Satellite News - The "Lost" Kevin Murphy Interview Part 2


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Issue #21 of Too Much Coffee Man magazine features a four-page interview with Kevin Murphy. But there's more to the interview than what appears in print, and we've got it. Satellite News proudly presents:

Patrick Keller, Too Much Coffee Man magazine: One of the interesting parts of the book [A Year at the Movies] is that it revolves around the importance of the communal experience aspect of movies, which there isn't really much critical discussion of.

Kevin Murphy: Well, [Time Magazine reviewers] Richard Schickel and
Richard Corliss both took issue with that, because they're guys who will sit with a DVD and screen a film alone. They think you have to separate the film from the context to judge it on its merits. That's fine for a critic. It doesn't work worth a damn for the audience who is going to see this film maybe once. But if you happen to like to sitting in an audience that really is there because they love movies, it's a whole different experience. That's the point of contention that I have had with a lot of critics. You can't really put a film in a bell jar and observe it on its merits. There is that critical part of a piece of art, which is the audience that perceives it.

"I try not to watch the previews, if at all possible. I show up late, or I'll wait out in the lobby while the trailers are going."
TMCM: It's a completely different thing to go see something in a packed house.

Murphy: Suddenly a comedy is funnier, a scary movie's scarier, an adventure movie is more rollicking. This all depends on whether the film is essentially good or not. It can often detract but it can also enhance the experience.

TMCM: I know that I have to skip the parts of reviews that discuss the plot, and I've grown weary of trailers, too, because how much you know can rob the pleasure of the experience.

Murphy: Absolutely, I agree with that.

TMCM: Do you think there's any way to combat the overload of information?

Murphy: My way is to be a more informed moviegoer. If I hear about a movie coming out that has a certain director or a certain actor or screenwriter, or even a certain cinematographer or editor who has delighted me in the past, then I try to learn little more about the film than that. If there is a so-called "buzz" around the film, that can be helpful, too. Sometimes this fails spectacularly and you go see a horrible film, but quite often there is a reward in knowing as little as possible about the film.

I try not to watch the previews, if at all possible. I show up late, or I'll wait out in the lobby while the trailers are going. That's sort of uncomfortable because then you might not get the seat you want, but that's the price you pay.

That's one thing that's helped. Also, I try to keep up on the film headlines, and know what's coming out. That's one of the things the
Internet Movie Database is really helpful for. You can see what's coming out from what studio and which director is involved.

You know, I knew nothing about
City of God except that it was a great film shot in the ghettos of Rio de Janeiro. When I saw it, it absolutely blew me away. I was totally unprepared for what I saw. It was shocking and horrifying and one of the most craftful films I have seen in so long. It was well worth not knowing what was going to happen in that film. Especially for a film that has an element of suspense in it, you can truly get emotional and get completely involved.

TMCM: Is it possible to enjoy that kind of movie, the suspense movie, as much the second time around?

Murphy: When I see a movie for the first time, it's to enjoy the film as a whole. Then I go back again to appreciate how it was made. It's not going to be same experience. For a film I really like, I try to see it three times while it's in the theater. I won't review a film unless I've seen it three times. So I'll never be a weekly film critic unless I adjust that principle. It's an old method that I learned studying criticism in college. You go once for the initial reaction, which is usually enough for the local newspaper, but then you go again and study the craft. Then you can go again with someone else to see what their reaction was. Then you get a rounder view of what the film is for purposes of discussion.

TMCM: It seems like in the book, it can't be said that you were alone, necessarily, because there were crowds there, but for the most part you went by yourself, correct?

Murphy: I quite often go by myself, although if I can hook a friend or relative in to going I'll somebody grab and go. Quite often, since it was my job, I couldn't depend on people. I had to go whether they did or not. So, more often than not, yeah, I was seeing films solo, without anybody I knew around me. That can have an impact on the experience because you don't have somebody to immediately bounce off. I've got friend who starts reviewing the film the minute they step out of the theater. I try to avoid these people. Especially if it's a very emotional film, if somebody automatically starts talking about this or that in the film, I hate that. I just won't join in the conversation, or I'll tell them to shut up.

TMCM: You're doing movie reviews for
NPR now. Does the commentary on the context of moviegoing ever sneak in there? Most of the ones I've heard are pretty much about the movies themselves and not about the experience.

Murphy: It's been about the movies. I sort of vented my spleen [about the context issue] in the book. Every point I needed to make was probably in there. After that it would just belabor the point. The nice thing about working with
Weekend Edition Sunday is that the producer, Bob Malesky, a wonderful fellow, has this very topical show to put together, with a lot strings to hold on to, but he's always let me write very broadly about moviegoing and the film industry. That's been great because I'm not beholden to review that week's movie. NPR has like four film reviewers on before Sunday morning, so there's no point in me trying to review a film cause they've covered everything from the big blockbusters to the small art-house films. So, I've gotten to write and report on everything, the broader and sillier things.

TMCM: I have to say, with some exceptions, I don't like DVD commentary tracks. I don't mind them on bad movies or on movies that I don't like. Again, we're getting that "too much information" thing where I start to see behind the curtain, so to speak. Have you experienced the same thing, or are you one of these people who really enjoys knowing everything you can about how the movie was made?

Murphy: It depends entirely on the movie. I'm always particularly interested if a movie has had a lot of skill put into its creation. Then [a commentary] can be fun, especially if it's the director or the director of photography, somebody who is worth listening to, somebody who will actually address why they made there choices, how they did it. Not necessarily even the technical stuff, because of a lot of film directors don't actually know how, say, the CGI works, but they will talk about why they wanted what they wanted. That's more interesting to me.

I'm generally more interested if there's a director talking on the track. I don't care what an actor has to say, because actors are more or less hired hands. It's true. A lot of actors will cop to that, unless they're someone like Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino or somebody who is hired because of the creative contributions they make to the film, as well as their acting. Then that's interesting to me. But I don't need to know how they got a shot, unless it's really compelling and it's important to the film.

One of the major problems with the commentary tracks is that somebody will want to discuss a particular scene at length, and they can't because the film keeps going. There may be a way in the future to annotate films, where the film actually stops and you hear a comment on a particular scene and how it was made, how it was crafted. That would be interesting.

Commentary tracks can be great tool for film students. You don't have to go to a film class with some blowhard who's always been in college and never made a damn film in their lives telling you why a film was made the way it was made and the only thing they know is what they read in the book, what they heard on the commentary track or some brief interview with the filmmaker. It eliminates that annoying middleman. A good commentary track can help students of film learn why filmmakers make the choices they do.

TMCM: Do you think there's a certain element of demystification to all this? It used to be you had to get a laserdisc or something and make this huge investment to be a part of that. On the one hand, it's democratization, where now everyone knows it, but on the other hand, everyone knows it. Aren't people losing the mystique of the moviegoing experience?

Murphy: I think it's possible, but I really don't think that's true. I sort of take the
Penn and Teller approach. I love the fact that Penn and Teller will often do their trick and then they'll explain how it was done, but they'll always add a little zing to it. Again, the first time I see a film, all the magic can pass before my eyes and that experience will never come back to me again. So I wouldn't put the commentary track on the first time I see the film. But after that, if I want to know why did the director choose this or decided that, then, yeah, I'm willing to give the commentary a listen. I think that's fun.

"On [The Two Towers], Sean Astin made his own little movie, which was a bit of nepotism. They allowed him to include his stupid little movie on there. It was really bad, really dumb."
There's one film in particular that addresses exactly what you're talking about. I saw Winged Migration in the movie theater, and it's an absolutely breathtaking film: very little dialogue, and these miraculous shots of birds in flight, seemingly in the wild. But when you watch the making of featurette on the DVD, you find out that a lot of those birds were captured and trained to fly next to a boat or an ultralight with a bird-like decoy ahead of them. It was amazing that they were able to do that sort of technique and do it so successfully, but it did take a little of the stardust off the film. It shook a little of the magic off the original experience. I wish I didn't know that about the movie, but that's really been the only case where that happened, and that was an extremely unique movie.

Now take a film like a
Michael Moore film, like Bowling For Columbine, I don't know if there is a commentary track, and frankly I don't care, because everything he had to say he said in the film. If I want, I can go enjoy a Michael Moore film for what it is, but I sure don't want to listen to him talk.

TMCM: I know you're a big
Lord of the Rings fan. That series has become a real benchmark for DVD. Do you see the extended cut and all the extras as overkill, or is it beneficial for archival purposes? It's hard to argue that there's not a certain degree of bilking the fans in that.

Murphy: You're giving them more of what they want, and what they want is for the world of the film to never end. That's one of the things about Tolkien, and also fantasy in general, but Tolkien in particular: Everyone I know started to slow down as they approached the end of the book the first time they read it. If they really did buy into the whole universe, that is. People who don't buy into the universe can't wait for it to end. But if they love the saga, they don't want it to end. That's why extremely boring and arcane things like
Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, all of the supplemental stuff that Tolkien wrote and his son wrote, which I find immensely tedious, came out: People wanted to dissolve themselves into that entire universe. Hence the role-playing games, which can be truly endless. People don't want to come back out of it. So the DVDs are giving the fans, the true fans, what they want, with 10 or 12 hours of material on each one of these special edition packages...

TMCM: Oh, god...

Murphy: Exactly. Some of them are really annoying. On [The Two Towers], Sean Astin made his own little movie, which was a bit of nepotism. They allowed him to include his stupid little movie on there. It was really bad, really dumb. He got all his pals involved, and he got to make his own little movie. It was a little vanity production, and those things really annoy me. I don't spend a lot of time there, but some people I know just watch them over and over again.

TMCM: What's the movie that you've watched the most?

Murphy: The movie I've seen the most on DVD, which
Mike Nelson turned me onto, is Das Boot. Right after I got my Dolby 5.1 system installed in my house and got a big-screen TV, Mike said, "Go get Das Boot. You won't regret it." So I got it and played it, and the subwoofer scared the dog out of the room. The remastering of the soundtrack is so fantastic. The picture is great, but hearing the sound was when I realized that the magic of home theater for me is what it does to the soundtrack. Suddenly you have a soundstage that, if you tweak it right, is as good as what you get at a movie theater. The screen will always be one side of that or another, and I don't have $10,000 to spend on a high-def, flatscreen. And there's just not enough high def product out there to warrant that anyway. But the sound, the sound is really one of the most wonderful things. Sadly, I'm the only one in the house who gets into that. My very patient spouse, Jane, God bless her, I have to watch movies with big soundtracks when she's not around, because it just scares her. It's really funny: I'll crank the thing, and it scares the hell out of people sometimes. That big of a soundtrack in that small a space tends to make people nervous. That's my long answer to your question. It's Das Boot, which I've probably watched 10 or 12 times since I bought it.

TMCM: So you've got the system. Do you listen to these new music mixes that have the surround sound on them?

Murphy: I occasionally do. Some of them are really good, and I'm interested to see how it goes. I've got one, which I'm actually holding in my hand. It's one of my favorite bands these days, called
Tabla Beat Science.

TMCM: I'm sorry?

"A nice, small film by Jim Sheridan came up last Christmas called In America, which I really loved. I thought it was an independent version of a big Hollywood film. Very nicely done, and I was delighted to be able to go to a multiplex to see this film."
Murphy: Tabla Beat Science. It's Bill Laswell, Karsh Kalle, and Zakir Hussain. They're mainly rhythm masters. Laswell plays the bass. He does a lot of remixing. Karsh Kalle is a drummer, and Zakir does all percussion: tabla and other Indian drums. The DVD is wonderful because the mix is in 5.1, and they've done it pretty well. I get a little disconcerted by some of the performance videos where they will actually change the mix if they focus on a solo instrument. Which is ridiculous because you're never going to be at a concert and suddenly be five feet away from the drummer.

It's really fun to listen to on my big system. And there are a few like that. Early on, I got sent a John Lee Hooker disc, which was probably the first surround disc that I heard. And suddenly all the instruments are popping out. It was really quite fantastic. I think there was a place for that especially as they've gotten better at mixing it, and it's not just a novelty. They're trying to do the sort of imaging that the real masters of stereo mixing were able to do, where you'd present a real nice soundstage for the listener. You could sit in the sweet spot and suddenly it sounds wonderful. Some of these mixes on the 5.1 discs have started to achieve the same thing.

That's interesting to me, because I don't go to concerts much anymore. Mainly because I hate people. When you go to a concert, you have to deal with people, and I just really hate those guys.

TMCM: That could be a problem.

Murphy: Yeah.

TMCM: Do you think there has been a trend toward improvement in movies or the moviegoing experience in recent history? Or are we just going to see the same old crap in the same old crappy theaters?

Murphy: I've been interested to see that a few instances where independent film has popped into the multiplexes. And not just because they're controversial like Bowling for Columbine. Of course all the examples are leaving my head right now. A nice, small film by Jim Sheridan came up last Christmas called
In America, which I really loved. I thought it was an independent version of a big Hollywood film. Very nicely done, and I was delighted to be able to go to a multiplex to see this film. On the other hand, there's a trend for indie houses not to be so shabby anymore, which I'm really excited about. Landmark, the theater chain, has done great things. In Chicago, Landmark owns some of the most wonderful small multiplexes. And in Minneapolis they've now acquired one more theater, so now there are 11 screens where you can see independent film presented well. And thanks to some successes, more people are seeking indie films out. And so the theaters can get some facelifts and be a bit more comfortable, and offer a bit bigger variety, and I think that's fantastic.

TMCM: If you were head of a studio or a theater chain, what would your first act be?

Murphy: Oh, jeez, I'd be fired in a week.

TMCM: So make it worthwhile.

Murphy: As much as everybody laughs at the Weinstein brothers, they've made some significant contributions to the world of popular cinema in the films they've chosen and championed. It's still always been a business to them, but why not have a studio that says "Why don't we concentrate on having numerous small successes over the course of the year, rather than putting all our beans into the blockbuster that has to do its business in the first two weekends or it's considered a failure?"

I long for the days when a film would be in the theater for two months, three months. That only happens now with the biggest sellers. And because of the volume, particularly in the summers, the timing of these things is so important. I think that does a big disservice [to audiences]. How many studios end up putting all their eggs into one basket, and then have to push their one film that's going to make all of their significant income over the year? I like the philosophy behind studios like
Fine Line and Lions Gate, and Miramax when it's good: Let's put our focus on a lot of really good, smaller films. Market them as much as possible against the big films. In other words, let the young video game players know that this film is out here, and it's cool, and you should see it. And get to them as best as you can. I'd always get shouted down by the big studios with the big blockbuster because, let's face it, there's not going to be a City of God drink cup.

TMCM: And you probably don't want there to be.

Murphy: That would be a little too freaky. You can't start selling automatic weapons to twelve year olds. Dear God, that's not a good idea. You can't have a City of God toy gun. I don't think that's the best way to do it. But anything you can do to raise the level of expectation of the audience, I always think that's a good thing. And blockbusters have to run counter to that philosophy because they have to get as many people into the theater as possible. There are some that work.
Spider-Man is a pleasant distraction. It's really loud and full of action.

And it actually has a storyline that isn't banal. It's not stupid and sort of compelling. Listen, Ben Affleck's
Daredevil, was that the one? I don't know what people were thinking, but that was absolute horseshit. I think what they were thinking was, "We can't make this interesting, because it isn't. So let's just make it as base as possible so that it reaches the biggest audience it can." There are a lot of films that succeed just by reaching the biggest audience, but they're not necessarily good films. I went to see Spider-Man, and it's the "movie" movie: You don't have to care; you just pay your money and have the ride, have a great time, and forget it.

TMCM: I read recently that DVD is such a success that it is now considered the primary market. The theaters are almost a marketing tool to get people to buy the DVD down the line. The flipside of that is that, you know, they're pushing people to no longer have that communal experience, to instead have that individual/home experience. Do you think that's inevitable and lamentable, or?

Murphy: To a certain extent, I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. Again, depending on the film, it makes all the difference in the world to go see [it in a theater]. And this is why I hammer so much on context. Because a film is never the same as when you see it in a theater, if it's a good film that's made for an audience. And the best of the blockbuster films have done that; the best of the comedies have done that. You at least have to have one more person to really enjoy a comedy, I've always thought, because giddiness is contagious. And a room full of laughter is one of the things that makes a comedy funny.

So, yeah, I think something may be lost there. For this generation, at least, although maybe not for the next, people still very much enjoy going out to the theater, as box office receipts prove. I've seen it the most when you go to these things like cinema in the park or a drive-in theater, because there's a real intention there, a real culture that surrounds that sort of moviegoing. I don't think that will ever go anywhere.

I have a feeling that this will be turned around as the price of projectors comes down. You can take your little DVD player and your little projector and your little portable sound system, put it in your backyard and invite your friends over, and watch
Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sit out on the blankets, make your own popcorn. That doesn't necessarily have to be lost.

[Here the audio breaks while I flip the tape, during which Kevin speaks about the man who built the world's smallest theater.] It's pure love that this guy did it for. He sort of realized the way things were going and that's why he built a movie theater in his house. Actually got licensed by the government to show movies and have a 35mm projector in his house and a 5.1 sound system. It's a fantastic place to see movies even though are only 22 seats in the place. It looks like a grand, old movie palace on a very small scale, and it's a lot of fun.

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But that's not all... This issue, the "best of TMCM" also features cartoons from creators like Keith "K Chronicles" Knight and Tom "This Modern World" Tomorrow, as well as Too Much Coffee Man creator Shannon Wheeler, and humorous stories about bizarre crime, oddball Passion of the Christ marketing, and the pitfalls of being Superman!

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