Mark Kermode’s new book, Hatchet Job, is a dissection of the current state of film criticism. It’s a fascinating read, and he settled down for half an hour of solid chat about it in London with us last week. Here’s how it went…
Your book raises a lot of interesting points about movie critics, but also hinted widely at the ecosystem around them. In your earlier book, It’s Only A Movie, you recount the story of you going on radio on LBC for your on-air movie reviewing debut. And both you and your mother do not recall that it was your finest hour.
But when you first broadcast a review, and put your name to it, that was to a fairly limited audience. Plus, in the pre-internet days, once you did the review, that was it, it was gone forever.
When you look at modern critics brought up in the internet world though, how can they not be influenced by the critical landscape they’re emerging into? Can you blame modern critics for being as guarded as they are in some cases, when they can be subjected to a level of online abuse and reaction from the point they put their very first review live?
It’s a really interesting question. There’s a line in Notting Hill in which Hugh Grant, when Julia Roberts is getting really upset about the press, asks her character ‘what does it matter, yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers’. And she says no it’s not. She says in the age of the internet, no it’s not, everything is permanent. And it’s an interesting point, that something changed in the age of the internet, that everything is available forever. At least you can find stuff much easier.
Also, the heart of your question, was to do with getting responses to that, and there are two sides to that particular sword, which I’ve tried to address in the book.
One of them is that on the one hand, it raises everyone’s games if you know that you cannot blithely offer declarative statements about things and think nobody will answer you back. In the past, for example, if you wrote a review in Time Out, and somebody didn’t like it, they’d actually have to sit down and write a letter.
And I remember I once wrote a review in 20/20 magazine, and somebody of quite high standing wrote a letter saying ‘this is nonsense’. I had used a phrase – it was a review of a film that Whoopi Goldberg was in, it was not a very good film – and I had said something like ‘Whoopi Goldberg is doing her best, but the film is letting her down’ And a journalist I knew wrote in and said ‘no, the film is her fault. You are being ‘gliberal’. You’re excusing her for all the wrong reasons’.
The thing nowadays, that there’s a comment section underneath and people can say whatever they want, it does two things. On the one hand, it does raise the level of feedback, but on the other – as you said – it does open you up to the possibility of abuse.
My feeling is that what you have to do is that in a world where everyone has access to the internet, you have to decide who you’re going to listen to. If you’re someone who wants to spend time trawling around the internet, finding all the horrible things that people are going to say about you, you be my guest. That way, madness lies. If, what you actually want to do is look through all the discussions on the internet and find people who you find are interesting – whether they agree or disagree with you, but have some something to add to the debate – that’s a real bonus.
So, is it harder now for somebody starting out, because automatically you’re part of the debate? I don’t think that’s what makes it harder. I think what makes it harder is in the past, to get into print was quite a long process. By the time I had a review printed in City Life magazine, I’d been writing reviews for a long time.
I’m sure that it’s now possible, because of the way blogging works, you can put a blog up tomorrow, and you wouldn’t have to pass through an editor. If you saw the first things I wrote if they were online, you’d bury your head in the sand, run away, and say never do this again. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s opened up the conversation.
But what I do think, that in the world of the internet debate, you have to make a decision as to which voices you’re interested in. And if you’re going to just listen to everything, you’re probably not going to do yourself many favours.
When I wrote the Twilight piece for The Observer and it went on The Guardian website [where Mark professed to enjoy Twilight more than Star Wars], there were people who wrote underneath ‘look, I don’t agree with this, and here’s why’. And that’s fine, it’s a difference of opinion. Also – as I said in the book – some people said ‘don’t take cheap swipes at Star Wars just because you like Twilight‘. And I say in the book, actually, that’s perfectly valid, and I did pull myself up about that. Other people just ranted, and I just ignored them, because I don’t care what those people think.
A lot of your book though talks about how criticism has evolved, and the medium has evolved. But I also think the audience for criticism has changed. 20 years ago, for a whole swathe of us, it was a newspaper review, or Barry Norman sat in a chair telling us what he thought.
Now? You make a strong point in the book about people hiding behind anonymity, arguing that if you don’t put your name on the line, you’re not interested. Conversely, if you do put your name on the line, it’s heavily, heavily out there from day one.
I absolutely agree with that. As a result of people knowing who I am, I’ve been threatened by American lawyers, and I’ve been physically threatened by stupid half-wit actors…
Out of interest, will you be watching EastEnders now?
You’re glaring at the voice recorder!
I’m not glaring!
For the record of the tape – it feels like an episode of The Bill, this – Mr Kermode is glaring at the recorder.
I have no interest! [Laughs] Here’s what I think: all conversation ends at the threat of violence, and after that, I’m just not interested.
Even we’ve had people ring us up and shout abuse with us down the phone about a review we’ve run. And in the scheme of things, you’re the big, famous critic, and we’re not!
In my experience, it’s always been the more talented and interesting a filmmaker is, the less they care about criticism. They ride it out.
Conversations can go in a number of different ways, can progress, and spiral round, and pop will eat itself, you know? What I’m interested in with the internet is having a conversation. As in the real world, I’m only interested in a conversation with people about whose views I care. Verite magazine, Stuart Barr, I’m very interested in knowing what they think. I wouldn’t, though, randomly walk down the street and ask people what they think, because I don’t care!
And yet we get the Argo poster, filled with Twitter comments rather than critic reviews?
Yeah, but the Argo thing is interesting. That’s part of an emergent thread of film advertising that did reflect something that was important: the sense that people no longer cared what critics thought, because they had the idea that critics only liked the movies that critics like.
If Hatchet Job is anything, it’s an argument saying that’s not true. But in the case of Argo, they didn’t need to harvest Twitter quotes. There was already enough evidence that the critics liked the movie from very early on. What those Twitter quotes attempted to do was to say to all those other people, who don’t trust critics, that you know what? People like it as well.
What I was talking about in the book was that the idea those quotes suddenly had currency told you a story about what was happening behind that. Which was the belief that people had arrived at a point where they thought that film critics didn’t have anything to say to them.
Twitter quotes have the appearance of honesty, and the appearance of peer to peer – we’re people like you, recommending the movie to you! But as you know, those reviews are not worth the paper they’re not written on. I’m not saying for one minute that the Twitter quotes weren’t the honest responses of people who saw the film – they may well have been. But firstly: how do you know? Secondly: who are those people? It turns out that you may not someone whose opinion I’d want to take seriously.
So would you buy the argument that film criticism is more interesting after the film has been released? It’s something you touch on in the book.
I do talk about it, yes, and it was something I learned very late in the day. I always used to believe that film criticism came first, and everything else came second. I’m 50 now, and I’ve been doing the radio show for a very long time, and I’ve been writing about films for a very long time. And it was quite a revelation to me when I realised how many people wanted to read a review after they’d seen the film.
Because firstly, it backed up something I’ve always said, that film critics aren’t there to tell you what to see. They’re not. They’re there to talk about film. And of course the next step of that is the films they want to talk about are films they’ve seen, because they’re interested in being part of that conversation. The internet has certainly enabled that, but it’s also taught me that it used to be that film theory and film academia was after the fact, and film reviewing was somewhere before. But I don’t think there’s a huge difference between those two things. I think that film reviewing is part of an ongoing discussion about movies, and it is demonstrably the case that a lot of people would rather have that discussion after they’ve seen the film. The great thing is: fine. In many ways, maybe that’s the best way to do it.
Something else you touch on in the book is something that I feel is one of the crucial roles of a modern film critic is the championing of the unnoticed. You talk about how critics have a habit of sticking up for picked-on films, such as Philip French recently with The Lone Ranger. But I don’t think it’s just that, as The Lone Ranger will get noticed whether people stick up for it or not.
But it’s the era now where the cinema has 14-odd films going into some degree of release, pretty much every single week. Even a full-time critic can no longer cover every film on UK release. So, assuming two of those films are backed by huge budgets, another two or three will get noticed for whatever reason, I put to you that one of the major jobs for a film critic now is highlighting some of the eight or nine other films that otherwise nobody will notice at all?
The question about championing… here’s the reason I would approach it slightly carefully. If you want to say on the one hand that critics can’t damage the box office of a film, it’s slightly opportunist to say but they can benefit the box office of a film. My take has always been that critics can’t kill a film, and I stand by that.
However, I do think that it is true that in the case of releases that would otherwise go by unnoticed, they can draw attention in a way that then allows the films to find their own audience. And my specific answer would be I talk in the book that it’s prominence and column inches that matter in the end. It doesn’t matter whether you like a film or don’t like a film. Part of the pact between film critics and film distributors is they say we’ll show you the film, you talk about it when it’s on release. We won’t tell you whether to like it or not, but the fact you talk about it when it’s on release will let people know.
In that way, all reviewers are part of the PR machine, and it’s fine, it’s something that works to our mutual benefit. If talking about a smaller film raises its profile, then of course it helps. And I think for example if you look at Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, it’s undoubtedly the case that there have been times where Pete has led – film of the week – on a foreign language film, which I would say in intangible terms has benefitted from the prominence that he has given it. That’s something that he’s done quite regularly, and that’s admirable.
There have been films that I have raised the flag for, Good Vibrations being one example. I do think that thing about championing movies you like is one of the more honourable things about film criticism. I think if you can bring a film to someone’s attention… I’ll give you an example. This week, there’s a load of movies out, and there’s one called For Those In Peril. And I really liked it. I thought it was haunting, and lyrical, and had a very interesting jumbled dreamlike narrative structure, and I’ve written about it in The Observer, and I’ll talk about it on the radio. Actually, probably that’s the thing that I’m the most interested in finding. A smaller film, that I hope people do see.
We’ve talked about the changing ecosystem of film criticism, but we need to then talk about the PR industry as well, as they work hand in hand. You talk, in not positive terms, about the ongoing race to have the first review of something. But now, we go to screenings, and we’re given an embargo saying we’re not allowed to publish a review until a given date, but that we’re encouraged to Tweet about it straight away…
I’ve never understood that weird distinction, as if Tweeting isn’t online!
But then I’ve read full first reviews of films 45 minutes after a film’s credits have rolled. The need for an immediate reaction isn’t just coming from critics, it’s being heavily pushed by some in the PR industry too.
I have developed over the course of my increasing ageing more and more of a problem with the whole spurious thing about the first review. It bothers me more and more. I’ve never really understood the difference between Tweeting and an online review – it is the same thing. One of the reasons that [PRs encouraged Tweeting] was that anyone could have a Twitter account under any name, it was almost impossible to embargo.
The general point for me is that I don’t think the rush to speedy decisions is good for criticism. You can’t stop it, and it may be that in the end you distinguish between first responses and considered reviews. In a way, that’s what I try and do with the Kermode Uncut blog. To flag up that what you feel like when you walk out of Black Swan and what you feel like when you walk out of Killer Joe is not the same as a review. I was trying to express on that blog that you need to let things settle.
There are some people for whom that settling process is very fast. I always cite Kim Newman, who has an extraordinary ability to marshal his thoughts in a way that doesn’t take as long as other mere mortals. But in general my feeling is that you need time to consider, and as I said, ten years would be nice. But obviously, practically, that isn’t going to work, so you have to end up with a compromise. And the compromise is that you wait until the film is out, and then you review it. Then if you need to go back and reassess it, don’t be embarrassed to do so.
I talk about A.I., and getting that wrong the first time around. And I do use the word wrong: I was wrong about it.
But by the nature of film criticism, were you? You went to see a film, your reaction at the time was legitimate, you crystalised your thoughts, and you put your review out. Your review is your reaction and thoughts on material you’d seen. Surely, then, you weren’t wrong? Your opinion just changed?
I don’t mean I’m wrong in that I didn’t do the thing that a film critic is supposed to do. I saw the film from beginning to end and I responded honestly to it. Where I think I was – you know when I’m using the words right and wrong, I’m doing it in inverted commas – wrong was that what I first saw A.I. I was looking at it through the prism of misconceptions about what Steven Spielberg the director meant. And I was wrong in that I did exactly what Spielberg said the other critics did: they blamed Spielberg for things that were Kubrick. I watched the ending of that and thought that’s Close Encounters. And it wasn’t: it was in the treatment that Kubrick had come up with. And Spielberg said that all the things that I get blamed with, for ruining Stanley’s vision, were the things that were in that original treatment!
And he was right. Part of my brain was going ‘that’s the cold Kubrick thing’ and ‘that’s the sentimental Spielberg thing’. And the big transition for me was to go ‘I like sentimentality!’
Was that the transition though? Because in the book, the bit where you changed your mind was when you wife suggested you look again at the film.
That’s different then, isn’t it? That’s someone else throwing a different perspective on the film, so you can see it in a different way. That doesn’t make either one of your reactions to it not legitimate.
I think both of my reactions were legitimate, and I say with my hand on my heart that the review I did at the time was honest, it was what I thought.
But that’s all you can do.
Exactly. And over time, of course your opinions will change. It was just one of those cases… isn’t a right and wrong in terms of your opinions. The way in which you react to movies will change during you life, and it’ll change due to a number of things. How old you are, whether you’re a parent, where you were in a funny mood that day…
I remember sitting, and I don’t say this flippantly, in a screening of Alien: Resurrection. I was watching it, and that film is all over the shop, and there’s a scene in it where the person I was sitting next to was in tears. And they were in tears because in a very peculiar way, the scene had touched something that was happening to them in their personal life at that time.
It must be the basketball.
Yeah! They wanted to be a basketball player, they tried, and then they saw that she could just do it without looking at the basket!
You know that was a real shot too?
Yeah. She did it in two takes didn’t she?
Yeah! Anyway, as this was happening, what I thought was there’s a perfect example. This film is all over the place, but for some reason it’s hit something in this person. And in the end, it’s all like that. What you find funny, what you find scary… Ramsey Campbell always gives that lovely example. You want to know what’s scary? He’ll show you the Rupert The Bear annual, with a picture of the tree walking on its roots. And he says that everything he ever wrote in horror fiction comes back to that image. Because he said that when he was a kid, that was the image that scared the life out of him. You want to scare Ramsey Campbell, write a story about a walking tree!
Let’s go back to a film that came out this year, then: All Stars. Are critics the right people to review something like that?
Well I loved All Stars. So yes. Because otherwise you’re making a distinction between movie critics and real people, and I don’t think there is one. Movie critics are just filmgoers, that’s all they are. They’re people who go to the movies a lot. And I loved All Stars. I thought it was very sweet natured, I read some incredibly stinky reviews of it, and I spoke to some other people who loved it and thought it was great. I don’t know why anyone would take against it, it’s lovely.
I chose All Stars as an example because I spoke to its director, Ben Gregor, afterwards. And he said that one of the things that he was criticised for parts of the narrative being predictable, but he questioned how else he was supposed to go bits of his story from A to B.
It’s a musical! It’s like saying 2001, oh, that wouldn’t happen! Breathing in space, what’s all that about?
I watched an online panel discussion a week or two back that featured Noel Clarke on it. And Noel has had his battles with critics. He said – excluding you and one or two others from this – that most critics should be put out to pasture at 50. Do you think there’s an age limitation on how long critics should do this for? You say in your book, and this is your quote, “so many critics become more bitter and twisted as the years wither away whatever love of film and optimism about the industry may once have thrived in their now darkened hearts”. So: should someone tell a critic to stop?
My feeling is that it differs between different critics, and what I was trying to do there was be honest and say look, it does happen. I hope that if I get to that point, someone will just take me out. I don’t think Philip French ever got to the point. When he was writing about films right through his late 70s, he still loved cinema as much as he always did.
With some people, occasionally, they’d sit in press screenings and they’d be moaning about ‘what are we watching?’ and you think you know, you just need to stop. The minute you fall out of love with it, you need to stop. Having said that, if you have a job to protect and a job to do, it’s possible to go on doing something. I don’t think it’s to do with age. I think it’s to do with enthusiasm. And if I can make what sounds like a really ridiculous comparison, Elton John is 125 years old. Everybody says that he listens to everything…
He writes to new artists doesn’t he?
Apparently so. Now, I haven’t bought an Elton John album for years, although I hear that the new one is very good. But he’s as old as the hills, but apparently he still listens to everything, and he loves new records. I know people who do the same thing in cinema. I don’t think you hit a certain age and have to stop doing something. I think that some people just fall out of love with it, and it just becomes a job.
Should they stop then?
No, because it’s a job. And also, it’d be lovely if everyone had both the self-awareness and the luxury to say I don’t like this anymore, let’s move on. I do think that in order for film criticism to be done properly, you do essentially have to love cinema, and the point that you don’t, it begins to show.
So it’s a music book next?
Yeah. I’m doing this thing now. For my 50th birthday, we showed Slade In Flame at the Plaza in Truro and there were a bunch of people who hadn’t seen it. We showed it at my 50th, and people said ‘how did I not know that this film was this good?’
What I wanted to write about was pop music and the movies, but one of the things I was particularly inspired by with Hatchet Job was – I understand it’ll get lost in the shuffle of everything else – writing about the film Jeremy. Writing about that film for me was the most important thing in that book. Writing about something that I love that much. As I was writing, I was thinking that I want to write about things that I love. I have a great affection for pop movies, particularly British pop movies, because the history of the British pop movie is so peculiar.
There’s a distinct beginning point in the mid-50s, and the strange British mentality in the 70s where you’re making a film like Never Too Young To Rock. But you have to put Mud in a roadside cafe and have them do Tiger Feet in the middle of a food fight. Or Take Me High, in which Cliff Richard is on a barge. Because that’s what the British pop movie looked like.
On the other hand you have Performance, which is incredibly dark and really strange and really nasty. And then you have Nic Roeg making The Man Who Fell To Earth, the great David Bowie film. And all these things came out of a very British sensibility about pop. And right at the very heart of it for me was the vision of Don walking along the canal in Slade In Flame, with me thinking no other country would make a pop movie that looked like this. They just wouldn’t! I love those films, and that’s what I want to write about.
Let’s finish with Jeremy, then. Because you talked about how we don’t look back at older films more often. Jeremy highlights that critics have Kryptonite, critics have favourites, and films that are personally important to them. Those are the films that build and inform critics, yet conversely, the ones not often talked about by them. Why is that?
I think partly it’s do with what you said before, 14 films a week and you’re struggling to keep up with releases. For me, I do screenings and introduce films, and I get asked what I want to show. ‘There’s a 35mm print of Jeremy‘. Wow: one of the reasons I chose that was that I hadn’t seen a 35mm print of Jeremy since 1974. It’s a privilege.
It’s partly to do with finding the time, but partly because the narrative of the thrust of film journalism is what’s the next thing, what’s the next thing? Film academia tends much more to look back. The best thing to happen to me in my life was Linda [Mark’s wife]. It happens that Linda is a professor of film, and it’s one part of her that I can’t envisage my life living without her. Living with someone who’s an academic who writes better than I do, knows more than I do and will literally sit there and go you’re wrong about A.I. is great because so much of film academia is that the critics have moved on, now let’s do the archaeology. You can’t believe the pleasure of living with someone who loves that…
Mark Kermode, thank you very much.
Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode is available now in bookstores, published by Picador.
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