who had a Calvinist upbringing) have been the writer most in tune with Scorsese? Is there really much difference between filmmakers like Schrader and Scorsese and novelists like Chaim Potok, whose Jewish characters suffer in similar ways in stories like My Name is Asher Lev and Davita's Harp?

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"I'm the King!"  "No, I'm the King!" Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy

I think the best Scorsese films are the ones without overt religion: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver (written by Schrader), New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, GoodFellas, and The Aviator. His early movies stuck in my memory before I ever started paying attention to directors' names.

In reviews of Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis), Ebert argues theology about the supposedly divine and human natures of Christ. I read the novel and I'm not sure Kazantzakis actually believed in God. As far as the film goes, I know that if I thought that Scorsese was trying to give me a theology lesson, I would have walked out of the theater.

Scorsese knows lectures don't work. Ebert might take note.

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Madonna? Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

Last Temptation doesn't seem to me to be a theology lesson. It reminds me of Boxcar Bertha, Scorsese's low-budget film for drive-in B-movie producer Roger Corman. Both films are about political agitators and star Barbara Hershey as a sexual Madonna figure.

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"Doesn't she know I love her?" Robert De Niro and Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull

Ebert recognizes a kind of film that uses supernatural characters without believing in them in order to describe human problems—like Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew or Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary—but he still wastes his time arguing with people he calls “the censors,” the ones who threatened Scorsese when Last Temptation came out.

You can't debate with religious fanatics. Time to grow up.



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I'm crazy about the Scorsese, and Mr. Ebert does not like to work. I can sympathize, I'm not sure I could have the discipline to write a Book about Scorsese or anyone else. I could do a movie review a week; write a short story. But a book demands more. I'd heard Ebert's fell short. Thanks for confirming that.

My favs: Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Casino and The Departed. Also quite fond of After Hours and King of Comedy. And Love the music. Don't forget The Last Waltz. I watch that over and over, in the background.
Connie - Thanks for your comment. I'll see After Hours and The Departed.
I've only read one book on Scorsese, Gangster-Priest by a fellow named Cassilo, I think. It was okay, but he didn't seem to appreciate how funny, seriously funny, Scorsese's films can be-- not just comedies like After Hours and King of Comedy (one of the best films ever made in my view) but various moments in films like GoodFellas, Mean Streets, and even The Aviator (Alda's senator was hysterical in a very uncomfortable way.)
libertarius - I agree with you about the humor in Scorsese's movies, especially the ones set in New York. You're right about The Aviator--it was cruelly funny when the senator played by Alan Alda put the obvious fingerprint on the glass he offered to Hughes, knowing a little (from his own wiretaps?) about Hughes's quirks.

You might want to check out the book Gangster Priest. Setting aside the question of humor, it's good analysis with interesting context. It's quite long, a magnum opus, but you can dip in at different places.
So, Retro, you're telling me that Mr. Ebert, the man who gave the world "Up!", "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and, the greatest freak-fest of them all, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," is a born and bred Catholic school boy? That explains a lot. Perhaps it's time for Ebert to do a tell-all about his wild days in the Russ Meyer crew- God rest his big breast fetishist soul. Thanks for reading the Scorsese book so I don't have to. Perhaps Scorsese should write one about Ebert. Somebody's got dig deep into what the guy did in the 70's...
libertarius - I'll read Gangster Priest. Sounds interesting.

Joe - If there ever was a filmmaker who fit the definition of "auteur" it was Russ Meyer.