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BOOK REVIEW: Kevin Murphy's 'A Year at the Movies'

Much popcorn was harmed in the making of this book.
by Collin Souter

On one hand, you have to envy Kevin Murphy, author of the book A Year At The Movies. This guy traveled all over the world in search of the most unique movie-going experiences he could find, from the world’s most popular film festivals to the world’s smallest movie theater, as well as taking inventory of some of the more mundane goings-on at our cookie-cutter suburban multiplexes. For this book, Murphy vowed to watch one movie every day for 365 days, starting January 1st, 2001. Getting paid to travel and go to the movies. The greatest gig of all, wouldn’t you say? On the other hand, you have to pity the poor bastard, for he chose to take on this expedition in the year 2001, arguably the worst year in cinema since The Barbarian Brothers graced the silver screen in “Double Trouble.” Every cushy job has its price.

Then again, Murphy has built quite a tolerance for bad movies. He did, after all, give voice to Tom Servo (as well being a co-writer/producer) on one of the greatest TV inventions of all time: Mystery Science Theater 3000. If Murphy can make it all the way through “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” “Catalina Caper” and “Skydivers” emotionally unscathed, surely he can stomach “Serendipity” six times. Wait, he did what!?! you ask. Well, Murphy just wanted to see if the concept of the “date movie” still exists. He went out on six dates with six different women to see if a dopey romantic movie could ignite some sparks. (Note: Murphy is married) This is just one of the many masochistic things Murphy endured for the sake of his art.

What, not gutsy enough for you? How about living off of nothing but theater food for an entire week? Or heading off to Quebec City to watch a movie in an igloo? Or trying to get into a screening at the Cannes Film Festival with zero credentials? How about watching “3000 Miles To Graceland”? While also trying to deal with the pain of a kidney stone, as though the movie itself didn’t cause enough pain?

Yes, Murphy conquered many a challenge in order to accomplish his goal of seeing one movie every single day for a year. He traveled all over the world to festivals and odd-ball theaters, including a week-long road trip across the States to see how the drive-in theaters have been holding up and flying to Australia (“The best place in the world to see movies,” he writes) to visit the oldest open-air theater, the world’s smallest movie theater and the world’s longest-running silent theater. He also tried his hand at being just a regular festival-goer at the Sundance Film Festival—where he felt frowned-upon for being so regular—as well as traveling to London for the “Sound of Music” Sing-A-Long, where he showed up dressed as a nun.

That doesn’t even cover half of what Murphy’s “filmgoing odyssey.” Every week is a chapter, every chapter a new experience and/or tirade. This is one of those great books where you can just open it up to any chapter, start reading and laugh your head off without feeling as though you missed a vital piece of information in a previous chapter.

In the intro, Murphy attributes his former day job as writer on Mystery Science Theater 3000 for losing his taste for movies and why he had to take this journey:

“Over the course of ten years…I hefted a fifteen-pound plastic puppet over my head for an obscene amount of money. I was also party to the review, in whole or in part, of some three thousand six hundred fifty movies—roughly one movie per day, every day, for ten years.
“Mostly they were bad films, but that was the intention; often I would leave work with a sort of audiovisual numbness not dissimilar to placing an iron directly on the brain tissue and hitting the burst-of-steam button.”


Furthermore, Murphy found that the omni-present corporate-owned multiplexes have sucked the fun out the experience of going to the movies. Advertisements play non-stop before the movies, the movies themselves seem forced together by a committee rather than by an artist, and the union projectionist—the perfectionist—seems all but extinct. Murphy confronts all these issues—and more—head-on. He stops and talks to theater managers, bonds with a Landmark projectionist and even spends a day or two as a theater usher. Murphy’s frustration at the state of moviegoing comes across clearly, yet he never lets it spoil his good time. At one point, he and a few fellow moviegoers bond over the movie…oh, but I wouldn’t dream of giving away that punchline.

Murphy’s estimation of the actual movies will likely elicit uncontrolled laughter even if reading in a public place where people will stare at you funny for having the gall to give into your primal urges. His panning of “Dude, Where’s My Car” as “a hundred-minute lump of infected pig offal” sticks out. From the same chapter, Murphy talks about his nightmare vision of the future:

“I have an unhealthy fantasy, a sort of ocular nightmare of a future in which movies don’t have titles, they have versions. A light comedy is a LiteCom; a subset, then, such as a drippy Nora Ephron-style extra-womany movie is a LiteCom 5.2 NE. Plot? Character? Story? Setting? Context? Point of view? Screw that noise; who really cares? You know how you want to feel, and LiteCom 5.2 NE will do it for you.”

Murphy also cites quote-whore critics as being at fault for the state of things, and even goes so far as to estimate internet critics. Instead of taking obvious pot-shots at the doughy and sticky-looking Harry Knowles, Murphy instead puts him in his place:
“in a way he’s the model for the junket whore of the future, a sort of ‘aw-shuks star-struck dope with no perceivable ethical compass, unaware that he is being led around by the nose by the very industry he loves.”

Murphy also cites Rottentomatoes.com as “a compendium of reviews from several publications and an assortment of real hacks as well; you could spend more time reading the reviews available than actually watching the film.” And be sure to visit www.dumbassandthefag.com for their insightful review of “Original Sin.” (Actually, don’t)

For those of you who love movies, but hate going to them, Murphy will be your new hero and A Year At The Movies your new favorite book. If you’re like me and you see an average of 2-5 (or more) movies a week—and I’m not talking about press screenings—you will most likely have passages of this book running through your mind as you sit in those stadium seats drinking your corporate sludge. The further along you get into this book, the more irritated you might become when visiting your local googolplex.

I remember this past Thanksgiving weekend, I counted the number of trailers and commercials I had to sit through just to get to “Solaris.” I felt so angry, I went outside to get my money back. Screw the movie! I thought. 25 minutes of my time have just been wasted because of the nine commercials and seven trailers I had to sit through at the AMC30 in Barrington, IL. 25 minutes. I got my money back and went home. What can we do about this?

On page 112, Murphy offers us a statement to Xerox and send to our local theater managers (you can also get this form at Murphy’s website, www.ayearatthemovies.com ) asking them to either remove advertising or start the feature closer to the running time and/or warn us in advance of the amount of commercials we must endure prior to the movie we paid to see. It probably won’t change things, but taking action will at least send a message. Or you could do what I do and just boycott AMC altogether. I expect 10 minutes of my time to be wasted, but 25 is flat-out robbery.

So, did Murphy actually see one movie every day for a year? For the most part, yes. He did have one slight mis-hap which caused him to miss a screening, but the way in which Murphy makes up for that has an unexpected poignancy (In my book, he still achieved his goal). Refreshingly, Murphy is not a total cynic. Quite the contrary, he adores every aspect of the cinema and can have a good time pretty much anywhere, sometimes without regard to how bad the movie may be. A Year at the Movies is hilarious, touching and entertaining, just as Murphy’s big, dopey grin on the cover suggests. And I, for one, envy the hell out of him.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=641
originally posted: 12/13/02 00:20:25
last updated: 02/04/04 08:22:41
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