The big interview: Mark Kermode
CINEMA VERITY: Mark Kermode can talk for hours about the best and worst of cinema, just don’t ask him if wants popcorn. The film critic talks to Sarah Freeman.
For once, Mark Kermode is not angry; well, he may be just a little irate, but mainly he’s been feeling just disappointed.
In recent months, the film critic, who has elevated ranting to an art form, has eloquently rubbished the latest instalment in the Transformer franchise, damned the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie with faint praise – “what it lacks in outrageous awfulness it makes up for in terms of plodding mediocrity” was his conclusion – and found his spirits lifted by the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remake.
It’s his tendency to deliver reviews at full throttle, as Simon Mayo, his co-presenter on the weekly Radio 5 live film show, plays the Devil’s Advocate, which has led to the pair’s podcast becoming one of the most popular on iTunes.
However, today his 100mph delivery has slowed just a little and his anger, usually directed against a film factory which churns out the very worst kind of entertainment just to keep the multiplexes running, has been replaced by what he says is genuine sadness.
As a child growing up in Barnet in the 1970s, the Good Doctor, as he is known to Radio 5 listeners, spent more time at the cinema than he did at home, sometimes watching up to a dozen films a week. He still remembers the day as an 11-year-old he wore a cravat to convince box office staff at the Classic Hendon he was old enough to watch Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.
That afternoon was the most fun he had ever had in the cinema and his love affair with films had begun. However, recently his 30-odd year relationship with the big screen has hit a bad patch. Partly it’s because of what he sees as a lack of intelligent film-making, partly it’s down to audiences who insist on talking, texting and eating throughout the latest releases – at York City Screen, the Kermode Combo, which includes his pet hate, popcorn, was launched with a large helping of irony – but mostly it’s because he fears people just don’t care enough.
“I’m aware that I’m now a 48-year-old middle-aged man, but this is not about saying, ‘It used to be all fields around here’, and I’m not claiming that when I was young I lived through a golden age of movies. In fact I sat through a lot of trash. The difference is that whenever I went to the cinema I felt there was a sense of occasion.
“Cinema has its roots in theatre. It’s a public performance and in the past projectionists helped to conjure a little ceremony around a screening. Whether it was a silly John Wayne film or an art house classic didn’t matter, it felt special. Often now it feels anything but.”
In his new book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, Kermode relives the day he took his daughter to see The Death and Life of Charlie McCloud. It stars the teen pin-up Zac Efron and is unlikely to ever make it on Kermode’s all time greatest list – a list which will always be topped by The Exorcist – but it wasn’t the quality of the acting which bothered him, in fact he had already given the film a decent review, but the complete absence of what he broadly refers to as the cinema experience.
By the time the film started he’d already done battle with a faulty ticket machine and a box office which had been merged into the popcorn stand. When he saw the picture was incorrectly aligned, the loss of the top of Efron’s head was the straw which broke the proverbial camel’s back. Back out in the foyer, Kermode went looking for the projectionist. He never found him because as he eventually discovered, there wasn’t one, at least not in the traditional sense.
“Somewhere along the line as we witnessed the rise of digital film, a collective decision was made that projectionists weren’t really needed. The problem is if you remove the projectionist, what you are left with is someone who just pushes a button, and that to me is not cinema.
“It’s partly our fault because we have let cinemas get away with it. We don’t complain enough and basically we have ended up with the cinema we deserve. I don’t have a problem with digital, but you need to treat it in the same way as film. I have a horrible feeling that in 20 years time we’ll look round and wonder why we were so stupid as to think the art of projection redundant.”
Kermode is aware that he’s often in danger of wallowing in some rose-tinted world where usherettes still sell ice-cream at the interval and all cinema screens have plush red velvet curtains. However, when he talks about the evening he spent at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds introducing a screening of the 1972 sci-fi classic Silent Running, his passion for film is infectious.
“That cinema is a beauty; a proper old fashioned picture palace with a sweeping balcony, theatrical curtains, sensible ticket prices, and a projection booth that smells of celluloid and sweat – in a good way.
“The only problem was that the print of Silent Running was old and scratchy and had started to turn a peculiar shade of pink, which is a common problem for films of that era. I started to wonder whether the audience would be able to appreciate the full melancholic majesty of the movie. Fortunately, the projectionist was an old-school type, who had taken the trouble to test-run the print the evening before and discovered that the chemical degeneration of the past 30 years eased up during the second reel. So we were able to warn viewers in advance that if they could just bear with it things would improve dramatically. We explained that it was probably the same print that had done the rounds when the film was first released in the early 70s and if any of them had seen it on its first run they were about to be reunited with an old friend who, like them, had become a little greyer and more crumpled round the edges since their last encounter.
“I really liked the idea the film had aged along with its audience, it made the experience seem more special, more magical, more... real. I know that when I say a degraded copy of an old film is better than a pristine digital version, people will say, ‘Come on now, you’re being silly’. But you know what, I don’t care.”
Kermode’s encyclopaedic knowledge of film stretches way beyond the back catalogue of obscure directors. He’s also an expert of the economics of an industry, where even the most critically panned flops turn into cash cows. It began, he believes with the release of Cleopatra on video. For years, the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic was one of the biggest money losing films of all time. It was also deadly dull, yet despite that it not only broke even but proved a nice little earner for Fox studios.
“Thanks to the TV rights and home videos, Cleopatra broke even and has been turning a steady serviceable profit ever since. It’s not the only expensive flop which ultimately proved lucrative. Waterworld, Pearl Harbour and countless others have all proved that if you spend big people will watch, if not at the cinema, then in their living room.
“Critics can say what they like about a film, but it rarely makes any difference to how much money it makes.”
One of those rare occasions happened with Pan’s Labyrinth, a film which could well have disappeared under the radar had it not been for Kermode championing its cause. Inventive, beautifully shot and an intelligent plot, Guillermo del Toro’s film ticked pretty much all Kermode’s boxes.
“For some reason, studios seem to be afraid of making intelligent films. I remember interviewing Cillian Murphy ahead of the release of Inception. He said everyone on set knew they had made something brilliant, but they didn’t know whether anyone would watch it.
“There was a genuine fear audiences wouldn’t get it. As it turned out, a lot of people of did get it. It blew away the fallacy that the average cinema going audience is stupid. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that being intelligent will lose you money, so why the studios don’t take more risks is baffling.”
Kermode is warming to his theme and quite without warning we are back to Transformers.
“Simon Mayo said recently that he’d noticed the thing which bothers me most is secondary infections. He was being flippant, but as usual he was quite right. I see Pirates of the Caribbean as just a bad film, but what I find morally objectionable is when there is something else going on. Transformers 2, which is spends most of its time looking up Megan Fox’s skirt, is not just a bad film, it’s basically soft core porn dressed up as a kids’ film.”
Given the chance, Kermode could fill an entire other book with his thoughts on Transformers 2 director Michael Bay. However, for all the awful films he has had to sit through over the years – and there have been a lot – the sense of excitement he feels when he comes out of a screening having seen an unexpected gem is much the same as that day back in 1974 when the final credits of Blazing Saddles rolled.
“When I got home I settled down, just as I always did, to ‘review’ the movie. I sat there for hours struggling to remember all the best lines, the crudest cracks, the naughtiest sight gags, the stupidest bum jokes – all were committed lovingly to paper so I could enjoy them again and again.
“Back then the reviews were just for me and me alone. I even wrote a novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey and put it on our bookshelf in the hope that one day someone would mistake it for an actual book. I’m not sure they ever did, but that’s not the point. I loved films then and I still love them now.”
While Kermode stands by his reviews of most films, he does admit that even he has occasionally been wrong – he famously backtracked on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a film he initially dismissed as a student reviewer as being simply bad. However, there’s one issue you suspect Kermode will always keep his ground. 3D? It is according to Kermode, overrated, a fairground trick that the rest of the fell for.
“In 2010, after spending millions of dollars attempting to convert Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 into 3D, Warner Bros finally got wind of public dissatisfaction with the process and decided to release it in 2D instead. Studios saw 3D as way of turning film into a critic proof theme park ride, but audiences are staying away. The truth is that 3D has never been the future of cinema; it is, was and always will be the past.”
He might as well add, Amen, for the sermon from the ever-entertaining Kermode, is over, but just like Transformers, a new instalment will be along soon.
Mark Kermode will be appearing at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds on October 3 to discuss his new book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex. For tickets call 0113 275 2045 or online at www.hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk
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