Scorsese by Ebert
by Roger Ebert with a foreword by Martin Scorsese
University of Chicago Press, 314 pages

Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest moviemakers of all time. With movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Scorsese has redefined cinema. Now, one of the greatest film critics of all, Roger Ebert, has written a new book, Scorsese by Ebert, about this legendary auteur. The book compiles all of Ebert’s original reviews of Scorsese’s movies, includes a number of “reconsiderations” of some of the director’s lesser-known works (such as Who’s That Knocking At My Door and The King of Comedy) with the famed critic looking back with new perspective and provides interviews conducted over the years, including a transcription of an in-depth conversation the two men had in a packed auditorium at The Ohio State University in 1997.

In his introduction, Ebert draws fascinating parallels between his and Scorsese’s childhoods. Religion was an important defining aspect of both their early lives: Both went to Catholic school and both aspired to be priests—although obviously they later found their true calling in the film industry. Perhaps most importantly, both Ebert and Scorsese spent most of their childhood indoors (neither was particularly interested in sports) and as a result, both developed a life-long love affair with cinema.

Both men were pioneers in their fields. While Scorsese changed the landscape of film with his gritty, true-to-life street tales, Ebert took the art of film criticism in an exciting new direction. Along with the late Gene Siskel, Ebert helped change the public’s image of the film critic from a shadowy, elusive figure to a recognizable, relatable personality with their long-running syndicated TV review show “At the Movies.” The show, which started in 1982, helped bring serious film criticism to the masses and created the ubiquitous “thumbs up, thumbs down” trend. (Siskel passed away in 1999, and Ebert officially retired from the show due to health problems earlier this year.)

Ebert’s central theory regarding Scorsese’s films, one he repeats throughout the book, is what Freud termed the Madonna-whore complex, in which men view women as saints when they are virgins, but as irreparably tarnished sinners afterwards. The dynamic appears in many of Scorsese’s films, from his first feature, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door (which was championed by a just-starting-out Ebert as a breakthrough in American movies), to later classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

Ebert’s reviews of Scorsese’s films are probing and insightful. He says in his review of 1973’s Mean Streets, “We never have the sense of a scene being set up and then played out; his characters hurry to their dooms while the camera tries to keep pace.” And in his rave of 1990’s Goodfellas, he says: Joe Pesci’s “final scene in this movie is one of the greatest moments of sudden realization I have ever seen; the development, the buildup, and the payoff are handled by Scorsese with the skill of a great tragedian.” Even when Ebert finds himself disliking one of Scorsese’s films, such as New York, New York, he does so in an analytical and thought-provoking way: “I don’t know for sure what romantic chemistry is, but I know for sure what it isn’t… It isn’t whatever inexplicable energy exists between Francine Evans [Liza Minnelli] and Jimmy Doyle [Robert De Niro], who are meant to be in love… At no moment could I believe they were intended to be together, and much of the time, neither could they.”

While there is much to like about the book, it isn’t perfect. The reviews were, of course, written years apart but when read one after the other, some of Ebert’s views, like the Madonna-whore complex, can become redundant. On the whole however, the book provides an interesting mosaic of Ebert’s evolving perspective of Scorsese over the years.

Whether you’re a Scorsese connoisseur or someone just discovering the acclaimed auteur, Roger Ebert’s Scorsese by Ebert is a thought-provoking appreciation of more than 40 years of masterful moviemaking from one of the greatest directors alive.