“Film criticism is not only a guide of how to perceive film, but it’s a way of getting to know yourself.” – Kenneth Turan
I recently attended a Q & A discussion featuring Kenneth Turan and his new book Not to be Missed: Fifty-four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film. Turan is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. During the discussion, he shed light on the purpose of film criticism and how it reflects the writer personally and affects the reader and filmgoer: “Film criticism is not only a guide of how to perceive film, but it’s a way of getting to know yourself. It’s really personal. It’s how I feel. You often find out what you think when you’re writing, is often different than what you thought right after you’ve watched a film.” Turan also acknowledged that the role of criticism is to write entertaining and thoughtful articles that people want to read and that can help people decide what movies to see: “If you read a critic consistently, you can use them as a guide. There are a lot of films coming out and a lot of them are dreadful.”
Of the thousands of films that Turan has viewed in his lifetime he has come up with a guide consisting of fifty-four must-see films. When asked why he chose the number fifty-four, Turan responded that he likes alliteration. A friend of his also noticed that the number 54 is divisible by 18, the Hebrew number for life, or L’chaim and then he realized that’s also why he chose it. “It was harder to make the list then to write the book,” he said.
Fifty-four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film is organized into decades and a lot of the movies are of the Noir, Crime and Neo-Noir genres. Turan attributes this to being a classicist who enjoys great stories and drama. “The dark pearl shines brightly,” he said quoting the classic American director John Houston.
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I have only seen six of the 54 films that Turan listed, but the other 48 films have been added to my ever-growing list of “movies to see.” I was happy to see that one of my favorite films, The Godfather, made the cut and reading his review of the epic was not only informative, but it enhanced my love for the film as well. “The Godfather is overflowing with life, rich with all the grand emotions and vital juices of existence, up to and including blood,” he writes. “Yet though its characters are as outsized as any of Shakespeare’s nobility, The Godfather also benefits by the attention it pays to softening details, to small moments like a little girl dancing on hulking Tessio’s shoes at Connie Corleone’s wedding or its authentic sense of Italian family dining.” His keen eye and smooth articulation is an art form in itself.
Being a film critic isn’t all popcorn and red-velvet chairs notes Turan, “Critics get angry emails. I don’t like it but it’s a part of the job. It doesn’t mean I’m right or wrong. It’s just there.” And bad criticism isn’t always indicative of a bad film. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s, Vertigo, for example. It was a movie made before its time and its initial negative criticism reflects the consciousness of one era. “We’re all prisoners of our time and place,” acknowledged Turan.
During the follow up of the Q & A, I asked Turan what his advice would be to young film critics. He responded to read critics both old and contemporary and to watch old films, not 1960s old, he suggested early 1900s old. Then he concluded to keep collecting life experiences. I found his advice beneficial. What is a film review, but a collection of experience influenced impressions?