- The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex: What’s Wrong With Modern Movies?
- Random House UK, 320 pp.
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Trying to explain Mark Kermode is like trying to explain Boris Johnson. Seriously, I’ve tried both. You start off with the hair and the politics, and by the time you pause for breath the explainee is accusing you of making this guy up and complaining that the world is full enough of batshit crazy British people without you should go around inventing any more for the sheer whimsy of it and anyway this one isn’t even remotely credible. Still, here goes.
Mark Kermode, PhD is an ex-Communist feminist film critic with a large and rigid quiff of greying hair as well as an army of fans who refer to him as “The Good Doctor”. His trade is not without its dangers: he was once punched in the face by Benedict “Swoonlock Holmes” Cumberbatch and was famously standing next to the Bavarian avant-garde director Werner Herzog when the latter was shot by an unknown assailant at the Cannes Film Festival. His opinions, though held intensely and vocally, are often unpredictable: he has long maintained The Exorcist to be the greatest film ever made, but has also in the past championed the work of Zac Efron and the Twilight franchise, and has recently taken to insisting that Jaws is actually a movie about adultery rather than, say, a large shark.
In his spare time he plays the double bass and harmonica in a skiffle band (similar to a jug band, for US readers) and lectures at Southampton University. He once interrupted his own review of Sex and the City 2 to break into a vocal rendition of “The Internationale”, as the best way to express his feeling that the film’s problems lay as much in its neo-imperialist politics as its misogyny. He cried at the end of High School Musical 3. His weekly BBC radio show recently chalked up 24 million downloads on iTunes. He is the reason why one sign at the March To Restore Sanity in Washington read “Hello to Jason Isaacs”, and his frankly expressed views on Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief directly caused the Australian arthouse movie Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins. Some of his aphorisms give a flavour of the man: “This is the BBC, so we must be balanced: other opinions on the subject are available. They just happen to be wrong”, “Great horror is deeply sad.” and “As a critic, it’s my job to explain to people why they didn’t enjoy things which they may have thought they enjoyed at the time.”
Kermode’s natural genre is the rant, so a book by him is like an album by the Allman Brothers: the question is less what the work contains, than how successfully it reproduces the live performance. The answer is rather too well, perhaps. The conversational style which makes his radio show so listenable undermines him a little on the page. It seems too jumpy, too eager to get alongside the reader and jolly them along. Though I read the book eagerly, I wondered if I’d have found it quite as enjoyable if I hadn’t already considered the Doctor splendid company and worth listening to, and I suspected not. There seems to be a slight catch here: for fans who already know his work, many of the opinions (the hatred of 3-D movies and Michael Bay, the allegiance to genre and insistence on narrative) will be familiar, but for those who are just discovering Kermode’s work, this volume is rather less convincing than his broadcasting. On the other hand, maybe I’m just being a medium snob, and expecting more gravitas and heft from him in print – after all, reproducing his tone of voice on paper is a difficult feat, which he pulls off with ease.
Kermode’s at his best when he’s being slightly paradoxical (though his long-time radio partner Simon Mayo might suggest that there’s a fine line between paradoxical and completely perverse and ornery for the sake of it.) So the book takes off when he argues that 3-D movies are not, as the industry advertising claims, the future of the medium, as inevitable and transformative as the arrival of sound or colour. Instead, argues the Doctor, it is part of cinema’s past: an archaic, hucksterish fairground trick left over from the days of the magic lantern show. Rather than wonder at it as the addition of another whole dimension to the art, we should raise an indulgent eyebrow at a rather embarrassing survival from the form’s callow beginnings. That, as Karl Rove might have said but almost certainly didn’t, is the Doctor calling ‘em from my playbook: attack your opponent’s strengths, not their weaknesses. Everyone takes it as true that 3-D is the future, and whether that future looks like the set of Mad Max or a Constable landscape is up for debate. Kermode delves back into the late nineteenth-century to prove that cinema outgrew 3-D before it had mastered putting noises alongside movement, arguing that as long as we have cinema we will have idiots who don’t understand it as an art, and 3-D is a litmus test of that. Whether you agree with his conclusion or not, it’s a splendid rhetorical display.
The same sort of approach is applied to the question of blockbusters and “dumbing-down”. Instead of arguing that artistic merit is the only long-term hope of any form, and citing the names of huge box-office successes which have lost out to their smaller-budget contemporaries over the years, Kermode runs in precisely the opposite direction. He admits that money, not talent, is the driving force in cinema, and embarks on an intricate and absorbing proof of how changes in the industry, DVD sales and merchandising mean that it is actually impossible for a big dumb blockbuster to lose money. Cleopatra and Waterworld, usually advanced as examples of deeply expensive failures, are shown to have earned their money back, albeit years later. Then, having apparently proved the dreary truism that audiences will watch any old cobblers, and won’t punish rotten films at the box office, he slips in Inception: an expensive, intelligent blockbuster movie which made a ton of cash. Money is the essential element of blockbuster film-making, admits Kermode, and the public will watch anything the studios stick in front of them. So why not make good films? You can’t lose money doing so. Why bother making dumb rubbish when you can just as well make masterpieces, since there’s no relation between art and money? Again, you don’t have to think Inception is the cat’s whiskers to be impressed by the argumentative wiggle.
Taken overall, the book is classic Kermode: opinionated, obstinate, furiously committed and woven with intriguing historical details. For example, did you know that the Cinematograph Act of 1909 gave councils more control over cinema than any other art form – but not because it was believed to be abnormally depraved and corrupting, but because the film itself was highly combustible and so posed a danger to the public? Or that The Sound of Music escape over the mountains is filmed on the wrong side of the pass, so what the end of that film actually shows is a plucky troupe of singing schoolchildren invading the Nazi empire? If you read it and find you don’t like Kermode, at least you’re getting some interesting cocktail chatter and the thoughts of a guy who has thought long and hard and loud about films for several decades. If you find you do like him, welcome to the strangeness…