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Posts Tagged ‘Hatchet Job’

A brief glance at the stats for this blog tells me that, as of this writing, there are somewhere in the region of 650 film reviews hereabouts. I have been writing these on and off since 2001, and fairly solidly since 2010 (sometimes at the rate of three or four a week). At a conservative estimate, I must have written about 600,000 words about films, all told (the last two novel-length stories I managed to finish, in comparison, amounted to only 230,000 words between them). I have never really thought very deeply about the nature of film writing in all this time: or at least I hadn’t until I read Hatchet Job, the latest movie-related tome by Mark Kermode.

Kermode’s first book was the story of his life in film; his last one was an extended series of moans about the things he finds particularly irksome about modern films and the contemporary movie-going experience. I liked it, even if I found it a bit on the negative side. Hatchet Job, despite the title, is a bit more balanced.

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Kermode opens by celebrating the most memorable result of the film critics’ art: the devastating negative review, kicking off with ‘Forest Gump on a tractor’ (The Straight Story) and taking in ‘Miss’ (Battleship), ‘an explosion in a stupidity factory’ (A Good Day to Die Hard) and some of Kermode’s own most vitriolic utterances, such as ‘An orgy of dripping wealth which made me want to vomit’ (Sex and the City 2), before going on to question, if not the value of film criticism in the modern world, then certainly the need for professional film critics as a species.

This is the core theme of Hatchet Job, which Kermode comes at from a number of angles: the decline in the respect in which critics are held, the sometimes strained relationship between critics and film-makers, the current crisis in the lot of old-school print critics in an increasingly digital age, and so on. Along the way Kermode gets to indulge himself on many topics which will be familiar to long-term followers, such as the plight of the skilled projectionist, the careers of Ken Russell (Dr K like) and John Boorman (Dr K very no like), and how lovely Silent Running is, as well as some which may be new, such as the unreliability of the automatically-moderated reviewing system on Amazon.com and the pernicious influence of test screenings on film storytelling.

He is, as you’d expect, very good company throughout, even when dealing with unpromising material without a great deal of interest to anyone not specifically interested in the lot of film critics (he is touchingly eloquent when paying tribute to two deceased giants of the field, Alexander Walker and Roger Ebert, even though it is clear he is rather more simpatico with one than the other). If you know much about films, you are unlikely to learn a lot, but at least you will hear things for the second or third time in a highly entertaining way.

You might expect Kermode to be precious and possessive about his status as someone who’s paid to watch and talk about new films for a living, and perhaps he does come across as slightly self-mythologising when he expresses his belief that ‘[f]or a critic’s opinion to have value beyond the mere joy of the savage put-down or the well-constructed defence, I believe they must have something personal at stake, something about which they care, and which they are in danger of forfeiting.’ (He’s talking about the bubble reputation, by the way, not an actual job.) Yet his argument does sort of hang together. I rarely make much use of critics myself, especially since I stopped listening to Kermode’s own radio show (sorry Doc), but this is largely because I just found myself writing my own reviews as a response to theirs rather than to the film itself, but on an instinctive level I know that I’d rather read a review from someone with a track-record and a real name than by some anonymous username on the internet.

On the other hand, though, doesn’t this just make me a massive hypocrite? My own name isn’t on this book review, after all: why should you give a damn what I think? Why should my opinion have any special value? Well, you might well say, in the case of a cruddy little blog like this one, which on average is read by no-one at all, what does it matter? Speak or stay silent, it doesn’t make any difference.

And yet, and yet. All other things being equal, I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think there was at least some chance of getting read (to do otherwise would be, to quote Stephen King, ‘quacking into the void’). And yet Kermode himself argues that ‘writing for free in an arena where someone else is getting paid eventually undermines the possibility of anyone being properly remunerated’. This sounds a little protectionist, I suppose, but there is a grain of truth here, surely – if the reviews on the blog are any good, then I may be taking bread from the mouths of film critics’ children – if they’re not, what’s the bloody point in them anyway?

I don’t know. I suppose the brutally honest response would be to say that if a professional critic with the resources of a national paper behind them can’t come up with something more useful and entertaining than an amateur nobody sitting behind a laptop in a garret, they don’t deserve to be in the profession anyway. And perhaps this is true. It has still made me question exactly why I am so rigorous about writing up every new film I watch, even the really boring ones.

As I’ve said in the past, I have a pronounced OCD tendency, and I think doing the reviews helps control this – also, feeding the OCD helps fend off the depressive tendency I also possess. So perhaps there is a therapeutic aspect to all this. Thinking about this has also made me realise that starting writing this blog regular coincided fairly closely with my stopping writing ‘substantial’ fiction suspiciously closely. I said in an ‘interview’ (it was a webzine feature where completely obscure individuals took it in turns to ask each other silly questions every week) a few years ago that writing is just about the only thing in the world, other than watching the 1970s Doctor Who title sequence, guaranteed to make me happy, and so perhaps obsessively writing endless film reviews has taken the place of producing fiction.

In which case it looks like that the main purpose of this blog is not to actually share opinions and judgements on films, but to shore up my mental equilibrium. If I actually ever say something worthwhile and useful about a film it is a fortuitous fringe benefit and nothing else. I’m not really sure how to process this little nugget of increased self-knowledge, but then that has largely been the story of 2014 so far for me. If you are the starving child of a professional film critic, I apologise, but I fear it may be pathological on my part. And if you are not, but you are at all interested in films and serious film writing, you will probably find Hatchet Job to be an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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