The personal movie library: what’s essential?

So here’s another post about movies. Please indulge me for a moment.

In today’s (6/23) Wall Street Journal, film critic Joe Morgenstern addresses the issue of how to determine what DVD titles should remain in one’s collection. Granted, this is more of an issue for folks with very large libraries (Morgenstern claims to own more than a thousand of them himself, and a few of my peers at the Home Theater Forum admit to three or four times that amount), but even I from time to time wonder how many of my discs are essential enough to own. The last time I purged my collection was about five years ago, and in hindsight most of my decisions were well-founded (Tim Burton’s "Planet of the Apes," for example) while I lived to regret others ("Apollo 13," which I since repurchased).

Now, the decision of what to keep is complicated by the fact that I have children who either are or soon will be interested in some of the lighter animated fare. Thus we have "The Magic School Bus" and "The Tigger Movie" sharing shelf space with "Casablanca" and "Seven Samurai." Can’t do anything about that. (Call it the price you pay to maintain your hobby.) Anyway, allow me to comment on some of Morgenstern’s rules for managing your movie collection.

Great filmmakers needn’t be represented by all of their films: Which Hitchcocks to keep, for example? Not "Rear Window," "Dial M for Murder," "The Birds," "Rope" or "Lifeboat." They were fascinating in their time, but now they seem mechanical or schematic, with no more surprises to offer up.

Who says films need to continue to surprise to remain in your collection? After the first few viewings (if not the very first), the element of surprise is gone. But appreciation of the craft remains. That’s one reason why I disagree with his criticism of "Rear Window." It’s a fascinating study of the human psyche, of our obsession with others’ private lives. When Raymond Burr finally turns and sees Jimmy Stewart peering at him through his binoculars, the audience feels indicted as well. And it’s got whip-smart dialogue.

But I’ve kept, and will happily revisit, "Notorious" for its elegant performances (is anything more painful than Cary Grant’s scorn for Ingrid Bergman?), "North by Northwest" for its bravura set pieces ("That’s funny," the farmer says to Cary Grant, "there are no crops to be dusted") and "Vertigo" for its psychological intricacy.

"Notorious" and "Vertigo" are brilliant, but I’ll have to demur on "North by Northwest," which could have benefited from tighter editing and keeping its surprises concealed until the end. I love the crop-dusting sequence, though, but it’s not enough to justify owning the film. Which brings me to Morgenstern’s next rule:

When a bravura set piece occurs in a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts, keep the movie and enjoy the pleasurable part.

No way, brother. I’ve seen far too many average movies with "one or two" great scenes to justify applying this guideline to my buying practices. I’d end up with a lot more mediocrity on my shelves than I’ve got already. The whole movie (or at least 90% of it) has to click with me. Hence no "North by Northwest," "Citizen Kane," or "The Wizard of Oz."

Keep mysteries for their mysteriousness, not for their plots: Thus "The Big Sleep" — not just mysterious but famously unfathomable — is more of a keeper than another fine Bogart film, "The Maltese Falcon." Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did brilliant work in the justly lionized "Double Indemnity," but, having seen it so often over the years, I don’t need a DVD to see again. The atmospherics of "Touch of Evil," on the other hand, and the seductively, psychologically mysterious "Chinatown" keep bestowing new rewards. So does Francis Coppola’s "The Conversation," a mystery that sounds as good as it looks.

I love "The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon" and think they’re both keepers. "Double Indemnity" and "The Conversation" are fine pieces of work, but leave me cold. I can’t say anything for "Touch of Evil" or "Chinatown" yet. I do enjoy a well-crafted mystery, though. However, it’s got to do more than simply be mysterious. There must be a certain enjoyment or enlightenment that comes from the experience as well.

With so many great films to choose from, one sitting is often enough. I buy films I feel like revisiting again and again, even if lack of time and higher priorities prevent me from doing so as often as I’d like. Owning a movie simply because it’s a cultural milestone isn’t enough, in my opinion – at least if you’re trying to keep your collection minimal. Are you trying to build a public library or a personal one?

Sigh. I had hoped to glean something useful from Morgenstern’s column, and I ended up just criticizing it and coming up with my own rules instead. And I still have 147 DVDs on my shelf, crowding everything else out for space.

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