Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Year at the Movies

by Kevin Murphy

Here's the premise: the author vows to see a movie in a theater every day for an entire year, (The year in question, as it happens, is 2001). To ensure that an interesting book falls out of this idea, Kevin Murphy, (Yes, that's Kevin Murphy), travels the world while he's doing this and many shenanigans ensue.

I picked this book up thinking it would make for some light entertainment. I suppose it is that, but it's also quite a bit more. I was very pleasantly surprised at the intelligence and wisdom on display here. It also makes for some good travel writing, if you're into that sort of thing.

The format is 52 chapters, one for each week of the year. Each week has some sort of theme, so when he's not traveling far away he's ruminating on something ridiculous or interesting, like the multiplex phenomenon, or holiday films, or kung-fu film clubs or whatever.

Regardless of where he is or what he is doing or what he is watching, he spends the bulk of his time critiquing the theater-going experience itself, not so much the films he watches. If you're picking this book up as a Mystery Science Theater fan hoping to read what good ol' Kevin Murphy has to say about a bunch of crappy Hollywood films then you'll be sorely disappointed. He does have a few choice words to say about the likes of Jurassic Park 3 and Dude, Where's My Car? but that's not really what this book is about. What you get if you read this is something much richer. (Besides, there are only so many ways you can creatively label something as crap before you sound repetitive).

To pique your interest, a partial list of the countries and events Murphy attends includes:

Australia - for the world's smallest movie theater.
Quebec - for a theater made entirely out of ice.
Sundance Film Festival - for a diatribe against Hollywood jerks.
France - for the Cannes film festival.
England - for a Sound of Music sing-a-long in London!
Finland - for the "Festival of the Midnight Sun" - an event staged in northern Finland during summer, where the sun never sets and the audience never sleeps.
Italy - just because.
A tiny Pacific island - which is where he is during the September 11 attacks.

What makes this book so good is how Kevin Murphy's personality comes through. He's a very mature and wise person, with a broad palette and great skill at expressing his thoughts and feelings. He's opinionated without being preachy or imbalanced. He's also good at writing setting. I don't count myself a travel fan, but he certainly makes me want to visit all the places he did.

Also, I like that Murphy is a man brave enough to criticize mainstream films for being misogynist. And actual use the word "misogynist." It make me, the feminist male, feel like less of a freak.

I think all this book was intended to be was a simple little trinket to be sold to MST3K fans, but that process was subverted by the fact that Kevin Murphy is actually a good writer and thinker.

Like any good book, there are many parts that have stayed with me after it has finished. (Let me step down for a moment - I don't want to oversell this thing. This book is not a paragon of literature. It is good, however). In fact the most memorable content can have nothing to do with movies at all.

For me I'm struck most by an account of his trip to Finland where he encountered the "real" Santa Claus - that is, the one from Scandinavian folklore. By this I mean he encountered a talkative naked man in the frozen woods wearing antlers. Awesome.

Murphy was also after my own heart when he complained of the egregious misuse of the word "ultimate" in modern marketing. I will now fairly use a quote from the book:

Here's one such menu's description, exactly as printed, of the ultimate nachos:

Tortilla chips toped with your choice of beef, chicken or plain, covered with Monterey jack cheese, lettuce, tomato's, onions, black olives with Jalepenos and salsa on the side.

Ultimate nachos tend to appear everywhere, and once again I'm reminded that nobody knows what the word "ultimate" means, or it wouldn't be on a menu. "Ultimate," even broadly defined, means last, final, altogether remote in the universe. That's not how I like to think of my nachos. I don't want to look at that massive platter of corn chips, "toped" as they are with beef, chicken, or plain, thinking they may be my last nachos. ... I don't want any food I put in my own personal mouth to be described by any restaurateur as the last of that particular dish I'll ever eat.

The above is also a good preview of Murphy's humor at its most sarcastic. He succeeds at other modes of humor and other emotions as well, just so you know.