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Interview

Mark Kermode On The Future Of Cinema As We Know It
The bequiffed critic on Netflix, Surf Nazis Must Die and getting reviewed himself...

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Arguably the UK's most famous film critic, Mark Kermode has been musing over movies for decades. He's forever popping up on The Culture Show, BBC News, Radio 5 Live (with his partner-in-crime, Simon Mayo) and - despite rubbishing the whole venture prior to joining it - Twitter. His third book, Hatchet Job, sees him delve into the topical argument of critics and their role in the film world today, and here is an extended interview with the great man originally heard (in part) on the Empire Podcast.

Mark Kermode On The Future Of Cinema As We Know It

Who are you and what do you do?
Mark Kermode, and I'm a film critic.

But you're also on Twitter, you have your own radio show and a whole variety of other Kermodean outlets. Would you say you are just a film critic?
I wouldn't use the word just because one of the things I was writing about in the book was how have we got to the state where being a film critic is just a film critic. There is a really weird idea afoot now, which is that being a professional film critic is no longer a valid area of employment. I mean, who needs professional film critics now in the age of the internet and Twitter? Everyone is a film critic. So saying you're a film critic is like saying you're someone who walks the street; it's not a profession, it's just something you happen to do.

One of the things I was trying to write about in the book was that this is despite the arrival of the internet, which in many ways has changed things for everybody, myself included. I've been very lucky with the internet. Now, everything I write ends up online. Twitter is a great way of alerting people to new reviews. I work for Radio 5 and we do a podcast, as you do here, and of course that's entirely disseminated through the internet, so I'm not in any way complaining about the internet - it's a great thing and wonderful - but there has been this idea, which is in the age of the internet where everyone is a critic, who needs professional film critics?

All I was trying to argue is that the medium may have changed, but the medium is not the message. The essential rules of proper film criticism, and I use that phrase knowing how much it gets people's backs up - saying "proper film criticism" sounds like a snob - but to me proper film criticism is doing it as a job, as a craft, as a trade. And I would look, for example, to people like Kim Newman - who has always been a mainstay of Empire - who when I first started writing for Time Out was one of the people along with Nigel Floyd and Alan Jones, who took me under their wings and tried to teach me the trade. I kind of apprenticed with them. And he still embodies for me what proper film criticism is: it means you did it day in, day out. You sift through the good and the bad, you develop your critical skills and you learn how to explain what a movie is, where a movie comes from, what other films it relates to. You have hopefully a wide-ranging background knowledge - I mean, as Kim and Philip French [do], an encyclopedic knowledge. You can say, "Well, if you like this film, you might like this other film; you may want to look at this, it's a remake of this, it draws from that," which you can only do by literally spending day after day watching movies.

And then at the end of the day in the case of somebody like Kim, or in the case of somebody like Philip, or previously Roger Ebert, you'd write about this in a way that is intelligent and informative and entertaining. That to me is proper film criticism. It doesn't matter if you're doing it on the internet or in print or on the radio, what matters is that you're doing it properly. And what I was trying to say in the book was that proper film criticism still exists. It is not the same as the white noise of Twitter, it is not the same as the white noise of everybody simply declaring their opinions on internet forums.

It's not that everyone's opinion isn't valid, everyone is entitled to their opinions - opinions are like arseholes: everyone's got them, everyone thinks theirs is the only one that doesn't stink - but what I want to know if I'm reading a film critic is who are you, where are you coming from, what have you seen and what have you got invested in that opinion? That's the other thing I think that's really important, because only if a film critic has something to lose does their opinion to me become valid. Whether that something is their reputation, their job, their critical standing, that to me is a kind of mark of integrity.

Philip French had nothing but integrity and the reason was because he was a professional film critic doing the job - and he saw it as a job, as did Roger Ebert - for 50 years and more.

Is it just films for you? The Empire office is obsessed with Breaking Bad - do you have any thoughts on that, and on television?
I am perfectly willing and ready to believe that Breaking Bad is brilliant. So many people that I admire and respect have told me so. I just don't have time, in the same way that I don't have time to go to museums.
Well, I'll tell you my thoughts on it: they are that I haven't seen it. And believe me, this comes up more and more. I mean, some time ago, when I was younger and more foolish, I said, "I'm not going to watch television because it's somehow inferior." It was obsessive at one point and I pulled the aerial socket out the wall so it wasn't possible to receive television, which was a foolhardy thing to do, but hey, I was young and it was a different time.

Then some years ago The Observer said to me, "Look, we want you to write a piece where you compare the blockbusters that are out this summer with some of the stuff that's been on television." They gave me a load of box sets of stuff. I watched it and came to the conclusion that the argument that television is worse than film is nonsense. In fact there is evidence that what's happening in television is, in many ways, more adventurous, more cutting edge than what is happening in cinema.

The problem, however, is this: at the moment there are something between 10, 12, 14 films released every week. As a film critic, what I want to do is see as many films as possible, because I think it's part of the job to see everything, or at least as much of everything as you possibly can. Somebody gave me a box set of Breaking Bad. That's brilliant, but I don't have 26 hours to watch it.

The point is not that I have anything against television at all, and I am perfectly willing and ready to believe that Breaking Bad is brilliant. So many people that I admire and respect have told me so. I just don't have time, in the same way that I don't have time to go to museums.

I also understand incidentally that's a big argument, that you actually have to understand television in order to understand movies. If I can find the hours in the day then I'll try, but it's simply a time thing. There are so many movies coming out at the moment that something's got to give and what's it going to be? It's just that there literally is only so much time. I mean again, we'll come back to Kim Newman, but I do sometimes look at Kim and think, "When do you eat? You just wrote a novel and you revised Nightmare Movies and you went to Fright Fest and you saw this and now you're having a conversation with me about a TV show. When did this happen?!" I mean, I've never seen Kim asleep.

The opening chapter of this book is a list of some of the best barbs delivered by actors, actresses, directors, producers. Did people come up to you afterwards to tell you what you'd missed?
Oh, constantly! But that is absolutely the nature of film criticism, isn't it? It is always, "Oh, you didn't do that and you didn't do that and somebody else did this," and it's an ongoing thing. I asked people on the Kermode Uncut blog for suggestions and that's still flowing in now. And what that demonstrates, interestingly enough, is that people remember the put-downs. People remember the really savage, off-hand dismissals - the me-no-likers, that's the kind of thing that sticks with people. And it's an interesting question about why that's the case. You can praise movies as much as you want. You can say, "This film is great, this film is brilliant," and everyone goes, "Yeah, but what was really funny was when you kicked the living hell out of Sex And The City," or something like that. And the question is, why? Why do you remember that? And I've been wrestling away with this for a long time.

It is certainly true that if you're a critic the way to make your name is, you know, be blunt... My favourite one was Roger Ebert talking about The Brown Bunny, in which he said, "I had a colonoscopy once, they let me watch it on television and it was better than The Brown Bunny," which I just thought was great. He does that thing about how Freddy Got Fingered doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel, it isn't the bottom of the barrel, it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as barrels. You know, there was all that sort of stuff and he had a beautiful way of doing that.

Peter Bradshaw of course did that great review of Sex Lives Of The Potato Men in which he said, "It raises the question for the British film industry of whether to put the guns to our temples or in our mouths for a cleaner kill." And you know, I quoted the one from Empire about Battleship: "Miss." We all wish we'd done it. And then John Norton, who said of The Postman, he described it as "Post-apocalyptic Pat." I mean, these are just lovely phrases, but my favourite of all of them was, "Forrest Gump on a tractor," which was David Cox. It wasn't written in print, he said it as the lights went down on The Straight Story and it killed the movie stone dead for me.

Why do I remember all that stuff? If someone says to me, "Can you remember Philip French's defence of Heaven's Gate?" Probably, but I couldn't quote it to you! "Why not?" Well, because it's the criticisms that stick. Incidentally, on the other side of that, I know because I've written a few books and I've had good reviews and I've had bad reviews - can I remember the good ones? Not at all. Can I remember the bad ones? Yup, pretty much word perfect. I can remember immediately that one of the first reviews I got of It's Only A Movie - which was an autobiography, or at least it was an autobiographical account of being a film critic - the review in The Telegraph said, "The problem with this book is that it's all about Mark Kermode." Which bit of the word "autobiography" do you not understand? I mean, what did you want it to be about? Proust? I mean, I can't write it about anyone else! I mean, for four years I've been chewing over that phrase. Meanwhile, Empire wrote a very nice review - can't remember a word of it. You were nice, four stars, and it's gone. In an instant it's gone!

Aside from The Exorcist, what soundtracks stick in your head?
It's not that everyone's opinion isn't valid, everyone is entitled to their opinions - opinions are like arseholes: everyone's got them, everyone thinks theirs is the only one that doesn't stink.
Well, Local Hero is a perfect example. Funnily enough, I did the commentary track with Bill Forsyth just recently for the Blu-rays of That Sinking Feeling and Gregory's Girl. And I'm a huge Bill Forsyth fan. When it was the 25th anniversary of Local Hero, we went back to the village in which it was shot, Pennan, and they'd rebuilt the village hall there because they'd had a landslide and they wanted to reopen it with a gala screening of Local Hero.

We got Bill to go and watch the film and we did a Culture Show piece about it and it was lovely. I was talking to him about Local Hero and asking him about music in films, and he said, "You know the thing is, I really don't like music in films," and I said, "But why?" And he said, "Because it's an indication that you haven't done the thing you're meant to do." And I said, "What about Local Hero? I love Local Hero," and he said, "Yeah, you're going to tell me that 75% of what's great about Local Hero is the soundtrack." And I said, "Well yeah," and he said, "Exactly! That means like 25% of it is me!" And you know there are filmmakers who say, "Ok, well if I've got to bring the music in, it's a problem," and I don't believe in that at all - and incidentally, I don't think Bill believes it either.

You look at David Lynch and the way he works with Angelo Badalamenti, you look at the score for Fire Walk With Me - it's extraordinary. I just watched recently the documentary about the making of Silent Running and you see Peter Schickele recording songs with Joan Baez. I mean, when we did The Devils documentary, there's that wonderful footage of the fires of London and [Peter Maxwell] Davies' score being recorded while they're throwing up the black and white images of the film up on the screen, because obviously they're recording to film, and Ken's dancing around with a tambourine in his hand like some kind of mad... He's as much directing then as he was when he was on set, so all of those scores matter to me.

But Local Hero is the one where on a Sunday morning, you wake up and the CD is inevitably by the CD player because it's been there forever. And what's interesting about that CD is that it begins with that "Uh uh" - and then an acoustic version of "Duh duh," and every bit of you goes, "Oh God, I'm on the beach." And it does, every single time.

What's your view of Netflix and streaming services? Is it a sad world for you, or is it going to be that cinemas will become like vinyl records?
I think that's a very good analogy. I mean, I think that people make the same analogy between vinyl and CD as between celluloid and digital cinema projectors. There was a lot of fuss a while ago about how people are going to consume films on their mobile phones, on their laptops at home, on television, and what that's going to mean for cinema.

In my opinion, it's good for cinema. It's good for the following reasons: firstly, if you have simultaneous releasing of everything, you'd pretty much knock piracy on the head. The only way you're going to stop piracy is by saying, "Look, you want this stuff and you can get it, so how so about we give it to you legitimately and then you make a nominal contribution to the film as a result of it?" If you released movies simultaneously and said, "Ok, you can choose today." There are many examples of this happening, like Berberian Sound Studio. There are a lot of distributors who now do their own streaming.

A Field In England is a very good case because I think some people say the ideal A Field of England experience was the Blu-ray. But if you say, "Look, you can have the choice," then fine. Firstly, people get to choose how they see it. Secondly, people who go to the cinema are seeing it in the cinema because they want to be in the cinema. There is nothing worse then being in a cinema with a bunch of people who don't actually want to be there; they're on their phones, on their laptops, they're talking, they're throwing something.

People say, "Oh, you're such a fascist about the behaviour in cinema." No I'm not! It's just I'm in the cinema, and being in the cinema and the auditorium and the projected experience is not enhanced by someone ordering a minicab behind me. I was in a preview screening recently and someone answered their phone. I mean, the phone didn't just ring, they answered it! And you just felt like going, "Ok, we've gone through the looking glass right now." He literally went, "Yeah, I'm in a preview. Yeah, no, I dunno, err, I dunno. About 40, 45." And he kind of looked round to people, and I thought, "What planet are you on?"

So some people say if you simultaneously release things, cinemas would suffer. They would. The cinemas that would suffer are the multiplexes that are offering an experience that is so minimal that you might as well stay at home and watch it on your mobile phone. All the things like the independent cinemas that I love - like the Phoenix in East Finchley or the Plaza in Truro - people go to those because they want to see them in an auditorium, and they want to see them with other people who want to see them in an auditorium. Give people the choice. In the end, cinema won't be the only way of seeing it, but as long as I have the option to see it there then that's great. I know David Lynch, for example, said that if you watch Eraserhead on your mobile phone, you haven't seen Eraserhead. And I kind of agree with that, but on the other hand, I'm not going to dictate how people consume it. It's fine, it's up to them. I'll say, "Look, you want to see a movie, see it in a cinema." Is watching DVDs a different experience because you don't watch them on the big screen?

Is watching DVDs a different experience because you don't watch them on the big screen?
In my opinion, streaming services is good for cinema. It's good for the following reasons: firstly, if you have simultaneous releasing of everything, you'd pretty much knock piracy on the head.
Well, it is a different experience, and in an ideal world you'd do both and compare them. Actually, my most profound experience with DVDs was a bunch of movies I was forced to watch in sodding 3D in cinemas, I then saw in pristine, lovely condition on Blu-ray when I was doing The Observer DVD column, and that was great. I liked Avatar a hell of a lot more on DVD because it looked nice and clean, whereas in the cinema it was that wretched 3D business.

Lee Siegel is a book reviewer for The New Yorker, and he has announced he will only review good books. You are well known and well loved for your eviscerations of bad movies. Would you ever consider doing something similar?
There was an interesting, similar case recently. Tom Charity - who I like very much and admire very much as a writer, and I used to known from Time Out - Tom moved out to Canada. He tweeted something not so long ago saying that the editors of a particular website or magazine had decided that they only wanted to review good films. He tweeted this: "What does this actually mean?" It was like, "We only want to review films that there are good things to say about." My feeling - I don't know about the particular case with this book reviewer, it's an interesting way of approaching it - my feeling is this: watching bad movies has probably done me more good than watching good movies.

When I first started writing (sorry to come back to Kim Newman), Kim always said, and he was quite right, there was a group of us who came through from the Monthly Film Bulletin which is now Sight And Sound, and it was this almost wilfully unreadable publication. It was almost like it was printed on toilet paper and the typeface was tiny, but they did everything - they did plot synopses and full credits, and the way they tried to make you learn the craft was to send you to watch films that were really quite often unwatchable and to write a coherent review of them. Kim always said that the greatest challenge was that they'd send him to watch softcore porn that had been cut by the sensors, which didn't make much sense before it was cut, made no sense at all after it was cut, and then said, "Now write me a coherent synopsis of this film." Kim always said that was the best training you can have. If you can make sense of cut down soft-core porn film then half the job is down.

You have to know what bad looks like to know what good looks like. People use the phrase, "That was the worst film I ever saw," and I say, "No it wasn't. You come to my house and I'll show you the worst film you ever saw." I worked for years in the video trade press and you'd see Over-sexed Rugsuckers From Mars - that was so bad that Colourbox didn't even release it. They sent out preview tapes to see whether anyone had a good word to say about it and they didn't, but we all watched it. We used to live going from screening to screening watching unreleasable movies on the basis there would be sandwiches if we got there and that was good training.

Any idiot can sit in a room with the new Steven Spielberg film and find something interesting to say about it. It's harder to sit in a room with Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death and find something intelligent to say, but also to recognise that there's a difference between Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, right? One of them is a really interesting film and one of them kind of isn't. There's a reason why Surf Nazis Must Die isn't as funny as the title, and why A Nymphoid Barbarian In Dinosaur Hell is worth seeing, because there's one gag in it that's worthwhile. All that stuff is important. Also, there's the whole problem of... how do you know? How do you know? How do you know until you've seen it? I mean a film's only two hours - well, four hours if it's the long Heaven's Gate - but generally it's two hours long. How do you know? Plus, you can't ever walk out. If you're halfway through a film and you walk out, you'd be guaranteed the minute you walk out, flying elephants will jump out of an exploding helicopter, right? Just the minute you walked out.

Actually, there's nothing worse than a moderately poor film. That's what I think Diana is. If only we could've given it a one star kicking. It wasn't a one star film, it was a two star bore. That was the problem: it was so well behaved, it was like, "Oh we don't want to offend anyone," and I am sitting there going, "Please offend me. Please do something shocking. Anything at all!" But no.

Interview by Ali Plumb

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