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That Old Feeling: Kevin Help Us

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The young couple had been married just five months when the crisis struck. He (we'll call him "Richard") took her (we'll say "Mary") to a new movie (for want of a better four-letter word, "MASH").

He had already seen the film and thought she might enjoy it. She did not. She thought it wantonly cruel to women, offensive in its blithe blind brutality. When Hot Lips Houlihan was revealed naked in a shower and the men sitting on folding chairs outside began to applaud, "Mary" got more steamed than Sally Kellerman. She thought that any man who could find the scene, the film, funny must be emotionally deficient. She wondered, in horror, what sort of insensitive cretin she had pledged to love, honor and...oh vey! That weekend "Mary" literally went home to mother. Reuniting the lovers required a bit of soul searching — that, and an essay "Richard" wrote for the New York Times titled "I Admit It, I Didn't Like 'MASH'."

Thirty-plus years later, they're still together, still watching films and judging them and, in the process, judging each other a little. In other words, "Mary" and "Richard" are like most people. For, you see, Hitchcock was wrong. It's never "only a movie, Ingrid." Films are litmus or acid tests we apply to strangers, friends and occasional loved ones. And though it's a mantra of mine that in a movie review there are things more important than the opinion (the grace and wit of the writing, the knowledge of films and the world brought to the review, the discovery of odd corners and angles no one else noticed), I admit it — opinion counts. Even if I don't agree with it.

In the book "Favorite Movies," a collection of essays in which critics chose and eulogized a film that meant a lot to them, Joseph McBride wrote something like this: "If you don't cry when Ingrid Bergman reveals she has tuberculosis in 'The Bells of St. Mary's,' then I don't want to know you." That sentence has struck me at being at the hidden core of movie criticism. It's not that I'm with McBride on the specifics. I don't cry at that scene; something in my lapsed-Catholic soul rebels at what seems to me a contrived emotional blackmail. But I respect McBride's assertion that there are parts of a movie's impact on the viewer that are beyond arguing about.

It's hard not to think that something that moved you is profound; harder still for critics, who believe that their familiarity with every form of movie manipulation makes them the only irrevocable arbiters of the deep, the true, the moment when sentiment magically morphs into sublimity. But McBride's testimony recognizes that behind every critic is a human being, or the remnant of one. McBride becomes human — naked, vulnerable, honest — when he confesses to loving "The Bells of St. Mary's." I suppose I feel a similar vulnerability at the climactic moment from another Leo McCarey sudser, "An Affair to Remember," when the crippled Deborah Kerr exclaims to playboy-but-true-love Cary Grant, "If you can paint, I can walk!" All right, our guilty secret is out: inside every staunch critical redwood there's a lot of sap. When the right buttons are pushed, we can devolve from stony oracles to tremulous schoolgirls.



THE "PARADISO" PERPLEX

So when Kevin Murphy, in his loving, splendidly contentious new book "A Year at the Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey," discloses that his all-time favorite picture is "Cinema Paradiso," I reach for my devolver. Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 memory movie won loads of awards: Oscar and Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and at the French CÚsars it was cited for Best Poster. It is also a movie that most critics I respect have a special loathing for in the pit of their pruney hearts. Or they say they do, even if those hearts contain a soft center with a weakness for winsome Italian films about people who get winsome for Italian films.

Me, though, I really do dislike it. And as I was reading of Murphy's fondness for the film I wondered if I should be obliged to reassess (as "Mary" "Corliss" once did) all feelings of fondness for a person whose aesthetic criteria seem to verge so drastically from mine.

Renouncing Murphy would be difficult. To me, and hundreds of thousands of others, he is forever bathed in glory for his service as a writer-performer on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." For ten years, in a small studio in suburban Minneapolis, he lay on his back, his hand up the innards of the Tom Servo gumball puppet, and made derisory comments — fresh, perverse, acute comments — about failed movies. Murphy and his colleagues fulfilled the dream life of many a film critic: to be funny, gifted and killing. Click here to find a lovely portrait of Murphy, to the right of a bedragged Michael J. Nelson on the late, much-missed Satellite of Love set.

Murphy has also said nice things about me. In public, even. Why, in "A Year at the Movies" he describes me as "a brilliant, well-studied, thoughtful film lover" and "a real teddy bear of a man," and adds that meeting me at the Cannes Film Festival "will become a notch on my life's gun belt." He says he belongs to the First Church of Corliss of Latterday Saints. He claims my prose is so beautiful he wants to bear its children and buy it a second home in Sanibel. Murphy did not actually say all of this, but what he did say is reckless enough. It guarantees that (a) given the Caesar's-wife rules of book reviewing, I cannot write about "A Year at the Movies" in Time magazine and (b) I will have to pick a fight with him, just to prove that his flattery cannot vitiate my critical integrity.

On second thought — and Murphy has a lot of them in his book — I'll meet him halfway. I still don't like "Cinema Paradiso." But I like why he likes it. This dewy fable sings to him of movie-love, of the magic of dark places with giant screens that offer (in Andrew Sarris' eloquent definition) a window to the wide world beyond us and a mirror into the strange universe inside us. Despite Murphy's sensible suspicions about all kinds of movies, he is open to all kinds of movies, including movies he can't stand — an attitude I promise to explain later. And what opens his mind and pores is his feeling that the maker was intoxicated by the filmmaking process. He doesn't want to see the craft. He wants to feel the love.

Savoring the brio at a film festival in Positano, Murphy asks, "Hell, why are Italians good at any art form, from music to painting to sculpture to opera? Passion." (Actually, most of the finest Italian films of the past 40 years, from "L'Avventura" on, have been on the astringent side; and please don't tell me about Roberto Benigni.) He likes Derek Jarman's artsy AIDS film "Blue" because "Derek Jarman loved making films, it's obvious. And it's also obvious that he loved his audience. Loved us enough to challenge us to try something new, take an adventure." (How exactly is this obvious? And how does love of movies translate into good moviemaking? We know Ed Wood loved movies — there's a wonderful Rudolph Grey biography and a not-so Tim Burton bio-pic to prove it — and, heaven knows, his films certainly challenged the audience. Yet three Wood films were chosen for ragging on "MST3K." )

I'm suspicious of passion: not of the emotion itself but of the invoking of it to validate an opinion. And yet "A Year at the Movies" comes close to overwhelming my reservations, for it is brimful of intelligent passion about films and filmgoing.

How so? Read on.

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