Kevin Murphy Interview

When was the last time you saw a movie at the cinema and really enjoyed yourself? Can’t remember? Neither could Kevin Murphy prior to 2001 — the year he decided to discover whether or not Saturday-night-at-the-movies was still an exciting concept. In order to do this, Mr Murphy, best known as the voice of Mystery Science Theatre 3000‘s Tom Servo (the sexiest gumball machine on TV), spent the year traveling around the world visiting as many cinemas as possible, committing himself to seeing at least one movie a day for 365 days. Date movies, blockbusters, teen comedies, garish musicals, Polish documentaries, Saving Silverman — you name it, Kevin Murphy saw it in 2001. And lived to tell the tale.

So, is the experience of seeing movies in the cinema an art lost to the ever-growing power of Tom Cruise, the girlish gabbing of teen audiences, or the death of the suburban drive-in? According to Kevin Murphy, not if you go to the right place.

PopMatters: Which came first, the idea for the movie project or the idea for the book?

Kevin Murphy: Well, they kinda came at the same time. I had a friend who was an editor at Harper-Collins who had been encouraging me to send him some ideas. And during that time that I first threw the idea at him. I had been working on this goofy TV show we had here called Mystery Science Theatre 3000

PM: Which I know very well.

KM: Oh, good! Good, so I don’t have to explain it.

PM: No, no, no, no.

KM: (Laughs) And, of course, I was working long days and we were watching so many bad films while we doing it that I sort of stopped going to the movies as a regular habit. And when production was over and I started going back, I really didn’t like what was happening. All of my favorite big old theaters had disappeared and in their place were these giant multiplexes, which were like big department stores out on the edge of town. And it really kinda cheesed me off. I thought, “What happened to the way I used to go see movies?” And, worse yet, people were filing in, looking at the menu board like they’re picking something off the menu at McDonald’s. A lot of people don’t decide what movie they’re gonna see until they get there, and then they really don’t care. So movies have become a distraction rather than entertainment and a potentially wonderful art form, at least out there in the multi-plexes. I thought, “Now this is wrong.” This is how most of the industrialized world is seeing movies these days so I had to seek out alternatives. And I thought, “Hey, I got an opportunity to write a book. Why don’t I write a book from the point of view of the movie going audience and try to introduce people to as many different types of experiences as there are out there?” So, in order to be able to sell a book, I had to have a fun idea to go along with it and that’s where the idea of going to a theatre and seeing a movie every day of the year came in.

PM: Did you write it as you were doing it? It’s very diary-like.

KM: Yeah, it’s really generated from the diaries I kept when I was on the road and when I was at home, so I was writing as I went. I polished the whole manuscript when I got back in the first month of the year. So, it’s sort of like a combination of an ongoing road journal and some real research and critical study.

PM: Are you finding that you’re still doing writing about your experiences even though you’ve finished the book?

KM: I’m still going to the movies! Not nearly as much as I used to but, you know, I still love it. That’s the thing I’m glad about, after the year I didn’t turn out, either jaded or cynical or depressed about it. Yeah, and I still go to the movies two, sometimes three times a week. And that’s enough (laughs).

PM: And you write about it when you get home?

KM: Sometimes. If it’s something that really makes me angry, then I’ll write about it and I occasionally have submitted these days some essays to various people to see if I could get a voice out there. It’s fun to be able to have a place to vent, and I have my website, too, where I’ve been spending some time venting as well.

PM: Do people write to you and say, “This was my experience”?

KM: Yeah, I’ve been getting a lot of that. I kind of encouraged it. I sort of wanted to keep this conversation going after people read the book and give them an opportunity, so a lot of people have sent me their tips on where they think some really interesting theaters are, some wonderful experiences beyond multi-plexes, and one of them that keeps on coming up is in Austin, Texas. There’s a place called the Alamo Draft House, and it’s a wonderful Texas-style bar and grill with a movie theater, and some fantastic alternatives to regular movies. They show some films in repertory, they show some classics, they’ll have theme nights, they quite often have these 48-hour movie marathons. It’s a wonderful thing, and Austin is sort of known as a center for the arts in Texas.

PM: Was there ever a point where you just wanted to throw it in and make up the rest?

KM: (Laughs) I never wanted to make up the rest, but I certainly did want to throw it in every now and again. It gets discouraging, mainly when I was home. When I was traveling I had no problem, it was wonderful. But when I was at home here, I would see all the independent films or the foreign films or anything that was interesting or unusual in a very short order. And then I was left going back to the multi-plexes, seeing whatever drivel happened to be on the screen that day. I kind of got quite jaded at those times, and I get cavalier about it, and I just go see pure crap and then write angry diatribes about it. That wasn’t really very helpful because that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do. I think one of the problems is that people have been watching so many mediocre or bad films that they’ve become inured to the notion of quality and so now people take middling films and call them good. That’s where I think films have taken a downturn in the last twenty years.

PM: You’re almost expecting big films to be bad.

KM: Yeah. At best, mediocre. And that’s depressing.

PM: So many times in the book where you’ve got your list at the front and I’m seeing the movies that you’re seeing, going, “I can’t wait to see what you say about that” —

KM: (Laughs)

PM: — but you talk about something other than the film. Did you ever just go home and write about the films you saw and leave it out of the book?

KM: Well, I wrote a manuscript that was roughly a third longer than it oughta be. It was about, oh, 550 pages when I finished. I had to. I had to write about everything. As it turned out, some things were not really germane to the theme of the week that I was trying to explore, and so I had to leave a lot of really juicy reviews or slams by the wayside in the interest of keeping the book on the right track.

PM: I’m thinking, “How did you manage to see Serendipity and Bridget Jones’ Diary so many times?”

KM: (Laughs) Serendipity made perfect sense because it was part of the experiment where I wanted to explore whether the date movie still exists, so I took six different women to the same film, much to the consternation of my spouse who was very understanding about the whole thing but eventually she said, “You gotta take me too, and you better treat me nice!” So I did and we had a great time. [But] Serendipity simply sucked as far as I was concerned.

PM: You enjoyed Bridget Jones didn’t you?

KM: You couldn’t avoid it! It was sort of like how Coca-Cola is everywhere; well, so was Bridget Jones. Here’s the thing: I was on airplanes and I was in small towns, in Australia, in England – I couldn’t get away from the thing, it was simply everywhere. I mean, I go out to Broome, okay? To the Sun Pictures. You know, this is, we’re talking about where the outback meets the ocean, and here’s Bridget Jones at this 80-year-old bush theatre. I’m expecting something, imagining, you know, one of the Snowy River saga playing there, or something ridiculous like that, or at the very least something more adventurous. But, of course, people want to see Bridget Jones. It’s not a bad movie, and the thing that was fun about it was, at that point, it is really where I’m seeing it more than [the movie] that makes the experience fun, and makes it rich. I’m sitting in this place and I’m sitting next to a couple who came there on their honeymoon. They came to Broome [in Western Australia] and watched a movie at the Sun Pictures and that had been 45 years previous. Isn’t that wonderful, that there’s still a theater that’s very much the same that’s still open like that?

PM: Do you think that there’s a story like that in every cinema audience?

KM: I would like to think so, but for the folks going out for the regular Friday night at the multiplex, I don’t think that’s true. They’re trying to get away from their kids, or they’ve let their kids off, or they’re just seeing what’s on because there’s nothing good on TV. That’s not reason enough to go to the movie theater anymore.

PM: Are you able to go to the movies and not analyze everything around you?

KM: You know, there’s a wonderful little theater here in town called the Heights Theater; it’s just recently been restored [and] they’ve got a big old theater organ. Just this last week it had it’s the 40th anniversary of Lawrence of Arabia, and they had a new print with a newly redone soundtrack. And that’s a film I can just sit down and forget it all and just enjoy it. It all depends on the film. You know, I saw Cinema Paradiso, which is truly one of my favorite films, and it’s just because it’s the love of it and I can just let everything go and simply enjoy. I really like that.

PM: Has there been any recent big-time releases that you actually have been able to enjoy?

KM: You know, that’s a really good question. No. Quite frankly, no. I think the successful answer to that is no because if I said that I’d be sort of compromising myself because it just isn’t true. I’ve seen a lot of very mediocre films, but I haven’t seen anything that’s simply delighted me.

PM: Any independent releases or anything more off-beat that you found enjoyable?

KM: [Michael Moore’s] Bowling for Columbine was extremely — what would you say? — sort of crass and polemical and wonderful. It really was. For me, you know what he’s doing. He always goes over the line, and he sort of takes himself too seriously and also takes his subjects too glibly, but, boy, he makes a point. He’s sort of like the liberal world’s response to what we have to put up with endlessly from the conservative world.

PM: I find him very hard to watch because you’re waiting for him to make somebody squirm.

KM: Yeah! It’s true, but I’ve learned to enjoy that squirm. It was something that took me a while, and it took me seeing a lot of films and sort of getting used to it to get back to enjoying that squirm.

PM: What was your favorite experience on your journey?

KM: It was seeing the D.W. Griffith movie, Broken Blossoms in an old Polish circus tent that was pitched in a schoolyard in a small town up above the Arctic Circle in Finland with a string ensemble, a really terrific string ensemble from Finland called Avanti!. Like D.W. Griffith or not for some of the things that he did that were patently racist and all, taken by itself, this is a damn good film, and it actually addresses themes that are still being addressed in films now, or ought to be: familial violence, poverty, racism, just sort of the way that big cities can be brutal on people of different origins, and so it’s a great theme. I’m watching this thing, and while I’m watching, a storm brews up outside. Huge thunderstorm. Water is leaking through the tent, the tent is flapping like crazy, and just as the film was getting the most intense, the wind is whipping up and the whole screen is actually flapping like a banner while I’m watching this and, of course, the orchestra plays on because that’s what they’re supposed to do.

The film has a very slow, sad ending to it, and the orchestra matched that, and the wind started to die at the end and it was this wonderful sort of credenza to the thing, and it just softly died. People were on their feet, and I didn’t realize I was crying until I saw the tears on my face. We went outside, and it’s 11:30 at night in June in the Arctic Circle, and so the sun has broken through the clouds and there’s a double rainbow over the top. Now, I’ve died and gone to movie heaven here! It was way out of my element, and it was so unusual. I think it was a combination of the fact that I think that this is a really good film. I think this is a film that’s worth preserving and worth seeing again. It was that, and it was perfect combination of content and context here.

PM: Do you think that you can go to a cinema that you absolutely love, that’s great, and see a bad movie, and still enjoy the experience because you’re in the cinema that you’re in?

KM: A lot of it depends on how you see the film, and who you’re with, and when you’re seeing it, and al the things surrounding it. I think you can still enjoy yourself. It doesn’t make the film any better, but it makes the experience better. So when I go see a bad film at one of these cold, cushy multiplexes, I feel robbed. It just doesn’t feel right to me. It feels like a waste of money. It’s like going to the casino. It just doesn’t do anything for me. But, yeah, if I make it part of a more enjoyable experience, and sometimes, as I noted in the book, I sort of have to subvert the experience to make it interesting. The way I lower my risk on questionable films is, I’ll go see a film I like and then I will stay in the multiplex and I’ll sneak to another theater and see another film that I’m not really particular about. And that little bit of civil disobedience makes the film all the more enjoyable. And, of course, I always sneak my own food into the theatre. That’s important.

PM: Right! We do that.

KM: That’s good, I really encourage that because the concessions cost far too much as it is. And it always tastes better when you bring it in yourself, it’s always cheaper, and it has that added little flavor of defiance.

PM: Do you remember your least favorite experience?

KM: I had so many, it’s really hard to pin one down, but early in the year, I had had a kidney stone. I was spending a week going to these Cinema Grills, as they call them. They actually are sit-down restaurants in the theater. Which is not a great idea. I don’t think it’s a great idea, unless they do it right. Well, they didn’t do it right here. The waiter would come out in the middle of the film and sort of loudly announce, [nasal voice] “Everything okay? Alright, you want some more beer?” And I had this horrible sandwich, I don’t remember what it was, it might have been a Reuben, but I think that’s what brought on my kidney stone.

The movie was What Women Want, and actually I think it was the movie that brought [the kidney stone] on. Our boy Mel Gibson there in pantyhose, and Helen Hunt and that strange pelican-like face she has, and it turns from this goofball comedy into this horrid melodrama. It’s just, it’s a reprehensible film. And that night I had a kidney stone and had to go to the hospital. So it was either that or the next day, I’m on this medication, this Vicodin which is an opiate to take the pain and the inflammation down-and we don’t have to explore the kidney stone any further than that—-but I saw the movie Saving Silverman. Have you seen one, with Jack Black?

PM: Oh my god. I have.

KM: The only memory I have is Jack Black standing in a bathroom, I think, with a pair of pantyhose over his head. That’s really all I remember of the film, and I really don’t want to carry that memory with me, but I do.

PM: You’re lucky that’s all you remember.

KM: It’s true.

PM: They changed the title of it over here [in Australia] for some bizarre reason.

KM: Did they? PM: They called it Evil Woman.

KM: (Laughs) Oh, so they turned it around! I understand.

PM: What was your most surprising experience? What did you expect, perhaps, not to like and then really did like?

KM: Oh, you know that’s an excellent question! There were a few films I went in absolutely sight-unseen. I knew nothing about the films, and those were always the most delightful. I knew nothing about the film Sexy Beast, except that it starred Ben Kingsley. But it’s the most astounding performance I have seen by an actor in years. It is the scariest role I’ve seen — he makes Hannibal Lecter look tame. And I don’t mean that he’s gruesome or that he’s macabre, but it’s just a complete full character, and he’s a violent man, and he’s an angry man. And the violence and the anger, they almost precede him into a room. I asked people about it and they were just like, “Ooh, I don’t want to see that again.” The first shot of Ben Kingsley, all you see is the back of his head, but you almost see the veins and the muscles on the back of the neck and you can tell, this is a tense guy, everything about his body language, and you don’t even see his face. But it’s already a great performance and you’re only seeing the back of his head. Now that’s pretty remarkable. I highly recommend that film. That one quite surprised me.

PM: What about cinema-wise?

KM: Oh, you know, I’m telling you, best one in all the world, the one that I really enjoyed was sitting down at the Dendy in Sydney, and going to the counter before the film and they have wines. “Care for a glass of Shiraz?” And I ask, “Can I bring this into the theater?” She said, “Of course you can!” I wanted to kiss the woman! They don’t do that here.

The auditorium itself is wonderful. It’s a great place to see a film. And then you can bring a glass of wine in! It’s just so unusual here. I found out, late in the year, why, because I worked at a theater for a week, tearing tickets and sweeping floors, and the American audiences are the biggest pigs in the world, there’s no one who comes close. I mean, soccer hooligans are neater than American movie audiences. The people just will finish half of their ice cream or their Junior Mints or their popcorn, and they’ll hurl it on the floor — whole containers of soft drink! — and leave, leaving the poor theater workers to clean up all this crap It’s really pathetic. That always shocked me.

PM: Due to your time on Mystery Science Theatre, are you able to sit through a movie and not feel the need to throw comments up at the screen? Are you done with that now?

KM: Yes. It’s a hard and fast rule for me that if people are paying for it, then they’re not paying for me to heckle it. So I leave my heckling at home. I do it all the time on my TV, and I actually do irritate Jane sometimes, I think, because I talk back to the TV screen so much. But in the movie theater, unless somebody else starts it. I’ve seen a few films that are so bad that people actually start razzing the screen. And then, and of course the sing-a-long Sound of Music, which I saw in London. Now that was a wonderful thing, to sit in Leicester Square with this drunken, rowdy bunch of Brits, half of them in nun-drag. And it’s so much different than The Rocky Horror Picture Show because the crowd’s a lot more diverse. It’s not just the weirdos. And I grant that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an outlet for weirdos but the same jokes get said over and over again week in and week out and I think, no matter where you see it, it’s almost the same experience. But with the sing-a-long Sound of Music there’s no written script. I mean, people have to be funny. And the English, I believe, are the funniest audience there is. I think this goes back to the time of Shakespeare when they honed their skills at being Groundlings, you know, at the old Globe and the Rose, and I think it carried through music hall and into the modern day and so these people are great at heckling a film.

PM: So you were able to take some sort of pointers from these skilled English hecklers?

KM: Yeah! They were as great as Tom Servo or Crow or any of them, any of them over there are just as good.

PM: Do you still get recognized as Tom? As the voice of Tom?

KM: Only on the phone. I’ll be talking to the furnace repair man, or I’ll be getting an estimate on a car repair, or flight reservations, and somebody’ll say, “Gee, you know, you sound like Tom Servo!” And, I’ll say, “Isn’t that a coincidence!” It’s the only time I get recognized, of course, because nobody ever saw me in the flesh, except if I was doing bad puppeteering and my wrist happened to show. But I’m not recognized for my wrist so that’s not really a big danger.

PM: Do you mind that people sort of still love the show so much?

KM: Oh, no. I love it. You see, here, it shows on Saturday mornings, so it’s sort of what I call a Pajama Show, you know? People get up on Saturday mornings and they’ll sit in their pajamas and have their coffee and watch the show. I think that’s a great place to be, it’s sort of like this little fixture in the culture. I’m quite honored, actually, to have a show that’s sort of a Pajama Show that shows on Saturday mornings. It tickles me.

PM: Do you have a favorite?

KM: Oh, gee, you know, that’s really hard for me. I had some really wonderful ones. We did these Russian films. This guy, Alexandr Ptushko, there was one film called Sinbad, as far as I could tell, it had nothing to do with Sinbad, they had just changed the name in English to Sinbad and I don’t know why. And then there was this Finnish-Russian myth of the Sampo, which is this magical machine that makes gold and silver and diamonds and, like, wheat and salt. Everything you want, elves and witches and talking trees hanging around. And, actually, the effects were quite sophisticated for the time that it was made, and the color was just gorgeous. I don’t know, Russia put a lot of nasty chemicals into the film or something to make those colors come up the way they did. But it’s a beautiful film, and yet it was silly enough for Mystery Science Theatre so it really is one of my favorites.

PM: My favorite is Riding with Death.

PM: (Laughs) Ben Murphy! Good old Ben Murphy.

PM: Werewolf and Soul Taker — all the Joe Estevez films.

KM: Joe Estevez! I love him. I absolutely love him.

PM: He’s our hero. And Track of the Moon Beast, which we watched last night.

KM: Oh, wow. That’s the girl in the tiny little Terri-cloth hot-pants, right? And the band that plays “California Lady”, I think? Yeah.

PM: Yes! It’s one of those things where you go, “Jeez, why didn’t I think of that first?” It’s the same thing with your book, why hasn’t somebody done this before?

KM: Well, I’m glad to be the first, then. The idea came upon me and I immediately started writing it. And it was so easy to think of this, and it was so much fun to sort of think of ways to do this that it really wasn’t a struggle at all. It was great. It was a delight to write the book.

PM: Did you learn more than you expected?

KM: I did. I learned that even at my stodgy old age I can still broaden my tastes and that I’m better for it because if I look in the paper and I see what’s playing at the local theatre and I don’t like it I’m not going to be averse to looking up, “Okay, what’s playing at the museum? Okay, what documentaries are in town? What foreign films are on that I’ve never seen?” Like, say there’s a Hungarian melodrama I’ve never seen, I’ll go see it! Because it doesn’t hurt, you know? I’m not scared of any sort of film. I’ll go see art films, I’ll see experimental films, I’ll see documentaries, I’ll see a film made from any foreign country, I’ve just learned to love foreign language films. I’ve really been able to broaden my palate, and at the same time I think I’ve raised my standards.

PM: That was something you didn’t do before, randomly head off to the museum?

KM: Not always. I mean I would it was something I knew about. I always had a pretense. If it was something I’d heard was like the cool film from Italy, or the cool film from a certain documentarian, I’d go see it. Now I’m willing to pick out something that I’ve never experienced and have a raw experience with it. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival has a number of films that you can’t find on, say the Internet Movie Database, you can’t find information for them anywhere because a lot of them just simply have been pulled from the countries by the filmmakers and there are maybe three or four prints of them and this film festival will go and find them. I love that sort of thing. I’ve seen some films at the festival that I don’t think I could see anyplace else. Truly. I could even go to the countries and I wouldn’t be able to see a film like this. So, that’s a delight.

I’ve tried to just give people a gentle push and say, “It really doesn’t hurt to go see these things that you think are exotic and weird.”

PM: Even if it’s in an igloo.

KM: Exactly.

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