On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Favorite Movies--and Why

I suppose the easiest as well as one of the most self-indulgent activities is making a list of a favorite something-or-other, and I am about to indulge myself by discussing my favorite movies.  Movies have been a long-time passion of mine, but I am rather picky, and so I’ve tried to describe not only what I like but also why I like particular movies.  Every good list has categories, and mine is no exception.  I’ve divided my favorite movies into four categories: drama, adventure, mystery, and romance.  You will note that comedies aren’t listed though some of my favorites certainly have humorous elements.  And you would find no westerns on my shelf except a sort-of western, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and only a couple of war movies, including Schindler’s List

First on my list are the dramas, which strictly speaking could also be part of the other categories.  So movies like Bette Davis’s Now, Voyager and the last version of The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are also romances while Anatomy of a Murder and Rumpole of the Bailey or Harrison Ford’s Witness could be classified as mysteries.  Maybe I should dispense with categories and move on to the salient point that I discovered while contemplating my favorites: all of them reflect a way of life that is different from the common culture of today.  Few of the movies I love the most have been filmed within the last few years and even those are generally of another time, such as Downton Abbey, which is a great favorite of mine (see my April posting).

As I think about the pleasure I derive from the various movies in my collection such as I Remember Mama, which dramatizes my Norwegian heritage, and My Brilliant Career, set in Australia with a very young Judy Davis and Sam Neill, I know they please me, first, because I am not confronted with foul language or crude sexual encounters at the drop of a hat.  I’m disgusted with the former, and the latter is so prevalent on TV and contemporary movies it reminds me of the comment made by one of my favorite philosophers, C. S. Lewis.  He said about Hollywood that the movies managed to do what he thought was impossible: they made sex boring.  I have found that the movies concerned with sexual repression from the novels of E.M. Forster, A Passage to India, Howards End, and A Room with a View, treat the subject with delicacy and sensitivity while at the same time have a memorable impact.  (By the way, the music in Room is gorgeous.)  I also have three or four movies of Jane Austen’s novels of various quality but all quite enjoyable.

But I like action movies, too, and have watched Rob Roy, The Patriot, and Gladiator completely entranced, though I don’t own DVDs of them since they appear so regularly on TV.  They are interesting to my way of thinking because they show the measure of a man.  Just as exciting but a little more subdued are the English adventures I do own: The Four Feathers, Rogue Male, and Mountains of the Moon that also indicate character.  Jim Caviezel’s The Count of Monte Cristo is exciting and fun with a good script based on Dumas’s work and includes a charming romance.

Yearly, I take out my copy of Rebecca with Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier and settle in to watch a superb 1940's mystery.  Another mystery of an earlier era I find intriguing:  Dial M for Murder, while the made for TV mysteries, Morse and Miss Marple, also make the grade.  And speaking of Joan Fontaine, she can’t be beat in Jane Eyre with Orson Welles.  My twenty-two-year old granddaughter also classes this version as the best even though it omits one section from the book by Charlotte Bronte. Another excellent historical movie is The Name of the Rose, where Sean Connery’s character solves a mystery at a gloomy monastery during the time of the Inquisition. 

Well, the list could go on and on, but I expect you get the idea.  Besides the qualities of restraint and subtlety that typify the movies I admire, my choices always reflect a literary quality–not in the high-flown sense but as words carefully chosen by talented writers.  If the scripts don’t come from actual books or plays, they are written by professional screen writers, not blurted out by the actors.  Who wishes to hear ad libs, the mindless mutterings from actors, when an experienced writer does the job so much better?  Most of the cast from Downton Abbey have praised the series creator, Julian Fellowes, for his marvelous writing which has been a large part of its outstanding success.  And perhaps this last quality is the capper for me, since as a writer myself, I can appreciate not just the cinematic excellence of these movies, but the inherent literature that accompanies and informs them and takes us out of ourselves.  If movies are an imaginative escape, then I want it to be to a better or more interesting place.  They’re not heaven, but they can be a mighty nice temporary visit.