Saturday, December 18

Considering Kevin Murphy's "A Year at the Movies"

Passion is a beautiful thing to behold. There are major instances of the players in the finals of the World Cup or in the NCAA basketball championship, but there have no less power behind them some guy sounding off on his latest night of pub trivia or someone biologist on the evolutionary path of the artichoke, every sort of thing that people can devote their work and free time and lives to. In the right groove and at the right time they can make you want the same thing.

A Year at the Movies is a book of passion, Kevin Murphy's passion for film and the cinema. Every day for a year, he watches a movie at a theater. He watches film in Hollywood, New York City, London, Mexico, Australia, Finland and the South Pacific. He attends Cannes (is discouraged that so many are left on the fringes and that he only is able to attend through a press pass), Sundance (dismisses it as a tradeshow), the Midnight Sun Festival (enjoys it most of all), the Get Real Festival and the Jewish Film Festival. By the end, you want to do the same. That is the power of the passionate.

It is important to note that passion does not equate to shill. The passionate care and want the best. They dig at the worst and celebrate the best and always push for more. Murphy does this. A Year at the Movies is a series of essays, each chapter covering a week and focusing on a single aspect of his experiences. There is a sense of the stunt in some of these chapters like the one where Murphy watches from the front row or the other one where he subsists for a week on theater snacks, something more akin to the work of A.J. Jacob or Morgan Spurlock, but Murphy cares about the theater experience. There are good years, and there are bad years in film. Not much can help that, but the theaters we watch them in are here to stay, and Murphy wants us all to demand the best from them. Murphy spends a lot of time searching for alternative venues to franchise multiplexes staffed by minimum-wage workers and projectionists who destroy film reels, and he writes with love for the movies he watches at Grumpy's Bar, at the Walker Art Center and at New Mexico's Giant Travel Center, preferred by passing truckers, because the audience is engaged with them. Film should not be an idle entertainment, a distraction for a few hours on a weekend evening or an air-conditioned break from the summer heat. It should be something that excites us and makes us cheer the heroes, hiss the villains and cry from the seats. The role of the theater in this process, in making us comfortable and developing an educated audience, cannot be ignored.

The films themselves are secondary concerns. Only on occasion does Murphy give comment to what he spent the week watching. There are some good lines. He dismisses Original Sin as a film so boring that its naked Angelina Jolie couldn't hold the attention of twelve-year-old boys. He calls Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone a movie clone with all the appearances of a piece of entertainment without carrying the burden to entertain. He celebrates a performance of Javier Bardem years before No Country for Old Men and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He declares the transformation of Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries fascist. On Rarotonga in the Cook Islands he watches Waking Ned Devine following the September 11 attacks and remembers enjoying it with his wife a year earlier.

Murphy is right. We deserve better than to be herded into every remaining space in the theater and given foodstuffs we would rightly throw back at our parents if they tried to serve it at our house. Though skipping between Atonement and Juno, No Country for Old Men and Jumper at the AMC in River Park Square were my first dates of sorts with Demetra and I asked her out after we saw Die Fälscher together, the best time I ever had at the movies was seeing Fix with the director Tao Ruspoli in attendance during the Spokane International Film Festival at the Magic Lantern Theater. I couldn't stop talking about it the entire walk back, not the director's talk after, not the theater itself, not the film itself. I hope that my children won't have to spend years searching for the same sorts of experiences. If more people read Murphy and A Year at the Movies and felt that passion, they won't have to.

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