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'Keepers' Isn't One: A Critic's Highlight Reel Lacks Spark

The truth and trouble of criticism is that it never really leaves behind personal opinion. At best it heightens that opinion by placing it in the framework of an argument, but no matter what, the exhibition of authority while judging art will always function somewhat as a masquerade.

Richard Schickel, for decades the film critic at Time Magazine and currently a writer for truthdig.com, points to this tension in the very title of his new book, Keepers: The Greatest Films — and Personal Favorites — of a Moviegoing Lifetime. Are greatest and favorites synonymous in this case? Not quite. They do often align, but as Schickel moves chronologically from silent movies to the 21st century, he highlights many movies that, despite or even because of their flaws, bring him joy — movies that he feels little need to make a case for beyond their being a source of pleasure.

Schickel, through both his writing and separate career as a documentary director, is well known for his knowledge of, and passion for, film history. And this book will undoubtedly swell any reader's to-watch list. But the ultimately underwhelming experience of reading Keepers also cements the notion that good criticism is more dependent on the quality and persuasiveness of an argument than on the art it takes as its subject.

Schickel rarely delves too deeply into his choices: a vote of recommendation will be backed up by a page or two of plot description and brief analysis. It's not that he doesn't have more to say. As he mentions throughout, he's written books on some of the actors and directors he discusses (Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen) and his essay collection Matinee Idylls contains longer essays on some of them as well. But here he seems to be going for something more conversational, less definitive.

Once you settle into the book's rhythms and realize that Schickel isn't interested in pushing his arguments beyond the surface, there is some pleasure to be found in that kind of large-scale overview. What's missing, however, is a captivating over-arching structure. Keepers doesn't function as a memoir — this isn't a book about meaningful movies that illuminate Schickel's biography. Neither is it a book that puts forward a major critical argument. In one chapter, Schickel does claim that "movies now ... very largely concern psychopathic behavior." But he doesn't return to the thesis.

The closest he gets to a mission statement is when he writes about "the pleasure principle" — the idea, put forward early in the book, that movies "exist, first and foremost, to entertain." The way Schickel describes his favorite films — preferring ones that don't "breathe hard" (The Day the Earth Stood Still), that are "just out for a good time" (It's a Gift) or are "lacking in fuss and feathers" (Dodsworth, as well as the acting of Claude Rains) — leaves little doubt about this most general preference.

Schickel isn't dogmatic; there are movies he recommends, such as Ingmar Bergman's Persona, that most people would classify as art house rather than entertainment. But that very distinction, and the use of the word "pleasure" as a divider between good and bad, is what's most intellectually objectionable about Keepers.

Hardly anyone would argue that they don't seek pleasure from their movies, but the way Schickel uses the word assumes we can all agree that pleasure only exists in certain forms: as comedy, action and romance. Some dramas make the cut, but the notion that an unabashedly intellectual film (a "ponderous" one, as Schickel writes), or one more conceptual than narrative could also bring pleasure is deemed exceptional, if not preposterous.

This view of pleasure pops up throughout Keepers and underlies most of its arguments, but Schickel doesn't go deep in explaining his rationale. It's a repeated frustration while reading Keepers: Schickel writes early on that "you are supposed to argue with me," but he never laces up his boxing gloves. He lays out his biases — including the directors and actors whom he has become friendly with over time — and his preferences, but often writes in a way that ends a conversation rather than pushes it. While defending the sentimental opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan, for instance, he writes that "there is honest and dishonest sentiment. This seems to me to be of the former kind, and I think we ought to let it rest there." All that's left to quibble with, at that point, are the movies Schickel has chosen to discuss, and that barely gets us to the pitch of a friendly dinner argument.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tomas Hachard
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