By David Nilsen
Richard Schickel’s Keepers: The Greatest Films–and Personal Favorites–of a Moviegoing Lifetime (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) is a book a cinephile earns the right to write with a lifetime of steady devotion to the craft of film criticism. After nearly six decades of professional film writing, Schickel looks back in Keepers at a life spent in dark rooms watching flickering images on the wall and tells us what he remembers. It is a simple book. No high concept, no deep theorizing or exhaustive journalism on the history of movies, just a lover of movies who has earned the right to spend a moderate-length hardcover answering the comically overreaching question every self-proclaimed film lover gets asked from time to time – so what are you favorite movies?
Schickel doesn’t really know how to answer that, as very few of us who love cinema do, but he gives it a rambling try, and should be reasonably pleased with his effort. The book is written with the casual humor and confidence of a man who has been paid for half a century to have opinions. His reflections on his life of moviegoing are charming and at times whimsical, but generally avoid being precious. His opinions vary from the strongly held and stated to the nearly apologetic, and he seems to avoid taking himself too seriously. He is aware he has had the enormous good fortune of getting paid to do what he loves. Here he describes the experience as an adolescent of realizing there was something more to the movies he was watching every week beyond mere entertainment:
“By this time, I think, I was just possibly starting to see how movies worked, how the Hitchcock and Hawks pictures sort of sneaked up on you and were acknowledged by some process of secret sharing. You didn’t want to be caught out taking something seriously that was not supposed to be taken seriously. That was for later. I cannot remember when I was able to use the words ‘art’ and ‘movies’ in the same sentence without stammering. It must have been a great day for me.” – page 149
In addition to being a film critic Schickel has also had a career as a documentary filmmaker, and has formed many lifelong friendships in Hollywood. The book is peppered with anecdotes about stars and directors, but Schickel shows restraint in, for the most part, not allowing these connections to run away with his text. I don’t get the impression he’s name dropping. I would have trouble not writing about it too if I had a history of late night calls with Bette Davis and lunches with Cary Grant. I supposed he’s earned the right to enjoy what his life has offered him.
One particularly interesting passage relates a luncheon he hosted as the chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. The guest of honor was director David Lean, a divisive filmmaker beloved by some members of Schickel’s profession at the time and derided by others. Lean’s detractors quickly took over the session, led by legendary critic Pauline Kael, and things deteriorated for Lean very quickly.
“As chairman, I did what I could to lead the conversation to calmer waters–not at all effectively, I’m sorry to say. These supposedly civilized critics turned into a baying pack, led by Pauline Kael, who had always found Lean too genteel for her taste.
It was ugly. Lean retreated into himself, the group yapping at his heels. Pauline was like that–basically a bully, and a relentless one when she sensed weakness. Her trick was to pretend she was telling the brutal truth, which everyone else was too cowardly to do. A lot of the time she was just showing off for her coterie–the Paulettes, as Richard Corliss immortally dubbed them.” – page 176
One can imagine Schickel implying a more colorful vocabulary between the words of his sentence in which Kael is the leader of a pack of dogs. He doesn’t hide the lack of warmth between him and his fellow esteemed critic. It isn’t the only odd response Schickel seems to have to a fellow giant of his profession, though the other stands out only by omission–Roger Ebert is never invoked once. I can’t find a record of an actual feud between the two, but it seems odd he would have nothing at all to say about perhaps the most famous film critic of all time, especially when their careers occurred basically simultaneously. He mentions a lot of other critics. This omission seems intentional, but there’s no way for me to say. I do know he has ruffled a lot of feathers with his late-career pessimism toward the role of film criticism as a whole. Most of it comes off as an old man waving his cane at the kids on his yard, but fortunately, it doesn’t creep onto the pages of Keepers.
The movies Schickel chooses to write about are an eclectic mix, and he makes no claim to it being an exhaustive or authoritative list of all-time greats. These skew much more toward personal favorites than objective bests, but for a critic of Schickel’s confidence, one imagines a good deal of overlap. While it’s hard to disagree with the movies Schickel includes in Keepers, it isn’t hard to find complaint with what he omits. His list heavily skews toward domestic films, and among those, it’s hard to find any films not directed by white males. I might have missed one, but I don’t believe there was a single film included directed by a woman, which strikes me as lazy at best. When taken with his disdain for the only female critic he mentions in the book and his explicit defense of Woody Allen in the face of what he considers the baseless accusations that director has faced in recent years (while giving no real explanation beyond Allen being his good friend), one struggles to grant the grace to call this mere laziness. We have the right to ask for better from such a knowledgeable and talented film writer.
And he is certainly that, other complaints aside. He periodically provides clutter-brushing clarity to debates within the film community – “We are all, like it or not, auteurists now. It is, if nothing else, the most convenient path through the tangled and ambiguous history of the movies.” – and offers clever blurbs on numerous immortal films – “But there is is–Sunset Blvd. Mordant, by God. Always ready for its close-up.”
Keepers is far from a perfect book, but taken as merely the reminiscences and reflections of a cinephile who has had the opportunity to watch more movies than most, it is a pleasant enough read.
Keepers: The Greatest Films–and Personal Favorites–of a Moviegoing Lifetime (791.43 Schickel) is available now at Greenville Public Library.