Rodney Powell
on Scorsese by Ebert

August 29th, 2008 by EVENTS

After The Best of Roger Ebert, what do you do for an encore? How about a collection of his work about the man he considers the best American director of his generation, Martin Scorsese? At least that’s what my co-editor at the University of Chicago Press, John Tryneski, and I thought, and fortunately Roger Ebert agreed not only that such a volume was possible, but that it was actually something that Gene Siskel had urged him to do: “When are you going to write your Scorsese book?” was a frequent query.

In many respects, the manuscript put itself together. We knew we wanted to include all of Ebert’s reviews of Scorsese’s work since “before the beginning” (as Bernstein says in Citizen Kane)—we start with a review from 1967 of I Call First, an early version of what became Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and include reviews of all the theatrical features through Shine a Light. We also knew that the extensive set of interviews that have already been published would be in the book, as well as the longer pieces on five films that were chosen for Ebert’s Great Movies series. We realized as we put this previously published material together that it would be interesting to have additional reassessments of six of Scorsese’s films that have generally received less critical consideration than is their due. After we broached the idea with Ebert, he was willing, even eager, to re-watch the films and offer the “Reconsiderations” that add an extra dimension to the book.

Although we would have been pleased to publish a volume that contained only these writings, Ebert informed us of a long interview he conducted in 1997 when Scorsese received a lifetime achievement award from the Wexner Center of the Arts at Ohio State University. He was pretty sure that the event was taped—could we check it out? Fortunately the Wexner Center was enthusiastically cooperative and provided us with a video tape of the proceedings. A lightly-edited transcription of that unfettered discussion appears as section four of Scorsese by Ebert, “Reflecting.” It’s a fascinating review of Scorsese’s entire career to that point, and a brilliant record of a great talker in action. Without Ebert’s recollection of the importance of the event and their discussion, it’s something that might have remained in the archives at the Wexner Center.

And Ebert’s memory of the long relationship yielded additional fruit—a note Scorsese wrote to him in 1970 outlining his plans for a trilogy that had begun with Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It occurred to Ebert that perhaps the hand-written note could be reproduced, and our brilliant designer, Mike Brehm, was able to transform it into the elegant endpapers that enhance this volume–Scorsese graciously granted permission to add this grace note.

From the time we first started planning this book, we hoped that we could persuade Scorsese to write a foreword. I confess that I felt some trepidation when I first broached the subject with Scorsese’s staff, but it turned out that he too enthusiastically embraced the project, and although it was touch-and-go to meet our final deadline as he prepared to go on location to shoot Shutter Island, he came through with a thoughtful appraisal of his long relationship with Ebert and the place of the critic—it helps complete the portrait of the artist.

Having put together what we felt was an exceptional record of the long engagement between Roger Ebert’s passionate intelligence and Martin Scorsese’s passionate filmmaking, our principal tasks as editors were completed. As he had for Awake in the Dark, Ebert provided an overall introduction and introductory notes for each section—and as before, he made our job easy by supplying copy that needed, at most, very minor revisions. A pro is a pro.

But of course the making of a book at this point has really only just begun, and for a book like this the visual appeal of the text and dust jacket are particularly important. We were able to rely on the talents of the above-mentioned Mike Brehm, our award-winning assistant design manager, to make a volume that visually complements the elegant and arresting writing it contains. From the striking shot of Scorsese on the dust jacket that he found in the files of Magnum Photos to the handsomely laid-out pages within, it’s a pleasure to look at because of Brehm’s ability to put all the elements together effortlessly—much as Ebert does in his writing. Although readers must intuitively know that good-looking books don’t just happen, I’m glad to have this opportunity to salute Brehm’s contribution.

As you have gathered, putting together Scorsese by Ebert gave us immense pleasure. The double portrait—of artist and critic—is a fascinating one, and Ebert’s writing provides an on-going exemplification of what Scorsese, in his foreword, sees as the critic’s main function, a function not based on whether a critic “likes” or “doesn’t like” a particular film: “What is important is that he engages with [a film] fully, brings to his responses the conviction, the passion, that the director brings to the film’s making. Opinion is evanescent, but the work abides.” We hope that readers will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the work that abides by both artist and critic.

Scorsese by Ebert
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Cloth, 297 pp, $25.00
ISBN-10: 0226182029

Rodney Powell is an assistant editor at the University of Chicago Press and a Co-op member.

Posted in Editors Speak


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