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Almost There

With Schindler's List, I have seen every movie on Mr Emerson's little list save one: W C Fields's 1934 vehicle, It's a Gift. Until just this minute, I was under the impression that It's a Gift wasn't available at the Video Room, but before committing to that here, I thought I'd ask the manager himself, and, sure enough, they've got it. But what I have to say doesn't require me to have seen It's a Gift. I know that I'll find it amusing; I'd have seen it long ago if it hadn't been for a clerk's mistake. What I want to share is the satisfaction of no longer having to watch a lot of uncongenial films. 

When Schindler's List came out, in 1993, I made a decision not to see it - never to see it. This wasn't a vow, but just a decision, which is why I never gave any thought to skipping it. But I put off seeing it until the end. My decision was based on a conclusion that I'd made after seeing Jurassic Park: a joyous filmmaker when he's having fun, Steven Spielberg becomes a manipulative bore when he's dealing with serious material. He does not trust his audiences to think for themselves, but instead wallows in vulgar grandstanding. (And vulgar people eat it up.) However beautifully made, his films are crass. They make you flinch.

As Schindler's List was ending (the parade of "Schindler Jews" and their children was borderline tacky; having identified a few of the people whose characters figured in Thomas Keneally's novelization, he ought to have identified them all - better not to have started), I saw at once that one of the changes that I am going to make to the list (remember, I have five) will be to substitute Alan Pakula's Sophie's Choice (1982) for Schindler's List. The earlier movie is incomparably more powerful. It features one of Meryl Streep's indelible roles - I can't think of a more outstanding performance - and the adaptation of William Styron's novel is one of the most beautifully faithful that I know of. Because the extensive concentration camp scenes focus exclusively on Sophie's concern for her missing child (you still don't know what her choice was), and also because so many scenes take place in the commandant's house, where Sophie is a house slave, the footage is not painful to watch. You open up, beginning to believe that nothing truly bad is going to happen to Sophie - nothing in the way of extermination, that is. It isn't until much later that we flash back to the terrible moment of the choice, which is presented completely out of sequence order. It is the climax of the film, and it packs a terrible wallop. A happy ending to Sophie's story has tugged at our optimism (although Ms Streep's undertones constantly signal otherwise), only to be crushed by a big surprise that fits like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. There is not an ounce of sentimentality in the production.

Indeed, thinking about the two films at the same time makes Schindler's List seem very sentimental indeed, but I'm not going to explore the comparison. Mr Spielberg, unfortunately, did not disappoint, and even though I was greatly moved by the story as it unfolded, I was left with the familiar feeling of having been used. I am not sympathetic to Steven Spielberg's cinematic enterprise (the Indiana Jones films excepted), and that's really all that anybody ought to hear me say. I found myself similarly unsympathetic to The Searchers, Intolerance, Modern Times, Do the Right Thing, Dirty Harry, and Easy Rider, so I won't be writing about them, either - except to explain why certain other films deserve to take their place on the list. There are plenty of other films on the list that I saw long ago and don't care to revisit - Fight Club, It's a Wonderful Life, Once Upon a Time in the West - and a few that I have recently revisited without much pleasure, such as Lawrence of Arabia  and Gone With the Wind. I've no interest in trying to persuade anyone that these are not good movies.

(Although I can't resist saying that, to me, the first half of Gone With the Wind is a screwball comedy very incongruously stuck in a blood-soaked epic, while the second half is just awful. Give me Carol Burnett's Went With the Wind any day.)

Did someone say "screwball comedy" in parenthesis? The most curious fact about the list is its implication of Mr Emerson's very unsophisticated sense of humor. I count exactly three screwballs on the list, and one of them, Some Like It Hot is very uncharacteristic of the genre in important ways. (Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise is very Viennese, but it's no screwball.) Movies such as The Graduate, Singin' in the Rain and Annie Hall are often billed as comedies, but not by me. But even if we include these, the number of comedies on the list does not exceed ten. Only ten percent of the greatest movies are comedies? I don't think so. And where's musical comedy, as in Top Hat? Although I'm not going to put them on this list, The Sting, The Producers (original version), It Happened One Night, Get Shorty, and Born Yesterday all belong on any "hundred greatest" list. So do Peter Sellers, Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Alec Guinness and Wendy Hiller, just to name a few of the great British comedians overlooked by Mr Emerson. (Guinness's Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn't begin to count.)

The delivery guy just showed up with It's a Gift. Back to work.

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