Film Critic Kenneth Turan To Appear At The Roxy Theater
If you’ve ever wanted to chat with a major film critic in person, you may soon get that chance.
Kenneth Turan: Oh, it’s a great, great ending. Sometimes you see a film and it just kind of lets you down at the end. And this film rises to a really unforgettable climax.
CN: That’s Kenneth Turan talking about “Chinatown,” an award-winning film released in 1974. Turan is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Morning Edition. He’ll be at The Roxy Theater in Missoula June 30 for a screening of “Chinatown.” He recently spoke with me, on the phone, from his home in L.A.
In your book Not To Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From A Lifetime Of Film, you chose only two films from the 1970s: “The (first) Godfather” and “Chinatown.” Why did Chinatown stand out from all the other films released that decade, what made it exceptional?
KT: Filmmaking is a collaborative art. And this is a film where every aspect of the filmmaking process really worked together, where everyone was at the top of their game. Screenplay written by Robert Towne, director Roman Polanski—great stars: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Houston… And also, the story works on the level of both being a really interesting detective story—who-done-it. But there are all these other issues. There are issues that seem very prescient today. There are issues about water use, about water scarcity, you know stuff that we’re dealing with right now is at the heart of this film.
CN: Right, and the film was set in the 1930s.
KT: Yes, yes.
CN: As you mentioned, the screenplay was written by Robert Towne. Why do you think he was the best man for the job?
KT: There were two things about it. I mean, number one he grew up in Los Angeles. And a lot of these issues, a lot of these concerns, as well as the love for the city. The film makes great use of Los Angeles locations. The city looks really good, really interesting. So he knows the city, he has a feeling for the city. He has a feeling for the city’s history. And he understood these issues, really, from the inside. They’re kind of in his blood.
CN: You noted that — I’m going to quote you here — “Towne wrote the Gittes role with his friend Jack Nicholson in mind.” Can you tell us more about that?
KT: You know, it’s a wonderful character. It really suits Nicholson’s personality. It’s a guy who thinks he’s wised up. He’s a detective. He thinks he knows all the answers. He thinks he knows all the angles. And it turns out he is nowhere near as wised up as he things he is. And Nicholson can play both halves of that equation. Playing wised-up is like falling out of bed for him. But he’s also got that kind of stature and that kind of acting ability to really handle things when he starts to realize how in over his head he is.
CN: In your final thought about “Chinatown,” in Not To Be Missed, is a statement by the character, Noah Cross, played by John Houston. Do you remember that quote?
KT: I can’t quote it to you off the top of my head, but I certainly remember that quote. It’s a very powerful, powerful quote.
CN: I have the book here so I’ll read it for you. “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place they’re capable of anything.”
KT: Yeah, I think finally that’s one of the messages of the film and as you can tell it’s an extremely chilling message. This is not a happy message. But this is one of the things that I think influenced Roman Polanski who had a lot of darkness in his own personal life and I’m just getting chills just hearing John Houston. We always talk about Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, but the John Houston character is really the heart of the film and he’s the one who says this and it’s just chilling—his whole presence. And there’s a way in which his personality evolves through the film that only really I think he could pull off. I don’t want to say too much about it because it involves giving away more of the plot than I want to. But there’s a duality to him as well and the way that plays out is just brilliant.
CN: You can see all that brilliance for yourself at The Roxy Theater when “Chinatown” is on the screen tomorrow evening [this evening] at 7 p.m. Kenneth Turan will be there to talk about the film and sign copies of his book, Not To Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From A Lifetime Of Film.
Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Morning Edition as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post as well as the Times’ book review editor. A graduate of Swarthmore College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he teaches film reviewing and non-fiction writing at USC. In addition to Not To Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film, Kenneth Turan's most recent books are Never Coming To A Theater Near You and Free For All: Joe Papp, The Public and The Greatest Theater Story Ever Told.
Kenneth Turan discovered film as a child left undisturbed to watch Million Dollar Movie on WOR-TV Channel 9 in New York, a daily showcase for older Hollywood features. It was then that he developed a love of cinema that never left him and honed his eye for the most acute details and the grandest of scenes.