Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dick's Picks

I just read Richard Schickel's Keepers: The Greatest Films--and Personal Favorites--of a Moviegoing Lifetime.  Schickel has spent a lifetime reviewing films, as well as writing more than twenty books and producing numerous documentaries on various cinematic subjects.  So his opinions count for something.

But while the book is pleasant enough, it tends to read as the ramblings of an old man--it almost seems like a transcript of a conversation one might have with him as he flits from one film to another.  Though his chapters generally move in chronological order, he rarely spends more than a paragraph or two on his favorites, almost never going more than two pages on any single title.  So we tend to get little more than a quick opinion or plot summary, sometimes with an autobiographical note about how he first saw the film, or met the director.  He's done much better when he's delved into subjects.

He starts with the silent era, and I was startled by one pronouncement so much I almost stopped reading: he felt the Marx Brothers were mostly forgotten. (Don't ask me why he brings them up while discussing silent comedy.) He doesn't bother to mention any particular film of theirs, saying they don't quite live up to their reputation.  Quite a claim regarding a group that not only still lives on, but manages to make audiences laugh 85 years after they started in film.  This turns out to be only the first of many claims about films' reputations that I found questionable. 

Meanwhile, for his favorite Chaplin he picks The Circus.  Really?  The least highly regarded of Chaplin's major silent features?  (I've read Schickel on Chaplin before so I wasn't entirely surprised.)  Then he chooses The Navigator as his favorite Keaton--the film I consider to be Buster's most overrated.

In general, though, Schickel mostly picks good films (as you'd expect, I suppose) in his trip down memory lane.  Certain eras he seems to like more than others--he considered the mid to late 30s perhaps the best Hollywood has to offer, for instance.  But he lists titles from every decade and chooses from every genre.  He does however, favor Hollywood over foreign titles, and discusses the popular more than the arty.

Like someone rambling, he makes many mistakes. To mention a few: He twice refers to the character Filiba in Trouble In Paradise as Filibia; he claims Sullivan's Travels, the fourth film Preston Sturges directed at Paramount, is only the second to feature William Demarest, when in fact Demarest appears in all eight of Sturges' Paramount films; and for some reason, he believes Harold Arlen wrote the music for Pinocchio.  Where was the editor?  He also has some questionable information. He notes, for example, that a Woody Allen associate assures him all of Woody's films make money.  Sounds questionable to me, but Schickel simply accepts it and passes it along.

Overall it's an enjoyable trip, conjuring up many of the biggest stars and directors films have offered in the past century.  It's far from Schickel's best, but it does offer a fair overview of his life as a filmgoer.

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