Film Fans And Ebert Deconstruct In The Dark

Posted: May 04, 1998

The hooded figure on the left side of the screen shadowboxes in slow motion, framed by five horizontal lines. The fog cloaks the figures spread out behind him - the timekeeper, the announcer, the fans - as the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana sets an unmistakable mood of sadness.

In the darkened theater, the man holding the remote control - film critic Roger Ebert - gets the first shot at the opening images of Martin Scorsese's 1980 film Raging Bull.

``Here's a man who is completely trapped by the ropes of the ring,'' Ebert says. Commentators, he adds, describe the boxing figure as a note in a musical staff, bobbing to the melancholy score.

``Stop!'' a woman in front yells, and Ebert hits pause.

He's death itself, she says, redolent of Bergman's The Seventh Seal. He's an animal, a man counters, keying in on the taillike belt of his robe. A bull.

A woman toward the back of the room weighs in. ``It's a domestic image,'' she says, ``of a man in his bathrobe, a little on the pathetic side.''

``See, that kind of thinking,'' Ebert replies, ``I really like.''

It's called Roger Ebert's Democracy in the Dark, a film-school exercise conducted at the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema by one of the country's most recognizable critics. Over three days at International House, Ebert examined Scorsese's 18-year-old classic frame by frame, dissecting the unflinching portrayal of Jake La Motta's battles in and out of the ring. Ebert calls Raging Bull the screen's greatest depiction of jealousy.

``We're not looking for the answers,'' Ebert said Thursday night, when 314 people came to see a pristine 35mm print of the black-and-white film. ``We're looking at the questions.''

Over the weekend, anyone could call out ``Stop'' at any time and say what they saw. It made for slow going at first, with 16 people giving their views before the opening credits finished rolling on Friday afternoon. By the end of the first two-hour session, they'd made it through only 10 of the movie's 128 minutes on laser disc. That's typical, Ebert said.

He'd deconstructed the film once before, at the Virginia Festival of American Film. But he's an old hand with the remote, having given the same treatment to such films as Citizen Kane and Notorious and The Third Man over 25 years at film festivals and before classes at the University of Chicago, as well as the University of Colorado, where students have dubbed the exercise Cinema Interruptus.

Ebert told how the film's famous fight scenes were choreographed on elaborate storyboards, based blow-for-blow on newsreels of La Motta's bruising battles. Animal shrieks, hoots, bellows and roars were mixed into the sound track to lend the crowd ferocity. Hammers smashing glass delivered the explosion of flashbulbs.

The speed of the film would slow slightly when the camera landed on La Motta's wife, Vickie, showing her from the obsessive fighter's point of view. Jump cuts to characters already in motion increased the tension in crowd scenes. The fog that enveloped the ring not only added mystery, Ebert said, but it also saved money in extras.

Scorsese has said Raging Bull was a film he never expected to see released. He was still recovering from near-fatal drug problems when Robert De Niro brought his friend a script from Paul Schrader. De Niro had discovered a then-unknown Joe Pesci to play his brother - he'd watched the actor on late-night TV. Pesci was running a Bronx restaurant at the time and had quit show business. Pesci knew the teenaged Cathy Moriarty, who would play La Motta's second wife, because she had won a local dance contest he'd judged.

That sort of inside dish caused the movie to spool slowly over the weekend, but no one seemed to mind. Festivalgoers had Ebert for five days. The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, 55, is the author of 12 books, and the cohost with Gene Siskel of a popular movies show on TV. Last year, Ebert also found time to write 264 reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, where he has worked since 1966.

Television makes this print guy instantly recognizable - something he doesn't crave, but won't complain about. From his first steps into a West Philadelphia restaurant Friday, he triggered double takes, gamely pressing tickets into the hands of a couple at the bar who didn't know about the festival.

Ebert used his time to lament an age when ``a lot of popular art is fearful and ignorant,'' and to mock video stores that wouldn't dare not have enough copies of In & Out, but are thin on foreign films or anything that came out more than a year ago.

``The whole history of film is being lost,'' he said, adding that today's children don't even know W.C. Fields. ``It's a time of nihilism and despair and irony.''

But he realized he was preaching to the choir. People who go to festivals like Philadelphia's ``are not the problem,'' he said. ``We are the solution.''

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