Professional moviegoer is a nice job if you can get it, and to his credit, Richard Schickel makes no attempt to hide his good fortune. The longtime film critic for Time magazine, now effectively retired, Schickel began reviewing movies "more or less by accident" in 1965 and has since built a noteworthy career as a documentarian, biographer and teacher. Of his lifelong vocation, he makes no grand claims: "Truth to tell, it's easy work."
His new cinephilic memoir, "Keepers," is both a nostalgic reverie and taking of stock, and it approaches its subject in a counterintuitive manner. Where most books about film argue on behalf of the medium's importance, Schickel suggests that movies are neither politically relevant nor socially significant. To him, movies represent at best a "joyous enterprise" and at worst a "harmless addiction"; ultimately, they exist for our pleasure alone. The Wisconsin-born critic estimates that he has seen 22,590 movies in his lifetime, yet all he can say definitively is that some are better and some are worse.
In selecting his keepers, Schickel seems unconcerned with historical and theoretical rigor. His book rambles through the cinematic century in a vague chronological order but cites zero sources and seems to rely mostly on memory. After beginning one section by rattling off an arbitrary handful of good movies made since 1985, Schickel reveals his method: "These titles simply sprang to mind when I tipped back in my chair, shut my eyes and let some recalled pleasures float in." That's certainly one way to do it.
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It's hard not to root for such a relaxed and unpretentious venture, but unfortunately "Keepers" is breezy to a fault. Readers who know the canon won't discover any obscurities among Schickel's abbreviated annotations, and those seeking a basic understanding of film history will find the book haphazard and difficult to navigate. In one chapter, Schickel dispenses with "Casablanca," film noir and Italian neorealism. And sometimes the critic throws up his hands, equating greatness with ineffability. "Yes, ['Tokyo Story'] is a masterpiece, though I'm not altogether sure why." "['It's A Wonderful Life'] simply is, for better or worse."
He's been around long enough to know how critical consensus forms, and as a result he never kowtows to received wisdom. He is perfectly comfortable dismissing a supposed classic with an offhand remark. "The Maltese Falcon"?: "cramped and static." "The Best Years of Our Lives"?: "close to travesty." These judgments are admirably blunt but usually light on actual analysis. In other sections, he'll set up straw men to position his take as a rebuke to conventional wisdom. I'm not convinced by his claim that "His Girl Friday" is usually "dismissed as 'a nice little picture,'" nor that critics generally "remain suspicious of Kubrick." Writing that Jean-Luc Godard simply "succumbed to sobriety" after the mid-1960s is something like the opposite of engaged criticism. In general, it can be difficult to separate Schickel's plainspoken levity from fuzzy logic: "Movies ebb and flow in no pattern that I've ever been able to define," he writes. "There are just cycles (or fads) that mysteriously come and go: westerns in, westerns out; film noir all the rage, then, briefly, out of favor; you know how it goes." Plenty of film historians have worked hard to dispel such mysteries, but Schickel seems uninterested.
Schickel has written several authoritative biographies of great directors, and "Keepers" reflects lightly on his friendships with several of them. But those hoping that Schickel's intimacy with "Hitch" and "Clint" and "Marty" might yield penetrating insights (or even juicy gossip) will also be disappointed. In one case, he dismisses an apparently common criticism that a scene from "Schindler's List" was too "showbizzy" (though I'm not aware of any such criticism and he doesn't cite his source) because "in my years of knowing [Spielberg] I have never had any reason to question his integrity." He mounts a similarly feeble defense of the "intelligent, sober" Woody Allen in light of "the preposterous things that have been said about him by Mia Farrow and others."
In his modesty, Schickel calls film reviewing an easy job. But it doesn't have to be. The most adventurous critics revisit the past to broaden viewers' horizons and examine cultural blind spots, and while "Keepers" sometimes makes space for lesser-known mavericks like such as Rouben Mamoulian and Andre de Toth, it does nothing to address Hollywood's structural inequalities.
The book is almost entirely focused on white male auteurs and limits its appreciation of foreign films to those from Europe for the distinctly complacent reason that "there are simply more cultural congruities between Americans and Europeans than there are between us and, for instance, the Indians." When Schickel moves further afield in a short section devoted to the "simplifying force" of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, he admits that "it is an odd work for me to care so greatly about."
It can be gratifying to read someone who takes such pleasure in his work. But it's hard to understand why this consummate professional would settle for armchair philosophizing about a subject he knows better than most.
The Greatest Films — and Personal Favorites — of a Moviegoing Lifetime
Alfred A. Knopf: 284 pp., $26.95
Gottlieb writes about film for the Nation and lives in Los Angeles.