Richard Schickel—the Time critic who has been writing about movies for a living since 1965—estimates in the opening chapter of Keepers that he has seen roughly “22,590 films, or about 294 of them a year. Which means that two out of every three days, for a long time now, I have been at the movies.” Keepers is the distillation of a lifetime of moviegoing knowledge, a collection of must-sees with a few don’t-bothers thrown in to keep things lively. It also serves as a kind of memoir for Schickel, a reminder that he’s known and loved and respected by a good many filmmakers.
Starting with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and winding up with No Country for Old Men (2007), Schickel takes us on a tour of not only critically acclaimed masterworks but also the movies he has a soft spot for personally. He makes the case for all-time classics such as Casablanca (1942), as well as lesser-known fare such as Bette Davis’s Mr. Skeffington (1944), often within the same page. Schickel doesn’t mind ruffling some feathers, going after 1939’s Gone with the Wind (“a faux epic”), The Wizard of Oz (“It wants so desperately to be liked, it pants with its need to be adored”), and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (“Ostensibly a romantic comedy . . . the movie is, to me at least, distinctly unmerry. . . . I take full responsibility for my failure to embrace it”).
A biographer and documentarian concerned with the lives of great directors, Schickel approaches the project with a great deal of respect for those behind the camera. He seems to appreciate the pros more than the virtuosos:
Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, Bergman, De Sica, Ford, and on and on—their contributions to film history are far larger than those of Welles. . . . I think the contributions of someone like Hawks or Hitchcock are more important than Citizen Kane. Their films set the tone for entire decades. Pleasure, multiplied a dozen times in some of these cases, needs to be reliable, something we can count on.
Schickel hopes that his writing will inspire the reader not only to look into some films they otherwise might have missed—he makes an impassioned case for a home video release of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, for instance—but also to push back if they disagree.
If this book is not a pleasure to read and does not trigger some reflection on your part, then it will have failed in its purpose. You are supposed to argue with me—Why this? Why not that? We should agree to disagree, but I hope in a civilized way. Where once we did not take movies seriously enough, we now, I think, oftentimes take them too seriously, arguing our cases too loudly.
In that spirit, then, allow me to suggest, in an entirely civilized way, that Keepers spends a bit too much of its time focused on the films of Schickel’s youth. Roughly three-quarters of the book is spent recounting films that were released before he even started writing about film regularly. One can’t help but feel that the major works of New Hollywood and everything that came after it are given short shrift. This happens, occasionally, with such projects: For instance, David Thomson’s ‘Have You Seen . . . ?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008), features just 67 films from the 1990s and 145 from the 1930s.
Of course, it’s possible that the 1930s were objectively twice as great as the 1990s. More likely, though, it is a simple function of time: We’ve had more of it to canonize the studio system classics, less of it to give the same treatment to modern fare. It feels like an unconquerable bug in such collections. Conventional wisdom must be addressed and there’s so much more of it about ye olden days of filmmaking. Consider Schickel’s discussion of The Searchers (1956):
I was mildly dubious about it; it seemed to me not quite routine, but also not all it might have been. I had not, however, reckoned with the enormous power of John Wayne’s performance. In its rage, in its implac-ability, in its sheer command on the screen, its complexity, it is towering.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more succinct statement of the conventional wisdom as it pertains to Ford’s classic western. And that, at least to me, isn’t terribly interesting. Far more intriguing is Schickel’s tossed-off aside about Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966): “I don’t suppose that Blow-Up is all we cracked it up to be at the time. (There’s a review of it in my files that makes my ears burn now.)”