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Monday, Feb. 9, 2009

Poems About Guilt and Redemption

Scorsese and his movies

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The cover of Roger Ebert's Scorsese by Ebert (University of Chicago Press) shows the filmmaker looking at us from a controlled, elegant pose while reaching into his coat pocket with out-of-focus hands. What will he pull out? A gun? An envelope? A pack of cigarettes? Something lurks under the surface, and Ebert attempts to reveal it to us.

Already a revered film critic, Ebert is also one of the most perceptive writers living today. And the level of perception present in his syndicated movie reviews is at its peak in this admiringly critical book about another revered figure. Through the eyes of Ebert, we go on a reflective journey into the mind of Scorsese and, by extension, our own minds. Ebert cuts together a book, seldom flawed, that has been four decades in the making. Built around his original reviews (dating back to 1967), it also contains recent reconsiderations of those critiques and interviews with the director, as well as essays about and from him. Most of the writing here you can find online, but not in such a graceful compilation and without the extras.

Throughout the book, Ebert tries showing us who the great Scorsese is. He is a man with an incredible amount of guilt and loneliness that he has attempted to exorcise through each of his movies. He is a proud Italian-American man who has the Catholic Church of pre-Vatican II burrowed into his being. He is a man who Ebert speculates is comparable to Judas from The Last Temptation of Christ, "the mortal man walking beside [Jesus], worrying about him, lecturing him, wanting him to be better, threatening him, confiding in him, prepared to betray him if he must."

Ebert touches again and again on recurring motifs in Scorsese's films. Guilt, a need for redemption from real or imagined sin, the desire to become a somebody (especially a gangster), a yearning for inner peace and realization and, probably most importantly, what Freud called the Madonna-whore complex all seep from his protagonists. Describing Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, Ebert writes, "There is no room inside the mind of the prizefighter in this movie for a notion that a woman might be a friend, a lover or a partner. She is only, to begin with, an inaccessible sexual fantasy. And then, after he has possessed her, she becomes tarnished by sex."

Practically all of Scorsese's protagonists, from Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle to Casino's Ace Rothstein, exhibit this Madonna-whore complex: They gawk at beautiful women in slow-motion, freeze frames and soft-focus, as if the women existed outside of time and were more than human, only to become, too soon after, less than human.

While Ebert demystifies Scorsese by revealing his particular career, narrative and camera decisions, there is nonetheless a sense that you won't know all that makes the director so powerful. Ebert does for Scorsese what Scorsese does for Bob Dylan in No Direction Home: He reveals the artist to such a degree that you cannot help but wonder how he still remains mysterious.

Yet Ebert sometimes lapses in his pitch-perfect analysis of the director. He contradicts himself by saying in one section that Scorsese doesn't pay homage to previous directors and eras, while in another he says he does (Scorsese clearly does). Some plot points are just plain misleading, such as when he mentions the wrong moment a camera freezes on the call-girl Ginger McKenna in Casino. Names of characters are sometimes wrong, as with Taxi Driver's "Palatine," instead of "Palantine." These lapses are also present in several of his non-Scorsese, syndicated reviews you find in print and online. Mostly, though, they don't detract from your understanding of the review and, more importantly, the film. But it goes to show that no matter the critical perfection he has acheived, Ebert is no more than the characters in Scorsese's movies. That is, no more than human.

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