Mark Kermode is a legend to most movie lovers, a film reviewer that has never learned to bite his tongue or hold back on anything he thinks. A regular on British TV and radio for nearly two decades now, he’s just released his book, It's Only a Movie: Reel Life Adventures of a Film Obsessive and is now touring the country doing what he does best – talking to people about films…
You’re in the middle of the tour - how’s it going?
I love the book tour because although I’ve written books for the BFI Modern Classics series, they were solidly about the films and I wanted to write something in the way that I talk. It makes perfect sense, because what I’m doing on stage is what I was trying to do in the book which is “and another thing…”, literally just to extemporalise about the stuff which bothers me. I speak for an hour or so and then take questions from the audience – that’s always the most entertaining part of the show. People react differently to different stories and then you get feedback from the audience so it’s lovely because writing a book is a much more lonely experience.
I wanted the book to be funny; if it isn’t funny it’s failed. Whatever else it is, it’s meant to be a book about my life and films and such but it is intended to be funny. The tour is closer to stand up comedy than anything else. I’m clearly not a comedian but so long as people find it funny, great! I love telling those stories, and as anyone that knows me will tell you, I don’t have to be prompted to start telling those stories, it’s really no hardship.
Do you think it’s easier to be more expressive on the radio or telly than with written reviews?
It’s interesting because when you read the reviews of the book, the people who really like it say “it reads exactly like he talks”, and the people that really hate it say, “it reads exactly like he talks”. There were a couple of critics who asked why they couldn’t get an editor in to tone it down, to reign in this rambling stream of consciousness. No, that’s what I wanted it to read like; if you want it to read like somebody else then go read somebody else. The great thing about the book was it was a way of discovering that I actually could write like I talk and I’m now in the middle of writing my second one.
A lot of people seem to like your reviews because you are honest and don’t pull your punches, but you do add an element of humour to it so it’s not dry…
In the end, everyone’s opinion is only their opinion. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I don’t think my opinion isn’t right because as we know, I do think it is right. In order to be a film critic I believe that you have to have seen a lot of films and you’ve got to have spent your life wanting to do it, it’s a vocation. I think it’s important that you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. In the same way that whatever you may think about Jeremy Clarkson, you wouldn’t doubt for one minute that he’s always loved cars and not just “ooh, I love cars” but he really understands what it is that he doesn’t love about them as well.
I think in terms of a film critic, whatever you think about their opinions, ultimately they do know about movies. The second thing that’s important is being able to say honestly what it is that you think about this movie and articulate it in some way that makes sense. You cannot temper your opinion to second guess the audience; “oooh, I didn’t really like it but I think everyone else did so I’d better somehow pretend that I like it”. Avatar may be the biggest grossing movie of all time, that’s great, it doesn’t mean that a massive proportion of people who saw it didn’t think “yeah, there were things in it that were good but there were things in it that were Smurfahontis” and you have to be able to say that.
But beyond all that, the thing that makes your opinion interesting is that you have to make it in some way entertaining. Pete Bradshaw was talking about this on The Culture Show and he said that he thought it’s the elegance of the writing that earns you the right to put your opinion forward. I don’t think that my work is elegant – I don’t think that’s a word that has ever been used in relation to my work – but I do think it’s funny. People don’t talk about movies in a dry way, they never come out of cinemas and go, “well, I thought on the one hand this but on the other hand that.” They go, “That was the worst film I ever saw!!!” or “Michael Bay should be in prison.” That’s all I try to do but I think in the end it has to be entertaining and if it’s not then it’s not doing its job.
|Linda Blair in The Exorcist
The Exorcist is your favourite film – do you ever think that there will be a film that will supersede it?
I have to because you always have to have the possibility that something better will come along, you’d be in a pretty parlous state if you thought that there wouldn’t. The thing that happens every year is that the film that I enjoy the most of the year is rarely something I expect: The Assassination of Jesse James which is a Western and I’m not a huge Western fan. Of Time in the City which is a documentary about growing up in Liverpool. Pan’s Labyrinth, I suppose that was to be expected because I like Del Toro’s work. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… You have to open to the possibility that something better will come along. The films that that in my mind are pretty much perfect are the first Toy Story movie, also Cronenberg’s Crash…
Oh God, yeah. I think that film is perfect. I know people disagree with me but Toy Story and Crash are the only two movies that I ever gave five stars too and I had a strict policy that five stars means that there is nothing wrong with a film. I loved Boogie Nights too. I can’t stand that idea that some critics have which is “cinema of my youth was really great and now it’s not”. It’s just not true and therefore it’s entirely possible that something will one day replace The Exorcist. It may not but if we have one of those every century then I’ll be happy - it stands the test of time
Your PHD was on the genre of horror fiction – what do you think the universal love of being scared is?
I think it was in Lovecraft’s essay on the supernatural and fiction when he said that the most primal of human emotions is fear and the most essential form of fear is the fear of the unknown. There is something about the response you get from really good horror fiction or horror movies that in a way defies explanation. I’ve been asked “did something happen in your childhood? Is this a response to some traumatic event?” People who are horror fans just are horror fans and they usually are from an early age. Those movies and stories spoke to me, they attracted me, they made sense to me, they spoke about issues that I was interested in. Without wishing to sound like a complete poser, horror fiction – whether films or novels - is an area which deals with the big things: with death and the afterlife, this world and the next in a very populist form. Some people like going to watch weepies to go have a good cry because they enjoy it. Well I enjoy going to the movies to be very scared. The problem is it is really hard to be scared by a film, they have to be really good to do it.
With films like Saw and Hostel and more recently The Human Centipede…
Did you watch that? I reviewed it and described it as a “shit-eating barf-fest” and someone asked whether I liked it or not. I had, the only way of describing that movie is to say what it is – a one note joke about anus to mouth transplants. Once you’ve done that where do you go? I didn’t enjoy it, the problem with it for me was that it didn’t know what it wanted to be; a bloody horror, a Cronenberg movie or a camp sub-video nasty. The interesting thing is, as with all horror films, until you’ve seen it, you don’t really know what it’s like. I’m not saying for one minute that you need to watch it – don’t, I was very glad when it was finished. As far as the rest of the stuff is concerned, what is referred to as – you always have to use inverted commas – ‘torture porn’, it’s just boring.
They just seem to be stepping up the horrific imagery and visual stimulus to be more and more graphic – where do they stop?
Here’s the problem, stepping up the visual imagery doesn’t increase anything. If you look back at what Dario Argento was doing and what Lucio Fulci was doing, there is work from the late seventies and early eighties that is pretty much as visceral and as graphic as you can possibly imagine. The difference is that they are cranking everything up in what appears to be shock value. However, it isn’t getting any more intense, they’ve just hit upon a formula. People forget that the first Saw film was actually quite interesting and they had an idea. But rather than realising that what was interesting was the idea, they thought what was interesting was the thing that cut people’s hands off and so they’ve run with that.
Those movies just depress me because in a way the worst thing about them is that they almost prove the people who hate horror movies right. People who hate horror movies say that they’re just about torture and pain and you look at those movies and say, “yeah, they are, aren’t they…” They’re just sludge. The Collector which is about a house that’s wired up as a mouse trap. This guy and some other people go around it and get tortured. I don’t care! I don’t know any of these people and I don’t care what happens to them. The American horror film genre has fallen into such disrepair.
|Let The Right One In - really didn't need a remake
Which country do you think produces the best horror films then?
It changes. For a long time Canada appeared to have the upper hand because of people like Cronenberg. Then, of course, there was the great Japanese wave followed very quickly by the Korean wave which in a way was always waiting to happen because of the explosive DVD market. Recently there’s been some very bizarre stuff coming out of France and Belgium. We’ve also recently seen Let The Right One In from Sweden which didn’t really have a horror tradition oddly enough. The horror tradition in Sweden is very, very low key because they don’t have the same demonic history as we do. I interviewed Max Von Sydow from The Exorcist and he said “you have to remember that I’m Swedish, I don’t believe in the Devil.” In Swedish mythology, the Devil is just a figure of fun, they just laugh at him so he could never quite understand what it was about The Exorcist that freaked people out so much. But with LTROI, it was my favourite film of that year but, unfortunately, it’s being re-made. Why would I want to see it again in English, it was fine the first time around? Apparently some people have a total aversion to subtitles and it baffles me.
Have you ever seen a remake that you prefer to the original?
Yes – and I’m not being funny – I think the Richard Gere remake of Breathless, I genuinely loved that film and the VHS is one of my most treasured possessions and I would watch that over A Bout De Souffle any day. A Bout De Souffle was the great movie of the new wave and oh we must all bow down before it and worship it for its magnificence and everyone hates the fact that the Americans remade it.
How many films do you think you watch every week on average?
Monday and Tuesday it’s five and five and then if you watch one on the train then that’s six so it usually works out about ten or twelve between Monday and Tuesday. Then it’ll be four during the rest of the week, so it’s usually about fifteen a week.
Wow, I’m envious...
Envious is the right word because what an incredible job, what an incredible privilege to be able to make a living doing that. You’re the one person that hasn’t said, “Blimey, don’t you get bored?” Well, here’s the choice: you can either go to work or watch fifteen films. Yeah, I’ll do the films, thanks. Where’s the hitch? I don’t get it.
Do you still go to the cinema – have you got a favourite?
Yeah. My favourite cinema in the world is the East Finchley Phoenix; it’s where I grew up and it’s the cinema I went to as a kid. We did the BBC Radio 5 show live from there to celebrate its centenary, it’s a proper old Art Deco cinema, it’s beautiful. It’s the first place I saw everything; the first place I saw The Exorcist, the first place I saw Cronenberg, the first place that I saw Eraserhead, really every significant film of my teenage years I saw there. I did the first night of the book tour there and they were doing the re-fit so the concrete outside was wet and they said “go on, stick your hand in it”. I said no but they said that they were going to build steps over it anyway so I put my hand in the concrete. They never built steps and my handprint is in the concrete so I’m literally a part of it now, I’m really proud.
|What’s your most prized VHS or DVD in your collection?
I’ve got Ken Russell’s directors cut of The Devils which Warner have still yet to release. We did a restoration of it back about five or six years ago now and they’re still too scared to release it so that’s treasured in as much as until it gets released there are very few copies in existence. It's a personal copy that Ken gave to me when we’d done the restoration.
You want Jason Issacs to play you in the film of your life – what did you think of Nick Whitfield’s Skeletons?
Yeah, I love it. I was just looking at it again as it’s just come out on DVD and I reviewed it for The Observer, it’s really good and it has found an audience but it’s a tribute not only to the people that made that film but also to Jason Issacs literally schlepping his arse around; wherever it was being shown he would go and fly the flag for it. Myself and my wife, Linda, curate the Shetland Film Festival and we took him up there to show Skeletons, The Curse of Steptoe and the Harry Potter film – he was incredible. He was a star that night and people just went nuts and he was like royalty. But Skeletons was the thing that he was really proud of and I thought it was really great.
What do you think about the British film industry at the moment and what’s coming out of it?
There is a massive amount of indigenous talent and there’s an awful lot been written about the decline of the UKFC and what it’s going to mean. The problem in Britain is not making the films, it’s getting them distributed. There are loads and loads of great British movies that never see proper distribution and that is a terrible thing. For example, The Scouting Book for Boys with Thomas Turgoose in it. A great little movie and very interesting in that it’s very haunting and strange. It got distributed which is good but it was one of the few that managed to. The multiplexes haven’t given us more screen and more choice, they’ve given us more screens and less choice and that’s a sad thing. The only way to change this is if you live in an area where there’s a local independent cinema – support it, patronise it, go drink coffee and drink in the bar and see films there because those are the places that offer the diversities of outlet. The future of the British film industry is as bright as the future of the independent cinema circuit – if we have a thriving independent cinema circuit then the British film industry will do very well. If we don’t, it will die on its feet and it doesn’t matter who’s funding the movies.
It's Only a Movie - Mark Kermode is at Nottingham Arts Theatre on Monday 8 November at 7.30pm. Tickets £12/£10 concessions