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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Kermode’

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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Hum. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s actually very difficult these days to go and see a film with no knowledge whatsoever of the story, plot, tone, or cast, and it’s virtually unheard of for a sane person to end up watching a film theatrically which they never really wanted to see in the first place. And yet I find myself in just such a position, courtesy of my recent encounter with Dr Mark Kermode, who decided to precede his talk to publicise his new book (The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex) with a showing of William Peter Blatty’s 1980 movie The Ninth Configuration.

I’ll happily admit that I’d never heard of this movie before last week, and if pressed might have suggested it was an occult drama with Johnny Depp and Roman Polanski (I would of course have been thinking of the 1999 horror movie The Ninth Gate). I did a bit of cursory research prior but as I was going to end up sitting through the film no matter what, in the end I just decided to turn up and take the film as I found it.

This movie is set after the Vietnam War, in a Gothic castle which has been transported wholesale from Europe to the Pacific Northwest of the USA. Here it is being put to good use as a military asylum, for men who (it is suspected) began to feign madness in order to avoid dangerous combat duties. Also present is Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a former astronaut who apparently had a violent breakdown immediately prior to his moon mission.

Someone new arrives at the castle: Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), the new commanding officer and chief psychiatrist. He makes the acquaintance of the various inmates, including Cutshaw, and begins to formulate a plan for their treatment. But Cutshaw has his own doubts about Kane’s sanity, and after a discussion with an inmate who is adapting the works of Shakespeare for dogs, Kane decides to indulge all the inmates in their eccentricities, believing that, Quixote-like, this will restore them to sanity…

This brief outline barely scratches the surface of the heroic peculiarity of Blatty’s film. As Dr K commented after the screening I attended, it’s one of those movies that would never get made these days – anyone going into a major studio these days and suggesting they make a psychological thriller wherein a mass murderer and a man who refused to go into space embark on a knotty debate about the existence of God would probably find themselves hurled bodily from an upper storey.

It opens, for the most part, as a strange, deadpan black farce, but even here it contains dreamlike moments of surrealism – an astronaut discovers a crucified Christ on the moon, for example – and clearly heartfelt theological debate. Later the tone transmutes again, with a scene that seems to have wandered in from an exploitation movie and which concludes with a stunning explosion of violence.

In fact, heartfelt is the word I would use to describe this movie, which isn’t afraid to be – well, almost self-indulgent: it opens with a musical pre-credits sequence in which not much happens, is cheerfully slow in places, has little truck with credibility, and (to my mind) seemed quite startlingly sentimental in places.

But then again, if there wasn’t a place in cinema for personal visions, even if they do result in beautiful mutants like this being made, then I suspect I would find it a lot less interesting. And, for all its weirdness, its flaws, and occasional inpenetrability, The Ninth Configuration remains very watchable. It’s a film I can see easily myself returning to in future in the hope that future viewings will allow me to decipher more of the numerous levels of metaphor and symbolism that the movie clearly contains. I can’t confess to loving this movie as much as Blatty or indeed Kermode obviously do, but I’m glad of having the opportunity to see it. Nevertheless its obscurity is not really a surprise, if I’m perfectly honest.

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‘I was very disappointed that the National Film Theatre would not let me electrocute the audience.’

I don’t go to the theatre very often – maybe they should show trailers for upcoming plays to entice me back on those rare occasions when I do – but every now and then news of a forthcoming performance penetrates my brain with sufficient force to actually motivate me to sit in a different kind of auditorium and have a wholly different experience.

And so it was with the coming to Oxford of the noted film critic Mark Kermode, bassist, harmonica-ist, lover of elaborate hair and The Exorcist, holder of a Doctorate in Horror Movie Studies, and all around good guy, in town to promote his new book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, give a brief talk, and screen a rare print of one of his favourite cult films (hmm, maybe not such a wholly different experience after all).

I have some meagre track record when it comes to writing about films, but for me Kermode is one of the examplars of the craft and someone whose opinion is always worth listening to even when we disagree (which is relatively rarely). People say I am passionate and knowledgeable about cinema, but compared to Dr K I operate very much on the lower slopes. That said, part of me was still hoping a segment of the evening would involve him inviting all-comers up on stage for a mano-a-mano review-off: there’s nothing like seeing how you measure up to one of the masters, after all.

Anyway, we take our seats – a fairly full house and a diverse crowd: young and old, singletons, couples, and families, well-adjusted relatively sane individuals and me. The lights go down and then straight back up again, and sure enough the Good Doctor’s quiff appears from the wings stage left, followed a few seconds later by the rest of him. Big applause: this is a friendly audience, as you’d expect.

‘We’re going to start by watching William Peter Blatty’s masterpiece, The Ninth Configuration,’ Dr K announces. ‘Is it in 3D?’ shouts a voice from the back. ‘What a riotous evening this is going to be,’ the great man (famous for his hatred of the stereoscopic format) ripostes, deadpan. But he goes ahead and shows the movie anyway.

With that out of the way (review possibly to follow, but basically it’s one of those deeply personal, hugely eccentric movies that major studios don’t make any more) Dr K gets on with his own appearance. He admits he can’t do reading-out so rather than delivering key bits of the new book verbatim (subtitle: What’s Wrong With Modern Movies?) he speaks off the cuff for an hour or so. It’s very much stand-up film criticism, touching on most of the things we’ve all come here hoping to hear in person – familiar riffs on Dr K’s well-known bugbears.

So, bad reviews from critics don’t ruin movies, badly made movies ruin themselves – I expect Dr K feels obliged to make this point as he is even responsible for coining a new adjective, Kermodian, usually preceding the word ‘rant’ – his not-entirely-equivocal verdict on Sex in the City 2 was that it was ‘an orgy of dripping wealth that made me want to be sick’. Critics shouldn’t make friends with movie stars as it will compromise their critical independence – happily, this prompts Dr K to touch on his relationship with geezer-actor Danny Dyer. Dr K is wont to do impressions on his radio show, and Dyer finds Kermode’s impersonation of him so objectionable he has repeatedly threatened to beat him up. (A genuine ripple of excited delight goes round the theatre as Kermode starts doing his Dyer voice. I wonder how many people came here just in the hope of hearing it?)

Sadly Dr K doesn’t go into one of the most interesting sections of his book, on the topic of ‘What’s the point of film critics?’ (surely one of the most pressing questions today). There’s a bit in the book where Kermode contrasts ‘proper’ film criticism with ‘the bedroom ramblings of somebody writing about movies for no amusement but their own’, which obviously made me very nervous, but happily I found we agreed almost entirely about the elements of what makes a good review. Nice to hear you’re on-side, Mark.

But primarily Dr K discusses the unnecessary stupidity of the modern blockbuster (a few very distinguished movies excepted) and the collapse in standards at modern cinemas, most of which, he argues, are now not much more than sweetshops with a DVD player. It’s very difficult to disagree with anything he says on these subjects, and his respect and passion for both cinema and the cinemagoing experience shine through.

Then it’s signing-session time. Normally I am ambivalent when it comes to the whole asking-for-an-autograph experience, as it seems to me there’s an element of deference to the proceedings to which my massive ego reacts very poorly – but in this case, why not? To my delight Dr K is pausing to have a brief chat with every person when their time at the front of the queue arrives and I rack my brains to think of an appropriately impressive opening gambit. So:

Your correspondent: ‘What did you think of Rise of the Planet of the Apes?’

Dr K: ‘Still haven’t seen it! I wanted to see it the other day but I had to see We Need To Talk About Kevin instead as I’m interviewing Lynne Ramsay for The Culture Show.’

(YC: (thinks) That’s so weird! I wanted to see Troll Hunter the other day but I had to teach some Syrians how to use the Past Perfect instead. Our lives are in some eerie parallel!)

Dr K: ‘…what did you think of it?’

YC: (reserved as ever) ‘Pretty good.’

Dr K: (surprised) ‘Only pretty good? Everyone else I’ve spoken to says it’s great.’

YC: (backpedalling frantically while maintaining cool facade) ‘Well, it’s good for what it is, but it’s a bit corporate. It’s not as good as the first three original movies. I know you like Conquest…’

Dr K: (masterfully) ‘Well, Conquest is what Rise of the Planet of the Apes is based on.’

YC: ‘Mm-mmm…’

Wow! Me and Mark Kermode are shooting the breeze about the Planet of the Apes movies! What a lovely moment this is.

Dr K: ‘…anyway my favourite is Beneath – it’s just so bleak…’

YC: ‘I know, but I prefer Escape.’

Dr K: ‘That plays a little young for me.’

YC: ‘Yeah, but it has such a mature emotional palette. The second half of Beneath is just fantastically weird but the first half is a retread of the original movie with no new ideas to it and no Heston.’

Dr K: (starting to look a little taken aback at the rigour of my criticism) ‘Actually, I think James Franciscus is pretty good in that movie -‘

YC: ‘Yeah, but he may as well be wearing a badge saying ‘Heston stand-in.”

Dr K looks rattled and possibly even slightly defensive. Hmmm. Me and Mark Kermode are having a row about the Planet of the Apes movies (on top of which I’m suddenly aware I may be hogging the front of the queue). Possibly not such a lovely moment.

You know what they say, never meet your heroes – you’ll just end up arguing with them about Charlton Heston movies. In the end we part on genial terms, and later it occurs to me that maybe I did get my review-off after all.

Anyway, I emerged with my respect and admiration for Dr K undiminished (and I expect he would say the same about me). In retrospect, he came across rather as a man trying to whip up a crusade, arguing that if cinema as we know it is to survive, we need to treat it with respect, in terms of both how films are made in the first place, and how we experience them as an audience. Culturally, I can think of few more worthy causes, and no-one better qualified to ride at the head of the column than Kermode himself. Count me in, Doc, count me in.

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