Richard Schickel's "Keepers": A Valuable and Heartbreaking Film Book

Richard Schickel, the accidental film critic who had a need for films long before he ever felt he had a desire to study or defend them, has written a sweet and softly sad book--his last--about those films that have meant the most to him. Schickel calls those films, and this book, Keepers (Alfred A. Knopf), and it manages to stimulate your mind and break your heart at the same time. It is a valuable book.

In other books and at other times, Schickel could be terse and acerbic, reaching his points quickly and decisively, but Keepers is ruminative, leisurely, an old man sitting by the fire and pointing out the high points of having watched at least twenty-five thousand films, and noticing who he was, what our country was,  when he first saw, for instance, The Public Enemy or Casablanca or Star Wars.  The scent of nostalgia is heavy in these pages, but it leads to some of Schickel's best writing, much of it beholden to Woody Allen, a man about whom Schickel has written quite a lot, and with whom he shares many sensitivities. (Schickel also unwisely defends Allen from the claims of Mia Farrow within these pages). Here is one example of Schickel's writing that feels very much like something out of an Allen journal:

One of the theaters I attended most regularly as a kid was the Times, about ten blocks from my Wisconsin home. Oddly, it had rear-screen projection. That's to say the projector was behind the screen--no beam flashing over our heads from the back of the auditorium. Seething with restlessness (no sensible adult would attend the Friday night show or the Sunday matinee), we knew the double feature (plus a newsreel, cartoon and "prevues") was about to begin when the projectionist appeared at the top of the left-hand aisle, newspaper folded under his arm, and strolled to the front of the theater to start the show. Such aplomb! We talked about that. Imagine reading the paper as marvels unfolded, unattended, on the screen before him. How cool was that? Except,  of course, the word "cool" was not in our lexicon at the time.

Schickel points out that the projectionist was just an IATSE member doing his job, and he also lets us know that he was just a journalist doing his job when an editor of Life magazine asked him to review a film, simply to fill space, meet an obligation. Schickel took the assignment and was hooked, and he came into the field--in the mid-sixties--when there were miles of space to be filled in magazines that were not only read but eagerly awaited, and people all across the country cared about films, argued about them, and were excited by popular fare as well as those foreign films that showed up first on college campuses and then made their way into suburban theaters.  Schickel's education about films and those who make them and appear in them took place on the job,  and if you have read the body of his work (almost twenty-five books and many documentaries), you can feel his expressiveness and confidence growing. 

The writer of Keepers has few axes to grind or grudges to flaunt,  and he is generous in noting the contributions or discoveries of fellow critics like Manny Farber or David Thomson or Andrew Sarris, although he is droll and precise in pointing out that Pauline Kael was a bully who wrote on waves of bombast--careless and self-centered. His lengthy pieces on people he loves or by whom he is intrigued--Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Cary Grant, Federico Fellini, Clint Eastwood--are excellent, precise javelins of thought stuck firmly in your mind, leaving you unable to see them in the same way again. Schickel, who was always somewhat uncomfortable in speaking of things as iconic or the best or the most extraordinary, offers a wonderful description of Orson Welles, that young genius who rose so high, so quickly, and then became a joke:

Laurence Olivier once said that "genius"--if that's what afflicted Welles--is a terrible waste of time. You spend too much time serving its primps and poses, not enough time doing the hard work required to serve its demands, its exigencies. Eventually it eats at your soul, hollows you out. You become spin-driven by your own pomposity. You become, finally, fatuous, a joke everyone but you is in on--though they dare not speak of that to your face. The possibility that Welles was not a genius at all presents itself. Maybe he was just a very talented guy self-deceived by too early success, running endlessly to catch up with an inflated image. In which case he becomes a very American tragedy--a spellbinder for those who wish to be spellbound. Leave him at that--this careless, infuriating fellow.

We are asked by the writer of Keepers to love what we love, and offer no defenses. Films are terribly personal, and we love them for reasons that are every bit as mysterious as those that dictate our heart's direction with people and places and times. If you think Schickel is off his mark in noting the excellence of something like Gold Diggers of 1933, hold that opinion until he concludes his description of the time in which it was released and what was intended by its makers. You will want to revisit this film or see it for the first time.

Richard Schickel/Sarah Rivera

Familiar titles and great names show up in these pages: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Walt Disney. The titles you expect are here as well, but there are some surprises, like Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, a film many have long admired, but which has failed to be given enough reverence because of the reputation of the flamboyant abusiveness of its director.  Schickel, the wise and older man, shoos away personal grievances the reader might have, prejudices and cemented ideas, and asks us to keep an open mind. Throughout the pages of Keepers, you can sense that Schickel is asking us to calm down, slow down, and be true to our feelings, our desires. The writer regrets judgments and ratings he has made in the past and just wants to remember what moved him.

Keepers is an elegantly written book, easy and pleasant to read, perfect for the movie lover, but deep within its pages is a mournful autobiography of a man who senses time and opportunities slipping away, and you put the book down determined to go back and rediscover the things that gave you pleasure, opened your mind, bonded you to those you loved. It can begin with films, but it will go far beyond that, until you find yourself re-examining everything in your life.

If I had to find a paragraph in Keepers that best illustrates the style and the mindset of Mr. Schickel today, it would be this one, about a W.C. Fields film that has given many of us so much pleasure.

In some ways It's a Gift is a careless movie. There are some sequences that would have been much better had they been more thoughtfully worked out. But the film is not about elegance. Its slapdash qualities are what it is most essentially about. If you want elegance, see Lubitsch, to take a convenient example. Sometimes--rarely, I must admit--movies need to be loose and shaggy, just out for a good time. That's what's happening here. Though I think it's fair to say that It's a Gift also holds true to its dim view of human nature in general. Fields would go on to appear in movies a little more carefully plotted and directed, but not, I think, funnier. In its way, it is a perfect package.

Keepers is a unique book--as a memoir and as a film-critic's summing up--and it delivers an emotional wallop long after you close its pages.

Some films noted in Richard Schickel's Keepers. Neither this list nor Mr. Schickel's book is chronological. 

The Circus (Charles Chaplin),  1928
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau), 1927
The Crowd (King Vidor), 1928
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg), 1932
Baby Face (Alfred E. Green), 1933
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian), 1932
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch), 1932
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale), 1935
Dodsworth (William Wyler), 1936
Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks), 1934
Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges), 1940
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges), 1941
They Were Expendable (Howard Hawks), 1945
Pitfall (Andre De Toth), 1948
Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne), 1945
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli), 1944
Henry V (Laurence Olivier), 1945
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), 1943
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz), 1945
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray), 1950
Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann), 1948
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder), 1950
The Earrings of Madame de...(Max Ophuls), 1953
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock), 1958
The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut), 1959
Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger), 1959
Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel), 1967
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick), 1964
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese), 1976
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg), 1982
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino), 1994
The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen), 1985
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood), 1992
Blue Velvet (David Lynch), 1986
Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), 2000


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