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Blockbusters they're not

Never Coming to a Theater Near You A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie Kenneth Turan PublicAffairs: 402 pp., $25

October 17, 2004|David Thomson | David Thomson's new book, "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood," will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in December.

In "Never Coming to a Theater Near You: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie," Kenneth Turan has done a great service in gathering together his warm recommendations of those small films and maverick ventures that don't get much of a marketing push. "Over the dozen years since I've been a critic at the Los Angeles Times," he writes, "I've noticed an increasing disconnect between the films I recommend person-to-person because they've meant the most to me and the ones most people have managed to see."

Just because a film isn't advertised is no reason for us to neglect it. So this book has about 150 reviews of documentaries such as "Spellbound," "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," "Lost in La Mancha," "Rivers and Tides" and "Crumb"; of foreign films like "The Dreamlife of Angels," "Russian Ark," "Monsoon Wedding" and "In the Mood for Love"; and of such English-language pictures as "Birthday Girl," "Croupier" (a sleeper hit in this country just because a few critics vouched for it after it had flopped at home in England), "Safe" and "Vanya on 42nd Street."

The pieces are neither long nor especially searching (a few longer essays are actually not as impressive). But Turan has a terrific knack for conveying the feeling and the ideas of a picture quickly. Most readers expect to be able to read a daily paper fast, skimmingly as it were. They do not expect to confront complex writing or learned responses. So the readers and the whole art and business of film deserve someone with that flair who can be fast, accurate and tasteful. And when I say tasteful, I mean that Turan invariably picks deserving pictures.

Every writer on film knows the experience of ordinary filmgoers begging for a list of films that are "different," "worthwhile" or "not the usual rubbish," and this book will be a welcome guide, likely to be taken to the video store to assist in judicious selections.

Turan doesn't address this point but I think he realizes that the line of his book and its details are all pushing toward a view of the movie much like that of the novel, the ballet or classical music. We know that those arts cater to minorities, easily seen as elites. Yet we treasure those days when the movies were, legitimately, for "everyone." That was a very American moment -- whether fulfilled by "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," "Some Like It Hot" or "Singin' in the Rain" -- for it seemed to mean that there might be a medium, transcending elites and degrees of education, where one great experience fed all of us, simultaneously, in great crowds. That is a wonderful ideal, and I daresay Turan hates as much as I do to think it may be over.

There's one last consideration not explored by Turan, yet important. He observes that the films celebrated in this book constitute about 5% of what he has seen. Several points ensue from that. For one, many small, independent, precious pictures are not to be endured -- modesty is no guarantee of talent.

But the other point is that our major daily newspapers expect their critics to give lead reviews to the "big" pictures, the movies that are opening in more than 2,500 theaters this Friday, the movies that bring enormous advertising revenue to the paper. A critic may argue with his editor. He may say it would be sensible to give more space to "We Don't Live Here Anymore" than to "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

Editors usually win those arguments. The small films get less space and so the commercial status quo seems to prevail. But there are deadlier consequences: We live in a time when good, experienced film critics -- people who know the history and the business -- are being replaced by kids from other parts of a paper, writers who, it is alleged, will reach the young readers.

Maybe. As for me, I don't see young people reading many newspapers, and I'd hate to think of the older, trusted readers being turned off because the paper no longer speaks to them as thoughtfully as Turan's book. *

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