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


“Keepers: The Greatest Films-and 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 half-century 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 “Citizen 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 low-budget 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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