Wednesday, December 22, 2010


The Greatest Film I've Ever Seen

By Damian Arlyn
The phrase "I know it when I see it," uttered by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding pornography, is an expression that, at one time or another, we've probably all heard used to encapsulate the frustration of failing to define something whose basic nature seems otherwise unexplainable. I mention it only because I've been wondering lately if art isn't also like that. It is nigh impossible to define and/or analyze a great work of art to such a degree that the elements that make it timeless and brilliant can be adequately determined, nor a basic "formula" be found. It's like the color yellow. You can't really define it. You have to just point at it and say, "See that? That's it." When I think of some of the works of art that I consider to be among the greatest ever created — Shakespeare's Hamlet, Mozart's "Requiem," Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" — I find myself struggling to find the proper words to capture their greatness. In the end, I can't really articulate what makes them great. I have to just point it out to others and see who "gets it" and who doesn't. Well, this piece that I am writing for the "Spielberg Blog-a-thon" (organized and run by Adam Manzie of Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine) is about a film that I think falls into that category.

To be clear, I realize how absurd it is for any individual to declare a particular film the "greatest ever made," because there's just no way that anybody can possibly know that (unless maybe they've seen every film ever made...which, of course, nobody has). However, I do think that a person can make a definitive statement about the greatest film that he/she has ever seen (based on whatever criteria he/she wishes to use). Nevertheless, you would be hard-pressed to find a cinephile who's willing to commit to such a monumental claim (the most you might get out of them is their personal "favorite" film, but even that is rare). Why is this? Well, my theory is twofold: first off, they know that their pick could change with the very next film they watch and secondly, they are well-aware of the fact that it's really just a subjective opinion which says more about them than it does about the film itself. I myself possessed this reluctance for the longest time. Whenever I was asked what my favorite film was (or, even more rarely, what was the best film I'd ever seen), I hemmed and hawed for a while, throwing out several disclaimers and mentioning a list of about eight or nine films that could qualify for that honor.

Over the years, though, I have found myself returning to one film over and over again: the film that had a profound impact on its director, on the culture at large and on me personally (as a cinephile certainly but also as a human being). It was the film I held up as the standard by which to measure all other films. It was the film I thought of whenever anyone spoke of "cinematic high art" or how the motion picture medium could achieve its true potential. I would discover new and profound truths contained within its frames every time I watched it. Far from diminishing in quality with each viewing, it actually improved in my eyes. I finally had to admit the truth to myself. This is the greatest film I've ever seen and probably ever will see.

It's Steven Spielberg's masterpiece Schindler's List.

I first heard of Spielberg's "Holocaust flick" in the summer of 1993 when I was reading an issue of Entertainment Weekly. I was flipping through their "Winter Movie Preview" section when I turned the page and saw the above photograph of Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler addressing "his" Jews staring back at me. I knew who Spielberg was because I had grown up with E.T. and the Indiana Jones adventures and had only recently become interested in him again because of the movies Hook and Jurassic Park. Like a lot of people at the time, my reaction was one of confusion and skepticism. This did not seem like the kind of film that Spielberg was typically known for. Could he pull it off or would it be a failure on a massive scale? I was curious to say the least.

When the film was eventually released during the winter of my senior year in high school, I went with my dad to the movie theater on Ninth Street in Corvallis, Ore. to see it. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I knew the film was going to be serious. I knew it was going to be heavy and, not least of all, I knew it was going to be very violent, but I also had a sense that it was going to be worth seeing. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was at a crucial point in my development as a cinephile. I had always loved movies, but I approached them primarily as a form of entertainment. The idea that they could also function as a means of artistic expression was a concept I was only beginning to become vaguely familiar with (prompted especially by a film history class, led by my good friend Tucker Teague, which I had recently attended). Needless to say, I was also moving rapidly toward a major crossroad in everyone's life. I was 17 years old. Graduation was just around the corner and I was preparing to leave home and head off to college to try and figure out who I was and make something of myself. All this served as the context for my introduction to the film and may even help to partially explain why the film had such a big impact on me.

When the lights went down and the movie started, I was actually bewildered at first because I had understood that the entire film was in black-and-white. What I was seeing was in color. A hand was striking a match and lighting some candles. A Jewish family was gathered around a table in a small room celebrating the Sabbath. The patriarch was singing something in a language I didn't understand. Was this a mistake? Were my dad and I in the wrong movie? Soon the family faded from the scene (though the song/prayer could still be heard) but the candles were left behind. As one shot dissolved into the next, clearly signifying the passing of time, the candles burned further and further down (this also was when the main title appeared on the screen indicating to me that this was indeed Schindler's List, though I was still somewhat confused). Finally, the camera showed only a solitary candle with the flame about to burn itself out. I didn't notice it then but the candle and the background were already in black and white. Only the tiny flicker of flame was still in color. The flame soon extinguished and the resulting thin streak of smoke that flowed upward from it was followed by the camera. A train whistle was suddenly heard and the movie cut to a cloud of thick, gray smoke that poured forth from the smokestack of a locomotive. Now the film was completely in black-and-white and I knew I was in the right movie.

The greatest films have openings that are unforgettable. The Godfather has that wonderfully slow zoom-out with the heartbroken father seated in a dark room relaying his tale of woe to a mysterious figure ("I believe in America."). Citizen Kane has the magnificent montage of shots of that fortress Xanadu which culminates in a single whispered word ("Rosebud.") and a shattered snow globe. Schindler's List has the sequence I just described. There is so much going on just in that brief collection of sounds and images (Spielberg's symbolic use of color and its lack thereof, the imagery of the candles being snuffed out and the ensuing smoke, etc) that I could write the rest of my piece on it alone. Suffice it to say that from that opening, I already was engaged by the film. Indeed, I was captivated and that sensation never let up for the next three hours and 14 minutes (during which I wept a couple times). When it was completely over and the lights came up I noticed that most of the people who were in the theater with us also were still sitting there, dumbfounded. We all looked like we'd been sucker-punched. Slowly and silently, everyone started to get up and walk out including my father and I. As we often do, we talked about the movie in the car, though I don't remember much of what we discussed. What I do remember is his taking me by Fred Meyer on the way home and purchasing the film's soundtrack for me because among the many things that stood out to both of us was John Williams' sad, but achingly beautiful, musical score.

Like a lot of folks, my initial reaction to the film was one of shock. I was horrified by what I had seen on screen. I was shaken to the core of my being and consequently couldn't revisit the film for a long time afterward. I just knew that I loved it. It reached me in a way that very few films can or do. I also remember thinking that this was a different kind of movie than most of the other films I had seen...not just in terms of content but in terms of style. My clumsy way of characterizing it back then was to say that it felt "like a foreign film only it was in English; it didn't feel like a Hollywood movie at all." I was also astounded that it had been directed by the same man who was responsible for the movie I had seen only six months earlier that featured giant dinosaurs eating people. "This is not the same man. This can't be the same man," I thought to myself. Nowadays when I watch the film (having in the interim become far more familiar with the subtleties and nuances of Spielberg's general technique), naturally I can see his hand in the execution of this story, but in a sense I was right in my initial reaction. Schindler's List was not helmed by the same Spielberg who did Jaws, E.T. or even his previous serious efforts such as The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Schindler represented a major challenge for Spielberg. In bringing this story to the screen, he pushed himself in a way that very few filmmakers ever do. He did so not only technically but emotionally and spiritually as well. He re-connected with something in himself that he had denied for a very long time: his own Judaism. Making Schindler's List changed Steven Spielberg just as watching it changed me.

Although controversy has always surrounded Schindler's List, I myself wasn't aware of most of it upon its release. All I heard was praise for the film. This was probably just as well since my passionate love for the film would've blinded me to anything negative anyone would've said about it. As the years have gone on, and I've watched it numerous more times as well as familiarized myself with the various writings on it, I feel I am in a better position to understand and appreciate the problems that people have with it (David Mamet famously called it "emotional pornography"). I can acknowledge that Schindler's List may not be a "perfect" film (if such a thing even exists), but as the great Pauline Kael (who, incidentally, did not care for the film) once said, "Great movies are rarely perfect movies." There may be legitimate criticisms of Schindler's List, but they are not significant enough to undermine the overall greatness of the finished product. If Schindler missteps occasionally it does so because it reaches higher than most other films dare to. I've long thought it's better to strive for greatness and "fail" than aim for mediocrity and succeed.

I could talk at some length about the true story that the film represents, but by this point everyone already knows it. I could also go on and on about how impressive the film is in all of its technical areas (the stunning cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, the aforementioned music score by John Williams, the impeccable screenplay by Steven Zaillian, the striking editing by Michael Kahn, the excellent performances by all of the actors, etc) but since this piece is already getting too long I am going to conclude by attempting to explain not only why the film means so much to me personally but why I feel it belongs in the pantheon of the greatest art ever fashioned by humans. To those who have heard me expound on this subject before, some of this might sound a little familiar.

Schindler's List is more than just a Holocaust movie. Like all great works of art it transcends its subject matter. It is a meditation on the extremes to which we human beings can go. Not only is its depiction of human darkness, brutality and evil (as personified by the psychotic Nazi officer Amon Goeth) the most honest I have ever seen, but its portrayal of human goodness, courage and nobility (as represented in the complex, but ultimately righteous, person of Oskar Schindler) is the most compelling I have ever experienced. Rarely does a film so successfully highlight both the best and worst of humanity simultaneously. Like most Holocaust movies it doesn't shy away from showing the cruelty and inhumanity of the atrocities that the Nazis inflicted, but it also dares to depict the love, mercy and compassion that many exercised in the midst of so much bleakness and tragedy. Schindler's List not only opened my eyes to what cinema is capable of (particularly in how it can dramatize a serious subject with passion and dignity while still reaching a massive audience), but it also made me want to be a better human being (how many films can you say that about?). As I told someone recently, I would rather be inspired by goodness than merely repulsed by evil. Schindler's List does both. Like the film's opening sequence, it is more about lighting a candle than cursing the darkness.

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Great post Damian on an important film. It is not likely that Schindler's List will ever get the praise that it deserves in the public sphere. Certainly it is Spielberg's most important film so far. I realize now that it's been too long since I saw it last.
While Spielberg had gone serious before (with The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun), Schindler's List really was the first proof that he'd truly matured as an artist. He became such a megastar, in a way directors rarely do, so early that he became a corporation before his artistic growth had chance to finish and he was producing more movies than he was directing, many bad ones (such as The Goonies, Batteries Not Included). Schindler's showed us an entirely new side of him, though he's revereted back and forth since then. It is a great film, but my favorite film will always be Jaws simply because not only was it masterfully made, it is endlessly re-watchable. You can only put yourself through the emotional wringer of Schindler's so often. That's not a flaw, just the truth.

Thanks for the kind words, Tuck. I remember that you weren't quite as enamored with it as I was back when it came out (and probably for good reason), but I have always wondered if you were to watch it again what you'd think of it. Maybe when Lily gets old enough and mature enough to experience the violence, nudity and profanity of the film it might be worth revisiting with her.


What you say about only being able to watch SCHINDLER'S LIST only so many time is very true. I have seen it probably a dozen times in the 17 years that have elapsed since its release but those viewing were paced well apart. You are also right in that JAWS is far more re-watchable than SCHINDLER and indeed I watch it probably once a year (usually in the summer). As you said, that doesn't make it better or worse. It just makes it different.
It's great to read the recollections of somebody who saw this film in theaters. We've gotten a lot of those sorts of pieces in regards to Jaws, but this is the first (perhaps only) type of that piece we've gotten on Schindler's List. Good work, Damian.

I don't know what the greatest movie I've ever seen is, but you shouldn't be ashamed that Schindler's List is yours--it's a worthy canidate for that top spot, in my opinion. If I were to create my own personal list of the top ten greatest films I've seen, I would try to put it in somewhere.

I've always thought the backlash against the film was bizarre. Pauline Kael retired from film critiquing before she could write an official review of it, but I heard she said she thought it was "terribly miscast". Really? And all the other mud slung against the movie by David Mamet, Claude Lanzmann, Terry Gilliam, Michael Haneke and even Godard in recent years is, I think, just vile. I don't know if you've ever read the book Spielberg's Holocaust, but I tried reading it before the blogathon began; I had to immediately put it down, though, because the book is page after page of complaints that Spielberg had no right to portray the Holocaust onscreen. Seriously?

Ryan Kelly and I are currently writing a joint piece of the film, which, when finished, will probably conclude the blogathon. We're basically dealing with all of the criticisms of the film and whether or not they're valid. You said in this piece, Damian, that you don't think the film is perfect? Which parts do you think are flawed? We could really use your feedback.
I always forget what an old fogey I am. I saw Schindler's in the theater (twice) AND Jaws in the theater (though it was in a re-release a few years after its original one).
Thank you, Adam. As I said over in your comments section, I loved your piece too. I was considering doing more writing about the actual film itself (discussing some of the editing decisions and cinematography, certain sequences, actor performances and character moments, etc) but you did that so well in yours that I eventually decided to go with a more personal approach. I still wonder if I should've worked harder to defend my claim for it being the greatest film I've ever seen. Maybe I shall have to do that some other time. Lord knows I still have a lot to say about the film.

Also, I may not have made myself clear about the perfect/imperfect nature of the film. If so, that was just bad writing on my part. In my opinion the film is indeed perfect (for what it was intended to be at least), but, as you know, there are a number of people out there who find flaws in it. My point was just that even if it is flawed, it doesn't have to be perfect to be a great film. Many of the problems that people have with the films I do not share. The shower sequence, the girl in the red coat, the full-color ending and Schindler's breakdown are all moments that have garnered criticism but which I find to be some of the very elements that make the film great. Again, I just meant that I can see why people would have problems with those elements now whereas I wouldn't have even bothered to try to see their point of view back when I was younger. I get and appreciate their perspective, I just don't agree with it.
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