Harper Collins, 2002, 362 pages, C$22.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-093786-6
Ask two cinephiles about a certain movie and you’ll get at least three different opinions. This is, mind you, before the cinephiles use the films as branching point for discussions about life, the universe and everything. Soon enough, you will find that every film can lead to hours of free-ranging discussion, and it doesn’t take much (“So, hey, how was the last Spielberg?”) to unleash the average cine-geek.
We’re like that. And I say “we” self-consciously, because it’s a bit useless to deny any association with cinephiles when I consider my weekly movie theatre habit, my movie-reviewing column, my obsessive reviewing and/or my own tendency to use movies as intellectual springboards to just about everything else. So when I saw Kevin Murphy’s A Year at the Movies, I didn’t have to make any particular effort to understand what he wanted to do.
And his particular premise for the book is simple, insane and admirable: For the entire year of 2001, Kevin Murphy (best known as “Mystery Science Theater 3000’s “Tom Cervo”) saw at least one movie per day. And no cheating: At least one movie per day in theatres, with a backup plan that included a portable movie projector. Whoa.
It’s a quest that would take him on at least three continents to visit theatres big and small, hot and cold. Assorted challenges (such as seeing the same romantic comedy seven times with seven different women) are included in the mix, and the book takes a chapter-per-week (roughly) approach at telling Murphy’s odyssey. Every chapter begins with an itemized list of movies seen, and usually takes the form of a short essay on this or that aspect of cinema-going. From the onset, it’s obvious that Murphy isn’t interested in the films themselves than in the cinema-going aspect. He seldom discusses the merits of specific films, preferring a broader approach suggested by the week’s experience. In short, this is a book for moviegoers, not critics.
The first few chapters strike an intentionally jarring note. As Murphy bitches and moans about the sorry state of Hollywood movie-making, doubts begin to creep in: is the entire book going to be like this? Saddled with gratuitous slams at mainstream cinema? It doesn’t help that there are contradictions: more artistically challenging films are alternately praised and dismissed, proving that Murphy has as many conflicting opinions as the rest of us. Then there’s the supplemental amusement value in reading Murphy complaining about modern audience’s talkback and ironic detachment… after spending so many years on MST3K.
But Murphy’s initial snobbishness proves to be an integral part of the book’s main dramatic arc. By the time new year’s eve rolls in, Murphy has learnt to appreciate cinema once more, with perhaps a little bit less condescension. Still, he suffers for his art: his travels take him to googolplexes and the world’s coldest theatre (in Canada, obviously), from Australia’s outback to the long Scandinavian day. It is, indeed, a moviegoer’s odyssey, and from what I could gather from the narrative, he only missed his self-imposed objective once, stuck deep in Italy with a broken projector.
As a fellow movie geek with plenty of stories to tell (2001 was also a big cinema year for me, from plenty of free screenings, movie dates, first movie-reviewing column, 9/11 at the movies, to breaking out of mild depression during ZOOLANDER), it was remarkably easy to cheer for Murphy one the initial unpleasantness rubbed off. In a year that included JOE DIRT, FREDDY GOT FINGERED, CORKY ROMANO and PEARL HARBOUR, I kept saying: Oh, poor you! But imagine my whoops of laughter as Murphy managed to smuggle an entire Thanksgiving dinner to a screening of MONSTERS incorporated, or his fabulous adventures at the world’s classiest theatres.
I may be considerably softer on the commercial imperatives of the movie industry (I would love, for instance, to spend time at the business side of Sundance or Cannes) and my threshold for entertainment is far more lenient than Murphy, but there’s no denying that we’re part of the same tribe of cinephiles. A Year at the Movies is an example of great film writing. Read it and cheer. Heck, no, Murphy and I don’t have the same opinions, but that’s how it should be… and I certainly enjoyed disagreeing.