I find myself in a nice, rare position with Mark Kermode’s latest book, Hatchet Job. Ostensibly the third part of his four-part trilogy of ‘radio voice’ film titles (as opposed to his more academic tomes; a book on pop music’s intersection with film is next), the conundrum for this site is that he says nice things about Den Of Geek in the book. As such, in the interests of transparency, I felt we should highlight that from the off. So whilst this is a review, and whilst this is impartial, it’d be remiss that you didn’t know we come out of it rather well. If that bothers you, as the man himself might say, “other opinions are available”. Will Self didn’t like it, for a start.
To be clear though: please do not let that opening paragraph discourage anyone else from writing nice things about this website in their own books.
But to the matter in hand. Hatchet Job is a book that examines the current state of film criticism, contrasting the traditional approach, and comparing that to how the rise of the internet, social media and blogging has affect it. It’s an interesting topic, although the book actually starts, for me, with its bumpiest segment, as Kermode begins his dissection of the movie critic, presenting a look at the situation as it stands. So, for instance, we get the battle to come up with the cleverest putdown – with plenty of examples cited – and the setting of the scene of the hatchet job film review itself. Undercut by a perhaps unnecessary degree of self-deprecation (which pops up fairly regularly), there’s still plenty to get your teeth into here, but it’s when you hit chapter one proper that the book settles into its stride.
That chapters marks the appearance of Ken Russell, Kermode’s steadfast admiration of the late Alexander Walker, and the differing positions both of them took with regards film criticism. They’re an interesting contrast too, for reasons that Hatchet Job explains well, and it’s a useful glance at two perspectives of movie criticism. It’s the willngness to embrace a variety of opinions, and a clear respect of backed-up viewpoints, that instantly makes Kermode’s arguments worth latching onto, even if you don’t agree with them all.
From the start though, I got the growing feeling that the book itself wasn’t going to live up to its billing of “loves movies, hate critics”, and in truth, it doesn’t really. “Loves movies, some critics really do let the side down” might be a better, albeit less catchy, tagline. That’s no criticism of the argument Kermode presents, just an observation.
For there’s an awful lot of thoughtful stuff here. Particular highlights? A look at a top films of all time list, based on a Private Eye piece, is interesting. The passage where he recalls a face to face conversation with someone who took issue with one of his reviews is excellent (“say it to my face”). And there’s a good deal of debate on the influence of the audience, with particular reference to the infamous test screenings of Fatal Attraction that left it with a borderline nonsensical ending in most territories in the world.
But it’s where the book digs into the decline of accountability, the rise of the blog, the emergence of the Twitter soundbite and the rush to get reviews out first that you can’t help but find yourself nodding along. Furthermore, it touches – but doesn’t heavily dwell – on how film critics can help shine a light on films that otherwise might not get that exposure, particularly with his segment on rediscovering the film Jeremy, that’ll more than likely have you trying to hunt the film down on disc (not easy, but there’s an old region one release out there).
It’s a measured, thought-through argument that Kermode puts across, and in places, quite a restrained one. That said, there are certainly segments of the book where you’d hate to have been Mark Kermode’s keyboard while he was typing it out. For a man known for some of his legendary rants, there’s more an impassioned argument than rampage of remonstration on offer here. But every now and then, you hit a passage where his space bar must have shuddered at the sight of an angry Kermode digit heading towards it umpteen times a minute.
It should be said too that, unlike his previous book The Good The Bad And The Multiplex, many of the key arguments here haven’t been explored in particular length on the Radio Five film review show, that Kermode co-presents with Simon Mayo. The segment on going back to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. was addressed on air at the time, but perhaps wary of that, Kermode is economical in his retelling, choosing to focus on the fact that movie critics can ultimately end up radically disagreeing with their own reviews. That in itself poses cutting, important questions: after all, how can you believe a critic, when a critic doesn’t always agree with themselves?
If there’s one bias I can’t help but feel towards Hatchet Job, it’s that it’s a book about a field that I work in, and thus I was always likely to get a good deal out of the book. I’d argue that, if anything, there are moments where Kermode lets people off the hook a little too easily on the basis of some of the behaviour I’ve personally witnessed. But even on a second read, this is a very accessible, entertaining and relevant book, that I enjoyed immensely. If you care about films, and the reporting of films, it’s very much worth lending it your eyeballs. Warmly recommended.