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SCHICKEL BOOK OFFERS 20 ESSAYS ON FILMMAKING, CRITICISM

Every critic's list is seemingly coming up roses for a different "best film" of 1999. New York critics love "Topsy-Turvy," Los Angeles critics went bananas for "The Insider" and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures says the best film clearly was "American Beauty."

No, it was Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," Time magazine says, followed by the almost critically forgotten "The Matrix."

The Golden Globe nominations have highlighted the chances of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" as well as "American Beauty" and "The Insider" to pick up major awards in what is an unusually wide-open year.

But for those who get uptight when presented with too many choices, Time's veteran critic Richard Schickel has some advice: Don't worry if there is "no drop-dead title that will be an odds-on favorite for the Oscars."

What you should worry about is whether there is a film out there that can be watched 10 or 20 years from now, he says. That long view puts Schickel, who has been reviewing and writing about film for more than 30 years, in a different class from the rest of Hollywood at the moment.

While the industry gears up for the part of the year it loves best, when it pats itself on the back as little statues are thrust into waiting hands, Schickel is in a reflective mood.

His new book "Matinee Idylls" (Ivan R. Dee) offers 20 essays, most first published in Film Comment magazine, on the joys and pains of filmmaking and film criticism as he reassesses stars and directors such as Frank Capra, King Vidor and Sam Fuller, the ex-New York newspaperman and gravel-voiced tough guy that Schickel affectionately calls a "Movie Bozo."

He is kind to filmmakers and understanding of actors and seems to reserve his harshest feelings for some of his fellow critics, especially now-retired New Yorker writer Pauline Kael, a woman he claims can be brutal both in print and in private.

He recalls in one essay, a homage to critic Andrew Sarris, how the National Society of Film Critics used to invite filmmakers to off-the-record discussions that he says Kael easily turned into vicious verbal assaults.

"David Lean was so distressed by his evening that he would claim (with considerable melodramatic license) that it prevented him from making a film for 14 years," writes Schickel.

But Kael gets off lightly in the book compared to Joseph Breen, the movie censor with Vatican support whom Schickel regards as the "Auteur of Our Misery," using the phrase for a director who becomes the sole author of a film despite the obvious contributions of others.

Schickel says Breen was the man who spent a career arguing over whether Mae West could say such things as "It pays to be good -- but it doesn't pay much" and whether the Dead End Kids could use words like "punk" and "louse."

"Breen could have written a novel of Tolstoyan length in the amount of time he spent fussing over Jane Russell's cleavage and the jiggle and sway of her breasts in 'The Outlaw' and 'The French Line,'" Schickel writes.

Schickel says Breen probably did more damage to films made before his reign than during it because his office was charged with editing those films for re-release. As a result, when censorship was finally lifted the screen exploded in the 1960s with filmmakers vying to see who could be more outrageous.

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