AFI #8: Schindler’s List

SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) OLIWIA DABROWSKA STEVEN SPIELBERG (DIR) 025 MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTDI’m not going to attempt to provide a review of Schindler’s List because frankly it’d be a waste of time. It is clearly one of the greatest films ever made and to offer my semi-professional opinion on it as a film would be unfair to Mr. Spielberg. Suffice it to say Schindler’s List is brilliant. As are the performances by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley.

Instead, what I’d like to offer is my opinion on the purpose of film in general. Because let’s be honest, Schindler’s List is not entertaining and I have argued on this blog before that the main purpose of movies is to entertain. When I saw Schindler’s List I walked out of the theater looking like I’d been run over by a train. I was emotionally drained and disturbed. I swore to myself I would never see it again, despite believing that the film was so important that everyone in the world had a responsibility to see it. I didn’t want to see it again because as someone who grew up in the Jewish community I had had my fill of Holocaust education. I knew everything I needed to know about these tragic events and, well, “never again.” Of course, Schindler’s List added the previously unknown story of Oskar Schindler and the Schindler Jews, but once I knew that story I didn’t want to be reminded again about the Nazis. But I have been pretty true to watching these AFI films again, and in order, so I carved out three hours recently and watched it again.

So is the purpose of film to entertain? As I said above, I have used “lack of entertainment” as an excuse for why I haven’t enjoyed some of the films on the AFI list. But in the past couple of days I have seen several films that reminded me that film is art and art can also be educational. In some cases, art can even be revolutionary. In that context, Schindler’s List is as important a film as has ever been made. If art can cause a sea change in ideas and understanding, then that too is a worthwhile purpose. Entertainment is important, but so is providing understanding and empathy and knowledge and context of history. So for that reason I can say Schindler’s List is one of the most important films ever made and if being important is a measure of art then Schindler’s List is also a great film — even though it is not “entertaining” in the popular sense.

Ultimately I go to films to be entertained, but as a lifelong learner I also go to films to be educated. Documentary films do this, but so does drama (fiction or based on true events). For example, just because Dances With Wolves is fiction does not mean it does not effectively educate viewers on the events surrounding the extinction of Native Americans. And of course, any drama is “based on” true events. Filmmakers take literary license and that’s ok. Even documentary filmmakers take license and spin stories to their narrative.

I also watch films to be moved. I was thinking about this very thing the other day when I was coming out of a screening of Kill Your Darlings, which was based on true events. I loved the film, and I loved it because it was a tremendous story and I love a good story. I always say I like to be entertained, but what I really mean is that I love to be taken on a journey. It’s why I love to read fiction and why I love movies and even story-driven television shows. And it’s why I have spent close to two years now watching every damn film on the AFI top 100 list!

Next: Lawrence of Arabia

AFI #91: Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice was one of the films on the AFI list I wasn’t overly excited about seeing again. To begin with, I’d seen it. But I also have a hard time watching Holocaust-related films because when you grow up Jewish you pretty much have to see it all — from Hollywood films to documentaries to short films about butterflies (my MOT friends who went to Hebrew School will get this reference). But then I started watching Sophie’s Choice yesterday and I was immediately drawn in to this amazing film.

All discussion of Sophie’s Choice must begin and end with Meryl Streep. Say what you want about Streep, but it’s no accident she has been nominated for 16 Academy Awards. She won her second “Best Actress” award for her role as Sophie, and frankly I’m not sure how an actress can perform any better. I didn’t think for one second that she wasn’t a Polish immigrant in this film…she was astonishing.

Sophie’s Choice is an actor’s film, by which I mean the three leading roles carry the action throughout and the film is entirely dependent on those performances. I suspect Streep knew what she was getting into when Alan Pakula cast her, but lost in Streep’s magnificence were two wonderful performances by Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol. Sophie’s Choice marked the feature film debut for Kline and his work as Sophie’s “mad lover” Nathan was very memorable and clearly indicative of things to come for this Oscar winner. And then there was Peter MacNicol in only his second film, playing “narrator” Stingo. MacNicol never did turn into a great film star, but he has won a handful of Emmy Awards for great performances in a whole host of TV shows from Ally McBeal to 24 and Grey’s Anatomy. This acting ensemble was fabulous and it’s quite remarkable that the film didn’t even get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

That year’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to Ghandi, which was a great film but did not even make the AFI Top 100. Also nominated that year were two films that did make the AFI list (Tootsie and E.T.) along with The Missing and The Verdict. Sophie’s Choice certainly deserved to be nominated…it did get nominated for the Golden Globe.

Sophie’s Choice is definitely worth seeing again if you haven’t seen it in a while. Most people know it because of the horrific “choice” itself that Sophie had to make at her arrival at Auschwitz, but it’s so much more than that. It is funny at times, and heartwarming, but ultimately it’s a tale of man’s inhumanity to man and how difficult “recovery” can be. It’s also a commentary on madness (the Nazi kind and the kind that afflicts everyday people like Nathan). I was glued to the screen this time around and really, really loved Sophie’s Choice.

Next up: AFI #90 Swing Time