Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Desert Island DVD's

At some time or another all movie-lovers have encountered the notorious "desert island" question. You know what I'm talking about: the one that goes "If you could only have X number of movies with you while you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life, which ones would they be?" It's a question, I've noticed, not dissimilar from the one posed at the end of George Pal's 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine wherein Alan Young notices that Rod Taylor has returned to the post-apocalyptic future bringing only three books along with which to re-start civilization and he asks his friend's housekeeper, "What three books would you have taken?"

Although the likelihood of finding ourselves in such a situation is small indeed, answering such a unique query is an immensely fun and, quite frankly, challenging task because it forces one to consider what films one could absolutely not live without. The resulting list would not necessarily be a list of "favorites" or even of "greatest films ever seen" (although it could certainly include either) but rather a list of "personal essentials," the movies that one could watch over and over again for the rest of one's life and never get tired of.

Well, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz has addressed this question (and has inspired other critics, such as Jim Emerson, to do the same). Matt's parameters for the exercise involve "10 feature films, one short and a single, self-contained season of a TV series... NO CHEATING. Every slot on the list must be claimed by a self-contained unit of media." He elaborates, for example, that the Godfather series (and the Lord of the Rings trilogy I presume) would not count as "one long film."

So, with all this in mind, here are my answers to the "desert island" question. First, my picks for the short and the series and then my ten movie choices (in no particular order).

VINCENT - For my short film, I had a hard time thinking of anything that wasn't animated. I considered a number of Warner Bros. shorts including "The Rabbit of Seville," "What's Opera, Doc?" (which Matt chose), "Duck Amuck" (which Jim chose), as well as the Roger Rabbit shorts, some Pixar shorts and one of the Fleischer Superman or Popeye cartoons. In the end, though, I decided on a quirky, lesser-known stop-motion-animated black-and-white short from the fertile imagination of a young Disney animator named Tim Burton (and since I had to ultimately remove The Nightmare Before Christmas from my top ten, this seemed fitting). Vincent tells the tale of a relatively normal-looking but eccentric young boy named Vincent Malloy who lives with his mother, younger sister and dog Abercrombie. Secretly Vincent is obsessed with Gothic literature, horror stories and other strange subject matter. His primary wish is to be Vincent Price (who, appropriately, narrates this story) and as he pretends to engage in such quintessentially "Price-like" activities as burying his wife alive, running a wax museum and experimenting on his dog, Vincent tragically succumbs to his fantasies and gets sucked into the abyss of his own mind out of which his soul will be lifted "nevermore." Like all of Burton's stuff, it's odd and dark but also very funny. It's no accident, I think, that the character of Vincent resembles Burton himself and that in this early piece of work we see his affection for the grotesque and bizarre combined with a self-awareness that if he's not careful to keep himself grounded in reality, his own weirdness will eventually prove his undoing. Since I can often have a somewhat twisted sensibility myself, this is a good lesson to remember.

THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES - One of the limitations imposed by this exercise is that we are not permitted any other type of media on this island. No music, no paintings, no literature, etc. That being the case, I would be forced to leave my cherished hard-bound copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes behind. However, in its stead — and taking the place of my pick for a television series — I would settle for the second season of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring the great Jeremy Brett (who is, in my mind, the definitive Holmes). Some may wonder why I chose Return rather than the preceding Adventures or subsequent Casebook and Memoirs. My reasons are threefold. First, the latter two seasons, due to such unfortunate circumstances as Brett's rapidly declining health and the show acquiring new producers who departed drastically from the source material, are vastly inferior to the first two. Second, although I love and enjoy David Burke's Watson from the first season, the late Edward Hardwicke, who was introduced after Burke declined, is my all-time personal favorite Watson. Finally, Adventures ends with "The Final Problem" where Holmes presumably perishes in a fight to the death with his nemesis Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Even though I know that Holmes actually survives and would eventually return, the program itself gives no hint of such a thing and I would rather spend the rest of my life watching Holmes' triumphant return rather than apparent death.

MANHATTAN - While there is a handful of Woody Allen movies that I consider the cream of his crop (including Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors and The Purple Rose of Cairo) Manhattan is the one that I find myself continually coming back to. Perhaps because it is by far his most gorgeous-looking movie (with stunning black-and-white cinematography by that genius know as Gordon Willis). Perhaps it is that luscious score of timeless Gershwin melodies. Perhaps it is the story's delicate balance between hilariously funny comedy and surprisingly moving drama. Perhaps it is the perfect cast of actors (featuring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Wallace Shawn and Meryl Streep). Perhaps it is the collection of iconic sequences such as the wonderful montage of New York images cut to "Rhapsody in Blue" and featuring the opening lines of Woody's book, Woody and Diane discussing relationships as they wander among the cosmos, Woody's listing of things that make life worth living, Woody's running across town to reach Tracy, etc. I don't know. Whatever it is, it all works for me. I never tire of this lovely little gem of a movie.

DIE HARD - Sometimes you just want to watch the hero overcome all odds to be victorious and see the bad guys get theirs. To that end, you can't do much better than Die Hard (although it was extremely difficult to not include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars or one of my favorite Bond movies). The film has watch-like precision in its construction of environment, character, suspense, emotion and, of course, action. Bruce Willis is the smart, resourceful and incredibly vulnerable cop who matches wits with the equally intelligent, classy and deadly Alan Rickman in the claustrophobic confines of a Los Angeles skyscraper. It's the closest an action film can get to being "high art," not to mention it's a tremendous amount of fun. I already watch it every Christmas. Can't break with tradition.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN - Being alone and isolated on a desert island, one would obviously have to be able to laugh at their situation to keep from losing one's mind. Consequently, an uproarious comedy would be an essential part of one's limited DVD stash. There are a number of comedies I would love to take with me (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Dr. Strangelove, Groundhog Day, etc), but Mel Brooks' 1972 spoof Young Frankenstein seems to make me laugh out loud the hardest and the most. I can barely recall certain classic lines ("I was gonna make espresso.") or comic moments (Gene Wilder's and Peter Boyle's "Puttin' on the Ritz" dance number) without at least cracking a smile. Having such an uplifting film in my possession should, at the very least, help me to accept my circumstances with "quiet dignity and grace."

SCHINDLER'S LIST - Besides being Spielberg's greatest achievement as a filmmaker, Schindler's List was a seminal film in my development as a cinephile. In fact, I have often referred to it as the greatest film I personally have ever seen or probably ever will see (although I was pleasantly surprised at how affected I was by Terence Malick's magnificent Tree of Life, proving once again that one should never assume they won't find something better than what they've already seen because you just never know). By now everyone is familiar with the inspiring story of the German war profiteer who risked his life, his fortune and his reputation to save the lives of 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. A harsh, unflinching but essentially restrained and dignified depiction of man's inhumanity toward his fellow man, Schindler's List reaches higher and digs deeper than just about any other film out there. It seems strange to refer to such a brutal cinematic experience as one's "favorite" film, but it is mine. Not because it makes me feel good, but because it makes me want to be good (How many films can you say that about?). It is also a rich, nuanced work of art that yields more depth and truth with each subsequent viewing. I've often thought that if I had to be stranded on a desert island with just ONE movie, this would be it. Naturally it had to make my top ten.

JAWS - Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that Steven Spielberg is my favorite director. Combined with the fact that he is an amazingly versatile artist, it is only appropriate that I bring more than one of his films to the island with me (having already chosen Schindler's List). Picking a second one, however, is a virtually impossible task. Since I already jettisoned Raiders of the Lost Ark in favor of Die Hard, that leaves only two of my "Spielberg essentials:" E.T. or Jaws (Don't get me wrong; I also adore Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Close Encounters, Minority Report and Empire of the Sun, but they just don't quite make the cut). In choosing between the remaining two, it really just comes down to what emotion I feel is lacking from my collection. I already have a couple films to make me cry, but I don't have one to scare me (since the catharsis of fear that comes from watching a horror movie is an important element of dealing with fear in real life ). Since I was forced to leave off my favorite Hitchcock film as well (Psycho) Jaws should serve that function nicely. The truth is, I love the film so much I already watch the it at least once a year (usually in the summer), so I know I'll never tire of it. It should also keep me from going swimming in the waters surrounding my island.

THE SECRET OF NIMH - Like Matt, I also figured I should include an animated feature on my list. Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Prince of Egypt, The Incredibles or Wall-E were all candidates for this honor, but in the end I found myself leaning toward a lesser-known, almost forgotten, chapter in the history of cinematic animation: former Disney animator Don Bluth's 1982 The Secret of NIMH. Bluth's debut feature didn't garner quite the commercial success as some of his later efforts did (An American Tail, Land Before Time or Anastasia), but over the years it has gained quite a cult following who respond very favorably to its emotional, beautifully animated tale of a widowed mouse courageously fighting for the survival of her children in the face of some pretty overwhelming obstacles. It's a dark, haunting and surprisingly violent "kid's movie" (I still can't believe it got a G rating) and yet it's also funny, sweet and ultimately joyous. I saw it as a youngster and it still stirs my soul to this day.

THE HUDSUCKER PROXY - Naturally I just had to include a film by those wacky Coen brothers and although it may not be their best, their highly stylized homage to Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Fritz Lang called The Hudsucker Proxy holds a special place in my heart as it is the film that introduced me to their bizarre, subversive and enormously entertaining world. It was either ignored or despised upon is release (though the Coens' next film Fargo made them filmmaking celebrities), which is a shame as I think it's just as intelligent, rewarding and visually striking (perhaps even more so in case of the latter) as anything else they've ever done. Fortunately, it's gained some popularity over the years... though not quite as much as the hula hoop itself. "You know, for kids!"

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN - I love musicals. Sometimes I wish I lived in one. Often, right in the middle of a fairly menial task, I will launch into a song of some sort and imagine that I am being accompanied by an entire orchestra. That being the case, I have little doubt that I would find myself singing quite a bit on my own little island ("On my own little island in my own little sea, I can be whatever I want to beeeee..." Uh, sorry!) and thus should have a movie musical in my collection. Several recommended themselves to me (such as Top Hat and Fiddler on the Roof) but when it comes down to it, if I had to have just one movie musical to watch over and over again for the rest of my life, it would have to be Singin' in the Rain. No other musical captures the optimistic nature of song and dance in the face of adversity than this one does (particularly in the now immortal sequence featuring Gene Kelly nonchalantly defying the elements). If it ever rains on the island, you can guess what I'll be doing.

UNFORGIVEN - Although westerns are not exactly my favorite genre, I have a small number of them which I happen to love (High Noon, Stagecoach, The Searchers, the remake of True Grit and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). At the top of the heap, though, is Clint Eastwood's 1991 masterpiece Unforgiven. It is probably the best western I've ever seen and it accomplishes that feat by being a sort of "anti-western:" a de-mythologizing melodrama that removes all of the romance, heroism and glory of the genre and replaces it with the gritty ugliness and blind, stupid luck that probably more accurately reflected that period of our history. More than anything, though, Unforgiven is a meditation on the nature of human evil, the possibility of redemption and the dehumanizing effect of violence. It's a phenomenal film that I could watch over and over again.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION - Although I have several films on my list whose function is to help me "escape" and/or make me feel good in my loneliness, I also need films that acknowledge that life can indeed suck (sometimes a lot) and that keeping one's faith in the midst of so much suffering is really the right response to have. Schindler's List fulfills that role as does this one. Frank Darabont's brilliant adaptation of Stephen King's novella is a powerful, life-affirming expression of the courage and tenacity of the human spirit. It confronts the harsh realities of life but does not succumb to despair. In our increasingly bleak and nihilistic society, that is a precious commodity. Or as Tim Robbins says in the film "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." Hope springs eternal.

Incidentally, that final helicopter shot of the beach never fails to make cry. Ever.


  1. Love this one Dame. Some choices really surprised me. I feel like I learned something new about you!

  2. Thanks, Deb. What can I say? I'm just full of surprises.

  3. What a grand list of Desert Island fare you have amassed, Damian. I could live it with just about all of these. Great that you spotlighted 'Unforgiven', especially in 20th anniversary year. Ahh... 'Shawshank', never tire of that one, too. Excellent post on this. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Leo. When all is said and done I found I leaned very heavily on English-language films from the 70's, 80's and 90's (with only one film from the 50's). Probably should increase my familiarity with films from the 20's, 30's and 40's as well as my foreign repertoire.

  5. Love this post. It motivates me to come up with my own Desert Island DVD list. So be on the lookout, until then I'm just going to enjoy your well crafted list with your insightful commentary.

  6. Thanks, Dad. I was hoping you'd see this and maybe come up with your own. I'd be really interested to see what you pick.

  7. Great post about the Granada series!

    Brett was truly the best Holmes ever. Burke and Hardwicke complemented well to make for a truly great interpretation.