A Year At The Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey
- Kevin Murphy
On Mystery Science Theater 3000, Kevin Murphy spent about 10 years playing Tom Servo, a smarmy plastic robot forced to watch the world's worst films. Recently, Murphy voluntarily put himself in a similar situation by pledging to watch at least one movie every day throughout 2001. That commitment led him to Sundance, Cannes, and the Midnight Sun Film Festival, and to theaters in Britain, Italy, Australia, and Canada, but also to the Universal Studios theme park, the Mall Of America, and various Minneapolis googolplexes, where he endured the likes of Glitter, The Princess Diaries, and Hannibal. Murphy's chronicle of 2001, A Year At The Movies, sometimes resembles Thomas Rockwell's kid-classic How To Eat Fried Worms: Murphy chokes down multiple viewings of execrable films, desperately rushes to catch a last late-night screening, and sneaks into a closed theater, all to preserve his one-a-day record. But A Year At The Movies is much more than a gimmick book. Murphy treads a fine line throughout: He takes potshots at movies he hated and tosses superlatives at movies he loves, but mostly avoids becoming just another dog-paddler in a sea of self-important amateur opinion-wavers. He primarily writes themed essays, which vary widely in tone and direction and are often directed at single, emblematic films: He devotes an entire chapter to lambasting Town & Country, which becomes a metaphor for all things vile and crippled about the Hollywood machine. But A Year At The Movies is also a warm, personal travelogue, a humor book, and a series of cultural reports about all aspects of movie-watching. When savaging films, clichés, personality types, and individuals he dislikes, Murphy is as pithy, brutal, and direct as his MST3K fans might expect. (On The Princess Diaries: "I don't think a movie has sucked so much since Deep Throat.") It's startling, then, that he's just as colorful but much more measured and thoughtful in discussing cinema, both as a universal cultural phenomenon (in his touching and journalistic reports on cinephiles in Australia, Finland, and the Cook Islands) and as a specifically personal ordeal (in essays on the best theater seating, pre-film advertisements, and rude audience members). Murphy isn't above generating material by trying goofy stunts: He theater-hops, smuggles a full meal into a theater, takes six married women to the same "date movie," and attempts to live on concession-stand food for a week. But he also speaks passionately, creatively, and convincingly about cinema and moviegoers. A Year At The Movies has its weaknesses. It flags temporarily about two-thirds through, as Murphy seems to briefly tire of the project, and it glosses over most of the actual films. It sometimes states, and restates, and overstates, the obvious. (Does anyone need an essay explaining that film showtimes are available on the Internet, but pop-up ads are annoying?) But overall, it's lively, entertaining, diverse, sometimes fascinating, and deeply telling. Murphy is at his best when reporting on his personal experiences, like his trip to the world's smallest theater, or his time in the film room of a Quebecois hotel made of ice. But it's still impressive when he travels to places nearly everyone has been, and somehow comes back with something revelatory to share.