A Book of Alternative Movie Lists
Overlook/Rookery: 460 pp., $29.95
Movie geeks are list-making animals. It begins with the frenzied -- and nonsensical -- annual compilation of "10 best lists" (as if a year were a meaningful aesthetic time frame), but it doesn't end there. We have the Sight & Sound polls that, every decade, attempt to determine the best movies of all time; there are the yearly AFI polls determining the bests of various movie breeds; decade-best lists whenever the calendar year ends in a zero; best performance boxes tacked onto obituaries when major stars die. And that says nothing of book-length lists by various arbiters of cinematic taste -- many only dubiously qualified.
Generally speaking, little but idle argument is created by this peculiar form of sub-critical activity. But that's not to say that it is incapable of reinvention, and that's what editor Richard T. Kelly has done in "10 Bad Dates With De Niro." His strategy is simply to ask a bunch of cinematically knowledgeable people, largely British, to create "10 best lists" on all sorts of arcane movie topics and write them down, ruminatively, gracefully. It's possible, I suppose, that Kelly initially imagined this as a satire on "listomania," but the result is quite the opposite. His book, which has a satisfying chunkiness, is perhaps better understood as a highly stylized collection of 80 essays, each consisting (except for one piece by Steven Soderbergh) of an introduction followed by 10 paragraphs, listing in reverse order, for example, the 10 worst wigs in movie history, the 10 most enviable movie nightclubs, 10 great uses of poetry in film and 10 great movie endings.
These pieces are not (and cannot be) arranged chronologically, and that's a good thing. Movies pop in and out of our heads in quite an arbitrary, almost free-associative way. And many of them tug at memory not because of their narrative perfection or intellectual profundity, but because someone does something unforgettably quirky. Quite bad movies get loved for no logical reason and quite good ones acquire a medicinal taste that prevents us from returning to them -- which is to say that Kelly's book is more in tune with the way we actually experience movies than those volumes that plod from the Zoetrope to the DVD, linking movies to socio-historical-technological trends while failing to recognize all the weird stuff we get off on.
Take, for convenient example, those bad dates with Bobby. Until contributor Demetrios Matheou noticed it, no one else had observed that he has a tendency to behave wretchedly toward the opposite sex in his movies (Matheou names his desertion of Amy Brenneman in "Heat" as his worst transgression). I might argue that his verbal rape of a schoolgirl in "Cape Fear," unmentioned by the critic, seems his nastiest bit of work. But what we can't argue is that sexual danger is his business, the heart of his perverse appeal -- and noting it in meticulous detail is very good critical business.
Kelly's contributors have sharp eyes for minutiae. They list the great movie staircases, nightclubs and ego-addled architects. There are lists of Christopher Walken's enduringly, endearingly eccentric line readings; of the worst wigs in movie history (the palm goes to Ian McKellen's rug in "Scandal"); of nutsy pianists (the prizewinner is George C. Scott, in "The Changeling," a movie I could now kick myself for not seeing). A little more conventionally, there's a list by Kelly himself of 10 movies woefully undervalued by the critics that are actually very good pictures. I'm still dubious about some of them, but a big yes to "Mary Reilly" ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" as seen by a serving girl) and, yes, to "Ishtar," which is his Numero Uno. The blind camel is alone worth the admission price, and the film is, in fact, a hilarious, highly original farce (its budget overruns were reviewed instead of the picture itself). Note to critics: Just because a movie's cost equals that of a hospital's, it does not necessarily follow that a medical facility would be built if the picture went unmade.
There's also a compilation of best animal performances, with the tragic donkey of "Au Hasard, Balthazar" judged the winner. (I've never been able to make myself see a film in which an animal is excessively tormented.) But I am pleased to see Pal, who cross-furred as the original Lassie, solidly ensconced in fifth place. My only question here is why Flicka, the jug-head pony who is gentled into civility by Roddy McDowall in "My Friend Flicka," does not rate a mention.
Speaking of cross-dressing, Kelly's expert on that topic, Ryan Gilbey, grants first place to Johnny Depp in "Before Night Falls," an arguable selection in my opinion, but does at least grant fifth place to Bugs Bunny in "What's Opera, Doc?" in which he and Elmer Fudd enact a libestod, complete with Wagnerian score. It is not only the subtlest drag performance I've ever seen, but it also occurs in what may be the most sublime movie ever made at Warner Bros. OK, OK, perfection is more easily attained in a seven-minute short subject than in a two-hour feature, but as a bonus, Gilbey throws in this astonishing factoid: the Wabbit has appeared in drag upward of 40 times over the course of his 57-year career. Still, I don't care what Gilbey's implying: I believe Bugs is heterosexual, even though, come to think of it, I don't recall ever seeing him romantically involved with a female bunny.
What's going on here is a form of genre criticism -- even though David Hare, the playwright, asserts (in the course of listing 10 movies that achieve greatness by avoiding genre clichés) that "All great work is now outside genre" -- but sliced and diced in an arresting new way. What these writers are mostly doing is isolating genre elements and examining them closely to find the aspect of the scene or shot that permits it to transcend our dulled expectations. A thousand dames with pretty legs have descended movie staircases, but there's only one Barbara Stanwyck making that journey unforgettable. It's the ankle bracelet, stupid, held briefly in close-up in "Double Indemnity."
By the time you come to the end of "10 Bad Dates" you will find that you've been exposed to, and forced to contemplate, just about everything worthwhile in movie history, from "Swiss Miss" to "Shanghai Express" (harnessing Sternberg's "exotic artifice to the mood of romantic fatalism" in Graham Fuller's fine phrase). You will also be closer to the essential truth about movies, which is that they achieve their best effects, the things that stay with us and make a few of them seem forever great, through the most ephemeral means -- a curl of smoke, a curl of hair, the curl of a lip.
This does not mean that you will ever stop arguing with these writers. I cannot imagine how Fuller left "The Holly and the Ivy" off his list of great Christmas movies -- defeated Margaret Leighton comes home to her stuffy clergyman father (Ralph Richardson) and his bedraggled wife (Celia Johnson) and finds highly conditional contentment as the home fire burns. OK, it's not as unconsciously savage as his first choice, "It's a Wonderful Life," but it catches the sadness and suppressed fury of the holidays poignantly.
But enough. Do not be misled by this book's snappy title. It is a stimulating, necessary volume -- and virtually alone among cinematic studies in the wit of its arguments and the seductiveness of its style. *
Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including, most recently, "Film on Paper."