I recall an interview with William Faulkner in which he said that he didn’t read books but read in books, the distinction being that he seldom consumed a volume from start to finish but preferred to stick his toes in here and there, read favorite chapters over and over, proceeding from finish to start if necessary.
I don’t precisely follow Faulkner in this—although I do like to scandalize my alluring wife by reading the ends of novels before the beginnings—but it occurs to me that, over a lifetime, I have tended to dabble in movies rather than watch them from opening credits to finishing scroll. Why is this? I’m not sure. Impatience, I suppose—but also the same instinct that compels me to find out how a novel ends before I have started it. I tend to be bored by stories—my idea of a complicated plotline is an episode of Seinfeld—and I am considerably more interested in styles of writing or moviemaking, language and stagecraft, than in what happens next.
The practical result of this is that there is a shockingly long list of “classic” movies that I have never seen in their entirety. This is a cocktail party line that packs about the same punch as announcing that I have never watched a Super Bowl in my life, or set foot in Florida. For the list includes such shockers as The Godfather I, II, and III, Gone with the Wind, Schindler’s List, Ben-Hur, Midnight Cowboy, Pulp Fiction, Some Like It Hot, Jaws, The African Queen, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Chinatown, The Sound of Music, Titanic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Shampoo, Apocalypse Now, The Wizard of Oz, all the Star Wars installments except The Empire Strikes Back, and all the Indiana Jones movies except The Temple of Doom. And on and on.
I confess that I take a certain perverse pleasure in all this: I once lived a block away from the blockbuster theater in Washington where Star Wars played for a year (1977) or more—and never set foot inside, nor was tempted to do so. And yet, through some mysterious alchemical process, I have somehow managed to see (largely on television, now on YouTube) most of the relevant sequences in most of these movies, and so can readily identify Joe Buck, or J. J. Gittes, or Jack Dawson, or Judy Garland’s companions in Oz, or the shark that menaces Amity Island. For any consumer of popular culture, reader of a newspaper, or watcher of TV, it’s impossible to avoid these references. Alas, I know the title of the theme song to M*A*S*H and the Close Encounters five-note signal in spite of myself.
To be sure, there are gaps in the catalogue. Reference was recently made in these pages to Luca Brasi (The Godfather), and, not understanding the reference, I was obliged to repair to YouTube to witness the poor man’s murder by garrote. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. After decades of seeing repeated versions (including parodies, sometimes hilarious) of the famous scene in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) addresses his mirror—“You talkin’ to me?”—I watched the movie from start to finish and, sad to say, with the exception of Bernard Herrmann’s famous score, found it considerably less impressive than its reputation.
Case in point: I am an extravagant admirer of Muriel Spark’s brilliant novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), and after 1969, on TV and elsewhere, it was difficult to avoid witnessing Maggie Smith’s scene in the movie version in which she breaks down while describing the love affair of Dante and Beatrice during a classroom slide show. Recently it occurred to me that, liking the novel as much as I do, I ought to see the film, which, conveniently, was playing on some cable channel that evening. One hundred and sixteen minutes later, I emerged in a desperate state: I had never been so disappointed in a movie version of a much-loved novel, not to mention enduring Rod McKuen’s Academy Award-winning song (“Jean”) not once but twice.
Which may explain the obverse side of this particular character flaw. While studiously avoiding certain films I should probably see, I watch a handful of movies over and over with undiminished pleasure. No doubt the list tells more about me than about their qualities as film—The Browning Version, Harvey, Our Man in Havana, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the 1941 screwball comedy with Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, not the 2005 Brangelina vehicle), The Big Sleep, The Third Man, any Busby Berkeley musical or Terry-Thomas comedy—and the discerning reader will detect a certain pattern of taste. But so what? Give me Destry Rides Again before Dances with Wolves anytime.