Thursday, October 22, 2009

9 Days of Reviewin' #4: Inhead Empire

I just spent more than $30 on a magazine devoted to saying how wonderful it was, and it was worth every cent. Even if I didn’t really need it to tell me this, because I’ve always known Empire was wonderful.

It’s the only magazine I’ve bought consistently and concurrently for more than five years. I still own a complete run of the movie magazine from 1993 through to 2004, and would have an uninterrupted run if the inferior Australian version hadn’t got in the way and driven the UK version out of the local shops.

Now it has to be air-freighted in, and is only sold in a few magazine stores around the country. Each issue costs more than $24 now and every time I wonder if it will be worth it, but there is always something inside worth checking out. An article, an interview, or even a nice photoshoot that gets me, month after month after month.

(And it’s still fucking good. The recent 20th anniversary issue was a fucking little cracker.)

Like a lot of things, it’s all Tarantino’s fault. When you’re 19 and looking for new things to obsess over, the then-recent release of Reservoir Dogs will do quite nicely. Repeated viewings and a lamentable video parody later, it was time for something new, and that gorgeous Empire cover with True Romance on the cover did the trick, opening up all sorts of new movie knowledge to dive into.

How could I resist? How could anybody?

Inside Empire, a special edition published this month, is terrible value for money, but it’s mental junk food that I’m craving right now. Buy a magazine for long enough and big bits of you life get tied to weird, arbitrary sequences. Like this:

Falling in love with a girl who owned the issue with the second Winona Ryder cover. Back at square one in 2003, doing the same job I was doing 10 years earlier and feeling pretty fucking bummed about it, but Empire was getting heavily into good writing about great DVDs, and that’s two hours I can sit reading the new Empire and put off the future. That shit bit in 2001 when everything was a bit shit, including Empire. Those ridiculously hot covers in 1998 and 1999, and the moving between cities that still symbolize in my head.

So that was $30 right there in Inside Empire: a trip down a nostalgic path that still aches.

Fortunately, there are loads of pretty pictures I’ve never seen before (especially the Trainspotting one), and great writing about great writing about great movies.

It’s marvelous. The thing that keeps me coming back again and again to Empire is some gorgeous writing, from some brilliant writers. People who genuinely love film and want it to be better, a little bit over-eager when something really good does come along, a little hurt when the goods aren’t delivered.

Angie Errigo’s enthusiasm and David Parkinson’s knowledge. Ian Freer’s wit and Kim Newman’s everything.

Kim Newman is the most entertaining writer on the planet and I read everything he does as soon as I can. Either as soft-spoken Kim or his hard-drinking alter ego Jack Yeovil, his fiction is ridiculously thrilling and massive amount of fun. His non-fiction is fantastic: Books about horror and westerns and the apocalypse, a mountain of thoughtful and insightful reviews of tens of thousands of books and movies.

I’ve only ever disagreed with Newman’s opinion twice: Right at the start, when he gave Army of Darkness and Braindead poor reviews, and once in Inside Empire, where he argues for getting rid of the star system for reviews.

He was right about Army of Darkness, but he’s wrong about the reviews. The five-star system for Empire has turned me on to so many films. Back when I was trying to figure out who was good, Empire told me – if they gave it five stars, it was probably worth a look.

They turned me on to Shallow Grave, and there have been no disappoints from Danny Boyle since then. They said Shawshank Redemption was worth a look, and one Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting there watching it in an empty theatre, which was good, because I was blubbing like a little girl by the end of the film. Five years later, and everybody is telling me to sit and watch the damn movie because it's the greatest thing ever.

Empire still tells me about the new shit that’s worth seeing, and that’s worth the $24 monthly bill.

This $30 book was a tougher sell, but it was Kim Newman that sealed it for me. Writing about the films that summed up the magazine’s philosophy, where others choose The Matrix or Lord of the Rings or Pulp Fiction, Newman chose Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

When that film came out, I flipped my fucking lid over it, but couldn’t get anybody else to watch it with me. Twin Peaks; Fire Walk With Me blew two potential friendships and one absolute definite shag for me, and it was totally worth it.

Because Empire understood. One of my very first issues had Newman’s five –star review of Twin Peaks, the only absolute rave I saw anywhere at the time, and I knew they were on my side.

Empire was on my wavelength. They helped me figure out what I liked about the great stuff, and cared about the same damn things I cared about when it came to watching films.

It still is, month after month. At the start of every month, I’ll stand there in the shop and wonder if it’s too expensive. And then I’ll read it and there will be an interview with David Fincher or a feature about Kenneth Anger films or a review of that weird European film that sounds really interesting.

And I’m in.


Adam said...

I used to buy Empire every month but gave up when I realised that proper bunt was being reviewed very generously. A short time later I found myself reading about the pressures imposed on critics working in the popular press to give certain movies rather more glowing reviews than they might if they’d been left entirely to their own devices. So while I don’t doubt that Empire critics love film (of course Kim Newman loves film!) and while I am prepared to assume that they in part review generously because they want to be generous and they want to enjoy stuff, it seems to me that they are almost certainly compelled in that direction by all sorts of forces beyond their control. The other problem I have with Empire – and it’s the same type of problem I have with all sorts of popular magazines from Mojo to New Scientist – is that it’s overly invested in a particular, populist canon: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Jaws etc… Don’t get me wrong, I love loads of that stuff too - I’m not being a snob – I just find treading that ground over and over again rather tedious and worry that by investing in a canon you risk pushing other stuff to the fringes. I mean, it’s all very well giving that odd little European movie 5 stars, but if you devote the bulk of your space to your canonical interests and related matters (most of which hail from big budget Hollywood – an important point!) then your message has to be that odd little European films are far less important, and perhaps aren’t, in some sense, real movies.

I’m generally happier with publications that have less of a centre. For example I love Edge magazine even though I’m not allowed to buy computer games anymore (because I am a dad and very responsible, etc…) because it’s full of passion and because, while it knows how to have fun, it’s a tough fucking critic – nothing is sacrosanct. I’m also very fond of the way it addresses the culture of game playing and the culture and economics of the computer game industry – it has a holistic scope that many popular mags could learn from but probably won’t because to do so could negatively impact their sales.

Adam said...

All that said, I do get the love you have for the mag. It does celebrate cinema and sell its popular charms - the aesthetics, the glamour, the sheer wonderfulness of the spectacle - with more enthusiasm than just about any other publication ever, so much so that I'm still not immune to its siren call.

Bob Temuka said...

The Empire crew have reacted very harshly against any talk about their reviews being influenced by outside forces. I think they get caught up in the buzz and hype, just like everybody else. They have given some big blockbusters rave reviews that in hindsight look completely ridiculous, but usually admit their mistakes. They're still apologising for the five stars they gave Attack of the Clones.

The populist stance does sell more copies, there is no doubt about that, but I remember when that mix of the popular and the esoteric was actually unusual. When I first start getting Empire, no magazine was talking about Star Wars. It was only ten years after Return of the Jedi and was deeply uncool, even amongst the nerd herd. But then the people who saw the original movies as little kids came of age, and it began seeping back into popular culture. Just before the prequels came along and ruined it for almost everybody, Empire was one of the first places that unapologetically revealed its love for the blockbuster, while also talking up the little movies that could be worth a look.

The big movies do get most of the space in the magazine and those can get a little tiring. Any feature that starts off with "Empire is walking through a masive set, surrounded by wonderful things" is hardly worth reading.

But there is still the odd piece about something new and interesting that is coming along, and its writing on stone cold classics is superb. The Masterpiece section in each issue has been running for the past 70 issues and offers some meaty, substantial writing on different classics - in the last six months there have been cracking full-page essays on Kiss Me Deadly, Suspiria, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

Zom said...

you're making me want to pick it up.