On Saturday afternoon, students, parents, faculty and guests gathered in the Lang Performing Arts Center to hear Kenneth Turan ’67, a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, speak about how his Swarthmore education impacted his career choice and success in journalism.
But, Swarthmore was not important “in [the] way you would immediately think,” Turan said.
Born to Yiddish parents in Brooklyn, Turan said that he arrived at Swarthmore with few expectations, and was soon surrounded by highly successful and wealthy students, one of whom owned an island. Not a particularly outstanding student, Turan says professors did not allow him to enter the Honors Program.
Swarthmore’s size and unique culture worked to his advantage. As a student, he was able to take advantage of multiple leadership and writing opportunities, while also engaging with his community, which he referred to as a “family.” Turan joining the Phoenix staff and rising to the position of Sports Editor in his freshman year.
Turan recounted being called into then-President Courtney Smith’s office. Imagining a stern, frank encounter with the President, Turan described how, to his amazement, President Smith was in fact a gregarious, “affable” person who wanted to congratulate him on his sports articles in the Phoenix. During their conversation, the President also asked Turan if he had ever considered a career in writing.
Turan said that he had never expected this praise or had considered writing as a potential career path.
“In my roiling sea of insecurity, someone had thrown a life raft,” Turan recounted. The critic refers to this moment as one of the most important in his Swarthmore career.
Following this advice, Turan enrolled in Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, eventually landing a position doing sports writing for The Washington Post.
After working about eighteen years for the Washington Post and as a freelance journalist, Turan finally joined the LA Times as a film editor—a position he has held ever since. The critic is also a teacher at the University of Southern California, where he teaches film reviewing and non-fiction writing.
Following the lecture, audience questions ranged from his experiences in graduate school to career ambitions and professional anecdotes. At one point, Turan described James Cameron’s outrage after reading his review of “Titanic” in 1997, titled, “Titanic Sinks Again (Spectacularly).”
According to Turan, Cameron called the LA Times to deride Turan and his opinion of the blockbuster film in an attempt to get the writer fired. Turan kept his job, however, and used the story as an example of the possibility for film critics to be “a voice for the voiceless” at a time when popular opinion had exalted Titanic.
Turan also offered advice to those in the audience aspiring to enter journalism. Above all, Turan cites his years of experience in “classical” journalism at various newspapers for his knowledge of the popular press. Despite the developments in digital media and the trend away from print, Turan insisted that stand-bys like film reviews will exist because “people want to read [them].”
“As a writer, you have to force the reader to go to the end,” Turan explained, and developing the ability to do so can foster not only better writing, but also confidence in your own point of view.
Favoring movies that fulfill expectations and offer intriguing moral tests or distinctive personal styles, Turan talked about his opinion confidently, with a genial, sincere voice. From watching films and shorts at the Grand Sutter—a theater in Brooklyn—, to helping lead the Movie Selection Committee at Swarthmore, Turan was exposed to a range of classic films that provided him with the background and passion for a subject that continues to excite him.
And even in the subjective realm of film criticism, Turan exhibited this assured attitude, often with a touch of humor.
When asked about his regrets and past decisions, Turan simply replied, “I have never been wrong.”