Tell Tales

John Steinbeck’s his namesake cultural center in Salinas is changing course with a pop-culture focus for the next few months, including a screening of The Dark Knight.

The National Steinbeck Center has put together a film series that doesn’t look like the kind of film series put together by the National Steinbeck Center. It comprises seven films over eight months, starting this Friday with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then screens Wall-E in June, Jaws in July, the pilot episode of ABC’s Lost in September, a double feature of Batman and The Dark Knight in November, culminating with a to-be-announced surprise film Dec. 19, which coincides with their second annual Salinas Valley Comic Con.

Not an East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row in sight. The tie-in to Steinbeck is not immediately apparent, but, says Steinbeck Center spokesperson Jesse Banda, it’s there in the same way it was for their comic con: in storytelling.

“There are different avenues of storytelling for each film,” he says. “In Raiders of the Lost Ark, no matter how you look at it, every scene, every dialogue, progresses the plot forward. It shows young writers how you can have an action movie without compromising on plot.”

After each film, guests will talk about the narrative elements at work. For Raiders, former Steinbeck Center staff member Jule Gentry, who has gone on archaeological digs, will highlight the story structure at work. (A mini convention will happen in the center’s rotunda.)

If Raiders sounds like a distant pop culture cousin to, say, the political protest of Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle – also the first of a trilogy – it’s acknowledged by the name of the film screening series: Pop Cinema – The Art of Storytelling.

Banda admits that these are blockbusters not unlike the kind that draw steady crowds at nearby Maya Cinemas.

It reads like a concession that the Steinbeck Center could not survive on Steinbeck alone. But the center seems to be interpreting the mission more broadly. The Steinbeck Festival, for instance, is not happening this year. Comic Con, an attendance record-setting event last year, survived the center’s recent turbulence.

That could change in light of the academic background of Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw, who takes the center’s post of interim director June 1. Banda thinks she might be down.

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“She has discussed how John really enjoyed the popular culture of his time,” he reports. “This includes movies, radio programs and comic strips.”

So for now, bring on the popcorn.

Pop Cinema – The Art of Storytelling’s Raiders of the Lost Ark 6:30pm doors, 7pm film, at National Steinbeck Center, 1 South Main St., Salinas. $9/adult; $5/child; $50/series pass; $100/VIP pass. 775-4729,

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