In ‘Keep­ers,’ film critic re­vis­its a life­time at the movies


“Keep­ers: The Great­est Film­sand Per­sonal Fa­vorites- of a Moviego­ing Life­time” (Knopf), by Richard Schickel

A theater up the street asks its em­ploy­ees to in­clude the ti­tle of a fa­vorite movie on their nametags. The choices of these teenagers and twen­tysome­things can be any­thing from “Fast and Fu­ri­ous 5” or “The Hunger Games” to the oc­ca­sional retro pick like “The Sound of Mu­sic.”

It prompts the ques­tion, “Why that movie?” There’s prob­a­bly more be­hind the choice than just a fa­vorite star or mind-blow­ing spe­cial ef­fects. Of­ten it’s the con­text we bring to the theater that makes it a par­tic­u­lar kind of ex­pe­ri­ence, good or bad, and says some­thing about us and our lives at a mo­ment in time.

An­swer­ing that po­ten­tially per­sonal ques­tion is one fac­tor that sets “Keep­ers” apart from other books ex­tolling Hol­ly­wood’s best. Another is its au­thor, film critic and his­to­rian Richard Schickel, a keeper him­self af­ter a half­cen­tury of ru­mi­nat­ing about the cin­ema. For kin­dred spir­its who would rather watch a movie than do pretty much any­thing else, read­ing Schickel’s memoir is like pag­ing through a fam­ily photo al­bum with a wise and witty el­der who tells you what he thinks is go­ing on around a pic­ture’s edges.

Un­like those who point out the films to see be­fore your in­ter­nal bulb burns out, Schickel doesn’t pro­vide a handy list. He has a story to tell — his or the movie’s, if not both — and goes be­yond a re­cap of the plot. He also pro­vides a bit of in­sight gleaned from hav­ing known an ac­tor or film­maker. Of the enig­matic di­rec­tor Stan­ley Kubrick, he re­marks: “You never had a bad time with Stan­ley. You never came away from time spent with him un­en­light­ened — he told you of a book or a movie you had to see, an idea you had to pur­sue.”

Many of Schickel’s keep­ers will be fa­mil­iar to sea­soned movie fans. Af­ter all, there is wide agree­ment about films like “Citi- zen Kane,” “Dou­ble Indemnity,” “The Searchers,” “The God­fa­ther” and “Chi­na­town.” One of the at­trac­tions of “Keep­ers” is the en­cour­age­ment to check out less prom­i­nent films, for ex­am­ple, writer-di­rec­tor Pre­ston Sturges’ work from the 1940s and for­eign films from the 1950s like “The 400 Blows” and “Ikiru.” Schickel makes room on the buf­fet for low­bud­get en­ter­tain­ments, too, such as the 1959 Audie Mur­phy Western “No Name on the Bullet.”

Go­ing against the grain of a best- of book, Schickel de­votes space to movies he’s not that keen on. Some of those choices are sur­pris­ing. He prefers Woody Allen’s “Zelig” to “An­nie Hall.” The Os­car-win­ning drama of 1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” he ar­gues, of­fered com­fort to its post­war au­di­ences while ig­nor­ing the is­sues and con­flicts of the pe­riod. “Credit the film­maker his good in­ten­tion,” Schickel writes. “But if you re­turn to the film now, it is in my es­ti­ma­tion close to trav­esty.”

He isn’t watch­ing “Taxi Driver” again for a dif­fer­ent rea­son: “It is per­haps the most ter­ri­fy­ing great movie ever.” Rel­a­tively few such su­perla­tives are dished out: the mas­ter­piece of Dis­ney’s stu­dio (“Pinocchio”); one of the great­est works in the history of pop­u­lar cul­ture (“King Kong”); best ac­tor of the Golden Age (Henry Fonda); his own fa­vorite movie star (Er­rol Flynn); and per­haps his own fa­vorite movie (“Fargo”).

That cu­ri­ous ques­tion — why that movie? — is one we might pon­der for our own cin­e­matic keep­ers. Maybe the an­swer lies some­where near the theme of another one of Schickel’s, Vit­to­rio de Sica’s 1952 film “Um­berto D,” about a pen­sioner who tries to lose a bur­den­some dog but even­tu­ally ac­cepts with joy that the dog is his for life. Schickel sur­mises, “Very sim­ply, it says, I guess, that we do not choose what or whom we love, that some­how the ob­ject of our af­fec­tion chooses us — and we re­ject that choice at our peril.”

Is it a stretch to think a mere movie can re­tain such a hold on us? Dis­cuss.

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