2001: A Moviegoing Odyssey

Kevin Murphy spent a decade as a writer, producer, director and performer on the cult cable series "Mystery Science Theater 3000." As the voice of robot puppet Tom Servo, Murphy and his colleagues aired grade-Z films like "The Slime People" and "Master Ninja II" while "talking back" to the screen with their patented high-intensity mix of jokes, jabs, quips, puns, parodies, heckling, mockery and the occasional tribute song.

After the show stopped production in 1999, Murphy undertook a new challenge: to see at least one movie a day every day for a year, starting on Jan. 1, 2001. The story of his moviegoing pilgrimage, which resulted in his seeing 450 films in 10 different countries all over the globe, is told in his new book, "A Year at the Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey" (362 pages. HarperCollins. $14.95). It chronicles, week by week, Murphy's adventures, from crashing the film festivals at Cannes and Sundance to working behind the counter at a local multiplex. He saw films in venues ranging from Grumpy's Bar in his native Minneapolis to "the smallest theater in the world," a 22-seater in Tinonee, Australia. Murphy recently spoke about his movie year with NEWSWEEK's Andrew B. Cohen. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The first question, of course, is why would you do such a thing?

Kevin Murphy: [Laughs.] I did such a thing because I was so cheesed off at what I was seeing at the movie theaters. After 10 years on "Mystery Science Theater" I hadn't gone to films a whole lot, and when I started going back after the show was over, I really hated what I was seeing. All my favorite big single screens had disappeared and been replaced with these giant Wal-Mart-like structures that have, you know, 37 theaters in them and cup holders and stadium seating and no spirit in them whatsoever, and I saw people filing in and filing out of these places--not being entertained--and I thought: who the hell took away my movies, and without my permission? So I set out to sort of immerse to myself in the moviegoing experience, and tell the story of the current state of the movies from the point of view of the audience.

For the purposes of your project, how did you define "movie"? What counted as a movie for seeing a movie everyday?

I decided that my broadest criterion was the public exhibition of a motion picture. So that allowed me a little bit of latitude. For example, I wanted to go to Australia, but I had to be on a plane for overnight, so as far as I was concerned, an airplane is the most expensive and probably the crummiest movie theater in the world, so that had to count. And I didn't limit myself to seeing a different movie every day. I took six different women to the same date movie in October, "Serendipity," and that was much to consternation of my wife, who had a little trouble with that one.

Is that the movie you saw the most?

I think it was be a tie between "Bridget Jones's [Diary]" and "Shrek. I never want to see either of them again.

How much moviegoing have you been doing since you ended the project?

Surprisingly, a lot. Because at the end of the year I think my passion for going to the movies was renewed. I'm a lot more particular than I used to be. And I don't have patience for the usual crap that I used to have. For instance, this last week I went to see two films, and that's been my average--two or three films a week. I saw "Lawrence of Arabia" in 70mm, and then this weekend I'm going to see "Bowling for Columbine." And that's sort of been my bent. I've been staying away from, you know, "Jackass."

How did you support yourself during the year?

If I hadn't had a book advance I wouldn't have been able to do it. I did have a book advance, which paid for travel and most of the expenses, but this is not a cheap endeavor. Don't just go off and do this on your own without a substantial chunk of money in the bank, because of all the travel--plus you think of a year of movie tickets, that's between two or three grand for the entire year--and film festivals and things. And I didn't want to accept freebies, because I thought, well that's sort of duplicitous, isn't it, if I go and get press passes or a bunch of free screening and kiss up to a local theater, well that wouldn't do any good. So the one time I didn't pay for movies was the week I worked at a movie theater, and I figured I earned it, because that's what movie-theater employees get.

You engaged in a lot of stunts during the year, like seeing every movie from the front row for a week or seeing a movie in an igloo theater in Quebec. Which of the stunts do you regret the most?

The one I regret the most is living on nothing but movie-theater food for a week ... It was terrible. It is really bad for your intestines. It's bad for your energy level. It's bad for your spirit in general. But I did have a sort of revelatory moment there, when I took a little ketchup cup and splurted a little of that "golden topping" and I tasted it just by itself, and it was so acrid and it was so insidious and it coated my mouth like bacon grease. And I thought, well now, here's what's going on: we're expected to take this crap and assume that it's something better, and it isn't, but we do anyway. So part of this is our fault, that we're seeing such crummy movies. So we have to raise our standards a little bit. I want my movies to be real butter, I don't want them to be lubricant.

Are there any other dark secrets that you came across during your week working in a theater?

It's not that much of a dark secret: American movie audiences are the biggest pigs in the world. It's the only country where people just eat half of their popcorn or their candy or their beverage and hurl it on the ground without looking twice. And sure, it keeps sweepers sweeping for the 15 minutes between shows, but it's horrible. No where else I went, in the developed countries or in the developing nations, no where else do people simply leave the theater and hurl their food on the floor afterward, so I think we can grow up a little.

What was the best experience you had during the year?

The best experience I had was watching the old D.W. Griffith film "Broken Blossoms" in an old Polish circus tent with a string ensemble playing the score in a schoolyard in a small town in northern Finland above the Arctic Circle, Sodankyla, in Finnish Lapland ... I saw this film at 10:30 at night and a storm brewed up outside ... and as the film starts to get more and more dramatic, the storm built up outside, and the ensemble keeps playing even though the tent is flapping around and the screen is whipping like a flag. And then it sort of subsided as the film ends, and the film ends very sadly and slowly, and so did the orchestra, and at the very end everybody stood up and cheered and people were crying. And then we walked out of the tent and its 11:30 at night and the sun is broken through the clouds and is shining brightly and there's a double rainbow over the town. Now, I've died and gone to heaven here.

And what was the worst?

I had a kidney stone early in the year, and I was up all night having this thing taken care of, and the next day I was on a heavy dose of Vicodin, and I had to go see "Saving Silverman."

After this experience, is there any helpful advice you can extend to the typical moviegoer?

Yeah--be adventurous, broaden your palette a little bit. At least once or twice a year, go away from the multiplex and go to that little single-screen in a shadowy part of town, or go to the local campus and see a foreign film with subtitles--it's not that scary--or see a documentary or go see a classical movie that's playing in a park somewhere. Go see a silent film with a live orchestra. If you do these things you're going to find this amazing world opens up to you of movies that you've never even heard of or experienced... and you will have a true, valid alternative to the multiplex, and then when you go back to the multiplex, I think you will be a more discriminating moviegoer and you will be a lot better for it, and so will the industry.