TV'S BEST KEPT SECRET
By Henry Mietkiewicz
The Toronto Star - January 30, 1998
Looking to TV for the latest buzz on all the hot new films? Need a zippy recommendation about some heavily hyped blockbuster? Well, forget it. This is a column for fans who'd rather savour the movies.
Any of TV's slickly packaged entertainment magazines can toss off a glib thumbs-up or thumbs-down review. But Bravo's Scanning The Movies is among the very few that take the time to explain why certain films affect us so deeply and how they mirror modern society's fears and fascinations.
Scanning The Movies also happens to be one of Canadian television's best-kept secrets, even though it's hosted, co-written and co-produced by Toronto's John Pungente, a Jesuit priest and internationally renowned media literacy expert.
To some degree, Scanning The Movies remains a buried treasure because it enjoys the dubious honour of being labeled ``educational,'' part of an initiative by broadcasters to air material targeted to students.
For this reason, the series has been relegated by Bravo to the no-man's-land of 8 a.m. on Fridays. Perfect for educational purposes, but unlikely to reach a range of potential viewers.
Only when a new episode is available - usually once a month - does that fresh installment get double exposure at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. before slipping into the regular morning slot.
But better early than never. Though Pungente won't tell you whether a film is worth catching, he will offer insightful tips into ``reading'' a movie and understanding how and why it works its magic on us.
For instance, in today's program on L.A. Confidential (repeating Feb. 13), Pungente explains where this seamy thriller fits into the film noir tradition and why so many screenwriting problems arose in adapting James Ellroy's confoundingly intricate novel.
Like many of TV's magazine shows, Scanning The Movies makes use of routine interview clips featuring directors, writers and stars. But Pungente goes a step further by illustrating his own ideas with generous, two- to three-minute excerpts from a particular movie.
In exploring L.A. Confidential, for example, he notes that music can bind together many brief scenes and allow a director to spend only a couple of minutes on a narrative that might consume a whole chapter in a novel.
That prepares us for an uncut look at L.A.'s impressive ``Wheel Of Fortune'' song sequence, as a young detective climbs the ladder of success.
To his credit, Pungente doesn't rely on box-office returns in choosing his films or his topics. In one notable instalment he pairs Conspiracy Theory (a dud) with Contact (a disappointment) to examine society's pop-cultural passion for paranoia in high places.
Drawing on his own theological background, Pungente also probes the thematic differences between Conspiracy Theory's escapist pessimism and Contact's optimistic notion that religion and science needn't be mutually exclusive.
This is the sort of link that comes naturally to Pungente, who heads Toronto's Jesuit Communications Program, helped produce a kit on media literacy for the Alliance for Children and Television, and has served as president of the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations.
But don't let those credentials throw you. There's nothing dry or pedantic about Scanning The Movies, even though it's presented in lecture form and never tries to feign hipness through jiggly camerawork or jump-cut editing.
Rather, Pungente relies on phrases and ideas that are colourful, accessible and clear, delivered in an informal style that combines curiosity with genuine enthusiasm.
``While many of us understand something about the books we read or the music we hear,'' he notes in today's show, ``we don't necessarily understand as much about the movies we see.''
Perhaps that's something Pungente will manage, ever so slowly, to change.