Never Coming to a Theater Near You
A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie
A new book by Kenneth Turan
416 pages; Public Affairs Books, $25.00
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Keeping current and seeing everything that’s released at the movies, domestic and imported, is an impossible task. Scads of foreign films never make it here, and our own pictures, though fewer in number than twenty or thirty years ago, are given a month to turn a profit in first run before the push in second run, which is now home video. Even if you could manage to see it all, how soon would it be until everything began to blur? In the heat of overkill, would you be able to distinguish fair or mediocre from good or excellent? Indeed, would you be able to stay awake?
Kenneth Turan’s Never Coming to a Theater Near You endeavors to call attention to films normally avoided by the masses. After television came along in the 1950’s, it was hard enough getting people out of their living rooms to go to the movies; but sometime in the late 70’s a new beast emerged in the guise of the blockbuster. For the first time ever, people began checking box office tallies and there evolved an insane belief that whatever makes a lot of money is all that’s worth seeing. Like dashboard figurines nodding to capitalist conformity, the public has inadvertently stifled the creative potential of commercial cinema, while small pictures with no-name casts fall by the wayside.
Turan’s book does not broach this particular subject in great detail, nor does he address the obscene misuse of the term ‘indie’ that’s now stamped across virtually anything that’s not in the strata of, say, The Grudge (2004). That title is chosen here quite by random — I needed to know what was ‘hot’ this week and went over to the IMDb, a further indication of just how unimportant ‘keeping up’ has become for some of us who otherwise love the movies. (A month from now, after that film has faded from memory, you can replace it with whatever’s #1 at the b.o.) Most pictures have become nothing more than narcotics manufactured for weekend junkies who take their fix fast, loud and shallow. Short attention spans have pulverized narrative structure and, as a result, commercial films are now imbued with the aesthetic profundity of a pinball machine clanging away on ‘tilt.’
How Kenneth Turan — who writes for the Los Angeles Times and has a gig on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition — and other newspaper and magazine critics rejuvenate their enthusiasm is the riddle of the ages. Stuck rephrasing platitudes to make one week’s column appear fresher than the last, the writer should be caught in a quandary. How does one sleep at night, given the task of picking through garbage from one week to the next? How to remain eager and accommodating within the limited range of popular taste?
Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Divided into five sections (English language films, foreign language, documentary, classic, and a handful of director and genre profiles), the book aims at middlebrow readers ready to stray from the ‘new release’ section at Blockbuster. To see several of these titles, however, a subscription to Netflix may be in order. His English language selection towers in volume over the rest (seventy-one films, compared to the forty-three foreign, twenty documentary, and twelve classic), bowing to the American dread of subtitled and nonfiction cinema. Still, it may succeed in distracting the masses from the Top Ten to discover the excellence of such atypical titles as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Vanya on 42nd Street, pictures Turan rightly asserts to have been “made in the belief that being smart, thoughtful, and adult isn’t necessarily a barrier to reaching an audience.”
Journalists get your attention with gimmicks, and in these one-hundred-and-fifty film reviews there’s no shortage of modish zingers, amplified superlatives and exaggerated adulation. Next Stop Wonderland, for example, “is a romance, but not just any romance. Smart and beguiling, it manages the impressive feat of believing wholeheartedly in the power of love without checking its mind at the door. Discriminating romantics will not believe their good fortune.” This generic, one-size-fits-all observation could be applied to any decent love story made in the last fifty years.
In his foreign and documentary choices, Turan braves the prickly task of explaining film culture to the moviegoing majority, our friends and neighbors who consider cinema little else than a Saturday night diversion. There are short but instructive passages on Jacques Becker, Frank Borzage, Max Ophuls, and miniature studies of Yiddish cinema (“once the lingua franca of a complex, sophisticated, transnational culture that thrived in prewar Europe and America before disappearing, like Atlantis”) and the cryptic allure of Chinese martial arts films, which supposedly “represent pure cinema in an irresistible form.” Read this book for ten minutes and you’ll be hungry for a good film.
Given such admirable intentions, you can’t knock his individual recommendations. Among the classics — A Streetcar Named Desire, Les Yeux sans visage, Peeping Tom, Vertigo, Touch of Evil — Turan works in cursory accounts of a picture’s historic significance, or of any restoration it may have undergone recently.
Nargess Mamizadeh in The Circle
The rest of the reviews cover films released within the last fifteen or twenty years. Among so many newer filmmakers, the author kindly includes Eric Rohmer and one of his best pictures, Autumn Tale (“it…has the light-fingered vigor and panache more chronologically youthful directors are not always able to muster”), as he’s admittedly partial to French cinema. Indeed, these particular films deserve a larger audience: Ma vie en Rose, La Promesse, Benoît Jacquot’s inventive La Fille seule, and Claude Sautet’s sumptuous Un Coeur en hiver, with its drop-dead gorgeous Emmanuelle Béart and those enchanting Ravel sonatas.
Of modern Asian cinema, Turan champions Tian Zhuangzhuang and The Blue Kite, “the most authentic, the most accessible, and, finally, the most powerful” film to come out of China. Turan’s admiration of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is likewise shared by a polite majority. But as I recall, the characters in that film barge from scene to scene, suffering emotional tizzies right out of daytime television for nearly three hours. All apologies to Turan, but I couldn’t have been the only one who nearly ran screaming from his seat.
The author has shortchanged Iran’s recent renaissance by including only one picture, Jafar Panahi’s The Circle. “Its pace is insistent,” he writes, “its drama obvious, and its theme, the plight of women in post-revolutionary Iran, the constricted, wasted nature of their lives, couldn’t be more provocative.” While it’s a good film, it’s also comfortably Western. The White Balloon was an earlier work by Panahi, a suspense thriller wrapped up as a children’s film, which Turan misreads as sharing “in the slow, allusive nature of much of Iran’s cinema of indirection.” They may lack the sensationalism and obviousness of Western cinema, but Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us and A Taste of Cherry, and Majid Majidi’s sublime Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise (one of the saddest of all films) should never be overlooked.
Despite these quibbles, if Never Coming to a Theater Near You serves its purpose — if it can persuade Vin Diesel fans to watch Anthony Mann westerns, shift focus from John Woo to Jean-Pierre Melville, or broaden the horizon of family film devotees with William Wellman’s remarkable Wild Boys of the Road — then hats off to Kenneth Turan.